As I write this, Jerusalem—the city that many Jews, Christians and even some Muslims consider the navel of this world—quietly slips into the early hours of September 23. While most of its citizens sleep and dream, thousands of Christians around the world hold their breath in anticipation, hope and, for some, even fear. A little more than a month after a rare solar eclipse traversed America, an even greater sign has now appeared in the heavens: the constellation Virgo (the virgin) finds herself situated with the sun and moon near her feet; Jupiter (the king of the gods; representing for Christians the true God revealed in Jesus the Messiah) shining in her midsection (womb); while nine stars and three naked-eye planets (Mercury, Venus and Mars) crown her head. And so, we are told, for the first time since well before the Apostle John penned the words of Revelation, the heavens align in perfect fulfillment of a key aspect in his divinely inspired vision of the Apocalypse:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. Revelation 12: 1-2
And if that weren’t enough, other supposed prophetic teachers and seers have noted the wars raging around the Middle East as well as in other parts of the world; the severe earthquake that struck Mexico three says ago; the unprecedented fires burning across America; the incredible devastation hurricanes Harvey and Irma brought to the Caribbean and the United States; and the current nuclear smack-down between Trump and Kim Jong-un and have interpreted them all as fulfilling—or at least pointing to—the dire warnings Christ gave about what many interpret to be the end of the world:
“There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences… And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21: 11, 25-28
But wait, that isn’t all. For even as the great alignment in the heavens takes shape, two more hurricanes dance their way across the Atlantic: Jose and Maria, Spanish permutations of the name Mary, the virgin mother of God, and her human husband, Joseph. (Note that the storms never touch one another, echoing the great truth that Joseph played no part in Jesus’ conception.)
Add it all up and it’s little wonder so many believers who hold to a particular brand of eschatology (the study of last things) are thinking something momentous is about to unfold.
The return of Christ, the rapture and the beginning of the end it all triggers, perhaps? More than a few think so and are shouting it from the proverbial housetops of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The final countdown to Jacob’s Trouble and the Great Tribulation? “Amen!” say others. Some more cautiously speculate that the signs are to be understood as but a major birth pang in redemptive history (Roman 8:22); perhaps a trumpet blast calling the recently eclipsed America to repent: that her lampstand is about to be removed—something, by the way, Kim Jong-un would only be too happy to help with. Others are more focused on the canary in the coal mine of nations, Israel. After all, some say this great heavenly sign will be most prominently manifest in the sky above the “Holy Land.” And not only that, Rosh Hashannah will have begun, leading up to the highest of the High Holidays in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
Are you ready for Armageddon?
More than a few people, impressed by the data points noted above, have asked me what I think about all of this. All of them are friends and solid Christians, people not known for chasing myths and endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4), much less believing in a domed flat earth or the planet Nibiru. (Did I mention that a number of apocalypticists read Planet X—Nibiru for those in the know—into Revelation 12 and September 23rd as well? After being a no-show on several previously predicted, world-ending collisions, this ghost planet has been guaranteed by some to finally get the job done tomorrow.)
And so, for what it’s worth…
I think all of this is precisely what Paul warned Timothy about in the verse (1 Tim. 1:4) just mentioned: a myth. Worse, it’s just another of the seemingly endless speculations/genealogies that pattern-seeking humans of the Christian variety—many of them sincere and well-meaning—have gotten wrong as they have offered them up to a watching world for nearly two millennia.
And sadly, tragically, the end result has been in the end to bring ridicule on both the Name of Christ, His Bride and His Kingdom message. After all, if we can’t get the end part of redemptive history right, who’s to say we don’t have the beginning and the middle all muddled up as well?
I’ve been working for some time on a series of responses to the New Atheists, a movement—make no mistake—that is having a profound impact on the Western world. Having read a number of their books and listened to dozens of lectures, I can tell you that one of the top five sticking points with Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins and particularly Harris, is that Christianity appears to be a clown car of apocalypse-chasers who are constantly getting their predictions wrong. Worse, it seems to them that we could care less about making the world a sustainably better place.
But there is a sense in which I truly do hope, yearn and pray that September 23rd and the days that immediately follow do spell the “end of the world as we know it.”
1. First, that it signals the end of professing Christians making like holy scripture-breathing prophets and taking it on themselves to use whatever pulpit they can find to share their personal interpretation of scripture and the signs they see in the times to say anything about the specifics of God’s prophetic timetable.
I mean, how many times do the great commissioned have to get the terminus of their commission wrong before we finally shut up?
Five? Ten? Fifty?
The fact is, the true number swells into the hundreds.
A generation from the first one AD has not gone by without some useful idiot (I say that as someone who struggles—as all of us do—with bouts of idiocy) declaring “The end is near!” Shoot, in just the short, vaporous passing of my 63 years—punctuated by the admittedly interesting and likely significant recreation of the land of Israel after almost 2,000 years—I’ve seen millions of Christians chasing the apocalypse. And I’ve lost count of how many drop-dead dates have been set…and then passed by without so much as a howdy-do.
As I write this I’ve been listening to 1000—A Mass for the End of Time for inspiration. The album is a collection of songs taken from the Ascension mass and apocalyptic texts that were everywhere as great swaths of Christians anticipated the end of the world as the first millennium AD wound down…only to then give birth to the second.
And now were into the third.
Ezekiel’s fourth (Eze.47:3-6) anybody?
I hope, I pray, our descendants are up for it.
2. Second, that we finally see the end of professing Christians tolerating even a whiff of Gnosticism: the satanic, Hellenistic-based idea the early church faced off against on the left even as they had to contend with the Judaizers on the right. Boiling it all down, Gnosticism is salvation/transcendence through knowledge; glomming onto the hidden keys of truth that have been lost or obscured from the common man. Discover this hidden knowledge—and, just by the way, whozzit can help you along if you will just buy his or her book or DVD—and you will become one of the chosen, the truly enlightened.
Now hold on there, you may say. What prophecy experts are making such claims? With some fringe exceptions, these are all good Christian leaders who believe in salvation by grace through faith and not through some hidden, obscured knowledge.
Well, I have no doubt that this is their heart and intention. And I’m also not in any way questioning their inclusion in the elect of God.
But you know what they say about good intentions.
The fact is I have not found a single end-time prophet, teacher or fiction writer who has not declared, or at least implied, that unless a person gets it right as to the specifics of their particular take on eschatological matters, it will not go well with them.
Some will say it straight up. In researching this, I’ve processed numerous articles and YouTube videos where the authors declare that the skepticism about their position I voice in this article means I am yet in darkness; that I’m bound by carnal thinking rather than embracing the enlightened insights they have received and are now sharing with the world.
The worst? Despite my sincere belief and embrace of the Gospel of the Kingdom, my bedrock confidence that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead and is now the LORD of heaven and earth, I remain a deceived, unregenerate spawn of Satan and on my way to hell.
And all because I haven’t grasped the hidden wisdom they’ve received concerning the trajectory of redemptive history and the last days.
Don’t believe me? Think I’m being harsh and unfair?
I’ve visited with Tim LaHaye on one occasion I remember. More his wife, Beverly, and the wonderful organization she and Tim helped found, Concerned Women for America, where I have spoken at two national conventions as well as being interviewed on their national radio program. I consider them both to be wonderful, anointed Christians who very likely will have a place of honor on the New Earth that eclipses mine.
With that said, however, when you boil down the theology of Dr. LaHaye’s incredibly popular (65 million sold) Left Behind series—a fictional representation of the dispensational eschatology that informs so much of the September 23rd speculation—one is left with a number of a proverbial flies in the ointment.
For example, Revelation 14:9-11 straightforwardly declares that anyone who receives the “mark of the beast” will face an eternity of hell, where “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.”
But what does it mean to take this 666 mark on the hand and/or head? Well, perhaps most broadly: to be a mere man (6 in Biblical numerology) who strives to supplant the Triune God (3); to be self-rather than God-referential in what we ultimately trust and believe (the head) and what we do (the hand).
This is what many Christians, myself among them, have believed for over two millennia.
Or what of the Roman emperor cult the early Christians had to face off against? After all, it was to them John was writing about things which will soon take place (Rev. 1:1).
The Romans had no problem with their subject nations maintaining their distinctive cultures and paying homage to their traditional deities. The rub came when they were required to honor the Caesar as kurios, the Lord, the King of all Kings.
No problem for the majority polytheistic cultures. They and their gods, after all, had been conquered by Rome. Might, in the end, is right.
But for Christians, it was another matter all together. Jesus had been executed via Roman crucifixion, vindicated by the Holy Spirit through a bodily resurrection from the dead, had ascended into heaven where He was enthroned and made LORD (kurios) over everything in heaven and on earth.
This was the bedrock of the Christian faith, the truth that stood above every other pretender to truth and homage. To confess instead that Caesar was LORD was unthinkable. It was to deny both Christ and the very foundation of the Gospel.
But to not honor Caesar as LORD could mean—and at various times over two-and-a-half centuries did mean—that Christians were severely marginalized (for example, their ability to engage in commerce—to buy and sell—was restricted) and even jailed, tortured and executed.
And to make matters worse, there is the curious fact that the emperor who kicked off the first serious persecution of Christians—a man who eventually degenerated into the most beastly state of mind and behavior—had a title whose letters added up to the very number John used to represent the beast. (Greek, like Hebrew and later Latin, did not have a separate number system but instead pressed their letters into doing double duty. And it was very common for people to add up the number values of the letters in a name or phrase, a practice the Jews called gematriya (gematria).)
After killing himself to avoid assassination, both the empire and emperor cult fell into confusion and looked to be “dead”, on its way to oblivion. But thirteen years after Nero’s passing, Domitian, a man who some Romans believed to be the second coming of Nero, came on the scene and righted the floundering ship of the Roman state. A gifted statesman and strategist, he was also a remarkably cruel and vainglorious man, one the historian Pliny described as a beast from hell who sat in its den, licking blood. Beginning in 89 AD, for seven years the self-titled “God the Lord” unleashed a torrent of persecution against what was commonly seen as a sect of Judaism: the Christians.
The 666 death cult was reborn.
Could what is now past be what John the revelator was primarily pointing to, encouraging his fellow believers to endure with hope in the eventual victory of Christ over the emperor cult? Could we be barking up the wrong tree as we speculate about future fulfillments: for example people being eternally doomed or at least having to go through the Great Tribulation because they’ve accepted a particular credit card, smart card, biochip, vaccine or whatever else becomes the mark de jour?
I’m not saying definitively that we are, though I personally believe it to be the case. God-fearing and learned folks look through the Bible’s admittedly difficult and at times mysterious eschatological lens from different angles and, of course, reach different conclusions about these matters.
But shouldn’t the ancient paths carved out by the many that have gone before us be taken seriously rather than simply ignored? Shouldn’t the indisputable fact that Christians have gotten it so often and so spectacularly wrong before—with no little damage being done to our testimony before men as a result—give us profound pause before chasing after the newest sign in the heavens or earth?
In much the same way, what of the passage in Revelation 12 that has become the focus of this new wave of end-time speculation: the great sign of the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars?
Many, perhaps even a majority of theologians over the intervening years, have viewed this passage as being fulfilled nearly two millennia ago: imaged first by Mary, the infant Jesus and Herod standing in for the dragon and then more completely as the young church had to endure the persecutions of imperial Rome.
But you would never know about this common interpretation listening to all the fevered speculation concerning September 23rd.
And this brings me to my third and last “please let tomorrow and the days that follow be the end” hope and prayer.
3. That we will finally see the end of the anti-historical, new (or recovered) revelation perspective that has tainted so much of modern, and particularly American, evangelicalism. Millions have been infected with a “vain imagining” that has either taken over their minds and hearts or—and I would take this to be by far the majority report—bubbles quietly beneath the surface of their consciousness, creating confusion where there should be clarity as to the task that is before them. This thought-virus takes many forms but is perhaps best expressed in the idea that the Church has to varying degrees floundered since Constantine; that true New Testament, Spirit-filled Christianity has only recently been recovered (many would date it to the Azusa Street revival); that only now, in our generation’s time has the latter rain truly fallen and a nascent Daniel generation come on the scene that will ultimately usher in the return of the LORD.
In opposition to the Prime Directive given to us by our LORD (Matthew 28:18-20), millions now limp about, tethered to the subtle belief that Satan and his seed are the ones really alive and well right now on planet earth. Ignoring or watering down Jesus’ clear admonition that no one knows the day or hour of the Son of Man’s return (Matt. 24:36)—as well as the two angel’s gentle and rather humorous rebuke of the disciples’ “standing around and looking into the sky” rather than hoofing it back to Jerusalem and engaging with the new commission they had been given (Acts 1:11)—a majority of U.S. Christians believe that Jesus will either “definitely” or “probably” return to earth on or before 2050. (2010 Pew Research Study). Abandoning the long-term strategy and commitment to occupy or do God’s business until He returns (Luke 19:13), millions of Christians’ fascination with supposed end-time’s doom and gloom is becoming—even has become as regards the West—a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Father, forgive us.
May all of this nonsense finally come to an end as we see 2017 come and go without the occurrence of any great apocalyptic event.
I’m going to informally “predict”—more offer a hunch—that God could very well frustrate the sign-chasers and predictors by making the September 23 and the rest of 2017 an ocean of relative calm. (Note the qualifier “relative.” Crazy and tragic stuff will continue to occur with some frequency as it necessarily must in a fallen, yet-to-be-fully-redeemed world.) The One who holds together the cosmos by the word of His power (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3) might very well grant our planet an extra measure of grace so that the trend we already see emerging in 2017 relative to earthquakes—we’ve actually seen the least in relation to the past decade—will manifest in other areas watched by apocalypticists as well.
Trump and Jong-un will continue to bark at one another, but a nuclear holocaust will be averted. Islamists will carry on with their war against the West and Israel, but nothing unusually horrible will come of it.
And maybe, just maybe, the Church can put away her fascination with myths and endless genealogies and give renewed energy and attention to the Gospel of the Kingdom as December 25th and January 1 roll around.
And that, by the way, includes calling America to repent. We didn’t need our own special eclipse to let us know that America is under the judgment of God. It has been for years, with 1973 (Roe v. Wade) and 2015 (Obergefell v. Hodges) serving as true signs of the tragic process of being given over to believe the lie. (2 Thess. 2:11)
Lastly, as long as this article has turned out to be, there’s much I have had to leave out. And that includes an idea—an eschatological riff on Pascal’s famous wager—that may somewhat smooth the ruffled feathers of those I’ve put-off by the perspectives I’ve shared here.
More importantly, it just may show us a better way forward.
I hope to have it out within a few days.
My Facebook post after the tragic fiasco in Charlottesville garnered more than a little pushback. Most of it dealt with my contention that Trump’s comment about the hatred, bigotry and violence coming from “all sides” (his words) was “ill-timed” (my words) and further that his overall handling of the growing controversy surrounding racialism has fallen short of what our country needs from him.
I thought I would clarify and defend my position by responding to a comment from one of my oldest and best FB friends, Dave. After briefly chronicling his own journey through the feedback loop of southern racism as well as his conversion to Christ, Dave condemned the sinful and grotesque racism of white supremacists while also noting—rightfully—the reverse racism fomented by identity politics and the wicked use of violence by more than a few of its advocates. He then closed by saying:
“Defending him (Trump) is not my great joy but regarding your and many others reaction to his renunciation of racism and bigotry from “all sides”, I am completely baffled. I sincerely recognize the putrid evidence of these vile qualities in the extreme elements attempting to lay claims in both political parties. The insistence that Trump call out one above the other seems to give some sense of credence to the same evil in the other camp. Where am I misunderstanding?”
First, my comment was NOT that the problem wasn’t coming from both sides. There is no doubt that the identity politics that drove some of the protestors at the rally is a counter-productive worldview at its core. Furthermore, there are more than a few provocateurs in the movement who are using it to push any number of evil agendas: communism, anarchism, reverse racialism, extreme globalism, Islamism, etc.…in general, Alinsky-style tactics designed to foment hatred and violence with the goal of creating division and destabilizing America as well as derailing Trump’s administration. Lastly, that the regressive-left media cabal is more than happy to help mainline this narrative.
My objection was solely the timing of Trump’s comment (and as we all know, timing is—if not everything—a very significant thing.)
Here we had a gaggle of anti-Christian goose-steppers bearing Nazi regalia and spouting racialist and anti-Semitic screeds, intentionally evoking one of the two most perfectly satanic worldviews and world-destroying movements of the 20th century (with communism being the other).
And then we had one of their deranged acolytes driving a Dodge Charger into a crowd of what seemed to be peaceful protestors, killing one person and injuring 19.
Lock in on that.
Now, consider the counter-protestors. A significant percentage of them—likely even a large majority (only God knows)—were there to peacefully push back against the darkness. As I have said, I think it would have been better if everyone had just ignored the fascists rather than giving them the attention they so desperately crave. But if the Eric Holmberg of 1977 had been translated from William & Mary to the campus of UVA 40 years later (I feel old suddenly), I’m sure I would have been out there pushing back as well.
It is pretty clear at this point that there was also a contingency of Alinskyites there, fanning the fires of hate, violence and chaos. Fine, I get that. And I absolutely agree that this needs to be investigated and addressed, not just in Charlottesville but in similar uprisings that are sadly becoming too common in our country.
But against the backdrop and timing of neo-Nazis marching and the dead and wounded victims of their hate, drawing any kind of moral equivalence between what most Americans see as the “two-sides” of this tragic fiasco amid the heat of the moment just wasn’t wise.
And we desperately need our leaders to be men and women of wisdom.
But here we come to the larger problem: Trump’s general lack of wisdom and honesty on this as well as any number of other important issues.
Now contrary to the regressive left’s incessant propaganda, I don’t believe Trump is a racist. And he has condemned David Duke, the KKK, white supremacism, anti-Semitism and other evil aspects of the so-called “alt-right.” I believe he is sincere about this.
The problem is that he has lacked wisdom in the way he has often gone after them: poor timing; unfortunate or incomplete phrasing; being silent when he should have spoken up; speaking up when he should be silent; substituting the 140 characters in a tweet for a focused and nuanced speech are some of his many stumbles in this regard.
Now couple that with his position on immigration (which I, for the most part, support).
And finally, add four key ingredients:
1. His family business’s unfortunate—though not unusual given the time—treatment of minorities in times past.
2. His tacit approval—and at times even encouragement—of roughing-up protestors at his rallies.
3. Relatedly, his appealing at times to some of the baser instincts of his core supporters, people who feel disenfranchised from the American dream and are casting about for scapegoats, real or imagined.
4. His incessant love of and genius for courting controversy and thereby generating front-page news and millions of dollars in free advertising. This, in turn, has often kept him from immediately and clearly addressing and defusing controversies when they arise.
Racialists on both the right and left who hear “Make America White Again” every time Trump’s pet slogan is declared.
And a whole bunch of people in the middle who are left either confused, unsure, fearful, or suspicious of where Trump is really coming from.
For the most part, Trump has done a poor job in silencing this dog whistle. That in turn has helped foment doubt, fear, and division. And it has given his many opponents a big stick to club both his administration and agenda…while introducing and empowering their own.
One of the most important roles of a President is to be a truth-teller; to inspire trust in our government; through example as well as by using the bully-pulpit of his or her office to help bring clarity, healing, and unity to the challenges and controversies of our nation as they arise.
My prayer is that our president comes to really understand this. And that he graduates from being an apprentice…to a man who can truly help make our multi-ethnic nation great again.
“The message matters, my brother.” Prince Rogers Nelson (Notorious; Issue #4, p.88)
The eulogies are pouring in as one of the greatest musical innovators of our time has taken his final bow. Bands around the world are playing tributes, artists and program hosts are granting interviews or opening shows lauding his talent and influence with praises befitting a messiah, and Saturday Night Live redesigned the entire show yesterday (4/23/16) to be a commemoration of his life and performances. A senator from the Purple Rain’s star’s home state—Minnesota—has even introduced a bill to make the hue the official color of the state.
Ironically, perhaps his only equal when it comes to moving the needle on the proverbial phonograph of pop culture—David Bowie—also shocked the world with his untimely death just over three months ago.
First, credit where credit is due: Prince’s talent was immense. Because of the spirit and the themes of his music and persona, I was never a fan. Quite the opposite—I produced a number of documentaries dusting pop music for the fingerprints of evil spiritual influences and always found Prince to be a fertile source of evidence. Nevertheless, as a writer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, performer, innovator, cross-musical-style virtuoso, impresario and champion for the artist and the art in an often corrupt industry, Prince may have no living peer.
From an eternal perspective, however, his life and talent are also are also a cautionary tale as to where genius can lead when untethered from the “ancient paths” (Jer. 6:15-16) and left to pursue a combination of eroticism, a “follow-your-heart” brand of spirituality and a fascination with speculative, apocalyptic, “Biblical” (so-called) prophecy.
Raised a Seventh Day Adventist, Prince Rogers Nelson was—to use Flannery O’Connor’s useful phrase—ever the “Christ-haunted” artist. Imagery from the Bible, particularly the books of Genesis and Revelation, were frequent themes in his music. The problem is that he merged them with his other primary—at least for the first and most influential half of his career—channel of spiritual/mystical enlightenment: a form of sex magic that would have made the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, proud. I won’t take the time or defile the reader by quoting lyrics or linking to videos documenting his many debaucheries. They are legion. And legendary.
Another destructive aspect of the sexualized world he fashioned with his lyrics, concerts and persona was the manner in which it rabidly set out to destroy the “male and female He made them” (Gen. 1:27) binary that God wove into the fabric of human ontology in relation to our capacity and call to image our Creator.
Quoting, for example, a Washington Post article describing Prince’s impact on fashion:
“With his frilly shirts and velvet suits, his brocades and silks, Prince played with gender stereotypes and moved us to reconsider our relationship to our own sexuality. He used fashion as an aphrodisiac. It was foreplay and after-glow — and the divinely sweaty middle.”
In his song Controversy he asked, “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” On 1984’s I Would Die 4 U, he sang back, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand.”
Again, the Post:
Using the classical, Greek definition of the word—that is “entrancement, insanity; any displacement or removal from the proper place”—a state of “ecstasy” is precisely what he helped Western culture attain. Less than a generation after Prince—and David Bowie—began to fly their androgynous, ambi-sexual freak-flags high, a majority of their audience has seen their worldview concerning gender and human sexuality turned on its head.
Another area of concern were his not infrequent professions of love and respect—even devotion—to the person and ministry of Christ. “What’s wrong with that?” some will say. “Isn’t that a good thing?” Well, not when they are juxtaposed against the celebration of the very sins that Jesus came and died to atone for and from which to set us free.
Take, for example, what may be his most straight-up Christian song, The Cross. Lyrically and musically? A lot of CCM artists should do as well. The problem lies in its context. On the album in which it appears, Sign o’ the Times, The Cross is nestled in with fifteen other songs, many of which celebrate fornication.
When Prince toured to support the album, The Cross (at times rephrased as The Christ) stood out as the spiritual high-water mark of the concert. Introduced with references to “the greatest man who ever lived” and backed with a gospel choir, he performed the song reverently and gave every impression of really believing in what he was singing about. And I’m not doubting that on some level he did. But then in the next breath, he would segue to a another song from the album like “U Got the Look,” featuring some scantily clad female singer (often Sheena Easton) that Prince would proceed to seduce on stage, thrusting his hips while singing “If love is good, let’s get to rammin’.”
This type of cognitive dissonance was something Prince raised to a sick art form. And only God knows the extent to which his audience was seduced into what may well be the single greatest spiritual problem among “Jesus-loving” theists today: that mental assent to His Godhood, atoning death and resurrection is all that is necessary to be a Christian and go to heaven…that obedience to His teachings—particularly in regard to sex and gender—is optional.
Prince certainly seemed to indicate it was.
In fairness, it’s reported that around 2000—right after partying like it was 1999—he became much more serious about his faith and began to tone things down, even renouncing some of his earlier lyrics and antics. (Sadly, this was brought about, in part, by his becoming a member of the quasi-Christian, anti-Trinitarian Jehovah’s Witness cult.) And since then he has periodically used his platform as a mega-star to share cautionary advice about the misuse of language, sex, intoxicants—among other things—as well as the need to embrace virtue, love and God.
For this we should be thankful.
But even then, the dissonance continued to flow. In 2007, he appeared before a live audience of 140 million people during the Super Bowl and put on what many consider the greatest halftime show ever. But he still couldn’t resist using a prop he employed to much effect two decades before. Back during the 1980’s Purple Rain tour he performed with a guitar that would ejaculate, squirting water out of its end during the climax of “Let’s Go Crazy.” Same guitar, but he did away with the ejaculatory feature for his Super Bowl performance of the song. But still the large, flowing beige sheet was brought out so that the shadow portion of the routine lived on.
And the message remained clear.
Since Prince’s death last Thursday, I have read and listened to a lot of tributes to his life and “ministry.” (All art is spiritual; a lifting of the curtain to see what, if anything, lies behind mere appearances. And the artist’s job is to minister what he or she sees to their audience. Prince understood this better than most.) The overwhelming chorus? Prince encouraged me to be true to myself. To follow my heart…push boundaries…to be proud and let my freak flag fly. To, as President Obama gushed in tribute, be a “strong spirit (that) transcends rules.”
To which the Prince of Peace Prince claimed to love and follow would declare:
“If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:24,25
As His Purpleness has gone to appear before the One who both declared and then lived and died for the nearly opposite worldview Prince’s followers have gleaned from his life and music, I pray that by God’s grace he didn’t, as his chorus plead, “die without knowing the cross.” And that neither do his acolytes.
Beyonce’s new hit single, “Formation,” features, along with lots of other sensual imagery, the lyric (brace yourself) – “When he f*** me good I take his a** to Red Lobster.” The week after she released the song and performed an edited version during the Super Bowl half-time show , the chain restaurant reported a 33% increase in sales.
Now consider this:
If a song can take individuals with no strong, innate desire to eat mediocre seafood and inspire them to visit a Red Lobster, what is its impact going to be on people–particular young impressionable ones–who do have a strong, innate appetite for sexual pleasure?
And then couple that with another Maslowian need: to be esteemed and self-actualized, confident of one’s own power to be sexy, attractive and in control. Someone, in other words, like Beyonce.
What makes this song and the worldview it presents even more insidious is that its message is supposed to be all about ethnic pride and empowerment. Laudable subjects to be sure. But mainlining licentiousness, something she and her husband have turned into an art form, is only going to help keep most of her audience–the 99.99 percent not blessed with her looks, talent and opportunities–on the real plantation, slaves to the massa’ of the fallen world.
Yesterday afternoon my wife called with the news that David Bowie had died. I was surprised by the level of emotion I felt. After praying and thinking about it off and on throughout the rest of the day—taking in a couple of news reports and remembrances on the radio along the way—I came home and posted the following eulogy on Facebook:
Hats off to one of the most talented, creative and innovative artists of my generation. Heads bowed in prayer for his family and for any grace that may have been or may yet be granted his soul. There’s much of his legacy that is very, very dark, not the least of which was inspiring thousands if not millions of young people to—as the title of the song he produced for Lou Reed declared—”Take a walk on the wild side.”
When I heard about his death and the album he released last Friday, I got online and checked for clues to the state of his soul in his “last days.” I knew from the research I did for Hell’s Bells 2–The Power and Spirit of Popular Music that he had dabbled in everything from Buddhism (at one time he almost became a monk), satanism, the occult (Crowleyism), Nietzschism, and, yes, Christianity.
Like most people, as he got older and shadow of death became more sharply drawn, he showed more and more interest in God, describing himself —like so many today—as “deeply spiritual but not religious.” He married Iman, the supermodel from Somalia and a nominal Muslim in a civil ceremony, but later insisted they be married in a Christian church so their marriage could be “sanctified by God.” They had their miracle baby, Alexandria, christened. Faint evidence of a converted heart, admittedly. But perhaps as the chilly Jordan river began to lap his shoreline and the hounds of heaven pursued…
About the album: he had worked on it knowing he was likely dying. The song title “Lazarus” caught my eye. The words, like most of his lyrics (his weak suit IMO) were vague and a tad pretentious. Then I watched the music video he made for it. Chills. Death’s acid-etching throughout. Eerie, dark and ambiguous. Just like the man.
God only knows.
To acknowledge the passing of a man who had been rumored dead so many times before, Iman tweeted: “The struggle is real, but so is God” along with the caption “Rise.” David Bowie most certainly will… on that Great Day, when Christ returns and inaugurates the New Creation and when everyone will rise again with new bodies. (John 5:29; Dan. 12:2)
The only question—the ultimate question for all of us—is to what end?
What about you, dear reader? Are you ready for that Day?
Tubal Cain: Do you really think you can protect yourself from me in that?
Noah: It”s not protection from you….
Tubal Cain: I have men at my back. And you stand alone and defy me?
Noah: I”m not alone.
(Dialog from Noah, Directed by Darren Aronofsky; Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel)
Since becoming a Christian in 1980, “chasing the mystery” (Proverbs 25:2) has been a life-theme of mine. And one of the more fascinating aspects of this adventure is watching as the Holy Spirit stirs the waters of yet-to-be-regenerated human hearts, particularly people who have made bold proclamations of their unbelief as regards the deity of Christ and His atoning sacrifice. Corrupted by sin, yes, they still bear the image of their Creator and the stamp of eternity (Ecc. 3:11). And these fallen but stirred hearts will periodically flash forth truth like sparks from a primordial fire. Sections of Steven Weinberg”s book Dreams of a Final Theory, The Matrix by the Wachowski brothers and Richard Feynman”s wonder about the Fine-Structure Constant come immediately to mind as examples where even the wrath of man can”t help but pay homage to the Author of all that”s true, good and beautiful.
I believe where we find these sparks, they should be noted, celebrated and used as touchstones of prayer for the soul that gave issue to them. They can also provide a proverbial teaching moment as we point them out to people a- or be-mused by their own sin and the spiritual confusion that marks our culture.
I went to see the controversial new movie Noah anticipating at least a couple of these sparks. I wasn”t disappointed. Indeed, there were enough, I felt, to make the movie a profitable viewing experience for the mature and discerning Christian. To provide both balance and a greater context for what follows, I recommend Part 1 of my review as well as Brian Mattson”s take on the film, Sympathy for the Devil – even though I am going to disagree with some of his conclusions.
Spoiler alert: This essay is full of them.
Echoes of Paradise Lost: The most consistent point of concern, even outrage, I have seen in reviews by Christians was the film”s use of a glowing snakeskin as a talisman supposedly charged with righteous power and enlightenment. Given Genesis 3:1 and Revelation 12:9, among other verses (though we should note these scriptures refer to Satan taking the form of a serpent and not a snake) at first blush this concern is understandable. However, as I watched these scenes I saw something very different…and actually very positive from a Biblical worldview perspective.
The film features a number of flashbacks to Eden, including close-ups of the serpent in the garden. A key moment occurs as the large snake suddenly sheds the skin that later became the glowing talisman, emerging in a more sinister form and then slithering towards Eve and the Fall. The depiction of the godly lineage of Seth later using the pre-Fall skin ritualistically – or the seed of Cain (Tubal Cain) lusting after it – became in my mind a powerful symbol of man”s conscious or more often subconscious quest to return to the innocence of the Garden. Even animals (the snake) and creation itself instinctively long for this to happen. (Rom. 8:22) I was moved as I watched Noah wind it around his arm as he pronounced a benediction over the new creation world that emerged from the flood. And I later learned that this precise symbolism was intentional on the part of the co-author of the script, Ari Handel.
Man Created in the Image of God: Another frequent point of contention has been the film”s portrayal of Adam and Eve. We see them twice from a distance: luminescent beings with faint human forms. Given Aronofsky”s historic interest in the Kaballah, it is fair to assume his depiction was a nod to one of its central teachings: a dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a higher, perfect, spiritual world of light, and an lower, evil, material world of darkness. In other words, according to this mystical tradition our pre-Fall parents didn”t have physical bodies, they were not of the earth. It was only after they sinned they became material beings.
This is, of course, rank heresy; a very persistent one that finds purchase in all manner of spiritual and philosophical traditions: most Eastern religions, Platonism, Manichaeism, Kaballah, Christian Science, Theosophy, Jungian psychology, Scientology, on and on. Ironically, one of its most pernicious manifestations is in the subtle dualism embraced by many Christians today. (See my essay Heaven is Important…but It”s Not the End of the World)
While Aronofsky might believe this heresy and his film perhaps intended to promote it, his luminescent Adam and Eve can just as easily be used to support a proposition that has deep and wide support within historic Christian belief and tradition: that Adam and Eve were created to image a God who among other things is shekinah light. While they were profoundly fashioned from the material creation – the earth (Gen. 2:7) – and furthermore that the completed material creation, in radical opposition to the teaching of Gnosticism, was declared by God to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31), as “earthlings” they were also designed and ordained to reflect as “angled mirrors” (to use N.T. Wright”s helpful phrase) the many manifestations of God”s glory into the world. It was this glory that clothed them. And it was this glory that was lost when they chose to be their own gods rather than priests and vice-regents of the One true God.
“…she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” Genesis 3: 6b,7
They realized they were naked, the supposition goes, because the reflected shikenah light went out. Their “mirrors” were no longer angled towards God but rather towards themselves. And without God, there is nothing in man but darkness. (Matt. 6:22-23)
What might Adam and Eve have looked like before this Fall? Literally only God knows. Personally I would imagine them having had greater earthiness and a less light than Aronofsky”s paradise dwellers, but I”ll accept his version for now and move on. It was close enough for government work…and Hollywood. And perhaps better than the flattened simplicity of many traditional Christian depictions.
Total Depravity: John Calvin would be proud of the movie”s portrayal of original sin”s thralldom over human nature. From an interesting, time-compressed and silhouetted history of murder to the insane debauchery that characterized Tubal-Cain”s anarchic kingdom, the film could hardly have been more faithful in depicting a world ravaged by people whose “every intention of the thoughts of (their) hearts was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5) Even righteous Noah and Naameh, his wife, acknowledge that at bottom they are really not that different from the people that God is judging in the flood. They too have been infected by the virus of sin.
There have been consistent complaints that Aronofsky”s made the rape of the environment God”s greatest indictment against mankind, the main reason He was going to wipe the planet clean of humanity but for the eight souls in the ark. (Eight, by the way, is the number of resurrection and new creation in the Bible. Jesus was raised on the eighth day and the gematria of His name in Greek [IHSOUS] is 888.) Personally I saw it more as a primary symbol or manifestation of man”s utter failure to uphold his priestly responsibilities to “cultivate and keep” this world (Gen. 2:15; Num. 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 18:5-6; 1 Chron. 23:32; Ezek. 44:14) – although I will admit the movie over-played this particular card a bit. But today”s church is so infected with the virus of a “this earth is not my home, I”m just a-passin” through” dualism (see again Heaven is Important…) that perhaps we can benefit from Noah”s “whack-upside-the-head” environmentalism. Few Christians get that our blue-green world – third stone from the sun – was created to be a temple planet that will ultimately be converted by a flood of purifying fire at Christ”s return into our eternal home, the new and final Jerusalem. We are called to love and steward the seed of it now. And all of creation – including Darren Aronofsky – is groaning and travailing for this to happen.
The Transcendence and Ineffability of God: Much has also been made of how God is never mentioned by name in the film. (Which begs the question as to whether “God” is really a name.) Noah and others only refer to Him as “Creator.” (Is there something wrong with that? In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Creator strikes me as a pretty good “name” for God.) And then there”s Noah”s bewilderment as he stares into the darkening sky and wonders as to the Lord”s precise plans and purposes…only to meet a deafening silence. The notion of immanent, personal God is nowhere to be found…only a distant and utterly transcendent Creator.
This is another first-blush negative that becomes a positive upon deeper reflection. We need to remember that unlike Noah, we live on the other side of the cross; of the incarnation, the atonement, the binding of Satan, the harrowing of hell, the resurrection, the ascension, the seating of a glorified Man in the control room of earth and heaven, and Pentecost and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Rather than a silent, dark sky there”s now free access to the throne of grace. (Heb. 4:16) But even with all that, there are times when God seems silent. More to the point, there are “dark nights of the soul” – as John of the Cross called them – when the skies seem leaden and ominous and we can share in Noah”s bewilderment.
Consider that Noah and the Old Testament saints lived on the other side of redemptive history. Christ”s blood had not yet been shed (only foreshadowed in the animal sacrifices (Heb.10: 1-18)) and they did not have the kind of access to God we presently enjoy under the New Covenant. Now to be sure, God had mercy and at key moments reached out to man, sometimes in very manifest, supernatural ways. But we need to be careful that we don”t just assume that every time we read that God “told” someone to do or say something there was a burning bush and an audible voice.
Take, for example, Abraham”s sacrifice of Isaac – a key moment in redemptive history that Noah foreshadows. (More on that in a moment) The Bible doesn”t tell us precisely how the Lord told the patriarch to commit this profoundly bizarre act, one that stands in complete opposition to the Creator”s ethical blueprint. A voice? A dream? Through an angel or perhaps a Christophany? (Abraham had already experienced the latter – and would again.) Presumably it was in a manner that would leave absolutely no doubt as to the command – and I would assume the same for Noah and the building of the ark. We don”t know. But here”s an interesting thing, found in the last half of God”s command to Abraham:
“Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Gen. 22:2)
Note the “I will show you.” Early the next day, Abraham sets out to obey. Three days later, somewhere in the region of Moriah (where the city of David, Jerusalem, would later be built), Abraham “lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.” (vs. 4). He saw the place. God showed and His friend saw. How that worked exactly we don”t know. But allow me to propose a possibility, one that if I ever was to make a movie or a short film on the subject I would be thrilled to depict. Abraham was walking and no doubt praying, anguishing over the horror he was about to engage. Very likely he was asking God if there was any way he could get out of it. (see Luke 22: 39-44). Perhaps the Lord was as silent at that point as the Creator was with Noah in the movie. “I have commanded you to do something, now do it.” (That would be the mark of real spiritual maturity and a deep relationship with God: that He could tell you to do something one time and count on you to do it without complaining or procrastinating.) Again, we can only wonder. But then it happens. In his anguish Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees a hill and an outcropping of rock that in the morning shadows looks oddly like a human skull, a stark symbol of death. And suddenly he “knows” – without any voice prompts – that this is the place.
But what he doesn”t know is that approximately 2,000 years later, the true Father would provide the ultimate lamb, His own Son. And that He would be crucified on precisely the same spot. (Mark 15:22)
Speculation? Yes. But it falls well within the sketchy Biblical narrative. And I”ll bet anyone a dinner in the New Creation that we”re going to find out that it”s true. (Also that it”s the same place where David displayed Goliath”s severed head to the city of Jerusalem. (1 Sam.17: 54) In time “Goliath of Gath” became Golgatha.) And I”m praying that Aronofsky will one day be redeemed by Christ so we can talk and reflect together about what he got right – and wrong – in his meditation on the Noah story.
Back to the film, I would have liked to have seen a more direct communication between the Creator and Noah concerning the command in Genesis 6:13-14. And I would have preferred that Aronofsky not have used the drink given to Noah by Methuselah (which doesn”t necessarily have to be shamanistic or involve a hallucinogen like many insist; see for example Numbers 5:17, 24) as the plot device to convey the Genesis 6 command. But besides this, I actually saw the silent sky and the use of the more formal “Creator” as effective symbols for man”s tragic separation from God as well as the need for His followers to live by faith and Human pancreatic enzyme activity is reduced when incubated with most fiber sources. not sight.
And for goodness sake, let”s not forget how Aronofsky concludes the film: with the dark skies being rolled up like a scroll and new creation light exploding through the heavens. If that wasn”t a very personal God shouting to Noah and the entire human race of His love and redemptive purposes, I don”t know what is. I almost leaped out of my seat and started shouting “Hallelujah!” when I saw it.
The True Heart of Darkness: Most people view “sin” as simply a matter of doing something wrong: lying, stealing, committing adultery or murder, etc. And to be sure those things are sins. But the Bible goes much deeper than that, diagnosing its root as flowing from an attitude of heart; our inborn, default nature as humans who have fallen from grace. C. S. Lewis described this well in a number of places, perhaps nowhere better than in The Great Divorce:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it.”
At bottom, true evil flows not so much from the flesh-bound person who lusts, but from the pride-bound heart that consciously seeks to be its own god and to transcend God”s categories of good and evil. And this reality is powerfully depicted in Noah through the character of Tubal Cain. Nietzsche”s consummate ubermensch, only Heath Ledger”s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight compares. His effort to commandeer the ark and then hijack the new creation in order to conform it “to his image” is as clear an example of the epistemological root of satanic evil as I have ever seen in a movie. Great spark, Aronofsky – whether you knew what you were messing with or not. And by the way, please consider whether you may be guilty of a more much subtle version of the same thing.
Methuselah – His Death Shall Bring Judgment: Anthony Hopkins does eccentricity well and it”s on full display with his Methuselah. However, some critics are complaining that he was too weird, even shamanistic. Once again, I think people are assuming too much; that just because Aronofsky is not a believer and is interested in the Kabbalah and other Gnostic teachings – which is true – that all of Methuselah”s unconventional mannerisms and practices need to be attributed to the occult. I”m not going to deny that it could have played a part in Aronofsky”s intentions for the character. But I don”t really care – except for what it means in relation to the director”s spiritual condition. Read the stories of the prophets in the Old Testament, particularly Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. These guys were as eccentric as all get out and at times did things that make Hopkin”s Methuselah look normal by comparison.
One Christian reviewer decried his laying on of hands and Ila”s barrenness being healed as occultic. Say what?! Check out Elisha”s healing technique in 2 Kings 4:34. Or Jesus” in John 9:6 for that matter. And I”ve already touched on the drink he gave Noah. I wouldn”t have used that particular plot device. But given odd passages like 1 Samuel 28:7-19 and the aforementioned Numbers 5:17,24, I don”t think it necessarily stands outside of what”s allowed scripturally.
But more to the point, I loved the tender and poignant plot device surrounding the oldest man”s hankering for fresh berries. I saw it as just another desire for paradise lost and the fruit as a trace relic of the Tree of Life. As the rains begin to fall and fountains of the deep open, we see him, half blind, searching for berries as if he were a happy child. He finally finds one and pops it into his mouth and smiles…and then a wall of water sweeps him away. No Tree of Life for man until the Messiah puts out the flaming sword with His blood. No entry into Eden until the veil in the temple is torn from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:51) Another nice spark, Darren! And you probably had no idea.
It”s also interesting that he had Methuselah killed by the flood. While there is some debate as to what the name Methuselah means in ancient Hebrew, “his death shall bring judgment” is one consensus choice. And so has grown the belief within Jewish and Christian mystical traditions that the death of the oldest man to ever live signaled the flood and the end of the primeval world.
Hating Our Own Lives: Besides perhaps the snakeskin, the other most common complaint is Noah”s demeanor after the family enters the ark. He snaps and becomes – and here I quote one pastor”s review – a “homicidal maniac” who sets out to kill members of his own family.
Once again, let”s take a deep breath and consider: Noah has been tasked to do something that I”m sure in moments of doubt (we all have them) must have seemed manifestly absurd and cruel. (This is another thing the movie does a good job of portraying, just by the way.) And according to the Biblical account, the Lord didn”t give Noah a long and detailed explanation that could have helped alleviate every doubt that might arise. No, just trust and obey Noah. (Anyone familiar with the Bible and has walked with God long knows that this is pretty common in His dealings with us.) I can easily see – and sympathize – with the conclusion he comes to in the movie: that sinful man is the problem (and yes, as mentioned, Noah rightfully understands that he and his family are also sinners at heart) and that therefore once creation is renewed, he and his family need to die natural deaths and leave the world unstained by human fallenness.
There is no hope for procreation as Aronofsky has constructed the situation. Noah and Shem”s wives are supposedly barren and Ham and Japheth are without wives. (This is one of the few times in the movie where Aronofsky unambiguously denies the clear Biblical narrative. (See Gen. 7:13) Given his plot line, I understand why. But the Bible is the one book you should never tinker with in this way and to this degree. There were more biblically faithful alternatives.) But when Ila, Shem”s wife, turn up pregnant Noah declares that if a daughter is born, she will have to die. Based upon what Noah earnestly believes about the nature of his mission, his position here is far from maniacal. And the fact that he has to set his face as flint to prepare himself and his family emotionally for this eventuality isn”t an indication that he doesn”t care – clearly he cares deeply – but more a glimpse into his steely resolve to obey the Creator at all costs, even to his own hurt. And this, like it or not, is the highest form – according to Jesus a requirement really – of being a true follower and disciple of God. (Luke 14:26)
All this sets up another of my favorite scenes in the movie: Noah stands on the deck of the ark with Ila and the twin, new-born girls. She who was formerly barren (think Sarah) and with the miracle birth (think Mary) with breaking heart submits herself and her babies to the will of the Creator as channeled through Noah. As he prepares to bring down the knife I was instantly transported – intentional by the filmmakers I”m sure – to a similar scene that would take place some three-hundred years later as another patriarch was prepared to do the same thing with his son. Abraham”s hand was stayed by the “angel of the Lord” (likely Jesus) speaking from heaven. Noah”s was stopped by love. And another spark flashes heavenward.
There”s more I could comment on (the Watchers, Ham”s leaving to find his destiny – and presumably a wife) but my review has turned into a mini-book. I”ll close with this: This movie like any movie is really two films: the one that flickers on the theater screen and then the one that plays out on the screen inside our minds and hearts. I opened this essay with dialog from one of my favorite scenes in Noah and one that was featured in the official trailer for the film:
Tubal Cain: I have men at my back. And you stand alone and defy me?
Noah: I”m not alone.
In one Christian reviewer”s mind, Noah”s calm, firm response to his enemy”s threats – “I”m not alone” – was only a reference to the Nephilim (the Watchers). And thus it was just another example of Aronofsky”s and the movie”s godlessness.
No surprise here: on my screen it was a powerful Psalm 2 moment. “Rage away and kick against the goads, you silly little man. Your Creator laughs…and His fury is about to fall.”
Noah was anything but alone. (2 Kings 6:17) I was profoundly blessed to be reminded by the film that I am not alone. And my prayer is that Aronofsky and everyone who sees Noah will be reminded – or haunted – by the same great truth.
Well, the hills are alive with the sound of musings. Fighting fundamentalists on both sides of the theological/epistemological divide are either condemning or defending the fever dream that is director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky’s take on the ultimate disaster story. Not since The Last Temptation of Christ has a film based – however loosely – on Holy Writ inspired this level of controversy, defensiveness and vitriol. And I predict that this one will have more staying power because Noah is a better film – technically speaking – than Scorsese’s tedious, rambling (but in a few moments still brilliant) exercise in cinematic heresy. Even more importantly in our “bigger is better” world, Noah is an epic, $130 million, special-effects-driven spectacle – where poor Martin had to scrape by on a comparative shoestring; a sleeping-bag movie versus Darren’s tentpole.
In Part 2 I will review Noah from a theological perspective. Artistically I would give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. But then my expectations were very, very high. I figured that if Aronofsky could produce the amazing Pi for $60K, surely he could give us a new Citizen Kane or 2001 Space Odyssey when his budget was 216.66 (note the three sixes) times that. Alas, Noah is just another example of how money can’t buy perfection..
But it still is a pretty amazing film, technically and aesthetically speaking.
But before I offer my thematic analysis in Part 2, I would like to invite my Christian readers to join me in a thought experiment.
First, to director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky’s spiritual status and baseline worldview: Much has been written about his professed atheism, with two-fisted atheists proudly claiming him as one of their premier prophets. On the other side, more than a few Christians are locking and loading on his unbelief as proof of a sinister (satanic?) conspiracy to intentionally twist the Scriptures and redemptive history as if they were some gigantic wax nose. Of particular note: Aronofsky’s glaring (or perhaps cryptic) comments about his Biblical epic being “the least biblical biblical film ever made.” Personally, having seen The Greatest Story Ever Told, I think he is both wrong as well as perhaps being intentionally provocative.
But regardless of whatever labels Darren Aronofsky uses or are assigned him by atheists and theists alike, I don’t think he is anymore an atheist than Mark Twain was. A “Christ-haunted” artist – to use Flannery O’Connors useful descriptive – Aronofsky’s adherence to the two central tenets of anti-theism seem apparent upon closer examination: 1. He doesn’t believe in God, and 2. He hates Him. Except in his case it is not so much hatred as it is the all-too-common drive to find an impersonal substitute (which, to be sure, is a form of hatred). Like every other human (see Rom. 1:20), Aronofsky’s soul intuitively senses the overwhelming evidence for design, purpose and pattern in both the cosmos and the human “knowing” of it all. But in his innate fallenness and drive to “suppress that truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18b) in order to maintain his own autonomy (ironically like his Tubal Cain character in the movie), he has invested his considerable gifts in exploring these patterns and archetypes… but then pulling back from their Source and replacing God with an amalgam of monism, pantheism, Eastern mysticism, numerology/Kaballah, environmentalism and whatever else strikes his fancy at the moment.
Consider, for example, these excerpts from an interview he gave to ChitChatMagazine.Com concerning the aforementioned movie, Pi.
“I think we’re meant to know everything, it’s just a matter of when and how. I think this knowledge of God precludes the existence of the ego and the self and that as Max gets closer and closer to finding this universal order, his own self starts to disappear more and more. That’s the underlying conflict of the movie.”
“(When) you’re walking around the Western Wall in Jerusalem with a backpack, you get brought into religious sects that introduce you to mysticism, that show you the beauty and magic of religion, to bring you back into the fold and away from Satan. For me it didn’t quite work, because the devil has some nice toys. I did come away with some nice stories and some good ideas. That was the seed for a lot of the Kabbalah stuff in the film… There’s some stuff that would blow your mind and we brought that to Pi.”
“The film [though] in a lot of ways is anti-religion and pro-spirituality. I think a lot of religious groups often forget why and what they’re doing. Anyone who believes that they should kill in the name of God I think, has totally lost all sense of spirituality. You know, that’s not what it’s about.”
And then there is this from an interview he did with FilmMonthly.com on The Fountain, a profoundly spiritual meditation on life, love, death and transcendence.
Question: “What’s your take on God? Are you religious? Do you believe in God?”
DA: “I think the themes of The Fountain, about this endless cycle of energy and matter, tracing back to the Big Bang… The Big Bang happened, and all this star matter turned into stars, and stars turned into planets, and planets turned into life. We’re all just borrowing this matter and energy for a little bit, while we’re here, until it goes back into everything else, and that connects us all. The cynics out there laugh at this crap, but it’s true. [Laughs] The messed up thing is how distracted we are and disconnected from that connection, and the result of it is what we’re doing to this planet and to ourselves….Whatever you want to call that connection — some people would use that term God. That, to me, is what I think is holy.”
Reading this and watching his movies, it’s clear that at heart Aronofsky isn’t even close to being the crass materialist true atheism demands. He’s very interested in what lies beneath and beyond the “now” of temporal existence. Death may well not be the end – as The Fountain explored – but rather the “road to awe.” (I love this line, though as a Christian I would substitute “door” for “road” – as well as caution people that for many, that “awe” will be “awe-ful.”)
Now back to our thought experiment. Imagine yourself a missionary to a pagan land. Understanding that the “lights” of regeneration have not yet been turned on, you fully expect to find darkness and all manner of idolatry and spiritual confusion. But you also hope to find some glimmers of the light that springs from the image of God yet present deep in people’s souls; the dissonant echoes of an eternity that percolates within their hearts. What happens – or at least should happen – when you stumble across these imperfect artifacts of a paradise that has been lost? Condemn their imperfections? Throw out the embryo of truth because it has been soaked in some very dirty bath water?
Even a casual glance at Jesus’ MO (e.g. see “the woman at the well” account in John 4) or Paul’s atop Mars Hill (Acts 17: 16-34) makes it clear that to do so would be to miss the heart of God and the opportunity for the Gospel.
Now I understand there are thresholds here. A missionary to a tribe of cannibals can perhaps find an opportunity to use their manifestly satanic practices to introduce the concept of substitutionary atonement or even the Eucharist. But that doesn’t give him the liberty to sit around and observe one of their rituals. You can’t condemn something while being a passive – or worse, active – witness to it. And for that reason, I would never endorse a Christian watching a movie so utterly and irredeemably blasphemous as The Last Temptation of Christ.
But as I will argue in Part 2, Aronofsky got far more right or close to right than we should have ever expected given his spiritual and epistemological baseline. It really is not too much of a stretch to call it something of a miracle, a moment when the echoes of eternity rang surprisingly loud and true, despite whatever other thematic defects are in the film. Personally, I believe we have been given a interesting teaching moment, not unlike what Jesus and Paul experienced in John 4 and Acts 17 respectively.
Aronofsky and our broader culture are hearing the echoes, sensing the outlines of something deep and transcendent. They are seeing men walking about (literally in Aronofsky’s case) as trees (Mark 8:28). Always learning but never able to come – by themselves – to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7), they “cannot discover the work God has done from beginning to end.” But by God’s grace, and with our humble, loving and measured assistance, they yet may.