“We love to wander from ourselves and to be strangers at home, till God bruises us by one cross or other, and then we `begin to think’, and come home to ourselves with the prodigal (Luke 15:17). It is a very hard thing to bring a dull and an evasive heart to cry with feeling for mercy. Our hearts, like criminals, until they be beaten from all evasions, never cry for the mercy of the judge.
Again, this bruising makes us set a high price upon Christ. Then the gospel becomes the gospel indeed; then the fig leaves of morality will do us no good. And it makes us more thankful, and, from thankfulness, more fruitful in our lives; for what makes many so cold and barren, but that bruising for sin never endeared God’s grace to them.”
Yesterday, the Academy revealed its list of winners for the much-coveted Oscar awards. It also has its share of unforgettable moments especially when the announcement of the Best Picture award gone out of proportion—Steve Harvey style. Moonlight bagged the Big One over La La Land, which is an early crowd-favorite (mine also). I was able to watch the latter when it hit the local theater. I have to admit, it is seldom for me to watch a romantic tragedy—how much more a musical! But for a movie that promised to offer a stark reality about dreams and commitments, well, I think that’s worth a watch. And it was. The cinematography and choreography—accompanied by a string of songs—are a treat for the moviegoers. The film’s plot followed the lives of two budding Hollywood prodigies, Sebastian and Mia. Sebastian started as a fledgling musician who desires to saturate the music scene with jazz in all of its purity while Mia spent her stay to audition for an actress role while serving coffee.
I don’t intend to write a review of the movie but I was moved to write about something that Keith, played by the singer John Legend, said to our lead actor which we could connect to the life of the church today. I could barely recall one of his lines: “How could you save jazz if it is dying? How could you be a revolutionary if you insist to be a traditionalist?”
At the back of Keith’s mind, he believes that to tweak jazz is to save it. Change is good if it is done for the better. It is even inevitable given that we are participants to a history that is still unfolding. We should not be afraid of change. It could be turned into a useful tool; the church has profited from the boom of technology. Martin Luther welcomed the advent of the printing press and utilized it to distribute his writings widely. He also employed it to produce Bibles in the local language so that all could read God’s Word. In the same manner, we use social media, blogs, and podcasts to proclaim the gospel in every language and nation.
Eventually in the movie, Sebastian started to embrace the change since it helped him boost his career as a band pianist. It has reached to the point that Mia confronted him and said that this was not his dream; success has diverted him to what he truly loves. But he is unmoved; people loved him in what he does. That’s all that matters right now. The church may suffer with such pragmatic philosophy—change is always better. However, when change becomes the end rather than a servant or when it becomes the controlling factor rather than faithfulness, the church loses its identity.
Instead of being a witness to the world, we just become a choice among other options for the world. Instead of being not of the world, we blend with the world. Instead of being guided by biblical principles, we adopt the philosophy of the world. Just look on how the modern church resorts to gimmickry just to draw multitudes. Worship services are suited to the outsiders’ preferences and every sermon becomes an entertaining talk. Some even employ pop psychology in their sermons to make themselves more appealing to their hearers. Just look on how best-selling “preachers” put a smile on their faces and tell their audience “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” There is no call to repentance. There is no doctrinal substance. There is only a “Christianized” mix of health-and-wealth prosperity gospel. All of these things we do for the hope of proselytizing those outside our camp.
While God might use such instances to draw His people, these are not the ordinary means in which He brings His lost sheep to the flock. The church is not called to be trendy but to be faithful. Sadly, much of the efforts to “relativize” the church tend to diminish the value of the faithful preaching of Word. Ministers are called to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) and to preach not ourselves but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:2). It is through the faithful preaching of the Word that God quickens the unbelieving heart for “faith comes from hearing , and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The gospel alone is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). This should take preeminence in our mind as we engage the outside world. This should be our main concern—the center of it all. We leave the results of our preaching and evangelism not in our well-devised programs but with God.
Also, we must worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:24). We honor God by honoring Him according to His Word and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40). Finally, we are called to make disciples by teaching the Bible, administering the sacraments, and fellowshipping (Matthew 28:19, 20; Acts 2:42). These tasks seem to be boring and ordinary but God chooses the weak over the strong of this world. Change should be a servant to the Word, not the other way round. We don’t need to dress the gospel with the cloth of contemporary gloss. The gospel remains relevant, in and of itself, all throughout history.
On the other hand, just as Sebastian initially thought that the good ol’ jazz is much better, the church may also catch the “nostalgic bug.” She might think of the “glorious days” of Christianity. Just think of the time of Reformation, or that of the English Puritanism, and you might say “Oh, gone are those days!” or “How I wish we’re same as before!” There is nothing wrong with setting up models of the faith but I think that when we turn this into a golden-age mentality, it does more harm than good to the church of today. Nostalgia usually brings into us those things that we only chooses to remember, thus creating an image of a “more-to-be-desired” state. By this, we turn a particular age as an embodiment of the ideal. We might get ourselves enamored by the past and forget to appreciate the contributions of the present church. We might also forget that the church of today has its own problems and issues that we need to attend.
However, there is no golden age. In this side of history, the church remains to be a body of flawed sinners dependent on God’s grace. The church of the past also shared a list of problems and sins. Just look at the accounts of Israelite nation, and even at the times of the apostles, immorality and arrogance waved their hands at the corner. Prophets arose to prosecute the people and call them into repentance. In light of the disturbances and infidelity, Paul and John wrote to the churches. And boy, the Reformation is not a walk in the park. You could see Luther calling those who didn’t believe in His view of the Lord’s Supper as unbelievers. Even Puritanism wasn’t able to lead England into its full potential; we shake our heads with regret at how secular Europe is now. However, God works through this broken church. Just look at the growing churches in Africa and in Asia and be amazed on how God is calling our lost brothers into the fold.
Yes, there is no golden age. The antidote for this unhealthy view of church history is a right understanding of God’s providence. At times, the Old Testament prophets recalled the prosperity of Israel before the exile. How they wished the days weren’t gone! But they believed in the outworking of the sovereign Lord, the Lord who called them out of Egypt and will redeem His people. We could also recall Augustine’s The City of God. He wrote the book partly in response to those who fault the Christians for the fall of Rome. However, he wrote the book mainly to give comfort to the weary church—Rome in all of its glory, a “golden age” if you like, is not the triumphant Church. The only golden age we should look forward to is the age that will come.
The tides will change but the Lord who has authority over all things, in heaven and on earth, is the same Lord who said that He will build His church and not even the gates of hell will prevail against it (Matthew 28:18; 16:18). What brings us more comfort and strength to persevere is that He is also with us always to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). We respond to this truth by being faithful to what God wants the church to be, that is, humbly submissive to His Word.
No matter how hard we try to dismiss it, we are products of our culture. Because we are not aware of it sometimes, our notions of what love is are shaped by some of the things the world says about it. Just try to list down some of your thoughts and see how much they are influenced by what we have read or seen from novels and movies. A lot of things already happened since the dawn of modernity and Romanticism. Ideas from these periods subtly crept into our consciousness. We could see them at work during the Valentine season.
I know that many would object in celebrating Valentines Day—Christian circles still debate about the legitimacy of this day—but I see this occasion as a means to start a conversation. We should not fear contextualization; we know that the message of the gospel is always relevant to us sinners. However, we should not border into thinking that we should avoid any appeal to relevance at all. The apostle Paul exhorted the young minister Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). Augustine wrote the City of God to instruct and comfort the weary Roman Christians. The minister of the Word should not be shy to give pastoral insight during times like this. He could address the needs of his congregation and yet still be faithful in explicating the texts in front of him. Also, if the apostle Paul could appeal to the “unknown god”—the product of the pagans’ thinking—and show them the true God (Acts 17:22-31), then I think preachers could follow suit in engaging the culture and the philosophy prevalent today. If we are sick of how the world paints love, shouldn’t we all the more preach about what love truly is?
We should bear in mind that this worldly love is a distortion of what is originally a good thing. After the fall, man started to think in allegiance to himself and in rebellion to God. That is why the apostle Paul admonished us not to be “conformed to this world,” that is, we should not follow the autonomous manner by which fallen men live their lives. It is because of “being transformed by the renewal of our minds” that we could take a second look at love under the light of God’s revealed will (Romans 12:2). In His light we see light (Psalm 36:9). The gospel reorients our view of love.
Because of the acknowledgment of our sins, we know that we could not trust ourselves; we know that impurities are still in us—that we are selfish and proud. A man could boast of the stars and the moon but in reality, he only wants to get what he wants in a woman. He might be on a chase for his ultimate satisfaction and eventually will make his idol work for him in his quest for self-fulfillment. The woman, in return, might use this to gain favors from the man, or in other cases, exhibit authority over the weakened lover. She might seek identity in the embrace of a man; only to find that her idol will not deliver. One needs to look at the standard that the apostle Paul set in 1 Corinthians 13 to know the gravity of what a lover is claiming to do. Whenever I weigh myself against this standard, I fall short of keeping it.
However, it is because of grace that we could hope for change; we know that we are not lost cases—that we are already loved and could be loved for Christ loved the unlovely (Romans 5:6). We meet ourselves within the story of redemption. And in this fertile ground, our love could grow bountifully with every good fruit. Every state that we are in is an avenue for our sanctification. Every state is a vocation where maturity is cultivated along with virtues that follow faith. Marriage—and being in a relationship—is such a state. This we could heartily pursue by putting on God’s Word as our corrective lens. Other than Paul’s oft-quoted love chapter, we could see some parameters set in 1 John 4:7-12: Why do we love? Because God loved us. How do we love? God’s way. When do we love? Always. Even though these verses speak of brotherly love, these could be expressed as well within the bounds of intimacy. After all, the Christian couple are nothing but two sinners redeemed by grace.
In light of these things, the lovers could forgive each other, bear one another’s burden, and build one another up (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:11). It is because of God’s love for us—and working in us—that we could love truly. This is where I put my hope whenever I recount all my flaws regarding love. I think these are the things that we should say to the unbelieving world when we celebrate Valentines Day.
Just recently, I was able to read the Japanese novel “Silence.” This is a fine piece of literature from Shūsaku Endo’s pen. The plot followed the journey of a priest to Japan in the quest of finding his mentor in the faith who apostatized and evangelizing to the native folk. Below is a discussion between the priest Rodrigues (the novel’s protagonist) and an interpreter to the feudal lord:
‘Father, we are not disputing about the right and wrong of your doctrine. In Spain and Portugal and such countries it may be true. The reason we have outlawed Christianity in Japan is that, after deep and earnest consideration, we find its teaching of no value for the Japan of today.’
The interpreter immediately came to the heart of the discussion. The old man in front with the big ears kept looking down on the priest sympathetically.
‘According to our way of thinking, truth is universal,’ said the priest, at last returning the smile of the old man. ‘A moment ago you officials expressed sympathy for the suffering I have passed through. One of you spoke words of warm consolation for my travelling thousands of miles of sea over such a long period to come to your country. If we did not believe that truth is universal, why should so many missionaries endure these hardships? It is precisely because truth is common to all countries and all times that we call it truth. If a true doctrine were not true alike in Portugal and Japan we could not call it “true”.’
Talk about putting the nail in the coffin of postmodernism and charging forward the relevance of the gospel! I’m looking forward to write more on the pressing issues that the novel laid in its pages.
Excerpt from Shūsaku Endo, “Silence: a novel,” trans. William Johnston (New York: Picador, 2016)