LAST WORDS OF PAUL THE APOSTLE

LAST WORDS OF PAUL THE APOSTLE

The last few years have been some of the bloodiest ever for Christians the world over. ISIS is in hiding, but their atrocities against believers remain fresh in memory. After thirty years of relative freedom, China’s new president-for-life is ramping up pressure against Churches. Iran arrests Christians and jails them without charges, North Korea routinely murders believers, and Boko Haram continues its rampages in Africa.

American believers aren’t as attuned to these realities as we should be, but the new film, Paul, Apostle of Christ, will help us connect not only with fellow believers around the world, but also with some of our own struggles with the faith.

If you are accustomed to being disappointed by Bible-themed films prepare to be encouraged. Paul, starring Jim Caviezel (Luke) and James Faulkner (Paul), is an excellent film that shows the gritty reality early Christianity. Though it is not a sweeping epic on the lines of Cecil B. DeMille’s, The Ten Commandments, as Paul’s life no doubt deserves, it is a compelling story simply told.

The film alternates between two locales’, Rome’s Mamertine prison, the stinking hell-hole where Paul spent his last days, and a large villa, home of Aquilla and Priscilla and a community of refugees from Nero’s persecution. The danger to believers is punctuated by the cries of human torches, Christians the emperor scapegoated for the fire that consumed half the city, and constant fear of arrest followed by death by wild beasts in Nero’s circuses.

World Radio’s movie critic Meghan Basham found fault with the film for weaving too many themes into one script, arguing instead for a long-running TV mini-series format. She has a point. I counted fourteen possible themes that would make—in the hands of the right producers and writers—good storytelling on the small screen. And I found a few petty problems, like Mamertine prison not being as nasty as we know it was, along with some costuming issues. But, the complexity of the plot kept me engaged. And the gritty realities of persecution, suffering for Christ, loving one’s enemies, and conflicting convictions between husbands and wives as each follows Christ’s call grip the viewer.

Further, we expect great acting from Caviezel and Faulkner, and we get it, as each man struggles under intense pressure to live in love and grace. But all the acting was excellent, not always a feature of Bible-themed films.

The storytellers of a culture shape the values of a culture. Jim Caviezel understands that. In an interview some years ago he said, “I want to make films that make a difference.” Paul, Apostle of Christ is just that. It’s a great way to introduce someone who doesn’t understand the history of the faith to the founding of the Church. And seeing it in theaters is the best way to make sure more stories like this make it to the large and small screen.

OUTGROWING POVERTY

My heart went out to the young man on the phone and the woman who had taken him in. He had fallen in love with her at work and needed a place to stay and, well, one thing led to another. He had only been out of prison for a few months, still trying to get back on his feet, and his original housing arrangement hadn’t worked out. Her power was about to be cutoff on this damp, cold night.

I had helped in enough of these situations to know that a few bucks weren’t going to keep the heat on, and it was too late in the day to involve the church or other agencies, so I went to the ATM, pulled out $350, and handed it to her in Wal-Mart so she could get the money order and pay her bill.

That’s what Christians are supposed to do right, help the poor? Then why did I feel robbed when she unceremoniously kicked him out before the next billing cycle? Well, frankly, because I had been. I was a voluntary victim of my own hyperactive empathy, unbiblical anthropology, and upside-down economic theory. The only reason I’m sharing this is so that you won’t think me a cold-hearted capitalist if you keep reading.

Nobody likes poverty. No one enjoys seeing other people suffer with only thin blankets between them and a frigid night. Everyone with a conscience informed by Jesus’s Good Samaritan wants to, and should, help in an emergency. But the only way to help people get out, and stay out, of chronic poverty is to help them outgrow it. That’s a lot harder than pulling a few hundred bucks out of an ATM on a cold November night.

Prevailing models of aid view economic resources as limited. There are the haves and the have-nots, and the only way to help the have-nots is for the haves to hand it over. That’s called wealth redistribution, which is completely different from wealth creation. If we’re going to help people get out and stay out of chronic poverty, we need to believe in the expandable economic pie. World Magazine’s Joel Belz reminds us of this in his tribute to American Catholic philosopher (and lifelong Democrat) Michael Novak, who died last month.[1]

Novak often referenced eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith, saying, “The really unusual insight of Adam Smith is in effect a theological insight—that the world is not a finished system. If it were finished, then the urgent need would be for a distributive system. But God made the world differently, with the potential for constantly creating new wealth.” Finding the causes of poverty is not difficult, but we need to find ways to help the poor create wealth.

The first way to help people outgrow poverty is to help them believe that God has given them the power to create wealth, to provide for themselves. Doing this restores their dignity as creatures made in his image who have power, some ability to determine their own destiny.

Another Novak quote corrects the unbiblical anthropology undermining our attitudes toward the poor as well as our ideas about helping them: “Socialism is a system for saints. Democratic capitalism works because it’s a system for sinners.” If we’re going to help each other, we have to be truthful about human nature–that we are prone to oppression and greed, as well as fraud, and indolence. Socialism is brilliant, if we can count on rich and poor alike to ignore economic incentives, but we cannot.

Pure, unregulated, free-market capitalism will almost always favor the strong over the weak, or uninformed. That’s why we needed, for example, some of the credit agency and loan industry reforms passed by the last administration, the “democratic” in Novak’s capitalism.

But the “sinners” part of the equation covers the poor as well as the rich. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. Many single young women now see having babies in order to collect more government assistance as a de facto career path. Marrying the father is out of the question because he would be expected to provide for his own, thus reducing the monthly stipend. The result is that more children are born to more unwed mothers. Perverse economic incentives reap a cycle of increasing dependence as well as the social pathologies that arise from families without fathers.

The biblical view of human nature takes these things into account. That’s why in the Bible, help for the poor recognizes the difference between a crisis and a chronic need. Ongoing, versus emergency assistance, was always predicated on the idea that the receiver performed some kind of work (Deut. 24:17-22).

The bedraggled man at the end of the off-ramp held a crude sign: “I have a wife and child and another on the way. Will work today.” Reliable reporting tells us that these guys often pull in hundreds of untaxed dollars a day. Even so, avoiding his pleading gaze as he made his way along the line of cars was almost more than I could take. Everything in me wanted to pull out a twenty and hand it over. But he kept a respectful distance and I, feeling like an absolute shmuck, kept my wallet in my pocket.

Perhaps the hardest part of helping people outgrow poverty is overcoming our hyperactive empathy. And I don’t believe that God will ever judge us for handing a few bucks to a beggar. But I am utterly convinced that he will ask us one day, “Why did you, in the most prosperous economic system ever developed by man, allow poverty to perpetuate itself, when you knew how to help people outgrow it?”

[1] https://world.wng.org/2017/03/system_for_sinners

OF SHIPWRECKS AND SCRIPTURE: Worldview and You

G. K. Chesterton, the famous British author of the early 20th century, was once invited to a gathering of intellectuals where a question was posed: “If you were shipwrecked on a desert island, what one book would you wish to have?”

Knowing his commitment to orthodox Christianity, most assumed Chesterton would answer, “The Bible.” Instead he replied, “Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.”

Many Christians today wouldn’t have been half as clever, because even if we know our bibles well, we do not know how to think biblically about life. We do not know how to answer non-biblical questions from the biblical worldview.

Everyone has a worldview, whether they realize it or not. Your worldview is the system of thought that helps you answer life’s four great questions: Where did we come from? What’s wrong with us? How can we solve life’s problems? What’s the ultimate purpose and meaning of life? Your worldview is the way you think the world works and how you fit in it.

The biblical worldview represents reality. It sees the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. It answers the four questions this way: We are created beings, made in the image of God, not random accidents of biology. We were created good with marvelous potential, but became broken and prone to evil when we rejected God, bringing all of creation under the curse when we did so. From that moment on, the cosmic Murphy’s Law applied: if something can go wrong, it will.

The solution to man’s problems is the work of redemption, recovering what was lost by the sacrifice of Christ for our sins, and the ongoing work of his people in restoring God’s order of things, healing the brokenness of the world wherever we find it with whatever works best. Thus Chesterton’s reply: Stranded sailors need books on shipbuilding. Stranded sinners, on the other hand, need the scriptures.

Ultimate meaning comes from glorifying God by fulfilling our purpose, knowing that, on the day Christ returns to renew all things, we will give an account to him for all that we have been given, and be rewarded for our faithfulness. Thomas’s redemptive purpose was to write that shipbuilding book; Chesterton’s was to build it.

The short version is: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration and Judgment. When we learn to sift every life situation, every opportunity, and every problem to be solved through that grid we will know how to respond with biblical wisdom, and even wit, to questions which cannot be answered with chapter and verse.

The Bible does not specifically address many things in life, but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to say about them. The trick is learning to think from a biblical worldview.