How I Trained My Dragon: A Morality Play on "The War on Terror"

Last Friday, Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed posted my review of How to Train Your Dragon.
I thought it was a fun movie and insightful on many levels. Here are my thoughts:

Friday Night at the Movies: How to Train Your Dragon
by Bob Robinson

In a thoroughly enjoyable, family-friendly movie, Dreamworks Animation has created a wonderfully entertaining, visually exciting movie. With How to Train Your Dragon, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders provide thrills and laughter for all ages, but underneath the dazzling 3D effects hides a deeper, much more profound message.

The story is about a village of vikings who are terrorized by dragons. The film is filled with battle scenes where dragons destroy the vikings’ village and steal their livestock. The vikings have been fighting the dragons for generations. It has gotten to the point that the very identity of being a viking is tied directly to killing dragons.

The young hero of the story, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), is a wimpy kid trying to prove his worthiness as a viking to his father and leader of the vikings, Stoick (Gerard Butler), as well as to the dragon master Cobber (Craig Ferguson).

The most frightening and most despised dragon is the “Night Fury,” a dragon that has never been seen, who streaks over the village in the darkness and shoots deadly firebombs at buildings. Hiccup manufactures a gun in order to shoot down the Night Fury. It works, and after a search, he finds the Night Fury injured near a crater lake, trapped and unable to fly away.

He slowly gains the trust of the Night Fury dragon, names him “Toothless,” and even flies on the dragon’s back (in 3D, this was a marvelous ride!). Hiccup finds that the most feared dragon, the Night Fury, is actually as loving as a tame puppy.

The underlying message begins to shine through as Hiccup begins to doubt the endless war against the dragons. He begins to wonder if the vikings have been battling the dragons for so long and are so sure that they are heartless terrorists, that the vikings are perpetuating a war that may not be necessary. When Hiccup tells his father what he is discovering about this reality, his father is repulsed not only by the idea, but by his own son.

This movie brings our current “war on terrorism” into a new light. How have we so dehumanized our enemies that we see them as no more than animals – dragons – streaking across the sky with the intention of doing us harm?

I don’t want to give any more of the story away, but there comes a moment in the story when Hiccup understands the real reason why the dragons are doing what they are doing. With that realization, he is better able to think of and implement solutions to the conflict – better solutions than merely killing every dragon.

Jesus’ demand that Christians must love our enemies is a difficult command to follow. In real life situations, it is emotionally difficult to actually understand what our enemies are thinking, what motivates them to oppose us, and what we must do to reach out for the purpose of reconciliation. Sure, it is not simply forgiving and forgetting; it takes seriously the sins that were committed and seeks to tell the truth about those things. But the burden of peace and reconciliation is placed squarely on our shoulders.

However, the American way has often been to treat enemies as not worthy of understanding. We take the easy route far too often, simply deciding to fight rather than to understand, to hate rather than to love.

We need to ask hard questions, questions that our hardened hearts do not want to ask. What drives terrorists to do such atrocities? How can we provide possible solutions to these underlying causes? Are we doing all we can to understand the mind of our enemies? How can we overcome their animosity toward us? What are we doing to overcome their evil with good?

Glen Stassen and many others have been advocating “Just Peacemaking” as a means to overcome conflict. They say that a biblical way of seeking peace is when “adversaries listen to each other and experience each others' perspectives, including culture, spirituality, story, history and emotion.” To find peace, we are to “seek long-term solutions which help prevent future conflict,” and “seek justice as a core component for sustainable peace.”

It wasn’t until Hiccup understood the dragons’ perspective that he could figure out a long-term solution to the conflict between the vikings and the dragons. It wasn’t until Hiccup engaged his friends to seek justice for the dragons that a sustainable peace was found.


Appreciative Inquiry Evangelism: LISTENING

Back in 2007, I introduced a new way of doing evangelism, what I called "Appreciative Inquiry Evangelism (AIE)." Instead of starting out with the premise that each person we interact with is a sinner, AIE starts out with the premise that every human being is a wonderful creation, created as God's image-bearer. It does not deny the Fall and sinfulness; it just refuses to start our conversations there. The motivation of AIE is to appreciate people, affirming their past and present strengths and successes. AIE allows us to value people as human beings first rather than as merely possible candidates to become Christians. It looks at people with a different lens: instead of seeing people as inherently flawed, we see them with inherent potential.

AIE's purpose is to interact with people in order to help them explore and discover those potentialities and possibilities that God wants to flourish in them. We seek to introduce each person to the Redeemer of all things, Jesus Christ, who wants to restore each and every one of us to our image-bearing glory.

As I've been practicing AIE, I've found people to be more open to talking about God, Jesus, and purpose in the redemption found in Him.

Another major difference between AIE and other ways of doing evangelism that I've attempted is that it is based on listening instead of talking. We take ourselves out of the equation - it is not about what I can do in that person's life. We ask questions, seeking to understand what God is already doing in a person's life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of how important this is:
__"The first service that one owes to others... consists in listening to them.
__Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening...
__Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they would share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God." (Life Together, pp. 97-99)


Should Christians Pay Taxes After Obamacare? What about Government-Sanctioned Torture?

Albert Mohler, conservative Christian commentator (both theologically and politically), wrote an article the other day entitled, "Render Unto Caesar? On Paying Taxes After Obamacare."
__A significant number of Christians are now wondering about the moral implications of the Obama health care overhaul...
__So, should Christians defy the government and refuse to pay taxes if some involvement in abortion is almost certain? The answer to that question reaches far beyond the issue of abortion — and far beyond the question of taxation. The answer to that question must be "no."
Mohler then makes the biblical case that even when our government takes taxes for things we find reprehensible, Christians are obligated to pay them. He cites Romans 13, 1 Peter 2:13-14, and Mark 12:17 ("Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.")

He ends the commentary with this:
__Abortion is a moral catastrophe. The murder of the unborn is one of the greatest sins any society can tolerate, much less subsidize by taxation. The impact of the new “Obamacare” health care legislation is not yet fully clear, but the legislation lacks any adequate protection for the unborn. Immorality is added to immorality when the power of the government to tax and confiscate the funds of citizens is involved in such a catastrophe.
__For this reason, Christian citizens should be involved at every level in the political process, seeking to use legitimate means to establish full protection for the unborn and for all other vulnerable persons. Elections have consequences, and this new legislation is a reminder of the power of government to do both good and evil.
__But to refuse to pay taxes is to deny the legitimacy of the government itself, and to declare it beyond political remedy. Even to Christians suffering under the repressive, murderous, and dictatorial yoke of Rome, Jesus instructed the payment of taxes. Caesar, Christ knew, will one day face the judgment of Almighty God. Rome would one day be brought under his own feet and made subject to him.
__We do not “render unto Caesar” because of our confidence in Caesar. We render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, because we are committed with our lives and confidence and consciences to render unto God that which is God’s.
I fully agree with Mohler's reasoning for our obligation to pay taxes, as well as his concerns about how the new legislation may allow for the subsidizing of abortions through our tax dollars.

But what troubles me is that what prompted Mohler to write about the Christian obligation to pay taxes was the passing of the Health Care Reform Bill (what Mohler derogatorily called "Obamacare"). He started his commentary with, "A significant number of Christians are now wondering about the moral implications of the Obama health care overhaul."

During the Bush presidency, why weren't a "significant number of Christians" writing to Mohler concerned about how their tax dollars were being used by the government to torture people?

I credit Mohler for siding with John McCain on his push for an amendment banning torture to a Defense Authorization Bill back in 2005, rejecting Charles Krauthammer's argument that the hypothetical "ticking time bomb" scenario legitimizes the use of torture.

However, in 2007, Al Mohler (president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) sided with one of his ethics professors at the seminary, Daniel R. Heimbach, when he spoke out against the National Association of Evangelicals' statement against the use of torture. Mohler said, "I would argue that we cannot condone torture by codifying a list of exceptional situations in which techniques of torture might be legitimately used. At the same time, I would also argue that we cannot deny that there could exist circumstances in which such uses of torture might be made necessary.” (see the Baptist Press coverage of this story)

Could it really be true that Southern Baptists see torture as "necessary" and thus are okay with our tax dollars being used to do such atrocious acts, but are so angry about the health care bill that they don't want to pay taxes anymore?

If you are a Southern Baptist, I hope this doesn't reflect your values.


Anakainosis is Now Online

Anakainosis: A Newsletter for Reformational Thought is now on-line at All of Life Redeemed. Anakainosis was an "informal academic periodical published by the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship in Toronto, Canada."

It was first published in Sept 1978 and continued until 1986. Each volume comprised four issues. It was first edited by Al Wolters. Subsequent editors included Henk Aay, Mark Roques, David Woods, Robert VanderVennen and Chris Gousmett. It contained articles, reviews and news updates from reformational scholars.

It also republished articles by Herman Dooyeweerd, Roy Clouser, Robert Knudsen, Troost, Danie Strauss and many other well-known scholars.

Anakainosis is a Greek word that means, "a renewal, renovation, complete change for the better."

Thanks, Steve Bishop, for this!


Is the iPad a Step Forward or a Step Backward?

In Time Magazine's review of the new Apple iPad, Lev Grossman writes a glowing endorsement for it. However, his last paragraph was what I found most intriguing, especially as it pertains to how the iPad can effect culture.
If I have a beef with the iPad, it's that while it's a lovely device for consuming content, it doesn't do much to facilitate its creation. The computer is the greatest all-purpose creativity tool since the pen. It put a music studio, a movie studio, a darkroom and a publishing house on everybody's desk.

The iPad shifts the emphasis from creating content to merely absorbing and manipulating it. It mutes you, turns you back into a passive consumer of other people's masterpieces. In that sense, it's a step backward.

Not much of a fairy-tale ending. Except for the people who are selling content.

Does the iPad threaten the advancements we've attained because of the PC Revolution?

To paraphrase Andy Crouch (in his must-read book, Culture Making), will the iPad motivate and empower the next generation to create culture or will it simply be an enabler for a generation to simply consume culture?


Why are Evangelicals so Afraid of the Holy Spirit?

He is the only source for our living lives that glorify God, but we are shy of Him.

I've just finished nearly three months studying Paul's letter to the Galatians. When we started out, we thought we had this letter figured out: It's about FREEDOM.

Freedom from legalism. Freedom from religious rules. Freedom to live lovingly. Freedom from a bondage to sin. Our theme for Galatians was Freedom in Christ! "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).

But as I studied this letter, something else started to creep into view. We can talk about freedom all we want but we will not be free until we realize the source of that freedom. We cannot experience true freedom unless we are empowered to be free. That source is the Holy Spirit.

And this is what evangelicals quickly skip over. But the Apostle Paul is clear that freedom comes only when we are fully yielded to the Holy Spirit. Sure, "freedom" is mentioned eight times in Galatians. But (get this!) the word that is translated the "Spirit" is found SEVENTEEN times!

Scot McKnight (NIV Application Commentary on Galatians) gives us an excellent overview of how prominent the Spirit is in Galatians:
(1) The Spirit of God is what the Christian receives at conversion (3:2, 3, 5, 14; 5:25), and this was evidently made known through charismatic experiences (see comments on 3:1–5). Such an experience makes the convert a “son of God” who can call God Abba (4:6). Indeed, the reception of the Spirit is what the entire Old Testament looked forward to as it came to fruition in the universal plan of God (3:13–14). To live in the Spirit is to live in the age when God inaugurates his kingdom.
(2) Those who are “in the Spirit” are persecuted by those in the “flesh” (3:4; 4:29).
(3) Those who are “in the Spirit” exercise hope for the coming establishment of God’s righteousness and their own declaration of fitness before God (5:5).
(4) Those who are “in the Spirit” are victorious over the “works of the flesh” (vv. 16–18, 19–21) and so live a life full of the manifestation of the Spirit (vv. 22–23). For this victory to occur, Christians need only submit to, or walk in step with, the Spirit (v. 25; cf. 6:8).

Galatians is about the Holy Spirit. And yet, we miss it. We evangelicals think we can live the Christian life by following our evangelical rules.

McKnight is so bold to say this:
“I know of no Christian parents or youth leaders, or for that matter any pastors, who seriously believe what Paul teaches in Galatians 5:16–26, that the sole foundation of Christian ethics is dependency on the Spirit and a life of freedom in the Spirit.”

What do you think? Do we really, really believe that all we need is the Holy Spirit to be holy, to live in harmony with others, to overcome the sinful nature, and to act righteously and justly in the world?

Most of us would say, “Sure!” But the reality is this: We don’t really trust this. Instead, we come up with rules of conduct, we tell our people how they should act, we make a list of things that either places people with the “in crowd” or casts people out because they are not “Christian enough.”

But Paul insists that all those externalities are useless to bring about godliness. The only thing that works is a completely yielding to the Spirit of God. Freedom from sin only comes from the inside out. True freedom is the result of God's Spirit producing fruit in his people - this is not through our own effort, but through the power of God. All we need to do is "walk in step with the Spirit."

Paul basically places the acts of the sinful nature in the same box as the Law and also the rules that Christians come up with to make themselves holy (in the Galatians' case, the Judaizers were seeking to force Gentiles to be circumcised). This is the life "in the flesh," which leads to bondage. But Paul says that a new era has begun in Christ, the life controlled by the Holy Spirit. When God takes over, he produces the fruit of the Spirit, allowing us to love like we should, live in harmony with others, rise above our sinful nature, and move toward the promise of Resurrection.

Here, then, is the chart I made for my group to guide our discussions, and I pray, our lives.

(click on thumbnail for full image)


Does Your Politics Cause You to Sin?

"Hell No!" ...oops.

I've been teaching Galatians for the past three months to my sub-congregation at church. More on that in a later post. But in the midst of my blog's focus recently on our country's political bickering over health care, and whether or not "Social Justice" is evil code for socialism (along with all the other fun from Glenn Beck), a quote from Scot McKnight's commentary on Galatians jumped out at me:
Paul says literally (in Galatians 515): “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” Technically, Paul could have said: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, you will be destroyed by each other.” The addition of “watch out for” puts emphasis, emotionally, on the sin. The problem of the Galatians is typically human: egos enter into the debates between people and before long the issue is who is going to win; it becomes who is right, not what is right.

This was a reminder to me, a sinner, that what's important in having fellowship with Christians is to have civility in our debates. The "typical human" problem for all of us is this: More important than humbly seeking "what is right," is to be the one "who is right."

This, sadly, is one of the worst besetting sins of evangelicals (of whom I am one). We are so enamored with being right that we do not listen to others' insights, especially if we have successfully labeled them in a category that we can dismiss outright.

If you can label people something that disparages them, you can go ahead and devour them with your words. This comes from both sides of the political spectrum, which uses terms like these:
  • "liberal" or "fundamentalist,"
  • "radical gay agenda" or "homophobe,"
  • "baby killer" or "anti-choice,"
  • "socialist" or "obstructionist."
I'm sure you can add to this list.

I certainly do not expect our politicians and cable news pundits to live up to Christian virtue in their dealing with their opposition (even those that confess a Christian faith have showed that their hypocrisy is the norm, not the exception). It is readily apparent that what is more important to politicians in today's contentious congress is that they oppose the opposite party, instead of seeking what is right, they want to be seen as who is right (and I'm talking about both the Republicans and the Democrats here).

But in the fellowship of Christians, as we discuss the important issues of our day, we need to be careful of how we treat each other.

We need to check our egos at the door, decide to humbly enter into dialog, and (even while holding fast to our convictions) be willing to accept that, yes, at times, we may need to change our minds. Can we let go of our need to be right all the time?