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Onward Christian Soldiers


Lots of folks are going to see the movie Fireproof, starring former Tiger Beat heartthrob Kirk Cameron. More, in fact, than have seen comedian Bill Maher’s new documentary Religulous.

Fireproof is the story of a firefighter whose marriage is falling apart because of pride and neglect, but that eventually is revived because the Cameron character experiences a religious conversion and gets his life’s priorities in order.

Religulous is a story of one man – comedian and HBO talk show host Bill Maher – and his quest to show organized religion as a silly, even dangerous thing.

There’s been an effort within the evangelical community to support family-friendly Fireproof, partly because the movie is supportive of family values, but mostly to stick a thumb in Hollywood’s eye. I haven’t been, but I know some people who have seen Fireproof; I’m the only person I know – Christian or non – who has seen Religulous.

It’s a shame because I think Christians could learn more from Maher’s film than from Fireproof. And it’s not the lesson they expect. If Maher’s film is an unflinching glimpse into the mind of an unbeliever, and if it offers a hint as to what the world thinks when they view the Christian church – especially in America – we’ve got a lot of reputation repair to do. Our brand, as it were, has been tainted more seriously than I thought.

Make no mistake: the premise of Maher’s film, that he is genuinely questioning the validity of organized religion, is a canard.

It’s clear early on that he set out to make sport of the world’s Big Three religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, with a particular focus on Christianity. And through artful writing and editing, including the frequent use of video showing examples of some of Christendom’s most notorious charlatans – too bad the Inquisition came before the invention of the camera – he largely succeeds. He takes his microphone, camera, and acerb, ambush style, into a truck stop chapel and a Christian-themed amusement park, among other venues, posing questions to the unsuspecting, including truckers and an actor who portrays Jesus at the Holy Land Experience.

By the time Religulous had run its course I had seen some amusing moments (interviews with a former homosexual who runs a ministry for those who wish to break from that lifestyle, and a colorful Vatican priest), some troubling moments (interviews with Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda and an anti-Zionist rabbi) as well as some moments that were cringe-inducing (interviews with Arkansas’ U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, the truck stop scene).

There is one important message that Maher unintentionally conveys: that we Christians, by and large, have done a lousy job at preparing to defend our faith. Maher’s questions should be easily answered by any believer – but I’ll admit that I had to research some of the issues he raised after I got home.

Still, what I saw through the eyes of Bill Maher confirms what I have intuitively known for a while: many people see Christians as less than genuine, and believe – with some reason – that few of us are prepared to convince them otherise. What I didn’t know was the extent of the problem and its consequences.

While Maher avoided engaging our leading apologists in conversation, he shouldn’t have needed to engage the likes of Ravi Zacharias to hear a true defense of our faith. If Maher had stuck the microphone in front of my face, I should have been able to answer his questions – but I’m not sure I would have fared much better than the earnest folks featured in the movie.

So thank you, Bill Maher, for opening my eyes and showing me the cost of my complacency. Time for me and evangelicals everywhere to get on the ball and prepare ourselves to do a better job following Paul’s advice in 2 Timothy 2:15 – “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

Posted by Mike Spinney at 10:00 AM | Permalink

Book Review: Dead Boys


I’ve been to Los Angeles once in my life. I was traveling on business a couple years after the Rodney King Riots and the subsequent re-trial of the officers who were present at the arrest of Mr. King. The city was under a great deal of scrutiny following those events and there remained a good deal of racial tension simmering beneath the surface of that sprawling urban setting.

I found downtown to be an uninteresting, almost antiseptic place. My most vivid memory is of walking down a deserted street from my hotel, looking for a place to get something to eat. It was after 10:00 p.m. and the restaurant in my hotel was closed – as was everything else in the neighborhood. I know most of the action in L.A. takes place on the West Side of town and among the numerous outlying communities, but I was more than a little disappointed at the options available to me at that time, in that place.

During my quest for food, I crossed the street diagonally at a broad intersection. There were no cars to be seen approaching from any direction, but as soon as my feet hit the opposite sidewalk, the brief whoop of a siren caught my attention. I turned to find two motorcycle cops pulling up to the curb beside me, but I kept walking. Even though I was the only other person in view, I couldn’t imagine what I might have done to raise suspicion. Nevertheless, one of the officers barked at me to stop and hand over my identification. I politely complied, and as I pushed my driver’s license at him he laughed.

“East Coast,” he chuckled with a hint of derision. “That explains it.”

I was confused, and asked why I was being stopped. The officer told me I was jay walking, and that while I might get away with it in Boston, it was a no-no in Los Angeles. Pointing, he told me that there was a Mexican neighborhood in that direction, and another down the street in the opposite direction and that “they race down this street to get from one to the other and will run you down.”

Nice to see the city’s sensitivity training paying off, I thought to myself.

I never had much of a desire to visit LA, but that encounter sealed it for me. Any chance the city had of capturing my fancy through the creative lens of Hollywood was forever lost that week. I don’t hate the place, but I there’s nothing attractive to me there. It’s a city that exists in television and movies.

With such a negative bias, perhaps it’s unfair of me to offer a review of Dead Boys, a new book by Richard Lange, a collection of twelve short stories that take place within and near to Los Angeles. Much like my personal encounter with the City of Angels, I found Lange’s book to be unsatisfying.

Dead Boys

The characters in Dead Boys fail again and again to matter to me. There’s the down on his luck coffee shop denizen whose encounter with the daughter of a recently deceased compatriot seems to want to offer some hope for redemption, but ultimately falls flat from a lack of emotion; or the drama-free tale of a house painter turned bank robber who steals in order to raise the funds to move his family to better neighborhood, but I end up not caring if he buys his dream house in the hills, gets busted by the police, or gunned down by a partner in an act of betrayal because the character is neither evil nor good. He just is, as are most of the characters in Lange’s stories.

I wondered while reading Dead Boys if the dozen urban tales weren’t meant to be an allegory for Los Angeles itself, an artifice of sound and motion, but ultimately amoral and without substance. Los Angeles is supposed to be one of America’s great cities, but how great can it really be if its main product is empty fiction as flat as your new high-definition television or the screen at the local multiplex? How seriously can I take a city whose police, in the aftermath of three turbulent years, occupy their time with jay walkers. If the world’s view of America comes through Los Angeles, how can that possibly be good for our image abroad?

I will give Lange this much: the dialog he crafts for his characters is believable. You can imagine that the men and women who populate his stories are real, that they might be sitting beside you in the diner while you read the morning paper, or in line behind you at the grocery store. I only wish he could have given me an equally compelling reason to believe in his characters, to find myself invested in the denouement, to have a reason to turn each page and learn what comes next.

There is no reason. Then again, maybe that’s Lange’s ultimate point.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 12:30 PM | Permalink

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