Chipping Away: Why the Mental Health of Teenagers is Vital, and the Church Needs to Step Up

My personal mental health problems, namely anxiety and depression, started in my teens, and  I’m not alone in that.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition, and 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24, and 70 percent of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness.

The mental health of teenagers recently caught attention in light of the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, which graphically portrayed the suicide of a high school girl character who turned to self-harm as a result of a poor life at school. A recent study said there were more than 195 more suicides by kids 10-17 than would have been expected in the nine months following the show’s March 2017 release.

Researchers said they can’t prove the show is why the jump occurred, but they argued that the graphic portrayal of the act can be a spur for kids considering suicide.

This is not a piece where I’m determined to level 13 Reasons Why, to say that it’s bad for teen mental health. In fact, another study (note: it was commissioned by Netflix) showed that 58 percent of teen viewers reported talking to their parents about the show and the issues it raised, while 51 percent stated they apologized to someone for how they treated them after watching it. So I’m far from qualified in evaluating the show’s effect on teen mental health — mostly because I haven’t watched it myself.

But 13 Reasons Why has at least done one thing, whether you think it is worth watching or harm’s teen mental health. It’s started the conversation over what’s helpful and what’s harmful. And that is always a good thing, because America’s teens, and teens around the world, need more than what they’re getting, particularly from Christians.

The Precarious State Teenagers Live In

The world has changed a lot from when I was a teenager. The year I turned 18, 2010, was very different. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the top new album, Toy Story 3 the highest grossing movie, and Barack Obama was president. Man, it seems so long ago.

But as a former teenager myself — quite recently, in fact — and through my conversations with teens over the last few years, I’ve lived and heard what it’s been like to be a teenager in the 21st century and to deal with all the pressures that come with that age group.

Teenagers nowadays — and maybe always, to be fair — feel that they are not respected as much as adults and not loved as much as little kids. They feel that they are asked to be adults in many ways, but are not given the same level of respect and the same voice as adults. They go to school, have part-time jobs, take care of siblings and try to have social lives simultaneously. Adults may spend their time on specific things quite differently, but the amount of commitments is similar. 

Many teens fall in one of two categories: living under some level of pressure from their parents’ expectations, or living without one or both birth parents. Both situations cause stress and anxiety from a young age, with other mental illnesses affecting them depending on their circumstances. The 69 percent of children under age 18 living with both parents — a decrease from the 88 percent in 1960, by the way — will often find themselves struggling to meet standards set for them, whether in the classroom or on the sports field. The 23 percent of children living with a single mother — an increase from 8 percent in 1960 — and 4 percent living with just their father are missing a parental figure and thus a significant part of their development (statistics here).

Of course, it’s near impossible to accurately measure how teens many feel high expectations from home and how that affects their lives and academic performance, but there’s enough anecdotal evidence to prove it’s a significant problem, particularly among communities where an ethnic or socioeconomic culture adds pressure

Therein lies another problem facing teenagers and their mental health. Remember how that 13 Reasons Why study said the show helped some talk about the issues presented? The same study stated that 80 percent of adolescent and young-adult viewers said others their age dealt with similar issues to those in the series, and younger teens and teens with higher levels of social anxiety said they felt more comfortable talking about the topics present in 13 Reasons Why with parents, peers and other supportive adults after watching the show.

There’s a stigma wrapped around mental health, particularly depression and anxiety. Unlike some diseases, even mental illnesses, things like depression and anxiety are not bodily visible, but take a lot of work to keep hidden. A lot of teens seem to have not learned how to control their emotions, and that’s not necessarily their fault. They’re learning who they are, and they’ll often learn through experience how to control their emotions. But in a world where looking good, talking good and living good are prized above all else, anything that gets in the way of that is scary for a teenager. They want to be prized by their peers, and anything that makes them stand out or be different for any negative reason — like being sad all the time or coming to school with cuts on their wrists or arms — is something to be hidden.

Adults are no different, really. We all put on faces when we go out in public, desiring for our colleagues and friends to see us as the put-together person we desire to show. Most of the time, we even want to see ourselves that way. In my 26-and-a-half years of life, I’ve rarely met an adult who I could tell was totally and completely themselves the vast majority of the time. I’ve met one, a good friend of mine from college and even he, deep down, struggled with self-confidence from time-to-time.

Teenage-dom is a precarious state. Whether it’s the still-developing brain or the lack of life experiences, life is on a tightrope, a pendulum stuck in the middle, shifted up or down, back or forth, at a moment’s notice.

A Personal Matter

It’s in this environment that mental illness thrives. 

Struggles like anxiety disorders and clinical depression live for this scenario. Anxiety gets activated by the slightest uncertainty, with the mind beginning to race and rumble over the smallest worry. Early experiences with rejection or being left out can add substance to the feeling of depression — “Look what’s happened to me! Can you blame me for being depressed?”

I write this because I’ve been there. This has happened to me. The slightest uncertainty has sent me into a tailspin, wondering about the 50 different outcomes to a particular situation, which one is best, which one is worst, which one is most likely. 

Allow me to be nerdy for a second: It’s like Doctor Strange using the Time Stone to see the potential outcomes of the Avengers’ fight against Thanos, but he gets stuck in the time loop, preventing him from telling Iron Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy that there’s one way to win out of 14 million-plus. A remembrance of a specific time of rejection — either by an eighth-grade girl who didn’t want to dance with me or a place of employment going “another direction” with the opening — can kickstart a half-hour of unbreakable sadness.

Most people can shrug off those perfectly normal scenarios. But those of us with severe anxiety and depression try to avoid them like the plague because we know what they do to us. They cripple us. They lead us down a path we don’t want to go down, and most of the time we can’t help it or get out of it.

Last night — just under 12 hours before writing the first draft of this essay — I thought of rejection from multiple job interviews and another scenario where rejection was hurtful and got depressed, unable to have a good conversation with my wife and ultimately descending into an anxious state. I didn’t know how to get out of it because, no matter how hard you try, sometimes it’s impossible. And don’t tell me to “stop trying so hard.” I’ve done that too.

This is both a biological and sociological issue. We live in a society where mental health has either been put on the back burner, to be “talked about later,” or not discussed at all. And nowhere has this become more obvious than in schools, where America’s teens spend anywhere between 35-50 hours a week, depending on extracurricular activities.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the ratio of students per school psychologist was estimated to be 1,381:1 in the 2014-2015. That’s higher than the recommended ratio of 1,000:1 in general and 500-700:1 “when more comprehensive and preventive services are being provided.” Hiring personnel for public schools has become an increasingly significant political discussion, with legislation for funding such positions often reliant on the increasingly divisive political process. While I’m not going to take a political position on this — I recognize that state governments do not have a bottomless treasure chest full of money to spend on every needed thing — this shortage opens students to a significant portion of their week when they are either underserved or not served at all in the mental health arena. 

This is not necessarily the fault of the schools or the states that fund them. I simply believe this is a sign that we haven’t taken students’ mental health seriously enough. I think that’s changing, as more and more groups advocate for increasing mental health services for students and increased funding for related positions in schools. 

To take it seriously, we’ve got to start by listening to personal stories and see how mental health services can actually help people and create safe spaces for conversation and healing.

And the church is one of the best places to do that.

The Body of Christ as a Safe Space

You might think that a church youth group would be better than your average high school classroom. The kids are mostly, if not all, Christians, kind to one another, finding a home in the Lord’s house on Sunday and/or Wednesday nights.

While my youth group was fantastic, I brought my depression and anxiety into the room with me every time. That made common youth group experiences, like lock-ins and summer camp, a haven for anxiety-inducing moments and triggers for depression. Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t know that’s what I was dealing with. 

Writing on why young people with anxiety and depression often don’t go to church, child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Steve Grcevich states, “To appreciate the struggles that teens might experience in attending worship services, participating in youth group, serving in outreach activities or going on mission trips, we need to recognize how attributes of mental conditions common to this population cause difficulty functioning in the environments where ministry takes place. We also need to see how the interaction of those attributes with common elements of church culture — our expectations for how people should act when we gather together — creates real barriers to church involvement for teens with mental illness.”

Dr. Grcevich lists seven reasons why it’s tougher for teens with mental health conditions to connect: stigma around mental health, social anxiety in certain situations, struggle with self-control, sensory processing issues, weak social communication skills, social isolation and even past experiences with church. 

I relate to those, but more in my college days with the student ministry I was involved in. I felt like social isolation was sometimes my only recourse for my straggling mind. For the crazy thoughts I had that didn’t make sense to me, so of course they wouldn’t make sense to others. For not feeling comfortable around girls because I still worried about how I’d be perceived by them. For not wanting to let others know I was doubting my faith because I felt I’d likely lose my position of leadership within the group and, even scarier, my place in the group as a whole. For not wanting to go out and share the gospel with people because making new friends, or at least acquainting myself with new people voluntarily, made me shiver in my boots.

It was in this environment that I did not find the body of Christ to be a safe space. I’m not totally blaming them. Christianity has historically lagged behind the “secular culture” in wrestling properly with problems, so why would mental health be any different? I’ve seen it on the bookshelves in stores recently, where new books claim to examine the Bible afresh with its diversity in thought and seeming contradictions, something “secular culture” has been doing for years.

It is vital, especially for the sake of our teenagers, both in and outside the church, that we become a safe space for those struggling with mental health issues. In the same way we seek to accommodate the elderly with wheelchairs and 12-year-old who broke his leg climbing a tree, we need to accommodate those struggling with mental injuries of any kind.

In today’s culture, some in the political sphere, or people leaning one way on the spectrum, mock the idea of “safe spaces” on college campuses or other places. These students need to deal with reality, they say, and accommodations for their little fears and worries is babying and coddling. 

Jesus babies us. Jesus coddles us. He meets us where we are, and while He does ask a lot of us, He’s willing to be the one who loves us as we are. We should be the same with those who are struggling with mental illness, inside the church and out.

Creating a Haven

How do we get there? Always the biggest question to ask when you’re suggesting a major shift in thinking, or working to consider something different. 

We have to be like Jesus. That seems to be the end goal, the operative framework. But what does that look like in helping teens with mental health issues in the church?

Welcome them in, warts and all. One of the most popular paintings of Jesus — or what white Christian America deemed as Jesus — is the Savior sitting with a group of children, one on His lap, another sitting nearby. Jesus is either teaching with an arm outstretched or has his hand on a child’s head in a gentle, fatherly manner. The paintings are probably inspired by the Savior’s words in Matthew 19:14 — “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

Having that attitude with teens with a mental illness — and all teens for that matter, but that’s for another time — is vital. It’s an attitude of not stopping someone because of any nerve they might get on or annoyance they bring or difficulty they have. It’s about welcoming them in and loving them the way Jesus did. They have enough difficulties on their own. Far be it from us in the church to give them another one by rejecting them.

Learn about mental health from professional sources. Paul’s method of ministry was remarkable: “I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19). The original Greek word’s root, doloó, means to “bring into bondage, become a servant.” Paul said, “Hey, I’m going to turn myself into a slave to everyone, so I can preach the gospel to them.” He dedicated himself to being like others so he could relate to them.

The best example of this, to me at least, is when Paul preaches to the Areopagus in Athens, the center of Greek thought and academic discourse in the city. As Matthew Henry states in his commentary, “One discourse of this kind we had before to the rude idolaters of Lystra that deified the apostles (Acts 14:15); this recored here is to the more polite and refined idolaters at Athens, and an admirable discourse it is, and every way suited to his auditory and the design he had upon them.” 

Paul even went so far as to quote the Greek philosopher Epimenides and poet Aratus in v. 28 — “For ‘in him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” Both of those lines were attributed to Zeus in Greek literature, but Paul, being an educated man and dedicated to reaching people for Jesus, used that writing to make a point that God really is not that far away, and that the gods the Greeks worshipped were false.

We don’t need to have master’s degrees in psychology, social work or counseling to be able to love and counsel teens who have mental illnesses. We simply need to look to Paul’s example. It is good for those working with high schoolers and other youth to learn more about any relevant mental health disorders — anxiety and depression are a good start — so that we can better understand them. Find reliable sources, both Christian and “secular.”

Open the conversation, publicly. I don’t know the split, but the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Bible seem to be half in private conversations and half in public messages. There’s the notable Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. There’s the Upper Room Discourse in John 13-17.

I’m going to make a plug here that, when we speak about mental health to teens, we don’t limit the conversation or the scope to one-on-one interactions. The teens may feel more comfortable sharing their own stories and their own struggles in that smaller environment, but speaking about it in an open forum like youth group will help put them at ease that it’s OK for them to struggle and be a part of the group.

This extends to talking about it on Sundays in front of everybody as well. It is my firm belief that we won’t make significant progress on mental health in the church unless pastors begin making mental health a topic of Sunday sermons, or addressing it in the context of other messages. The church thing to do — at least it was for me growing up, and I’m sure it still happens — is to talk about the sermon during Sunday lunch. In today’s small group culture, the message is often the point of conversation during those weekly meetings. By having an open message on the topic on Sundays, we further the church’s awareness of the topic and stifle the stigma so often associated with mental health.

Chipping Away

I’ve worked with and around youth for years now, and having been a teenager myself pretty recently, I think I’ve got a decent idea about how they work.

There’s something they value a lot: commitment and consistency. I know because I failed at it myself.

I worked with a youth group at my old church for a couple years, helping out the youth pastor who was one of my best friends. He was a groomsman in my wedding and I was in his. 

He and his wife were about to move to South Carolina for him to attend seminary, so he announced he would be leaving the church at the end of the upcoming summer. It was a devastating conversation. The high schools seniors who had him as their youth pastor all four years were destroyed. One of them, who usually didn’t show a lot of extreme emotion, began to cry. 

Soon after that, my wife and I, who had just gotten married, left to go to another church. We didn’t really say much about it. 

When we’ve returned to that church on occasion, the bond that we had with them has felt strained, if not cut off entirely. High school kids are a lot more intuitive and smart than we often give them credit for. They know when things are going on, and they have feelings about those things. But like most people, they have to know you’re there for the long haul before they let you in. 

The relationship my friend had with them was so strong because he was committed. He went to their sporting events and music recitals. He went to their high school graduations. He would have them over to his apartment to hang out. He’d play video games online with them regularly. He was committed.

If you’re going to interact with youth at all and try to make a Christ-like impact — especially kids dealing with mental health disorders — you’ve got to be committed. You’ve got to show them, prove to them, that you’re going to be there for the long haul. You’ve got to, in a sense, chip away at the hard exterior to get to what’s underneath.

It takes time and effort. But that’s what Jesus did for you, right? It may have been one swing and He was in, or maybe He took little pokes until the shell cracked and He was in your life for good. He was able to do that because He lasted three years on earth, underwent every temptation known to man, and made it through all that without sin. Then He died the most horrendous death, in my mind, humanity has come up with.

The message of this piece is pretty simple: Be like Jesus when it comes to dealing with teens and their mental health, particularly in a church setting. Start chipping.

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BARS at the Movies: ‘Heroin(e)’

Photo courtesy of Bluefield Daily Telegraph

Psychologists, doctors and more have spent years and years studying addiction: the condition where someone can’t live without something so much that it drives them over the edge sometimes.

Of course, that’s a rough, brief, basic definition of addiction. It’s much more complex, and takes different forms. But one of the most common in America right now is addiction to opioids.

I just watched the Netflix documentary “Heroin(e),” which follows three people regularly doing life-saving work in the small town of Huntington, West Virginia.

In Huntington, the drug overdose rate is 10 times the national average and at least five people every day overdose and are treated by first responders. The film, which runs around 40 minutes, follows Fire Chief Jan Rader, county judge Patricia Keller, who runs the drug court, and Necia Freeman of Brown Bag Ministry, which delivers food to women who turn to prostitution to support their addictions. They are the title “heroines.”

I won’t do a deep dive into the documentary and the filmmaking itself, but want to cover a couple takeaways I had and what it means for Christians.

People Who Save

There are a lot of people at a lot of nonprofits and organizations and churches across the country that help others, selflessly and sacrificially. And all of them deserve recognition for their work. But “Heroin(e)” stands out because of its heroes.

Rader, who in the course of the film becomes Huntington’s first female fire chief, is not a desk jockey chief. She routinely goes out on overdose calls, even once interrupting a television interview because, as becomes routine, there’s an overdose to go to. She helps apply naloxone, a drug designed to help people recover quickly from overdoses, and develops close relationships with addicts who are progressing and growing in sobriety.

Keller’s drug court is an opportunity for addicts who are caught with illegal substances to have a different interaction with the judicial system. One former addict who graduates from the program says Keller is the first “public official” he’s ever befriended, something he never expected. She’s tough, not taking crap from anyone and even sending people to jail for short times if the situation calls for it. But she displays a compassion for those she’s overseeing that’s refreshing and Christ-like.

Freeman is a Christian whose ministry includes handing out gospel tracts to prostitutes. She does the work that Jesus did. The film shows Freeman interacting with the lowest in society and offering more than just spiritual things: food, hygiene products, assistance in finding recovery options for these women. She’s not judgmental or over-spiritual: she’s a helping hand who loves people enough to go to the shady parts of Huntington and be a friend.

They’re people who save lives. It’s in different ways, but they’re people who have seen a problem and are doing something about it. Them being the focus of the documentary was a crucial part of its development, according to director Elaine McMillion Sheldon.

“Heroin(e) examines an epidemic that many communities are struggling with, so for this topic to have captured the attention of the Academy means so much to us, as filmmakers, and to those on the front lines,” Sheldon told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph after the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. As native West Virginians living in the midst of this public health crisis, we believe the stories of these three tenacious and resilient women are what this country needs — a message of hope and survival to show us a way forward.”

The Addictiveness of Addiction

About midway through the film, Freeman is speaking about one of the people she helped, a girl named Hope. Freeman said she asked Hope why people get hooked on heroin.

“She said, ‘The only way I know to explain it to you is that getting high on heroin is what it would be like for you to kiss Jesus.’ She said, ‘That’s how powerful it is.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s probably pretty daggone powerful.'”

It was a powerful analogy. For a Christian, that could ring strong.

I’ve been working on a series for the newspaper where I work about opioids and opioid addiction, so this topic is fresh on my mind.

Opioid addiction starts when someone begins taking opioids, usually prescription pain killers, to deal with pain from surgery or an injury or even cancer. When the pills are taken, the brain begins creating receptors, which take in the opioids. It creates pain relief, which is what they’re supposed to be doing, and sometimes a sense of euphoria.

However, the receptors created are like hungry dogs. One treat isn’t enough. So even when the pain is healed, the opioids have created an addiction inside the brain that needs to be filled, and the withdrawal is horrendous. So people will do whatever it takes to find something to fill that gap. If they can’t get prescription pills, they just might turn to heroin, which is stronger (three times stronger than morphine) and more deadly.

It becomes a neurological change that needs treatment and sobriety to fix. And “Heroin(e)” captures that well: showing interviews with some recovering addicts who speak about how bad their situation was, that they would overdose or turn to prostitution to feed their addiction.

We Need These Films

One thing we can learn about the life of Jesus is that He was not ignorant of people’s issues. Whether it was poverty, sickness, adultery, premarital cohabitation, theology, government policy, church giving, He knew what was happening and offered a lending hand.

Christians watching “Heroin(e)” may or may not resonate with Freeman. Her faith being a central part of her ministry is admirable and it’s what we as Christians should aspire to. But she doesn’t go around sharing the gospel with everybody the first time, or trying to convince them to leave prostitution. It’s about handing out food and hygiene supplies, asking how people are doing, helping them to recovery clinics and homeless shelters. She’s an embodiment of what Jesus was.

I strongly recommend this documentary for a couple reasons: 1) to learn more about how the opioid epidemic can affect one town and 2) to see what real heroism, real Christ-driven heroism, looks like.

Judge Keller and Fire Chief Rader are admirable people as well. They may not profess Christ in their work — they may be Christians, I don’t know — but their attitudes and actions should be appreciated and reflected as well.

We the church need to be aware of this addiction, this issue, so we can be a place for help and aid. And I think “Heroin(e)” is a good place to start.

“Demon in a Bottle”: Tony Stark and Finding a New Route

I recently read my first full comic book arc: “Demon in a Bottle,” an Iron Man series of stories from from 1979.

First of all, I love the medium of comic books. I don’t know if I can exactly articulate why right now, but I just like them. Secondly, I loved the backbone of the story.

Tony Stark/Iron Man is in the midst of a ton of crap. His personal life is a shambles and the government is trying to take over his company Stark International. As he swigs some booze and ponders his troubles, the plane he’s in is cut in half by a flying tank.

Natural, right? Only in a comic book, and a 2000s-era Die Hard movie. I’m looking at you, Live Free or Die Hard.

I won’t dive too much into the story arc because it’s really worth a read, and I don’t want to spoil it. If you like the Avengers movies, you’ll like this because heroes like James Rhodes (aka War Machine), Scott Lang as Ant-Man and Captain America play significant supporting roles, and the villain Justin Hammer, seen in Iron Man 2, is also involved.

But what Stark deals with, and the arc’s author and illustrator intentionally explored, is the crux of the story, and worth our examination.

Multiple times, struck by his troubles and out of options, Stark turns to the bottle as his only salvation. He feels that he has no other choice, that pursuing drink is what will calm his nerves and help him face what’s ahead of him.

But in reality, it falls short. There’s a couple times where he has a little bit to drink and then dons the Iron Man suit, leading to predictable negative consequences. It causes more problems than it solves. It takes a while for him to realize that, but once he does, that’s when he changes.

How often in our lives do we look to things to soothe the pain? 

We’re no different than Tony Stark. We may not get drunk or harm people due to our addictions, but we’re really no different. Maybe we get a pint of ice cream and stuff it down to distract us. Maybe we look to sex to relax us and help us calm down. Maybe we seek attention and popularity to encourage us and boost our ego a bit.

None of those things — food, sex, attention — are bad in and of themselves. In fact, they can be used to help us rest and relax, recuperate and encourage us. Sometimes it’s nice to just get an ice cold cup of water to get us level. Sometimes spending time with our spouse in an intimate way can re-center us. And sometimes hanging out with friends can give us the love and encouragement we’ve been seeking.

It’s ultimately how we use those things that’s the issue. The things themselves are not to blame.

Tony’s butler Jarvis (the inspiration for the J.A.R.V.I.S. AI in the movies) and girlfriend Bethany Cabe try to drive home the point that he has to fix whatever else is going on, handle the problems that have come his way in his business and his personal life. It starts with handling his addiction to alcohol. It’s an arduous process in the comic. He shakes, shudders, experiences withdrawal symptoms. 

But what’s most crucial, and what Bethany encourages Tony to do, is facing your issues head-on. Talk through what’s going on. Express yourself, be vulnerable. 

If you’ve seen the Iron Man movies, they create a pretty accurate depiction of Tony Stark in this comic arc. He’s arrogant, self-centered and a playboy, while still retaining a sense of fighting for the good and justice. But he’s not a vulnerable guy, and it’s his inability to be vulnerable that leads him to another outlet.

It’s when he’s real with himself and his friends that he finds relief, and when he stops grabbing the bottle.

There’s a climactic scene near the end that’s just as melodramatic as you’d expect. Something in Tony’s business goes horribly wrong, and all the work he had done to shake the addictive nature of his alcoholism is close to getting undone. Jarvis and Bethany are begging him to say no. And he does.

It’s a choice. It’s a day-by-day battle.

Addiction is difficult, and it’s more common than you might think. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Survey on Drug Use and Health:

  • 16.1 million people in America suffered from alcoholism in 2011.
  • Over 800,000 people reported a cocaine addiction in 2011.
  • The number of people receiving treatment for addiction to painkillers and sedatives has doubled since 2002.
  • In 2010, around 13 million people reported abusing methamphetamines in their life and approximately 350,000 were regular users.

Addiction takes time and effort. For the body of Christ, it’s imperative that we see addiction as a physical and mental health condition that can’t just be solved by praying it away. It requires real support and encouragement and accountability. For people stuck in addiction, there is hope and there is help. 

With any sin, we need to start with the root cause. Why do we feel the need to seek the addictive thing? Where does that desire come from? Whether or not we beat the addiction in our lifetimes, figuring out the root is a helpful, healing action step. 

We don’t pledge allegiance to a religion, but to a Savior.

Do we ever think about what it means to “pledge allegiance” to something?

I admit that when I say the Pledge of Allegiance at certain events, I don’t really think too much about the words I’m saying. I just go through the motions.

If we can step back and not take it too seriously for a moment, let’s examine the first phrase — “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States.” I know there’s more to it than that, and I don’t want you to take this as me being unpatriotic. 

Why are we pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth? Doesn’t that seem a bit silly? You don’t see me pledging allegiance to the towel that dries me off after a shower, or to the pants that cover my legs when I go to work.

I know the rest of the pledge says the allegiance is to the “Republic for which (the flag) stands,” so it’s not really that silly. It’s a representation of the nation and the group of people, and when we pledge allegiance to the flag, we’re really pledging allegiance to America. Fun fact: we didn’t have an official pledge of allegiance until 1942, so we spent 166 years as a nation without an official pledge. I kinda like that idea.

Did you know there’s also a pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Bible?

My point is not to write a treatise on whether or not we should even have those — I could get on a bad rabbit trail there — but to examine the very idea of allegiance. Did you know that there’s not an official Pledge of Allegiance to Jesus?

If we have a pledge of allegiance to our country, our faith and our book, why shouldn’t we promise fealty to our Savior?

Apollos, Paul or Peter? 

The idea of “allegiance,” to my knowledge, isn’t discussed much in the Bible. After all, the New Testament followers of Jesus were under the rule of the Roman Empire and didn’t have much choice in the matter. 

But we do see 1 Corinthians 1, where Paul discusses divisions in the church at Corinth. Now, this is a church where there’s TONS of divisions and difficulties and problems, but the first one he chooses to address is who people pledge their allegiance to. Verses 10-12 say:

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’”

Reportedly, the people in Corinth were associating themselves by what teacher or important leader they aligned themselves with. Paul, of course, was the writer of a ton of important letters. Apollos was a powerful preacher. Cephas/Peter was a disciple of Jesus. Christ was, well, Christ. Each had some claim to allegiance or listeners. But as Paul emphasizes in v. 13, only one is worth following: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” 

Paul wasn’t the one who died on the cross. Paul wasn’t the Son of God. He was simply, as he states in v. 17, sent “to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” 

Jesus was the One. He was the One they were to pledge allegiance to. The Greek of v. 12 literally says that they were saying they were “of Paul” and “of Apollos” and so on. Just like Paul being a man “of Tarsus.” It’s who you’re associated, who you belong to.

No, Paul says. We don’t belong to a man. We belong to Jesus.

Where Do You Go to Church?

I’ve heard in a couple Christian comedy routines or other places that, in the south, after someone asks you their name, they ask you where you go to church. While I must say I’ve never had that exact conversation, it seems to be possible.

We often take great pride in where we go to church. As a journalist that covers small-town politics and government in North Carolina, I will often hear or read elected officials proclaiming that they’ve been a member of such-and-such church for this many years. The same information shows up in obituaries and bios of speakers at big events.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Churches can be amazing things that point people to Jesus.

We can often be loud in proclaiming that we are a Christian. Politicians do it all the stinkin’ time, saying that they’re a “Christian first, conservative second and Republican third.” There’s even some Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination that have begun to spoke about their faith. I remember having some conversations in high school and college where I would say, with some internal pride, that I was a Christian.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. We should not be ashamed of being saved by the Savior.

We’ll often list the preachers we listen to and the authors that we read. We have our favorite authors and favorite musicians, and whenever they release a new project, we’re buying it as soon as possible. 

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. We have learned from those men and women and can point others to them for learning, encouragement and help in growth.

Pride in our church or religion or favorite pastors and authors becomes a bad thing when that’s how we primarily identify ourselves. It becomes a bad thing when we’re not willing to admit or see flaws in those things. It becomes a bad thing when those things take precedent over our true allegiance: Jesus.

Defending the Hope

Apologetics and I have had an interesting relationship. I feel that I’m an intellectual guy, but far too often, apologetics can be an aggressive and hostile approach. 

I know plenty of people that enjoy apologetics and do it well and aren’t aggressive and hostile. They’re people that have a passion for Jesus and want others to know Him, and they’re awesome. We need more of them.

One of the primary base verses for apologetics comes in 1 Peter 3. Peter is writing about those who would think ill of Christians, who might even want to harm them. He writes, in verses 14-15:

“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

The Greek for “make a defense” is “apologian,” the root of which is “apologia.” The literal translation is “from intelligent reasoning” (“apó” + “lógos) (https://biblehub.com/greek/627.htm). Peter instructs his readers to use intelligent reasoning for the purpose of something. But what is that?

A reason for the hope in them. They were not called to defend their faith as an institution. They were not called to defend their particular church. They were not called to defend their favorite pastor. 

I think the same principle, the same wisdom, the same logic, applies to us.

If our institution, church or pastor are being misunderstood, then sure, we can and probably should defend them. But the outworking of this is that we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that those things — Christianity as a social institution, our church, our pastor — have been, are and will be wrong at times. Why? We’re not ultimately aligned with them. We’re ultimately aligned with Jesus. He is the reason we have hope, not our faith as a societal construct, our church or our pastor.

Jesus deserves our allegiance, more than our country, our pastor, our books, our church, our institutions, etc. Committing to those other things is not inherently bad, and those things can be and have been incredibly helpful in helping us see Jesus.

But if they takes precedence over our allegiance to Jesus, it becomes bad. Jesus is worthy of our allegiance. After all, He’s our Savior. What other reason do you need?

We Need to Rethink How We Talk about LGBTQ

We journalists like studies. They help us put stories and topics in context.

So a study released in 2018 exploring the association between importance of religion and suicide ideation is obviously going to interest me.

If you’ve followed my writing for any length of time, or you’re a friend of mine, you know that religion and mental health are two of my favorite topics. So of course, I wanted to learn about this study. Unfortunately, it’s $4 to access, but thankfully there was a news article about it from Reuters titled “Religious faith linked to suicidal behavior in LGBQ adults.”

If you’ve followed news somewhat closely, you’ve got to be aware of the stories of LGBTQ individuals, teens in particular, that take their own lives with motivations strongly related to their sexuality. According to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides mental health support to LGBTQ youth, gay/lesbian teens “seriously contemplate suicide” nearly three times more than straight youth and are five times as likely to attempt suicide.

So this study, reported in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, can’t be that surprising. Analyzing data from the multiple surveys on mental health of college students, the numbers were startling. While 3.7 percent of heterosexual young adults reported recent thoughts of suicide, the numbers increased for those questioning their sexuality (16.4 percent), living bisexual (11.4 percent) or identifying as gay or lesbian (6.5 percent). 

The numbers jump when it comes to attempting suicide: 5 percent for heterosexual youth, 20 percent for bisexual, 17 percent for questioning and 14 percent for gay or lesbian. 

The heartbreaking statistic came here:

“For bisexual youth, the importance of religion was not associated with suicidal behavior, while religiosity was protective against thoughts of suicide and suicidal attempts in the heterosexual youth. But lesbians and gays who reported that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts. For lesbians only, religion was associated with a 52 percent increased likelihood of suicidal thinking.

Questioning individuals were almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide recently if they reported that religion was very important to them.”

One of the study’s authors, John R. Blosnich of West Virginia’s Injury Control Research Center, told the Huffington Post that studies for years have said considering religion important has limited the number of people considering suicide. But this study, as well as other surveys and data, indicates that things are different when it comes to sexual minorities.

So what do we do?

What Role Did the Church Play?

Before we get going: this is not an evaluation of whether or not homosexuality is a sin. That’s not the point of this piece. 

Anyway, most scientists of any stripe — social, physical, organic, chemistry, etc. — will tell you that correlation does not equal causation, and I agree. But this study begs a question:

Has the Christian church played a role in this?

The HuffPo article says, accurately, that “some of America’s largest religious denominations still hold non-affirming views of queer sexuality,” including the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church *(see note at the bottom of this article)*. HuffPo quotes Amelia Markham, described as a “queer Christian activist” with The Reformation Project, an LBTQ-affirming Christian group, saying more needs to be done in helping Christians have “a more nuanced view of queer sexuality.”

“There are some serious questions we have to begin asking ourselves if maintaining one interpretation of our sacred text is demonstrably linked to bodily harm and spiritual devastation for an entire group of people,” Markham said. “That is something I hope religious folks across the board would begin to think and pray more critically through.”

Markham’s call is serious, and based on the numbers, I think it would be dishonest if the Christian church, particularly the evangelical wing, didn’t ask itself if it played a role in these numbers, these realities. 

Again, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did in this case. I’ve lived my whole life in a church culture that severely stigmatizes LGBTQ people, intentionally or not. The Christian evangelical community for many years has said flat-out that homosexuality is a sin, with some churches creating little to no space for LGBTQ people in churches, sometimes to negative consequences.

Countless stories have been told of teens or youth that have come out to their families and been rejected, sometimes kicked out. I listened to a podcast recently featuring Trey Pearson, former lead singer of the Christian band Everyday Sunday, who said he experienced severe trauma and pain due to fighting his sexual feelings for years because of his church upbringing. Countless Christian authors and speakers, including Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker, were more or less banished from evangelical circles due to their belief that homosexuality is not a sin.

Very often, evangelical Christians defend their actions and beliefs with the statement that they’re just sticking to the Bible, defending God’s Word and loving people to tell them they’re sinners. “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” they say. And while I’m sure there are many that are properly loving their LGBTQ family and friends and reflecting Christ in doing it, there are many LGBTQ people who have left the church and left God at least in part due to how they were treated by so-called Christians.

What Did Jesus Do?

Again, this is not a conversation about the sinfulness or non-sinfulness of homosexuality. This is a conversation about the effect the church’s position and attitude and approach to same-sex attraction and homosexuality has had on real people and real lives.

The culture hasn’t always done well with it, first of all. In 1998, gay college student Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming, an event that became a lynchpin for hate crimes due to looming suspicion the attack was motivated by Shepard’s sexuality. In 2010, 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate recorded Clementi’s intimate encounter with another male. 

These events have caused a societal push for LGBTQ acceptance and understanding and further discussion about mental health and suicide. That’s all awesome, in my opinion. And while some Christian congregations are actively addressing these issues in the right way, it’s my opinion that the church at large is falling behind on both counts.

How often are Christian blog posts written about helping people that identify as LGBTQ that doesn’t involve telling them they’re sinful? How often are sermons given where we’re encouraged to learn from and understand our gay and lesbian neighbors, friends and family members? I’m sure those things happen, but not enough. We’re often more concerned with being “right” than being “a good neighbor.”

What did Paul do, and what did Jesus do, more importantly? The people that were considered outside the “religious crowd,” how did he handle them?

He loved them. And no, I’m not talking about loving people by “telling them the truth.” Yes, that is a form of love, but anything LGBTQ person that’s been around an evangelical Christian has more likely than not already received that kind of love. 

What Jesus did is eat. Matthew 9:10-13 —

“And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

Eating was a very intimate thing to do in those times. You’d sit at a table and take your shoes off, recline and spend time. There were no cell phones, no menus, no TVs nearby. Just the food and the people. 

Jesus ate with people labeled “sinners,” both in this passage and other times. In this particular passage, both Matthew and the Pharisees refer to Jesus’ dinner guests as “sinners.” Everyone at the time sinned, so the distinction made here is about identity. These people were identified by their sin — not their profession, not their father or family, but their sin. They were outcasts, pariahs, weirdos. But Jesus loved them the same.

In the current evangelical Christian culture, members of the LGBTQ community are among today’s “sinners.” They’re outcasts, pariahs, weirdos, different. Far too often, the church today is known for shunning those “sinners” instead of eating with them, loving them, appreciating them as people created in the image of God.

The Concept Falls Short

This is where “hate the sin, love the sinner” falls short on so many levels. I get the concept: love the people, hate what they do. But in practice, it fails far too often.

What happens when someone drinks too much alcohol? We may say, “Hey, he/she is drunk.” That person becomes defined by their actions. We do it with so many things: profession, interests, religion, etc. 

Members of the LGBTQ community often take pride in their sexuality and make that a primary identifier, something the evangelical church picks up on. Because the “sin” begins to identify the “sinner” in our minds, they become interchangeable, and we begin to hate the sinner. 

Most of this happens subconsciously and unintentionally, I believe, but we begin to treat people the way the biblical culture treated “sinners,” making them outsiders and pariahs. We spend more time trying to change them than love them. 

And then we go in on how bad the LGBTQ culture is. It’s all about how they need to change and how the “militant gay agenda” is ruining America and allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with is dangerous for our children. Again, not everyone is like that, but it’s said way too often.

First of all, imagine if Christians had been treated like members of the LGBTQ community have been treated over most of the last 40-50 years. Wouldn’t we be frustrated with the persecution? For a long time, sexual orientation and gender identity weren’t protected classes in discrimination laws. Imagine if religion was in the same place.

Second, to group the entire LGBTQ community, as some do, with the “militant gay agenda” is dishonest. Most, I believe, just want to live their lives and be treated fairly. To see extremists who call themselves “born again” compare LGBTQ people to the Ku Klux Klan would make anybody mad.

It’s insulting. It’s humiliating. It’s discriminatory. No wonder they don’t like us.

But some of them like Jesus. I wonder why. 

Maybe it was because He never spoke about the “militant pantheistic agenda” of the Roman Empire. Maybe it was because He hung out with the pariahs. He listened, loved and taught. He was condemning of the religious people, those who were gleeful in telling people why they were wrong. He encouraged all to repent while turning water to wine and five loaves and two fish into an overwhelming feast.

As Jesus said in Matthew 9, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” His ultimate desire was for people to love one another. Yes, His message was one of repentance and of turning from sin, but how did He go about His ministry? Where do we see His efforts? In the good news of salvation, in the dying on the cross for our sins to be forgiven. “Follow me,” he told the disciples, “and I will make you fishers of men.” He says to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” He started with mercy and love and following Him. 

Maybe we should try to look more like him. Be listeners. Ask questions. Learn. Sympathize. Be compassionate. Treat people the way you would wish to be treated. 

That’s the Golden Rule, right?

I’ll end with a quote from a guy named Jeff Johnston with Focus on the Family. He wrote an incredibly powerful and helpful piece on “9 Ways to Reach Out to a Gay-Identified Friend,” which you should really check out. Here’s a bit:

“Imagine attending a gay pride parade and hearing insults shouted by church people standing on the sidelines. Would you want to follow a God like the one they’re displaying? Or imagine attending church and hearing derogatory language from the pulpit. Would you want to develop relationships with those people?”

– – – – – – – – – 

*Side note: the UMC’s official Book of Doctrine states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” but most, American Methodists affirm LGBTQ individuals in their theology. (https://www.prri.org/spotlight/slim-majority-of-methodists-support-same-sex-marriage/)

BARS at the Cinema: CAPTAIN MARVEL and Changing Your Mind

NOTE: If you have not seen Captain Marvel yet, it might be best for you to avoid this piece. It has significant spoilers for the movie, which is fun and worth a watch.

A movie that’s stuck with me for a long time is Come Sunday, a Netflix film about preacher Carlton Pearson. I wrote about it here.

I referenced it the other day in conversation with a film critic about the movie First Reformed. In both movies, a preacher who’s done things the same way for a long time is challenged with a negative truth and is forced, either by rational thinking or a spiritual experience, to change what they believe.

In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke’s Rev. Ernst Toller is shaken by the suicide of a congregant’s husband. The man loses hope in the world, despite having a wife and a child on the way, due to growing climate change and impending environmental disaster. Toller pastors a small, traditional church that receives support from a megachurch led by Cedric the Entertainer’s Rev. Jeffers. Toller and Jeffers butt heads over how much the church should do about environmental change.

In Come Sunday, based on a true story, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Pearson sees a news report about the 1994 mass genocide in Rwanda and has what he deems to be a spiritual epiphany: there is no hell as commonly defined by the church. This puts him in direct conflict with the stated theology of his denomination’s elders and his spiritual mentor, Martin Sheen’s Oral Roberts.

Both of these films explore what happens when someone learns something new and it changes their world. Both also have a significant Christian/religious bent to them, which is probably why I like them.

But another movie, Captain Marvel, explores a similar theme, and while it doesn’t do it as well as Come Sunday or First Reformed, it makes you think about what it’s like to learn something new.

I won’t give the customary plot summary here because this part of the movie (SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!) comes in the second act.

Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel learns that the Kree race she has dedicated her life to — thanks to a plane crash, some brain-washing and super science — have misled her on the threat of the Skrulls, and that her people are the real villains. It shakes her world. All the while, she’s dealing with the fact that while she thinks she’s always been a Kree, she was actually an Earth-dwelling human for most of her life.

The movie does a half-decent job of exploring how these major shifts in thinking affect Carol. I think the filmmakers could have done more, but the theme is at least introduced, and I think it has a lot to tell us about living the Christian life.

The Bible is chock full of people who lived their entire lives thinking one thing and then changed in the blink of an eye when they got new information.

The disciples were just fishermen, doing their thing, when Jesus comes up and radically shifts their worldview and their profession. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew in Matthew 4:19.

Saul was a Jew of Jews, zealous, imprisoning and killing Christians, when Jesus stopped him on the road to Damascus and changed his life. Eventually, his name was changed too, to Paul. He went from killing Christians to trying to recruit people to be Christians.

That’s a significant shift. We don’t know exactly how long it took Paul, Peter and Andrew to make that change in their minds. The Bible presents them as just changing their lives almost immediately. We do see that all of them have to take some time to adjust — Paul learns from the apostles for a time, and the disciples clearly didn’t get it for a long time.

When we become Christians, we make a similar shift, a similar change. We go from death to life, from condemned to saved. We learn a lot more about ourselves and who we were and who we are going to become.

Just like Carol Danvers, Carlton Pearson and Ernst Toller, our allegiances shift and we begin fighting and living life for a new purpose. That can be hard. Some of our friends and family will resist that change, wondering why in the world we’re investing in this new thing, thinking we’re losing our minds. Your brain has to create new ways of thinking due to this shift.

Clearly, this is a film trope that’s been around for a long time, but it’s a reflection of real life.

I want to end this reflection on Captain Marvel with this encouragement: there’s a good chance that, if you’re reading this, your mind is shifting on something. It’s part of life, and evolution is critical to humanity existing. If we didn’t change our thought processes and create telephones, vaccines, automobiles and more, we may not exist, or we’d still be like we were in the 1600s.

I believe your life of faith is the same way. Through reading man’s reflections on God and God’s words themselves in the Bible, we can learn wisdom and grow as Christians. By praying and seeking input and conversation with other Christians, we can change for the better to more reflect who Jesus is and what He wants for us.

But like Carol, Ernst and Carlton, we need to be open to it. I’m not writing this to pass judgment on their changes. But they set a good example for us to be open to being wrong and changing to reflect the reality around us.

Changing your mind isn’t an inherently bad thing. Sometimes, it can make the difference between following yourself and following Jesus. Give it a shot sometime.

The Death of Nuance: Max Baer, Hollywood, Modern America and the Church

One of my favorite books is Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History. It follows the lives of boxers James J. Braddock and Max Baer leading up to their 1935 heavyweight title bout, which Braddock won in upset fashion.

Braddock, a New Jersey native, was one of the best light heavyweight boxers in the world, but lost a title fight against Tommy Loughran in 1929. He was emotionally shattered by the loss, and his right hand, his strongest hand, was similarly fractured. Whereas before he was a strong, well-liked contender, his next 33 fights led to a record of 11-20-2.

Then the Great Depression hit. His financial stability shattered, he quit boxing and worked as a longshoreman. Working on the docks loading freight strengthened his left hand, and his right hand slowly healed.

Given a chance to get back in the ring in 1934, he knocked out up-and-coming heavyweight John “Corn” Griffin. After two more victories, he earned — maybe undeservedly, to be honest — a shot at the heavyweight title, held by Baer.

Baer was born in Nebraska, but was known more for his hometown of Livermore, California. He gained an interest in boxing and became a pro in 1929, working his way through the local circuits. But in August 1930, in a match against Frankie Campbell, Baer landed a couple punches that led to Campbell’s brain being knocked completely loose from his skull. Campbell died from the injuries. Two years later, another boxer named Ernie Schaaf died five months after a fight with Baer, and he was tagged once again with being a killer in the ring, although whether or not Baer was directly responsible for Schaaf’s passing is debatable.

Although he struggled a bit after the Schaaf fight, Baer eventually gained enough confidence and won enough fights to race to the heavyweight title. He upset former world champion Max Schmeling in June 1933, enhancing his already popular reputation as a ladies’ man, favorite of the press and strong puncher. Twelve months later, he took the heavyweight title from Primo Carnera, knocking the Italian champion down 11 times during the fight.

The 2005 film Cinderella Man chronicles Braddock’s story more than Baer’s, but it’s important for me to share both of their stories in this piece. Because while I enjoy the movie, there’s a tactic it takes to Baer’s story that is not just symptomatic of Hollywood but America in general and Christianity in particular, and it’s harmful.

Hollywood’s Penchant for Simplification

We know that movies and TV shows are best digested and easily processed when it’s simple. It’s good versus evil, clean versus dirty, the good guy versus the bad guy.

Cinderella Man takes that approach in Braddock versus Baer. Baer is painted as a playboy who doesn’t give a flying flip that he killed someone and actually revels in it. In the clip below, you see Baer and Braddock meeting prior to their fight, and Baer takes the opportunity to showcase his flippancy and attitude.

But Schaap’s book, history rather than entertainment piece, paints a different picture. After Baer punched out Frankie Campbell, Baer fretted over Campbell until the latter was pronounced dead the next day. Baer even turned himself into police being charged with manslaughter. He was eventually acquitted.

In the ensuing years, Baer would have many sleepless nights over the incident. He donated purses from several fights to Frankie Campbell’s widow. Baer’s son Max Jr. told The New York Daily News this after Cinderella Man’s release:

My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell. He had nightmares. He helped put Frankie’s children through college…They distorted his character. They didn’t have to make him an ogre to make Jimmy Braddock a hero.

Obviously, Hollywood as a whole or screenwriters and directors as individuals have the right to put on screen more or less what they want. The film never claims to be an exact re-telling of the story, just “inspired by” the real thing.

I’m not writing this to be critical of Hollywood and movies in general. There are many movies and TV shows that have made us laugh, cry and be inspired in our own right. But this brings me to my second point.

America’s Bent Towards Sensationalism and Laziness

An often-talked about point in America today is the “biased media.” News networks like CNN and Fox News and newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are accused of taking a side on issues, and that affects the way we receive the news they’re sharing with us.

I’m someone who’s felt that way, particularly about Fox News, I’ll be honest with you. But once again, these entities are well within their rights to have slants if they wish. What’s wrong, and what actually harms America at the same time, is a bias of a different kind, and it’s explained well by Jon Stewart in this clip of an interview on Fox News. It starts at 4:28 and ends around the 6-minute mark.

It’s one of the most real and most true things I’ve ever heard about America.

It’s not necessarily that we have an opinion on things that’s bad, but we as America, and maybe we as humans, tend more towards the most flashy way to read and understand something, and it’s probably because of laziness. Trying to dig in and understand people and situations and events takes time, so it’s better (for both our wallets and watches) to just simplify it as much as we can.

Next time you watch the news, think about this. How much nuance is explored? How much is dedicated towards trying to really understand both sides, not just presenting them?

In Cinderella Man, it’s not much. Of course we see all of what Braddock is dealing with, but Baer is simplified to a thuggish, un-caring brute who doesn’t seem to care that he killed people. The reality of the situation is much more complex. To be fair, if director Ron Howard and screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman were to take the time to properly explore both men as Schaap’s book did, the movie would probably be 3 hours long.

I’d sit through that, especially because Paul Giamatti is amazing as Braddock’s manager Joe Gould.

The reality that the Cinderella Man creative team probably came to, and understandably so, is that people don’t really feel the need to know and understand. They need a hero to root for and a villain to root against. But when you take that approach in a situation that involves real people, someone is misinterpreted, misunderstood and/or misrepresented, thus Max Jr.’s complaints about the film.

Knowing the real story, his frustration is quite understandable, isn’t it?

Martin Luther and “On Jews and Their Lies”

Unfortunately, in the church, I’ve seen many Christians take the same approach.

For instance, did you know Martin Luther hated Jews? You won’t hear about it very often. If you do, it’s probably in a context like this:

There’s enough equivocating and “well, there’s this and that” to try to make a defense for someone these people idolize. These men try to make the argument that in On the Jews and Their Lies in particular, Luther was just speaking out against the religion.

But the reality is a little darker. Here’s some quotes:

  • “Did I not tell you earlier that a Jew is such a noble, precious jewel that God and all the angels dance when he farts?”
  • “Set fire to their synagogues or schools and bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn…”
  • “I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb…”
  • “…all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…”
  • “I brief, dear princes and lords, those of you who have Jews under your rule if my counsel does not please your, find better advice, so that you and we all can be rid of the unbearable, devilish burden of the Jews…”

Hardly sounds like what those men in that video are talking about. Would Jesus be OK with that? Yes, he spoke often about what Jews to become believers and Christians. But he also said and wrote those things listed above.

But do we hear about it? No. And those who know of Luther’s virulent, violent and despicable language about a whole segment of people are thus confused when we make him our hero. In a short book about Luther, prominent evangelical pastor John Piper does nothing to wrestle with this reality. We often hear more about Luther’s defiant 95 Theses and his stand against the Catholic Church.

As explained in this article from the Religion News Service, however, Luther’s words were used to prop up the Nazi movement in Germany. German Christians supported the Nazis because of their harsh opposition to Jews, backed up by Luther’s writing.

Now, of course, Luther probably didn’t expect his writing to lead to the mass killing and human rights atrocities that his writings led to in the 1930s and 40s. But can you say it’s ridiculous for the Nazis to either a) read his writings and take their inspiration partly from him or b) see them as a piece of propaganda to boost their cause?

Tell me how often you’ve heard this explored when Luther is spoken about.

Nuance Is Right in Front of Us, If We Look

Luther’s past is just one example of a lack of nuance in Christianity. Here’s some other things I’ve heard:

  • Someone in deep addiction is just a sinner that needs to pray more.
  • Democrats are baby-killers.
  • People who think same-sex marriage is OK with God don’t believe in the Bible.

While there may be nuggets of truth in some of those statements, the reality is far more nuanced than we might want to admit. Let me examine each of those.

Addicts are sinners that need to pray more. Did you know that addiction can often be hereditary and genetic? Did you know that some addicts are believers who pray all the time for their addiction to go away?

To classify all addicts as sinners who need more time on their knees praying is a gross generalization that fails to take into account all the extenuating circumstances, human flaws and mistakes that are made in those situations. Maybe the alcohol addict didn’t know about his family history because his parents hid it well. Maybe the opioid addict was simply trying to get over some pain from surgery and got sucked in. These nuances don’t excuse behavior, but simply try to deal with them on a more real level.

Democrats are baby-killers. The Pew Research Center says 75 percent of Democrats think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That’s not 100 percent. That’s just 75 percent.

According to this article from Politico, there are three current Democratic U.S. Senators and three House Democrats that are endorsed by a group called “Democrats for Life.” Their website has a report on it that implores the Democratic Party as a whole to “be the big tent party” on this issue and “stop pressuring pro-life Democrats to change their position and stop discouraging them from running for office if they don’t.”

People who think same-sax marriage is OK don’t believe the Bible. While that might be true in some cases, not everyone is that way. On the website of the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that strongly supports pro-LGBTQ causes, former pastor Jimmy Creech writes that saying the Bible says homosexuality is forbidden by God is “poor biblical scholarship and a cultural bias read into the Bible.” Creech explains the Bible’s background of patriarchal culture and writes that “lesbian, gay and bisexual people (are) a part of God’s wondrous creation, created to be just who they are, and completely loved and treasured by God.”

While I believe homosexuality is sin, and some of Creech’s argument is logically flawed, his position is far from abandoning of the Bible. It’s misreading Scripture, of course — Romans 1 is clear on the sinfulness of same-sex relations — but I believe it’s an honest effort to try to love people the way God loves them.

Let’s Be Real About Nuance

Let’s go back to Martin Luther for a minute. The Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church has a statement on its website on the Lutheran Reformation about Luther’s messy past in regards to Jews.

The page, like the men we heard from earlier, deny the idea that Luther is an “anti-Semite.” He is not against Jews because they are ethnically Jews, but religiously Jewish. The Synod put together a resolution that included statements like these (italics mine):

  • “We reaffirm the bases of our doctrine and practice and the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions and not Luther…”
  • “…on the one hand, we are deeply indebted to Luther for his rediscovery and enunciation of the Gospel, on the other hand, we deplore and disassociate ourselves from Luther’s negative statements about the Jewish people…”
  • “Resolved, that we avoid the recurring pitfall of recrimination (as illustrated by the remarks of Luther and many of the early church fathers) against those who do not respond positively to our evangelistic efforts…”

The Synod’s resolution looks at the whole picture. It recognizes Luther’s contributions to the Christian faith and appreciation of the Gospel while also accepting that he was a flawed man that, at least for a time, held some dangerous and destructive views about another religion.

That’s how we need to approach things. We don’t need to whitewash over the bad parts or sensationalize the bad parts. We don’t need to only prop up the good parts of our arguments and ignore the good parts of our opponents’ arguments.

In America, we tend towards, like Jon Stewart said, sensationalism and laziness. Let’s be better. In the church in particular, we need to be better. We need to take the time to understand the reality and not try to simplify things. It takes time and effort. It’s costly. But it’s worth it.

Jesus was fond of going beyond the outward appearance and understanding someone’s situation. Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman at the well, Matthew the tax collector, prostitutes — He was known for being loving, caring and understanding, not letting a simplistic version of someone be how He defined them. He died for them.

Let’s ask ourselves, “WWJD?”

The Emotional Turmoil of A Truly-Held Belief: A Review of Netflix’s ‘Come Sunday’

“I can take that Bible and denounce what I’m teaching.” – Carlton Pearson, NPR

I don’t write a lot of movie reviews, at least not anymore. I used to write a ton. But I’m taking it back up because “Come Sunday,” a new movie on Netflix, challenged me, my heart and my faith in a way only one or two movies ever have.

The story follows Carlton Pearson (played by the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor), a popular evangelical Pentecostal preacher in Tulsa, Alabama. His church, affectionately referred to as “Higher D” by members and staff, is growing and popular. It’s fully integrated, with blacks and whites worshipping together in harmony. Pearson is counseled by Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen, who plays President Bartlett in The West Wing) and supported by his right hand man Henry (Jason Segel from How I Met Your Mother) and wife Gina (Condola Rashad).

But one night while watching a television broadcast about the suffering in the Rwanda genocide of 1994, Pearson hears from God. Hell can’t be real, because why would God let children who’ve never heard of Jesus go to hell? That God would be worse than Hitler, Hussein. He forms what becomes known as the “Gospel of Inclusion” — there is no hell, everyone goes to heaven when they die because Jesus died for all.

The film explores how Pearson responds to this new belief he has, how those around him react and the decline of his church. Come Sunday is based on a “This American Life” episode titled “Heretics,” which you can listen to here. I listened to the episode, and it seems that the filmmakers captured actual events pretty well.

This will not be a traditional film review. That being said, I enjoyed the performances, particularly of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Condola Rashad. It was fun to see Jason Segel in something like this, and Lakeith Stanfield — appearing as Reggie, a worship team member struggling with homosexuality — was great.

I want to dive into a couple of the themes throughout the film and how they affected me as a Christian, a person and someone interested in the culture of religion and the church.

‘The Gospel of Inclusion’

The crux of the film’s story is Pearson’s acceptance of what he later terms the “Gospel of Inclusion.”

He explains it using the Bible. He points to verses like 1 John 2:1-2, which say, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Based on the text of that Scripture, he says, how does the blood of Jesus not cover everyone’s sins? Who are we to say that the blood is not that powerful? 

I think it’d be easy for us to just write off this theology as obviously flawed. There are so many biblical passages that preach the need for repentance and belief in God — the film particularly cites Romans 10:9 — that contradict Pearson’s view. Even the original Greek of 1 John 2:2 states that “the whole world” referred to Gentiles, or anyone besides Jews. It means the forgiveness of the Gospel is available to all, not just freely given to all without repentance.

But can we for a minute try to understand where Pearson is coming from? It’s obviously a more appealing message, for one thing, and from our human understanding, it seems to be more reflective of the God we worship. Why would a good God send people to hell, goes the common question.

But for us to solely focus on the “goodness” of God in His grace and mercy is to leave out his passion for justice and righteousness. He will not let sin go unpunished, unless it’s taken on by Jesus on the cross. Then it is still punished in the form of Christ’s death.

I sympathized tremendously with Pearson and his search for understanding God. He just missed one of the biggest parts.

The Interior Turmoil

Pearson wrestled with this change in his theology. He said he heard from God directly that what he had believed all his life was in error, and that he needed to change.

In the evangelical Pentecostal vein of Christianity Pearson operated, hellfire and brimstone were as common as speaking in tongues and shouts of “Hallelujah” during worship time. The acknowledgement of sin of any kind would be replied to with, “It’s gonna send you to hell.” In his interactions with Reggie, who’s told his hero Pearson about his struggle, the pastor says he can’t “save” Reggie until he gives up his homosexual leanings.

It’s in this background that Pearson’s change of heart is explored, and it’s tough for him. He knows that he’s bucking years and years of church tradition and what he’s believed. He’s concerned about people leaving his church. He’s worried about how it will be taken. But it’s his new heartfelt belief that everyone goes to heaven, and he can’t ignore the strong conviction in his heart.

If we are unable to sympathize with Pearson, even while disagreeing with him, we are lacking. He just wants to love people, and based on what he believes God told him, this is how he can love people. There’s a couple times he almost changes his mind because of how those around him react, but he sticks to what he believes.

As Christians, we are called to love those around us with what we believe to be truth, just like Pearson. We might face backlash for our stances and what we believe, but it’s our call to stick with what God has revealed to us in Scripture.

The External Backlash

The climactic scene of the film is Pearson’s appearance before a council of charismatic bishops who are deciding whether or not to allow him to continue as one of their members. Pearson speaks passionately, even directing some words straight to the chairman of the group. I won’t spoil the scene because it’s powerful and you need to watch it on your own.

But he’s in a room full of people who are ready to crucify him. And that’s after months of criticism — to his face, on television, at the grocery store to his wife, everywhere. He loses the blessing of his mentor Roberts, the support of his ministry partner Henry and the large majority of his congregation.

How many of us Christians have lost friends and seen family abandon us based on what we believe? I hope no believer who sees the film is able to watch that and not feel sympathy. Just because we don’t agree with the reason for his change in belief doesn’t mean we can’t feel for Pearson.

It’s heartbreaking, honestly, and Pearson takes it hard.

Church culture usually doesn’t take too kindly to people who rock the boat. I understand the need for correction for incorrect theology, but the way we often go about it is displayed near-perfectly in Come Sunday. There are some in the film, particularly Henry, who do approach Pearson the right way, the biblical way. But for the most part, people speak about Pearson in a harsh, negative, unloving manner.

And that’s not what God would have wanted.

Summing Up

I don’t believe God would have wanted Pearson’s change of heart either. But I understand where he’s coming from.

And that’s what makes Come Sunday a compelling watch. Agree with him or not, Pearson and his quest for what he believes is truth is incredibly relatable, and I think it would be good viewing for all believers. Not just as a movie, but as a learning experience.

Married to a New Master

I hate movies where a romantic commitment is violated.

For example, The Wedding Planner. It stars Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lopez in your typical romcom. It’s a perfectly fine romcom except McConaughey’s character starts pursuing Lopez’s character while he’s engaged to someone else. It takes McConaughey’s character to get to his wedding day before he confesses to his fiancée.

I know there are tons of movies like this. The man/woman who leaves someone else is excused because the existing relationship is bad and it’s “true love” they’re seeking after. It’s just not right.

Not that I’m perfect in this area. I can think of a couple times in my life where I accidentally (maybe?) led a girl on and wasn’t forthcoming with her. Perhaps it’s my experience in the pain of that which makes me abhor movies that glorify that.

It’s painful to someone when you’re committed to them and then you abandon them for someone else. However, in the grand scheme of our walks with Christ, there’s a situation where not only is that OK, but it’s desirable, joyful and freeing.

Romans 7:4-6 says —

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

There’s a switch in spouses here that’s beautiful. The prior few verses talk about how a woman is adulterous if she is with another man while her husband is still alive, but if her husband dies, she is not adulterous if she marries another man.

It’s the same way when we come to Christ. Prior to our salvation, we were married to the law, committed to following its ways. Because of that, we would always fall short because we can’t meet the strict requirements of the law.

But when we were saved, we were released from that commitment and to a new commitment to Jesus, to God, to grace. It’s a marriage to a new master, and it’s a healthy, vibrant and live-saving one.

So in this case, ditching a relationship as quick as you can for a new one is perfectly OK. In fact, if you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to do it as soon as possible.

You Can’t Blame Hef for Where America Is Now

Author’s Note: Discussion of sex that follows may be frank or a little uncomfortable for some. Rated PG-13.

I woke up this morning to find on my Facebook feed a video obituary from CNN of the life of Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy.

He passed away Wednesday at the age of 91. He was, as The New York Times‘ obituary put it, inseparable from the brand he popularized:

Both advertised themselves as emblems of the sexual revolution, an escape from American priggishness and wider social intolerance. Both were derided over the years — as vulgar, as adolescent, as exploitative, and finally as anachronistic. But Mr. Hefner was a stunning success from his emergence in the early 1950s. His timing was perfect.

His timing was perfect because the timing of sin is always perfect.

Hefner, like every other man in history, was a sinner, just as I am. But he made a fortune, a living and a fame off of sexual sin.

Many in the church lament the place sexual sin has in our culture now. It indeed is mainstream, and we are all affected by it in one way or the other, with countless people addicted to pornography and affairs happening left and right among the rich and famous, splashed on our TV screens everyday.

But we can’t blame Hefner for this. We can’t blame one man’s personal choices and business decisions for the sin nature we already possessed. As Russell Moore so eloquently put it on Twitter this morning:

Sin and Satan created the idea that sex should be freely accessible and open outside the confines of marriage. Sin and Satan created the idea that women are to be sexual objects for man’s pleasure. Hef simply exploited it.

You can’t really blame him. He simply picked up on something man was already prone to when he published the first issue of Playboy in 1953.

Thankfully, there is a rescue from a life of sin. That rescue is called grace, and that rescuer is called Jesus. He may not heal us completely of our sinful nature, but He’ll heal us from the consequences of that sinful nature. Praise the Lord for that.

I hope and pray that, in his later days, Hef found the Jesus of the Bible as I and many others have found Him. I’d love to chat with him in heaven about what he learned about the culture of sex and humanity.