The Importance of Silence


released-photo-credit-kerry-brownSilence is Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of the very famous book by Japanese author, Shusaku Endo. The book (and movie) deal with a period in Japan’s history when Jesuit missionaries from Portugal had been expelled or martyred. In the 17th century Japan was ruled piecemeal by hundreds of daimyos or feudal warlords. As power became consolodated under a central rule (soon to be a powerful Tokugawa shogunate) the influence of Christianity became increasingly seen as both foreign to Japan’s culture but also suspected of having a conflict of interest in commerce with Japan.

The story primarily deals with two Portuguese priests (Rodrigues and Garppe) who secretly travel to Japan to locate a priest (Ferreira), rumored to have denounced his faith. Endo, who was Catholic, wrote this semi-historical account using the backdrop of intense persecution Christians faced as local authorities saw Christianity as a threat to their traditions. The effort to eradicate the religion’s influence led to the formation of pockets of what came to be known as “hidden Christians” (kakure krishitan), many in the Nagasaki and Kyoto regions. The genesis of the book began in the 1950’s when Endo saw a fumi-e (fumee-eh) in a Nagasaki museum exhibit. Fumi-e was a Christian picture made out of brass that was placed on the ground for these captured hidden Christians to step on as a way to renounce their faith in Christ. As Endo saw the worn image of Christ he imagined the intense pressure countless amount of Christians must have experienced as they were forced to renounce their faith by trampling on the brass object saddled in the ground.

The film itself is stunningly beautiful yet jarring to the soul. For instance, much of the soundtrack in the film is ambient noise which served to create a kind of dissonance. Scorsese has done a masterful job in creating a film version that is very faithful to Endo’s book while visually  capturing the emphasis on simplicity and beauty, hallmarks of Japanese culture, yet disturbing in the best way possible. I found myself mesmerized by the story and while it unfolds slowly I was riveted the entire 160 minute time frame. My strongest suggestion is that you actually see it with friends then plan time afterwards to discuss themes and how you experienced the movie.

The importance of the movie goes far beyond a simple historical recounting of Christian persecution. Simon Chan in his book, Spiritual Theology, notes that the gospel is universal in the sense that it connects with every culture at every point in history. If that’s the case, Chan suggests we should expect to encounter ways of thinking about the God of the Bible and living/growing in our faith that are more in tune with an Asian rather than a western way of thinking. In fact, if the gospel is the inversion of many values we in the west hold dear, the best way to describe Silence is inversion. It takes our western categorical way of thinking and inserts a mysterious component where God deconstructs us by inverting the very things we think are precious and beautiful. It embraces a journey of sanctification where questions must be “unpacked” with others to get at the meaning under the surface as we journey together.

As I have thought about it over the years, one of the great purposes of art is to point us to that which is truly good, true, and beautiful (what the Ancients called, The Transcdentals). It does this through an aesthetic that draws us in along with others (art is meant to be shared with others) leading to conversation. That seems consistent with how philosophers think about one of the hallmarks of what true beauty does to us – we want to share it with others.  It gets us out of ourselves and our own little world to share with others something essential to real life as God has created it. The importance of a movie like Silence is not how many Christians want their religious movies today – a wholesome movie with some moral lesson that is neat and clean and arrived at as the story resolves neatly. Actually, Silence, in rattling our soul with jarring beauty, wakes us up out of our sleepwalk and comfort, what Søren Kierkegaard called, “gentleness” or being passively “nice”. Instead, it surgically implants questions about our own hearts that keep us honest with God, with others, and with ourselves.

Why is this necessary? Because one of our greatest temptations is to remove ambiguity from the Christian life, focusing solely on celebrating, expecting God to act in clear ways for those who are “good”, or wanting a consumeristic kind of faith that uses religion and God to receive some goods. Without the experience of silence, darkness, questions, and often times doubt, we are at risk of losing the depth of grace found solely in the gospel while becoming people filled with anger or despair. What the movie does so well is underscore grace in the midst of absence, not grace as some sort of cliched answer to absence. We remember the words of our Lord spoken to Paul in his weakness and desperation, “My grace is sufficient for your power is brought to an end in the midst of your weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9). We must resist the temptation to want to get to celebration too quickly skipping over or repressing the profundity of absence.

In this way, Silence is maybe more Christian than most “Christian” movies today. My friend, Sean, remarked to me afterwards, that the movie was more evangelical than the vast majority of movies released under the Christian banner and I wholeheartedly agree. If you are one of those people who is still keeping score, Martin Scorsese, who became infamous for his Last Temptation of Christ, has been on his own spiritual journey so it would be prudent to reconsider any grudge. The R rating is for the graphic portrayal of how Japanese Christians were systematically tortured for their faith so bringing children is not wise. For those interested, I will be posting some further thoughts on themes found in the movie, but I also have heard there will be discussion questions on Fuller Seminary’s site Culture Care, their collaboration with Mako Fujimura.

Waiting in Silence


img_0087The music was blasting the other day in my car, as I listened to Tom Petty’s tenor nasally voice tinged with a Southern drawl…

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

As we celebrate Advent, what we often forget is the time period in-between the Hebrew Scriptures and the coming of Messiah was 400 years. This is called the intertestamental period (“in-between the testaments”) where prophetic words from God ceased, leading some to call it, “the silent years”. It has as its beginning Israel in bondage to Persia leading to release, occupation of the land by the Greeks and then the Romans. Four hundred years of waiting in silence from Yahweh.

One of the more interesting facts about this period is this is when the Pharisees added oral tradition to their written Scriptures (called the Talmud). This should serve to remind us that silence has the ability to create a deep religious insecurity where one leans on the rules (or makes up rules) to bring clarity to one’s religious devotion. So what does it mean to love God and neighbor? If God won’t spell it out, we will.

When we observe Advent it’s important that we shed the niceties and overly romantic notions of Christmas. We put ourselves in the shoes of those Jews who were waiting for Messiah to come even when God had been silent. God’s speaking then into human history with the advent of the living Word was abrupt. It was sudden and unexpected yet gently sublime.

With Christ’s first advent (“arrival” or “coming”), we declare like Simeon in the Jerusalem temple:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
   which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)

The idea of Advent prior to Christmas is to prepare our hearts in waiting… waiting for Messiah to come. While we all know how the story turns out in Bethlehem we don’t want to get to the birth too fast! We want to share in what Simeon must have felt to see God’s salvation after years of silence! Likewise, we enter into the silence of the story again and again, saying in our hearts, ‘Lord, will you rescue your people?” While waiting for anything feels like torture, its full effects are intended to confront our safety, self-sufficiency, and our false expectations about God and life.

In 1966, Japanese author, Shusako Endo wrote Silence, probably his personal best bringing to life the evangelization of feudal Japan by Portuguese Catholics. One theme of the book is the silence of God contrasted with the brutal persecution of small hidden cloisters of Christians as the country unified under one national leader rather than hundreds of competing feudal lords. Mako Fujimura writes,

[Endo’s] books unveil a vital link between trauma, hiddenness, and beauty of faith in the ambiguity and relativism – two features of postmodernism and Japanese culture. 1

In the end, when is it that God speaks loudly in His majesty and glory? It is in the silence of Advent as we await our Savior who arrived in a way that no one really noticed or went looking for. He didn’t come in grandeur and power. Nor did He come in divine wrath. He came in relative obscurity, a “silent” night, marked by the beauty, grace and simplicity of a Savior born for us. He shouts to us in the silence we experience because He was born to suffer and die so that in what seems like silence we would always know He is with us, Immanuel.

The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is In The Manger).

1 Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty, p.78-79.

Is it Possible for Someone Who Doesn’t Believe in Jesus to Follow Him?


book-krattenmaker-jesusI consider Tom a friend but actually we’ve never met in person. Our paths “crossed” when I was a college pastor in Orange County, California. He had written an interesting article on evangelical Millennials serving the needs of the world and I had just taken a college group from our church to help New Orleans rebuild post-Katrina. That began an email and Facebook friendship and we have stayed in contact here and there albeit at a distance. I’ve read his two previous books, so before Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower was released, I told Tom I would read it and offer my thoughts. My confession is I’m one of those evangelical pastors.

The book fits with Tom’s view of the world – someone who is secular and a skeptic of any religious faith of his own but the kind of bridgebuilder the Christian community should embrace. Rather than disparaging evangelicals, Tom is known for locating common ground emphasizing what shines brightly about modern day Christianity contrasted with how it’s often publicly portrayed. In many ways, Tom’s book digs a bit deeper into the question of, “Can a person be good without God?”.

The chapters move seamlessly through the ethics of Jesus and why he thinks Jesus’ take is still revolutionary yet grounded in a reality that many people dismiss far too quickly. Adroitly moving through topics like inclusion, narcissism, consumerism, dissatisfaction, criminal justice, racism, forgiveness, and sex, Tom writes to convince his readers that what Jesus taught two thousand years ago is not confined to some sectarian religious fundamentalism. In fact, my sense in reading the book is that Tom is arguing for his stance not only on the basis of pragmatics (it works and it makes sense) but also on the basis of moral realism.

The title itself is fascinating as if he had Augustine in mind. His confessions are interspersed through the chapters as someone who is being honest with his readers and with himself. How a person who holds to a secular view of life follows Jesus in how to live life is filled with wonderful tension and Tom communicates this well. I would recommend Tom’s book to evangelicals solely on the basis of breaking down the barriers with those who are typically “excluded” (to use Miroslav Volf’s language) from our faith community. We can sit at the table with others even with charitable disagreements to focus on creating dialogue and even working together for common causes. If you don’t think there are common causes, you had better read the book (and your Bible).

Now to what I think is challenging. Let me state it in the most charitable way possible. As much as I found myself emphatically saying, “Yes” over and over as I was reading the book, there is one piece that seems problematic to me. It seems difficult in my thinking to separate Jesus’ ethics from his person. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, wrote in his book Making Sense of God, “What is surprising is not only that [Jesus’] claims were so self-centered but also that his character and his actions were so completely un-self-centered.” (p.236).

Tom’s book covers well the un-self-centered character of Jesus that as an ethic lived out seems consistent with reality and adds to a personal sense of flourishing. But it’s the “self-centered” claims that don’t bear as much weight in Tom’s mind. In other words, the ethics of Jesus are taken literally but the claims about himself are treated with more liberty. This splitting of Jesus seems problematic to me because it raises questions about the unity of the total person, in this case Jesus. It’s hard to accept Jesus’ ethics at face value without treating as serious the personal claims he made about himself, leaving him only in the category of “model”.

I absolutely think the book is well worth your time reading and it will give you plenty to think about and discuss with your friends. Despite my question, I loved reading the book so much so that Tom and I can continue this conversation in our own WTF (you have to read the book) over a good beer if we meet one day. This is one of the great values of the book – as we find ourselves living during a time in history where people converse by shouting at and over each other (my tribe included) Tom’s book is just the opposite. It forces us in humility to drop the pretensions, not push away from the table and simply mock the “other side”, choosing instead to have a conversation. In doing so my hope is that it helps us to forge friendships with people holding diverse views with mutual respect. Bravo Tom!

How to Disagree With Others


does-disagreement-prove-there-are-no-moral-truths“I fell in love with Jesus and his church because of the way Christians could stand, weep, walk, and be gracious with me.” 1

We have all noticed how in the the past few years, the tone of conversation has changed. On social media, it’s as if people now sense the permission to state and post anything that describes how they feel. Frankly, the past few months I’ve taken a break from blogging because I wanted to scrutinize my own motives for writing but also because I’ve been shocked and disappointed with the level of discourse.

Miroslav Volf does an excellent job in his book, Exclusion and Embrace, summarizing the various ways we exclude others, some overt and some more subtle. In short, the ways we exclude others through social media posts that are less than charitable, verbal rants that denounce others declaring that our side is right, are actually power plays (you gotta love how Nietzsche is still relevant today). Power is used to demonize a certain group of people who “don’t get it” and prop up one’s sense of self-esteem. This is actually a heart issue that is rooted in either pride or fear with very little to do with truth.

How we disagree with others as followers of Christ is critical. It not only is the way forward, preserving unity but it also demonstrates to those watching us that we can actually listen and dialogue in a peaceable way. As a pastor, rather than use the Bible to undergird individual points let me simply offer the command found in Romans 12:18 – “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (notice it’s toward everyone and not just your own tribe). Just consider for a moment those disciples living under Roman rule and you’ll begin to see how counterintuitive this seems. Let me offer a few thoughts as I have struggled through this at times as someone who feels this need to be right:

Listen. Rather than entering into a conversation that seems like a ping pong game – back and forth from point to counterpoint – intentionally be quick to listen to someone else and not speak. You might not understand or agree what they believe and the deep feelings they have, but try. Elisabeth Elliot once said, “Never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth closed.”2 That’s good advice when people are full of fear or even anger. Listening to others and their objections provides this window that can lead to understanding. I don’t know what it’s like to experience fear that some Muslims are feeling now but I want to listen.

Look for points of agreement. Nothing says that you are being heard more than having someone affirm, “Oh, I get it.” The key is this… just because we agree with certain parts doesn’t mean we agree with the whole! A simple example is the Apostle Paul at Mars Hill where he affirmed that his audience was very religious. This is true when studying philosophy, ethics, theology, and the list goes on. We look for ways to establish relational bridges. Then at points where we disagree we have some relational capital built up.

Don’t use bad arguments. I’ve heard Tim Keller say that if we are going to bring up counter-arguments that we understand the opposing position maybe even better than the people holding them. This will keep us away from bad arguments (ad hominem, straw man, name calling, red herring, etc) and help us get to the root issue. For instance, when I have a discussion with those who disagree with me about cohabitation, I want them to get to the core issues of why couples slide into it rather than telling them, “You know the Bible says…”

Don’t use loaded words that label people. This is for another blog post but let me give you a “for instance”. Honestly, I think the word racism is overused to the point where it shuts down the conversation. To call someone a racist not only deviates from the clear meaning it used to have but it often has the opposite effect of closing people off.3 People might have deeply held prejudicial beliefs or even unknown prejudicial beliefs but to label someone as a racist in most instances is not helpful to discussion. As my friend Josh Reasoner said recently, “let’s not push away from the table” by categorizing people in ways that condemn them as the “other”.

Treat people with charity. This is charity or love as commitment to friendship with another with their best interest in mind. When we disagree we want to think about how we can keep the conversation going and not just shut it down trying to be right. We want to be patient with people, treating them as we would want to be treated, even if it feels like you are on different pages. Insecure people have a hard time loving people because they need to be right to bolster their sense of self. When we treat people with charity we actually are willing to admit that we don’t have to “win” to preserve future friendship and dialogue.

Contrary to what others say, it is the gospel that gives us the power to embrace Truth in humility. If God initiated with you through Christ in the state that you were in, then there is no sense in which you are afforded the opportunity to look down on someone else. We not only have a confidence that comes through our unwavering acceptance through Christ as He is the Way, Truth and the Life. But we also have a humility to embrace others since the gospel reminds that we were once poor but have become spiritually rich in Him.


1 Rosaria Butterfield, former tenured professor of English at Syracuse University, author of Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ, on what surprised her the most about Christians when she actually became one.

2 Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity, p.63

3 See the Vox article by German Lopez, “Research Says There Are Ways to Reduce Racial Bias. Calling People Racist Isn’t One of Them.”.

Questioning Discipleship


question-mark-1236555There is absolutely nothing in what Jesus Himself or His early followers taught that suggests you can decide just to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense and have nothing more to do with Him.” 1

Over the years I’ve read quite a bit of literature on making disciples. Coming from a parachurch background, we were intent on making disciples even if our approach needed to be broadened a bit. I remember sitting in the living room of Walt Henrichsen, a former Navigator staff member who wrote the classic Disciples Are Made Not Born, discussing theology and how it played out in making disciples as well as personally growing in my own commitment to follow Christ. Along with Leroy Eims’ The Lost Art of Making Disciples and Robert Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism, I was convinced early on of the necessity to make Christ-followers and not just converts.

Taking a cue from Randy Newman’s wonderful book on evangelism, Questioning Evangelism, where he explores the rabbinic method of asking questions in evangelism let me make a similar application to discipleship. Jesus asked people tons of questions, about one hundred in all. Here are some examples as I’ve paraphrased some of them:

  • Can you worry and add anything to your life? If you’re so concerned about things out of your control, why are so anxious?  (Matt. 6:27, Luke 12:26)
  • Why are so afraid? (Matt 8:26)
  • Do you really believe that I can do this? (Matt. 9:28)
  • Why are you filled with doubt? (Matt. 14:31)
  • What is it that you don’t understand? (Matt. 16:8, Mark 17:17-18, John 8:43)
  • Who do really think I am? (Matt. 16:13)
  • Why are you asking me what’s truly good? (Matt.19:16)
  • What is it that you want me to do for you? (Matt:20:32, John 1:38)
  • Why are you so stuck on the things in your heart? (Mark 2:8)
  • Why are people so concerned with the big and flashy? (Mark 8:12)
  • What are you bickering about? (Mark 9:33)
  • Where is your trusting belief? (Luke  8:25)
  • What is in my Word? What does it say and how do you read it? (Luke 10:26)
  • If you’re so caught up in worldly wealth, how can you be trusted with something much greater? (Luke 16:11)
  • Why are you asleep? (Luke 22:46)
  • Do you want to be well? (John 5:6)
  • Does my teaching on the picture of the Eucharist as union with me this shock you? (John 6:61)
  • Do you want to leave me? Where would you go? (John 6:67)
  • Who condemns you? (John 8:10)
  • Do you realize what I have done for you? (John 13:12)
  • Do you love me? (John 21:16)

Why did Jesus use questions? The use of a well-placed question helps to clarify the heart and mind. In other words, questions get after our cloudy hearts and muddled thinking. What I’m suggesting is making disciples (and being a disciple) is not less than imparting skills or practices but it’s more. It’s actually pointing to Christ in the context of community, listening to Him, allowing Him to “cross” our wills and clarify our hearts and thought process. For instance, some are sleepwalking through the Christian life and should have to deal with some questions like, “Why are you asleep?” or “Who do you really think I am?” Some are so bent on following the rules that questions like “Do you love me?” or “Do you realize what I’ve done for you?” are appropriate. Some with real needs need to hear questions like, “Where is your trusting belief in me?” or “What is it that you really want?”

Making disciples can certainly include programs or classes. However, it seems to me that one of the most effective ways to being a follower (and making followers) of Christ is to let these questions sink into our soul allowing the Holy Spirit’s “counseling” work to settle in (John 14:26). Most people are followers of something or someone – they are disciples even if they are disciples of a late-modern narrative. As Christians we are declaring that we are followers of the Messiah even if it seems countercultural. We let the living Word confront or deconstruct us as we read the Word regularly. In this way we allow the gracious words of Christ to cut against our predisposition to self-sufficiency and comfort in order to follow after Him.

1 Dallas Willard, The Great Omission, p.13

Reviewing The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Taunton

51rELKRwN+L._AC_US160_I normally post my thoughts on books on Goodreads or Amazon but never directly as a blog. Let me strongly encourage you to read Larry Taunton’s new book on his friendship with Christopher Hitchens. Currently, when so many people are simply angry at “the other side”, placing them in isolated containers where you don’t have to relate to them, this is a splendid book on building bridges of friendship while holding to core beliefs. One need not mess with good and precise theological thinking and convictions in order to relate to others whose beliefs (and lives) are diametrically the opposite.
I remember being present at a debate at Biola between Hitchens and William Lane Craig – CH as one of the proclaimed Four Horsemen of a new breed of atheism. I’ve read his books often finding it easy to disagree with them at a distance. What the book exposes is the human side of Hitchens, the part of him that was not open to public view and discourse. As I began to read I found the hardness in my heart melt as I began to understand the complexity of Hitchens as a real person. Any desire in my heart to categorize him and demonize him as someone who was an enemy of Christianity was swept away.
The book doesn’t end on a fairy tale note (much like Darwin’s supposed death bed conversion). There was no clear conversion experience as Hitchens died of esophageal cancer a few years ago. Yet, Taunton provides a window into Hitchens soul where those questions must have been ruminating and the cost of conversion churned as the surety of his death approached. The book not only points out the immense difficulty of dealing with death if God is simply taken out of the equation (as Oscar Wilde pointed out that a map of the world without Utopia is not worth glancing at) but equally the importance of simple friendship across lines that normally divide us. 
Non-fiction books that not only read well but move the heart toward deeper understanding are far and few between. The book was hard to put down and I finished it in a few days. I’m sure that your experience will be very similar!

Give Until it Hurts?


imageA few weeks ago I had a wonderful and stimulating conversation with a co-worker about giving and generosity. For the sake of the discussion he asked, if generosity is a biblical command (1 Timothy 6:8), how much is enough? How much is required to be generous? I suppose that’s what many people are looking for – something to help give clarity to generosity.

The phrase “give until it hurts” was originally spoken by Mother Teresa but instead of speaking about money, she was speaking about giving love to another. Without trying to explain what she meant, the phrase was then used to motivate people to give financially. The exact meaning seemed to be, “Don’t give at a comfortable level but give at a level that is uncomfortable or hurts”.

I understand radically sacrificial giving but I think using this cliche to guide giving is misplaced. In our desire to people give clarity to people’s giving, and for them to give freely, it mostly has the effect of motivating people in the wrong way. Rather than thinking of generosity in terms of it “hurting”, generosity should actually make us more joyful.

Take for example, people you know who are very generous people. While you might not know how much they give, you are aware that they give freely out of the excess of their resources – time, finances, and neighborly help and hospitality. Ask them if their giving feels like it hurts and you will be greeted with a puzzled look. “What are you talking about? Giving until it hurts? Giving is a joyful experience for us!” You don’t see these people wincing when it comes to letting resources flow from their hands to others. Instead, they will rarely see it as sacrifice but rather as a great settled, deep happiness.

In some ways when it comes to generosity we are pretty torn – on one hand we want clarity. We want someone to tell us what percentage or how much. Living under a system like the Israelites did seems to be so clear and cliches seem to provide some level of clarity! On the other hand, we don’t want anyone telling us how much because that sounds like legalism. Either way, we lose out on the great joy that could be presently ours by seeing the tenacious grip on our lives loosened as the gospel takes root in our hearts.