Jesus + Power = Disaster: A Review of The Family on Netflix

Before his fall from grace Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of the late Billy Graham, wrote the book Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything. The sort of “Jesus only” approach that became quite popular in the Evangelical circles and flirted with Lutheranism for a bit with its emphasis on rightly understanding law and gospel seems to be the theological foundation described in the new documentary on Netflix The Family. However, quite opposed to Tullian’s struggle with sin and grace in his book Jesus + Nothing=Everything the foundation of “family” as described in the series has more to do with the late twentieth century evangelicalism that I was immersed in for years. Jesus plus nothing to the American Evangelical movement was far more about the moving past denominationalism into an individualistic encounter with Jesus who became a moral figure and told you how to live and make a better world. This confusion of the person of Christ led brilliantly into the foundation of a society that the documentary exposes as one of the most influential powers in Washington D.C. and even throughout the world. 

Wrestling with the 8th Commandment in the LCMS

Over the last several years, the Eighth Commandment has received a lot of attention in conversations throughout the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. It has become common in the midst of a controversy for one side or the other to cry foul by suggesting that the other party is not arguing fairly because they’ve broken this particular commandment. 

Complain to God

The last thing most adults want to hear are complaints; especially if those same adults also have young children living in their home. Maybe you’ve seen the images like the one above. I think that pretty well sums up how most of us feel about complaints. “Got a problem? Just take your number.” Often we don’t want to hear about the complaints and problems of others because we’ve got complaints and problems of our own to deal with. If we can “man up” and go to work with fake smiles on our faces then everyone else should be able to as well. 

The Bible - Make It a Part of You

“The only Bible you’ve got is the Bible you know.” It was a comment that I had heard repeatedly from one of my mentors and now I was hearing it again. I didn’t mind the repetition, because: 1) I knew that it was true, and 2) I knew that I needed to be constantly reminded of it. “The only Bible you’ve got is the Bible you know.” Quite honestly when I first heard it I fought hard against the assertion. I responded by pointing out the Bible in my hand and said that this was my Bible. At the time I admit that I didn’t know it the way I should, and I certainly didn’t have the whole thing memorized. But, as time went on, and as I began to read my Bible more, the statement rang true: the only Bible you’ve got is the Bible you know. Rather, I should say that, the only Bible you’ve always got with you in a truly intimate sense is the Bible that is a part of you—the Bible that is internalized. That’s not the same as just owning a print Bible. 

Music

My Uncle Lennie died six months ago. He had a profound influence over my life and that was mostly due to music. He introduced me to a world of music that is still with me today. I started listening to the improvisational jam-prog-band Phish when I was ten years old. I saw my first show at sixteen and I saw my latest shows this summer. I’ve only seen them about thirty times (if you know anything about Phish culture that puts me on the low end of the obsessive totals). Among a few lessons, Lennie’s death has shown me that so many of us are indebted to musical legacies, that is, music which is passed down to us from others—often family members. 

Why You Should Share Your Creative Gifts With the World

One afternoon I sat across from a young artist whose backpack was heavy with notebooks filled with writings and drawings. His face lit up as he talked about creating, how he dreamed of one day releasing a book, and maybe even a storefront gallery. There is something beautiful about the dreams of a young artist. But when I asked him how he planned to share his art with the world, the light seemed to leave as fear entered. He explained that while he desperately wanted to share his art, each eager sentence returned to a fear of his art only bringing glory to himself, rather than God. 

The Persecuted Church in America

Since today is the Fourth of July I wanted to write something that acknowledged the American experience. I’m thankful that these tweets came across my radar. And here’s why: we hear a lot of talk about “persecution” with respect to the church in America these days. The more self-aware will recognize that what Christians are facing in America is not on the same level as what Christians face in other parts of the world today. At the same time many of these folks will warn about the coming persecution for Christians in America. They will cite media ignorance or even hostility towards traditional tenets of the faith (marriage and life in particular) as the writing on the wall. Demographic studies confirming these views are commissioned and books are written about how to weather the coming storm. They talk about how unprecedented all of this is in America, that Christians would be persecuted for their faith. And they do so without irony.

Paul

The following is adapted from a funeral homily. The original names have been changed for the sake of privacy.

Baptized in 1989. Died in 2019, far too young, from a disease far too terrible. 

A great kid, raised with love and compassion by the best family one could ask for. He was raised by a loving family, went to a Lutheran school, raised in the church, but none of that guaranteed a life free from addiction. None of them are to blame. None of them failed.

But starting his freshman year, maybe even the summer before, his road took a turn that eventually brought us to today. Paul made choices that would lead to an early grave and a lifetime of grief for those he loved and who loved him. 

The Crisis of Confession

Cardinal Lamberto in The Godfather Part 3 had a moment any pastor who has watched the film might fantasize about. Michael Corleone is aged and reflecting on his past nefarious life as he seeks to make the family business entirely “legitimate.” When he encounters the cardinal for advice he is confronted with the lines from the cleric, “The desire to confess can be overwhelming, and we must seize the moment…would you like to make your confession?” Reluctantly Michael does and breaks down in tears when he confesses to ordering the murder of his own brother Fredo. The absolution is given and the Angelus bell rings three times. It is a powerful scene, but one that rarely ever happens in real life.

A Call to Balanced, Biblical Christianity In the LCMS

We’re all given to extremes these days, wouldn’t you agree? We know this to the point of nausea when it comes to politics. It seems that our tendency toward polarization also extends to our conversations within the church. On that note, perhaps “echo chambers” better describes our reality than conversations—the latter functioning as a narcissistic form of complacency, whereas the former is more apt to foster critical self-reflection.

Nevertheless, it would seem that in the church—or at least in that corner of the church with which I’m most familiar—the LCMS—we’ve lost the ability to have level-headed conversations. As I heard it put recently, “Trust is in short supply these days within our culture and at times even within the church.” This is very true. But we can—and must—do better.

Rest For the Restless

“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2).

Burnout is a serious issue. It is a serious issue in the workers of the church and it is a serious issue throughout the world. Now, this is not going to be a column of advice about how we need to “let go and let God” or something of that nature. In all honesty, everyone experiences burnout differently, everyone responds to burnout differently, and everyone believes to have a perfect solution that does not actually exist apart from salvation in Christ because sin is real and lurking. As St. Paul reminds us, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21). Instead, this is written as a reminder that we are called to bear the burdens of our sisters and brothers, yet we are not taking seriously the daunting nature of this task.

The Odyssey of Theodicy

If God exists—and if He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good—why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?

That’s a fair question and it is one that has caused no small amount of consternation for people throughout the centuries. The logic of that question goes like this: if God is all powerful, then the existence of pain and suffering must mean that He is not good, or if God is good, then the existence of pain and suffering must mean that God just isn’t powerful enough to deal with it. But either way you slice it, God cannot be all powerful and good because of the existence of pain and suffering. That seeming paradox sits at the heart of most atheists’ refusal to believe in God. It has led some people to renounce their faith in God altogether. It tends to be the question that many Christians shy away from and that other Christians think has an easy answer—that easy answer being “sin.”

Ministry to the Marginalized, Part II

In the first post I did on this topic I said that the marginalized are humans who have “become marginalized because it benefits structures of power and it benefits the people who stand to gain the most from protecting those structures.” I also said, “It is not really the business of the church to overthrow those structures, but it is the business of the church to enter into the places of the marginalized and serve them as if they were the ones holding the power.” Ministry to the marginalized, in my brief treatment of this topic, needs two things: a recognition of the reality of the marginalized, that is their existence; and that the church is called to serve them. This may seem like it goes without saying but I think it’s helpful to know what kind of waters you are wading into. 

Living As Witnesses

“‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:8-10).

And with that, it was already different. Gone were those forty days with the resurrected Lord, who had walked in the midst of His people, revealing the defeat of death and the promise of the New Covenant. Jesus’s ascension into Heaven is a moment in the history of our faith that does not receive enough reflection. Yet, it is a pivotal moment because He continues to fulfill His promises, going to prepare a place for His people; to be the way, the truth, and the life, just as He once made clear to His disciples. Still, in that moment, Jesus spoke an important word, as important as any other that He has spoken, for He reminded those who followed Him that they were now to be His witnesses – living testimonies of the Gospel to their own city, to their surrounding neighbors, and eventually throughout the world.

Unusual Day, Beautiful Grace

Today was a day that, in many ways, started out like a great many do. I got up fairly early and got ready for work. As usual, I spent some time talking with my wife about the anticipated challenges and blessings of the day. We prayed together and off I went to my Monday through Friday job as a software engineer; a profession that I’ve worked for a quarter of a century, and the job that pays the bills and costs of living in New York, where I serve as a vicar.

Rest With Jesus

As we approach Memorial Day weekend the summer vacation season begins and many of our congregations’ families will be headed to the beach or some other destination. Yet what about your pastor? The summer gets busy with VBS, conventions, confirmations, and a whole host of other events that happen in the church. Is your pastor getting a break? Many pastors feel guilty taking time off or going on vacation. For a profession that has become increasingly more focused on pastoral care and support that doesn’t seem to be all that surprising. Most in the ministry feel so tightly connected to their ministries, and especially the people they serve, that they don’t want to miss a moment where they could have been helpful. This can all slide into a very dangerous and unhealthy pattern. 

Ministry to the Marginalized: The Gospel and Bonhoeffer's Ethics, part 1

It feels like Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, the unfinished magnum opus of the man martyred by the Nazis, is a working out of Luther’s dictum in On Christian Liberty. Namely that, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” What I mean by this is that Bonhoeffer seems to have understood what Luther meant better than many other Lutherans of the twentieth century (and perhaps, better than most Lutherans in the twenty-first century). Part of the capitulation to the Third Reich by German Lutherans had to do with a weak theology of the life of a Christian. To be sure, the primal instinct to protect one’s self over and above all else was a motivating factor, but the established German Lutherans had no theological answer for Nazism. 

Why I Hate Most Christian Movies, but Love the Bible

For most of my adult life I’ve struggled with Christian movies. When the latest movie with Kirk Cameron comes out and people begin to ask me if I’ve seen it I start to squirm. Perhaps because I’m a pastor people think that I should like that sort of thing. When people ask me if I’ve seen the latest movie the Christian film industry is promoting I typically say “No,” and leave it at that. But in my head I’m thinking, “No, I haven’t seen that movie and Lord willing I never will.” I don’t like most Christian movies. (And while I’m getting things off my chest I might as well say that I don’t like most Christian music either). 

Book Review: Sculptor Spirit by Leopoldo A. Sánchez

For a long time, I sensed a limitation in the way that I spoke of the Holy Spirit and his role in the life of the church. I found myself going back to the same word formulations, the same images, which all seemed very static, inadequate, and ineffective. Whereas the doctrine of justification was central, sanctification was minimized if not completely overlooked. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, I had reduced the Holy Spirit to nothing more than a mere concept—a logical necessity. Several years ago, that all changed. I began to pay more attention to the Spirit—the way that I understood and regarded his work in the life of Christ and the life of the church—in a way that I never had before. For the very first time in my life, I saw the doctrine of the Holy Spirit come alive. It was the Spring of 2013, and I was sitting in the classroom of Dr. Leopoldo Sánchez. 

A Time To Heal

The past week has seen the passing of two giants of a bygone era of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The first is Herman Otten of New Haven, Missouri. Otten is infamous for his weekly newspaper Christian News that took many liberties regarding journalism and sourced material. The second death is Delbert Rossin, who founded the charismatic organization Renewal In Missouri (RIM). His impact is still felt to this day as the SET evaluation tool for seminarians and pastors includes questions regarding the charismatic movement.