By Kevin Glenn
Internet and social media outlets are alive with links, shares, posts, comments and other sorts of communication surrounding the release of the film Left Behind, starring Nicolas Cage. Everything from the film’s quality, to its theology, to even the presence of Nick Cage is on the table for discussion and debate.
I am concerned over the combustible combination of faith-based film and eschatology. Both of these elements are high-octane fuel for great conversation, but together they must be handled with great care. The combination can easily ignite into some ugly, volatile and uncivil rhetoric that can unnecessarily burn bridges that may have taken a long time to build.
Why is this?
Faith-based films fuel great conversation.
Discussions on films claiming in some degree to be based on the Bible always generate lively discussion. Christians are sensitive about visual interpretations of the sacred story. There is a desire for quality while at the same time a demand for faithfulness. Often these two conflict with one another and a film becomes controversial. Most recently, debate swirled around films like Noah, God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real. Believers and non-believers took issue with what were described as stereotypes, excessive poetic license and outright mockery of the Bible.
When I mentioned in a sermon that I found Noah to be a good film for discussion on matters of faith, several Facebook friends and members of my own congregation took me to task. When I criticized what I believe to be an unfair caricature of atheists in God’s Not Dead, some of the same folks were upset that I would offer such a statement on what some of them called a “real Christian movie.”
Thoughts on the future spark lively discussion.
If you want to create buzz, simply discuss predictions about the end of the world. Sermons on end-time theories or through the biblical book of Revelation will draw a crowd. Books on the same will sell. The Left Behind book series generated millions of dollars and was read by Christians and non-Christians alike. In 2012, there was talk of the Mayan calendar possibly predicting the end of the world. The recent blood moon was a beautiful phenomenon and was accompanied by some Christians asking me if I thought it meant the end was near. They’ve read Texas pastor John Hagee’s book, Four Blood Moons: Something Is About to Change. Thoughts about the end are effective ways to begin an interesting and possibly incendiary conversation.
So a movie is released which is based on an interpretation of what some, but not all, Christians believe the Bible teaches about the end of the world. What could go wrong? When the fuel of a “biblical” film hits the spark of eschatology, it’s a recipe for some heated rhetoric. And if you look online — it’s already started.
This post does not endeavor to debate the various views. My goal is simply to encourage my Christian brothers and sisters with a simple message: Don’t leave behind civility while discussing Left Behind.
How can we keep the conversation productive, but not explosive?
Try a C.I.V.I.L. approach — Clarity, Intention, Value, Interaction, Limits
Clarify the source of passion: We’re looking for hope.
The great unknown of what tomorrow holds creates a passionate pursuit for certainty. This is especially true in light of the instability in our faces each time we turn on the TV. The faithful look for God’s intervention, actions that will somehow provide protection, clarity or even a means of escaping an escalating series of crises. This is where thoughts about tomorrow can create incivility today. There are various theories within the Christian community on the who, what, where, when, why and how of God’s plan for the end of days and beyond. They all have in common one thread: hope.
Intend to listen and understand: This is bigger than just your thoughts.
It is important to keep in mind that the theology undergirding the Left Behind books (Dispensational Premillennialism) is a wildly popular perspective within the Christian community. Those holding to it are often taught to link belief in this particular end-time perspective with faithfulness to the Bible itself. However, it is equally important to keep in mind that Dispensational Premillennialism is just one among several perspectives held among Jesus-loving, Bible believing Christians. While all areas of theology should be approached with humility, the study of last things (eschatology) is an area where latitude, humility and an openness to variation is of utmost importance.
Rather than being in it to win it, what if we approached dialogue from a shared intent to better understand the issue at hand? Be intentional about learning as much as you can and understanding the best you can the other perspectives out there. Bigger and better minds than yours and mine have been going at this issue longer than we’ve been alive. Make it your conversational intent to interact in their shadow.
Value the individual while debating the issue: Winning people beats winning points.
Civility is not the absence of conflict, nor does civility avoid assertiveness. Both are important for effective conversations with people on issues where there is disagreement. Civility places value on the person, while at the same time keeping the issue open for debate. The value may be based on an existing relationship, the hope of an improved relationship, out of respect or deference, or simply by virtue of their being made in the image of God.
Value, in this sense, means that you do your best to create space for the issue to be debated while also leaving room for relational health and growth. If you’re wrong, wouldn’t you like further instruction? If you’re right, wouldn’t you like to persuade the other to learn more as well? If you win, but lose the relationship, what have you won? Building bridges is better than building walls — just don’t burn the bridge you built!
Interact with cognitive modesty: Reserve the right to be wrong.
Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Seminary, describes cognitive modesty as interaction from a posture of genuine curiosity and even vulnerability, since our perspective just might in part or in whole be incorrect. However, journalist Kathryn Schultz wrote an entire book (Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error) on how we are deathly afraid of being wrong. So when our ideas are challenged, it can be easy to turn up the heat and unleash holy hell on another.
But genuine growth, according to Schultz, comes in what we learn after realizing our error, not in always being right. Maybe that’s what Augustine meant by, “Fallor ergo sum.” Or as John Wooden said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
Limit the conversation if it’s too hot.
Eschatology is a hot topic. Dispensational Premillennialism is often presented with passion and debated with fervor. The undergraduate school I attended had a majority of faculty and students devoted to this particular end-time perspective. I recall on more than one occasion listening as a friends’ salvation was questioned just because they didn’t buy in to this view. Not all interactions were like that, but many were. It is likely that if you choose to discuss this issue, you will run into someone who has left their civility behind. The other party may offend, anger, insult, irk, annoy or otherwise displease you with the tone and direction of the conversation. This doesn’t give you a green light to fight fire with fire. Take the high road. This doesn’t mean that you passively take abuse. Civility can be as assertive as it is compassionate, since both are rooted in conviction.
Be willing to observe limits to the interaction. Sometimes it’s best to put the conversation off to a later time. Sometimes, you just have to agree to disagree and go on. Be honest and aware of what’s happening between you and the other party, as well as what’s happening within you. Know when to say when.
One more thing …
Nick Cage’s brother is a pastor and was influential in convincing Nick to be part of this film. Remember that Cage and other actors are watching how the Christian community is treating his brother, one another, and himself in these conversations. I know several Christians involved in the film industry who work hard to build bridges of ministry to Hollywood. Let’s not allow our rhetoric to burn the bridges they have built.