Thinking about religious freedom

I’ve been working on a little video project for my friends at the Baptist World Alliance.

Back in 1988-89, I spent 10 weeks traveling in Europe and Israel, conducting interviews and videotaping sites and artifacts of significance in Baptist history. Now, we’re digitizing that footage to produce some little vignettes for the BWA website.

Baptists in many parts of the world do not enjoy the religious liberties that we in the United States often take for granted. We have the freedom to assemble and worship freely. Our disagreements about the meaning and details of baptism sometimes result in people getting upset and leaving a certain congregation. But I haven’t heard of anybody in the U.S. being martyred for his or her beliefs about baptism in the last couple hundred years.

That’s not the case for Christians in some parts of the world today.

And it wasn’t the case for the Christians in Europe in the 16th century. I was reminded of that while reviewing some of the footage we shot in Switzerland.

We spent a pleasant fall day hiking up the side of a mountain to “Die Tauferhohle” not far from Zürich. The lush, peaceful cave belies it’s history as a hideout for outlawed Christians in 1525.

In that year, the first Anabaptist group was formed in Zürich by Felix Manz and two other reformers. They considered the baptism of infants as practiced by the Catholic Church and the early reformers to be unbiblical. They had themselves re-baptized and their opponents began calling them “Anabaptists.”

Manz associated with and was influenced by the reformer Ulrich Zwingli. But Manz was advocating a more literal reading of the Bible, and a more radical break with the Church than Zwingli could support. The Zürich city council sided with Zwingli and prohibited re-baptism. That made Manz and his followers outlaws. They hid from authorities in Die Tauferhohle and other places. But Manz was eventually caught and, on January 5, 1527, he was punished by drowning in the Limmat River. He died singing.

Zürich-Schipfe quarter : Memorial plate for th...
Zürich-Schipfe quarter : Memorial plate for the Anabaptists, murdered in early 16th century by the Zürich city government: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Makes me grateful to live in a country where freedom of religion is guaranteed. And it leads me to think about those martyrs who gave their lives for what they believed.

Which of my religious beliefs would I be willing to die for?

Makes me think.

Let us entertain and inspire

I finally got around to watching that Christian movie that’s been sitting next to my chair for the last three months. I knew I needed to watch it. Everybody at church who’s seen it says it is great.

“Have you seen it?” they’d ask

“Well, not yet,” I’d confess.

I felt guilty. But I was dreading the two hours I’d have to spend with it. I knew what was coming. The protagonist will cry when he reaches the bottom of his arc. Somebody will preach at me. And somebody will accept Jesus or make a commitment to live a better Christian life. That’s the “Christian Film Formula.”

Cover of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

To be honest, I’d rather spend time with one of my favorites: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

But I “needed” to see that movie, so I loaded it up and settled in for the tears, the sermon and the altar call. The movie did not disappoint.

It was well-made. Great lighting, camera work, editing, and music. I laughed. I cried. I was inspired.

I’m a Christian. As a member of the choir, I was effectively preached-to. And the makers of the film claim “thousands coming to Christ as a result” of their movie.

There’s a market for these films. Sony and Fox have each set up distribution divisions for Christian and Family Movies. There are more than half-dozen web sites that specialize in the distribution of Christian and Family DVDs.

But I wonder how deep the market penetration is among folks who are not part of the religious establishment.

It seems to me there’s a niche waiting to be filled: really good movies that entertain and inspire, and will appeal to people outside the Christian cocoon… movies that tell great stories with a voice that’s neither preachy nor condescending.

Let’s face it: our culture is less churchy than it was for our parents and grandparents. Much of society yawns at our well-intentioned efforts to “reach” them with the Gospel. But we really do have some good news to share. So how do we do it?

Obviously, the best way to preach the Gospel is to live an authentic Christ-like life. Do the things that Jesus did. What’s the old saying? “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.”

Sometimes, words are helpful, too. But what words? And how to speak them?

My younger son and I were walking around Greenville, South Carolina’s downtown area on a recent Friday evening. We came upon a young man, standing on a box, preaching judgment and condemnation from a Bible he waved in our faces. Is that the way to communicate the love, joy and hope offered by God through Jesus? I don’t know. And I surely don’t want to judge the young man, who must have been doing what he believed to be God’s will. After all, there’s plenty of precedent for that approach in the Bible.

But really… must we take ourselves so seriously? Can’t we lighten up a bit? We have some great stories to tell. Let’s have some fun telling them. We can even poke a little fun at ourselves… Lord knows there’s plenty to laugh at.

Remember how Jesus started his Sermon on the Mount? It wasn’t, “Repent or you’re going to hell!” It was, “Blessed are you…”

Our little writing and production group is passionate about breaking out of the “Christian Film” mold to produce something that entertains and inspires those beyond the typical audience for such movies.

It won’t come across as the typical, sanitized, well-scrubbed Sunday school tale. In fact, it might be perceived as a little irreverent. We’re not trying to, but we’ll probably offend some of our religious friends. But who knows? Maybe a few Christians will be entertained and inspired, too.

I think that’s what happened when Jesus first told the story of the Prodigal Son.

Boiling it Down

I’ve been thinking about the fundamentals of the faith lately. Does that make me a fundamentalist?

What is left when you boil away all the institutional, cultural, historical, and personal additives from our Christian faith? That’s a question missionaries face every day.

A cross-cultural missionary is someone who’s communicating the Gospel in a culture of which he/she is not a native. I got to meet hundreds of them during my six years at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

Before going out to their overseas assignments, new missionaries go through an intensive multi-week training regimen. One of the first things they learn is how to separate their North American culture from their essential, biblical faith. As you might imagine, some have more difficulty with the concept than others.

I remember visiting a missionary in a remote Central American village. There, in stark contrast to the straw and mud huts surrounding it, stood a church building that looked just like one you’d find in any southern U.S. town.

The missionary understood his assignment as a “church planter” to include re-creating the kind of church experience he grew up with… including the architecture. He had convinced his home church in Georgia to contribute money and labor. And the result, like a glaring anachronism, stood amid the simple, humble village houses: a gleaming white frame church building with columns in the front, a high-pitched roof, and a steeple on top.

I don’t want to be too hard on the missionary. I wonder if I do any better job as a missionary in my own culture.

The doctrines, traditions, and liturgy that have been handed down over the years from our spiritual ancestors provide essential context for interpreting the scripture and for understanding our own spiritual experiences.

Pulling the cultural wrapper off the essentials of our faith is not easy. But it is essential, especially for those of us who work in “the media.” If we want to embody and communicate what it means to be a Christian, we have to understand the core essence of our relationship with God.

This has been on my mind lately as we’re working on the second draft of the screenplay for the Prodigal Project. It has forced me to define exactly what it is that I want to say about my faith: what is the core belief burning in my soul that is driving the story forward?

I can express it best by describing a scene that might play out in the movie:

The protagonist is frustrated and dejected. It is the low point of his character arc. At that moment God gently places His hand on his shoulder and says, “You know, you don’t need to do anything grand. I made you and I love you. All I want is for you to love Me… and love My children. If you want to show the world what it means to be a Christian, live your life the way Jesus lived his: bring hope and love and joy to those around you. Turn the other cheek. Forgive. Smile. Have courage. Don’t condemn, don’t judge – that’s My job. I like your movie… I really do. But it would suit Me fine if we could just sit and talk for a while every day. Maybe you’ve been too busy making a movie to think about that.”