Thumbs Up for “Risen”–Way, Way Up

Most people know Joseph Fiennes for playing William Shakespeare in Shakespeare in LoveLately he has been playing significant religious characters.Risen_2016_poster In 2003, Fiennes portrayed Martin Luther in Luther, and he will play Eric Liddell in The Last Race, which is scheduled for release later in 2016. The Last Race is a sequel of sorts to Chariots of Fire, and tells the story of Liddell’s missionary service in China and his eventual martyrdom.

In Risen, Fiennes plays the part of Clavius, a military tribune who serves in the Roman army in Judea during the days of Pontius Pilate. Pilate has charged him with the task of finding the body of Jesus of Nazareth, which has disappeared three days after his crucifixion. Fiennes portrays the hardbitten soldier with understated determination, which makes his performance very effective.

Hollywood finally realizes that the market for faith-based films is a lucrative vein to be mined. A least half of the previews shown before Risen have explicitly Christian themes. Generally the choices have been either theologically aberrant or even abhorrent (The Last Temptation of Christ, or The DaVinci Code as examples) or simply cheesy (God’s Not Dead comes to mind). With Risen, Hollywood gets it right. The sets, the acting, the production values are all top-notch. The story is original and entertaining. Most importantly, Risen faithfully tells the gospel message. This is a great Easter movie. Thumbs up for Risen–way, way up.

Why One Baptist Chooses to Observe Lent

I’m a Southern Baptist, which, among other things, means I’m a low church, free church evangelical. Furthermore, I’m a convictionally reformational Baptist, meaning I resonate with what I believe to be the best of the magisterial reformers in terms of Scripture and salvation and the best of the radical reformers in terms of ecclesiology and mission. Folks like me are supposed to be suspicious of Lent. Yet, beginning tomorrow, I will be observing the Lenten season for the next forty days, as I have done virtually every year for the past dozen years. Why?

Before discussing why I observe Lent, it might be helpful to discuss what Lent is. After all, many of this blog’s readers are low church, free church evangelicals like me, and I bet more than a few aren’t sure what Lent is and where it comes from. Lent is a key season of the Christian Calendar that is observed by many different Christian traditions. Specifically, for Christians in the West, Lent is a period of dedicated prayer, repentance, giving and self-denial that lasts from Ash Wednesday until Maundy Thursday; the latter is the day before Good Friday, which commemorates the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. You can read more about the history of Lent in this article by Ted Olsen.

Different traditions practice Lent in different ways. Some groups combine prescribed fasts (especially from meat) and mediating on the Stations of the Cross. Others take a less stringent approach, instead focusing upon voluntarily giving up some luxury (or, perhaps in the short-term, a necessity) during the Lenten season as a way to focus upon spiritual matters. For some traditions, Lent is an “ought” that should be observed by all Christians. For others, Lent is a “can” that Christians are welcome, but not required, to observe.

As a Baptist, I do not believe we should bind people’s consciences by prescribing extra-biblical traditions. And like many good Christian practices, even among the most scripturally punctilious of evangelicals, Lent is most certainly an extra-biblical tradition. For that reason, I would never insist that someone observe Lent. But I do believe it is appropriate to recommend Lent, which is what I’m doing in this post. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, especially of the low church, free church type, then I would encourage you to consider celebrating Lent over the next forty days.

For my part, I choose to observe Lent because it affords me an opportunity to disengage a bit from the culture of what Tim Suttle calls satiation—“the absolute satisfaction of every human need to the point of excess.” As a relatively affluent American evangelical, at least compared to most believers in the world, I’m particularly prone to satiation. And the more I’m satiated, the easier it is for my affections to become dulled to the most important priorities—the kingdom priorities—that ought to animate my life. So, if you want to think about this way, I’m making an Edwardsean argument for my own Lenten observance. (Recognizing, of course, that Edwards himself would not have been a fan of Lent.) I want to unplug for awhile (metaphorically speaking) in order to redirect my affections towards the One whose infinite beauty and worth surpasses all the good, but fleeting pleasures of this life.

If you’re interested in giving Lent a whirl, consider practicing some of the following spiritual disciplines during this season:

  1. If your health will allow, set aside a day each week to fast through breakfast and lunch, spending some extra time in prayer and Scripture meditation
  2. Voluntarily give up some good thing for the sake of some extra meditation on the best thing, the good news of the gospel (if you’re having trouble thinking of a good thing to give up, consider some sort of partial media fast like giving up television or internet)
  3. Memorize one of the passion accounts from the four Gospels or a different passage related to the cross and resurrection
  4. Spend some extra time reading through a devotional book such as John Piper’s Fifty Reasons Jesus Came to Die or Nancy Guthrie’s Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross: Experiencing the Passion and Power of Easter

If you’re reading this post and you are uncomfortable with Lent, no worries. You absolutely don’t have to observe Lent. The Lenten season is a “can,” not an “ought,” so follow your conscience in this matter. Furthermore, choosing to observe Lent doesn’t make you more spiritual or mean that you love Jesus more than those who don’t dig Lent. But if you’re interested in embracing an intentional season of self-denial, repentance, and biblical intake in the hope of personal spiritual renewal, then I’d encourage you to at least consider observing Lent this year.

For a helpful discussion on why three Christians in different traditions choose to celebrate Lent, check out the roundtable discussion titled “Lent—Why Bother?” which was originally published in Christianity Today in February 2010. The contributors include Steve Harmon (a fellow Baptist), Frederica Mathewes-Green (Eastern Orthodox) and Michael Horton (Presbyterian/Reformed). For another Baptist recommendation of Lent, see this thoughtful blog post by Alan Rudnick.

(Note: An earlier version of this post was published at Between the Times in February 2013 under the title “Why I Observe Lent.” It has been updated for re-publication.)

The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived

Final Days of JesusThis blog post serves advance notice: Crossway’s recently released book, The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived, is a treasure for the church. Southeastern’s own Andreas Köstenberger and Crossway’s Justin Taylor have collaborated to produce a high quality devotional work underlain by excellent New Testament scholarship.

I plan to draw upon this book as I share with my family during the upcoming holy week. The book is not academic in tone: the prose is lucid and the limited footnotes mainly provide explanatory comments.

The Final Days of Jesus maps out in separate chapters each day of the Passion Week, from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday. Each chapter is, say, five pages long and works well as a daily reading. The chapters provide a harmonization of all four Gospels in the English Standard Version accompanied by a brief introduction and supporting commentary for each day’s events. Early in the week selected passages are provided, then from Wednesday to Easter Sunday the entire ESV text of each day’s account is reprinted in the chapter.

Köstenberger and Taylor deal with many of the difficulties in the Gospel accounts. These are often hailed as discrepancies by skeptics and can cause careful Christian readers to struggle to piece together four separate accounts of the same story. They write, “We acknowledge differences among the Gospel accounts of individual details and make an honest attempt to suggest plausible ways in which those accounts may in fact cohere.” (19) Thus, this book has apologetic value in addition to its contribution to personal worship.

In addition to the careful arrangement of Scripture and the thoughtful commentary, The Final Days of Jesus makes the Passion narrative come alive with maps that show the locations mentioned the Gospel narratives, color diagrams of Jerusalem, and charts that compare key passages and themes. The charts give visual learners a quick way to understand the flow of Christ’s High Priestly Prayer (82), or the overview of the days of the Passion Week that give Westerners fits as they try to understand the Ancient Middle Eastern chronology (53). The visual organization provided by the illustrations helps to anchor the events of the text in real places, bringing the feeling of concreteness to the story. Due to our familiarity with the story, this feeling is often abstracted from historical reality. Also, the authors provide a glossary and a list of recommended readings graded by their level of difficulty, making this an excellent place to begin a deeper study of the Word.

The authors set out “to provide an aid to informed worship” (21), a task which Köstenberger and Taylor have completed in admirable fashion. This book is fine contribution to the church: it is suitable for those steeped in Christian heritage and biblical knowledge as well as those who are new to the faith or even on the outside of it. Readers will find themselves using the book as a resource for personal or family devotions, as a resource for local church teaching, and as an easy-to-read gift (for believers or unbelievers) that faithfully witnesses to the gospel.game online