Ask Me Anything (Catechisms, Images of God, that Book/Movie)

Ask Me Anything is an opportunity for you to submit questions that are related or unrelated to things I’ve written, and for me to take a shot at answer them. This week’s questions deal with catechisms, images of God, and, indirectly, The Shack.

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I am looking for clarification on “Use Your Catechism, Silly” regarding the use of human actors portraying God the Son. D.A. Carson was recently on a podcast discussing theology and he mentioned The Passion of the Christ. Specifically he mentioned watching it in the theater. Are you saying this was wrong of him to do? Are you also saying that the Christmas plays so many of us see at Christmas time are not okay if there is a baby in them that is playing baby Jesus? We just saw one at Christmas time. Douglas Moo was there watching it as well. Trying to figure out if you are on the same page as Carson and Moo here or if I am missing something.

I have not heard the podcast, so cannot comment on it specifically. But the primary purpose of my article on the catechisms and confessions was not to conclude, “It is wrong to watch portrayals of Jesus.” The purpose was to show that many theological questions have already been handled by this “reference library” of resources available to us as Reformed Christians. If we place ourselves within the Reformed tradition, it is wise for us to look to our forebears to see how they approached the questions and conundrums we face today. Their convictions then give us a starting place as we develop our own. That is why I said this: “On the basis of the information I’ve collected, I can make this determination: According to the Reformed tradition, the Bible forbids portraying God in any form, whether for worship or as a teaching aid.”

Thus, when a movie like The Passion of the Christ comes along, I think we do well to look to catechisms as we consider whether or not we should see it. Once we know what the Reformed tradition says, we can then study the Bible to determine whether or not the tradition is correct. We have to remember that Reformed theology arose in the context of the Reformation, so it’s possible that some of the Reformed positions were motivated too much by an opposition to Rome. If this is the case anywhere, it may well be in representations of Jesus.

As for my own position, that takes us to the next question.

In light of your recent post regarding human actors portraying God, could you say a word about some of the films over the years like “Passion of the Christ” or “The Jesus Film?” Are these things completely wrong? Should I be asking for forgiveness for watching them?

I received this question in hundreds of variations. This is something I have tried to consider seriously over the years and, while acknowledging that I still need to deepen my convictions, I’ll tell you where I’m at today.

Personally, the only Jesus film I’ve ever watched is The Passion of the Christ. I watched it against my conscience and, in that way, am convinced I sinned. However, that was in a very different stage of my life when we attended a very different church and the whole congregation was encouraged (and even expected) to watch it since, as Rick Warren had so boldly predicted, this was going to be the best evangelism opportunity since Pentecost. I haven’t seen The Jesus Film or Risen (or, to answer another question I received over and over again, Oh, God or Bruce Almighty). I have never attended a church that did a passion play or nativity play. That is, in part, because the majority of my life has been spent in confessionally Reformed churches.

Let me draw an analogy to explain why I am so hesitant to see these plays (and, I think, why the second commandment may caution us against them). I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was thirteen. I have read it many times since then, but have noticed a substantial change in my most recent readings. This difference came around the times the films were released. When I read The Lord of the Rings today, I picture Frodo as Elijah Woods, Gandalf as Ian McKellen, Aragorn as Viggo Mortensen, and so on. My reading of the book has been changed by my viewing of the movie. I “see” the characters from the film when I read the characters in the book. In many cases I don’t want to, because the characters in the film don’t do justice to the characters as Tolkien wrote them. In many cases they are deliberately different from page to film since they needed to be adapted to make an exciting movie. And this is just what I want to prevent when I read the Bible. I don’t want to see Jim Caviezel or Avis Alush when I ponder the cross; I don’t want to see Octavia Spencer, George Burns, or Morgan Freeman when I ponder the Father.

Before we see visual representations of God—even God the Son—we need to be sure we understand the power of images. God told the Israelites not to make visual representations of him because images lie. An image of God will communicate some things that are true, but many things that are false. God as a golden calf may communicate something of his splendor (he’s made of gold) or his nurturing nature (he’s a cow). But it will misrepresent God in far more substantial ways. Yet as people look to that image, they will come to think of God as being like it. Their view of God will be altered—lowered—accordingly. As I wrote here, be sure to ponder Postman’s wisdom: “The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking. Iconography thus became blasphemy so that a new kind of God could enter a culture. People like ourselves who are in the process of converting their culture from word-centered to image-centered might profit by reflecting on this Mosaic injunction.”

I suppose, then, my encouragement is to ensure you don’t take the evangelical apathy about representations of God as your default position. Come to convictions and live by them. Inform your mind and conscience, then heed your mind and conscience. If you are Reformed, begin with the Reformed tradition’s strong stance against images and then go to the Word to see if you agree or disagree. This is what I have done and my reading of the Word and my conscience keep me from deliberately seeing images of Jesus (or the Father or the Spirit, of course).

As for whether or not you’ve sinned by seeing an image of God, I would put it like this: I don’t think I’ve sinned if I inadvertently see an image of Jesus. Frankly, it’s impossible not to see them from time to time. On the other hand, I attempt not to put myself in situations in which I see those images. I won’t feel the need to ask forgiveness for walking by a poster of Jim Caviezel as Jesus, but did feel the need to ask forgiveness for subjecting myself to two hours of him.

What about images of Jesus in children’s Bibles? What about nativity sets?

Again, these are questions I received many, many times. I repeat what I said above: Come to convictions and then live by them. Some Christians will come to great freedom in all of these ways. Some Christians will feel duty-bound to avoid all physical representations. This is where Christians must be willing to love one another and refuse to judge one another, despite differing convictions.

Tim, you mentioned recently in an article about your favorite and most effective tools that you use Feedly. In your description of how you enjoy using it, you said you follow around 150-200 blogs. I’m interested – as one who loves reading, learning, and wants to grow in general cultural awareness – what some of the best blogs you recommend following (i.e. cultural, news, bible/theology, etc.).

Let me direct you to My Top 10 Bloggers of 2016. In that article I listed my favorites from 2016 and also offered a series of honorable mentions. You may also want to take a look at my public Feedly page where you can see the majority of the Christian blogs I follow.

Jesus said “the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” yet tradition has it that he was buried on Friday and resurrected on Sunday. The explanation for that inconsistency is that Jesus used a cultural expression never intending us to think of literal days and nights. The problem I have with this explanation is that it can be used of any of Jesus’ teachings. When Jesus referred to Adam, Noah or anything else, did He mean what he said or was it just cultural? Is there a better explanation?

As I understand it, Jesus is using an idiom here. Idioms are notoriously difficult to translate from one language to another, but a first-century Jew would have understood this to mean “three consecutive days” or something of that nature. Whether it was literal days and nights and whole days and nights was beside the point. Think how we might say something like “burn the midnight oil.” We use the expression to mean “late into the night,” but whether or not that extends to midnight is irrelevant. Secondarily, Jesus intends to remind people of Jonah, so is using an expression they would have understand as referring to the prophet. In that way he is drawing a parallel, even if not an exact one.