The Dark Knight and the French Revolution

Last week my family and I viewed the new flick, “The Dark Knight Rises.” It is a spectacular, tightly woven movie with interesting, well developed characters and stupendous action scenes. I was struck throughout the movie by the symbolic themes, often borrowed and reimagined from some unlikely sources. One of these is surely the French Revolution. I noticed parallels to this late eighteenth century events in at least four places.

Spoiler Alert: this blog will reveal several details of the plot of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

First, a turning point in the movie was the release of prisoners from Blackgate Prison, a fairly obvious parallel to the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris that is seen as the beginning of the French Revolution. The difference is that the Frenchmen released were political prisoners, the Blackgaters were a horde of hardened criminals.

Second, once the “revolutionaries” are in control (led by the arch-villain Bane), the people are allowed and encouraged to loot the homes of the rich and take whatever they want. This is clearly reminiscent of the chaos that ensued during the French revolution, when great houses and estates were plundered and burned.

Third, “The Dark Knight Rises” portrays a people’s court that quickly judges its enemies. The presiding judge is the insane Scarecrow from the previous movies, now seated at a desk on a mountain of debris in a ruined great hall. His judgments are quick, usually the sentence of death. I was almost expecting them to use a guillotine, for this, too, is a parody of the quick and deadly judgments of the impromptu peoples’ courts of the French Revolution.

Fourth, and most striking, were the words said at the graveside service for Batman (supposedly dead). He is eulogized by Commissioner Gordon using the word from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, “‘Tis a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done …” Those familiar with the Dickens novel will know that these are the last words of the book’s anti-hero, Sydney Carton, who finally sacrifices himself to save one of the endangered aristocrats, the noble Charles Darnay. Dickens’ portrayal of the French Revolution is filled with distaste and horror that the French would execute their own king and destroy the social order of their day. (He seems to conveniently forget that the English cut off the head of their king a century earlier).

“The Dark Knight Rises” rewrites the outcome of the French Revolution. The revolutionaries are anarchistic, nihilistic bad guys who seek only to destroy. Their leaders are not intent on revolution, but on the total destruction of Gotham by a nuclear device (the goal of the sinister League of Shadows). And they do not win.

What are we to make of these themes and parallels? What is the message? That the wipe out of the wealthy 1% will lead to chaos? That society is best when in the hands of a benevolent, wealth elite? I don’t know, but the reminiscences of the French Revolution helped make a great movie even better for a history buff like me.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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The Book of Revelation and History

I am speaking next week as the Bible Lecturer at Camp Wi-Ne-Ma on the Oregon coast near Lincoln City for the Week of Missions. This is a great privilege for me and I have been working on my messages very hard. The theme is “The Everlasting Gospel” from Revelation 14:6, and I will be teaching through the book of Revelation during the week.

One’s understanding of the book of Revelation is influenced by one’s understanding as to what the book has to say about history. When we relate to historical situations, we have four options: past history, present history, future history (excuse the oxymoron here), and non-history. All four of these are represented in the various approaches to Revelation. Here is how I understand them. Each of the four views is represented by a timeline diagram showing four events: the resurrection of Jesus in A.D. 30, the writing of Revelation in A.D. 96, our perspective in A.D. 2012, and the events of the end of time in the future (i.e., the second coming and final judgment).

1. The Symbolic View of Revelation: Revelation speaks of the eternal spiritual battle between God and the rebellious forces of demonic evil, but in symbolic form. It is like a giant parable, not tied to any history past, present, or future. This is the non-historical approach, as if the story of Revelation floats above historical timelines in an ahistorical manner. It can be represented by this diagram.2. The Futuristic View: Revelation is primarily prophecy of future events of the end of time, things that have yet to take place even today. This is the “future history” approach. There are many versions of this, including the highly detailed and structured systems of dispensational premillennialism (sometimes called the extreme futurist view). Revelation’s account of future events begins after the letters to the seven church, from chapter 4 to the end of the book. This view might be diagrammed like this:3. Panoramic Historicist View: Revelation reveals the unfolding history of the church (or world) including the rise of Islam and the Protestant Reformation. This is the “present history” approach, for we are in the middle of the story. This usually sees the Beast of Revelation as the Pope of Rome, and understands the culmination of the book as now at hand. This was popular among the later Protestant Reformers who often equated the church of Rome and the Pope with the Beast of chapter 13 and the Great Harlot of chapter 17. This view is mixed with the futurist view sometimes, but is most fully represented today by the Seventh Day Adventists. It is represented by this diagram:

4. First Century Historicist View: Revelation speaks of historical events of the first century in code or symbolic language (often borrowed from Daniel) and portrays primarily the spiritual battle between the persecuted church and the Roman Empire. This is the “past history” approach, for most of the book is in the past from our perspective.  In this view, the Beast of Revelation 13 as the Roman Emperor(s) and the Great Harlot of Revelation 17 as the Roman Empire. Usually the final two chapters are seen as future referring in this view, along with various other verses throughout the book. (This view is sometimes called “Preterist,” but that label has been co-opted by a small group who believe that all the events of Revelation took place before A.D. 70, so I have chosen the designation, “First Century Historicist View.) It may be diagrammed like this:

There are many, many variations on these views, but I think that all of the modern views I have encountered could be put into one of these four categories.

I hope to see some of you at Wi-Ne-Ma, especially my beloved former students. We will have a great week exploring the book of Revelation.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

American Heresies

I have blogged several times about Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. (If you want to read the earlier posts, they can be found with these links: Part One, Part Two, or Part Three.) This will be my fourth and final installment about the book. I look forward to more books from Mr. Douthat, who is now the “conservative” op/ed writer for the New York Times at age 31.

In the second half of the book, Douthat identifies and discusses four major trends in American religion that are heretical for traditional, orthodox, biblical Christianity. We should remember that he is a sincere, practicing Roman Catholic, but almost everything he says will be informative to Evangelicals (like me). Again, this man amazes me as to how well-read he is. In all four of these areas he has read the primary literature that informs the heretical trend.

His first heretical trend is the one I want to look at the most, “Lost in the Gospels,” the recent impulse to elevate books that did not make it into the New Testament to a new level of authority. Most of these are Gnostic writings, and they go by many names such as the “Lost Gospels” or the “Hidden Gospels.” Some of the cable TV channels seem to be fascinated by these books. A big source of rather fresh material was added to the non-canonical gospels with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents in Egypt in 1945. These consisted of thirteen bound volumes containing fifty-two separate texts. Most of them bear the mark of Gnosticism, a heretical variation of Christianity that valued secret knowledge as the way to salvation. They bear witness to a community which had several things appealing to moderns, including women in prominent positions of leadership and the hint of female deity. Some of the tenets of these Gnostic communities were popularized in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Douthat’s analysis is that what was considered heresy in the early church has been revived in our day. He knows all the players in this: Elaine Pagels, Marcus Borg, Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, and several others. He begins his chapter by telling the scandalous story of the National Geographic Society’s promotion of “The Gospel of Judas,” a scholarly fiasco and embarrassment. Douthat does not mention it, but the National Geographic Channel on cable TV is controlled by News Corp, the empire of Rupert Murdoch and therefore sister of Fox News Channel, so the carelessness and sensationalism of “The Gospel of Judas” project is not totally surprising.

Douthat’s point in this chapter is something I have taught for many years. Most Christian heresies are christological in nature, having to do with the nature of Christ. And most of them are partial truths, an over emphasis upon one side of the picture of Jesus presented in the Bible. In many ways, Christianity is a paradoxical religion.Douthat’s powers of writing shine brightly as he expresses this:

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberating avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgive the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something stranger still–a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls. (pp. 152-53)

Douthat chronicles many who have wanted to remove these paradoxes. Thomas Jefferson wanted to eliminate Jesus’ miracles and claims to deity. Harvey Cox wanted to secularize the church and accommodate the modern ethos. John Dominic Crossan reinvents Jesus with each book he publishes. All of these believe they have recovered the “real Jesus,” and he is not the Jesus of the New Testament or of the church.

Overall, I recommend this book. The other heresies Douthat identifies are “Pray and Grow Rich” (Health and Wealth Gospel), “The God Within” (New Age Spirituality), and “The City on the Hill” (Nationalism/Americanism as Religion). He has words of criticism for a wide range of well-known dabblers in religion: Oprah Winfrey, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyers, Rick Warren,Elizabeth Gilbert, and (especially) Glenn Beck. He hits both George Bush and Barack Obama hard (although silent about Mitt Romney). You won’t agree with everything Douthat says, but he will make you think and you will make connections you haven’t made before.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Leadership Inertia: Trucks Passing on the Freeway

Traffic can be very irritating. After living in Los Angeles for several years, I am an expert on this subject. Freeway traffic in L.A. is crowded, crazy, and scary. Now I live in Nebraska, and the traffic is not so bad. The roadways aren’t crowded. The drivers are more courteous than crazy. I’m no longer terrorized by a trip on the freeway.

But in the long Midwest stretches of freeway one must travel here, there is a different kind of frustration, an irritating phenomenon that many of you have experienced: trucks passing on the freeway. In Nebraska, the freeway speed limit is 75 mph, and many people go faster in the rural areas. (Many routinely drive 85 mph when the road is clear.) The interstate highways are usually two lanes each direction. The roads are well maintained very straight, and built for speed. Why, then, do I constantly encounter a truck in the left lane going about 52 mph attempting to pass a truck in the right lane going 51 mph? These two overloaded behemoths block all traffic, sometimes taking many agonizing minutes to clear. The slowdown and congestion this causes makes me feel like I’m back in L.A., except there is no cityscape around. This phenomenon has sometimes been called a Race of Elephants. I’m not so sure, because elephants can run pretty fast.

On a recent drive back to Omaha from Denver, it seemed like this happened to me dozens of times. It caused me to ponder, though, am I like one of those trucks when it comes to leadership? Does my leadership style resemble the truck that blocks the way and slows everyone down? Do I lumber through my responsibilities in a way that frustrates younger leaders who want to move faster?

Congregational style of church government requires consensus building, and I know that takes time. I have been one of the impatient ones in the past, frustrated by resistance to change and institutional inertia. But I pray that my vision of progress is better than that semi inching past another slowpoke. May God give me the wisdom to know when to get out of the way.

Sad Endings: Divorce and the Church

I was privileged to preach at First Christian Church in Council Bluffs, IA, last Sunday where Dave Erickson is the preacher.  Dave wanted me to fit in to his series which was from the Sermon on the Mount, so I drew Matthew 5:31-32, the passage on divorce. This is a tough issue, especially to try and cover in 25 minutes. (If you want to listen to the sermon, you can find the link here.) I have been working on a book project for many years with the working title, Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, and Church Leadership. This sermon has spurred me to consider finishing this and see if I can find a publisher.

What should the church’s position on divorce be? In this sermon, I walk through four Bible texts. The first two, Deuteronomy 24:1 and Malachi 2:13-16, form the cultural background the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, and are therefore the Bible teachings on divorce that would be prominent in the minds of his hearers (or Matthew’s readers). The third text, Matthew 19:1-7, is unusual because it gives us some theological insights on divorce from the teachings of Jesus. My assigned text was Matthew 5:21-32:

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce. 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (NIV2011)

It would be easy to see this as a hard and fast, black and white, absolute prohibition of divorce, but I don’t think it is intended to be read this way. After all, it is paralleled by such texts as Matthew 5:21-22:

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (NIV2011)

The punishment for a murderer was death, yet I have never heard of a church that executed a member because he had an outburst of anger. (Although, come to think of it, this might thin out the difficult people on church boards.) Matthew 5:27-28 is another parallel text. It reads:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Likewise, I have never heard of a church painting the red A for adultery on a man who looked at a woman lustfully.

This is not to endorse anger, murder, or divorce, but I find it hard to make a case for divorce as the unforgivable sin if we read 31-32 in context. Something else is going on here.

God hates divorce. Why? Broken marriages take a terrible toll. Divorce takes a terrible toll. Ask anyone who has gone through a divorce. Ask the children whose parents divorce. Ask the mother and father of the bride and groom. God does not want that pain for anyone! God loves us.

The approach to this that lays out rules for “biblical divorce” is fraught with danger. As a pastor, I have never advised anyone to get a divorce (and don’t think I ever will). I don’t think there is some type of grid of conditions, where you tell me your story and I will render a verdict. Often, folks want a divorce to be approved by their minister, thereby thinking it is approved by God. I won’t do that. I don’t think I should do that. That is not my role. You see, this isn’t so much about prohibition of divorce but about honoring and strengthening marriage.  Jesus was working against the practice of Jewish men in his day who had made divorce quick, easy, and painless for them, but destroyed the lives of their spurned wives.

So let me throw out a couple of opinions in this area:

  1. Broken marriages can be healed. Many times we give up too easily. But no matter how much we want to heal the marriage, it doesn’t always work that way.
  2. God does not choose sides in a divorce, especially between believers. He loves you both.
  3. God does not expect you to remain in a marriage that is dangerous to you or to your children. Any “pastor” who would advise a woman to go back to a husband who is brutalizing her and be more submissive is an idiot and should not be in the ministry.
  4. But, finally, may we never see divorce as an easy solution to a broken marriage.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Indivisible: Black Rage and White Fear

I am still posting from the North American Christian Convention in Orlando. As usual, the program has been outstanding and I have enjoyed the speakers. I think the best one was Dr. Jerry Taylor, who spoke for the main session on Wednesday morning. Dr. Taylor is a professor at Abilene Christian University, a Church of Christ school. He has been having a visible role at the NACC the last few years. To show you how much I enjoyed his message, I will admit that I actually coughed up money to buy the DVD (a rare thing for me).

Dr. Taylor preached on Isaiah 5:1-7, the “Song of the Vineyard.” This text tells the story of the Lord’s relationship with ancient Israel, comparing it to a man who develops a vineyard.

I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit. (5:1, 2)

Dr. Taylor noted the great investment the Lord had in the nation of Israel, and the disappointing result: bad fruit. He then did an incredible thing: compared this scenario to the investment the Lord has in our nation, the United States of America. I usually do not buy the comparisons between Israel and the USA based on the Old Testament, but this one worked well. Dr. Taylor’s sermon was not an indictment of America as much as it was an indictment of the American church. He spoke of a situation of “black rage and white fear,” words that unfortunately resonate deeply with our current situation, a raging state of affairs that has its flames stoked by the inflammatory words of people who claim to be Christians. Dr. Taylor did not mention this, but if anyone needs evidence, consider the debate surrounding George Zimmerman, a white man who shot and killed a black young person in his neighborhood, Trayvon Martin. This seems more real to me when I  realize that the incident took place in Sanford, Florida, a few miles north of where I am now blogging. Zimmerman seems to have acted from fear. The reaction of the black community has been outrage.

Dr. Taylor’s solution: return the church to the Lord. Give control of the Christian Church back to Christ. In the “entrepreneurial Restoration movement,” let God be God and Christ be Lord of his church. Absolute human control over the church needs to yield to divine control. As Dr. Taylor’s sermon refrain hammered home, “Return the Watchtower back to the Lord.” He is Lord of all of us, whether fearful or outraged, and our unity as a church, a movement, and a nation will only be found in submission to him.

One of the old mottoes of the Restoration movement was “When the church is one, the world will be won.” I am beginning to understand this differently. It was taught as if the goal of unifying the church was the first step in winning the world to Christ. Now I begin to see that these two are the same thing. When the church is one, the world is won. This unity is essential. We will never be, “One nation, under God, indivisible” as long as the church is fighting over politics, racisms, or other non-essentials. So let us return the watchtower to the Lord, for he is the King forever.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Christian College for the Future.

I am posting from the north american christian convention in orlando. I have been talking with my friends who are presidents and leaders in other christian institutions of higher learning. Many are discouraged right now. Financial pressures are huge. New regulations on the federal and state level are coming down all the time. Much of this is caused by competition from for profit
institutions of higher education. Old models of college don’t work and this includes degree completion programs and many online programs.
The challenge is how to train ministry for the church of the future especially for those in the millennial generation. I believe a strong Bible foundation has to be the core of this education. but this cannot be the Bible education of our grandfathers or even our fathers.
We need to adapt to the world of today including social media and digital resources. this is why at nebraska christian college we are introducing a curriculum that includes the logos bible software. We are looking at a degree in online ministry. This is just a beginning. We must train students for ministry in the church of the future and that is a very broad range.
Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College