Christ, the Cross, and Heroes

The other day, while I was browsing Plugged In, I came across a review for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Curious, I opened it up and came across this:

Continuing his Christ-like course, Harry dies and is then given the opportunity to return from the dead to finish the fight against evil.

And it occurred to me that people give out the label “Christ-like” to fictional characters far too easily.

Harry Potter has been widely called a Christ figure. I ran a Google search and collected other characters who had also been given that high compliment. It’s a broad range: Atticus Finch to Mustafa, Gandalf to Joe Christmas, Superman to Aslan, Cool Hand Luke to Little Foot (Land Before the Time, the mother of all sequels). I even saw a couple people wonder whether Hamlet or Edward of Twilight infamy could be considered Christ figures.

Jim Casy, from The Grapes of Wrath, also made the list. Wikipedia summed up Casy – this is a real quotation – thusly:

A former preacher who lost his faith after fornicating with willing members of his church numerous times, and from his perception that religion has no solace or answer for the difficulties the people are experiencing. He is a Christ-like figure.

So obviously this whole “Christ figures in fiction” thing has gotten completely out of hand. It’s worth noting that Casy did die unjustly, which I gather is a major qualification to be a Christ figure. Other prime qualifications, my list indicates, are “has superhuman powers”, “has the initials ‘J.C.’,” “got betrayed” and “one heck of a great guy”.

But the most common justification for a Christ figure is a self-sacrificial death. And this is more sensible, for it zeroes in on the Cross, the purpose of Christ’s whole life, the act that is the Gospel.

Still, this has to be said: Dying for others – even dying and then coming back to life – does not yet mirror the nature of Christ’s sacrifice. It comes close, but it doesn’t quite make it home. As the Bible puts it:

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5)

See that? The Bible does not define Jesus’ death by those heroes who “might possibly dare to die”. It defines His death against them.

Heroes die for the innocent, for their friends or country or family. They die so that the villain can suffer the fate he deserves, and his victims can be spared the fate they don’t.

Christ died for the guilty. He died for His enemies. He died for the mob that chanted for His death, for the soldiers who hammered nails through His hands, for a world that rejected Him. It is the heart of Christ’s sacrifice that He died to give people what they did not deserve, not what they did.

That is why, in the pantheon of Christ figures, Aslan is rare in truly echoing the bargain of the Cross: an innocent soul for a guilty one. Harry Potter died to defeat Voldemort, and that makes him a hero. But to be Christ-like, he would have had to die to save Voldemort.

Review: Ice

Suppose you went to the moon, and suppose you found somebody already there. Frozen, so no matter how many questions you ask, he’s never going to answer.

But the answers have to come from somewhere, and they do. C. S. Lewis once said that it is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. It is also shocking to find something where we are sure there had never been anything.

NASA planned twenty lunar flights, but after Apollo 17 it canceled the remaining missions. Now, in Ice, Shane Johnson writes an alternate history of the space program, telling the story of Apollo 19. In February 1975 two astronauts, Gary Lucas and Charlie Shepherd, land near the lunar south pole. Forced to venture deep inside one of its canyons, they find, well, ice. It’s quite a surprise to men who hoped, at the most, to find some rocks worth analyzing. But it’s just a small jolt to get their heart rate up in preparation for the real shocks.

Ice reminds me greatly of Oxygen and The Fifth Man. Like that duology, it starts with real technology and what America could have chosen to do with it. Although the story is fiction, it reproduces NASA technology, procedures and jargon – I assume faithfully, but how would I know? I only know that, at some point, my eyes start to glaze over.

Not that the deficiency is in the book. In a novel about Apollo 20, you need realism about NASA and its space flights – even if Apollo 20 never took off. The author did not, in my judgment, go overboard with it. It’s just that, when a part becomes heavy in unrecognizable acronyms and science-textbook words, you tend to speed-read a bit. At least I do.

The style of Ice tended toward the omniscient, and there were moments that came off somewhat stiffly. But even with those, I found the book well-written to the point of achieving real beauty. Johnson shows his skill in story-telling in many ways. He manages to create passages with a sense of heartbreak and even of horror without being unduly explicit.

The story itself was unique. It had more science than most sci-fi – and also, in the end, more fantasy, too. Ice is freshly imagined and vividly portrayed; I‘ve never read another sci-fi novel quite like it. It may not be one of the most exciting novels I’ve ever read, but it is one of the most satisfying. I give it a wholehearted recommendation.

Interview with Don Veinot, Part II

As promised, here is the second half of the interview with Don Veinot, one of the authors of A Matter of Basic Principles. Links, as well as an introduction, can be found with the first half. ATI stands for Advanced Training Institute, a Gothard organization that provides curriculum, conferences, training, etc.

Q: Another important subject you bring up is how Bill Gothard interprets the Bible. What are your views on that?

A: He is really quite subjective on this issue. Gothard does little study of the historical/grammatical context of Scripture but instead seems to land on an idea he likes and then goes in search of Bible passages that might sound like they support his contention. He writes that historical/grammatical study is fairly fruitless since two teachers could engage in this and come to different conclusions. Instead, he claims to pray over large sections of Scripture for the proper interpretation. So, in essence, he is claiming the inspired understanding of the inspired word of God. Therefore, one cannot disagree because they are not disagreeing with Gothard but with God Himself. It doesn’t seem to cross his mind that if someone else prays over large sections of Scripture and comes to personal interpretation they also claim are from God that he hasn’t solved the problem but only expanded out to any and all who engage in feeling-oriented interpretations of God’s word.

Q: Some people say that Gothard advocates circumcision only for medical reasons, and his website says that it is “not required of believers for salvation” or for “the sanctification of the believer”. Does this satisfy your criticism that he is legalistic on the issue?

A: It doesn’t for a few reasons. First, his original booklet claimed that this issue is so strongly commanded and reinforced in Scripture that there is no question what decision a Christian parent will make. With this wording, to decide against circumcision as a parent is to violate God’s commandment which is reinforced in Scripture. He has never publicly retracted this and so either is still holding to it and adding that it is not necessary for salvation or is concealing his false teaching. Both are a problem. Second, at our August 20, 2002 meeting, he stated that circumcision will prevent cervical cancer in the infant boy’s future wife, and if we know the right thing to do and don’t do it then for us it is sin. Again, circumcision was a moral issue for Gothard, not simply a medical one. I am not particularly interested in the medical question but think each parent needs to look at and decide that issue. Third, although he writes now that it is not a salvation issue he misrepresents Paul’s writing in Galatians on this. The Galatians were saved as can be seen by Paul’s question, “Did you receive the spirit by the works of the law or the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish, having begun in the spirit will you now be perfected in the flesh?” Like Gothard, the false teachers were claiming that circumcision was morally required. It was part of sanctification and a way of meriting God’s favor. He would fare better if he publicly repented of his false teachings, pointed out where he is changing them and the apologetics community would work with him in his work in other areas.

Q: It’s been eight years since A Matter of Basic Principles was published. Has anything about Gothard or the ATI changed since then?

A: As far as I can tell, any changes are largely cosmetic. There is no real accountability for Bill and little if any honest repentance on his part.

Q: In your book, you write about families and individuals who have been damaged by ATI teachings. Can you give us an example and explain why it is a direct, logical consequence of Gothard’s teaching?

A: As you know, we provide several examples in the book but, I have recently been contacted by a counselor who has a female client in Gothardism and can’t quite get at the core issue. The woman is 45, high school educated, no college allowed by her father. She has never held a job but is still living at home because she is under her father’s authority and has not been allowed to court or be married. I wish I could say this is the only such call but it is not. His patriocentric teachings can have long lasting and detrimental effects on his followers and their children. At some point children should be encouraged to have an individual relationship with God directly instead of through their parent. There is the obvious fear that children will make mistakes. They will. But, God uses us in spite of our mistakes and grows us into a greater dependency on Him through those mistakes.

Q: Do you believe the God portrayed in ATI literature is consistent with the God revealed to us in Scripture?

A: The short answer is no. The long answer is too long:D

Q: I have read in more than one place that Gothard has a mechanistic approach to life, that he believes doing the right things guarantees success. It reminds me a little of the “health and wealth Gospel”. What similarity, or lack thereof, do you see between the ideas?

A: They are very similar and I think the basis stems from an anthropocentric (man centered) theology rather than a Christocentric (Christ centered) theology. If we start with the premise that the Bible is about us and what we can get from or deserve to get from God, we will fall into any number of heresies including those which emanate from the Word Faith camp and Gothard. If we begin with a Christocentric view of Scripture we quickly realize that although God cares for us and provides as He sees fit that does not guarantee a life free from suffering. The heroes of faith in Hebrews chapter 11 are great examples of this principle. As the writer lays out the persecutions and suffering they underwent what may be a moment of sheer emotion when he penned the words, “men of who the world is not worthy.” We are not guaranteed financial prosperity, physical health or protection from life’s ills if we are under some mythical “umbrella of protection.” That is magical thinking, not anything approaching a biblical understanding of God or His interactions with and provisions for mankind.

Q: You obviously disagree with a great deal of what Bill Gothard teaches. What danger do you think his ideas pose and why?

A: His teachings at their core take the focus off of God and put it on other humans. It takes accountability away from those in positions of authority and gives them the ability to abuse those they are supposed to be serving. In reality, those of us in high positions of authority are more highly accountable to a larger number of people. We live in glass houses and everyone around us has Windex. This should be fear inspiring to public teachers but too many have no fear of God and little respect for His word. In my opinion, Bill Gothard and the leaders who use his material fall into this category.

Interview with Don Veinot, Part I

Ronald Allen once called Bill Gothard “a living Christian institution”. Some would find this a bit of an overstatement. Some would ask, “If he’s a living Christian institution, how come I never heard of him?”

But others would understand what Dr. Allen means. Bill Gothard’s organization has existed, under some name, for fifty years. The number of people who have attended at least one of his seminars is estimated to be well over two million. Gothard’s programs have been supported – and sometimes actually mandated – by government officials in Russia, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, and Arkansas. And this is only a partial list.

But it hasn’t been all praise for Bill Gothard. He has his share of critics, among them the Midwest Christian Outreach, an organization dedicated to countering cults and false teachings within the church. The founders of MCO, Don and Joy Veinot, together with Ron Henzel, wrote A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life. It reflects a deep knowledge of Christianity and its history; its tone and arguments are very reasoned. After reviewing the book earlier this year, I decided to seek an interview with Don Veinot. He graciously agreed, and I am posting it here. As Gothard continues to influence Christians across America, it is important that the church be knowledgeable and discerning about his teachings. I hope this helps.

[Note: This interview will be posted in two parts. Tomorrow I will add the second half. You can buy, or just look into, A Matter of Basic Principles on the MCO’s website or on Amazon.]

Q: First, can you tell us a little about your ministry and your work?

A: I was an atheist growing up, adopting the beliefs of my father. My wife, Joy, grew up in a Christian home and accepted the Lord when she was 12. As is often the case, she was not walking closely with the Lord in her teenage years when we met and we dated and married. After we had our son, she regained interest, recommitted her life to Christ and persuaded me to do some research as to the claims and validity of Christianity. I moved from atheism to agnosticism since I couldn’t honestly claim that God does not exist. I have no way to prove that. As I came to realize that God exists I moved from agnosticism to a sort of theism and then concluded that the Bible is fundamentally reliable and the resurrection is true. I accepted Christ in my early 20s.

A few years later my wife met and became friends with some Jehovah’s Witnesses. Our church didn’t seem to have answers other than “stay away,” so we began doing research on our own. Not only did we discover what they believed and their history of false teaching but we learned to understand and defend fundamental Christian doctrine. Sadly, this kind of training is not common in the church as most churches seem to assume that since one attends and even signs a doctrinal statement they actually understand what they are agreeing to uphold. Most often they don’t.

As we began learning about and witnessing to her friends we started helping others and the ministry just sort of grew out of that experience. We began getting calls about other groups, issues and questions. This included questions about groups, teachers and teachings in the church as well as cults and other religious movements. Bill Gothard was one of those we received a lot of requests about since we were geographically close to his headquarters. We didn’t want to deal with these issues but as we prayed about it I think God impressed me that if we didn’t have the integrity to address false teaching within the church we didn’t have the right to address false teaching outside of the church. In 1995 we formed Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. to provide answers, teaching and assistance to those inside and outside the church on issues of essential Christianity, cultural apologetics, cults and false religions. Since we are home missionaries, all of us are bi-vocational and address false teachers in the church, raising support is a very difficult task but we have tried to not let finances get in the way of ministry.

Q: If I had to choose just one chapter of your book for anyone to read, it would be the chapter on grace. Can you explain what, exactly, Gothard teaches about grace?>

In a nut shell he holds a view similar to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roman Catholic Church. As an old time commercial might have said, “Grace is given the old fashioned way, you earn it.” Like the JWs, Gothard is pretty clear that God gives grace to those who merit it, as is seen in his 2000 document “Definition of Grace.” He writes, “In the Old Testament, certain individuals ‘found grace’ in the eyes of the Lord” and “those who found grace possessed qualities that merited God’s favor.” Grace by definition means “unmerited favor.” So, if God gives “unmerited favor” to those who merit it, isn’t it actually merited favor? But that is absurd. That is also what the JWs teach when they write that they are to go out to give the message of God’s undeserved kindness to deserving ones.

Gothard, like Rome, views grace as a sort of substance. You get some, perform good works and get more, “Those in the New Testament are to act upon the grace that is given to them so that more grace can be received.” Bill Gothard also defines grace as “the desire and the power God gives us to do his will-joyfully.” Unfortunately, this does not come anywhere near the meaning of the ancient Greek word charis, either in secular or biblical usage.

Some time after our book came out, we met with Bill for about 6 weeks in what we might call, “Mondays with Bill.” We demonstrated all of this to him and his response was interesting and disheartening when he said, “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roman Catholics aren’t wrong on everything.” Even though that is true it doesn’t mean they are right on this. I did notice that in more recent years he has modified his written material on this to at least appear more orthodox on this but even that is dishonest. In our book, on page 86, one of the questions we asked of Bill was:

If a Christian leader changes a significant teaching which was shown to be unbiblical, should he not make a public retraction before his followers?

In our August 20, 2002 meeting with Bill (which we mentioned in our 2nd edition on page 338), his ministry leaders, Dr. Norman Geisler and Modern Reformation Magazine, Bill Gothard agreed that this was necessary. There is an obvious change in his teaching since that time and he has never publicly retracted or repented of his previous false teaching. This demonstrates that he is a false teacher and dishonest as well.

Q: Gothard departs from evangelical Protestants’ traditional understanding of grace, yet it is mainly evangelical Protestants that he appeals to. What do you think accounts for that?

A: I think there are several things that may account for this. First, since there is so little discernment within the church and a general lack of teaching on essentials, many do not really know what grace is. Second, of those who do know, since Gothard is accepted in the church as a good teacher, they often don’t listen to his definition but instead when they hear “grace” automatically define it biblically. I have found that when I point out his definition in his own writings and teaching they are horrified. It is really a matter of listening to what a teacher is teaching carefully and applying the definitions they provide to weigh it out and accept or reject it on the basis of their claims.