2006-12-23 0 comments

The Greatest Underdog Story of All Time

In the latest evidence that "Newsweek" is seemingly obsessed with Christianity, the cover story and subsquent sidebars address the issue of "The world into which Jesus was born and raised has shaped morals for two millennia. How Jewish mores became Christianity's customs."

(UPDATE: The magazine's stories miss a lot. A lot. More af a line-by-line analysis later.)

OK, OK, I confess. It was the promise of an interview with Sylvester Stallone and the 1980-auteur's revival of the "Rocky" franchise with the fifth installment, titled "Rocky Balboa."

(Contrary to popular belief -- or this link -- there is no such thing as a "Rocky V." You hear me? It didn't happen.)

If I had a chance to meet, say, five famous people, alive or dead, Stallone would be on the list. Call it corny or a childish fantasy, but I love those movies. They are, as a whole, my favorite movie of all time. Bar none.

I still have, in my possession, a pair of Rocky swimming trunks; a "Rocky IV" cut-off T-shirt; a pair of boxing gloves that, in the absence of an opponent (read: my brother or my dad) I would use to hit myself in the face while acting out scenes from the movies; and, my personal favorite, a long-sleeved T-shirt that I myself designed back when you could find those T-shirt kiosks in the mall what would outfit the shirt of your choice with any number of cheesy images (wizards, Trans-Ams, buxom babes in bikinis, etc.) and, then, personlize them with puffy letters. If you were born in the early- to mid-70s, you know what I'm talking about. Anyway, my shirt was white with black sleeves, a snarling tiger on the front, puffy yellow letters down each arm that say "Rocky Balboa" and, on the back, even bigger puffy letters (black this time) that say, "Eye of the Tiger." Needless to say, my career as a clothes desinger coincided with "Rocky III," which coined the "Eye of the Tiger" phrase.

You know why I would like to meet Stallone? I want to shake his hand, pat him on the back, and say, "thanks." Without those movies, my childhood would not have been as good as it was. And I'm being completely serious.

The question all this raises is why are we so drawn to underdog stories? The "Rocky" franchise bills itself as "The Greatest Underdog Story of Our Time," and I don't doubt that's true. A down-on-his-luck fighter gets an inexplicable shot at the heavyweight champion of the world, trains his butt off and, in the greatest heavyweight fight of all time (if it were real, that is), takes the champ all 15 rounds before losing. Thing is, he didn't really lose ... oh, he lost the fight, but he won his dignity, his respect.

Of course, in subsequent movies, things change. He gets famous, rich, etc. But the point of it all is the same: a guy "whose whole life was a million-to-one shot" makes something of himself from the sweat of his brow ... and the meat of his fists. Now that's a story.

The Greatest Underdog Story of Our Time? Yeah, I buy it.

But it's not the Greatest Underdog Story of All Time. Another tale takes that title.

Here's an illustration that you may not recognize, but bear with me: Let's say there's this unwed woman living in Afghanistan. She's nine-month's pregnant, and homeless. She's forced by the Taliban to go back to where she was born in a small region near the Pakistani border to register with the authorities, not only so they can keep track of her, but because they are instituting a "taxation without representation" system to the provinces it governs.

She's broke and overtaxed, living in a land that erupts from time to time by civil war and ruled by a government with no legitimate claims to do so. When she finally has her baby, she does so without the benefit of a doctor and, out of fear for the baby's safety in a land where a ruler like Osama Bin Laden is running the show, she takes off for Africa, where's she's never been. She's 14 years old.

That's a modern context, but it's the kind of circumstances into which Jesus was born. Was there any historical figure that was as much an underdog as Jesus? Growing up, Jesus knew the poor, the oppressed and the powerless firsthand.

Is it any wonder that the first person He ever told He was the Messiah was a woman who'd been married five times and was living with a man that wasn't number six. Jesus associated with these types of people for a reason: that's who He came to save.

And because He started His life in such rough-and-tumble circumstances, He was the ultimate underdog, whether He was God or not.

Jesus loved people for whom the future is not secure. He could relate.

Do you have an underdog's attitude? Do you make an effort to help feed the woman in line at Go-Mart with the handful of food stamps. Do you donate your time at the homeless shelter? Are you an underdog? There are many people who are.

This is, of course, the worst time of year for those against whom life has turned its back. And that's why Jesus can relate so much ... He came into this world as God, yes, but He was the biggest underdog of them all.

(copyright andrew j. beckner, 2006. all rights under copyright reserved.)

2006-12-22 0 comments

Maybe this isn't the best idea

Take a minute and read this story from the Los Angeles Times:

The setting: post-apocalypse Manhattan.
The heroes: the Tribulation Force.
Their mission: defeat Satan by bringing the world to Christ.
Inspired by a hugely popular book series, the new video game "Left Behind: Eternal Forces'' deposits players in a futuristic world where born-again Christians must use prayer and song to convert the infidels -- or tanks and snipers to blow them away. The game is being promoted to Christian teens as "the ultimate fight of good vs. evil.''
But with just eight days left in the Christmas shopping season, it's coming under heavy fire.
A coalition of liberal Christian groups has complained that the video game is too violent, intolerant and divisive to be properly called Christian.
"It's essentially a training video for faith-based killing, marketed to children,'' said the Rev. Tim Simpson, a volunteer pastor with a Presbyterian church in Jacksonville, Fla.
There is no blood or gore in the game; when bodies fall, they simply disappear. And you rack up more points by converting your enemies to Christianity than by killing them. But it's hard to advance with a strictly pacifist approach, since you're constantly under attack by the antichrist's army -- which resembles the United Nations. (You atone for mowing down the bad guys by pushing a ‘prayer' key, which builds your strength for more fighting.)
"I can't think of anything more antithetical to the gospel of Christ,'' said Simpson, who runs an organization called the Christian Alliance for Progress. "The message is that God intends for everyone who doesn't share your faith to be whacked.''
Game creator Troy Lyndon dismisses such objections as alarmist. He says the point of the game is to spur teens to start thinking about "matters of eternal importance'' -- such as the fate of their souls.
Players advance by picking up clues that are supposed to get them thinking about the Biblical prophesy of the Rapture, when believers expect to ascend to heaven, leaving behind a ravaged Earth. The game is set after the Rapture, when those left behind are divided into two warring camps: born-again believers against the forces of Satan.
Lyndon acknowledges that most gamers won't tarry on the scriptural analysis in the clues when there are battles to be fought and heathens to evangelize. But those who care to learn more can click over to a Web site that invites them to accept Christ -- and incidentally, renounce Darwin.
"We're out to make a difference,'' said Lyndon, the chief executive of Left Behind Games Inc., based in Murrieta, Calif.
The game has been endorsed by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. In an online review, the ministry noted that warfare is integral to the game, just as it is to the "Left Behind'' novels, which have sold 63 million copies. But the reviewer called concerns about the violence exaggerated, writing: "Eternal Forces is the kind of game that mom and dad can actually play with Junior -- and use to raise some interesting questions along the way.''
The liberal Christian groups that oppose the game have gathered 28,000 signatures of protest through the Web site DefConAmerica.org. By comparison, the conservative American Family Association last year collected 500,000 pledges to boycott Target for using "holiday'' instead of "Christmas'' in its marketing.
It's unclear whether the protest against the video game has had much effect. Andy Butcher, editor of Christian Retailing magazine, said Christian bookstores "have been a little slow'' to stock it. But he attributes that not to unease about the content, but to fear of competition from Wal-Mart, which sells "Eternal Forces'' for less than $40. (Christian retailers can't match Wal-Mart's volume discounts, so they're selling it for $45 to $60, sometimes bundled with a Bible.)
For his part, Lyndon says the controversy "has been great for the product,'' though he won't release sales figures. Certainly, the fracas has given the game worldwide media exposure; just last week, Lyndon was interviewed by German TV and British radio.
Between interviews, he's been supervising fixes to the game, such as muting one character's annoying tic of repeatedly shouting "Praise the Lord!'' He's also working on a sequel.
"I want to show that thinking about what may happen when you die can be as fun as being in an Indiana Jones film,'' Lyndon said. "It's an adventure.''


Frankly, as a Christian, this kind of stuff makes me cringe. Reading the "Left Behind" novels is one thing (which I did, and enjoyed). Acting it out in some corny video game that will do little more than elicit guffaws from the media is something else entirely.

Not that this news story isn't without its faults. To be sure, the reporter takes her cheap shots at all of us right-wing, gay-hating bigots who so foolishly believe that there's more to life than what we see out of our windows.

Specifically, she uses thinly-veiled, snide remarks about Christians with passages like: "born-again Christians must use prayer and song to convert the infidels" and "most gamers won't tarry on the scriptural analysis in the clues when there are battles to be fought and heathens to evangelize."

(Yes, yes ... all non-believers are infidels and heathens, and they're lucky we don't just all blow them away with shotguns and get it over with. Not only are we all ignorant, we're evil to boot.)

Yes, yes, we're all so terribly stupid for believing that God actually came to earth as a man, lived a sinless life and died to save the sins of the world and that, one day, we'll live with him in heaven for eternity. Please be patient with us. We are a little slow.

(Silly little Christian, myths are for kids.)

What's sad about all this is what gets lost in the shuffle: the very real fact that God exists, that Christ died for our sins and that, someday, He will judge us according to whether we have accepted His gift of salvation or rejected it.

I think games like "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" are misguided, as are the umpteen billion sequels to the original series of novels. If the goal is to interest more people in eschatology and bring the message of salvation to more people, then I pray God blesses those efforts.

But what I fear will happen is an inevitable backlash against this time of evangelism to the point that you'll continue to read these slanted stories that portray our faith as worthy of nothing more than a punch line. The only demographic (ethnic, cultural or religious) that it's perfectly OK to make fun of is born-again Christians. So come on, let's not make it any easier on them.

You know what? I have no problem with pointing out to people that there is a price to be paid for A) sin and B) not accepting the forgiveness to that sin.

It's just that the best way to do it isn't to set them in front of a video game where they can "mow down the bad guys by pushing a 'prayer key.'"

Instead, why not mow someone's grass? Why not send them a random card? Why not invite them for dinner and not spend all hour telling them how they're going to hell? Why not volunteer at a local food bank, give your coat to a coat drive, make a bologna sandwich and give it to that guy who always asks you for spare change on your way to work?

There's nothing wrong with having a sense of urgency for the lost when Christ could come back for His church at any time.

But there's a better way.

2006-12-18 2 comments

Under the fig tree

“Before Philip called you, when you were under that fig tree, I saw you.”
(John 1:48)

He can't see his own feet.
Not only are they moving too quickly -- indeed, the Galilean is running faster than he ever has before -- but the dust kicking up from the road is swirling around him in a red cloud.
It's a hot day in Bethsaida, and the man is sweating.
His uncut hair is a tangled mess of black curls atop his head. His modest tunic hangs off a well-tanned shoulder, and he has to slow down at times to make sure the whole thing doesn't fall off as he runs.
But he dares not stop. Slow down? Regrettably, yes. But stop? No. This is far too important a message to deliver.
Up ahead, Nathanael sits beneath a tree. He looks to his left, and sees the man running toward him.
Is that Philip?
It is.
Nathanael would normally smile at his best friend's arrival, but there's something in his eyes, something frantic, that tell Nathanael that something is … no, not wrong. That’s not the right word. By the time Philip makes it to the shade of the fig tree he is terribly out of breath, and his best friend is officially worried.
He spits the words in short gasps.
“He's here,” Philip says, barely managing the words. His right hand is on his own knee, his other gripping Nathanael's wrist, partly for support, but also to make sure he has his friend's attention. He’s bent over, staring down at the red dirt at his feet, squinting as the stinging sweat runs from his brow into his eyes. Some of it drips down and creates minute watery explosions on the ground. Overhead, the sun is bright.
“Who, Philip? Who is here?”
Philip raises his head sideways to look up. He's still bending over, still holding onto Nathanael's wrist, still fighting for air. The two men's eyes meet for this first time this day.
Nathanael can see his friend has been crying, but Philip appears neither hurt nor afraid. “Jesus,” Philip says. “Jesus is here. Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah. I've found Him.
“No, wait.”
Nathanael waits.
“He's found me.”

Imagine what it must have been like.
Philip and Nathanael's people had waited over a thousand years for this moment. Generations had passed from the world, each born with the promise that one day the Messiah would come, each with the hope that it would happen in their lifetimes, each with sorrow and sadness as they left this world judged by God's Old Covenant. All were seeking the one the prophets had promised would come and deliver them.
Today was that day for Philip and Nathanael.
(Take a minute to read John 1:43-50.)
Right there, in verse 43, Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Lamb of God who was to take away the sins of this world, the one whom Philip's father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather, going all the way back to the days of Moses, the one whom all of them had been seeking ... right there, in that one verse, the very promise of God walks up to Philip in the middle of the afternoon on a typical day in Galilee and says, quite simply, “Follow me.”
Nathanael thought his friend was crazy. Still, he was open when the call came.
Oh, it wasn’t as if he didn't question it ... he was a lot like us in that respect.
The Son of God? From Nazareth?
“Are you sure? Nazareth? That little hole in the wall?”
But when Philip said, “Come and see,” Nathanael came and saw.
That’s an admirable attitude, one borne out of a hope and expectation of the revelation of Christ. Jews in first-century Palestine were an expectant lot. They were under the yoke of oppression from a foreign empire, a daily reminder that their lives were not as fulfilled as they could be.
Sound familiar?
Our war is against our flesh, our human nature. Our invading empire is the sin raging rampantly within us.
That being the case, does our attitude reflect Phillip’s and Nathanael’s? Are we looking forward to Christ with expectation?
I’m not talking about His coming. I’m talking about every day, every morning when we wake up. Do we wait expectantly for Him and what He will accomplish to His glory through us?
We must be willing to “come and see.”
We cannot expect God to talk to us from across the country. We cannot expect Him to speak to us and reveal to us the purpose for which we have been created and the wonderful things we can accomplish through His power if we are sitting under a fig tree ... or, to modernize the story, if we are sitting on the couch wondering why God doesn't speak to us. We must step out, come and then see.
When Nathanael came to see what all the fuss was about, Jesus spotted him coming from a great distance. Likewise, the Lord knows when we are seeking Him. The Bible says, and I'm paraphrasing again, “draw close to me and I'll draw close to you.”
The amazing thing about this verse is that Jesus knew immediately how He could use Nathanael for the Kingdom of Heaven.
Still, ol' Nathan was confused. He'd probably never seen this man before (and, if he did, he only knew Him as a Jewish carpenter from a nearby town).
But Jesus knew him. “I saw you ... come out from that fig tree,” Jesus was calling.
He's calling us, too.
God desperately wants a more intimate relationship with us ... He longs to speak to us, and when we truly surrender our lives to Him, we'll know His voice.
Here's where it all comes together in this story. Nathanael may not have ever seen Jesus before. But when He heard about Him, he came out from under that fig tree.
The result? When Christ spoke, Nathanael knew because he had heeded the call.
“Rabbi! You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathanael said. He only heard but one sentence from the Master, and Nathanael knew.
What was his reward for heeding the call, for knowing the voice of God? It's the same one we can have. You can imagine Christ saying the same words to you as He did to Nathanael that hot day in Bethsaida, the same words he speaks when He answers prayer, when we read His word, when He wraps us up in His loving arms by showering us with blessings. It's all there for us, if we really want it.
And, like He said to Nathanael, we could easily imagine Him saying to us, “You ain't seen nothing yet.”
“You shall see greater things than that; and you will know the truth.”

(copyright 2006, andrew j. beckner. all rights under copyright reserved)
2006-12-05 1 comments

Christmas reading

It's the Christmas season, of course, and with that in mind, read the following passage from Philp Yancey's book "The Jesus I Never Knew."

Oh, and if you haven't read it, turn off your computer, grab your car keys and head out to the bookstore, buy a copy, and then read it. Right now.



On to the passage!

"Nine months of awkward explanations, the lingering scent of scandal -- it seems that God arranged the most humiliating circumstances possible for His entrance, as if to avoid any charge of favoritism. I am impressed that when the Son of God became a human being, He played by the rules, harsh rules: small towns do not treat kindly young boys who grow up with questionable paternity.

Malcom Muggeridge observed that in our day, with family-planning clinics offering convenient ways to correct 'mistakes' that might disgrace a family name, 'It is, in point of fact, extremely improbable, under existing conditions, that Jesus would have been permitted to be born at all. Mary's pregnancy, in poor circumstances, and with the father unknown, would have been an obvious case for an abortion; and her talk of having conceived as a result of the intervention of the Holy Ghost would have pointed to the need for psychiatric treatment, and made the case for terminating her pregnancy even stronger. Thus our generation, needing a Savior more, perhaps, than any that has ever existed, would be too humane to allow one to be born.'

The virgin Mary, though, whose parenthood was unplanned, had a different response. She heard the angel out, pondered the repurcussions, and replied, 'I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said.' Often a work of God comes with two edges, great joy and great pain, and in that matter-of-fact response Mary embraced both. She was the first person to accept Jesus on His own terms, regardless of the personal cost." (emphasis mine)

So, do you want to accept Jesus on His terms? Are you ready to abandon your right to yourself and live wholly -- and holy -- in His grace? Check this link out.