If God Were Real … the Illusions of Ordinary life Would Be Shattered
We all need illusions. That’s why we love movies.
Shattering the Illusion That Christian Life Is Boring
Who doesn’t love a great movie? All of the most exciting and wonderful parts oflife are right there on the screen to be enjoyed. Romance? Just come to my house anytime my wife, Donna, is watching television, and there’s a pretty good chance she’ll be watching Sleepless in Seattle. I thought the movie was kind of touching the first time I saw it. But Donna still cries, even now that she has the lines memorized.
As for me, I’ll take a movie with raw, masculine courage every time. Nothing beats Gladiator or Braveheart for making you glad to be a man. Or how about pure adventure, like the Indiana Jones films? What could be more cool than watching Indiana get out of every trap-and along the way eat monkey brains, defeat evil, and get the girl?
Yes, movies are one of life’s pleasures-even though we know that what they show us are just illusions. Could it be that we love movies because they allow us to experience, if only for a little while, what we’ll never really have? Or what we aren’t sure we can ever really be?
But what if life is meant to exceed even the best of what we see on film?
What if we are meant to live out the greatest romance of all?
What if we are designed to be powerful and courageous?
What if life could actually be filled with suspense and adventure and we really could live happily ever after?
Well, shouldn’t we expect all these things to be true if God is real? If the One who created this vast universe with a word really did come and live as one of us, die and rise again for us, and promise to fill us with his Spirit, why would we not expect all that and more? Especially since Jesus himself said he carne so that we “may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
Yes, things don’t always go smoothly in the movies. In fact, a movie with no tension is boring. As Christians, we know that we won’t live happily ever after until we get to heaven. In this world we will have pain and difficulties-but not boredom! Not if God is real.
The movies that seem so exciting to us might be boring when compared with the real lives we are meant to live.
If we actually lived as though God is real.
My friend Gary Witherall calls this kind of life “adventuring for God.” Gary is one of those Christians who really believes in God. He has definitely traded in practical atheism for authentic faith. Gary and his wife, Bonnie, put their authentic faith into action as missionaries in Sidon, Lebanon. Regardless of the personal risk involved in taking their Christian witness to a place where many are hostile to Christianity in general and especially missionaries, Gary and Bonnie sought to show God’s truth through their authentic, caring lives. They deeply loved the Palestinian people they served.
The following was written on the website of Operation Mobilization, the mission agency with which Gary and Bonnie served: “Some people talk about being on the cutting edge; some actually live there. Fewer choose to live on the bleeding edge of humanity, where nothing is humanly certain except great need, where risk defies other definitions, where light shines the brighter for the enveloping darkness. Sidon in Lebanon is such a place, and Bonnie and Gary Witherall were some of those few.”
Gary’s belief has been tested in the most extreme ways. In fact, Gary and Bonnie’s life should be made into a movie. It already has been written as a book. Total Abandon is the story of Bonnie’s murder. Bonnie, a nurse, was shot by a terrorist as she entered the clinic where she cared for Muslim women. The authorities quickly got Gary out of Lebanon. Less than a month after Bonnie’s murder, Gary wrote the following in his journal: “Nothing remains and yet I have everything. I lost my wife, my ministry, my beautiful apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, my friends there, my Arabic classes, and three classes a week studying Islam. The little Honda we drove on the bumpy roads through the crazy traffic. The warmth of Bonnie lying quietly asleep next to me. I was robbed but have been found today steadfast, strong as a piece of steel yet completely broken. Lord, sustain me.”!
Those were not just words in a journal. Since those days of crushing loss, Gary has returned to Lebanon many times, including once with my own daughter. He has stood in front of the place where Bonnie was murdered and preached forgiveness and love to the same culture that killed his wife. And then he sang with my daughter and the others there, … “Blessed be the name of the Lord … You give and take away … My heart will choose to say, … ‘Lord, blessed be Your name.'”
Those who know Gary watch him live in boldness, forgiveness, joy, and service to others-even to those who would kill what he loved most. Who lives like this? Only those who believe God is real!
That’s what it’s like to believe in God. Gary is living, breathing, weeping, laughing evidence that God is indeed real. If God does not exist, Gary has done an incredible job of inventing God’s impact in his life!
I’ve gotten to know Gary well since Bonnie’s death. I have laughed and cried with him, counseled him, and received counsel from him. And I had the privilege to help officiate his wedding to Helena, his beautiful new wife (and the granddaughter of a martyr).
God is real to Gary. This man believes it-and then actually lives as though he does. This has not led to an easy life, but it has led to the adventure of real life. Gary has known passionate love, tragedy and heartbreak, terror and suspense, renewal and new love, courage, danger, and adventure. All of the things we flock to see in the movies are his in real life.
Living for God shouldn’t be boring. When we live as though God is real, the true adventure begins. So maybe, after all, living a boring Christian life is a conscious choice, not an inevitable state. Perhaps for most of us the issue is not whether God is real but whether we really want the life that results from living like he is. Perhaps “adventuring for God” is a little too dangerous and risky for most of us. So the question may be, is it worth it to live as though God is real?
Shattering the Illusions of Religion
I’ve served as a pastor for twenty-seven years and served in a mission agency for two years. I have had the opportunity to see many lives like Gary’s-enough to convince me that only God could be responsible for what I have seen in them. But I have to admit that I’ve also seen a lot of the opposite-lives of those who believe in God, who love Jesus, but who have just settled into lives that are nothing like the adventure of following the real God. Most of these are not bad people. They love their families and friends, try to live decent lives, and serve in their churches. But something is missing. Many of them are just overwhelmed with the stuff oflife. They’re too busy trying to figure out how to afford a third car payment or how to get their son’s grades up to think much about such “deep” things. They may never have stopped to wonder if there could be something more to their experience of God-something that could dramatically impact those allconsuming daily struggles.
Now, living a life of adventure is not, in itself, evidence that God is real. Some people live lives of reckless adventure without God. But my point is that if God is real, there’s no need to live a boring life! We are meant for more. You can live a life of temporary adventure without God, but you cannot be an authentic follower of the real God without adventure. And why would you want to?
Many people do want very much to experience more than what they currently know of God. Every pastor hears regularly from those folks who want to “go deeper.” I want a deeper knowledge of God too. In fact, I can’t think of anything I want more. But my experience has been that many who want to go deeper are actually afflicted with an insidious spiritual disease I call Deeper-Sleep Syndrome. They make the mistake of thinking that going deeper means getting more knowledge about the Bible, having more Bible studies or worship services, or learning some spiritual mystery that they’ve somehow missed all these years. But as they dive into these things again and again, they’re in danger of going so deep that they end up in a deep spiritual sleep, unconscious of what God really wants. That’s DeeperSleep Syndrome.
The cure is actually quite simple. If God is real, surely he wants us to know him and to know him deeply. In fact, he says he has already told us all we need to know. “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3). Knowing more about God is a good thing; but acting on what we know is the real answer. James 2: 17 says, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
So if we were to begin to really live out the teachings of Jesus, we would find ourselves in the middle of an incredible spiritual adventure.
Can it be that simple? After all, isn’t that what Christians are already doing? Or at least something close to it?
I’m not so sure. When I examine my own life, I wonder how much I’m really seeking to follow Jesus, to do exactly what he said. Am I just a part of a church system that does its best to reinvent the words of Jesus to make what he said more palatable for our modern sensibilities, more in sync with the ways we really want to live? Maybe the nineteenth-century philosopher S0ren Kierkegard had it right: The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. … My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I get on in the world?
Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.2
Wow. I don’t think I would be quite that hard on scholarship, but he has a point. If God is real, he has told us what we need to know and what we need to do. Could it be that it’s time to take what we know … and do it?
I think we need to be prepared for the ramifications of this. We could be talking about a complete reshaping of how we have “done” our faith. But wouldn’t that be worthwhile if it resulted in the kind of movement that changed the world, the very course of history, through a little group of peasant nobodies in the first century?
So where do we start? First of all, start with hope-wild, fan-tastic hope that your life could be worthy of the big screen. That all that captivates us while we sit with our popcorn and Cokes may not be just an illusion.
It is time to be “dis-illusioned.”
I stumbled upon a website that fascinates me. It’s called “The Joy of Disillusionment: A Resource for Those Leaving Christianity,”3 and it chronicles the journey and the thoughts of David P. Crews, who has moved from being a committed Christian, a selfprofessed believer in the God of the Bible, to being an atheist. Crews says, “This site is primarily directed to a select group ofpeople-those who are somewhere in the process of leaving their Christian beliefs behind them and moving forward into an unknown realm of rational, non-theistic thought and life.”4 In other words, he writes to those who once lived as though God is real but now are on a journey to live as though he is not. I found that ironic and intriguing, since I’m writing to people who may not live as though God is real but are on a journey to live as though he is.
I find Crews’ writings to be honest and fair and even instructive in a strange, backward kind of way. He writes: “For those of us who have come out of a religious life to the acceptance of disbelief and of a rational world view, the word disillusionment is uniquely appropriate, but in a new and positive way. In fact, it is the perfect term for us. When we dissect this word, the root is, of course, ‘illusion.’ To be ‘dis-illusioned,’ therefore, is to not be deceived by the illusion. Finally, it is to reject the illusion in favor of what is real.”5
Strangely enough, I find this to be a great description of how Christ followers need to live if we believe God is real. We must come out of the current religious life we’ve been languishing in. We must “disbelieve” it. It is not a rational worldview to live in bland uniformity and creative vacuity if we believe what we say we believe. It is time to leave behind that illusion-to reject it in favor of what is real, the God on whom we have staked everything.
Crews goes on to give us a good prescription for living the “disillusioned” life. “When we replace illusion with reality, we step out of our cavern of myth and take a deep breath of the air outside-brisk and with a tang of scents unknown. It is the real world we are inhaling and it enlivens us to move forward and to value who and what we truly are.”6
Yes! This atheist has just about nailed what life as a Christ follower ought to be.
But I don’t know what I find sadder, the fact that David Crews has concluded that God is an illusion or the fact that we so often and so tragically live as though he is. It is time for us to step out of our cavern of myth-in which we live as though we were godless-and breathe the air God made in the same awesome, exhilarating way he made us to breathe it. Or else get honest and follow Crews into a life of less hypocrisy that simply discounts God altogether.
If you’re ready to be “disillusioned”-if you are determined to live a life that is genuine, a life that embraces the reality of God rather than the illusion we seem to have made him-I affirm your path. I respect David Crews. In fact, I suspect I would like him. But I believe he is wrong, and desperately so. Our hope is valid. It’s intellectually defensible. It’s philosophically sound. But it’s rarely lived.
So let’s begin to live! All the romance and adventure of the most thrilling movies may actually be your birthright as a child of God. The curtain could be lifting, and the screenplay of your life could be about to come alive in a way that would make every flick you’ve ever seen a B film that can’t even begin to measure up.
Shattering the Illusion That Hollywood Must Be Our Enemy
If we truly lived adventurous lives that reflect the reality of God, maybe Christ followers would make all the movies. No, I’m not talking about some battle plan to boycott Hollywood until the purveyors of on-screen smut go broke and Christians take over. (The fact that some have tried things like this fits the sad caricature of Christians the world thinks is true of all of us.) I’m saying that if we made movies that resembled the lives we are actually meant to live, the movies would be so good that everyone would want to see them!
All right, I know I’m being naive. We would leave out the sexual content that draws many people, and not everyone would flock to see our films. But the fact is that many of the best movies actually are about spiritual truths. It almost seems that the world is trying to write our stories for us. I am astounded at the prevalence of spiritual searching evident in movies today. Sometimes the world seems more interested in the wonders and possibilities of God than his followers are.
Tom Hanks seems to bring elements of the gospel into just about every film he stars in. He’s the one who lays down his life for another in Saving Private Ryan. He’s the simple man, Forrest Gump, who just can’t get away from the amazing plan and purpose woven throughout his life. Gump is a simpleton, yet he confronts the atheist with a profoundly faith-filled statement: ”I’m going to heaven, Lieutenant Dan.” And then he witnesses Dan’s transformation. Hanks is the lost man in Cast Away who experiences the worst we might imagine life could offer and, in the end, sees that there’s a plan by which all things work together for his good.
You just can’t get away from God and his mysteries in the movies. And even when it’s not blatant or intentional, many films seem almost like a retelling of the gospel.
I recently saw the blockbuster movie I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. When the film ended, I walked out of the theater thinking, Well, they did it again! They just made a film that directly parallels the gospel, and they probably had no idea! (Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know the ending, you might want to skip ahead to the next paragraph-or better yet, go see it and then keep reading.) A man-made virus has virtually destroyed humanity. Those not killed by the disease have been devoured by the horrific creatures that those infected by the virus became. Will Smith’s character is a doctor, the only survivor in New York City. He spends his days seeking a cure that will transform the monsters mankind has become back into what they were created to be. At the end he sacrifices his life to save others and, ultimately, the entire world. And what is the means of this salvation? Blood.
Hello? Does anyone have any trouble seeing the gospel reflected in this story? A savior comes and sheds his blood to save and transform the human race, which has been infected by sin. It seems that God’s plan is so hardwired into our souls that it leaks out everywhere, even when it may not be intentional.
Does it not seem strange and sad to you, though, that many people who claim to be Christians spend most of their time fo-cusing on the internal issues of church life that almost no one outside of the church cates about, i.e., the style of music and minor doctrinal disputes, while the world scrambles to write our story? And when the creative work of a follower of Christ actually does make the screen, most of the time the world flocks to see it! Films based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Natnia ate perfect examples.
The bottom line is, followers of Christ have a compelling story to tell. In fact, if we live like God is real, we have the story of all stories to tell! And we are made to tell it. The foundation of all our stories is that we were made in the image of God-in the image of the Creator. So we were designed to create. The spatk that lit the match of the universe ignites our souls.
Yet we seem to think that being a good Christian means pouring water on that spatk so it doesn’t flame up and get too wild. After all, we have to be reverent, don’t we?
What does that even mean? I’ve heard the “irreverent” criticism used hundreds of times to justify the squelching of creativity within the church. The critics don’t always use the words reverent or irreverent. They may just criticize the music for being too loud or worldly, or the methods of the church too contemporaty. But it all seems to come back to the same thing: they want their Christianity to be neatly packaged, safe and quiet-reverent.
My problem is that Jesus’ behavior as recorded in the Bible doesn’t seem all that reverent to me. He condemned the teachers of the law and Phatisees-the most reverent of Jews-called them names like snakes and vipers, and chose to spend most of his time among big, loud crowds of peasants. He chose rough fishermen and embezzling tax collectors for his followers. He ran those in the religious business out of the temple with a whip.
Jesus calls us to passion, not boredom. Maybe it is time to reject cold “reverence” and join a “wild” crowd. And tell a “wild” story. My “wild” daughter is a theater actress in New York City. Maybe she can help us understand the story we are meant to tell; the real-life adventure we are meant to live; what the screenplay can look like when we choose to follow Jesus with passion in the real world.
Acting Out God’s Love
CHRISTI AVANT WATSON
Rehearsal studios in Manhattan commonly smell of sweat and bare feet-not an altogether appealing aroma, but one I am familiar with nonetheless. Actors file into this pungent building, chatting excitedly. We are in the ensemble of a play going up at a rather prestigious off-Broadway theater. None of us has any lines. We sing only one song in the show. Nevertheless, we are buzzing like honey-starved bees, knOWing that after this production, we can place the name of this theater prominently on our resumes.
We hope the next casting director we see will observe this credit, jump for joy, and call us in for every project he has. Most likely, this will not happen; but we hope. After all, we are a people of crazy hope, illogical dreams, and gritty passion. An average person may go to five or six job interviews in a lifetime; we go to five or six a week. If one produces any results, even a follow-up phone call, we celebrate. Halfway through rehearsal, a presence enters the room, and all eyes turn in her direction. Dressed head to toe in the quintessential New York hue-black-the acclaimed playwright has joined the lowly ensemble players. In the middle of the room, she stands on a chair and warmly greets us. “I grew up in a strict evangelical home/’ she says, “then I went to Berkeley, and I began to accept what is so acceptable today-that evangelicals are morons, idiots, and that they are ruining our world. However, after I moved to New York, I began to realize that to lump all of these people together is abit simple-minded. I decided to do an experiment, to write the church service-and the characters in that service-that would interest me as an atheist; and that is the history behind the show you are in.” If I was buzzing before, now I was spinning out of control with anticipation. The only thing I love as much as singing or delving into an intriguing character is working with and knowing artists who are aggressively, and in this case publicly, searching for truth. Creative people, whether or not they follow Christ, have tapped into the remnants of God left in every human heart, and I absolutely love surrounding myself with that.
For two years I have been here, pursuing this absurd profession alongside New York’s progressive and wonderful culture. I have had the privilege of performing allover the United States, even in Alaska. Every day is not a good day. Some days I feel like I have been thrown into a boxing ring, gloveless and in five-inch heels, and been pitted against a heavyweight champion. On those days I focus on the relationships I have developed that would never have taken root within the walls of a church. Although my friends are very spiritual, they tend to fall somewhere along the playwright’s path. Either they have been wounded and are angry or they simply feel that the Christian church is irrelevant.
Often the church has not helped matters. Sometimes the church sings “Just As I Am” and then demands that others be just as she is.
Every day I pray that I can be a part of reversing the tragic flow that has left the state of the Christian church such that this is its impression on the world-or at least that I can follow Jesus Christ closely enough to heal the pain people feel.
Eric Bryant, one of the pastors at a “flow-reversing” church in Los Angeles, says that “Love is the best apologetic.” After all, was it not love that drove Jesus Christ to hell and back on our behalf? No other force is powerful enough to turn the tide, and as ambassadors of that love, we have an amazing opportunity to alter the future.
Perhaps I’ll never grace a Broadway stage or a big screen. Perhaps I’ll never again get paid to do what I know I was born to. These thoughts are paralyzing sometimes, but all adventures come with great risk. In the end, the faces of my friends who have allowed me to share in their spiritual journeys are what matters. It is not the grandiose feats you accomplish but the people you actively and intentionally love who will take you on the great adventure available to every follower of Christ. If you restrict your love to those like you, those you understand, those who make you feel comfortable, you will be pretty bored. If you dare to open your life to one person who needs a friend, you just might find yourself in an adventure of eternal proportions.
Since we have the most compelling and interesting story to tell, and since it seems even those who don’t believe our story want to tell it for us, maybe it’s time that we actually begin to tell it ourselves-and even more important, to live it ourselves. To live like God is real.
The screenplays of the movies of our lives will be full of emotional ups and downs, joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. Like Gary and Bonnie Wither all’s missionary service in Lebanon, like my daughter Christi’s missionary service in the theater district of New York, authentic life in Christ will not always be easy, pleasant, or predictable.
But it will always be an adventure.
Trading Illusions for a Compelling Faith
I walked past the television the other day and stopped in my tracks when I heard a voice say, “I have been told you will not have a person of faith at your house …. Is that true?” The voice belonged to talk-show host Glenn Beck, and his question was addressed to comedian and illusionist Penn Jillette, who is well known for his controversial atheistic ideas. Jillette confirmed that Beck was correct and went on to explain why he would not allow Christians or other people of faith to visit in his home. He said that he did not use alcohol or drugs and would not allow people who did into his home to influence his children. He also did not want what he had seen in Christianity to influence his children in any way.7
Is it possible that while we Christians have been busy fighting the culture war and protecting our families from evil influences, we have done such a poor job of living out an intelligent, provocative, and compelling faith that people like Jillette now feel they must protect their children from us? Mter almost thirty years of ministry, I’m not sure he has it wrong. I’ve been fortunate to spend my ministry among loving people who helped my children to grow up seeing much of the good that is the church. But honestly, I’ve seen more children alienated from God and from the church by the actions of Christians than by anything atheists have done. I’ve lost count of the number of pastors I know whose children want nothing to do with the God of their parents, because they watched what people who claimed to love God did to those parents. Even I want to protect my children from some Christians.
In a different interview, with NPR, Jillette said, “Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O, and all other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.”8 Now that’s funny. And also profoundly sad. For I believe the responsibility lies squarely at the feet of the church for allowing an illusionist like Penn Jillette to spend his whole life seeing only an illusion of what it means to follow Jesus, never the real thing. For offering so little ofJesus to the world that a man like Jillette can really think that all those things he mentioned, from his family to his Jell-O, are better off without God, without purpose, without hope of anything except utter annihilation, and without any contact from Christians. It’s time that we change that, for Jillette’s sake and for millions of others’. It’s time to become the kind of people everyone wants to have over to his house-if nothing else, just to hear our stories, to explore the mystery of our lives, to try to understand what it is about us that draws them to us, even in their disbelief It’s time to get the messed-up movie we’ve made of Christianity out of the theater and put a new show on the screen.
One that is worthy of the Producer.
So take a step toward that hope’s becoming reality. Decide to take the risk of living like God is real, whatever that may mean and wherever that may take you. Perhaps the only way you’ll be sure that God is real is to live as if he is and then watch what happens. Get ready, though. In the next chapter we’ll see just how enormous that change may be.