Up In The Air – Part III

The third in a series of theological reflections based on Up In The Air starring George Clooney, directed by Jason Reitman and released in 2009.

Ryan Bingham is a lone wolf. His colleague accuses him of living “in a cocoon of self-banishment”. His sister tells him, “We never see you. You are dead to us”. Bingham is not bothered. Relationships are baggage. They must be minimised in service of a higher goal.

But as the movie unfolds, Bingham’s views are challenged. He starts to see that while relationships are messy, they are also rich. He starts to see that while his life is easy, it is also lonely. He starts to taste the joy of intimacy and lets himself fall in love. Unfortunately, despite outward appearances, the woman he falls in love with has not undergone the same transformation. As he lowers his guard she slams the door, declaring him to be “an escape, a break from our normal lives, a parenthesis”. Here Bingham is forced to experience the full force of the same cold, selfish logic that he has always applied to others. It hurts.

From the Christian perspective, relationships are attractive, exciting and fulfilling because they are what we are made for. They do not serve a higher goal, they are the higher goal. The Bible reveals a God who is relational in himself. It sees humans as being made firstly for deep and intimate relationship with God and secondly for relationship with each other. Adam and Eve stand naked before God and each other and they feel no shame (Genesis 2:25). The Bible closes with a vision of perfect relationships. A heavenly wedding feast.

From the Christian perspective, relationships are also at the heart with what is wrong with the world. Firstly, a broken relationship with God. Secondly, broken relationship with others. The narrative and teaching of the Bible is that we have actively rejected the good God of relationships, and placed ourselves in charge instead. As a result, our relationships are marred by the selfishness, anger, jealousy and bitterness that we experience in ourselves and see all around us.

Bingham was drawn to the deep riches of relationship but was stung by the hurtfulness of another. Christianity offers both an explanation for why we have this experience of the world and points to Jesus as the solution. The Bible (Titus 3:5-7) describes it in this way:

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

You can investigate more about the Christian message HERE.

Up In The Air – Part II

The second in a series of theological reflections based on Up In The Air starring George Clooney, directed by Jason Reitman and released in 2009.clouds

Ryan Bingham lives a shallow and selfish life. He doesn’t live this way because he’s worse than other people. He’s just more honest and courageous. Bingham does not believe in an afterlife. As a result he dislikes platitudes and conventions that offer false hope and mask the reality of death.  Why bother with the stress and mess of marriage or family, he wonders, when I can enjoy casual relationships that serve my interests? The characters around Bingham find him irritating and confusing but there is actually something refreshing about the authentic self-determination of his life. How many people do you know have thought deeply about life and death, have come to well-founded, albeit unpopular conclusions and deliberately live these out on a daily basis?

The Christian worldview brings with it a similar intellectual honesty. The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes starts with a bleak meditation on death with the uncomfortable conclusion that death renders all things meaningless. In chapter 2:16 the writer says:

For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered, the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!

Likewise in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul does not shy away from the intellectual realities associated with being a Christian. In 1 Corinthians 15:16-19, Paul admits that if:

…the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

In verse 32 he extends the theme:

If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

It is easy to characterise Christianity as a soothing, illogical myth that seeks to gloss over the more difficult aspects of life. But this is nonsense. The Bible is far more open and honest about the cold reality of death than our sanitised Western society is willing to be. Likewise, the Apostle Paul is more open and honest about the internal logic of his own religion than any other religious figure I know of. He is willing to render Christianity falsifiable by pointing out that the whole belief system rests on the historical events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection. Events that his readers can check by speaking with eyewitnesses who are still alive (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Events that we can consider historically.

The call of Christianity is not to abandon your reason to belief but rather to use your reason to consider the case for belief. The Christian has been persuaded that Christ lives. And that belief changes everything. Authentic self-determination gives way to a life lived to the glory of God and for the good of others.

Up In The Air – Part I

The first in a series of theological reflections based on Up In The Air starring George Clooney, directed by Jason Reitman and released in 2009.

Up in the Air centres on the character of Ryan Bingham, a corporate high-flyer who specialises in ‘outplacement’ (firing people on behalf of others). Bingham regards himself as a shark, happily alone in the world and committed to continual movement in order to adapt and survive. His main goal in life is to clock up 10 million flying miles which will earn him access to an elite club of frequent flyers and he is ruthlessly single-minded in pursuit of the goal. Work is maximised, housing and possessions are minimsed, relationships are casual and distant. The ‘backpack’ of life is kept as light as possible and cultural norms are disregarded in service of a higher goal.

This is a view of the world that both accords and clashes with Christianity. Like Bingham, the Christian is called to a higher goal. However, the call of Jesus is not to a temporary and selfish trophy but to the kingdom of God. Jesus begins his ministry by heralding the kingdom of God (Mark 1), he teaches his followers to pray for, and seek first the kingdom (Matthew 6). This is a kingdom marked by obedience to God, concern for God’s glory, selfless love for others, commitment to truth, and love of justice. Christians regard it as having been inaugurated by Jesus and his Spirit but also wait for it to be consummated with the return of Jesus when this world gives way to a new and eternal creation marked by perfect relationship with God and each other.

Like Bingham, the Christian lets their goal shape all else. The Christian life is not relaxed or comfortable. Ministry is maximised, sin is fought, earthly concerns are held loosely. The prize is big but so is the cost. In Mark 8 Jesus says:

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.

Similarly, Hebrews 12 calls Christians to lighten the backpack (albeit in a different way to Bingham):

…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Bigham longs for a temporary prize and lives a life of radical selfishness in order to claim it. Christians long for an eternal prize and Jesus calls them to a life of radical, selfless faith in order to claim it.

You can investigate more about the Christian message HERE.

Robinson’s Reflection’s Part V

The fifth in a series of theological reflections drawn from Robinson Crusoe written by Daniel Dafoe and first published in 1719.priest

If God exists, how would a person gain access to him, her or it? How would divine knowledge or relationship be revealed or mediated? At one point in the narrative of Robinson Crusoe, Friday explains that he has never met God because this is left to the old men of his tribe who pass on divine messages to the rest of the people. Crusoe observes:

…there is priestcraft even among the most blinded, ignorant pagans in the world; and the policy of making a secret of religion, in order to preserve the veneration of the people to the clergy, is not only to be found in the Roman, but perhaps among all religions in the world…

The Bible both critiques and affirms the notion of priestly mediation.

In terms of criticism, Jesus saves his harshest words (see Matthew 23) for the religious hierarchy of his day who delighted in outward religious ceremony but were ignorant of God and sought personal power rather than truth or love. Christians are not ignorant of the fact that religion can be used to manipulate and coerce. Jesus, Martin Luther and many observers, both religious and otherwise, condemn such ‘priestcraft’ for the sham that it is.

Indeed, priestly power is so often and so terribly abused that it is enough to make a person suspicious and cynical of all such claims. However, the Bible ultimately upholds and affirms the notion of priesthood by pointing to the person of Jesus:

There is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:5-6)

Here is a priest who claims to be able to speak on behalf of God because he is God come in the flesh. Here is a priest who claims to provide a way to God, not by good deeds, ritual or payment but through confession of sin and faith in his own sacrificial death. Here is a priest whose big claims are backed up with behaviour and teaching marked by power, truth and selfless love rather than impotence, secrecy and selfishness. Here is a priest worth considering.

Robinson’s Reflections – Part IV

The fourth in a series of theological reflections drawn from Robinson Crusoe written by discontentDaniel Dafoe and first published in 1719.

Happiness is big business. A seemingly endless number of advertising campaigns, books, courses and gurus (even supposedly Christian ones) advocate particular gadgets, apps, hobbies, exercise routines, diets, medicines or other practices aimed at quenching our thirst for well-being. But like the green light across the way from Gatsby it remains out of reach.

As he reflects on his circumstances and the simple provisions available to him, Robinson Crusoe pauses to consider the nature of contentment. He notes that discontented people:

‘…cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them, because they see and covet something that he has not given them. All our discontents about what we want, appeared to me to spring from the want of thankfulness for what we have.’

Here is a diagnosis of discontentment that points inwardly to the greedy human heart rather than outwardly to circumstances. Here is a call to contentment based on a thankful recognition of the gifts that have already been received from the Heavenly Giver. Why are you unhappy? Isn’t it because your eyes are on the possessions you desire, the relationship you don’t have, the job you aspire to rather than the things you already have? This recent video was a good reminder of just how much we have:

 

For the Christian contentment is not just about a kind of pythonesque positive thinking that always tries to “look on the bright side of life”. It is found in a recognition that God is a Father who provides many of the important things like rain and sunshine that we all take for granted (Matt 5:45). More than that, it is grounded in the message that He entered into the world as the ultimate gift through his Son, Jesus Christ. In John’s gospel Jesus claims to give everlasting water that quenches our deepest thirst (4:14) and to be the true bread that satisfies our deepest hunger (6:48). He describes himself as the light (8:12), the resurrection (11:25), the way, the truth, the life (14:6), and the vine (15:1). In John 10 he claims to be both the gate to good pasture (v. 9) and the good shepherd who gives abundant life (v.11).

Here is everything we ever truly wanted and needed: peace, relationship, guidance, hope, protection and provision. These are realities secured by the death and resurrection of Christ and accessible by the faith given through the Holy Spirit. When our hope and focus is on Him we are freed from the world of gnawing ambition and materialism and into a life of contentment and generosity both in good times and bad.

Robinson’s Reflections – Part III

The third in a series of theological reflections drawn from Robinson Crusoe written by islandDaniel Dafoe and first published in 1719.

What affliction are you currently grappling with? Perhaps it is an illness of some kind, a dysfunctional relationship or a problem at work. For Robinson Crusoe it was sickness, starvation and loneliness after a violent shipwreck that left him marooned on an island. In the midst of his suffering his thoughts turn to spiritual matters and the hope that God may be able to deliver him from the island which serves as his prison.

As he struggles to eke out an existence in the early days on the island, Robinson Crusoe begins to read the Christian Scriptures. As he reads from the New Testament he is struck with the realisation that his greatest affliction, his heaviest burden and his real prison is not found in the external circumstances of the island but within the brokenness and guilt of his own soul.

‘…the island was certainly a prison to me, and that in the worst sense in the world. But now I learned to take it in another sense: now I looked back upon my past life with such horror, and my sins appeared so dreadful, that my soul sought nothing of God but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down all my comfort. As for my solitary life, it was nothing; I did not so much as pray to be delivered from it, or think of it; it was all of no consideration, in comparison with this. And I add this part here, to hint to whoever shall read it, that whenever they come to a true sense of things, they will find deliverance from sin a much greater blessing than deliverance from affliction.’

The call of Christianity is exactly this: to recognise that no matter how bad our circumstances, they are nothing compared with the destructive power of sin at work within each of us that leaves us alienated from God, each other and ourselves. The great promise of Christianity is not that Jesus will magically give you a life of comfort but that he has met your greatest need by lovingly bearing your guilt, shame and penalty on the cross so that you can be delivered into a life of freedom and joy.

Robinson’s Reflections – Part II

The second in a series of theological reflections drawn from Robinson Crusoe written bymoney
Daniel Dafoe and first published in 1719.

Sometimes our greatest source of suffering is lack of resources. In other cases, it is a perverse response to abundance or an insatiable quest for more that leads to ruin. During a period of early success Robinson Crusoe observes:

But as abused prosperity is oftentimes made the very means of our greatest adversity, so it was with me.

The narrative that follows charts his growing desire for money, property and success. With his greed comes risk-taking, exploitation of others and downfall. It is a well known pattern that has been played out countless times in the lives of individuals, nations and empires.

In the Old Testament, Solomon stands tall as the example of the adversity wrought by abundance as he turns from a life of faithful service of God and others to one of immorality and idolatry. More generally it is the improper response of God’s people to the blessings and abundance of the Promised Land that lead to a society marked by laziness, inequality and corruption.

The call of Jesus is to be wary of the dangers of wealth and to give freely to those in need and the work of God’s kingdom rather than storing up treasures in this world (Matthew 6). The Apostle Paul echoes these teachings in 1 Timothy 6:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs…

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

This is not a call to embrace a dour and lifeless existence. Rather, it is a reminder that abused prosperity can be the very thing that robs us of life whereas a simple and generous life focused on God’s kingdom leads to joy, contentment and life that lasts beyond this world.