Tag Archives: christianity

Church Unity? Four Prerequisites for Young Evangelicals

church

At this week’s “Future of the Church” discussion at Biola University (well worth watching online in its entirety here), the brilliant Fred Sanders ended his prepared remarks by suggesting that it may be up to the “children of evangelicalism” to make progress in the dialogue of unity/ecumenism. Such a project is perennially attempted but always met with the same pesky roadblocks (the “essentials versus non-essentials” conversation being unavoidably amorphous, given the decentralized DNA of Protestantism).

I see some signs for optimism that church unity inroads may be possible for my generation. Evangelicals today are becoming  less denominationally oriented. My guess is the counterpart to the secular rise of the “nones” will be a rise of “non-denominational” Christians who recognize the urgency of solidarity and the folly of fragmentation at such a time as this. Cultural issues like marriage are forging new partnerships (built on theology and not just public policy) between evangelicals and Catholics. Papal relations with evangelical Pentecostals have never been better. Globalization and the shifting of Christianity’s energy to the Global South seem to be opening doors for cross-pollination and wider awareness of Christianity’s diverse manifestations in the world. I can see this landscape being amenable to a more unified, more global, more networked church.

But I could also see the opposite. Other signs point to a more fragmented future for the church. As Fr. Thomas Rausch pointed out in his talk, there are approximately 43,000 denominations in today’s world, whereas there were only 1,600 denominations in 1900. The Christian blogosphere and Twitterverse seem to get more polarized by the month, and divisions between progressive and conservative, Arminian and Calvinist, egalitarian and complementarian aren’t exactly diminishing. Fragmentation seems to be growing even within coalitions, as in the recent disputes within complementarian circles between traditionalists and what might be called neo-complimentarians, or in the fragmentation within the CCCU over LGBTQ policies at Christian colleges. Things are only made worse by technology and the limitless availability of pontificating platforms and Internet subdivisions for any possible tribe of Christianity.

Still, I believe church unity is important and progress is possible if we really want to prioritize it. But if the “children of evangelicalism” are going to make any headway in the direction of church unity, there are a few underlying issues we must first confront:

1) We must focus our time and energy on a particular local church rather than trying to fix The Church.

I’ve found that younger Christians are much more likely to pontificate or wax prescriptive about “The Church” than they are to actually join and serve faithfully in a local church. There are a lot of Christian bloggers (I’ve been one of them!) who have ceaseless opinions to offer about The Church but whose commitment to a particular local church, warts and all, is negligible. Certainly there is a place for prophetic and prescriptive writing about The Church in a large sense, but working and worshipping in a church in the local sense is where progress actually happens. It may sound somewhat counterintuitive, but I believe a more unified Church will come more naturally if all of us are primarily concerned with the health of our proximate, particular church community. That said…

2) We must encounter, listen to and learn from other churches and other Christians.

Focus on local community does not mean insularity and ignorance of the diversity of other church expressions. Indeed, stronger unity among churches will require a relational outwardness infused with humility and teachability. Too many in my generation have a real problem with teachability; they think they’ve figured it all out. When they land in a church that feels like the “perfect fit” for them (a problematic term… more on that in a bit), they view other iterations of Christianity with suspicion. This sort of provincial hubris is inimical to church unity. If we’re all utterly convinced our church is perfect and ideal, how could we ever be open to learning from or being challenged by our brothers and sisters in Christ from other cultural or theological contexts? We need to get out more, and it doesn’t need to mean traveling across the world. Try down the street first. Practice hospitality and conversation with churches and believers from across the beautiful spectrum of the body of Christ.

3) We must give up the idea of a “dream church” and instead embrace and commit to a local church, even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable.

The more you experience the diversity of church expressions in the world, the more clear it becomes that there is no perfect church. And yet we’ve become so conditioned by consumerism to expect that there is. We “church shop” like we shop for a new car, looking for one that checks all our desirable boxes and is the “perfect fit” for our unique tastes and preferences. When we find one that seems a match, we give it a test drive. But the minute the ride becomes bumpy (pastor says something disagreeable, worship music is nauseatingly prosaic), we take our leave and begin to shop around again, choosing from the dozens of other options on the ecclesiological “lot.” My generation seems especially prone to this sort of hyper-consumerist approach, yet this is not how church should be. We must rid ourselves of “dream church” ideal and the “perfect fit” fallacy. No church is perfect, and “how it fits us” is exactly the opposite of the approach we should take (isn’t Christianity more about being “fit” into the likeness of Christ?). We must approach church with the knowledge that it will be uncomfortable, awkward, challenging and stretching. But that is the point. We grow spiritually not amidst comfort or because it’s the “perfect fit,” but by being willing to be fit into the mold of Jesus among fellow sojourners on the bumpy road of sanctification. Not only will this produce growth in us, but it will broaden our minds and soften our hearts toward believers of all stripes, both within our diverse local church and within The Church at large.

4) We must move beyond a Christian identity defined by “buts,” caveats, embarrassment and negation.

This is a real problem for my generation of Christians. We’re utterly concerned with how we are perceived and we go out of our way to distance ourselves from a looooong list of evangelical stereotypes and inherited baggage. The recent Buzzfeed “I’m a Christian, But…” video captures it well. We are quick to define our faith in terms of what it’s NOT, but sadly slower to offer compelling articulations of what it IS. Who Jesus is and how he saves is frequently downplayed (or ignored altogether) in the rush to offer endless caveats about how we are not like bigoted Christians, or Republican Christians, or teetotaling Christians, or Christians who wear pleated khakis, or Christians who liked Fireproof. Not only is that sort of self-definition exhausting and unhelpful, but it’s unsustainable. If Christianity is only ever a “not this” religion, it will soon enough become a “not worth it” religion. At some point we must get over our PR hangups and worries about being associated with all the weird Christians out there. We must simply accept our place in the continuum of an always imperfect and always reforming faith, and do our best to live faithfully as followers of Christ with a mission in the world. We must stop our pendulum-swinging ways in reaction to what Christianity has been and focus instead on what it IS and has always been. This will force us to develop a more cogent conception of what it is actually that defines Christianity, which is the question at hand in any conversation about church unity.

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Freedom to Drink And Not Drink

I went to an evangelical Christian college that did not permit the consumption of alcohol. I grew up in a household and a conservative church culture–Midwest to boot–where drinking was out of the question and seen as bereft of goodness. I’m the child of an American evangelicalism that has had a decidedly contentious (to put it mildly) relationship with alcohol (see “Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline”).

But as I grew older, left home and left college, I came to see that drinking alcohol is a) not forbidden by Scripture (as opposed to drunkenness, which is) and b) actually quite wonderful. Like many of my peers who grew up in similar environments, I became rather fond of drinking fermented beverages in social settings, whether a Cabernet with dinner, IPA with friends or a single-malt scotch on special occasions.

Over time I noticed that it seemed increasingly popular amongst my fellow “twentysomething Christians” to embrace the fullest extent of liberty in the area of alcohol. I attended church small groups where beer and cocktails were regularly consumed; I went to parties where dozens of Christian college students and alumni were drinking from kegs and doing Sake bombs; I visited churches that met in bars; I went to Christian conferences where the “after parties” were raucous affairs at pubs; I met Christian beer critics, bartenders, pub owners.

I’m not saying any of this is inherently bad. In fact much of it is to be celebrated as harmless, good-old-fashioned “exhilaration,” as in the famous Martin Luther quip, “we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated.”

What worries me is this question: Are we so embracing our Christian liberty to partake of alcohol that it threatens to become less a “liberty” and more a shackling legalism–something we can’t, or won’t, go without? As my pastor Alan often says, are we as free to abstain from alcohol as we are free to enjoy it?

Other questions I think many of us would do well to ask ourselves:

  • Is alcohol a “nice to have” or a “must-have”? Can we go out to eat without ordering an alcoholic beverage? Attend a party and only drink soda? Dare to not have some booze in our house for a stretch of time?
  • Are we mindful of those around us, and if they struggle with alcohol in any way are we willing to abstain for their sake? Drinking alcohol may be a perfectly biblical, perfectly Christian thing to do. But if for others in our community it is a hardship or a temptation, then shouldn’t we abstain? As Christians, the ascetic call to deny ourselves perfectly good things for the sake of a community or a commitment is a worthy pursuit.
  • Do we wear our freedom as a badge of honor, as “proof” that we are under grace and thus can drink and party to our heart’s content? If so, we should check ourselves, because reducing grace to a sanctioning of pleasure is tragic; furthermore, if we are talking about freedom under grace, then what about the freedom to deny ourselves and go without? Grace makes this possible too.
  • Do we have a serious-enough understanding of how dangerous alcohol can be? Alcohol has a long and tumultuous history as an addictive wrecker of lives. We all know people who’ve been ruined or nearly ruined by it. We must be careful that our incremental habituation of it in our lives doesn’t become a controlling idol. Alcohol is not something to be trifled with.

Christians have the “right” to consume all sorts of things, though we are told not everything is beneficial or constructive (1 Cor. 10:23). Rather, we are instructed, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) and “do not cause anyone to stumble” (10:32).

This last part is key, something the Apostle Paul routinely emphasized (especially in Rom. and 1 Cor.). Because it is true that Christians have differing tolerances (“One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables,” Rom. 14:2), we should not pass judgment on or treat with contempt those with different liberties than us.

But we must also be real with ourselves. What’s the point of freedom if it doesn’t free us to enjoy, but also to abstain from, something in culture? And it goes beyond alcohol. There are all sorts of good items and activities in culture that we are free to enjoy in moderation. Food, fitness, movies, music, travel, sports, gaming, and on and on. But the minute any of this becomes something we can’t live without, or something we excessively consume to the point that we need it more than we enjoy it, we should be concerned.

Because ultimately, the goodness of something that we might consume is at its most good when we enjoy it in a God-centric way rather than a me-centric way. That is: when we see it as a gift from God and something to reflect glory back to him, rather than something that serves us and our needs.

Alcohol, like food or any number of things in God’s created world, is a good thing that can become a bad thing if we consume it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good insofar as we consume it not as something we must have but as something we can have, as a special delight of God’s glorious creation, which includes man’s creative (fermenting) genius. The freedom to drink should not be a freedom to drown one’s sorrows, prove a point or get a fix; it should be a freedom that fixes our eyes ever more on Christ, the giver of life who turns water into wine and makes all things new.

This is the third in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my new book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books). See also: part one and two.

Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline

Christians have had a decidedly love/hate relationship with alcohol. The infamous “drink” has been regarded by Christians at various times with awe, horror, religious devotion, fear, obsession, prohibition, addiction, and temperance. It has been one of the most divisive issues within modern American evangelicalism, creating rifts within churches, within families, within Christian institutions. As Mark Noll has noted,

Some evangelicals have made opinions on liquor more important for fellowship and cooperation than attitudes toward the person of Christ or the nature of salvation. This is particularly unfortunate since the Bible speaks clearly about Christ and salvation, but not about the question of total abstinence.

How did alcohol become the subject of such an emotionally charged cultural debate? Have Christians always been so divided about it? (Short answer: no.) Is it significant that followers of Christ were the first people to invent sophisticated wine- and beer-making techniques (in medieval monasteries), but also the people who led the charge to make alcohol illegal in America?

My new book Gray Matters has an entire chapter devoted to the fascinating history of Christians and alcohol, but for a brief overview  of key points between the life of Christ and today’s world, see below timeline:

  • 27–28 AD: Jesus performs his first miracle: turning 120- 180 gallons of water into wine at a wedding banquet in Cana (see John 2:1-11).
  • 30–31 AD: Jesus says of wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20).
  •  Second Century: St. Clement of Alexandria publishes Pedagogia, which included the first scholarly treatment of the subject of Christians and alcohol.
  • Fifth Century: St. Brigid of Ireland reportedly changes her dirty bathwater into beer so that visiting clerics would have something to drink.
  •  Twelfth Century: Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen discovers hops in beer.
  • 1620: Ship carrying John Winthrop to Massachusetts Bay Colony also carries more than 10,000 gallons of wine and three times as much beer as water.
  • 1670: Hard cider a staple at ministerial ordinations in apple-rich New England
  • 1673: Increase Mather publishes Wo to Drunkards, in which he says, “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.”
  • 1736: The ill effects of gin in England lead Anglican clergyman Thomas Wilson to publish Distilled Spirituous Liquors the Bane of the Nation.
  • 1759: Arthur Guinness opens his brewery in Dublin; eventually uses money from its success to fund Christian charities, hospitals, and Sunday School programs.
  • 1770s–80s: Spanish Catholics plant first vineyards in California at missions up and down the coast.
  • 1805: America’s first temperance sermon, “The Fatal Effects of Ardent Spirits” is delivered by Rev. Ebenezer Porter in Washington, CT.
  •  1826: Revivalist pastor Lyman Beecher publishes Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasion, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance, condemning liquor for “the moral ruin it works in the soul.”
  •  1840: The Washingtonian Movement, one of America’s first anti-alcohol organizations, is formed.
  • 1869: Methodist pastor Thomas Welch invents a method of pasteurizing grape juice so that it isn’t fermented. He persuades local churches to adopt this non-alcoholic “wine” for communion services, calling it “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.”
  • 1873–74: “Mother” Eliza Thompson—a devout Methodist—leads “crusade” of women protesting American drinking establishments.
  • 1874: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is formed.
  • 1893: Ohio pastor Howard Hyde Russell establishes Anti-Saloon League, a nationwide pressure group aimed at ridding the country of alcohol.
  •  1899: Carrie Nation attacks saloons with hatchets and sledgehammers and becomes an icon of female-led temperance movement.
  • January 17, 1920: Eighteenth Amendment goes into effect in America; Billy Sunday holds symbolic funeral service for “John Barleycorn.”
  •  1933: Twenty-first Amendment ends Prohibition.
  • 1933–1949: “The Inklings” convenes Christian luminaries like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford for beer-aided literary discussions.
  •  1935: Christians “Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob” found Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • 1980: Televangelist Jack Van Impe publishes Alcohol: The Beloved Enemy.
  •  2000s: First “bar churches” begin popping up.
  • 2003: Wheaton College changes rules to allow faculty, staff and graduate students to drink alcohol in private, when not around undergrads.
  •  2009: Bestselling author Stephen Mansfield publishes, The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World.
  •  August 9, 2011: In blog post, evangelical pastor/author John MacArthur chastises the “Young, Restless, Reformed” community for their reckless approach to alcohol.

The above is an excerpt from Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty (Baker, 2013).

7 Tips for Gaining Perspective

After last week’s election didn’t go the way conservatives wanted it to, many of them publicly, frantically despaired, declaring the end to America as they know it and forecasting disaster for the near- and long-term future.

Now, I wasn’t thrilled with the election results. To say the least. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling upset, troubled, even a little depressed about the direction America seems to be going politically. But I don’t think there’s any reason to despair. Because at the end of the day, American politics in the 21st century is just a small piece of a much bigger world, and a tiny blip on the narrative of history. It’s helpful to have a little bit of perspective. Christians, for example, should remind themselves that our God is sovereign and his purposes are and will be accomplished regardless of the laws and legalities of men. Furthermore, Christians should remind themselves that the church is and always will be (or should be) a stronger source of communal identity than our political party.

Putting things in perspective doesn’t diminish the importance of politics or the significance of what happens in elections; it simply serves as a helpful corrective to our tendency to get wrapped up in matters that are (by comparison) narrow and fleeting.

I worry about what happens to people when they lose perspective. I worry about America today, which I see populated by many people who are perfectly satisfied to subsist on a diet of perspective-reinforcing media that confirms but never challenges what they already believe. I worry about people whose perspective is so small that they can only see the immediate benefits of what voting for such-and-such will do for them now, while neglecting to think about the longterm impacts for their children and the world at large. I worry about the short-sightedness of a nation where political entrenchment is more important than preventing an imminent economic disaster. I fear for a people who are uninformed and uninterested in learning about what goes on in the rest of the world.

I think we would all be better off–and our world would be better off–if we were intentional about broadening our perspective a bit. And to that end, let me offer these seven suggestions for ways one can gain a healthier perspective:

1) Read. Read books, articles, poems, lyrics, anything. Read a lot. Read things that don’t reinforce any of your already-established opinions but instead open up the world to you a bit more. Take advantage of the library.

2) Travel. If you are lucky enough to afford to do this, DO IT. Travel is, I think, one of the single-most significant ways that a person can broaden their perspective on the world and better understand their own provincial experience within it. I still remember how drastically my perspective on the world changed the first time I traveled abroad (doing a study abroad program in Southeast Asia).

3) Expand your movie-going horizons. Watch foreign films and documentaries. They can be amazingly engaging! There’s nothing like cinema for opening up one’s eyes to another part of the world, another culture, perspective or curiosity. If you’d like a recommendation, let me know!

4) Worship in new places. If you’re a Christian I’m not saying ditch your home church and church hop. I’m just saying that it can be healthy to break out of your worship comfort zone. Worship in churches of various traditions. Visit a Messianic congregation, a Coptic Christian church, a Korean church. Get a sense for how wonderfully diverse is the body of Christ.

5) Get to know people different from you. If you’re a conservative, befriend a liberal or two. If you’re a Christian, befriend some non-Christians. Have spirited conversations with people who will challenge your beliefs. Make sure your network of friends is not homogenous (one single age group, one single ethnicity, one single religion) but is as diverse and yet as genuine as possible.

6) Go places and do things that make you uncomfortable. Serve the homeless on Skid Row. For a time, live somewhere where you’re a minority. Ride the bus. Try foods that might sound disgusting to you. Shop at Wal-Mart. Go to the proverbial “other side of the tracks” on occasion. It will be good for you.

7. Pray. Ask God to bring people, ideas, perspectives, and experiences into your life that challenge the status quo and help you grow. Pray that you’ll not be complacent and “satisfied” with where you are and what you know, but that you’ll always want to explore further and understand more. That your primary aim will be to know the truth and be governed by the truth, and not just to have an easier life.

November Prayer

Lord, we are exhausted and spent. This election has been a long, hard slog.

We ask that you would grant our nation peace, hope, direction, recovery. That you would heal the anger, bitterness, animosity and hate that characterizes so many on all sides. That you would help all of us to move on together, charitably disagreeing but bound by a commitment to a more civil discourse–perhaps even those in Washington D.C.

We ask that you would inspire President Obama with renewed humility, vision, and discipline. Strengthen him and his family, fortify them for the next four years of what is sure to be a rocky road. Help him to strive to protect the innocent both at home and abroad, to seek to end wars and avoid violence wherever possible, and to work to strengthen the economy so that millions across the country (and world) might be able to work their way out of poverty.

Forgive us for the deceptive ads, the rhetoric, the endless bickering and the fact that $6 billion has been spent on this election when it could have been spent to help real people with real problems. Forgive us for obsessing so much about one election, or, on the other extreme, for being so cynical and apathetic about it. Help us to recognize politics as an important, valid process of change, even when it seems so pointless and frustrating.

Help us to put everything in perspective. May we recognize that the U.S. President is just a man, a failure and screwed-up sinner just like any of us. That the United States is just a country, one of many on earth, not the hope for the earth or a messianic institution in any sense of the word.

May we shift our attention, as we always should, to you and your majestic work in the world–humbly desiring your kingdom and seeking to serve it in whatever way we can.

Help your people–the worldwide church–to forge a unity and common objective that transcends nationalism and politics. Help American Christians especially to find their identity first and foremost in you, not in their political affiliations. Help the church to work as one body, your body, to proclaim the Good News through word and deed to a world that is fractured, weather-battered, war-weary, and without a center of stabilizing gravity or hope.

Help Christians to be the bearers of hope, encouragement, love and truth to everyone--to the suffering New Jersey homeowner who lost everything in Sandy, to the impoverished teenage girl unsure if she can afford to carry a pregnancy to term, to the Libyan terrorists and illegal aliens and looters and cheaters and liars we might otherwise despise.

Help us to examine ourselves daily and check our self-righteousness at the door, recognizing that we are as failed and broken as anyone, in need of redemption like all the rest.

Help us to wake up each day and, above all, be thankful. That we are still breathing, that we have things to strive for, love to give, and wonders to behold for at least one more day. Help us to recognize the unbelievable grace that overwhelms us in every moment: the grace of a heart that somehow keeps beating; the grace of lungs that miraculously keep breathing; the grace of making it down the highway without dying (in L.A. especially!) and turning on lights and appliances powered with electricity. The grace that is democracy–being able to vote.

Oh the things we take for granted!

Help us to remember that everything is a gift–that even our very life is a miracle, precious and put here for a reason. Guide each of us as we seek our place in this world, recognizing that we are but a part of a much bigger plan, a grain of sand in the William Blake sense: minute and yet majestic, revelatory even in our weakness of the complex universe to which we all belong.

Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl

N.D. Wilson’s new “bookumentary” DVD, Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, is sort of like the Waking Life of Christian apologetics films. And by that I mean, it’s full of awe, curiosity, philosophizing, and a lot of talking about ideas. Like the contemplative films of Richard Linklater (Waking Life, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset), Wilson’s film–inspired by his 2009 book of the same title–is heavy on heady, talky vignettes. It’s essentially a philosophy/apologetics education condensed into a series of 3-4 minute soliloquies and poetic riffs on huge ideas, packaged amidst images of beauty and a liturgical ambience.

I was somewhat skeptical going in to Tilt-a-Whirl; mostly because “Christian films” of any sort are almost always a let down. But this was a pleasant surprise–a genuinely compelling, well-made film that never feels false or inauthentic and actually leaves us with insights to ponder and stirs our hearts and minds toward God.

Tilt-a-Whirl advertises itself as “A cinematic treatment of a worldview. A poet live in concert. A motion picture sermon. VH1 Storytellers meets Planet Earth. 60 Minutes meets Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

All of those are accurate. It’s a refreshingly orignal thing–a documentary of sorts, a visual essay, an apologetics companion piece to The Tree of Life (though Malick would dislike Wilson’s dismissal of Heidegger). It’s the Kanye West Twitter feed of hyper-literate Reformed philosophy.

I also like the way Books and Culture described the film:

Imagine 51 minutes of an earthier Nooma video infused with an ethos of postmillennial confidence and injected with the steroids of Christian orthodoxy and Chestertonian Orthodoxy. Ponder all possible manifestations of “A Portrait of the Kuyperian Artist as a Young Apologist.”

Rob Bell’s Nooma videos are probably its closest cousin in terms of genre; yet it must be acknowledged that there are more original insights in any given 90 seconds of Tilt-a-Whirl than in the entire Nooma series.

Wilson tackles a wide array of topics, mostly having to do with God–as creator, as artist, as gardener, as judge. He’s at his best when talking about the “problem” of evil and putting man in his place while exalting God. I especially resonated and agreed with Wilson on his suggestion that evil has a purpose if creation is seen as God’s ultimate artistic masterpiece: “If we look at the world as art, suddenly tension makes sense,” says Wilson. “God is after a great story, and great stories require tension; great stories require trial and hardship; great stories require characters to grow. … Why does God allow evil and things which displease him in his story? So that they can be defeated.”

If you’re someone who likes to think about and discuss big ideas about God and existence, this film is for you. Watch it in groups, Bible studies, or on your own; I guarantee it will provoke something–whether discussion, debate, disgust, or worship.

Higher Ground

Higher Groundwhich releases today in New York and Los Angeles–is a great companion piece to the searing must-see Korean drama, Secret Sunshine, which released this week on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray. Both films center on a woman’s journey of faith–evangelical Christian faith–through ups, downs, doubts, renewal and tragedy. Both films are made by outsiders to evangelical Christianity but with a sympathetic eye toward truly understanding the complexity of the life of faith. Subsequently, both are brutally honest, messy, sometimes difficult portrayals that get one thing very right about the journey of religious faith: It’s not always easy.

Directed by and starring Vera Farmiga (Oscar nominated for Up in the Air), Higher Ground is a comprehensive narrative of one woman’s struggle with faith, from her girlhood to parenthood and beyond. Farmiga’s character grows up amongst hippies in the 70s and becomes part of a small charismatic band of evangelicals (Jesus People-esque) who do life together as a Christian community, struggling to grow in faith together while also dealing with all the attendant issues (pride, temptation, gender issues, inequality of “gifts,” legalism, etc) that come along with any church family.

Though perhaps too sprawling and ambitious in its multi-decades span, Higher Ground nevertheless manages to be truly perceptive about Christian faith in places, even more so than the average Christian-made film these days.

Perhaps the film’s most resonant insight is its reflection on the centrality of relationships to the life of faith. Farmiga’s attention to the nuances of her character’s relationship to her parents, her husband, her children, her best friend, her pastor and so on all feed in to her complex relationship with God. The film recognizes that our human relationships–and their accompanying experiences of trust, love, affection & abuse–color our relationship with God. How can they not?

Of course the tragic parts of Ground are those that showcase the damage that can be done in one’s trust in God when one’s trust in other humans is betrayed. But the film also displays hope in its recognition that even when we are frustrated with God and want to end our relationship with him, he may not be through with us. He’s the pursuer. Even in the midst of the follies and betrayals of a community of his followers, God still pursues us. Even in the midst of our doubts.

What’s wonderful about films like Higher Ground and Secret Sunshine is that they don’t shy away from the difficulties of trusting in God. They don’t pretend its easy; nor do they pretend that faith exists in some sort of rigid space where we’re either 100% rock-solid in our certainty or we’re hopelessly adrift and stubbornly skeptical. Faith is a grey area, because humans are imperfect and messy. It’s only by the grace of God that any of us have the gift of faith. And that’s the most reassuring fact of all.