War Room studies

In the post-service Bible study time that my current church has (Americans, strangely, seem to know this pre- or post-Sunday service event as “Sunday school”; to me that still tends to primarily mean what Americans call “children’s church”) we recently watched the Christian film The War Room. And now we’re going through the associated Bible study.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s basically about the power of prayer, and is centred around a “normal” churched-but-barely-Christian couple with relationship issues. You ought to be able to guess most of the plot from that.

Surprisingly, I actually found it basically enjoyable. It’s not a great film as films go. It’s not Oscar material. But it’s enjoyable enough. Enough that I might have to revise my rock-bottom opinion of Christian filmmaking up a little.

I have to confess to being the arch-cynic of Christian media. My overarching impression is that 98% of it is lame, amateurish, preachy and contrived.

My being impressed by The War Room is at least in part simply because I have the bar set so low that merely not being total crap would impress me.

I think War Room is better than that. It has high production values and is very well-acted. Most of the characters actually come across as real people, not actors hamming it up. It has a few issues, but most of the time it’s not being annoyingly preachy. At least, none of the occasional preaching from the mouths of the main characters was ever out of character. It was… all right.

So now we come to the Bible study, tying in to a film about the power of prayer.

Now, my personal bar for Bible studies and guided prayer workbooks is about as high as my bar for Christian media is low. I want real, meaty content, practical pointers and encouragement for the mature believer and seasoned pray-er as well as ground-level introductory material for the clueless. I want to be treated like a literate adult with a functional brain at minimum; fill-in-the-blank reading comprehension questions are something I would have found simple as a ten-year-old.

I want to be challenged and I want to be taught something.

In short, I want quite a lot.

But apparently, even though this is the consumers’ paradise of the United States of Walmart, I’m going to be somewhat disappointed.

As I consider the film, I’m almost wondering why there’s a tie-in Bible study at all. Jesus didn’t provide the solutions to His parables for all the crowd to examine, and many of those were a lot less straightforward than The War Room. He let people figure it out.

Let’s take, for example, the “lukewarm coffee” scene. If you are trying to tell me you missed the point of that, then I begin to seriously doubt whether you have a functioning brain. This is, cinematically, Jesus’ words to the Laodicean church: “you’re lukewarm and it makes me want to puke”. And I’m using “puke” deliberately; this is the literal meaning of “spew you out of my mouth”.

Ok, if you’re a new believer you may not have read that verse, but still, the point is made abundantly clear solely using movie material. Do we really need an entire group Bible lesson rehashing it?

I mean absolutely no disrespect to our Bible study leaders. They’re a good couple and the themes raised by this film are worth delving into. Prayer is something we ought to know how to do, something that we ought to study in the Scriptures. And the film was even quite a good encouragement to get off our fat, lazy arses and spend time in prayer. Not really a practical “how-to” guide or theological treatise on the subject, but no-one should be expecting that. It’s a movie. Its purpose is to entertain.

This is absolutely not about our study leaders. It’s about published Bible study guides in general, and this one in particular.

I come to this Bible study guide and I notice that it has a lot of features in common with the Pray31 national prayer initiative guide that I was so disappointed in last year. Like that guide, it’s glossy and slick and very professional-looking. Really, it looks great. Someone’s really gone to town on the presentation.

But unfortunately, like the Pray31 guide, it’s rather more disappointing in the actual content department.

If you want a ground-level introduction to basic Christian discipleship that ties in to this movie, this is what you’re getting. Honest assessment of where you are right now, accountability, grace and works, forgiveness, foundational spiritual warfare, identity in Christ. There’s some meaty subjects right there. It could be challenging for anyone.

But like the Pray31 initiative, I find myself asking why it’s pitched so very, very low.

I understand that it can be a good idea even for the most mature Christian to refresh the basics once in a while, and I’m by no means that Christian yet. But there is a point at which we leave the elementary teachings about grace, faith, obedience to God and righteous living. There ought to come a point at which we exchange milk for solid food for the bulk of our intake.

This study seems to be pitched at churched people who have been challenged by the film to get more serious about their faith.

That’s ok; they had to make some kind of a decision about what their target audience was. But my question is why decide to pitch it to churched near-pagans? I’m not sure they will be that likely to be watching the film in the first place, and I’m fairly certain that unless they’re already reasonably serious about their faith they aren’t going to make the time for a Bible study that purports to be on the power of prayer.

If you need to go over salvation-by-grace-not-works in a Bible study on the power of prayer, it doesn’t say good things about the state of the church at large.

And I know enough pastors and church leaders to be really doubtful that this stereotype is as prevalent as it appears from where we pitch our published teaching. Just about all of the pastors I actually know are good, well-informed servants of Christ who preach the whole Good News and teach the whole Scripture. They aren’t keeping their flocks in the dark about the truth of the Word. So who is, if the church at large is really this clueless?

I’m not saying that there isn’t a need for introductory-level material on a number of different discipleship topics. But I am saying that there is also a need for deeper studies as well.

Some of the questions are pretty good. A few of the “honest evaluation” questions are questions we really should ask ourselves if we want to evaluate our spiritual life.

But others are just annoyingly brainless. I know every Bible study guide under the sun has a tendency to ask “fill in the blank” questions and “did you actually read the Scripture we told you to?” questions. And I never have seen the point of them. I’m a literate adult. I have a functioning brain. We cease giving our children these sorts of reading-comprehension questions when they reach high school. Why do we think they are appropriate for adults?

Surely I can’t be that much smarter than the average bear? Am I really alone in a nation full of third-grade readers? I expect more from my ten-year-old, to be brutally frank.

From what I remember (and it’s been a while, so time may be clouding my memory), if you go into a Christian bookshop in the UK looking for Bible study material, you’ll be presented with a range of options, and the sales assistant might say something like “if you want something introductory, this one’s a really good basic overview, this one’s a little deeper and that one’s really practical but not much theology.”

My experience of American published Bible study material is that it all seems to be pitched at the lowest possible level.

America has produced some of the greatest preachers, Bible teachers and Christian writers of this present generation, and I’m including the entire world when I say that. And when I come to studies like this I’m really baffled as to how.

Reading through the whole guide, this is not really a Bible study series on the subject of prayer, like you might expect from watching the film. It’s an introduction to basic discipleship for non-believing church attendees. You can tell that by the subjects it covers. Honest assessment of where you are spiritually, Christian accountability and fellowship, grace and works (why on earth does Christian accountability take precedence over this, if this is the basic discipleship workbook it appears to be?), basics of spiritual warfare, and identity in Christ (another subject that I’d consider significantly more important than accountability) – this is a lot more foundational Christian discipleship than it is power of prayer.

There’s a need for this sort of thing, I’ll acknowledge that, but I have serious doubts that those who actually need this will make the time to participate, and I have even stronger doubts that those who are actually likely to participate – the already-committed Christ-followers – will really be brought that much deeper into the knowledge of God.

Ok, I admit that my expectations are high. But why shouldn’t they be? Why do we assume that American disciples of Jesus are necessarily ignorant of the One they serve?

It was quite a good film, and the studies are well-tied to both the film and the Scriptures. But this isn’t the study we need.

I reiterate, this isn’t about the study leaders.  They’re actually doing a great job of mitigating the worst of the stupid.  And it’s not everyone that can write their own Bible study materials – I’m currently making my first attempt, and it’s hard – this is why published materials exist in the first place. It’s not about their selection of this; you’d expect that a tie-in Bible study to a film about the power of prayer to concern, well, prayer, right? Well, I would, anyway.

No, this is about the assumption of those who write and publish such things that the church at large is only ever in need of basic introductory-level materials. Can we have something deeper? Please?


Peace to You

Peace. Rest. Quietness and Trust.

We’re told in the Bible that peace will guard our hearts and minds. We’re instructed to let it rule in our hearts. We’re told to strive to enter His rest. Women in particular are encouraged to cultivate a “quiet and gentle spirit”.

But what actually is it? Peace as the absence of conflict we are somewhat familiar with, but the mere absence of declared wars is not the same as the absence of hostility. We despise Neville Chamberlain’s shortsightedness in making a deal with evil to purchase a brief moment of “Peace in our time”. In the modern world of Islamic State terrorists and threats to our very way of life, we wonder whether peace, if it is even possible, is all it’s cracked up to be.

Or we praise “peace and quiet”, while busying ourselves about our frenetic lives, desperately craving a few moments in which we don’t feel obligated to keep doing. Everybody’s working for the weekend.

The Hebrew idea of shalom is, of course, far broader in concept than even our widest modern conceptions. At base, the idea is one of wholeness, of completion. More than the absence of war, it’s the presence of healing. Justice for the nations. A soundness and healthiness in our dealings with ourselves and others.

This is no cowardly “peace in our time”, purchased with a squandered future. Real peace is built with mercy and equity on a foundation of justice. As one of my children’s videos puts it “the best way to destroy your enemy is to turn them into a friend”.

It takes more courage to do that than to shoot them. Attacking them seems sometimes like a response of fear rather than bravery. Sowing the seeds of justice and grace is the only way to produce a harvest of peace.

Wholeness is more than “peace and quiet”, too. Though much can be said in our hectic lives for the restorative power of just stopping for a while, how can peace be said to “guard our hearts and minds” if we lose it the moment we step back into busyness. We have to function in the world; though we are not machines, we are designed to to real things with real purpose. Even before the Fall, Adam and Eve had work to do in tending the Garden. What is this mysterious peace that comes with us into the busyness as a guardian for our heart and mind?

This kind of peace, this wholeness, this shalom, is perhaps best described as a sort of “centredness”. Like Christ washing the disciples’ feet, we know precisely who we are, because we know precisely Whose we are. We’re complete in Him, with no need to prove anything to anybody. No more fighting to prove ourselves to the world, no struggling for anyone’s approval. Shalom. At rest and complete in the One who died for us.

In this peace, we can dare any deed that we see the Father doing. We can challenge any wrong, bring justice where there is none, show mercy to the least. We aren’t doing it because we have something to prove, or as if the doing will somehow make us worthy of the grace already given to us, but simply, as Jesus, because it’s what we see Him doing. Here is a wrong, and He has put it into my heart to make it right.

Personally, I have a suspicion that it’s far more this sort of thing that the Scripture means by “a quiet and gentle spirit”, when the Apostle Peter gives that instruction to wives, than the meekly submissive surface-peace we sometimes try to make it.

I married a strong woman with a sometimes forceful personality. I refuse to believe that God somehow made her wrong when He formed her this way. I do not for a moment believe that she’s somehow defective because she doesn’t look like your awful submissive little yes-woman. Blecch! If I’d wanted a wife like that, I never would have fallen so gloriously in love with my wife.

She’s talked of numerous instances in her past of people looking askance at her, as if she’s somehow less Christian because she’s got both brains and guts, and doesn’t do well in the typically feminine “encouragement card” territory.

If you want someone to tell you saccharine platitudes while you continue to live out your life, my wife is not it. But if you want someone who will tell you the truth and be damned where the chips lie, she’s your woman. It’s wonderful! It’s exactly what I needed, and still need. Almost as if God somehow knew. Hmmm…

She’s been given more problems by well-meaning Christian teachers throwing this “quiet and gentle spirit” verse at her than is reasonable.

But what if this “quiet and gentle spirit” has more to do with the centredness of shalom and of not having to win the approval of man than it does with the easy-to-control submissiveness of outward demeanour?

It seems a lot more reasonable to me that it would. Peter is, after all, talking about an attribute of the spirit, not of the outward person.

Peace, wholeness, shalom. Guarding our heart and mind from the tendency to want to win approval or prove ourselves or work for what is freely given. For men or women, this is desperately needed if we are to be the people the Lord has made us to be.

This peace to you.