Love as Witness

First published May 2012 in the Minnesota Christian Examiner.

The recently released movie Blue Like Jazz is an interesting genre-challenging movie that will, or at least should, stir up some excellent conversation. Based on Don Miller’s semi-autobiographical book by the same title, it deals with Christian spirituality without being what would commonly be thought of as a Christian movie.

Some controversy surrounds the movie. It has an honesty and authenticity that connects with some and troubles others. It’s easy to understand why. Seeing uncomfortable or embarrassing church moments played out, or secular college campus life portrayed (albeit not condoned), are things you don’t expect from a “Christian movie”.

These were conscious decisions by Miller and director Steve Taylor. They, along with lead actor Marshall Altman, discussed this approach after a pre-screening of the movie at Macalester College in Saint Paul. Taylor spent some time describing some of the difficulties he encountered in making this movie. At one point, he emotionally described how some in the broader Christian movie industry had made statements and decisions that (it seemed to me) broke his heart. It was a sad moment.

The conversation moved on to other aspects of the movie, and one particular scene highlighting when ministry is sometimes embarrassing or “cheesy” was brought up. The movie dealt with the scene very well: sympathetic characters in the movie were kind but uncomfortable. When this came up, there were laughs and groans and sighs in the audience. And there was one person near me whose response took me aback. He appeared angry. He nearly scowled when the topic of ministry done so embarrassingly came up.

I realized that I was seeing two sides of the same coin. Here was the director sharing with pathos the how he’d felt so wronged that his well-intentioned efforts were being scorned by the very people whom he thought would empathize. And near me was a man who was willing to scorn the ministry efforts of others, because he judged them poorly done. I acknowledge that I could have misread either Taylor or the man next to me, but I think I nevertheless stumbled into something worthwhile.

We might think we know what a “Christian movie” should be. We might think we are right to expect a certain level of excellence from our ministers. We might think the coffee at church should be stronger (I often think this). Or today’s sermon should have emphasized something else. Or his shoes are too nice, who is he trying to impress? Or not nice enough, doesn’t he have any respect?

Followers of Christ are not to “pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or a hindrance in the way of a brother.” But we do. And when we do, it subverts our mission.

Think of what Jesus said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35 (ESV)

There are so few things specifically declared to speak to “all people” of our faith, but our love for one another is explicitly one of them. I believe, conversely, that when we are seen hurting one another, we speak counter to the gospel. We bring shame on the one we call “Lord”, and we give the world reason to disbelieve that the Prince of Peace has come.

This is tough territory. We acknowledge that truth exists and that some things need correction and reproof. We see things that are wrong and desire to see them made right. This is a great and powerful strength of our faith. But we are to do this in love, humbly, self-sacrificially.

How might Taylor have been spared some pain, and how might the heart of the man near me been softened, if we were more obedient, loving as we have been loved? How might God be lifted up when the world sees grace and humility answer disagreement?

Concerning my neighbor’s complaint, he’s right; sometimes we do communicate the gospel artlessly. Like the widow’s pennies drawn from meager savings, sometimes those who have little skill nevertheless want to communicate God’s love. In this they offer much. Let us see with God’s eyes. And love as Jesus loved.

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