How to Save a Life

Shaun Brauteseth
July 24, 2017

Chester Bennington is dead. 

You may not have known him, but his rasping voice propelled his rap-rock band, Linkin Park, into the dizzying altitudes reserved only for the world’s biggest pop acts, to the tune of over 70 million albums sold since their debut release in 2000. Only a handful of artists ever get to define a generation, and Linkin Park provided the soundtrack to the angst-filled turn of the century, ultimately outlasting their gimmicky peers to become rock ‘n roll standard-bearers. In other words, they were successful – really, really successful – and the uniquely gifted Bennington was their figurehead. At 41, he had more money than he knew what to do with, years of creativity left, and was adored by literally millions of people. He had the type of success, respect and influence that many long for but very few find, and constantly mixed with the rich and famous, the creative and beautiful. And yet it was not enough. It could never be enough. His life ended far from the stage, in a lonely room, at the end of a rope he’d put around his own neck.

His isn’t the first seemingly senseless suicide in the entertainment industry, and it won’t be the last. And yet the utter hopelessness of it is jarring; the knowledge that a man living virtually everyone’s fantasy could become so jaded, despairing of his own life so much that he would actually choose to end it. It comes, though, as part of a wider, more seductive narrative – one in which suicide is becoming romanticized, glamourized. The true distinctive of an increasingly wicked generation is that it plays God to an escalating degree, and we’re seeing it lived out in front of our eyes. We’ve replaced God as the highest authority on sexual norms, gender distinctions and the ultimate meaning of life. What’s left? Death. Our society will try to prove that it is greater than God by deciding when and how life will end, and it begins with the demystifying of suicide. Popular teen-centered TV shows, like Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, are bringing suicide and self-harm into the mainstream in a sympathetic and even aspirational way, to the alarm of psychologists who work with young people. Far from exposing the foolishness of killing yourself, the show is virtually inciting it.

And it’s picked an opportune time: Never before has a generation seemingly cared so little about the future, or about themselves. Right now, Western culture seems to consist of one giant exercise in escaping reality, not tackling it. We’ve created more platforms to do this than we’ve ever had, and we don’t care about their clearly damaging effect on us. We want pleasure now. We also want genuine, deep contentment, but we don’t want to ask the big, challenging questions about life that will lead us to it. And so we seek pleasure at all costs, and when the emptiness catches up with us we stave it off by snatching at fleeting moments of happiness. 

And it’s precisely at those lowest points that the devil, that great enemy who Western society no longer seems to believe in, comes not with a scream but with a whisper. Life is worth nothing, he says. We came from nowhere and we’re going nowhere. Easier to be dead than to face life’s challenges and disappointments. Whatever comes after this will be peaceful, he says. You’ll be at rest. That little whisper sets in motion an act that cannot be undone; a person can repent of any other kind of deception and turn towards a new way of living, but suicide draws a line that is final. 

But we carry a different message; the sound of a different whisper. This life is not the sum total of its challenges, disappointments and missed opportunities, but an opportunity to find God, to “feel our way towards Him,” to borrow Paul’s stunning phrase to the Athenian philosophers from Acts 17:27. In fact, Paul told those thinkers – the rock stars of their day – that God put us all in our different nations and the different time periods of history so that perhaps we would search for Him, reach out to Him. Imagine a God who would go to all that trouble so that maybe – maybe! – we would look around us, wonder Who was behind it all, and understand that He’s been reaching out to us all along. He sent prophets and holy men, and people despised them. He sent His Son, and people killed Him. “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this,” said Paul in Romans 5:8. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He has loved, given, sacrificed – all so that in this one life we’ve been given on earth, we’d see our own hopelessness, turn to Him, have our sins forgiven, love Him and live for Him. This is God’s message, and it’s our responsibility to carry it to a rudderless, untethered and increasingly vulnerable generation. 

I’ll never forget reading an article about a Japanese man named Yukio Shige, a retired police officer who lives near the Tojinbo Cliffs, a notorious suicide spot. Unwilling to accept the great loss of life there, he has devoted himself to patrolling its perilous terrain every day with a pair of binoculars, approaching any people he sees at the cliff edges. They don’t carry any typical tourist souvenirs, he says, but stand alone with their faces staring at the ground. He greets them, starts up a conversation and begins to gently speak to them about their life. He might touch their shoulder lightly as he speaks, or offer them a warm bowl of noodles, like they used to have growing up. As of writing this piece, he and the volunteers who join him have saved almost 600 lives.

The article never said what worldview drives Yukio Shige’s desire to reach out to strangers and save their lives – whether it’s simply his way of contributing to society, or if there’s something deeper. But at the end of the story, the reporter noted that Shige’s cell phone had rung, and its ringtone was unmistakably familiar:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see

The church is called to patrol the jagged cliffs of this earth; to place itself in the middle of the vast emptiness and engage with the desperate. And they’re not just on street corners carrying cardboard signs and needle-marks, or on stages singing songs of hopelessness; they’re occupying wood-paneled offices, wandering around skate parks, standing behind counters, jogging across sports fields, sitting in salons, working in classrooms and dozing in old age homes. They’re everywhere. And so we reach out everywhere, to everyone. Forgiveness of sins, communion with God and grace to live has been freely offered to the likes of us, and we know that without it life genuinely has no purpose and no meaning.

Chester Bennington is dead. Everything this world had to offer him was just not enough; it could never have been enough. But the generation that sang along to his songs of loss, anger and isolation cries out for a new song to sing – a song of grace and hope. And we know the tune.

Is it Bad to be Big?

Shaun Brauteseth
May 8, 2017

I want to start by quoting a piece of journalism from a successful, mainstream magazine. It was part of a profile of a young, chisel-jawed, charismatic celebrity pastor who leads a burgeoning would-be megachurch in Miami. He officiated the wedding of two of the most famous celebrities on the planet, which put him on the map of popular culture. Guys like him – who straddle the contradiction between the self-denial of the gospel and the superficial beauty of Hollywood stars – are like catnip to journalists, who delight in exposing the futility of trying to operate in both of those worlds at the same time. 

Near the end of the article, the following exchange was documented: As the journalist explained that his visit to the church’s three services that particular Sunday was in order to actually interview some of the members of the church’s congregation, the pastor looked confused.

“I’ll just wander around and talk with the crowd,” explained the journalist. 
The young pastor, though, looked concerned. 
"I don't really know who these people are,” he said. 
What he meant was that he didn’t know what they’d say.

That quote, from the shepherd of a church about the congregation he is leading, stands alone as one of the scariest things I’ve ever read. It also stands as a cautionary monument to the result of a one-sided and very modern church-building approach: Cast the net as wide as possible, and land as many fish as you can. You don’t really know who they are, but you’ve landed them. The problem is that it sounds so good to the human mind; in fact, the very imagery I’ve just used comes from Jesus Himself, who spoke about being fishers of men. And just before He said it, didn’t the disciples haul in a catch so significant that the nets began to break? How could it possibly be bad? I recently listened to a brilliant young man preach at a city-wide youth event, and he asked this question: “If you’re not being a fisher of men, are you even following Jesus?” The hoots and exclamations coming from the audience showed that his question had hit home, but the rest of the content of his message also showed that in practice his system might lend itself to constantly scanning the horizon for more fish rather than properly dealing with the ones he actually landed. 

This is the decision we face in the church in our generation: Do we build wide, or do we build deep? Are numbers so important to God, as I once heard a local pastor state, that He named a book of the Bible after them? On the one hand, we’re part of a kingdom that grows rapidly and explosively: In the book of Acts, thousands get born again in a moment. Whole cities get turned around. There’s a vast impact that’s almost instant. Jesus could attract five thousand people at one time, and that was just the men being counted. The church in Jerusalem, led by James, numbered in the thousands, and would’ve been considered a megachurch by any standards. Anyone want to accuse them of being a soulless, cookie-cut corporation just because they were big?

And yet, we know that numbers don’t prove health. Just because a group is large, it doesn’t mean that somehow, by sheer strength of the law of averages, they’re correct in their thinking. They could just be a large group of people being led astray. Depth is what they need. Depth of maturity, depth of conviction, depth of commitment, depth of devotion to Jesus. And so on the other side, many will decry large churches, as if being small is a sign of authentic discipleship. It isn’t, of course, but there are moments when the thrill of a wide reach may have to be sacrificed on the altar of a deep and genuine impact. After all, John 6 describes Jesus taking a crowd of multiple thousands and whittling it down to about twelve by speaking about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. More than once, I’ve heard people reminisce the good old days, when we were just a couple of people in a small school hall, as if that was the only way to do this thing deeply and properly. But a church can be small and tightly knit, and yet still immature and shallow in their faith if they’re not being led properly. 

And so, in this self-made generation, where everyone’s got a big idea and a plan about how to be successful, does the church aim wide or aim deep?

The answer is both. It has to be both. It’s the long answer, but it’s the right answer. 

The church must be ambitious. Embracing. It must scheme and dream about how to reach people, how to touch a city. How to expand, to spread out across regions and reproduce a genuine New Testament pattern. But it has to aim for depth in discipleship – people who will stand firm until the end because they’re following Jesus, not just members of a great organization. And that’s the difficult part: We have to do it all. Dream big, yet act small. Aim for the multitudes, but sit and disciple one at a time. It would be so much easier to take one approach and nail it: Either build big and shallow with little actual investment in people’s lives, like the celebrity pastor in Miami, or build limited and deep with almost no ambition for more, like so many who are afraid of the implications of ambition. But when I read Paul’s letters, I see an ambitious man wanting to cast the net as wide as possible in his desire to reach new areas for Jesus, and yet describing himself as a woman in the pain of childbirth in his desperation to see his converts become mature in Jesus (Galatians 4:19). That’s width and depth. 

We’ve only got one life to do this thing, and it should drive us to our knees in prayer, send us to the Bible to find the pattern, and cause us to use every resource we have to make sure we’re doing it properly. We don’t have to choose between width and depth; we can aim for them both. And if we work together, settle in our hearts that it requires effort, follow the Spirit and rely on the power of God, we’ll get it right.

La La Love

Shaun Brauteseth
March 2, 2017

“Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.”

That insight was expressed by Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish writer and politician. Here’s what he meant: Art captivates hearts. Songs shape thoughts. Creativity has the power to reinforce worldviews. Think of our generation: Who gets their message out the loudest, quickest and in the most memorable way? Directors. Actors. Singers. Authors. Law legislates how we should behave, but the creative arts influence how we actually do.

Fletcher, by the way, pointed this out in 1703. More than 300 years later, he’s more right than ever.

Every time we watch a movie, relax with a series or listen to a mainstream pop song, we’re being primed to accept a particular set of views and practices, most of which exist in a world without accountability to God. Sometimes a particular emphasis rises above the pack to stand out and steer a generation’s thinking – like 90s sitcoms that made dysfunctional families with deadbeat dads seem funny, or rap-metal songs in the early 2000s that made angry violence seem so cool.

The Bible, though, says that we should have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. I believe there’s a particular trend reflected in movies and music today that needs to be called out, and it’s this: Temporary love. Romance with a shelf life. Intimacy between two people that doesn’t last, and isn’t even meant to. Relationships that end with a shrug, as if to say, “Hey, nothing lasts forever.” It’s a subtle message, but the talented, good-looking, articulate people that are putting it out there are doing so because it’s how they live, and they want to reflect it and justify it in their art. And when we let the message shape us, we find out that our lives don’t exist in a three-minute song or a movie script; we get divorced, we break up our families, we hurt ourselves and each other.

Take a look at the lyrics of John legend’s massive recent hit ‘Love Me Now’:

I don't know who's gonna kiss you when I'm gone

So I'm gonna love you now, like it's all I have

I know it'll kill me when it's over

I don't wanna think about it, I want you to love me now

It’s a brilliant song – catchy as the flu and beautifully written. But read those lyrics carefully. When he says he’ll be gone, he’s not speaking about death; he’s simply speaking about the relationship ending. It’s inevitable, he says, so let’s just love each other now before it’s over. It’s a great pop song, but a pretty disastrous way to conduct a relationship.

One of the most universally lauded movies in recent memory is the Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone singathon La La Land, which sorta-kinda-almost won Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards. By all accounts it’s a completely enchanting, brilliantly performed throwback to the golden age of Hollywood, where beautiful people danced in the streets and fell in love. The difference here (spoiler alert!) is that they don’t stay that way. After being in love and living together, they go their separate ways, smiling at each other as she leaves with her husband. It should be a heartbreaking ending, because they gave themselves to each other, but it’s portrayed with a sense of inevitability: Hey, that’s the way love goes. It starts, it ends, we move on. Thanks for the memories.

But this is not God’s way. In the beginning, it was Adam and Eve – one man and one woman for life. Many people today smugly point to the multiple wives of the patriarchs and Israel’s kings, but ignore the heartache it caused, and that it almost always led to trouble. God conceded and allowed it, but it was never in His original plan. No, when the human race was created there was a pattern, and after the human race got a second chance – the opportunity to be born again through Jesus – the pattern was upheld. An elder, said Paul, should be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2). Everything in scripture presupposes a husband and a wife committing to each other for life.

But more than any instruction humanity receives, we have an example outside of ourselves, and that’s of the God who commits, who makes covenant. The God who says, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6) And He doesn’t just say it – He follows through. We leave Him, He pursues us. We prostitute ourselves, He comes to find us and bring us back. We go off to a foreign land and squander everything, He scans the horizon waiting for us. We glance His way when it’s convenient, He puts His whole heart out on His sleeve for us. We may live our whole lives ignoring Him, but He will be there at the very end, ready to receive us if we call out to Him. He’s committed, faithful and forgiving, and He’s in it for the long run. And that’s how He designed love and romance to be.

So I see you, you cheapened portrayals of love, and I’m calling you out. You look fun and good and free, but you are not the benchmark of true love – you are a contradiction of it. True love doesn’t take what it can get; it gives everything it has, and keeps on giving. True love does not move on to better, more exciting things; it is satisfied with what it has been given. And true love is not inspired by the fantasy narratives of a selfish generation’s songs and movies; it’s been shown once and for all by the true God of history – the One who loves freely and faithfully.

The songs of our generation will keep being written, and movies will keep being made, but we must let all other depictions of love be silenced by the passionate and steadfast love our God gives. On His example we will build our relationships and our lives, and on His example we will set our course.

For the Bible Tells Me So

Shaun Brauteseth
December 8, 2016

“Many of you were brought up to believe this: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And this is where our trouble began.”

Those were the words of influential pastor Andy Stanley, preached in a recent sermon. His point: Christians should not declare that the gospel is true simply because the Bible says it is, because our modern culture does not care about the authority of scripture. “If the Bible is the foundation of your faith, here’s the problem,” he went on. “It’s all or nothing. Christianity becomes a fragile, house of cards religion.” 

These would be worrying statements if they were made by a teenage youth pastor, never mind a globally significant megachurch leader, and the backlash towards Stanley was swift. He quickly wrote a blog stating that he does, in fact, believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. It’s impossible, however, to ignore the warning bells of a much bigger trend in Christian evangelism: What’s more important – the message or the method? And in a world becoming increasingly hostile to the Bible’s message, how far do we bend over backwards to help them receive it? 

Andy Stanley should be commended for his earnest desire to reach post-Christians, the so-called de-converted who have once known God but have now abandoned Him and His church. His heart is clearly moved for them, and we need more people who carry a burden like he does. His problem, of course, is how he seems to be trying to win them over. They’re not a generation of atheists; they’re a generation of apathyists – they simply don’t care what God says or wants. The supposed authority of a holy book doesn’t impress them at all, and so he’s trying another approach: It doesn’t really matter if the Bible is historically and scientifically accurate or not. This, though – to borrow his own phrase – is where his trouble began.

No person can enter the kingdom of God on their own terms, and the harder we try to present something they’re happy with, the less likely they are to experience genuine repentance. In a generation that celebrates ambiguity, we cannot soothe scepticism by encouraging people to doubt God’s word but trust God. “Christianity has lost its appeal,” Stanley lamented at the beginning of his now-infamous preach, and those five words reveal much of the problem. The Christian message is not like Coca-Cola or Adidas; you don’t reinvent or repackage it when its popular appeal starts to decrease; you don’t set up focus groups to find out how people want it marketed to them. By nature, people will not like the gospel or the Bible, because it points a finger at the human condition. Think of Paul’s eloquent message to the philosophers of Athens, recorded in Acts 17. He spoke in terms they understood, he didn’t reference scripture, and he even quoted their own colleagues to make his point. And yet they cut him off in the middle of his sermon. Why? He began to speak about repentance, judgment and the resurrection of Jesus. Paul knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew the effect those words would have, but he had to proclaim them. The only chance those intellectuals had of being born again was to hear the inconvenient, unpalatable truth.

I remember having a conversation with a man who’d just fixed my car. I told him I was a pastor, and that I try to help people. “Well, I need help,” he blurted out, and began to explain how his life had been derailed by sin. The problem was that he’d been to church meetings, and was very sceptical. We spoke for a while, and I told him that he needed to be born again and have his sins forgiven, because that’s what the Bible says. He then shared his biggest obstacle with me: “I know what you’re going to say. If I come to God, I’m going to have to change my life, and stop doing the things I’m doing.” In that moment, I had a choice to make. I was so desperate to see this precious man come to Jesus and find life, but he had to do it in the right way. I had to tell him the truth. Yes, I said, he would have to change his life; God would receive him as he was, but he would not be able to stay that way. He walked away, unwilling to change. 

I fear that this modern method, for all its good intent, would’ve encouraged my friend to come to God in a way that suited him, a way that appealed to him: “Don’t worry about what the Bible says – just come and try this out. You’ll like it. But at what cost? He would be happy as long as he liked it, but what about when he got uncomfortable, like, say, when God showed him sinful patterns that needed to change? He would have no Biblical boundaries, and would fold like a cheap deckchair at the first mention of radically changing his life. You see, it’s all there in the Bible, as clear as day: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’” Those were the words of Jesus, recorded in Luke 14:28-30. The context? The cost of being one His disciples. The Bible says it far more clearly than many modern Christians dare to.

I believe that many modern pastors and preachers are placing too great an emphasis on receiving a favourable response from those they’re trying to reach. In doing this, they may be neglecting the most important part of the entire equation, and that is the power of the Holy Spirit. God instructs us to speak His whole truth regardless of the response, and promises us that the Holy Spirit will be in us and with us, to empower the message. In Acts, a powerful lady named Lydia gets born again through a conversation with Paul, and Luke describes the moment like this: “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” Somewhere along the line, the western church seems to have forgotten that the power of God opens a heart, not the power of an ambiguous outreach method that an unconvinced culture will accept.

Our job is not to put aside the Bible and workshop a more streamlined message for a modern generation, but to speak the truth in love to every generation. That truth has been passed down over thousands of years by faithful saints, and they found it in the Bible. If proclaiming it means less converts, so be it; those true converts will stand firm. And if it means being ridiculed for preaching the increasingly unpopular Bible, so be it; our Lord Himself had many reject Him, but God was pleased with Him.

So for all the respect and appreciation I have for Andy Stanley and his sincere dedication to reaching people, I believe he’s wrong about the Bible. When we uphold those God-breathed words as they are, they have the power to change lives. So let’s proclaim them unashamedly and unapologetically.

Movie Review: Dr Strange’s Occult for Beginners

Shaun Brauteseth
November 25, 2016

"Forget everything you think you know," Dr Stephen Strange is told early in Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster, and the advice may as well be for those watching. Marvel’s seemingly bottomless franchise of planet-defending, alien-punching, smart-talking superheroes is firmly marketed at kids, which only adds to the shock of Dr Strange’s entire plot device: His power doesn’t come from a Nordic hammer, a patriotic shield, a suit of armour or a radioactive spider bite; it’s the mystical dark art of astral projection. Separating your soul from your body. And this is where a supposedly family-friendly fantasy movie becomes a Trojan horse promoting something very evil, very dangerous and very real.

Dr Strange began as a comic in the 1960’s, when Eastern theosophies hit the drugged-up mainstream culture; heck, even the Beatles headed off to an Indian ashram to try transcendental meditation. A college-aged generation threw off the constraints of their parents by experimenting with free love, LSD and esoteric religions, and writer Stan Lee leveraged their interest in black magic, mysticism and psychedelia by creating a superhero in a hallucinogenic landscape who performs powerful spells and twists dimensions. Dr Strange never had the type of following that many other Marvel characters had, but that was then, and this is now. Today, the fire engine-red Marvel logo on a movie poster means a built-in audience regardless of the character’s popularity; already the film has made almost $600 million.

Here’s the problem: Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Spider-Man and Wolverine are all pure fantasy. It’s impossible to become like them, no matter how hard you try. (Most impossible of all: Having your tiny pants still stay on your body when you transform into a giant green monster.) You might think these guys are cool, but you can’t be like them; you cannot create a hammer from another planet or insert retractable adamantium claws into your hands. Astral projection, though, is not fantasy. Google turns up 1.69 million results about how to practice it, and there are hundreds of videos on YouTube explaining exactly how you can use meditation to leave your own body in the comfort of your own home. This is not some harmless, impossible superpower children can pretend to have; it’s a type of witchcraft, and the movie expressly says that it’s good, powerful and beneficial.

“Just surrender control,” a sorceress called The Ancient One tells Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s come to her to be healed after being in a crippling accident, but she teaches him about the realm he can access through his mind by giving in and allowing the power to sweep him along like a river. "I pushed your astral form out of your spiritual form," she explains after physically hitting his soul out of his body, and then sends him flying through the universe. “Teach me,” he gasps after returning to his body. By the time he learns the art of astral projection, he’s gained stylish grey streaks on the side of is head. Why, exactly? Because he’s been enlightened; he’s now wise. He accesses the Eye of Agamotto, which gives him more power and allows him to bend time.

The rest of the storyline is standard stuff: Bad guy wants to destroy the planet; good guy needs to learn to use his powers to save it. It’s here that the biggest deception lies. In Marvel’s storyline, it’s a battle of good versus evil, light versus darkness; astral projection, witchcraft and sorcery are used as a means of fighting wickedness. But in the real world we live in, those things are evil themselves. God has forbidden them to be practiced; he has given human beings a boundary we must not cross, because it will be detrimental to us. “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead,” God said to His people in Deuteronomy 18. “Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you.” Paul lists witchcraft as an obvious sin of the flesh in Galatians 5, and states clearly that anyone who practices it will not inherit the kingdom of God. 

In other words, sorcery should never, ever be encouraged or taught, and cannot ever be used for good. Scott Derrickson, director of the movie and a professing Christian, should know better. Indeed, he’s directed demonic horror movies before this one, casting serious doubt on his own understanding of the spiritual realm and Christian faith. 

My advice: Leave this movie alone. Don’t waste your time on it. Don’t let your children watch it. It’s not just lighthearted action; it’s a tutorial on the occult for the younger generation, designed to spark interest in the power of witchcraft. Its message is dangerous, and it should not be viewed in the same way as the other family-friendly superhero films alongside it. 

We cannot avoid evil on this earth, but we certainly don’t have to give it money, sit with a box of popcorn and let it tell us how good it is.