Shaun Brauteseth

Posts by Shaun Brauteseth

Why Christians Should Protest Carefully

Shaun Brauteseth
September 28, 2016

As NMMU descends further and further into the chaos caused by unmet demands and unmoved protesters, any Christians involved in the protests have an uncomfortable question to answer: What does God think about all this?

Anyone turning to the Bible for clear guidance on how to conduct a mass protest will find nothing, because that concept didn’t exist in the ancient world. Democracy didn’t exist either. If you tried to rise up against a ruling authority, they would respond with the sharp side of their sword, and that would be the end of your brief protest. Today, governments and institutions in democratic societies make allowances for protests, and even expect them; their citizens have every right to make use of this legal means of holding them accountable. It just depends how far those citizens take it.

Paul the Apostle used his own legal means of getting justice for himself. Acts 22:22-29 describes a violently escalating situation in Jerusalem, where Paul, having incensed a crowd of listeners, was detained by Roman centurions and about to be flogged. He then used his coveted Roman citizenship to avoid the flogging and secure a proper trial. Having used his legal right in order to protect himself from harm, however, he didn’t go beyond it. He didn’t demand compensation and the implementation of a new system, for example. We need to stand in support of any NMMU protester who is being unfairly treated, but at the same time I believe we are seeing many people going beyond their rights, both legally and before God.

Words of hatred, the use of intimidation, destruction of property or threats of violence are indefensible for a Christian who claims to be a new creation. The New Testament may not address organized civil disobedience, but it clearly, unambiguously and repeatedly addresses the Christian response to authority.

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,” wrote Paul to the church in Rome, who lived under their fair share of vicious dictators. “The authorities that exist have been established by God,” he went on, seemingly unafraid of repeating himself.

“I request then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority,” he wrote to Timothy. If a Christian hits the streets to protest authorities before they hit their knees to pray for them, they’ve missed a significant step.

And again, to the Romans: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” He instructed believers about things that depended on them, not responses beyond their control. The very hallmark of prolonged protesting is issuing demands and digging our heels in when the response is inadequate; God, however, instructs us to take the initiative to create peace, not to wait for the other party to do what we want. 

Christian protestors, you have a legal right to protest something you feel is unjust. Our government has allowed it, and our democratic process has encouraged it. But if you consider yourself to be a follower of Jesus, you also have a larger responsibility: To fulfill God’s command by recognizing and submitting to authority, praying earnestly for the university decision-makers and doing whatever you possibly can to be at peace with everyone. For our God is a God of justice for the poor and oppressed, but He’s also a God of order, righteousness, obedience, holiness and peace. 

God's Not Dead 2: Bigger, Better, And Not-Deadder Than Ever

Shaun Brauteseth
August 5, 2016

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, a billboard promoting God’s Not Dead 2 was banned because of this line: “I’d rather stand with God and be judged by the world than stand with the world and be judged by God.”

That quote was deemed “incendiary” by the convention organisers, who then allowed an atheist group to prominently display an anti-religious message at arguably one of the most incendiary political conventions in living memory. In an irresistible twist of irony that confirmed the very point of its existence, the movie about a hypocritical attack on the Christian message was subjected to a hypocritical attack because of its Christian message.

In 2014’s God’s Not Dead, a college student takes a stand to defend his faith against an aggressively atheist professor. 2016’s second installment sees a high school teacher (Melissa Joan Hart) fight her case in the Supreme Court after being accused of preaching about Jesus to her class. With the help of her bright-eyed young lawyer (Jesse Metcalfe) she must win over the jury and defeat her prosecutor (the leathery, shark-grinned Ray Wise). It may be a well-worn variation of the David-versus-Goliath narrative, but it works for two reasons: Good filmmaking and good timing.

In the past, faith-based movies carried a reputation for being cheesy, overly obvious and amateurish; good intentions ruined by poor execution. That trend has changed. Today, a new generation of filmmakers are matching their love for the gospel with increasing levels of competence in their craft. In addition, God’s Not Dead 2 has the advantage of depicting an unfolding situation that is very, very real. The United States, which functioned as the moral conscience of the world for so long, is now turning in on itself. Against all reason, the nation will hand over the nuclear codes to either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and along with a loss of rational thinking has come an abandoning of the true fear of God. The notion of a teacher facing legal action for speaking about Jesus in a historically Christian country is not some far-fetched fantasy anymore; it’s an imminent reality.

Fortunately, the movie displays another reality: Jesus is shown as worth following, no matter what. People are healed or delivered through prayer, but they’re also disowned or dishonoured for holding to the gospel message, without some tidy resolution tying up the loose ends. This is what we need to see – the true gospel, not the one diluted by the American Dream. Real people are depicted struggling with real issues; there are moments of grace and breakthrough, and there are moments of great sorrow. This is what it is to serve Jesus, who Himself said that people who follow Him will experience many troubles, but that He’s on top of it all in the end.

It felt strange to sit in the theatre of a typical bustling mall and watch characters on a big screen openly speak about Jesus forgiving sins, but that’s the kind of movie that Pure Flix, the Arizona-based production team behind both movies, has made. We might not have movies like this on the mainstream circuit for very much longer, and that’s why we need to support them. God’s Not Dead 2 is genuinely good; it’s watchable and compelling, and the main actors put in solid, heartfelt performances. (Indeed, Melissa Joan Hart, best known as Sabrina the Teenage Witch, is a committed Christian herself.)

These movies need us to support them, and we need their presence in the midst of the insanity of popular entertainment. When Jesus described His followers as salt on the earth, He wasn’t describing something that brings flavour. In the first century, salt was used to disinfect the ground, and particularly the communal areas used as toilets. The movie industry is not unlike that environment, and the presence of a release like this disinfects some of the ground just by being there. Movies like this will keep being made as long as they prove to be profitable to the industry, and they’ll be profitable as long as we get out and support them.

So it turns out that the Republican National Convention organisers were right – the movie’s message is incendiary. After all, the dictionary definition of that adjective describes “a weapon designed to start fires.”

Let’s hope that’s the case. 

The Danger of Christian Catchphrases

Shaun Brauteseth
July 14, 2016

For two years I worked as a writer for an advertising agency, where I spent my days figuring out the catchiest ways to brand products. We would spend hours brainstorming, scribbling, pacing, Googling, staring at parked cars, clicking pens and irritating each other as we tried to come up with some immortal phrase that would outlive us. We enviously regarded legendary fast food slogans like “I’m lovin’ it” and “Finger lickin’ good,” while shaking our heads in amazement at the sneaker industry’s famously minimalistic “Just do it” and “Impossible is nothing” taglines. 

As a writer trying to condense complex ideas into a few simplistic, memorable and easily repeatable words, I discovered the incredible potential of a good catchphrase. If it’s done right, it’ll be powerful enough to convey a thought clearly, and yet vague enough for people to fill in their own story. Catchphrases are an essential part of product marketing because they create a positive association with a brand, and that’s the whole point of advertising. Good catchphrase, good feeling. When I left advertising to become a full-time pastor, however, I thought I was done with catchphrases. Turns out I wasn’t.

One of the defining weaknesses of the modern Western church is an unwillingness to read and retain scripture, and because of this, much of the church has lost touch with the clear boundaries set by the Bible. When something goes missing, though, something else has to rise up to take its place, and as a result we’ve seen popular catchphrases introduced, embraced and repeated as if they were scripture. 

“Love Wins” started as the title of a book, but soon took on a life of its own, transcending the actual content of the book. That two-word sentence dares you to disagree with it: How could love not win? Didn’t Paul say that faith, hope and love remain, and that love is the greatest? And yet it’s infuriatingly vague: What love? Whose love? The Bible says that God is love, but that phrase tries to turn love into God. There are many Christians who consider themselves born again but yet have allowed that man-made catchphrase to carry the same weight as scripture. Because, hey – it sounds good, and it’s easier to remember.

There’s another recent catchphrase that has been less widespread and certainly less damaging, but still carries a subtle danger: “God is always in a good mood.” The people that created this phrase are Spirit-filled, Bible-preaching believers, and have clearly tried to correct what they see as a deficiency in the understanding of God’s goodness. But while I respect and honour their work in the Kingdom, I believe that by creating a catchphrase that goes outside of Biblical boundaries to make an absolute, unchanging statement about God, they’ve made a mistake. 

For someone who does not know much scripture, the idea that God is always in a good mood comes as a pleasant surprise. But is He always? Paul warned the Corinthian church that some of them were dying – dying! – because they took the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). Was God in a good mood during those meetings? In Revelation 2:20-23, Jesus matter-of-factly told the leader of the church in Thyatira that He was going to strike dead the children of a wicked woman the church had received as a prophetess, but not before casting her on a bed of suffering. Was He in a good mood when He said this? 

Surely we can say that God is always good, because that’s the testimony of scripture. But it’s unbiblical to introduce that goodness as a mood that He will never deviate from, and it can give believers a false sense of Him always being happy with us, no matter what. Through the cross we are at peace with God (Romans 5:1-2), but it’s clear that He can still get very upset with the things we do. I have no doubt that the church leaders who coined this phrase know all these things and have a balanced, holistic view, but that isolated catchphrase has travelled further than any broader statements they might hold to. 

The church doesn’t need clever catchphrases. More than ever before, we need sound doctrine. The key for us as believers is to stay in the Word, to absorb scripture into the marrow of our bones. To take the long, slow road of careful study, and leave behind the smooth highway of short, snappy, feel-good sound bites. 

So let’s get it straight:

Love doesn’t win – God wins. 
And God isn’t always in a good mood – He’s always in a God mood. 

God will be faithful to His own character, no matter what we say about Him. Thankfully, that character is good, loving and trustworthy, but it’s also a lot of other things that we might not be comfortable with. And we’re far better off when we just pay attention to everything He’s said about Himself, rather than using our own advertising skills to add to it. 

Hold the Phone

Shaun Brauteseth
June 2, 2016

In a recent Washington Post article depicting the lives of teens today, a 13-year-old named Katherine Pommerening is profiled. The article begins with a description of a trip home from school as she slides into the car, phone in hand. She proceeds to:

Ignore a question from the driver and open Instagram. 
Scroll through three memes before closing the app.
Open BuzzFeed. 
Read a story about Janet Jackson.
Read ‘28 Things You’ll Understand If You’re Both British and American.’ 
Close Buzzfeed.
Open Instagram again. 
Open the NBA app.
Shut the screen off. 
Turn the screen back on. 
Open Spotify. 
Open Fitbit. 
Open Instagram again. 
Open Snapchat. 
Watch a sparkly rainbow flow from her friend’s mouth.
Watch a YouTube star make pouty faces at the camera. 
Watch a tutorial on nail art. 

“She feels the bump of the driveway and looks up,” the article continues. “They’re home. Twelve minutes have passed.”

This is a fairly normal interaction with a device (and lack of interaction, mind you, with a human nearby), and it’s certainly not just teenagers doing this. Phones have become an extension of ourselves, and never before have we been able to access so much information and entertainment so quickly. My 16-month-old daughter already knows what a phone is, and if my wife’s phone beeps in another room she’ll toddle off, fetch it and bring it to her. She’s learning that it’s something we look at constantly, and I’m realising that it’s a lesson I don’t want her to learn.

What does a Christian do with this? What does a servant of Jesus do with the sheer amount of content available to us, which is able to literally fill every waking hour? How do we apply the freedom to be informed and entertained but avoid excesses, when the Western world today is virtually defined by excess? We have to start where Jesus started and work our way outwards from there.

In one of planet earth’s most significant moments, creation’s divine architect was asked, point blank, about what He wanted most from us. If we’re ever going to pay attention to scripture, this is the moment. His answer, found in Mark 12:28-31, is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and then love your neighbour as yourself. In that order. What a privilege for us to devote our lives towards that end! And what a responsibility to throw off anything that would prevent us doing it. Our lives will be defined by what we’ve done with those two commands.

The more I’m entertained by what I read on my phone, the less I want to spend time with God. The more I depend on my phone to fill every silent moment in my day, the less I want to think about God in those silences. The more I fill my mind with exciting but unimportant things, the less my mind wants to focus on God; I’m constantly occupied but never satisfied. The more I feel a need to look at my phone, the less I feel a need to look at God.

Every time I wake up in the morning, reach for my phone and instantly check what happened in the world while I slept, I become less and less interested in engaging with my wife and daughter. Whenever I spend large chunks of time reading things or watching videos that interest me, I find myself less and less interested in reaching out to people who require some effort. Every time I enter my insular mini-world of entertainment and information I become less and less receptive to the reality around me, and every time I ignore a person in order to check a message or read an update, I become less and less bothered by how rude it actually is. 

In short, the more I indulge my own cravings, the less I hunger after God.

Each generation has had their challenges: The pent-up, stoic denials of the post-World War 2 era; the sexually liberated, drug-induced fallout of the 60s; the materialistic madness of the 80s; the lost innocence of the turn of the millennium. It feels like our generation has all of those and more, with an added twist: There are more ways to escape than there have ever been. More ways to tune out of reality and into kingdoms of our own making. More ways to use up precious time on things with almost no value. More ways to ignore each other. More ways to ignore God. 

There is an answer, though: Self-restraint. It’s a fruit of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and in Christ we’re fully capable of taking something that is a daily part of our lives and bringing it under submission to God. That’ll mean putting it in the drawer sometimes, silencing it sometimes, hiding it away sometimes. It’s math, not magic; we just have to take ground back, one good decision at a time. As we do this, we teach our hearts, souls and minds that they were made to be focused on One who is more captivating than any pixels on a screen, and that there is a world of people crying out to be engaged eye-to-eye, and to see something of the love of God close up.

I’ll never meet Katherine Pommerening, but if I did, I would say this: You and me are both just normal people who get caught up in the things of this world. So let’s stop being normal, stop wasting time, and fix our eyes on what is unseen and eternal.

Batman v Superman v God

Shaun Brauteseth
April 13, 2016

There’s a moment in the recently released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where the jittery, ADHD-villain Lex Luthor says, “If God is all powerful, He cannot be all good. And if He is all good, He cannot be all powerful.” It’s just one of many allusions or outright references to God in the movie, usually directed at Superman. “And now God bends to my will,” Luthor claims at one point, while later adding his verdict: “Now God is as good as dead.”

Batman v Superman
is grim, almost completely devoid of humour and contains more explosions than I have ever seen in my life. In fact, I think I would rather be wiped out in the fighting than be asked to help clean up the city afterwards. The movie also contains, as one of its running themes, the idea of fighting against, overthrowing and killing God.

In modern blockbusters, it seems that direct references to God have become much more common. It used to be that some madman would hijack a nuclear warhead and aim it at New York (yawn!), but with the onset of galactic superhero sequels, prequels and prequels to sequels, those days are over. Today’s movies are concerned with weightier matters – subjects with a deeper resonance in the public’s minds. 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron gave its villain, Ultron, some positively Biblical zingers, like his response to the question of what would happen if human beings didn’t improve under his watch: “Ask Noah,” he replied. When he got his hands on the metal alloy that would, yes, destroy earth, he said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” And then there was Vision, the character created to destroy him, who, when explaining who he was, simply stated, “I am.” Sound familiar?

In the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse, the immortal, invincible planet-threatening villain is named Apocalypse, and he gladly explains to us that,
“I’ve been called many things over many lifetimes: Ra, Krishna, Yahweh…” In case we don’t get the point, it’s revealed to us that this ancient being has four followers, just like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. “He got that one from the Bible,” says one character to another. “Or the Bible got it from him,” is the reply. And this is just the movie trailer.

The fact that big-budget storytelling should use the idea of gods is not surprising; it makes for good storylines. What’s worth taking note of, though, is how much more blatantly Biblical it’s becoming. Of course, a story can be used to depict something true of God, as movies like the Chronicles of Narnia have done. But the current crop of superhero movies aren’t interested in creating an elevated view of God; they’re dragging the very notion of Him down to earth. Far from being avoided, the idea of God is thrown around casually, as if anyone can be God, and anyone else can kill God.

I don’t imagine that the people making these movies are Christians, and so I wouldn’t expect them to have any kind of reverence for the God of scripture. But think about the influence of the world around them. The ultimate fantasy of rebellious humanity is to bring God down – to neutralize Him and render Him harmless. And so we bring Him into our little fantasy stories; we make Him part of the plot and we speak about Him as if He were just another character. We put human faces on Him; we put alien faces on Him. We make him good, bad, alive, dead, and we give Him other names. We put His eternal words in the mouths of made-up characters, people wearing costumes and prosthetics, and use those words to add solemnity to the scenes.

And that’s where Christians need to be on our guard. These flippant distortions of God are not always good for us to watch, and can even confuse the faith and feed the doubts of some. It might be permissible for us to watch these movies, but it’s not always beneficial (1 Corinthians 6:12). I wouldn’t necessarily instruct a believer to stay away from these movies, but I would encourage them to guard their heart and mind when watching them. My feeling is that it’s going to get more and more blatant as the devil desperately tries to undermine who God is. Indeed, an upcoming Marvel movie, Doctor Strange, centers around a superhero who performs sorcery and mystical arts to protect the earth.

We started with Batman v Superman, so let’s end with it. In one scene, an angry victim of violence climbs a large statue of Superman and defaces it with red spraypaint. The two words he writes on it are large and bold: FALSE GOD.

And that’s exactly right.