Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Why I Watch "Saving Grace"

There are plenty of reasons not to watch this show. It is R rated, at least as far as free TV goes, because of its language and sexual situations that leave nothing to the imagination. The crime stories are often not very complex. The main character is a truly reprehensible person, albeit one with a good heart.

If you want to condemn the show for being trashy, you would be right. The main character, Grace, leads a man into adultery and breaks up his marriage. She is sexually promiscuous (and not just with the man whose marriage she has broken up). She drinks too much and smokes too much. She lies. Her language is filthy and blasphemous. She treats her friends badly.

OK, yeah, but I still watch it.

If you don't know the show, the twist is that Grace is visited by an angel. Not your typical wings-and-halo kind of angel ... not even Michael Landon. This angel dips snuff and looks like a construction worker or an out of work bass guitarist from the sixties.

But he loves Grace. Not in any sort of romantic way. In a biblical way. He is not in the business of condemning her, even as he makes it clear that he does not approve (and God does not approve) of her many transgressions. But he is more interested in leading her to God than he is in taking potshots at her, no matter how big a target she makes of herself.

Yes, I wish he spoke more explicitly about Jesus, and he has made some troubling statements about Islam. I don't claim that this show perfectly displays the church or lays out the gospel.

But, it makes a very important point - the process of sharing God with someone like Grace is just that: a process. Earl (the angel) is in this for the long haul, and he is building a relationship with Grace based on honesty and love. It is in many ways a model for us Christians to follow, even if we cannot disappear at will and pop over to France for lunch like Earl can.

The show does not take the easy way out. Grace has heard the message and seen evidence of the handiwork of God, and the typical story would be for her to hit her knees at the first opportunity. But life does not always work like that. The second most typical story would be for her confidently to proclaim her rejection of God and to shoo the angel away forever. But life does not always work like that, either. In this story, she is - usually, apparently - having nothing to do with what the angel says but she is intrigued by him and his caring for her and the relationship that he is building with her.

Again, it is a process, on both sides.

I don't know where this show is going. I have intentionally not read much about it in the press, but I won't be surprised if the producers and stars are not really interested in re-telling the Greatest Story Ever Told. I may be very disappointed by the ending, but I am intrigued by the journey.

Without ever supporting her bad habits or condoning (or even excusing) a single one of her sins, Earl is nonetheless building credibility with Grace. He is teaching her as much as she will learn, and he is leading her to a place where she will have to make a decision. He has helped her in ways that can only be supernatural, and while she may exercise her choice to ignore the obvious work of God in her life, she cannot pretend that she is not being given a chance to see Him.

So often, Christians are portrayed as judgmental. We are lumped in with those who march against ___________ (pick your sin-of-the-month). It is not original with me to say that it does not make sense for us to expect non-believers to act like believers. We seem to be angry that they act like exactly who they are, non-believers, and we forget that the only reason we (usually) act differently is because the Holy Spirit indwells us, because we have accepted the gifts God offers us. (Remember Paul's words: "... and such were some of you.") And yet we expect those who do not know the Holy Spirit to act as if they do know Him. Instead of indicting non-believers for acting like exactly what they are, we ought to be in the business of introducing them to the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who convicts of sin; we don't and can't, and we should quit trying. But often we omit the introductions and skip straight to the expectations of changed behavior. Hollywood has noticed, and Hollywood seems usually to portray us only in the judgmental light.

But not this show. Earl loves Grace and continues to seek her in spite of herself. Her best female friend on the show, clearly a Christian, also continues to develop a spiritual relationship with her. I understand this best friend character to be one who prays for Grace and looks for ways to share her faith with her.

You have to put up with a lot of language and weekly TV-MA or PG-13/R scenes, but the storyline here is unique, and the perspective is mature. This is not one for your kids, but it is one for your thought.

Don't expect a perfect rendition of your doctrine, but watch to see how the angel and the Christian try to work with the sinners in this show. I don't know if Grace will be saved or not, but I know that I want to find out.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Religion and the 2008 Election

Some stories, all true, before I start...

Last weekend, before the election, an intelligent, thoughtful Christian friend of mine told me that, despite his admiration for John McCain, he was voting for Obama. Saying that the biggest threat to America is "fundamentalism of any stripe," he unabashedly said that he would vote Democratic "because of Sarah Palin's religion."

On the night before the election, I received a forwarded email under the heading "Let us Pray." It included lines like "I was very dismayed when, recently, a member of my church said to me with great resignation that she was afraid Obama will take the presidency. These words came from someone that in the past has been a great prayer warrior. What is happening was my question!! Why are we Christians settling for the loss of our Christian/Judeo heritage, not issuing a battle cry and falling to our knees and taking our country back?" The email went on to cite school prayer, the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places, the statement that we allow mosques in America to "proclaim anti-Christian, anti-American threats and terrorism," the claim that Senator Obama will not wear the American flag on his lapel, and a reference to the political views of Mr. Obama's pastor. After citing the need to "stop the undermining of our country by the Muslims", it includes the line, "We should be afraid, very afraid because our apathy is leading us to perdition. It is time for all Christian Americans to raise the battle cry and take our nation back! Maybe McCain on his own cannot defeat Obama, but our God can and He will if we take to our knees in prayer and raise a mighty cry to the heavens." Leaving aside the poor grammar and punctuation, the call to prayer for a McCain victory stunned me.

Then, on election day, I saw multiple reports from African-American churches in Ohio, Georgia, Illinois, and elsewhere. The repetitive theme was that church members were praying for an Obama victory. I heard and read stories of parishioners' fervant beliefs that God would give the election to Obama after a few more prayers.

I find the choice to vote against Sarah Palin based on her religion to be appalling. Equating "fundamentalist" Christianity with fundamentalist Islam is silly, akin to saying that a compact disc is the same thing as a compact car. At their worst, fundamentalist Christians (allegedly) want to ban some books and appoint pro-life judges. At their worst, fundamentalist Muslims (empirically) want to set off bombs and kill thousands at a time. Sarah Palin is a member of an evangelical church with conservative beliefs. To disqualify her from public office because of her religion is intolerance at its worst, and to vote for the liberal candidate based on such a view is irony in its highest form.

I find the emails labeling Obama as "anti-Christian" equally appalling. This is a man who proclaims his Christian faith, writes about his Christian faith, and puts it in action as he feels led.

I find the claim that God wants any candidate to win based on skin color to be amazing.

I am not judging the sincerity of any of these candidates - but for Christians to proclaim that God is for one candidate and to attack the opposition on religious grounds seems backwards to me. There are greater goals here than political, and we Christians are eating our own.

I am also disturbed by the repeated findings of guilt by association. I do not share all political views of anybody whom I love and admire, including my pastor, my wife, my father, my mother, or you. We were not voting for Jeremiah Wright or Dan Yeary, so the views of the respective pastors are irrelevant.

I don't think conservatives really wanted to start the morality fight in this election, since the Republican candidate, widely described as having a serious temper problem, left his first wife to marry his current wife, who in turn is heir to a beer fortune. I know that Senator McCain has publicly repented and described his divorce as the worst mistake of his life, and I applaud that. I just think it is hard to throw stones about what Mr. Obama wears on his lapel.

As for school prayer, posting the Ten Commandments, etc..., I firmly agree with Obama on these issues. (Actually, so does McCain.) Perhaps that will be the subject of a different blog, but for this blog, I hope it is sufficient to say that I am a Christian, and there are many conservative Christians like me who honestly disagree with the emailer I quoted earlier. I take offense at the notion that we are leading the nation into perdition.

My point is not to defend Obama. I voted against him. My point is that it is self-destructive to the kingdom for us to shoot at other Christians in this way.

There is a legitimate point of view that says that this election represented a turning point in the moral fabric of our country and that Christians were and are obligated to speak up on issues. While I am not sure about the "turning point" nature of this moment in time, I wholeheartedly support every American Christian's right to speak out and be active in the political world (so long as they don't use the pulpit and the "worship service" to do it). Feel free to disagree with President-Elect Obama on any issue you want to - I do. If your religion is the basis for your feelings, trumpet that. My faith informs my opinion, and I don't shrink from that. But neither do I declare that the opponent is not a Christian or that God is on my side.

Let's not demonize other Christians on religious grounds. That is not what the Master is about in this world. I don't believe it is ours to quote "by their fruits you shall know them" and then declare that God has chosen a candidate. Keep the political fight political and join hands with other Christians to keep the religious imperatives religious. Render unto Caesar...

And by the way, I agree wholeheartedly that we should pray for the election, our nation, and our leaders, whoever they are.