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The Wolf of Wall Street and the Injustice of Hollywood

One of the big movie releases over the past couple of months has been Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street that stars Leonardo DiCaprio. The trailer for the movie has been playing on nearly every channel and before several movies I’ve seen during this time.

In case you don’t know the backstory, the movie is based on the life of stock fraudster Jordan Belfort who defrauded thousands of investors hundreds of millions of dollars. As the trailers for the movie have pointed out, and as any reasonable plot synopsis notes, the movie is not so much a prophetic tale of how Belfort’s deceit and illegal activities ruined the lives of thousands of people, but it is a glorification of his indulgence and crimes. It would appear that Mr Scorsese has abandoned any moral point and opted for a illicit romp through a craven world of self-destruction and debauchery. Some critics have noted this challenge while others have, rightly, called the film pornogaphic. It has even gotten the daughter of one of the convicted conspirators to write an open letter calling for the end to such films.

I’m not going to see the movie. One of my personal commitments is to not see any movie with nudity and I checked my Movies with Kids in Mind app and found this movie scored a 10 out of 10 on the sexuality scale…a rare feat.

The insult that Mr Scorsese pays to the victims of Mr Belfort is that in glorifying his excesses the victims of this corrupt individual are entirely lost. Belfort’s tale should have only been told to show how destructive these kinds of actions are upon the victims who lost so much. To this point, Mr Scorsese fails to properly understand the moral gravity of his film and, ultimately, betrays another injustice on the victims.

Since his release, Belfort has made it a point to make more money off his crimes and has stopped repaying the $200 million in court-ordered restitution. Sadly this point is lost even on the star of movie, who thinks that by showing the American public three hours of parties, drinking, drugs, and depraved sexual behavior (often with victims of sexual trafficking) they will learn that crime is bad.

For Christians, one of our deepest callings is to seek justice for the poor and outcast, to find ways to provide for those who have had evil visited upon their lives.

As we are reminded in Isaiah 1:17,

Learn to do what is good.
Seek justice.
Correct the oppressor.
Defend the rights of the fatherless.
Plead the widow’s cause.

Then also in, Amos 5:11-15

Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and exact a grain tax from him,
you will never live in the houses of cut stone
you have built;
you will never drink the wine
from the lush vineyards
you have planted.
12 For I know your crimes are many
and your sins innumerable.
They oppress the righteous, take a bribe,
and deprive the poor of justice at the gates.
13 Therefore, the wise person will keep silent
at such a time,
for the days are evil.

14 Seek good and not evil
so that you may live,
and the Lord, the God of Hosts,
will be with you,
as you have claimed.
15 Hate evil and love good;
establish justice in the gate.
Perhaps the Lord, the God of Hosts, will be gracious
to the remnant of Joseph.

Seeking justice for those who have been oppressed and destroyed by corrupted and sinful individuals is one of the basic ministries of followers of Jesus. James 1:27 reminds us plainly: Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Our advocacy is to be for those who are easily oppressed and hurt, those who do not have the means for support or defense.

Now, we shouldn’t be at all surprised when media leaders use garish portrayals of debauchery and sin to glorify greed and corruption. Indeed, this is what we should expect as did the earliest believers who experienced this first hand. However, as believers our calling is to a high road and to care for those who have been neglected and hurt.

Paul reminds us of this in 1 Timothy 6:17-19,

17 Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. 18 Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share, 19 storing up for themselves a good reserve for the age to come, so that they may take hold of life that is real.

When we see the filth and corruption that spews like water from a fountain in our common social areas and into media saturated environments our goal should be to lament for those who have lost, advocate for their restitution, and provide for their needs. By glorifying the indulgence and depravity of individuals who have taken again and again, we lose sight of our higher calling to seek the renewal of our world for the Kingdom of God.

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Microsoft Sermons

Over the past month or so, there has been a recurrent Microsoft ad that has been dominating commercial life on about all the channels. We’ve all seen it, here it is right below here, and it has found high visibility on almost all major viewing occasions.

The other day, I sent out a tweet that basically summarized my thoughts on this commercial:

This is a bad commercial if for no other reason that it is a stunning representation of the tremendous distance between Microsoft and Apple in terms of product placement, market capitalization, marketing strategy, and the market approach of Microsoft. Ironically in the ad, Apple comes out on top for the primary market segment that Microsoft is appealing to in the ad.

This is exactly the kind of ad that Apple would never make.

Of course this ad has been critiqued by far more engaged minds than mine. Suffice to say, the commercial fails to develop a case for the product against the thin criticisms (and outright misleading information) against its most potent competitor. Microsoft capitulates its own standing with a trite comparative ad that is easily dismissed because we all know the truth that is missing in their ad. Apple has a better product and the mocking claims are benign swipes by a displaced competitor.

The Microsoft ad parallels the attempts of many ministries in their quest to relate to culture by creating comparative illustrations or biting critiques in the form of media, clips, or other content that appropriate components of culture. In doing so they inadequately recreate culture, often capitulating entirely to the cultural form, that discredits their larger point. As this happens, particularly with younger generations, the audiences might be entertained by the correlation to a cultural form or style, but the opportunity to point out the exclusivity of the Gospel message within the biblical text can be missed.

As a result sermons, and worship services, are left confined to a particular cultural form that limits the ability of the communicator or the worship team to fully develop a biblical text. The cultural form dictates the limits of application for a biblical text and isolates the ability of exposit its full points.

This is not to say that using these kinds of mediums and media are never appropriate. There are most certainly times where they can be used and used to support a larger point. The challenge is when a cultural medium or aspect of media becomes the ultimate lens through which the biblical text is filtered. At that point the box is placed upon the biblical text and confined. This is a form, that while popular these days, is not sound homiletic practice.

Notice how Paul handles using a cultural form in Acts 17:

Acts 17:22   Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect.  23 For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: 

  TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.

Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. 25 Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. 26 From one man He has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. 27 He did this so they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. 28 For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29 Being God’s offspring then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination.

30   “Therefore, having overlookeda the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.”

As Paul is speaking to Gentile pagans (the truly unchurched) he places his challenge in a cultural form that they would immediately recognize. He also appropriates two forms, one present before them, and one that was, perhaps, a popular literary quotation. Yet Paul places these both within the bounds of his sermon and not his sermon within the bounds of his examples, or illustrations.

In the end the sermon draws on these forms for connection and then leverages for a redemptive point.

For Paul, understanding his context was a critical point of his sermons in Acts. The sermon to the Jews in  Acts 13 shows how Paul leverages Jewish cultural forms to make points of connection as opposed to the Gentile forms here in Acts 17. Yet in both places Paul is clear to ensure that his redemptive point is not clouded by the cultural form that connects with his audience.

Instead of crafting a sermon at that capitulates the redemptive Gospel narrative to the cultural form, Paul confines his use of cultural forms to allow the crucial redemptive point to stand on its own.

For too many of us who have attempted to use cultural forms, we have allowed them to cloud that larger point. By appropriately seeing the New Testament example of using illustrative material to bolster a point or make a connection instead of being the narrative upon which the biblical text is confined, we see the redemptive point of the Gospel is able to be expanded and not confined.

Just like with the Microsoft ad, our task as expositors is to move beyond the trite commonality of poorly framed points and allow the grand Gospel message to stand on its own.

Instead of lowering the biblical text to the cultural level, our job as faithful expositors is to allow it to remain elevated above the cultural milieu. Allow the cultural forms to support the biblical text, not the other way around.

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