TV and movies both influence our culture as well as mirror it. Apparently mafiosi did not dress or act like the characters in The Godfather before the release of that film. The same can be said for investment bankers, who did not slick back their hair or wear ostentatiously expensive suits before the release of Oliver Stone's Wall Street. But sometimes films merely show us what we are already concerned with. The original The Day the Earth Stood Still is a pretty transparent parable about our fears in the 1950s that we would destroy ourselves with nuclear war, just as the remake is clearly about us destroying the environment. So whether they are reflecting public attitudes or influencing them, it is disturbing that some of the most pernicious ideas about faith can be found in films and TV.
One such idea is that faith is simply some kind of optimism. “Just have faith,” characters say in a tense situation, as if reality has the same bias towards happy endings that Hollywood does. They ignore the fact that you need something or someone to put your faith in. The logical question is how trustworthy is the thing or person in which you have faith. The often filmed story of the Titanic is a cautionary tale about putting all your faith in any over-hyped product of human ingenuity, as well as believing any company that would declare a ship “unsinkable,” as the Vice President of the White Star Line said on the very day the Titanic sank.
Another destructive idea about faith, and especially religious faith, is that it is simply believing in certain ideas which are absurd and/or untrue. It confounds faith with superstition or a belief in magic, so that it therefore becomes the opposite of logic or reason. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Who Watches the Watchers? a group of Federation observers are seen by a primitive species, who take the advanced humans to be gods. Picard is upset and doesn't want to send this race which had previously abandoned belief in the supernatural back to “the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear.” Similarly the crew of Stargate SG-1 spends a lot of time convincing primitive people that their gods are fake. Usually they are merely very advanced aliens. But the point is that faith is for the unsophisicated and for children.
Another insidious idea is that somehow fantastic beings need faith in order to continue to exist. We see it in the play Peter Pan, where the children in the audience are asked to clap if they believe in fairies and somehow that show of belief cures Tinkerbell of poisoning. We see it in Elf where Santa's sleigh is powered by children's belief in him. Today he uses a modern engine to help because belief in him has been decreasing. We see it in the original Star Trek episode Who Mourns for Adonais, where a cosmic being claiming to be the Greek God Apollo says all the other gods have faded away because people have stopped worshiping them. When he fails to get the Enterprise crew to worship him, he concludes that humanity has outgrown him and he chooses to fade away. This idea may go back to Plutarch, the Greek philosopher, who told of how the god Pan died when people just thought he was a made up story.
Certainly the influence of religions fade as people cease to believe in them. That was a good thing when, say, people ceased worshiping Moloch to whom they sacrificed infants! The prophets warned the people about precisely that. Abandoning Yahweh, the God of justice and mercy, of faithfulness and steadfast love, would lead to the self-destructive moral decline of the nations of Israel and Judah. Not worshiping God did not hurt him but hurt those who left him to worship gods who demanded human sacrifice and fertility gods who encouraged sexual license that undermines stable relationships. People tend to end up resembling what they worship. You see it today where people essentially worship money or politics or sex or science or other human constructs. These things are not bad but they are powerful and can be misused or abused, especially if they are elevated to a position that puts them above everything else, like God.
In the Bible faith is not so much believing in the existence of God as trusting him. As James writes (2:19) “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” As James emphasizes that kind of faith—merely that God exists—is as good as dead if not acted on. A medical analogy would be how people know that vaccines exist but when they do not trust them, they don't take advantage of them and so this nation has had an increase in certain childhood diseases that were previously not doing much damage to kids.
In the same way, Mark (6:1-6) tells us that Jesus could not do any miracles in his hometown, because he grew up there and they just couldn't believe that anyone they knew as a snot-nosed kid could be the Messiah. Jesus was able to heal a few sick people because they trusted him. But any doctor will tell you they can't do much for patients who do not trust them and will not comply with their treatment.
Trust underlies all relationships, from family and friends to our business dealings. You can't do much with people you don't trust. And faith is a 2-way street. If I need my car fixed, not only do I have to trust that the mechanic will do it but he has to trust that I will pay him the agreed price. If he doesn't actually fix it I will not go do business with him again. If I don't pay him, he won't work on this car or any other car I bring him in the future. If either of us betrays the trust of the other, the relationship will suffer, if not be completely severed.
Marriage requires a lot of trust between the parties involved, and so it is often used in the Bible as a metaphor for the relationship between God and his people. In fact, the Bible can be seen as the story of a loving God who is betrayed by the people he created but who nevertheless works to win them back. He gives them a land, frees them when they become slaves, and brings them out of exile when they are conquered and deported. He gives them a law that guides them to a life that is simultaneously good in the moral sense and good in the sense of being satisfying. But again and again they are unfaithful to the God who in his love shows his steadfast faithfulness to them. They turn against him and they turn against each other. So finally he sends us his son.
In Jesus God becomes one of us. Being the embodiment of divine love, Jesus shows us what God is really like. Being human, he also shows us what we can be, if we simply let God's Spirit work in us. It is through Jesus that we can become the persons God created us to be.
We can trust God because of Jesus. When I was in the nursing home recovering from my accident, I was fortunate to have a lot of good nurses. But one of my favorites was Emily, not just because she was conscientious and sweet but because she knew what I was going through in a way no one else did. When Emily was 16, she was also in a car accident. But in her case, a drunk driver hit her car and her friend, a passenger with her, was killed. Emily had to be revived several times on the way to the hospital and in the ER. She awoke in ICU, terrified. Luckily one of the nurses there sat down and explained what had happened, why she had so many tubes and IVs and machines plugged into her and why her hands were restrained (so she wouldn't pull any of those life-sustaining tubes out). And eventually Emily would have to learn to walk again and deal with the pain and exhaustion that goes with it. Emily knew what I was going through, because she had gone through it herself. And because of Jesus, God knows firsthand how difficult and painful human life can be. Just as I could discuss my aches and pains and concerns with Emily and know that she knew what it was like, it is comforting to know that we can go to Jesus with our problems and know that he has been there and dealt with that.
Jesus dealt with family problems: his brothers mocked him and thought he was crazy. Jesus dealt with the problem of being misunderstood by both enemies and even his followers. Jesus dealt with the problem of being opposed for doing the right thing. Jesus dealt with being exhausted by the demands people put on him. Jesus dealt with missing meals because he was so busy. Jesus dealt with being thirsty. Jesus dealt with being betrayed by a friend—friends if you include Peter denying him. Jesus dealt with being abandoned by others when he needed them the most. Jesus dealt with the feeling that God had abandoned him. Jesus dealt with unbearable pain. Jesus dealt with dying. Because of all the things that he underwent, we can trust him—especially when you consider the fact that he did them out of love for us.
We can trust Jesus because he said he will never leave us or forsake us. It's bad enough to go through pain and suffering; it is terrible to go through them alone. I like to think Jesus made this promise because at the worst time in his life, he did have to face it alone and he doesn't want that for us. So Jesus is with us whatever happens. And this again shows God's nature. When God tells Moses his name is “I am,” the Hebrew could also be translated “I will be” and even “I will be there.” God is there for us when we need him. And because of that we can trust him.
But it is not enough to trust God passively, merely for what he has done for us. We need to trust him actively. We need to trust him enough to do what he says.
As a nurse I have had many patients who trusted a surgeon enough to let themselves be knocked out, rendered helpless and then cut open. They will trust a doctor to remove cancerous or diseased tissue and even to replace broken hips and knees with one's made of metal and other materials. But I was surprised that they would not then obey the doctor's orders. They would not change their lifestyle so as to avoid the same health problems or do their physical therapy so they could walk again.
We meet Christians like that. They love to hear about God's grace and forgiveness. They love to hear what Jesus did for them on the cross. And they believe those things. But they don't trust God enough to take the next logical step: do what he says. They don't trust him enough to follow doctor's orders. They don't trust God enough to turn the other cheek, to love their neighbor, let alone attempt to love their enemy. Just like the people with new hips and knees who nevertheless preferred the comfort of their wheelchairs over the pain of trying to stand and walk, even when supported by therapists, a lot of Christians don't want to leave the comfort zone of the church and actually go out into the world and try loving others and sharing the good news with them, despite the fact that God will be with them and his Spirit will support them. I used to wonder why those patients bothered to have their hips or knees replaced if they weren't going to use them. And I wonder why people let God into their life if they aren't going to live the life he makes possible for them.
I know what it's like to fear the pain of standing on broken legs and trying to walk. But I don't want to be bed-bound or wheelchair bound. (Or cane-bound; I stop using one today.) And I know what it's like to fear the ridicule of people who think I am naive to still believe in God in this day and age. I mean, I'm a nurse. I know science. I've never seen city walls just fall down or water change into wine or somebody walk on water. But I have seen the walls people build around themselves to protect themselves and keep others out crumble and fall to let God in. I have seen people change into new creatures in Christ with a new purpose in life and a new love for others. I have seen people somehow manage to stay on top of a situation that should have swallowed them whole because they trusted in God and stepped out in that faith. I have never seen a lame man suddenly leap up and dance but I have felt the power of God heal me and help me get back on my feet a lot faster than even doctors and therapists believed it would happen.
It doesn't all happen at once. And that's why, when his disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, he tells them that you can start with just a tiny bit of faith, the size of a mustard seed, and do more than you thought it could. Elsewhere (Matt. 13:31-32) Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. It's tiny, roughly the size of one of those poppy seeds you get on a bagel, and yet it can grow into a plant ten feet tall, four feet taller than me. The point is that a little can do a lot. Faith may start small but if you let it, it can in time grow to be a lot bigger and more powerful than you thought possible.
I started out with some defective portrayals of faith in pop culture and I want to end with one that is just about perfect. And its source is Stephen King. A lot of people don't know that he calls himself a Christian, has taught Sunday School and frequently puts Christian symbolism into his stories. And one of his short stories is called The Last Rung of the Ladder. In it a man recalls the time he and his sister were kids, playing in the family's barn. They took turns climbing this very tall ladder to a beam running the length of the barn, walking the beam and jumping into this enormous haystack. But the old ladder breaks and his sister is left hanging from the top rung. Her brother desperately starts grabbing armfuls of hay and starts piling them directly under her. And just when she can't hold on any longer, he tells her to let go. The pile of hay does break her fall and saves her life. And he is surprised when she tells him she hadn't looked down before letting go. She didn't know about the pile of hay. She just trusted her loving brother to save her.
God loves us. Because of Jesus, we know what he is really like. Because of what he has done for us in Jesus, we know we can trust him. We just need to do so. We need to let go of our fear, of our embarrassment, of the things we worship in place of God, and trust him. We need to take the steps we are afraid to take—to feed the hungry, clothe the threadbare, care for the sick, visit those in prison, welcome the alien, go the second mile, turn the other cheek, love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable. The reason the church hasn't changed the world more is that we play it safe. We don't do anymore than we have to. We cling to tradition and the way we have always done things in the past. We need to let go and trust that beneath us are the everlasting arms, the arms of our loving heavenly Father. He is there for us and he's not going away. Do not be afraid; have faith in the God who is love.