‘Letters to God’ Misses the Postmark

LettersToGod163x215.jpgA young boy with a tragic diagnosis. A mailman who has lost his way. A powerful message of Christ’s love and forgiveness. Sounds like the perfect Christian movie, right? Sadly, no. As much as I wanted to like this film, I just couldn’t. Now before you call me the Tin Man (no heart) and say that I kick puppies for fun, just hear me out.

Letters to God is about an 8-year-old boy named Tyler (played by Tanner Maguire) who writes letters to God during his battle with cancer. These letters impact the boy’s family, which includes his mother (Robin Lively), grandmother (Maree Cheatham), and older brother (Michael Bolten), and the life of a spiritually broken mailman (played very well by Jeffrey S. Johnson). Other cast members include Ralph Waite, L. Derek Leonidoff, and Bailee Madison.

I have two big problems with the movie. My first problem is that there really is no story. A boy with cancer is not a story. That’s a character. A boy with cancer writing letters to God is not a story. That’s a gimmick. Some will disagree with me because this film is based on a true story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have enough elements for an engaging movie.

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Scripture in the Present Tense

Scripture in the Present Tense for Urban FaithAccording to Christian counselor and teacher Michael Emlet, reading the Bible “back to front” can help us better apply it to our lives today. In this excerpt from his new book, CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet, Emlet shows the importance of reading God’s Word in an active fashion. PLUS: Keep reading to find out how you can receive a FREE copy of CrossTalk.

The books of the Bible are meant to provoke a response in God’s people, whether it be worship, joy, conviction of sin, deeds of justice and mercy, praise, prayer, or concern for the lost. All Scripture invites a response to God.

When we read the Bible, we are not merely listening to a conversation God had with his people several thousand years ago, trying to extract some benefit for our own lives. We are a part of the same story line. Israel’s Messiah is our Messiah. The apostles’ Lord and Savior is our Lord and Savior. That’s why it’s critical to see the Bible as God’s unfolding story of salvation that centers on Jesus Christ.

If the Bible is one story with Jesus and his kingdom as the focal point, how should this impact the way we interpret and use Scripture in ministry? Here are some thoughts.

Back-to-Front, Front-to-Back

To interpret and apply the Bible wisely, we should develop the habit of reading Scripture “back to front” and “front to back.” What does it mean to read the Bible back to front? It means rereading any text (particularly Old Testament passages) in light of the end of the story — the coming of the kingdom in Jesus Christ.

I wrote portions of CrossTalk on the eve of the much-anticipated release of the final book of the Harry Potter series. I knew that when I finished that book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the ending would forever change the way I read and understood the details of the earlier books. Sure enough, details that seemed so significant were no longer so once I knew the entire story. Details that had been easy to overlook now grew in their significance in light of the story’s end. “So that’s what it meant!” “So that’s what was really going on in that scene.”

We can have this back-to-front experience watching movies as well. Have you watched A Beautiful Mind, the story of mathematician and schizophrenic John Nash? I remember thinking early on in the movie, If I were John Nash, I would be paranoid, too, given all the stress and secrecy of his government intelligence job! Of course, we later come to learn that his hiring by the government, the code-breaking work he was doing, and even some of his friends (e.g., his college roommate) were fabrications of his mind. What seemed so real, even to the viewer, were actually hallucinations. The end of the story forced me to see earlier parts in a new light.

Similarly, knowing the end of the biblical story means we can never read the earlier parts in the same way. That’s certainly true for the way Jesus and the New Testament writers read and interpreted the (Old Testament) Scriptures. Knowing how the story ends, we ask, “What difference does the death and resurrection of Jesus make for how I understand this passage?” The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the climax of redemption initiated in the Old Testament and the sure foundation for the life of the newly formed church. The New Testament writers consider what the reality of the new creation (ushered in by Christ’s death and resurrection) should look like in the life of the church, even as they anticipate the ultimate end of the story, the return of Christ. So, whether we find ourselves in the Old Testament or New Testament, we expect to discover an organic connection to the person and work of Christ, with multifaceted implications for the lives of God’s people.

It’s also true that we must read the Bible front to back. This means we take seriously where a particular text falls in the historical outworking of the story for at least three reasons. The first reason has to do with the idea of the Bible as “practical theology,” introduced in the previous chapter. The Bible is, in fact, an evolving practical theology by God’s design. God reveals himself personally to his people in specific contexts over time. God shapes his Word to the evolving needs of his people. This prompts us to ask, “What does God reveal about himself in this book or passage that helps the recipients of his message?” How wonderful to realize that God does not reveal himself “generically” but in multifaceted and specific ways! Sitting with the details and historical context of a passage primes us for application as we observe God’s Word matched to specific human need. Further, it encourages me to ask how I might step into a particular story and see how God’s particularized grace connects to my situation.

Second, in a related way, reading front to back guards us from oversimplifying the plotline of Scripture. The coming of the kingdom in Jesus as the climax of the story doesn’t mean that you “shoehorn” him artificially into every text. In our zeal to acknowledge the redemptive-historical character of Scripture, we don’t want to insist that every passage is about Jesus explicitly. Rather the themes of each book, tailored to its historical context, contribute implicitly to our understanding of the kingdom. Each passage or book adds its distinctive voice to a swelling chorus that says, “New creation has come through King Jesus!”

Third, details matter. Think about an accident scene investigation. The end of the story is clear; the debris lies on the road to prove it. But the details of the story matter. One driver fumbling for his cell phone. Another driver checking on her kids in the rearview mirror. The overlooked turn signal. Exceeding the speed limit. All these details contribute to the total understanding of the story. These details lead somewhere and are important in and of themselves.

In reality, the ending of a story only makes sense in light of what has come before. The more captivated we are by the details, the more glorious will seem the story’s climax. The more puzzled we are by the details, the more clarity (and perhaps surprise!) comes with the climax. The more we understand the significance of the details, the more significant the climax.

Crockpot Redemption

If Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s story in his first and second comings, we need to pay attention to the ways the redemptive story builds up to Christ and then flows out from him through the Spirit. We will appreciate what God has done that much more. We should keep in mind that ours is a “crockpot redemption.” God slowly, patiently works out his redemptive purposes over thousands of years and only “when the time had fully come” did God send his Son (Gal. 4:4). We would do well to pay attention to this gradual unfolding of his character and work so that we might savor his amazing grace and mercy even more.

To summarize, we need to begin our interpretation by thinking first of what it meant for its original audience — reading front to back. We ask the question, “What might the first readers have understood this text to mean at that point in redemptive history? ” This reminds us that there is a progressiveness to God’s revelation and we cannot ignore the specific context into which God’s Word first comes.

Next, we reread the text in light of the end of the story — reading back to front. We do have to “go back to the future”! Ultimately, what is that future? The book of Revelation — the return of the King and the consummation of his kingdom — shows where history is going.

This “bidirectional” reading does justice to the unity and diversity of Scripture. We will listen for the particular voices and themes of individual books, but we also will pay attention to the ways they fit into the Bible as a whole and, more specifically, into the progressive plan of God’s redemption.

The Centrality of God’s Mission

Ultimately, seeing the Bible as a unified story of God’s redemptive mission helps us avoid introspective, individualistic application. The endpoint of redemption isn’t a redeemed and transformed individual life (your own or another’s) — it is the restoration of all things!

Have you caught that immense vision? Does it saturate your life and ministry? We can settle for too little in our use of Scripture, even when we genuinely look to the Scriptures to guide our lives.

If we view the gospel in shortsighted and individualistic terms — “Yeah, I know Jesus died for my sins, but what has he done for me lately? ” — we are more tempted to grow cynical and self-absorbed. But if we view this life as co-laboring with our King as “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-20), we are strengthened to press onward and outward, expressing our love for others in sacrificial ways.

Excerpted from CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet by Michael R. Emlet, published by New Growth Press.
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