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Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Qur'an Connection

Hopefully that title doesn't offend anybody.  I racked my brain for some other fitting antonym to "Bible," but I really couldn't think of one. It's a little extreme, I guess, but hopefully there are no Muslims who are browsing my site who will seek me out and kill me for using their holy book's name irreverently.

Well, I said I would have a controversial review for you this week. You would think, with a name and a theme so centered around the Bible, the Odyssey writers couldn't go wrong. That's what I thought as well. And that's what I continued to think as I listened to the first two sections of the show. I was actually very pleased with the first one; the second one was a little cheesy and drawn-out, but I didn't have much of an issue with it. But I was sorely disappointed when it came time for the third section. It was an entertaining enough story, and I think the writers were well-intentioned with it, but it had a very major theological flaw in it. And you know how I am about theological flaws. I'll get to that later in the review though. First, I'll tell you what I liked about the episode.

Overall, I thought it was a pretty decent format. I liked how 2 Timothy 3:16 was the basic framework for the skits, mainly because it's one of the most foundational texts for the Christian faith, since it deals with the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture. (It was also, along with Verse 17, the focus verse for this past year's Bible Bee. So I know it very well.)  This started the episode out on the right foot for me, because I prefer the Bible to be the starting point for an episode, rather than just a point we try to pull out from the episode once all of the entertainment is over. If you remember, that's what I liked so much about Album 54:  the writers started with a moral, an aspect of love from 1 Corinthians 13, and made a story out of it, rather than coming up with an entertaining story idea and trying to fit a moral into it.  This episode almost didn't feel like AIO at first, because it was so Bible-oriented.

Then we get to the first call/"letter". Now, don't get me wrong, I understand the main concern of this caller, and I understand why Connie answered it the way she did, but the way it was handled may have resulted in some misconceptions. The caller said that her friend was telling her that what she needed to do to get to heaven was follow the Ten Commandments. Connie responds by offering a skit that shoots down that idea by presenting a caricatured guy who advocates doing your best to follow the Moral Law and hoping that your good ends up outweighing your bad. That's moralism. And it is a part of the basic philosophy of today's culture. It's called "moralistic therapeutic deism," which means that there's a god somewhere out there; he's not really involved with our lives, but he got this place going. Since we're his creation though, he wants to see us do what's right, so he has some rules; and he's okay if we don't obey them all the time, but as a general principle of life, we should try to follow the Golden Rule and stuff like that. And when we're depressed or needing love or self-worth, he's there to give it to us. Therefore, it's a combination of deism, the belief that god never interferes with humanity, he just started the universe and watches to see how it'll all play out; moralism/legalism, the belief that all god requires of us is that we do what's right when we can and when it serves our needs, and that'll be enough to please him; and therapyism, the belief that god is here just to make us feel loved and give us a sense that we have purpose in life, that we were made for something more--we're all his children and he's our father who will always try to make us happy.

Notice I used a lowercase "g" to describe the god of those worldviews. Each one has a false god as its object of worship. Therefore, when all of these philosophies are molded together into the ever-popular moralistic therapeutic deism worldview, it is absolutely correct that one cannot get to heaven by following that system. The writers were right in shooting that down. However, in doing so, they may have undermined the Moral Law of God in a way. God didn't give us His Law and then not expect us to obey it. He expects every human being to obey the Ten Commandments, down to every last detail and heart attitude. Unfortunately, none of us are able to obey even one of them, by nature. We are slaves to sin from birth and can't do anything but disobey His Law. So, in that sense, none of us can enter Heaven by obeying the Ten Commandments, because we've been born with a soul already imputed with the sin of Adam, and therefore a nature that cannot obey the commandments perfectly. In addition, God says that all of our "righteous deeds" are filthy rags because of the corrupt heart that they come from. But, the important point I'm getting to is, there was One who was able to keep all of the Ten Commandments perfectly. In fact, it is because of Him that we go to Heaven. Jesus was born of a virgin, shielded by the Holy Spirit, so that He was born without the sin of Adam, without that originally corrupt nature. As a result, He was able to never sin once, throughout his entire life on Earth. And He did go to Heaven based on His righteousness. And we go to Heaven based on His righteousness. Therefore, in that sense, we are saved by obedience to the Ten Commandments--but not our obedience, Jesus' obedience!

Okay, so... all that was to say that the statement that we don't get to Heaven by obeying the Ten Commandments could have been better clarified. But I didn't say all of that for nothing. The previous paragraph will become more important when I get to the problem I had with the third skit. 

Other things I enjoyed about the first skit were Jess Harnell's impersonation of the spiritualist who believes that Heaven is a state of being or something like that, the quick dismissal of the guy who said we're "all good" and "made of the same stuff," and, of course, I was very excited to hear the fifth panelist's answer to the question. It was nearly exactly what I would have said. I almost felt like the writers did it for me or something, after all of the complaining I did during the Green Ring Conspiracy about what the true Gospel message should have been. His definition included repentance and surrendering to Jesus as Savior and Lord--a part that many people leave out these days. Now, the contestant was a bit sketchy on how she explained salvation; she said that it's our faith in Jesus that saves us, while I would contend that it's God Who saves us, not anything we do, like the verse says.  But that was minor, and I was so impressed that she was going through a passage verse by verse that I didn't really care about the specifics of what she was saying. To me, this was a major step in the right direction, even if it was just a part of a little skit.

Then we come to the second skit. I appreciated Connie's introductory remarks to the caller. It drew out another primary function of the Law of God: to show us our sin. Because none of us can live a perfect life, none of us are good, we need the law to show us how we have utterly failed to please God. The BSI skit was a cheesy way of showing that, but I don't really have any theological axes to grind with it, so I guess it was alright. It was sufficiently entertaining the first time I heard it, but listening to it the second time, it felt a bit empty, so it didn't really have much value as something that can be enjoyed over and over again.  Surprisingly, that's about all I have to say about that one. :P   Now on to the biggest problem with this episode.

Right from the get-go there's a problem. The caller says that his friend tells him that he gets to decide what is right and what he wants to do to please God, basically. To me, this sounds like an issue of absolute vs. relative truth. Obviously, we as Christians believe that the Bible is the source of absolute truth and that only it is the final authority in telling us how we are to live. Connie does seem to go that direction with her answer. But then she makes a wrong application. She says that we need to follow the Bible "if we want to be righteous."  Now, just a few years ago, or maybe even a shorter time ago than that, I would have been totally fine with that statement. In fact, there's a VeggieTales episode that teaches the same thing: if we do what God wants us to do, we will be righteous, and God will be pleased with us.  Let's follow that idea to its logical conclusion though. If we become righteous before God by our works, what we accomplish, then we are earning our own salvation. You see, it is only the righteous who will enter Heaven. (Being righteous means that there is no fault in you.) If we can be righteous on our own, then there was no reason for Jesus to live a righteous life for us.  The reality is that it's exactly the opposite from the way this episode presents it. We don't follow God's commands to become righteous. We follow God's commands because we have been made righteous, because the perfect life Jesus lived has been credited to our account. There's a big difference.

In fact, the difference is bigger than you might realize. This issue is what caused Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg in 1517. He was taking a stand against the Catholic understanding of justification--that we become righteous before God primarily by improving upon the goodness of Jesus imparted to us. Jesus is not the sole source of our righteousness; we play a part in pleasing God as well. This is why I had such a big problem with this episode. This is an issue central to the Christian faith, central to our salvation. The episode presented us with Catholic doctrine, disguised as Biblical truth. The problem is, most Protestants are too theologically illiterate to have picked up on that. As a result, it appeased Catholic fans, and Protestant fans weren't paying close enough attention (or didn't care enough) to know what they were really hearing.

Now, to give credit to the writers, none of the things that the "soldiers" were doing in the skit were wrong; it's perfectly good for Christians to read their Bibles and memorize passages, to meditate on Scripture day and night. But that's just it, it's good for Christians.  Christians do it because their hearts have been changed and they desire the Word of God because of how great a Savior has saved them; they want to know what He would have them to do--not to gain them a good standing before Him, but to express their gratitude for what He has done for them. Unbelievers would have a wrong motivation behind engaging in such exercises. They would be doing it to try to please God, to try to earn their own salvation. That's why this sort of teaching is so dangerous; it gives the idea that doing things commanded by the Bible are means by which we may be made righteous before God. But the only way we become righteous before God is through His Son, Jesus Christ, the perfect Lamb of God who was fully obedient both in His life and His death. Unfortunately, Jesus was only briefly mentioned in the first skit, and His righteousness was not addressed at all. Instead, the emphasis was on our need to be righteous and to please God.  That was very disappointing to me.

So, there's the big controversy. Do what you want with it. If you are the type who believes that Catholicism is merely another brand or denomination of Christianity, then you will probably discard this issue as unimportant and "arguing over semantics." But if you truly care about the truth of God as revealed in His Word, you will realize that this is really an important issue, and it is our duty as Christians to contend for the truth and to oppose falsehood. That's what I've striven to do here, cleverly disguising it as the review of an Odyssey episode. I tried to present it in an inoffensive way, but I can't please everyone.

I guess you'd probably like to know what I really thought about this episode overall.  Honestly, I have very mixed feelings. As I said, I really liked the first skit, and I liked the framework for the episode. But then the contention I have with the third skit is so great that I think it overrules the goodness of the first part. I can't listen to this episode and enjoy it, because there's such a wrong philosophy behind it.  So, I guess, overall, I don't have a very approving opinion of this episode. I know there will be those of you who disagree, so I would like to hear your opinion as well. Please comment and tell me everything you thought about what I said.

And then, as you know, you should come back next week to read my next review, the next episode being "Happy Hunting." I'm definitely going to have to listen to that episode again, but right now I'm not thinking that my review is going to be very favorable. My thoughts are very similar to what Ben Warren had to say about the episode on his website. But I will still try to keep my review fairly original. Either way, make sure you visit next Saturday and see what I have to say.  Thank you for reading!

-- Christian

Saturday, December 1, 2012

With Six Cents Less

Well, I have to say, it's a little disheartening having to review this episode today. I just got done listening to "Groundhog Jay" and would love to review that episode. In short, I thought it was near excellent. But, alas, that review will have to wait for over a month. :(  It's not that "Three Dollars More" was a bad episode, it's just that today's episode was considerably better, and it's going to take some extra thought to review an episode that came out over a month ago. I'm listening to it again, but it's a little hard to remember now the thoughts I had when I first heard the episode.  However, the more of the episode I listen through, the more things I think of that I can address, so this might be a fairly full review nevertheless.

Overall... I think I liked this episode. Originally, when I first listened to it, I had some complaints. I thought it was a little rushed, like "Great Expectations," and I concurred with Alex Jefferson (the blogger) when he said that it seemed a little unnecessary to have two separate failed attempts at an RoC adventure before finally bringing Whit in to help. Also, because of the two silly adventures, I got the impression that the episode was a little bit too focused on entertaining, rather than bringing across the point about tithing.

However, after listening to it again, I've formulated a different opinion. I still have some minor complaints, and I'll get to those later, but I think this episode was actually very well done. Once Whit came on the scene, I thought the moral lesson came across very strongly. Obviously there was a good bit of silliness thrown in for the first half of the episode, but I suppose that can be disregarded, as it was likely designed to keep the younger listeners attentive. But I could use Barrett's words and say, "It was absurd!" or "This is ridiculous!" :P  I thought the acting was good--better than usual, even--and the plot, especially of the last adventure, was very well constructed.

When the episode descriptions for this season surfaced over the summer, I was excited to see that we'd be hearing from the Room of Consequence again. Without looking on AIO Wiki, I guessed that the last time we heard from it was when Liz Horton experienced the adventure backwards in "Hindsight." And I was right. I was wrong, however, when it came to my guess about how many RoC episodes there have been in Odyssey history. My guess was that there were around three or four total. I could think of "Into Temptation," "Hindsight," and "The Eternal Birthday." I guess that just shows how big of an Odyssey geek I am. There are 12 total episodes (including the two from this season) that feature the Room of Consequence! (There are also two Odyssey videos that featured it, I see.) We could have a whole special album full of these episodes! Looking back through the list, I remembered all of the episodes, but I forgot that most of them featured the RoC. It's funny, because I seemed to remember only the very unique RoC adventures. I remembered the very first one, "Into Temptation"; the one where Liz experiences the same day multiple times, "Eternal Birthday"; and the one where the machine runs backwards, "Hindsight." Many of the rest of them, I remembered as Imagination Station adventures, I guess. Most of them are very good episodes. The only one I don't remember very well is "Thy Kingdom Come." Maybe that's just because I haven't listened to it as often; it just seems like that was one of the more forgettable RoC adventures. It's probably different for different people.

Anyways... all that was to say that I was glad to see the return of this machine. It's been odd for it to have disappeared for these 15 albums, since we've last seen it.  And it did seem to run a little differently. It took Matthew and Connie mere minutes to program a somewhat elaborate adventure for Barrett to experience. I don't remember there being much programming involved in the other episodes. I thought it was all based on the user's own mind, as in the case of the Imagination Station.  But, I suppose I can think of an instance or two where the adventure needed to be programmed. Jason programmed Heather's (or was it Erica's?) adventure in the soap opera TV show in "Soaplessly Devoted," and Whit and Eugene had to program Liz's adventure in "The Eternal Birthday."  But those are the only ones I can think of where it was specifically mentioned that the adventure was pre-programmed. It just seemed more like a game than an epic adventure into your possible future when Matthew and Connie were able to manipulate it so drastically with a few keystrokes. Plus, weren't these adventures always supposed to be plausible outcomes of choices? I don't remember there ever being an option where the user would experience a completely ridiculous future, as Barrett did in this episode.

All that aside, I really was happy that we got to see the RoC in action again. We'd had two/three Imagination Station episodes in this season already, so it was time for a change.  The Room of Consequence has always seemed to be very effective in its persuasion of the conscience of the user. This time, the writers decided to utilize the machine to teach a lesson that, surprisingly, hasn't really ever been touched on in Odyssey history. And I thought they did it quite effectively. But I'll get to that later. Right now, I'd like to get out of the way the few minor problems I had with the story:
  • As was the case with scenes featuring several tween girls in Albums 51 and 52, particularly, I had a little bit of a hard time following the scenes with the older Matthew and Barrett the first time I listened. It was a little difficult to distinguish the two voices. But, eventually, I got the difference between their voices, and it was no longer a problem. So that was only a very minor complaint.
  • One more important problem I had was that on at least two occasions, Mrs. Meltsner spoke in front of the church during a Sunday morning worship service. Now, granted, these events took place during the fictional RoC adventures, but I seemed to me that they were representative of what would be a perfectly normal occurrence. Now, as was the brief complaint I had last week about Emily and her feministic dreams, this is a personal belief and preference that I try to support with Scripture. And this time, I'm backed by my whole denomination at least. 1 Timothy 2, as well as 1 Corinthians 11, I believe, say that a woman should not speak in the church, but that they should remain silent during the worship service. They shouldn't speak up, but should address their husbands with any questions and comments they have later. I know that's just as controversial as what I said last week, what with all of the female pastors and worship leaders and such. But that's what I believe, so that's just something I wanted to add.
  • My final complaint is the most relevant to the actual story of the episode. I didn't really like how much Barrett seemed to have backslidden in the future. I know it was all fiction, but Barrett wasn't like, "Hey! I know I'm a Christian now, so there's no way I could act like that and lose my salvation." I just thought it was very odd that Barrett totally gave up on going to church, helping people, and making God a priority, but Matthew still treated him as if he was a Christian and didn't really address that issue.  And then what struck me as most weird was that when Matthew told Barrett that Joey, the kid at the recreation center, had recently "given his life to Jesus," Barrett was like, "That's awesome!"  On the one hand, he seems to have no care about spiritual things whatsoever, but then he's still excited when someone gets saved.  From my point of view, and from the Bible's point of view, if you've been saved, God has changed your heart and your desires, so that you will never ultimately rebel against Him again. You will sin, sure, but He's sealed you with the Holy Spirit. Nothing you could do could separate you from His love, and because of that love, you're not going to want to live in unrepentant sin. Jesus died for your sin, to take the wrath of God away from you. If His wrath no longer abides on you, you could never backslide so much so that you would end up in Hell, with His wrath on you again.  I know many people don't share that conviction either, but that was something that bugged me about this episode, so, again, I just had to bring it up.
Alright. Now to the good stuff.  I really liked the message of this episode. I think my family differs a lot from the traditional view of tithing, in that we don't believe that God requires a rigid ten percent, as He did in the Old Testament. There's no rehashing of that commandment in the New Testament. But there are several passages--particularly in 2 Corinthians 9--that talk about giving cheerfully to the church, supporting your local pastor, and stuff like that. So we believe that Christians are not absolutely obligated to give ten percent of their earnings to God, as is the majority view today. We believe that ten percent is a good starting point, but that it's really about your heart and what's going on inside of you when you're giving your money.

I was surprised to hear that that was basically the main point of this Odyssey episode as well. Whit specifically says to Barrett at the end of the show that he probably figured out by now, tithing is not so much for God's benefit, but for our benefit. It shows us our heart condition and when we're not trusting God to provide for us. When we don't trust God enough to give Him just a portion of our income, it's showing that we probably don't trust Him in other areas either.  So, yeah, I thought the writers handled this topic very well. Better than I was expecting, for sure.
That brings me to another positive. I actually found myself liking Whit in this episode! Andre Stojka's performance in this episode really made me think back to the old days of Whit, where he was the grandfatherly character with good advice and biblical values to teach the kids. And this wasn't just a generic moral lesson, this was a teaching straight from the Bible. And he even made a Gospel application when he said that we should be willing to sacrifice for God, because of how much He sacrificed for us.

And, on the subject of actors, I realized the second time I heard this episode that, Brandon Gilberstadt is back!  I knew I recognized old Matthew's voice the first time I heard the episode, but I couldn't pinpoint it. This time, it came back to me, and I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't know he was still around and willing and able to do a voice for Odyssey like this. I mean, he was in that one episode in Album 50, but I thought that was just a one-time thing--especially since they had to get him over the phone. But yeah, it was nice ot hear from him again.

Oh, and one final thing!  Am I the only one who thought that the pastor of Barrett and Matthew's church sounded a whole lot like Paul Herlinger? There were a couple of scenes that started off with him talking, and I was shocked when it sounded so much like the old Mr. Whittaker. I was thinking, why didn't they just use this guy instead of Andre Stojka? I think he could have done a great job sounding like Whit.  But what's done is done, I guess. I really would have liked to see how he would have done though. I'll have to look up who that actor was.

Wow. That was a long review. I had even more to say than I thought. Are you guys liking these long reviews?  If you're not, and they're taking too long to read, I can try to shorten them, so let me know. Thanks for reading it if you did, though.  I appreciate your appreciation of my hard work. :)   Make sure you come back next week for my review of "The Bible Network"!  I have a lot to say about that one. ;)   Please comment!

-- Christian