Last night I attended a pre-screening of the movie, the Christmas Candle, in Kansas City. The movie is based on the book by the Evangelical preacher and author, Max Lucado. My motive in writing about the movie is strictly Christological; I must say something. Even if you have not seen the movie, nothing is ruined by my synopsis here (no spoiler alert needed), and much of my analysis is embedded in the synopsis itself.
The movie is about a Protestant minster wrestling with his view of Christ (the movie never says it that way, but that’s the essence of the matter): Does the pastor fully trust in Jesus despite having a dead wife and a dead daughter, and despite the plight of all those around him? Can he have faith in Christ alone, or does he need a miracle to solidify his trust in Jesus?
When we meet our man, we find him in pain. He wants to serve God, even if miracles and healings have failed him. Indeed, he now feels certain that such experiences are nothing more than rumors from a pre-scientific Medieval era. Against these rumors, he knows that what is real is that which he sees: the needy, whom he serves, and the hungry, whom he feeds, and the wife, whom he buried.
After the death of his family, he left preaching and went to work with the poor. It turns out, however, that his eloquence in the pulpit is highly desired, and a small town knows of his fame and would dearly love to have him come be their pastor. He finally consents.
It’s no ordinary town. This town has an angel that comes every 25 years–predictably, and always. When she comes, she touches one candle when she visits, and thereby transforms it into a single-use guaranteed answer to one prayer for whoever lights it. The movie shows two such examples of this, and we get to see the beautiful angel. We, the viewers, become the townspeople, and like them, we know that the pastor ought to believe the message of the town; but compare Galatians 1:8 which reads,
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.
Alas, no such discernment is exhibited in the town (nor promoted by the movie), and the sacred candle is affectionately called the Christmas Candle by the members of the church. And by being touched in holy visitation, the candle undergoes transubstantiation and becomes a self-working sacrament. The person who lights it must only make a prayer, and they automatically receive their request.
The pastor does not believe it. He lacks faith. He doubts.
The little town is glad to have a pastor, but they want him to have faith in the story of the miraculous candle touched by an angel. The pastor resists. And in his sermons he tries to make a case for reliance upon God; he encourages the village to find consolation in God alone, and His sovereignty. But nobody’s buying it (not even the pastor, who can’t bring himself to even pray for the sick).
Alas, by the end of the movie, he gives up his principle of faith alone, and turns to the candle in his hour of need. He abandons his own loosely-held principle when the hour requires it. And his pragmatism pays off. The candle was touched by an angel, and it was just waiting to be activated. And because he exercises his will, and abandons his stubborn Protestant ideals, he is able to call upon the power of the candle to save a woman who is dying in child birth. Lucado’s message prevails: True faith believes in modern miraculous experiences, thus constituting true, authentic, and real religion.
I won’t develop the thought, but for the sake of the reader who would like to go further, Max Lucado here proves to be a true heir of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of Protestant liberalism (and nemesis to Karl Barth who warned that the Max Lucados would come).
What is at Stake?
This movie is a battle over the minister’s initial view of Jesus. The movie never comes out and says that, but that’s the essence of the matter. The struggle is played out as a battle for the definition of faith. And the version of faith that wins in the movie is the one that says miracles are still for today as needful for those in pain if they are to really believe that God is a caring God.
What is Faith?
Faith, in the Bible, is a right view of Jesus. In the scriptures, the Christian learns that God is a caring God who came in flesh, and the name of his care is encoded in the language of suffering and the Cross of Christ. In suffering, He draws near. Suffering is not meant to obliterate faith, but suffering itself is the ordinary means that God uses to perfect the vision of those who see Christ.
The lens of faith is ground with suffering so that the vision of Christ is perfected in the sufferer who has the Spirit of God. We therefore praise God when we face trials of various kinds–even the death of a wife and a daughter (James 1:2).
Whoever does not understand this should pray, and God will give wisdom (James 1:5). But if someone prays to understand this, they should not doubt (James 1:6). The pastor in the movie cannot make sense of suffering. He reaches for a candle. And he is lauded for his doubting. At the very point where a minister should understand the Cross and Suffering, Lucado wants a double-minded and an unstable man (James 1:8).
This message of James 1 is nowhere present in Max Lucado’s movie (if it is, it was lost on me). Rather, the definition of faith in the Christmas Candle is that of believing in the ongoing power of miracles as proof that God still cares. That is, “Glory” (not suffering) becomes the lens of seeing for Lucado and his townspeople.
Presented this way, the contest is between the Cross and visible manifestation of blessing (or, glory, if you will). These two ideas also stand for two competing notions of faith, which were contrasted by Martin Luther in his 1518 Heidelbrg Disputation. The interested reader who wants to read more on this should consult this short article, A Theologian of Suffering.
Given these two antithetical notions of faith, the contest for which is correct ensues.
Is the death of Jesus alone sufficient proof that God still cares (today, right now, in your life)? The death and resurrection of Christ is the news which is received and believed without any helps–no additional personal miracles come attached (I am not including in this the regenerating work of the Spirit; I am speaking of the kinds of miracle-like experiences chronicled in Lucado’s movie). But Max Lucado disagrees. The Christmas Candle presents a rival notion of faith. So the contest is now personal, and it involves you (the reader of this article): Must we add to the message of the cross things such as Christmas Candles, angel visitations, and other demonstrations?
The pastor in the movie appears (at first) to want the biblical definition of faith. But it depresses him. So in the contest for a right view of Jesus, he finally embraces the Charismatic and Catholic notion of faith. And it is a package deal. He also gets a Catholic love of robes, liturgy and candles. He not only gets the Charismatic meaning of miracles, he becomes an apologist for the American desire to be touched by an angel.
My fear is that many of my religious friends will see this movie and even if they don’t like it, they will be glad for it, and see it as a reclaiming of Hollywood for righteousness. They will call it a victory. They don’t care if Christ must be sacrificed again and again (that’s the meaning of mass), they will just be glad that religion qua religion has won a victory. Like the pastor in Lucado’s movie, they too are pragmatic and will abandon their loosely held convictions about Christ for anything that works better.
In reality, the Christmas Candle is a rejection of Christ. And religious people (I mean, Southern Baptists, conservative Presbyterians, Evangelicals, etc.) will promote the movie as a step in the right direction of faith. The same Protestants who buy up the Precious Moments angels will buy the DVD for Christmas Candle, and this movie will take its places in their library as a commentary to explain their porcelain idols.
I can’t imagine how a religious movie could be further from the truth of Christ. My heart was broken, assailed, wrenched and pained as I watched it. This movie is a thinly veiled attack on Christ conducted in the name of exploring Lucado’s mystical notion of faith.
Throughout the movie there is a comparison that Lucado makes between the electric bulb and candles. This movie rejects the electric light bulb as representing an artificial and sterile experience of God. The solution Lucado reaches for is the candle. From its flickering and primitive light, one finds the authentic aura of unexplainable mystical experiences, and so the struggle for what is real is won in the individual’s private experiences. Lucado never says it this way, but the sum of his message is that the news of Christ is not true outside of us, but it becomes true in our experience.
This was Schleiermacher’s idea. Lucado has lifted the idea from the father of Protestant liberalism. And, it is noteworthy that Schleiermacher’s entire program was presented to his friends in a short essay, Christmas Dialogue, which he used to argue the primacy of internal experience as the great validator of truth.
Interestingly, Ayn Rand wrote about similar themes in her book, Anthem, using the electric bulb as representing value. And whereas Rand was an atheist, her book makes more sense than the Christmas Candle. Lucado’s view of reality is from a bygone era and would take the church back to the Middle Ages with its mysticism and its sacraments. Rand finds this oppressive, and so do I. And whereas Lucado seems to be against a scientific view of reality (the light bulb), he ends up arguing for a kind of scientific method that proves Christ over and over again through mystical experiences which accompany and validate faith. He leverages a post-enlightenment principle (repeatability) to encourage the church to return to a pre-enlightenment bondage.
Faith in Christ does not require that we repeat any events. The Death and Resurrection are singular and sufficient. And when a person hears the message, the message alone is the means used by God to cause sinners to lay hold of Christ (1 Cor 1:17). Faith does not lay hold of mystical experience. Faith does not validate the knowability of history. Rather, history is knowable (it is fact), and when the facts of Christ are pressed, a person will receive or reject the message. Lucado’s movie nowhere defends faith as a right view of Jesus, bur rather opposes it.
Lucado installs a bar of experience that a person must jump if they are to have a full-orbed faith in Christ (if they don’t jump it, they will end up being the depressed pastor). The Mormons call this bar of experience a burning in the bosom (a private miracle, of sorts). And herein lies a grand contradiction in Lucado’s theology: He argues for the unseen, but he won’t let a person have it unless it is seen. This is burdensome.
The Christmas Candle movie is itself the townspeople calling all pastors everywhere to leave Christ and return to the Catholic Church in Rome. The movie is a message. It is not neutral. It is a theology. Lucados’s theology is syncretistic. It takes ideas from everywhere and synchronizes them into a peculiar message delivered by an angel from heaven who calls us all to embrace it.
In this mixture, Lucado is not so foolish as to exclude Jesus. He takes copious quotes from Jesus (and many movie goers will hear these, be inoculated from the disastrous errors of the movie, and think that the message is pro-Jesus), and he merges those quotes with American religion and Roman Catholicism and the Charismatic movement. Not only is it syncretistic, it is burdensome. It makes faith a burden. It loads people down with doubts about Christ (unless they have had a burning in the bosom). This movie is not for Christ, it is against him (the Greek word for against is anti). The movie is against Christ.
A Warning to my Evangelical Friends and Pastors
If you recommend this movie (because it inspired you, or because it promotes family values, or because there is no cussing in it), then know this: You are not promoting Christ, but the opposite.
If you are inspired by this movie because it is family friendly, and yet you warn people against movies like Harry Potter, you are living a contradicition of your own. You are the townsperson in the movie who loves religion for religion.
Religious people love religion. Mormons will love this movie (why not, it’s their theology). If you are operating at the level where you have no care for the Christological message of this movie, and rather you encourage people to see it, then you are syncretistic with Max Lucado. You have merged the Lucado message with your own. A Christian who endorses this movie, must do so as a matter of contradiction to faith in Christ.
You must act
You are the pastor at the start of this movie. Here you are, in this world, embattled and suffering. Religious people are telling you that God is depressing if he does not give you personal tokens and flickering lights of mystical and inexplicable experience. These religious people talk of Jesus, and they are conservative, and they say the bible is true, and they beckon you to join them and Lucado as they gather for tender stories about angels, faith and hope. This is the contest. On the other side is Christ and his cross. It is lonely. And it means suffering. And God employs words (real words, and a real message) to activate faith in your heart. And He tells you that you will lose your life in this world. He tells you to love your enemy (really, love them). And, again, on the other side, your friends are enjoying books about miracles. Two paths are thus before you. One is narrow.