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The ‘Widow’s Mite’: It Might Not Mean What You Think it Means

The widow of Luke 21 who “gave all she had” isn’t an inspiration. She’s a tragedy.
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 4, 2019 | 2 comments |

Recently, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. said some, er, interesting things about President Donald Trump. But I shan’t even address that here. Rather, I’m intrigued by the frequent rebuttals to Falwell that rely on a particular interpretation of the “widow’s mite” biblical account.

Does this biblical account really mean what we think it means?

The lesson(?) of the widow

The “widow’s mite” account comes from a short “side story” in Luke 21: 1–4:

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Upon hearing this story, many Christians will react as if we’ve just heard the first notes of a familiar tune. We’ll hum along with the rest in our memory. We’ll say things like this Relevant website article said (author uncredited):

At a different point in the interview, he said that Trump’s “business acumen” was the reason he supported him. He also touted his views on the importance of “free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth,” saying, “A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume.”

Ironically, Jesus confronted this very logic in the Gospel. The Bible tells of the story of people giving charitably to the treasury.

The writer is careful only to describe the account and let readers “fill in” the moral.

Presumably, this moral is something like: Jesus views a heartfelt “small” gift as more meaningful than a less-heartfelt “large” gift. Which would (again, presumably) contradicts Falwell Jr.’s statement.1

Made-up moralizing

But re-read the four verses. Notice what’s lacking in this account.

What’s lacking is any specific statement or application by Jesus, the apostles, or the narrator of Luke’s gospel.

Jesus doesn’t make a judgment. He doesn’t praise the widow or condemn her. He only makes a statement of cold, hard fact.

Pastor John MacArthur, in this 2007 sermon, surveys the passage’s lack of saying what Christians often read into it:

Jesus never made any of those points: Jesus never said anything about what’s left behind, what percentage, what attitude, or do the same and give everything. He didn’t.

Jesus never makes any of those points.

He does not say the rich gave relatively too little; they had too much left over. He doesn’t say the rich gave too low a percent. He doesn’t say the widow gave the right amount. He doesn’t say the rich had a bad attitude and the widow had a good attitude, or good spirit. He doesn’t say that.

In fact, He doesn’t say anything about their giving except that she gave more than everybody. He doesn’t say why or with what attitude, or whether she should have, or shouldn’t have, or they should have, or shouldn’t have.

Her outward action is all that you see. It is no more or less good, bad, indifferent, humble, proud, selfish, unselfish than anybody else’s act. There is no judgment made on her act as to its true character. There is nothing said about her attitude or her spirit. She could be acting out of devotion. She could be acting out of love. She could be acting out of guilt. She could be acting out of fear. We don’t know because Jesus doesn’t say anything.2

With that in mind, it’s rather risky for Christians to proceed as if we know the moral of the “good, charitable widow gave all she had” account. At worst, we really don’t know why Jesus drew attention to this widow’s startling act.

John MacArthur: this widow was abused

But MacArthur goes on to make make convincing argument about Jesus’s purpose. He says Jesus actually meant to show that this widow was entrapped, and by an abusive governmental/religious system that exploited the poor!

This is fairly clear to see when you read the gospel sections immediately before and following Luke 21: 1–4.

Right after Jesus observes the widow, he foretells the Temple’s destruction (Luke 21, verse 5 and onward). This is hardly a natural followup to praising the charitable recipient of a heartfelt gift—to prophesy its doom!

But even more telling, just before this account, in Luke 20: 45–47, Jesus specifically warns against legalistic, authoritarian scribes. Jesus says that, among their other sins, they “devour widows’ houses” (verse 47). After such a warning, it would make no sense for Jesus to suddenly switch themes. Why would Jesus turn around to comment about this good widow who gave all she owns to support this (suddenly good?) religious cause?

Back to MacArthur’s sermon transcript from Grace to You:

How would you feel? You’re a person that loves the Lord, you’re a person that loves your brother and cares about people and cares about their needs. How would you feel if you saw a destitute widow who only had two coins left to buy her food for her next meal give those two coins to a religious system? How would you feel? You would say, “Something is wrong with that system when that system takes the last two coins out of a widow’s hand.” That’s what you would say and you would be right to say that. Giving your last two coins to a false religious system! How would you feel if you saw a destitute, impoverished person give to her religion her last hope for life to go home perhaps and die? You’d be sick. You’d feel terrible. You would be repulsed. Any religion that is built on the back of the poor is a false religion. What a sad, misguided, woeful, poor victimized lady. It’s tragic, painful. And I think that’s exactly how Jesus saw it, exactly.3

Any religion that is built on the back of the poor is a false religion.

— John MacArthur

Disclosure: I sometimes disagree with MacArthur’s teaching or tone. But here, MacArthur is rightfully and clearly concerned with false religious leaders or systems that prey on the poor. Then as now, such religious leaders insist the poor “give all they have,” only to pad the pulpits of false teachers.

The system that had developed in Judaism abused poor people. And it abused it on a spiritual…abused them on a spiritual level. Anyone who withholds money from needy parents in order to give it to God is in direct disobedience to God and is dishonoring God’s Word and substituting a man-made tradition for God’s Word. Basic human needs come first with God before religious offerings.

Listen, God’s law was never given to impoverish people, but to help them. Man was not made for the law but the law was made for man.

We would conclude that this woman was part of a system that took the last two cents out of her hand on the pretense that this was necessary to please God, to purchase her salvation and to bring her blessing. She was manipulated by a religious system that was corrupt. This is not an illustration of heartfelt, sacrificial giving that pleases the Lord, this is not a model for all of us to follow. Jesus never expects that, in fact He told a servant who had very little, you should have put your money in the bank and earned interest because you need that to meet your own physical needs.4

I think John MacArthur is right. Christians have better biblical texts to support cheerful or sacrificial giving. We need to stop praising the poor widow of Luke 21: 1–4. Instead, we must sympathize with her, and get righteously angry with her religious abusers. Her account is not an inspiration. It’s a tragedy.

  1. Falwell’s statement, if quoted here accurately, is easily exposed as nonsense. But my purpose here isn’t to critique him. Plenty of others are doing that.
  2. John MacArthur, “Abusing the Poor” sermon transcript, Sept. 2, 2007, GracetoYou.org. I added a few paragraph breaks for clarity.
  3. Ibid (emphases added).
  4. Ibid (paragraph breaks added).

People Keep Finding SpecFaith By Searching for ‘Spells’

Why are these two SpecFaith articles about “magic spells” so popular?
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 3, 2019 | No comments |

Two of the most popular 2018 articles on Speculative Faith share a surprising connection.

It’s the word “spells.”

The first popular piece is my article, Six Christian White Magic Spells Worse Than Fantasy Magic. This article actually dates back to 2016, but apparently found some staying power. Of course, this article is more of a primer on the concept that some Christians fall into “white magic” spell-like responses to world. These include (but are not limited to) “white magic” practices, such as:

  1. “Health and wealth” prosperity
  2. Magic circles, symbols, and verse
  3. Personal guidance divination
  4. Sorcerous “spiritual warfare”
  5. Romance prosperity gospel
  6. “If only”: prayer and programs

The second popular piece is a more-recent article, J. K. Rowling’s Progressivist Spells are Backfiring. Apart from the word “spells,” that article’s topic is unrelated. But now that the second Fantastic Beasts film, The Crimes of Grindelwald has limped out of theaters, this article seems a bit prescient. It seems fans really were brewing up backlash and discontent in response to Rowling’s wizarding world.

So why are these two articles so popular?

I’m not sure. But I am concerned about recent headlines, such as “millennials are ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology.”1 I hope that, in an occult-crazed culture, these two articles are not popular because people are actually searching for “Christian white magic” or Progressivist spells. To try out.

By the way, for any aspiring “witches” out there who found this article, Al Mohler offers these reminders:

… Secularism is an unstable condition. The secular space is going to be filled by some other space. It’s going to be an explicitly religious space. But that Christian space, that has become in some in cases a secular space, is now transformed, in so many cases, into a modern pagan space.2

We need to understand where we fit in the universe where we fit in the cosmos. Now here we must understand that the longing that leads so many people to astrology is not only not going to be met by witchcraft, the occult, astrology or any semblance thereof, but we also have to go further and say it will only be found within authentic biblical Christianity. The only worldview capable of explaining why the cosmos exists and what indeed our part is within it. But it certainly is true that within every heart is a desire to try to place ourselves in the context to use those words again of thousands of years of history and the universe. That is exactly what we all need.3

  1. Technically, the comparison is a false one. Witchcraft and astrology are both manifestations of the world’s leading religion, self-worship. Otherwise, they might be manifestations of the worship of actual evil spiritual powers.
  2. Al Mohler, “The Briefing” podcast, Oct. 31, 2018.
  3. Al Mohler, “The Briefing” podcast, Dec. 4, 2017. Mohler is responding to an apparently older version of the “ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology” article.

Aquaman Isn’t Simply ‘Big Dumb Fun,’ So Why Do Critics Claim It Is?

Aquaman is big, but it’s not dumb, and it’s fantastically sincere, not “cheesy.”
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 2, 2019 | 2 comments |

Last night my wife and I re-viewed DC’s latest superhero film, Aquaman.

If I write a review, I’ll likely describe the film as a subversively positive, fun, yet sincere journey into an underwater fairy tale.

But I won’t describe the movie as “(big) dumb fun”1 or “cheesy.”2 As have many Aquaman viewers, who are (at least) trying to praise the movie.

Yes, the movie features plenty of splash and spectacle. It revels in Arthur Curry’s (Jason Mamoa) over-the-top personality. It pauses for lengthy explanations of this fantastic world and backstory. Heroes and villains bellow out their motivations as if they were in an anime.

Director James Wan also constantly draws your attention to surprise! explosions. He loves to show in-your-face, meme-worthy visuals. These include dragon-esque sea horses, armies of crab men, and sharks clad in Atlantean armor. Parts of the film also seem custom-designed to challenge the old “Aquaman has lame powers” pop-culture mythology.

Aquaman is big, but it’s not dumb.

It’s fun. And, admittedly, it’s more accessible to audiences than the earlier DC films Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.3

But Aquaman is not “cheesy.”

Define ‘cheesy’

Most people, when they hear “cheesy,” think about low quality. They think of poorly made Christian movies, in which characters don’t speak or act like they’re in any place resembling the real world. Or they think of formulaic Hallmark movies for Christmastime.

Aquaman doesn’t qualify for any of those. The movie is well-made and makes its aesthetic choices by design, not by accident. And where it follows any “formula,” this is simply the classic hero’s journey played underwater.

Only if you believe the superhero genre is intrinsically cheesy would you apply this label to Aquaman. But then, why apply the label at all?

Which also leads to my question of why people, with good intentions, call Aquaman “(big) dumb fun” or “cheesy.”

We can’t speculate on motives. Nor would I endorse any kind of fan-rivalry, “Marvel vs. DC” style of approach here.

Instead, I can’t help but speculate that certain critics, even while they mean well, associate sincerity with “cheese.” Aquaman is nothing if not sincere, and, like Wonder Woman, Batman v Superman, and Man of Steel, there’s not a drop of real cynicism in its story.4

Unabashed sincerity does not equal ‘cheesiness’

Interestingly enough, all three leading DC creators have defended their sincere approach. Of these, only Zack Snyder has taken an overtly “nobledark” approach, which deconstructed two DC heroes (Superman and Batman) on the way to a brighter future. Since then, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and Aquaman‘s James Wan have made good on that (often ignored) promise. They share Snyder’s sincere approach, yet they get to rebuild their stars as flawed yet truly good, non-subverted heroine and hero.

This isn’t speculation about the creators’ intentions. Wan himself states this was his approach. He seems to dislike even backhanded praise that his stories are “cheesy”:

I tell people, go all the way back and look at my horror film. Go look at The Conjuring, right? I’m not afraid to go romantic and sentimental with my characters, Ed and Lorraine have such a sentimental relationship. Especially for a movie like this, that is a classic story about a sailor who falls in love with a mermaid, everything about it has such a romantic, nautical theme to it, I felt like it was the right thing or us to do.

And of course, Steven Spielberg is one of my idols, and he’s one guy who is not afraid to be sentimental in his films. So I thought you know what, there’s nothing wrong with that. And I don’t care if people think it’s cheesy or too sentimental. It is who I am, and that’s the only way I know how to make my films: be true to myself.5

But it’s actually Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins who says it best. When that film released, a New York Times reporter asked Jenkins, “This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?” Jenkins’ reply strikes exactly the joyous, even “swashbuckling” tone that any Christian ought to have when defending sincerity and virtue in our stories:

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.6

  1. See this example review.
  2. See this example from The Hollywood Reporter, although this writer (I think rightly) wants to define the term positively.
  3. See our Badfan v Superman series on Speculative Faith for some exploration of negative fan myths about those films.
  4. Some readers may object to my insistence that Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are actually not cynical. But I continue to make this defense. The common line that these stories are “grim and gritty” simply ignores the originally planned, positive direction to which both these films was always meant to lead. The meta-storyline, as originally envisioned by director Zack Snyder, is not “grimdark,” but rather, “nobledark.” Of course, this vision isn’t to every fan’s liking, and our responses can be subjective. I simply contend that we ought to be more honest about the films’ intentions, and not slander any creators. On this I may say more in a future story.
  5. Andrew Dyce, “Aquaman Director Doesn’t Care If It Feels ‘Cheesy’,” Dec. 28, 2018, ScreenRant.com.
  6. Cara Buckley, “The Woman Behind Wonder Woman,” New York Times, June 1, 2017.

Tim Keller: Jesus versus the ‘Religious People’?

Tim Keller seems to repeat the old myth that the Pharisees were “Bible believers.”
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 1, 2019 | 1 comment |

On first reading of this recent Facebook post from Tim Keller, well, I’m not sure I can agree with him.

Tim Keller (accidentally?) reinforces the old myth that the Pharisees and Sadducees were “Bible believers.”

No, they weren’t.

Jesus constantly called the Pharisees to task for not believing the Old Testament, which pointed to Himself as its fulfillment.

Also, it’s tiresome to hear an (accidental?) “irreligious versus religious” people mantra.

In fact, everyone is religious in some way.

Jesus’s ministry attracted conservative Jews (such as many of his disciples, Nicodemus, and the apostle Paul). He also attracted heathens and Gentiles.

Similarly, faithful Christians’ ministry today can attract pagans, atheists, and repentant conservative traditionalists.

And in either case, it does not matter which “percentage” (anecdotally or measured) of “irreligious versus religious” people accept the gospel.

What happens if anyone says “this gospel message is not for you, because you’re too bad for it”–about any group? Including progressivists, liberals, conservatives, traditionalists, nationalists, Trump voters, Hillary voters?

Well, that can quickly lead us to an evangelism Dark Side.

I think Tim Keller himself knows this. After all, Keller has been the most popular voice I’ve seen reminding us that even “anti-legalism” can turn into legalism. God bless him for it.

So if anything, this just goes to illustrate the limits of sharing quick doctrine-oriented thoughts on the internet.

That’s a risk I plan to keep in mind this new year.

I’ve Launched My Own Web Portal

With all this expected growth in Christian fantasy, I’m going to need a bigger blog.
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 1, 2019 | No comments |

Today at Speculative Faith, I shared seven reasons I believe Christian fantasy could have an epic 2019.

These reasons include:

  1. Speculative Faith has grown fourfold.
  2. Lorehaven Magazine is finding fans.
  3. Realm Makers is training more Christian creators.
  4. Local, indie bookstores are coming back.
  5. More people are seeing social media in perspective.
  6. The Netflix-style bubble of always-on TV seems to be straining.
  7. Still, we’re getting more Christian-made fantasy adapted for TV.

Here’s how I wrapped up:

With all this news, and this expected growth, I’m going to need a bigger blog.

I believe I’ll need more space than my Tuesdays at Speculative Faith, or my quarterly Captain’s Log at Lorehaven Magazine.

Enter EStephenBurnett.com.

Subtitle: EXPLORING STORIES BIBLICALLY.

This site is yet another neighbor in the Lorehaven network, along with Speculative Faith. This will be my author portal. I’ll share updates about Lorehaven and my other projects. I’ll also share shorter articles about current events and Christian fantasy.

My first article reflects my first Captain’s Log for the spring 2018 Lorehaven issue.

Jesus’s People Need Fantastic Stories

We need fantastic stories like we need food, water, air, love, and above all, Jesus himself.
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 1, 2019 | 2 comments |

Jesus’s people need fantastic stories.1

We need them like we need food, water, air, love, and above all, Jesus himself.

Really? Can we say we “need” fantastic stories? Why not just say “want” or “can use”?

To answer, we start with Jesus’s true story, the gospel. As the hero, Jesus lives, dies, and resurrects. He redeems evil enemies to turn them into his supporting cast of worshiper-preacher-adventurers. It’s not only the greatest but the most fantastic story ever told.

Clearly, Jesus believes his people need that fantastic (and true) story.

But isn’t this gospel enough? Why devote time and thought to man-made stories?

At Lorehaven, we don’t believe human stories are simply “harmless entertainment.” In fact, the gospel itself reveals that God told humans to imitate his creativity (Genesis 1:28). God made our story-making gifts originally good!

But stories are also dangerous. Since Genesis 3, we’ve corrupted God’s good gifts.

Now, Jesus has saved his church to work and create forever in a redeemed world that he will rule. Until that day, Jesus calls us to recover his purpose for human creativity.

That means we must train to explore human stories—as worshipers of God, as his church, and as ambassadors in the world.

Many resources already help Christians explore general fantasy fiction. Yet we believe Christians are uniquely able to “shop local.” We can share with one another excellent tales that only Jesus’s people could create.

That’s why we’ve launched Lorehaven magazine, with issues every quarter.

Inside, flash reviews help you find the best Christian-made fantastic-genre novels.

Book clubs help you engage these stories with friends and family in your real life.

And encouragement from Christian “fanservants” will help you in this God-glorifying mission: to learn about and love Jesus more, and find his truth in fantastic stories.

  1. For my first story at EStephenBurnett.com, I’m debuting my first Captain’s Log in the debut issue of Lorehaven Magazine. This editor’s note was originally exclusive to (free) magazine subscribers in the spring 2018 issue.