Driving down to the Session retreat last week, a couple of brothers and I were talking about movies. One of them was the 1979 classic, Apocalypse Now, the tale of a CIA operative charged with assassinating a rogue Army colonel during the Vietnam War. Today, this film is heralded in every respect: action, dialogue, acting, subject matter, themes etc. Yet back in 1979, it was subject to widespread disdain by critics, who referred to it as “intellectually empty” and “emotionally obtuse,” among other insults.
Now considered one of the greatest movies of all time, Apocalypse Now joins other celebrated motion pictures like Blade Runner, Vertigo, The Shining (love those romantic comedies!) and It’s a Wonderful Life-all of which were severely panned when they premiered-as gold standards in the art of film making. Creative enterprises rarely succeed in the long term without taking their lumps up front. Some critics will later own up to their mistaken opinions; others will double down; and still others will pretend they liked the effort all along. No matter. That these works outlasted their mockers can not be denied.
The Old Testament demonstrates that Israel often went for the glowing review over enduring respect. How often did God’s chosen seek the favor of neighbors by adapting to surrounding cultures? This mindset is highlighted in 1 Samuel 8:5 when the people tire of their prophet’s harkening back to the past:
They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
Conformity to other nations’ standards was important to them. They wanted the respect and friendship of their national peers. Samuel knew that Israel was called to be without peer. Still, they had to learn the hard way so Samuel gave them a king, with God’s consent. Enjoying peace and prosperity and power for a season, Israel crashed and burned later on. The impact was shattering and the heat unbearable. What a price to pay for a favorable review.
Throughout their history, they had ample warning. Not only would the very thing they craved-prestige and acceptance among the nations-be denied them but, in fact, the opposite condition would be their portion. Deuteronomy 28 contrasts the blessings of obedience to the law of God with the curses of disobedience. The latter warning is ominous:
You will become a thing of horror, a byword and an object of ridicule among all the peoples where the LORD will drive you. (v. 37)
- A thing of horror – “Look away! They’re hideous!”
- A byword – “You don’t want to end up like Israel, do you?”
- An object of ridicule – “Those people got what was coming to them!”
Jeremiah 19 promises that God’s wrath will make this people “an object of hissing,” (KJV) as in “Boooo! Hisssss!” For all of her efforts to please the world instead of the Lord, Israel became the object of contempt. Too concerned with favorable notices, she lost instead the favor of God.
All the same, little was lost from an eternal perspective for the Father sent Jesus to absorb the vitriol, hate, scorn and alienation that we all so richly deserve for offending his holiness. Yes, we’ll get hit with some rotten tomatoes in our Christian walk, some contempt, some persecution. Saints, though, persevere to the end, outliving the critics and enjoying perpetual exaltation, infinitely beyond the shelf life of even the most beloved movies.