Archive for August, 2012

I have been a minister in some capacity for almost a decade now, both in the local church setting and I’m in my 6th year on the college campus through Reformed University Fellowship (RUF); and I am now convinced that the greatest enemy to the church is not secularism, nor is it anti-nomianism, it certainly isn’t Barak Obama; it is dualism. Dualism ties sin to places, things and institutions rather than the hearts of people like the Bible teaches. And too often I think dualism has reared its ugly head, even in our own midst, in how we approach art. The end result is the thinking that certain places, drinks, food, institutions, and movies are intrinsically evil and there is nothing to commend them. And we start reducing our evaluation of art to whether or not there is cursing or sex or violence or an overt ‘Christian’ message. Sadly, many Christians, even of the Reformed stripe, end up altogether cloistered away from the world in these privatized, parallel Christian ghettos and there is no attempt at all to live “in the world” as Jesus commands. And why does Jesus want us to live in the world….only so we can evangelize souls?? No, it is actually because He loves this world and intends to redeem it and cause it to flourish again in what will consummate in the New Heavens and New Earth. And here is the biggest shock of all, He actually intends to use broken people like you and me to mend this broken world, not by abandoning culture, but by loving it and recreating it from within. How should the church relate to culture?? At the risk of sounding corny, she is to love the hell out of culture….quite literally.

Now also at the risk of getting too theological, please allow me to explain the subtle distortion we may be making theologically as we approach art and culture. Unfortunately I think many of us have a mistaken understanding of culture altogether. You see, I’m afraid many of us view culture only in a utilitarian sort of way, as if it were a tool that we can take or leave. However, there is an intrinsic quality within culture that is good. Why? Because culture is made up of God’s creation, and mainly the apex of His creation…people. So really, when we speak of culture you cannot separate it from people and for that reason I would say God loves culture because He loves His creation and even more He loves people. To quote Rev. Greg Thompson, who I once heard speak on some related topics, “Culture is creation shaped by human dominion.” So culture is intimately linked with creation and most of us, using our Biblical world and life view, would readily admit that creation has within it an intrinsic quality that is good.

For centuries scholars have wrestled with what the Greek word kosmos means in John 3:16. It isn’t just the created order, nor does it refer to specific people, much less every man, woman, boy and girl that has ever lived. In a way it captures both ideas but in a general way. It is both the created order and those sinful human beings who shape it. I think the best and most current English translation to this usage of ‘world’ in John 3:16 is in fact what we refer to when we say culture. And so we could translate at least the first half of the verse this way: “For God so loved culture He sent His only begotten Son to redeem it, all of it.” In effect what Rev. Thompson was saying was culture IS creation, and therefore it is good.

So what in the world does this have to do with movies? Well, art is both creation and culture and therefore there is an intrinsic value to it. From that point, the ultimate question worth asking is, was the movie ‘good’ or ‘bad?’ And now I just opened up a whole new can of worms didn’t I? How do we know when something is good? Well, exactly. This is what should guide our discussion on art and film. How was the acting? How was the cinematography? Was the storyline good? Was there anything truthful about the human condition? Was there anything beautiful? Was there anything redemptive? Was the movie good or not?

You see, whether its movies, music or moon pies the main question we should ask is NOT: ‘was there any cussing in that,” or “was that Christian,” but was that simply good and then why or why not. It’s not that the question of whether or not a movie is appropriate to a certain audience isn’t an important question, it is; but because the Bible tells us that sin is not tied to inanimate objects like places, things, or movie reels; we must ask much more than that. Art that is good, whether the artist is a Christian or not, is intrinsically worshipful; and as Christians we can, in fact, learn a lot about God, His creation and ourselves by appreciating much in culture that does not have the ‘Christian’ label.

So Christians, instead of putting movies under our microscope, or even worse avoiding good art all together; perhaps we should just shut up and watch the movie!

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I remember a couple of years back being at RUF staff training and one night, after our meetings, going to see the movie No Country for Old Men with some other campus ministers. This, of course, was the very dark, existential Cohen Brothers adaptation of the brilliant writer Cormac McCarthy’s novel. It won an Oscar for best picture in 2007. I remember being speechless when it was over. As I walked out with my friends none of us said a word. We had an encounter with a great work of art that yes, according to the film makers at least, seemed to be a story where no God was present and man was left to himself. And yes, the feeling I had was not a very good one, but I knew I had encountered something that impacted me and had to be reckoned with. I think any work of art that leaves an imprint within our imagination and cuts to the core of humanity in some way, is something that by nature has truth and worth and therefore intrinsic value. Well, as I made my way through the halls of the theatre I walked past a group of men, Christians no doubt by the way they talked, who instead of being speechless had an awful lot to say. They seemed to be having a break-out session of sorts with each person giving their take on authorial intent and how it reflected different trains of thought in our culture, and it seemed as though they were ripping this work of art apart. For some reason their attempt to immediately move in to ‘apologetic mode’ left me a bit queasy.

The same sort of thing happened recently in the wake of the release of Terrence Malick’s breathtaking film The Tree of Life, which was nominated for an Oscar for best picture last year. Contrary to No Country, The Tree of Life was much more pleasant to watch. It was stunningly beautiful and left me with a completely different feeling. The only way I could summarize it was….well I couldn’t really, except that it somehow made me want to be a better person. I think the best art has a quality about it that, although we can’t quite articulate, makes us want to be better people. The same thing happens when I watch the beautiful sun rise over the majestic Northeast Tennessee mountains. I can’t really put what I’m seeing in to words, all I can tell you is it made me want to worship God and for that day be a better person. However, many in the Christian world who would dare risk seeing Tree of Life had a different response, and they certainly had much to say. There was some religious imagery used throughout the film, and as a result many Christians rushed to explain and clarify and even refer to the film as a ‘Christian’ movie. And as a result I was at times left with the same pit in my stomach as I heard and read some of these summaries.

The reason I think I had this visceral reaction to many of my fellow Christian brothers and sisters responses to these two films and many, many others is two-fold:

  1. I think it is quite arrogant of us to think we can exactly interpret the artist’s multi-layered reasons for doing what he or she does; especially when the artist might not even know. At times I think there really is something bigger at work, and the truth is I’ve never met a rationalistic artist that was any good at least. I think by rushing to an explanation, we are in a way demeaning the art which leads me to my second and I think most important reason…
  2. When we treat art as simply a means to something else, like ‘understanding’ culture so that we might better know how to evangelize it, or for some other purpose; we are in fact abusing the art. When we do this, I think we bring dishonor to the one who created the work, and even worse, we bring dishonor to THE Creator Himself.

Does this mean we cannot talk about art at all? Absolutely not! I just think often times we are having the wrong discussion. Those of us in the Reformed tradition have historically at least seen value in engaging in the culture and the arts, but I do think at times we are misapplying our Biblical world and life-view. There is a very subtle distortion in our presuppositions when we approach art as a tool for something else. And correcting this presupposition won’t always leave us completely in silence; but it will change the nature of the discussion in a way that I think is more Biblical and honoring, both to the artist who created the work, and to the the Master Artist whom the artist is simply imaging.

So what is this subtle presuppositional mistake? Well, it is this: I think in function sometimes we treat the chief end of man as to glorify God by evangelizing the world, instead of what the Westminster Shorter Catechism actually says which is to “Glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” The first is man centered. You see, our primary purpose is to worship God, and evangelism fits UNDER that. In the Reformed community we are quick to point out when others confuse this, but I’m afraid we are making the same mistake in our approach to art. Good art has an intrinsic value to it, and is an end in and of itself, and it does not have to have an overt, evangelistic message to be good. Good art is intrinsically worshipful and just going to the movies can be a way of glorifying God. It can even be a way of experiencing the pleasure of God. Who can forget the iconic scene in the classic movie Chariots of Fire when Scottish runner Eric Liddell says these words: “I believe God made more for a purpose, but He made me fast and when I run I feel His pleasure.” My favorite part in that scene is watching the audience’s response to Liddell’s accomplishment, because in that moment they realize they are beholding greatness and Christian or not, they cannot help but worship. There are times when I am reading a book, or at a movie, or taking in a concert and I behold something great and regardless of the religious beliefs behind the one creating the art, I am left in a state of worship. In that moment it is as if I am God’s audience and He is telling me something about myself or even better, He is delighting in me and I too feel His pleasure because like any good Dad, He delights when His children take joy in something that ultimately comes from His hand.

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Rev. Chad Smith is the RUF Campus Minister at East Tennessee State University in beautiful Johnson City, TN. He grew up in Memphis, got a BA in History at the University of Tennessee and a Master of Divinity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. Chad is married and has three lovely children. You can follow him on Twitter @ChadMSmith2

Wednesday’s Weekend Poll

Posted: August 29, 2012 by jperritt in Wednesday's Weekend Poll

As many of you know, we typically post a  poll on Wednesday’s with a question in regards to a weekend release.  However, we haven’t been dealing with too many weekend releases because they have been, how should we say…poor.  So we’ve been hosting Wednesday’s Weekend Giveaway.  We have given away two copies of Ted Turnau’s, Popologetics (there is still one to be givenaway) and we have several copies of Brian Godawa’s, Hollywood Worldviews, as well as, movie theater gift cards.  We think it’s a great way to cultivate a culture of thinkers about film by giving them books, give some press to our friends writing the good literature, and say ‘thank you’ to you, the reader, of this blog.  However, we are always curious what our community of Reel Thinkers..thinks about this Wednesday slot.  Do you enjoy the polls?  More specifically, do you enjoy the giveaways?  We hope to start making it a regular thing…maybe once or twice a month, so let us hear your thoughts.

Tomorrow we are continuing to highlight the ministry of Reformed University Fellowship.  We truly want to highlight RUF because it’s such an excellent college ministry,  and there are terrible movies being released over the next several weeks so it’s nice to get some good content on the blog.  Be sure and swing by tomorrow and Friday as Rev. Chad Smith shares some excellent thoughts on film for us.

Friends of ours recommended “The Grey” as a great action/adventure film that most of us could watch with the exception of our youngest son (too scary for him they said). They, however, did not warn us of the language throughout the movie. It was disappointing to watch Liam Neeson curse, it just felt wrong for him to use such language and it made us all very uncomfortable.

But to the point, Ottway’s (Neeson) wife has left him. You get the impression that she walked away from the marriage and that is why he is hiding out in Alaska protecting oil workers from wild animals. He has chosen a life of isolation because he sees himself unfit for society as if cursed. This “I am cursed” theme is played out through the movie in the many life/death scenarios he encounters.
The suicide scene: You can see death and despair in his eyes. Hopelessness, agony, desolation all rolled into that one look. Have you ever seen that look? It is the look of an empty soul, longing to be released of its suffering. Nevertheless, regardless of his inner struggle, when the plane goes down, Ottway is the only one that comes up with a plan to survive.

After leaving the crash site behind and making it in to the woods. The men begin to reminisce about their loved ones. We get an intimate look into the lives and loves of these tough oil workers. Talget (another survivor) credits “providence” for their survival but Diaz (another survivor) goes on to tell us that all the people that died on that plane crash are nowhere, to him there is no Heaven or Hell and that all his co-workers have just ceased to exist. Do you hear the emptiness? Do you feel the despair? If our lives have no meaning, if there is no purpose for our existence then life is expendable, which can leads us to believe that suicide is a valid option.

One by one, the men die leaving Ottway to confront the alpha wolf. Ottway asks God for a sign (but why would God help a man he has “cursed”?) and when nothing happens, he lets God know exactly what he thinks about him. Here we see why he hates God so much. We see his wife on a hospital bed with an IV. We know then, that Ottway has prayed before but just like in that hospital room, God did not answer. This is one of the saddest moments in the whole movie. Yes, people die, some even die horrible deaths but this scene depicts the death of a soul. A soul that was created to have fellowship with God, to trust its creator has once again rebelled against Him. He chooses death over life, pride over repentance and self-reliance over God-dependence.

If movies are a reflection of our culture, “The Grey” is the perfect example of the hopelessness of man, the emptiness and meaningless of life that fills our soul when we stand apart from hope itself. And what is hope? Real hope, not to be confused with wishful thinking. For a Christian, hope is a person and his name is Jesus Christ. Jesus, our savior, who did not remain neutral or in “The Grey” in our bondage to sin but came to pay the price for our redemption.

I am NOT recommending this movie but if you do chose to watch it, make sure that you leave plenty of time for discussion. As many of the themes in this movie should not be ignored.

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Pilar Stevens a.k.a. The Colombian Theologian was born and raised in Cali, Colombia and moved to the US in 1984. After finishing her education she became a “career wonderer” and did not settle down until becoming wife to Cary in 1994. She currently home schools her three children, Stephanie, Isaac and Aaron at home on Long Island, NY. A lover of order and structure she is famous for her spreadsheet driven life and her unusual hobbies of labeling and organizing. She is a teacher of Reformed Biblical Worldview using Cornerstone Curriculum, an avid movie watcher and crafter. Her favorite movie is “Aliens”. Feel free to ask her why.

The Road by: Jared Norton

Posted: August 28, 2012 by jperritt in Drama
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Jared “The White Shadow” Norton here. I’m doing a guest review of theThe Road. It is an incredibly disturbing movie that I do not recommend without discretion. That said it is rife with biblical parallels. The rest of the review will involve spoilers. 

At one point in the plot the man and his boy come upon an abandoned house in the woods. The house is marked by piles of shoes that the man doesn’t notice. It’s not really abandoned (they never are) but instead belongs to a group of cannibals. These cannibals are keeping fellow survivors underneath the floor boards in order to keep their meat fresh. The man and his boy descend to the basement and find the withered bodies of the half alive. The man and his boy rush out in terror and sudden realization. In their haste they do a shotty job of locking the basement door. The group returns just as the man and his boy make it upstairs. Cannibal One remarks to the others about the open window (the opening through which the man and his boy entered). Cannibal Two says that it’s probably for the smell. Cannibal One replies that he doesn’t notice the smell any more. The group moves through the house and come upon the newly freed captives. The man and his boy escape amidst the chaos.

The house and the people living there are a haunting portrayal of sin. Inward sin that we seek to hide within ourselves (people in the basement) always has outward symptoms (the piles of shoes). A man’s hateful heart will be seen in road rage. A man’s lustful heart will be seen in pornography and fantasy.

“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”(James 1:14-15 ESV)

Sin is disgusting. It’s easy to become placated with sin and allow it to fester inside of us, but we must remember that sin is as horrible to God as a basement full of death is to us. The longer we ignore and justify sin, the easier it is to ignore and justify. This is illustrated by the remarks of Cannibal One that he cannot even smell the squalor that lives beneath him. Sin is destructive. The group of cannibals that believed their sin could be used to keep them alive saw their sin rise up and destroy them.

I’m writing this with my own sin in mind. I know you, the reader, must look at my name and say “boy I bet that guy has great hair”. As true as that may be, I struggle daily and sin is at its very core crippling. My mouth is an open grave, lust dominates my heart, I spend my free time building idols instead of reading the Bible, I don’t remember the last time I held a thought captive, and not to gloat or anything but I’m pretty prideful. It’s not something that I have to deal with alone. God has given me a loving family and church as well as a call to prayer. Ultimately it is Jesus who took the fall for my sins, who invites me to His table on the basis of His own righteousness.
We are weak and helpless to escape the death of this world and the eternal death which is the wages of the sin that we all struggle with. The Good News of the Gospel is that we christians do not get this, we do not get the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, we get the cool spring of Heaven. It’s not because of what we do but because of what He has done. It is not because of what I am but because of THE I am.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” (Ephesians 2:8 ESV)

Snapshots

Posted: August 27, 2012 by jperritt in Snapshots
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snap·shot – a brief appraisal, summary, or profile.

Every Monday we hope to provide our readers with snapshots of films being released for the upcoming weekend. This will be a brief summary of films that will assist our readers in the area of discernment. Instead of searching other sites and reading lengthy articles, it’s our hope to provide a concise list of all the films of the weekend in one consolidated post. If you wonder why we don’t list the MPAA ratings, please click here.

Lawless – A bootlegging gang’s profit is threatened by crooked authorities (see Total Depravity). Genre – drama; content – strong bloody violence, language and some nudity.

The Possession – A little girl gets a two-for-the-price-of-one deal at a yard sale, when she buys a box which contains an evil spirit (of course they tell you this is all based on a true story). Genre – horror; content – violence, vomiting of butterflies, and disturbing images.

For a Good Time, Call… – I would tell you the premise, but it would make me blush. Genre – comedy; content – strong sexual content throughout, language and drugs (be sure to get the family together this weekend).

Christopher Nolan presently excels at something that the church is often only late to tackle. He is honestly wrestling with the problem of evil.

The Problem goes something like this: evil exists. If there were someone that could or was willing to stop that evil, they would have done so by now. Yet evil persists; therefore, there is no one able or willing to do so. In the end, we are cosmically alone.

This tension is realized in the form of Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy. A victim of early violence, the hero has embodied his sense of loss in an image burned in his memory after being stuck in a well as a child: a bat. Therefore, in his adulthood, tragedy and fear meet and marry to give birth to a tormented, postmodern crusader with nothing to push him forward in life but a death wish. This deep irony is the dramatic tension of Nolan’s series.

In his latest installment, however, the vision states explicitly what we could hardly bear to imagine through the eyes of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight: the misery of life cannot be passively dismissed, but extends from within your own abandoned mind.

Nolan wisely left Ledger’s performance alone and chose a new embodiment for The Dark Knight Rises in the brilliant and brawny Bane. We learn somewhat early Bane’s true identity when a hapless victim, right before he is snuffed out, squeaks, “You’re pure evil…!”

“I am necessary evil,” Bane corrects.

The inescapability of misery is not new to thoughtful modern pop cinema. Agent Smith stood over Neo’s battered body now pinned down on a subway rail in The Matrix. As the train approaches, Smith monologues, “Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability. It is the sound of your death.”

What is new, and more terrifying, is Nolan’s ostensible response to this defeatist attitude. I think Jeffrey Overstreet is correct in his review at patheos.com# that Batman’s ability to finally bring salvation to the people of Gotham, in the end, depends on nothing more than who has the biggest guns. It is Batman’s will to power (armed by the genius of Mr. Fox) that ultimately brings peace to Gotham’s soul.

I have long insisted that in a culture’s absence of genuine conviction, the more disturbing darkness is NOT that the next generation will believe nothing, but that they will believe anything. Atheism is not the problem. What fills up the vacuum created by atheism is the true face of future fear.

This was brought home to me recently in a conversation with a friend about HBO’s epic World War 2 miniseries Band of Brothers. My friend wondered out loud about Nazi atrocities and how a culture gets to a place where it is capable of exacting death on that kind of scale. I have an answer to that question that few are interested in hearing, but I am most unsettled by the thought that the upcoming generation is (perhaps?) inadvertently suggesting that when all is said and done, the bigger stick possesses the only real authority in a generation with no moral moorings. How many superhero movies have been made in the last decade?

It’s worth noting, however, in the closing images of The Dark Knight Rises, that Nolan cannot escape the compelling hope in resurrection. For Christians, they will likely do in the coming days as they have always done since the Ascension of their Lord: suffer death with her fellow image bearers in the emboldening hope that death’s sting has been extracted and Babylon’s days are numbered.

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Les Newsom is a native of Memphis, TN and graduated from The University of Memphis in the 1991.  He earned a Masters of Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson graduating in 1994.  In the Fall of ’94, Les moved back to Memphis to start the ministry of RUF (Reformed University Fellowship) at The University of Memphis.  He soon met and married Ginger Hubbard, a Jackson, MS native and Graduate of Ole Miss with her Masters in Mathematics.  After five years in Memphis, Les was called to The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in the Fall of ’99. In the summer of 2011, Les accepted a position as Area Coordinator of RUF ministries in Arkansas, West Tennessee, and Mississippi (Midsouth) and Alabama.  Les and Ginger are the proud parents of three beautiful children: Anna Grace, ’99, Caroline, ’01, and Luke, ’04.

I’m going to date myself and disclose that I was a sophomore in high school when I watched Amadeus. The story unfolds from a largely fictitious conflict between a young, vulgar Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the pious, condescending court composer Antonio Salieri. The dramatic and emotional center of the movie occurs when Salieri, beat down by the obviously superior gifts of the youthful genius, pulls a crucifix off the wall of his villa and throws it into the fire and says to God:

From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able.

Needless to say, my 10th grade mind dangled on the horns of this dilemma: how is it that a Christian can say that following God is so important when there are so many around him who are smarter, wiser, more gifted, more holy than he is? Briefly put, why do the wicked prosper?

It was not until years later that someone reframed some Scripture passages that prior to had made no sense to me at all. Passages like 1 Timothy 4:4a, “For everything God created is good…” and Ephesians 1:22, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things…” seem to suggest that Jesus’ Lordship over all creation extended even to the expressions of popular culture washing past me every day.

This revelation meant at least two things: 1) I could expect that much of what I was consuming possessed elements which needed to be condemned, so certain was the fallen world’s influence over it. However, 2) I could also expect that the very same cultural artifacts would bear the fingerprint of the Master Artist, desperately needing to be displayed.

So that the chief duty of my discipleship was NOT to be consumed with an overly binary identification of what art was “bad” and what was “good.” Rather, my goal was to learn to think. I was called to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ while at the same time offering ceaseless doxology for all the places where I saw his hand at work in the world.

This was where the world changed for me. Rather than marching into the world with a fearful defensiveness, I could dive into this theatre of God’s glory longing to see all the places where my Father had manifested his hand. Granted, there would be much that demanded rebuke and reproof, but there would be equally much that could take my breath away in childlike wonder.

The ministry of Reformed University Fellowship taught me about the doctrine of Common Grace: the simple idea that God gives his gifts of beauty, wisdom, and insight to all, even those who do not bow their knee to his Lordship. He does this so that his people can live and serve him with joy in the world. Why? So that they can bear witness to the dying world of his impending judgment on the forces of evil and his continued goodness to his people whom he is drawing to himself. Nothing has been the same since.

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Les Newsom is a native of Memphis, TN and graduated from The University of Memphis in the 1991.  He earned a Masters of Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson graduating in 1994.  In the Fall of ’94, Les moved back to Memphis to start the ministry of RUF (Reformed University Fellowship) at The University of Memphis.  He soon met and married Ginger Hubbard, a Jackson, MS native and Graduate of Ole Miss with her Masters in Mathematics.  After five years in Memphis, Les was called to The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in the Fall of ’99. In the summer of 2011, Les accepted a position as Area Coordinator of RUF ministries in Arkansas, West Tennessee, and Mississippi (Midsouth) and Alabama.  Les and Ginger are the proud parents of three beautiful children: Anna Grace, ’99, Caroline, ’01, and Luke, ’04.

We have been encouraged by so many of you consistently coming by the blog and checking out our thoughts on film & theology.  Over the next several weeks we will be highlight the ministry of Reformed University Fellowship, a ministry that played a major role in my life.  The Lord used this ministry to help me understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, the importance of the church, and the power of God’s Word.  RUF shaped my thinking in so many ways about God’s Kingdom, and one specific sphere was that of film.  Therefore, I thought it would be nice to highlight a ministry the Lord used in my life with the Reel Thinking community.

Starting tomorrow we will have several RUF ministers post on various films, and themes surrounding films, for your edification and encouragement.  Tomorrow and Friday Les Newsom, Area Coordinator of RUF Ministries, will be posting for us so I know you’ll want to stop by.

***If you haven’t already, fill out the form below to register for this week’s giveaway.***

Wednesday’s Weekend Giveaway

Posted: August 22, 2012 by jperritt in Wednesday's Weekend Poll
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We are excited to be able to giveaway another FREE copy of Ted Turnau’s, Popologetics.  Any Christian engaging in pop culture must read this book.  The same rules from last week apply.  Just fill out the form below.