Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Draw Bridge Parable

Back in the first month of 2006, I was blogging in obscurity, pecking out my thoughts for those few faithful readers who had accidentally stumbled across my blog when they were searching for joint pain medication. That January, I had the idea to deconstruct the various horrible preaching stories I had heard growing up in rural fundamentalism. The kind of goofy stuff I heard at youth camps and the like.

Regrettably, I only did one. I got distracted, I guess, and the series died right out of the gate.

At any rate, the first and only one I deconstructed was the classic drawbridge story about the father crushing his son to death in the gears of a raised drawbridge in order to save the passengers on a swiftly approaching train. The story was meant to play as an emotional shaming. We were thoughtless and wreckless teenage youth who cared for nothing but our AC/DC records and playing video games, all the while the God of heaven sacrificed his son on our behalf. "HOW CAN YOU CONTINUE IN YOUR SINFUL TV WATCHING WHEN THE GOD OF HEAVEN HAS SACRIFICED HIS ONE AND ONLY SON ON YOUR BEHALF!" the evangelist would weepingly yell.

The story is a theological disaster as I will note below and I would never use it as some soul stirring crescendo to any of my sermons.

I learned yesterday from some Facebook friends that the story has been turned into a movie.


It's called Most. Most? Not only is it a terrible theological story, it also has a terrible title. But I digress.

It apparently stands up there along side "The Passion of the Christ" and the "Chronicles of Narnia" gushes one reviewer. Readers can watch the trailer at the link, and if you are so inclined you can purchase multiple copies of the movie with disciple kits for the low cost of just 24.99 plus shipping and handling.

Now evangelical youth camps no longer need a shouting youth evangelist to share the story. All they need is a DVD player and the movie does the rest.

Seeing that it has been a while, and in light of this new movie, I thought I would repost my one and only horrible preaching story.

I heard this story on many occasions growing up, generally at youth revivals or some other Christian camp, where after the service, those kids really, really, really serious about living for Jesus were encouraged to write all their sins on a piece of paper and throw it in a bonfire.

Once I can remember a preacher who retold the story claim the events were true. I have read alternate versions of the story on the Internet. Whatever the case, they all contain the same moralistic conclusion: A loving father sacrifices his son's life to save a passenger train full of people from disaster.

Once there was a man who was an attendant for a railroad drawbridge. His job entailed raising the bridge to allow the river boats to pass and making sure the bridge was in place for the trains. One day the man took his only son with him to work. He was a four year old boy who enjoyed watching his father raise the bridge to allow the boats pass and lowering it to let the trains rumble by.

As the day wore on, the man and his only son went to eat lunch out on the raised bridge. As they watched the boats pass underneath them, they both fell asleep. Sometime later, the man was awakened from his nap by the sound of a distant train whistle. "Oh no," he thought, "the bridge is still up, I need to get back to close it or all those people will be killed!" Making his way back to the control room, he started to lower the bridge when he heard a cry from outside. It was his only son, who had slipped through the catwalk when he started following his father back. He had fallen down onto the massive gears and he was unable to free his foot.

The man didn't know what he should do. He had to find a way to save his only son, but there would be no time to save him and then return to lower the bridge to let the train pass. As the train drew closer, the man remember how God sacrificed Jesus, His only son, to save humanity, so he made the fateful decision to sacrifice his son to save those hundreds of people on the train. The bridge closed, all the while the anguished father knowing it crushed to death his only son. As he wept for the death of his only son, the train rushed by safe and sound with all the passengers waving and laughing as they went by, completely oblivious to the great sacrifice that just occurred to save them.

Now the problems with this story, both practical and theological, are a multitude.

First, what sort of idiot father takes his only son, especially a four year old boy, out on the end of a raised drawbridge? Particularly when there is a great possibility for him to slip off a catwalk and be entangled in the gears of the bridge? This is highly irresponsible of the father. Moreover, what about his jumping up from his nap and running back to the control room without grabbing his kid? Are you telling me that he is so absent minded he would forget his boy laying there next to him?

Second, what sort of safety standards were the engineers of this drawbridge working under so that they could get away with building a bridge with exposed gears which in turn could potentially entangle a four year old who slips through a catwalk? Moreover, wouldn't this catwalk be considered poorly designed? If it is that easy for someone to slip through, I don't know if I want to be walking on it to begin with.

Third, was there a moron driving this train? Are you telling me he wouldn't take notice of a raised drawbridge in the distance? I mean, it's not like a raised drawbridge just sneaks up on you. Surely he would had been made aware of that section of the track where a drawbridge could possibly be raised, so that he could be alert to slow down if he needed to. Are you telling me this guy was so engrossed in his newspaper or book that he wasn't paying attention? This is gross incompetence. Additionally, the train company should be held criminal negligence for not having some warning system in place to alert a train engineer of a raised draw bridge a mile or so up the track. I smell a big pay off in a lawsuit with this one.

But these are sniggling little practical details. What about the mangled theological implications gleaned from this woeful tale? There are two serious ones:

Generally, the main point raised in the conclusion of the story is the great sacrifice of the father for the people on the train being likened to the great sacrifice God offered in Jesus Christ for all humanity. Yet if we allow that comparison, it makes Christ's death into a cosmic accident, something God the Father was not expecting and couldn't avoid.

The Bible is clear God had planned Christ's death before the foundation of the world. It was not an unavoidable accident. Peter affirms this truth in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost when he said, Him [Jesus], being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death (Acts 2:23). The father in the story did not go to work that morning with the intention of crushing to death his only son in the gears of the bridge so as to save a passenger train from doom.

Then second, note the blatant universalism presented in the story. The train supposedly represents the whole of humanity; everyone in the entire world without exception. One point I have heard preachers make when relating this story is how all the folks on the train were smiling, waving, and laughing as it drove over the bridge, all the while completely unaware of the death of a four year old boy to save their lives. This is how the world acts, the preacher will say, they don't realize God the Father sacrificed Jesus to save them and they go about their blissful lives completely unaware of what God did.

This not only makes Christ death purposeless, but also implies everyone in the world is saved, they just don't know it. Am I to guess they all learn about it later, after they die and are in heaven? I imagine this would be similar to the people who were on the train once they reached their various destinations and read about what the father did in the newspaper. The Bible is also quite clear that Christ's death was not designed to be a universal atonement which saves all humanity, whose members are saved, but live their lives without Christ now, only to realize what Jesus did for them once they reach heaven. Such a notion is rank heresy.

If anything, this drawbridge story goes beyond the theological foibles of Arminianism to being one embracing the heretical teachings of open theism and universalism.

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Blogger Caleb said...

"Most" is Czech for "the Bridge."
It's still a pretty bad story.
I won't be wasting my time watching the movie.

8:33 AM, April 27, 2010  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Ah. It means bridge. Talk about lost in translation...

9:01 AM, April 27, 2010  
Blogger Joe Blackmon said...

Ok, ok, what if the train represents the elect. They're sealed apart from the world and saved....oh, nevermind. It does not work when you apply any theological thinking to it. It does, however, remind me that God was willing for His Son to die so that I would be saved.

The little short clip is not the gospel but when I see it I am reminded of the death Christ died, even though it was nothing like that.

1:52 PM, April 27, 2010  
Blogger deohsan said...

Reminds me of a preacher who, using Rev. 3:20 in evangelistic meeting, asked, "Don't you see how Jesus has been knocking on the door of your heart for (insert how old you are) years now? Stop being cruel and let him in!"
In both cases, it's like God is begging people to come and be saved or else Christ's sacrifice is wasted.

4:03 PM, April 27, 2010  
Blogger DJP said...

So, then... is "bridge" also Czech for "most"?

Only seems fair.

4:11 PM, April 27, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I musta missed that story.

5:45 PM, April 27, 2010  
Blogger Matthew said...

Dude, you have to realize that it serves as a religious truth. Its not going to be 100% realistic. No movie ever is. Also actually pay attention in the movie, half of the stuff you list is false from the movie; i.e. the dad was not taking a nap in the bridge tower.

3:50 PM, March 20, 2011  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

You must be kind of youngish. I, however, have been around the church camp a few times and I heard many a variation on this story.

Rather than being bothered by how my version relates to a stylized movie, deal with the arguments I raise against the story.

7:47 PM, April 21, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point of the story is that the father had to make a choice. The matter of this choice impinged upon him is one of huge importance. It is a choice for one's personal betterment or of a choice that would be better for a great many more people and this story mirrors such choices that we have to make in life all the time. It is not necessary to extrapolate the story so tightly to a well developed Christian theology, and yet the story does remind Christians of God's sacrifice. The story has a very strong value on it's own which the above critique chooses to overlook while using rude and insulting language to posit his or her case. This critique seems offended by the story and does not offer a clear minded response because he seems to have an agenda or fear which clouds his ability to look at the story plainly and find what value it does have.

3:10 AM, May 17, 2011  

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