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The Shack is Not a Christian Movie

The recent film adaptation of William P. Young’s bestselling novel The Shack is an anomaly. The cast, including the Academy Award-winning Octavia Spencer (from such hits as The Help and Hidden Figures), is strong. Tim McGraw even successfully pulls off the role of the down-to-earth neighbor, who actually looks at home driving a truck and going to church. The direction and cinematography are effective; there are some truly beautiful shots in The Shack of mountains, gardens, and waterfront scenery.   The story follows the book quite closely, and delves deep into weighty themes like the Trinity, God’s sovereignty, and the question of innocent suffering. While no film can deal adequately with such topics in two hours, The Shack has a lot of meat on the bones and leaves room for mystery and questions. The cast handles all this with subtlety, avoiding the cheesiness which one often finds in religiously themed movies. In short, this is a well-made film.

That’s why The Shack is not a Christian movie.

Christian movies, by contrast, are generally poorly directed, low production-value affairs. They typically feature, if not a wholly unknown cast, mostly amateur acting. The writing is often heavy-handed, resolving complex questions with too much simplicity (see God’s Not Dead, for instance). The theology of most Christian films is a hybrid of thin evangelicalism with American family values, which maps neatly onto the worldview taught and preached in many large non-denominational churches in the US.  The theology of Christian films is usually “functionally Unitarian,” a term I owe to a seminary professor, Dr. Freeman, who helped me realize that most evangelicals can only talk about Jesus and rarely address the other persons of the Trinity, much less the Trinity as a whole. Christian films reflect this unfortunate habit.

[If you’ve never read the book and not yet seen the movie, consider this your spoiler warning.]

The Shack’s plot is fairly simple: a father and husband, Mack, experiences a horrific tragedy that changes the course of life. Sometime later, in the throes of what he calls The Great Sadness, Mack receives a mysterious letter in the mail from God inviting him to the shack where that tragedy had occurred. When Mack reluctantly goes, he meets the Trinity – except the three Persons are represented in largely unexpected ways. In the ensuing conversations and experiences, the movie deals with the nature of God, sovereignty, religion, the afterlife, and what philosophers and theologians call “the problem of evil.” As noted above, this is a lot for any single movie to tackle, and The Shack packs more actual theology into a film than any other mass-marketed feature I can call to mind.

Any depiction of the Trinity risks heresy, including the famous Rublev icon.

None of this is to suggest that The Shack is without problems. Most of the issues with the novel are present in this adaptation. Any portrayal of the Trinity is bound to be imperfect – for we cannot adequately portray a mystery via a finite medium like film. Even Rublev’s beloved icon could lead one to tritheism, if taken to the hilt. Young makes clear that the decision to portray God as an African-American woman has to do with Mack’s own family baggage.   While it is admirable – and, for many conservative readers, quite controversial – to portray the First Person of the Trinity in this way, it is not without its own problems. The novel, and to a lesser extent, the film adaptation run the risk of mammy stereotypes. The portrayal of the Holy Spirit in some ways also gets into stereotypical territory. These issues need to be taken seriously, but I still believe this is a valuable story. We are in a cultural moment where I find it difficult to imagine a white writer portraying non-white characters in such a way that it would be critique-proof. Young – and the film’s producers – took a risk here. While problems should be acknowledged, so should their boldness in attempting to help readers envision God as other than an old white man with a beard.

The bulk of the people who have major problems with the movie, like the book, are those (chiefly from the Reformed camp) who take issue with social Trinitarianism, patripassianism (the teaching that the Father suffered along with the Son on the cross), and God’s sovereignty. It is the third of these that likely causes the most headaches among its critics. If you believe that “everything happens for a reason,” that God’s hand is somehow behind everything that happens all the time, you will not like how this film addresses the problem of evil. On the other hand, if you are drawn to a kind of middle way about sovereignty – I personally can’t square either the micromanaging God of Reformed doctrine or the removed deity of Process thought – you’ll find The Shack compelling on this score. In not offering easy or trite answers here, the film is more brave and more honest than most popular Christian takes on these deep questions of faith. (Roger Olson’s book is worth a read if you want to dig into these questions more; coming from an evangelical Arminian perspective, his reading strikes the kind of critical but overall appreciative note that I would see as appropriate.)

Popular Christian books and films always draw a reaction from a wide swath of people, Christian and not, theologically trained and not. I’ve been disturbed at how many people I’ve noticed, who are otherwise broad-minded and fair critics, that have judged The Shack to be unworthy of Christian eyes without seeing or reading it. As we saw so prominently with Rob Bell’s Love Wins, the speed and vitriol with which some Christians will dismiss something without having actually read or viewed it is astonishing. On the whole, I would recommend The Shack – the movie and the book – before nearly all of its competition in the Christian publishing and Christian film industries. It is far from perfect: inelegant in some places, a bit on the nose in others. Don’t trust the reviews, though.  This movie fall into an unfortunate category almost all its own: it pushes the envelope far too much to be promoted by the usual folks who support movies like Courageous, but it is too Christian to pass critical muster.  All that said, I believe it succeeds much more than it fails. My own ministry experience has been that few other resources open up in-depth conversations about the Trinity and the problem of evil like Young’s imaginative and powerful parable.

The Shack actually addresses God as Trinity, tackles hard questions without offering easy answers, and does so with the acting skills and production values of an actual quality film. For all of these reasons, The Shack is not a Christian movie – and this is why it succeeds.

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Jesus: The Face of God

Stained glass window of the Confession of Peter, England. Courtesy Kevin Wailes via WIkimedia Commons.

Stained glass window of the Confession of Peter, England. Courtesy Kevin Wailes via WIkimedia Commons.

“Who do you say that I am?” -Jesus, Mark 8:29

Who is Jesus?

I get very nervous around clergy who dodge this question.  There are all manner of open questions in life.  Questions of politics, identity, and justice are often multivalent and complex, and should be treated as such.  When Christians repeat the (well-worn but still useful) phrase, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity” the list of essentials is, for me, pretty short (not much longer than the Nicene Creed, in fact).

But for Christians, there are some non-negotiables, else the descriptor has no value.  Chief among these are the two most sacred mysteries of Christian confession: the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, and the Trinity (the revelation that God is three and yet one, without division but with distinction).

Why does it matter that the Triune God is most fully known in Jesus?  William Placher recounts:

The Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance tells how, as a young army chaplain, he held the hand of a dying nineteen-year-old soldier, and then, back in Aberdeen as a pastor, visited one of the oldest women in his congregation – and how they both asked exactly the same question: “Is God really like Jesus?” And he assured them both, Torrance writes, “that God is indeed really like Jesus, and that there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see the Lord Jesus is to see the very face of God.”

With apologies to Tillich, there is no “God above God” other than the Holy Trinity.  While it is very much the case that the economic Trinity (God’s work as revealed to us) does not tell us everything about the immanent Trinity (God’s essence), if we trust God and what God has revealed there must at least be a correspondence between these.  God in the immanent Trinity remains a mystery human intellect cannot comprehend; Jesus, however, as the Word of the Father sent in the power of the Spirit, tells us much about who God is: he is the loving Father who welcomes the prodigal home, the one who heals, restores, and makes new, the One who would rather suffer exclusion, torture, and death than watch His creatures do so.  To see Jesus is to see God.  This is Christian confession.  This is the Good News.

Placher concludes,

“If the Holy Spirit leads us to know that Jesus Christ, as we come to know him in the biblical stories, is the self-revelation of the one God, then Father, Son, and Spirit cannot be three separate Gods. Indeed, such a God cannot be just any one God, but must be the God whose identity we have come to know in the biblical narratives about Jesus. Thus, in Moltmann’s formulation, ‘The doctrine of the Trinity is nothing other than the conceptual framework needed to understand the story of Jesus as the story of God.’ The one God thus known does not hold power in reserve, apart from the love revealed in the crucified Jesus or the Spirit’s indwelling in our hearts; there is no God beyond the God triunely revealed, a God of love.”

Incarnation and Trinity: on these twin pillars Christian revelation stands (and they stand or fall together).  Embrace them, and you have a more beautiful, hopeful, loving God than any other religion, philosophy, or worldview has ever conceived.

But to deny, forget, or marginalize these is to begin doing something other than Christian prayer, thinking, and living.  Deny who Jesus is, or deny the Trinity, and the faith “once and for all delivered” is lost. (Jude 1:3)

To see Jesus is to see the very face of God.  Thanks be to God.

 

Source: William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox 2007), 139-140.

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Good Friday, Trinity, and Atonement

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For many Christians, Good Friday brings up aspects of Christianity they would prefer to minimize, or leave behind entirely.  Themes like sacrifice, suffering, guilt, and blood make many followers of Christ uncomfortable.  Jeremy Smith has recently argued in favor of moving the locus of atonement further away from the cross.  Indeed, the cross remains to followers of Jesus what it was to people in the ancient world: foolishness and a stumbling-block. (1 Cor. 1:23)

In Death on a Friday Afternoon, Fr. Richard Neuhaus explores various attempts to re-imagine the atonement and finds them wanting.  He looks at the cross through the lens of liberal, existentialist, and liberationist theologies and finds in them little to no hope at all.  But neither is he (pardon the expression) satisfied with expressions of atonement that emphasize the wrath of God the Father punishing Jesus on the cross.  Instead, he suggests we see the cross as an act of love by the whole of that great mystery we name as God: the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The book as a whole is marvelous, and I would commend it to your reading. The section to which I refer is worth quoting in its entirety:

“We do well to get rid completely of the notion that the atonement is about what God did to Jesus. This requires returning to the truth that the God who brought about our atonement is the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Atonement is from beginning to end the work of the three divine Persons of the triune God. In collusion with the Father, the Son, in the power of the Spirit, freely takes our part by becoming our representative.  A representative is different from a substitute. The atonement is not a quantitative matter. It is not as through there is a certain amount of wrong for which a certain amount of punishment is due, and so somebody must be found to take the punishment. That way of thinking produced the ritual of the scapegoat, a ritual reenacted in many different ways throughout history. Christ’s atoning sacrifice is not about quantitates of sin and punishment but is intensely personal. It is the mending of a personal relationship between God and humanity that had been broken.

Justice requires that  satisfaction be made; we were and we are in no position to make such satisfaction. Jesus Christ actively intervenes on our behalf, he freely takes our part in healing the breach between God and humanity by the sacrifice of the cross.  To speak of a collusion between the Persons of the triune God suggests the word ‘conspiracy.’ It is a helpful word when we remember that conspire means, quite literally, ‘to breathe together.’ in the beginning, God breathes life into Adam; Jesus breathes upon the disciples and says, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’ The triune God conspires for our salvation. The entire plan is love from beginning to end, and the fullness of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is engaged every step of the way.  It is not an angry Father punishing an innocent Son, with the Spirit on the sidelines helplessly watching. No, it is the Father, Son, and Spirit conspiring together to save us from ourselves.  At the Father’s command, the Son freely goes forth in the power of the Spirit to become one of us.  On our behalf, as Representative Humanity, he lives the life of perfect obedience that Adam – and all of us ‘in Adam’ – failed to live. And he completes that life by dying the perfect death.” (220-221)

The cross is a conspiracy of love by the triune God.  That’s why we call it Good Friday, and that’s why we run away from the cross to our peril.  Let us, with John the Baptist, behold and marvel at “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) Thanks be to God.

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“Straight to that Trinity”: Augustine on Participation with God

In Book IX, Chapter 15 of the City of God, St. Augustine discusses the mediating work of Jesus Christ, who became incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and opened up the way of life to all:

“…but the mortal and blessed Mediator interposed Himself, in order that, having passed through mortality, He might of mortals make immortals (showing His power to do this in His own resurrection).”

Arguing against the pagan mythology of the Romans, he argues that only one who was at once mortal and immortal, human and divine, could bring humanity up to the heights of divinity. The demons (his word for the minor gods and demigods of the Roman pantheon), he says, cannot achieve this, because though they are like the true God in immortality, they are unlike him in their corruption.  There are no mediators between God and humanity other than the Christ:

“…He is mediator as He is man, for by His humanity He shows us that, in order to obtain that blessed and beatific good, we need not seek other mediators to lead us through the successive steps of this attainment [sounds kind of like the via salutis?], but that the blessed and beatific God, having Himself become a partaker of our humanity, has afforded us ready access to the participation of His divinity.  For in delivering us from our mortality and misery, He does not lead us to the immortal and blessed angels, so that we should become immortal and blessed by participating in their nature, but He leads us straight to that Trinity, by participating in which the angels themselves are blessed.”

Douglas Campbell helped me to see how vital this participatory element is in New Testament soteriology; we are not merely saved by some divine transaction in the heavenly ledger, but rather that the Holy Spirit, through all the means of grace, conforms us to the death and resurrection of Christ.  Thus the divine image is restored in us- we are saved – to the extent that we participate in the life of the Triune God. Augustine concludes this section by reminding us that Jesus reveals both the true way of life on earth and in heaven:

“Therefore, when He chose to be in the form of a servant, and lower than the angels, that He might be our Mediator, He remained higher than the angels, in the form of God – himself at once the way of life on earth and life itself in heaven.”

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Start with Three, and Preserve the Mystery: Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

“So I start here with two principles: (1) Trinitarian terminology should function less to explain the mystery than to preserve it; (2) thinking about the Trinity should move from the three to the one rather than the other way round.” (William Placher, The Triune God, 121)

Trinity Sunday is one of those rented mules of the liturgical calendar; it is there by tradition and necessity, but we often don’t know how to treat it – whether lay or clergy.  The result is typically one of two alternatives: a complete avoidance of the observation (no less an option in Methodist and other semi-liturgical circles than in “non-denominational” and free church communities) or some heretical claptrap that tries to “explain” the greatest mystery of the church with some inane banalities or make it “relevant” (read: about us more than about God). None of these are good options, and both miss the point: as Christians we need to know this God!trinity shield

As one of my seminary professors, Dr. Freeman, used to say, “In the South we are all ‘functional Unitarians.'”  That is, in the Bible Belt we are great at talking about Jesus day in and day out, but we are fuzzy if not totally ignorant about the doctrine of the Trinity and the relationship of the “Three-One” God (to use Wesley’s phrase).  In my own preparation for preaching this day, I found flipping back through the late William Placher’s The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology a helpful exercise.

The postliberal bent to Placher’s work is evident throughout.  That is, he draws on the work of the so-called “Yale School” influenced especially by George Lindbeck and Hans Frei.  The postliberals focus on Christian language as constitutive of belief and practice; Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine puts forth the thesis that dogma functions as a kind of grammar for Christian speech, and  thereby he – heavily influenced by Barth – insists on a third way beyond the estranged twins of fundamentalism and liberalism (hence the name of the school, “Postliberal”). Barth’s Christocentrism and the centrality of the Biblical narrative come through heavily in Placher’s reflections.  Consider the following:

“…Christians start knowing God in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, in Jesus’ references to the one he called “Father,” and in the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete Jesus promised, who forms and sustains our faith.  The task of any doctrine of the Trinity is thus not to show how an abstract one is three, but to show that these three are one, and this is not an unnecessary complication but something essential to what Christians believe.” (120)

Few things are more harmful to Christian faith and life than the confusion of the Triune God revealed in the life, witness, death, and resurrection of Jesus with the kind of generic, uninvolved God that seems to be the dominant God “believed” by most Americans. (See Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian for more here.)  Because we know God first through Jesus, Placher asserts, we start with three and move to one, rather than vice-versa.  This is precisely not an academic exercise but rather an attempt to be faithful to the Biblical narrative through which God has revealed himself to us:

“What the early theologians said was…something like this: We know from Scripture that the Son is not the Father, for the Son prays to the Father with an intensity that cannot be playacting.  We know that the Spirit is Another the Father will send, and not the same as the Son.  We know that there is one God, and yet we pray to the Son and the Spirit, and count on them to participate in our salvation in a way that would be blasphemous if they were other than God.  We need some terms in order to say that God is both one and three, and so we devise such terms, but it is only beyond this life, in the vision of God, that we will understand how God is both one and three.” (130)

Praise be to God that we are not left with an uninteresting, generic Divinity, but a God who is love itself, a God who not only calls us to love but embodies perfect love as a Trinity of persons – distinct but not different, Three and yet One – a God whose being is not other than the perfect outpouring of grace upon grace. And praise be that this is not a God we can prove through mathematical proof or scientific experimentation, but a God who is beyond our categories and above our feeble attempts at description.  What has thus far been revealed to us is amazing, but more astonishing still is how great the depths of mystery there will be to plumb for all of eternity, when we see this God with sight unobstructed.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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On the Trinity: Preserving the Mystery

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In his excellent work The Triune God, former Wabash College  professor William Placher gives a succinct and yet profound defense of the classic Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  For Placher, influenced by George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, and the rest of the Postliberal school of theology, dogma about the Trinity involves a certain set of language that we use and also that which we must avoid.  However, we must never imagine that by our language and our brilliance we have somehow “defined” the “Three-One” God (to use Wesley’s phrase).  Placher says that Trinitarian language is not used because we necessarily understand what it all means, but rather because this is how God has revealed himself to us.  This is how scripture leans on us, and we cannot speak any other way accurately of God:

“What the early theologians said was…something like this: We know from Scripture that the Son is not the Father, for the Son prays to the Father with an intensity that cannot be playacting.  We know that the Spirit is Another the Father will send, and not the same as the Son.   We know that there is one God, and yet we pray to the Son and the Spirit, and count on them to participate in our salvation in a way that would be blasphemous if they were other than God.  We need some terms in order to say that God is both one and three, and so we devise such terms, but it is only beyond this life, in the vision of God, that we will understand how God is both one and three.” (The Triune God, [Louisville: WKJ Press 2007], 140.)

 

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Cage Match: Evil vs. Stupidity

If evil and stupidity were in a UFC cage match, like the one coming up this weekend, who would win? According to Bonhoeffer, Couture would be stupidity and Minotauro would be evil.  In other words, stupidity is more dangerous than evil.

From Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than evil is.  Against evil, one can protest; it can be exposed and, if necessary, stopped with force.  Evil always carries the seed of its own self-destruction, because it at least leaves people with a feeling of uneasiness.  But against stupidity, we are defenseless. Neither with protest nor with force can we do anything here; reasons have no effect…Therefore, more care must be taken in regard to stupidity than to evil…

This is today’s selection from my ‘Year with Bonhoeffer’ devotional.  It is the kind of daily reading that makes many of the more tedious ones worth while.  To put it bluntly, I think Bonhoeffer is still right.  Of course, his point is all the more poignant because he died in the active opposition to evil.

Interesting note, here he is blunt that there are times when evil must be opposed with force.  Contrary to contemporary Christian pacifists like Hauerwas who have tried to make him a hero of nonviolence, here he seems clear (like Augustine against the Donatists) that force is a moral imperative.

We live in an age of stupidity.  Cynicism passes for analysis (Jon Stewart).  Nihilism may be the ideology of the day (tragically on the rise in academia and popular culture.  Joel Osteen passes for a preacher.  MTV passes for entertainment.  ‘Reality TV’ simply is not.  Stupidity.  I say again, stupidity.  As the author of Ecclesiastes put it, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

How is it opposed?  In the unity of truth and love, as Benedict recently reiterated it.  If stupidity is the order of the day, intelligence consists in coming into a life-giving relationship with the Father of Lights, the Son of God, and the Spirit of Truth, and being a part of a community that lives into that Trinitarian life with each breath.  No, this is not easy.  Nor is this a dismissive answer.  In an age of bullet points, Twitter, and headlines, Christians must stand for the truth of the eternal, uncreated, simple and unknowable, mysterious, awesome, loving God who is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   In comparison, all else is at best evil and at worst, stupid.

Side note: I do hope, when this match occurs, that “Big John” McCarthy is the ref.  Otherwise it is likely to end prematurely or controversially.

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