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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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Why the Nicene Creed?

confessing one faithHow does one choose the most significant Christian confession?

There are thousands of different creeds, catechisms, and confessions which Christians have used in liturgy and for instruction over the centuries.  From the earliest centuries until today, various Christian bodies have searched for ways to distill Scripture and tradition into statements that serve the church in forming disciples.  These statements are ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, Reformed and Arminian, progressive and evangelical.  How does one decide?

The World Council of Churches, in a series of meetings and documents throughout the 20th century, decided to use the Nicene Creed.  First drafted in 325 and approved at the First Ecumenical Councils in Nicea, it was modified and again approved in Constantinople in 381 (thus its formal title is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed).  In 1991 the WCC produced a document, Confessing the One Faith (Faith & Order #153), expounding on this creed as a basis for the doctrinal work needed to work towards full visible unity of the constituent churches.  The essay addresses up front why the WCC chose the Nicene Creed for this important role:

Why was this Creed chosen? At a time when erroneous positions on Christ and the Holy Spirit were already tearing the Church apart, the Ecumenical Councils set forth the faith of the apostolic community which it is the Church’s mission to safeguard, defend and transmit. The essential truths of this faith were summarized and articulated in creeds or confessions of faith, most often in the liturgical context of baptism.

The credal statement known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is a typically Eastern creed, the core of which dates back to the Council of Nicea (325), while its third article is linked with the Council of Constantinople (381).  Because it is used in the liturgies of both East and West it is undoubtedly the best witness to the unity of the churches in the apostolic faith, as Faith and Order affirmed at Lausanne (1927). It reminds all Christians and all communities of their faith, and links it with the faith of all ages and all places. The churches of the Reformation have included it in their credal books as a reference text that objectively expresses the faith, making no concessions to religious sentimentality, and drawing directly on Scripture.  (Preface, ix.)

Eastern Orthodox icon of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (325). Public Domain via WIkimedia Commons.

Eastern Orthodox icon of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (325). Public Domain via WIkimedia Commons.

The World Council of Churches has judged this statement of faith so significant that they made it the basis of ecumenical dialogue for nearly a century.  This alone should be reason enough for Christians in 2016 to embrace it.  For in confessing together this creed from the 4th century, we join with Christians across time and space.  The WCC document continues:

The Nicene Creed as a confession of faith belongs to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In the Nicene Creed the individual joins with all the baptized gathered together in each and every place, now and throughout the ages, in the Church’s proclamation of faith: “we believe in”. The confession “we believe in” articulates not only the trust of individuals and God’s grace, but it also affirms the trust of the whole Church in God. There is a bond of communion among those who join together in making a common confession of their faith. However, as long as the churches which confess the Creed are not united with one another, the visible communion of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church remains impaired.

Just as in baptism the confession of faith is made in response to God’s grace, so too the Church’s on-going confession is made in response to God’s grace and love, most particularly vouchsafed in the preached word and celebrated sacraments of the Church. Hence the Church’s liturgy is the proper context for the Church’s confession of faith.  (pp. 15-16)

This is why the Nicene Creed is, as its broad use across a number of communions and by the chief ecumenical body on the globe testify, the preeminent statement of Christian confession.  As Christians have recognized since 381, nothing else witnesses to the unity of the apostolic faith in the undivided church with both the theological beauty and ecumenical authority that can match this ancient confession.

Why the Nicene Creed? There is simply no substitute.

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Finding God Where Understanding Does Not Reach

by Drew 1 Comment

john paul 2 easterThere are times we must seek God in darkness, times when God’s goodness and love are difficult to spot. As a pastor, there is no more difficult time when I see people seek God than when they bury their child.  At times like this, understanding is in short supply. As I’ve said before, the death of children is perhaps the best argument there is for atheism.  But the occasion of this writing is a bit more personal. Today we bury my cousin Matt, who died of a rare disease at 33 years old.

This is senseless.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that God is love, I believe in the redemption of the world through Christ and in the gifts of the Spirit.  I do not grieve as one who has no hope. (1 Thess. 4:13)  But I also know that 33 year olds are not supposed to die.

I was listening to a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio the other day and came across this quote from Gregory of Nyssa, the great Cappadocian Father. Though I studied a bit of Nyssa with Professor Warren Smith at Duke, this particular quote was new to me.  In Life of Moses, Nyssa allegorizes the ascent to God through Moses’ biography.  There we find this remarkable passage, in which Moses finds God’s presence in the darkness on Sinai in Exodus 19:

[Moses] teaches, I think, by the things he did that the one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and—lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible—believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.

It is important to remember that Nyssa’s assessment is not an invitation to agnosticism or Unitarianism.  The end of the apophatic search is the Holy Trinity. The God one meets in the darkness, when understanding fails and night is thick, is none other than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For Nyssa, the image here is of spiritual growth in God.  In his Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles, he notes

Moses’ vision of God began with light; afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness.

Gregory of Nyssa, 11th cent. mosiac from Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Gregory of Nyssa, 11th cent. mosaic from Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The spiritual beginner thus may not see God in the darkness.  This gift is the result of a spiritual ascent from the visible, to the to hazy, and onward until finally all is night.  As martyrs and monastics have found throughout history, God can be sought and found even in the most bleak circumstances, even when it appears that He has totally left the scene.

This makes me think anew of Jesus’ cry of dereliction when, borrowing language from Psalm 22 to express the mysterious agony of his existential abandonment, he prays from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)

If we find it difficult to follow Nyssa on this point, let us at least look to Christ, who in the midst of suffering too profound for words still called out to the Father.  God was there, even if understanding was not.

Today I will gather with many who will seek God where rational thought has failed. We will bury someone who died too young, who suffered too much.  I pray we all have the courage, with Moses, to look for God even in this dark place.

I am grateful that this is the Easter season, and that, in John Paul II’s words, we are despite all things an “Easter people.”  Nothing, then, can separate us from God’s love – not the darkness of death, not the evil of a life cut short, not the insanity of diseases without cure in an age that seems so advanced.

Christ is risen, so we will gather in faith, sing alleluia, and thumb our noses at the darkness.  For Matt is with God, and God is present even here, even now, where the understanding does not reach.

Almighty God,
you judge us with infinite mercy and justice
and love everything you have made.
We rejoice in your promises of pardon, joy and peace
to all who love you.
In your mercy turn the darkness of death
into the dawn of new life,
and the sorrow of parting into the joy of heaven;
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
who died, who rose again,
and lives for evermore.
Amen.

Source for Nyssa quotes here.

Prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book funeral liturgy, found here.

Full text of Life of Moses available here.

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The Only Free Person: Jesus

Only truly free person who has have lived is Jesus, the Christ, Son of God.water and spirit

In the 21st century West, we tend to think of freedom negatively as freedom from: from constraint, morality, obligation, limitation.  Our icons are lone rangers like Rambo and the Marlboro Man.  One person against the world, without care, without accountability to anything outside (much less above) the self.  This is freedom as it is commonly spoken of today.  If you don’t believe it, ask 6 out of 10 millennials what their relationship status is or what they think about having children.

Jesus offers a different model of freedom altogether.

Jesus was free because he was obedient.  His liberty was based not in freedom from all outside constraint, but because his life was forfeit to the Father.  His was freedom for: for the Father, for his mission to Israel and the Gentiles, for the inauguration of the Kingdom.

Alexander Schmemann, reflecting on baptism in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, argues that the one who bows is the only one who is free:

And how truly noble, truly human and genuinely free are those who still know what it means to bow before the High and the Holy, the True and the Beautiful, who know what reverence and respect are; who know that bowing down before God is the true condition of freedom and dignity. Indeed Christ is the one truly free man, because He was obedient to His Father to the end and did nothing but the Father’s will. To join the Church alway has meant to enter into Christ’s obedience and to find it the truly divine freedom of man. (Of Water and the Spirit, 34)

To be a Christian, a member of the body of Christ, is to participate in “Christ’s obedience” and discover that true freedom is to incandescent with God’s grace. “He must increase, and I must decrease” is not a figure of speech, it is the via salutis (way of salvation). (John 3:30)

The radical call of the gospel is that any other freedom is merely shadow and illusion.  In bowing before our Creator, we discover the only freedom that is not self-negating, because we are imitating the one truly free person.

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Abusing the Apophatic: The Turn To Mystery As a Cop-Out

by Drew 8 Comments

losskyIn our postmodern culture, talk of “mystery” is all the rage among religious folk.  Can’t explain something? Mystery.  Don’t like historic Christian teaching but still want to sound like you’re in continuity with the Tradition? Mystery it is.

The problem is that this is an abuse, a mischaracterization of the apophatic way (sometimes called “negative theology”) on that which which twists a valued mystical tradition into a cover for all kinds of bullshit.

Friends, please hear me out: stop using the apophatic as a cop-out.

Don’t believe me that this is a problem? I could cite my own personal experience, but we are all aware (I hope) that individual experience is just about the worst possible resource for knowledge in the Christian life.  To be sure, I’ve been in numerous conversations where my interlocutor attempted to dodge the particularities of Christian teaching by giving a nod to mystery and to the apophatic way. Let’s look instead two examples, in which I have added the emphases to highlight today’s topic.

Exhibit A

A piece by Gene Marshall over at ProgressiveChristianity.org mentions mystery several times. He goes so far as to reduce God to capital-M ‘Mystery,’ like so:

At the same time, “God,” as used in the Bible, points to an actual experience, an actual encounter with, how shall we say it, the Ground of our Being; the Mystery, Depth, and Greatness of our lives; Final Reality; Reality as a Whole; the Mystery that will not go away.

Drawing on the existentialism of Tillich and others, Marshall avoids anything particular about God by the apophatic turn.

Exhibit B

I generally try to avoid quoting comments, but in this instance it just fits too perfectly (I also mean nothing personal by this, as I have no idea who this particular commenter is).  Once again, in a discussion about Christian doctrine, the commenter uses the apophatic turn to stay in the realm of generic, personal-experience deity:

If you believe that God exist as three distinct persons and one of those persons incarnated as a human being in first century Palestine, good for you. It maybe right. Seems like you are 100% sure that Nicene Creed is the true doctrine about God and I am glad to hear that. Personally I cannot bring myself to believe that. I am agnostic about it. I am not an atheist. I believe that being similar to understanding of God most likely exist, more similar to understanding in Advaita Vedanta, Stoicism, Peripateticism and Process theology. But I maybe wrong. I am more of fan of apophatic theology.

Note here that “apophatic” has little content save being against the Nicene Creed and similar to a variety of non-Christian faiths and Process theology.  Further note how similar the above comments sound to that of Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada pastor fighting to keep her credentials because everyone else knows she’s an atheist while she maintains she’s evolved into a higher, non-theistic conception of the divine. Read: poppycock.

The Truth: The End of the Apophatic is the Holy Trinity

The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?

The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?

What’s truly sad is that apophatic theology is a valued part of Christian teaching, particularly in the East.  While the vast majority of Christians today have domesticated the transcendent, attempting to pull God down to our level and make the Divine only a friend, or a healer, a get-out-of-jail-free card or a cosmic soup of affirmation, the apophatic tradition at its best reminds us to keep silent before the incomprehensibility of our Maker.

Oh, Mystery there is: the One whom we love is too holy for words and, as Israel attests, the ‘I AM’ whose name is too holy to pronounce and too grand to scribble, this God, our God cannot be named by our limited imaginations, tamed by our feeble intellect, claimed for our puny projects.

But Christians, you see, revel not just in mystery but also in paradox.  This unutterable God has made Godself known to us in a particular way.  The goal of the apophatic, the Mystery that we claim as Christians, is named not by our own fatuous grasping but by God’s gracious condescension His creatures.  The great Russian Orthodox scholar-priest Vladimir Lossky thus reflects,

“This is the end of the endless way; the limit of the limitless ascent; Incomprehensibility reveals Himself in the very fact of His being incomprehensible, for his incomprehensibility is rooted in the fact that God is not only Nature but also Three Persons; the incomprehensible Nature is incomprehensible inasmuch as it is the Nature of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; God, incomprehensible because Trinity yet manifesting Himself as Trinity. Here apophaticism finds its fulfillment in the revelation of the Holy Trinity as primordial fact, ultimate reality, first datum which cannot be deduced, explained or discovered by way of any other truth; for there is nothing which is prior to it. Apophatic thought, renouncing every support, finds its support in God, whose incomprehensibility appears as Trinity. Here thought gains a stability which cannot be shaken; theology finds its foundation; ignorance passes into knowledge.”

In God’s nature or substance, that “stuff” (if you’ll forgive the vulgar imprecision) of which God is, God is utterly unknowable because God is outside and above and beyond us.  But in God’s hypostases, the Tri-Personal God has made himself known to us.  The Mystery has given us a glimpse; not a full view everything, of course, for that would be like asking to stare at the sun when it is one block away.

But what we can know about this God, what God has revealed to us in Scripture, through the teaching of Apostles, Saints, and Doctors of the Church, and most especially through life of Jesus, we gladly and happily confess as the Most Blessed Trinity.

Ignorance passes into knowledge, and theology has its foundation.

To misappropriate the apophatic as an excuse to feign ignorance of God is not only wrong according to every possible standard of Christian truth, it is tragic.  The Mystery at the heart of all reality has opened a door, as it were, and given us a glimpse inside.

Who are we to shut it?

Source: Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 63-64 (emphasis added).
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Heresy As Extremism: Why the Middle Way is the Narrow Way

Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.

Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.

“Sincerity is no guarantee of being correct.”

-Rev. Dr. Mickey Efird

The lies of heresy are not just false, they are false in the extreme.

We’ve examined before in this space how heresy flattens the mysteries of the gospel.  The great doctrines of the church, the Incarnation and Trinity, are in a real sense names for mysteries.  These mysteries the church, we believe, has been led to confess by the Holy Spirit.  In so confessing, we preserve and celebrate the mystery of God and God’s mighty saving work.  Heresy always simplifies that mystery to something more palatable and less gospel.

But heresy can also be understood as a form of extremism.  Jaroslav Pelikan, near the end of Volume 1 of The Christian Tradition, notes, “It was characteristic of heretics that they erred in one extreme or the other, denying either the One or the Three, either despising marriage or denigrating virginity.”  It is worth mentioning that Pelikan, the now-deceased don of church history at Yale, writes this after multiple chapters spent painstakingly quoting and examining what the heretics themselves wrote.  He then quotes Gregory the Great:

“But the church, by contrast, proceeds with ordered composure midway between the quarrels on both sides. It knows how to accept the higher good in such a way as simultaneously to venerate the lower, because it neither puts the highest on the same level with the lowest nor on the other hand despises the lowest when it venerates the highest.” (334-335)

If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle, you know that just a little ways this or that and you will take a tumble.  So it is with orthodoxy.  Precision in thought, as in machinery, only tolerates so much wiggle room. Chesterton noted that many are shocked at the vitriolic arguments about small points of doctrine, but they do so because they fail to recognize that there are no small points about the Divine:

“…it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.”

chesterton orthodoxyHeresy, even in the lightest of touches or turns, always perverts Christian truth into something “blasphemous or ferocious,” something extreme.  The Arians, sincere though they were, turned Christians into creature-worshippers.  The gnostic-influenced Christians, who’ve strangely enjoyed a kind of foolish re-appropriation of their literature in the last couple of decades, denied the good not only of God’s creation but the truth of the Incarnation as an affirmation of the physical order (modern Darbyism does something similar with its false doctrine of the rapture).

An inch is everything when you are balancing.

This not only inveighs against those who wish to deconstruct orthodoxy as some kind of conservative fantasy, it also points us to why pious rhetoric that pits “the middle way” against “the narrow way” is ultimately false.  In terms of doctrine, the middle way – the balancing of heretical extremes in order to discover the one way to stand tall amid a thousand ways to totter over – is the narrow way.

Thus we can conceive of heresy, like Pelikan, as extremism.  Examples might include: emphasizing the transcendence of God to the detriment of the immanence of God; emphasizing works of piety so as to leave aside works of mercy; dogmatically adhering to classical Christian teaching in one area of sexuality while completely ignoring others; a simplistic biblicism that ignores experience and tradition (or, on the other hand, a Romantic attachment to experience which runs amok over scripture and tradition); or finally, as Bonhoeffer famously noted, grace divorced from the cross.

An inch is everything when you are balancing, which is why the narrow way of Christian truth is also the middle way.  I’ll let Chesterton have the last word:

“It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.  it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.”

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How to Recognize Evil

The famous 15th cent. Rublev icon of the Most Blessed Trinity.  Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The famous 15th cent. Rublev icon of the Most Blessed Trinity. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We live in an age where the language of good vs. evil is not appreciated.  Hyper-postmodernity would have us believe that every truth claim is merely an assertion of power, so no truth claim holds value.  Bullshit.

Here’s how to recognize evil:

Love unites. Evil divides.  It’s a simple premise that, if you accept it and begin to look for it, you’ll see everywhere.  Churches. Families. Communities. And of course, on to whole nations and regions of the globe.

Love brings things together in ways that are life-affirming.  In marriage, two become “one flesh” and join lives, hearts, and wills.  Communities form when individuals become neighbors.  Countries form when communities come together for the common good.

Evil is the opposite.  Evil makes a marriage a contract between two individuals rather than a covenant bond.  Evil turns community members into bitter, envious, hateful, and prejudiced rivals competing for scarce resources.  Evil turns nation against nation.

As Augustine noted, evil has no force on its own. Evil can only ever be a parasite.  It is a privation of the good only possible wherever the good is found.

God (who is love) became united with humanity for our salvation, to unite us to God and to each other. As St. Maximos the Confessor observed (emphasis mine):

“In His love for man God became man so that He might unite human nature to Himself and stop it from acting evilly towards itself, or rather from being at strife and divided against itself, and from having no rest because of the instability of its will and purpose. Nothing sequent to God is more precious for beings endowed with intellect, or rather is more dear to God, than perfect love; for love unites those who have been divided and is able to create a single identity of will and purpose, free from faction, among many or among all; for the property of love is to produce a single will and purpose in those who seek what pertains to it.  If by nature the good unifies and holds together what has been separated, evil clearly divides and corrupts what has been unified. For evil is by nature dispersive, unstable, multiform and divisive.”

Evil is the power of entropy, the power to corrupt, to rot, to destroy that which God has joined together in love.  Division is the way of the world (it’s no accident that Christians are often enjoined to flee it, after all).  It’s hard for people, even with much in common, to be united in the bond of love; pride and experience and competing narratives all get in the way.

But let’s be clear: God’s will, the ultimate Good, is not for division but for loving unity.  As God has been revealed to us as a unity of persons who are distinct but still united in will, purpose, and love – a mystery we name Trinity – so God’s will for us, His people, is that we might know that same purely other-regarding love in our lives.  A high calling, but one worthy of our best efforts, despite the difficulties and many differences which too easily divide us.

May that effort be found abundantly among us: as wives and husbands, as communities, and particularly as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Body of Christ.  As David Watson has suggested, such unity is not primarily institutional but spiritual. In a world bent on incarnating the evils of division along every possible line, let us resist that tide and pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to instead live as Paul exhorted the church at Ephesus:

“…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:2-6, NRSV)

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

Source: “First Century Various Texts,” from the Philokalia: Volume 2  (London: Faber & Faber 1981), 174.  If the Philokalia is unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend it and this helpful interview with the great Orthodox leader Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

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The Gospel According to Frank Underwood

[Warning: Spoilers about a very intense Season 3 House of Cards scene, and broader HOC spoilers, below.]

Photo of Kevin Spacey by Sarah Ackerman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Kevin Spacey by Sarah Ackerman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What does Frank Underwood believe about Jesus? As Underwood, Kevin Spacey masterfully plays the House of Cards protagonist, a character with moral abandon seldom seen on the small or large screen.  In season 3, just released by Netflix, now-President Underwood is not showing any signs of slowing down.  He (literally) urinates on the memory of his ancestors to open the season, and an episode 4 ethical dilemma finds him talking ethics with a Bishop late one night in a church.  Spacey’s Underwood is so skillfully sleezy that we almost believe him when he tells the good Bishop he wants a few moments alone to pray.

C’mon, do you really think Frank is going to pray to anyone but himself? (To be fair, he has conversed with Satan on screen as well.)  Of course not.  He stares up a crucifix, shares a few critical words with Jesus, and then spits upon it – a treatment not unlike what the real Jesus endured on the cross, actually.  As you can imagine, this scene shocked audiences.  Much has been made of this scene, but the broader implications of his conversation with and about the Son of God has been largely ignored. Here’s a snippet, edited down to the relevant statements:

Underwood: “I understand the Old Testament God, whose power is absolute, who rules through fear, but…him?” [points to crucifix]

Bishop: “There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end….Two rules: Love God. Love each other. Period.  You weren’t chosen, Mr. President. Only he [Jesus] was.”

(Frank asks for alone time to pray.)

Underwood – looking up at crucifix: “Love? That’s what you’re selling. Well, I don’t buy it.”  [Spits]

Frank, without knowing it, has just made a theological argument for a very old Christian heresy.  Notice the strong division between the  “Old Testament God” and Jesus.  For Underwood, the OT deity is a being of power and intimidation, and, while he doesn’t elaborate, his attitude towards Jesus on the cross indicates he understands the discontinuity: this Jesus wields power very differently than does the fictional President.  This bifurcation between the Old and New Testaments, even to the point of asserting the centrality of different deities to each, is called Marcionism.  The definition from Theopedia is helpful:

“Marcionism was an early heresy led by Marcion, who proposed the first canon of Christian texts. The proposed canon consisted of the Gospel of Luke and several of Paul’s epistles; however, Marcion edited the writings by deleting any references that appeared to approve of the Old Testament and the creator God of the Jews. Marcionism thus rejected the Old Testament God, claiming that Jesus represented the true sovereign God who was different from the God of the Hebrew people.”

Underwood expresses a sentiment that is still not uncommon today, though typically less developed than Marcion’s own views.  Here in the Bible Belt, you even occasionally drive by churches that advertise themselves as “New Testament Christians,” whatever the hell that means.

It’s no surprise that Frank’s gospel is a false one, a heresy (to be fair, he’s kind of an inverse Marcionite, since he identifies with the “Old Testament Deity” that Marcion rejected).  What is a surprise, a problem even now, is how easily we still buy into Marcion’s lie today.  Make no mistake: the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament both contain the revelation of the one God’s gracious activity towards us, God’s creatures.  Where Marcion posited radical discontinuity, the orthodox position has always on a strong connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  There is a beauty to the canon, which is no surprise if you believe (as Christians do) that the 66 books of our Bible represent a beautiful library in which everywhere God is revealed in  loving self-disclosure.

The life and witness of Jesus makes no sense without an appreciation of the Old Testament narrative.  There is no understanding Jesus and his mission apart from his role as Israel’s Messiah, fulfilling the promise to Abraham to “bless many nations” as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.  This same Jesus is sent by and begotten of the Father and united with the Spirit, one God in Triunity, who (Christians believe) is none other than the God confessed still by Jews in the Shema: “Hear O Israel, your God is one.”

Two Testaments. One God.  Frank Underwood is a very effective politician, but as a theologian he is a pure heretic.

An icon of the Holy Trinity, based on the famed Rublev Icon.

An icon of the Holy Trinity, based on the famed Rublev Icon.

The good news is that God’s loving action is revealed in both Testaments, which tell the story of a God radically committed to His creation.  So committed, in fact, that God abdicated all God’s power  and, in Christ, subjected Himself to the totality of wrath, sin, evil, and abandonment that vexes humanity, and submitted to death on our behalf.  In submitting to death, it was conquered, and we were healed.

To Frank Underwood, and to us, the cross is and always remains a scandal.  After all, a God of power is comprehensible, recognizable on the world’s terms.  But what earthly ruler – a Nietzschean like Underwood, a Caesar, or a Putin – would dare endorse the seeming naiveté of a God who gives up power out of selfless, other-regarding love for ungrateful creatures who will ultimately put God to death rather than submit to His Kingdom of love and mercy?

Thus St. Paul said to the Corinthians,

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” (1 Cor. 1:18, CEB)

At least Underwood is honest enough to know that he cannot conduct his affairs as he does and also worship the God who hangs on a cross. Frank understands the foolishness of the cross.  But now the question is to us, followers of the risen Lord. Do we, “who are being saved,” embrace the foolishness that is the cross?

I conclude with the words of Charles Wesley, who captures both the pain and the beauty, the incomprehensibility and the glory of the cross in his excellent hymn:

O Love divine, what has thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s coeternal Son
bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’ immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

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When Progressive Christianity Nukes the Fridge

by Drew 16 Comments
The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.

The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.

I try to be an equal-opportunity critic of both ends of the Christian spectrum.  That’s not to say I don’t have friends on both ends that I love and respect (I certainly do), and it’s not to say I haven’t found myself on both ends of the spectrum (I have).  But there comes a time when the ideological leanings become more important than the faith; the tail wags the dog, and little identifiably Christian substrate remains.   Conservative Christianity can, if unchecked, devolve into fundamentalism or state religion.  Progressive Christianity, on the other side of the coin, can devolve into paganism or mere activism.  It is the latter I wish to address here, using two examples that recently came to my attention.

Exhibit A: The “8 Points of Progressive Christianity”

Found at ProgressiveChristianity.org, these 8 points offer a rallying cry for at least one brand of Christian progressivism (more on that distinction later).  On my reading, these 8 points say:

  • Jesus is about having an experience of the divine that is no more valid than anyone else’s.
  • There are many paths to experiencing this “Oneness” of the universe.
  • Questions are (absolutely?) more important than absolutes.
  • We should all be really, really nice to each other.

Notice what is absent? No mention of truth, or revelation, or Scripture as inspired or even useful.  Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi or Steve Jobs.  And of course, no mention of the Trinity.  Which brings me to…

Exhibit B: “Christianity” Beyond the Trinity

Mark Sandlin, a former Presbyterian pastor (who I think is, somehow, still ordained) says “no thank you” to the Trinity:

“I’m not saying the theory of Trinity is wrong. I’m just not saying it’s definitively right, which is exactly what many of its adherents do when they say that if you don’t believe in the Trinity, you can’t be Christian.”

Actually, confession (no one confesses a theory, after all) of the Trinity has been the distinctive mark of Christians from very early on.  Did it take a while to work out? Yes.  The Church had to wrestle for a while, but once the dust settled, this has been established doctrine for those who would claim to be Christians for over a millennia.  No amount of Dan Brown conspiracies about “power” and “politics” changes that.  Would Christianity be an easier “sell” without this particular mystery? Of course.  But that’s just not how God has revealed Godself to us.  Heresy always simplifies God’s amazing and profound revelation.

There’s a term among nerds called Jumping the Shark, based on an especially ridiculous episode of Happy Days.  Now, thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s public defecation named Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we have a new term: Nuking the Fridge.  I posit that when Progressive Christianity can no longer affirm basic Christian doctrine, when open season is declared on essentials like the Trinity, the fridge has been thoroughly “nuked.”

Conclusion: Don’t Nuke the Fridge

I have many friends who are progressive Christians.  By that, I mean they lean politically left, but their heart is sold-out to Jesus.  Their allegiance is to him before it is to any ideology, and their political action is informed by a deep love of Scripture and the calling of the church.  They are orthodox Christians who happen to be progressives.

But then there are those who claim to be Christians but clearly have no use for Christianity.  Their ideology is paramount, and only a thin  veneer of anything identifiably Christian can be found.  They are progressives who occasionally talk about Jesus.

That, to me, is the distinction between Christian Progressivism and Progressive Christianity.  Christian Progressivism is a form of syncretism, in which two faiths are merged into one unholy, idolatrous union.  Progressive Christianity is a popular movement among those who have found refuge from evangelism and fundamentalism, and has much to offer the Church universal.  Folks like Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo were quite helpful to me in my journey out of fundamentalism.

So if you want to be a progressive and you are a Christian, good on you.  The church needs your voice. But don’t put the cart before the horse. And don’t nuke that fridge.

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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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