Friday, October 24, 2014

What Does the Bible Tell Us: Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So

Pete Enns’ believes that the view of the Bible many evangelicals hold is both wrong and damaging.  And his The Bible Tells Me So is his evangelistic tract to share the good news that there is another and better way to read the Bible.  We just can’t go on treating the Bible as “Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instructional manual” (3). They don’t fit the Bible we have in front of us.  According to Enns our Bible reading is motivated mostly by fear and anxiety to defend the Bible we imagine and control the faith of Bible readers (4).  He thinks this “a warning signal that deep down we do not really trust God at all (9).”

So Enns wants to convert us, bring us to faith!  By facing up to the truth about the Bible, that it contains many things wrong or reprehensible, He discovered a freedom to engage God in a no-holds-barred quest to discover the Bible’s truth.  He learned God loved him not because of but even in spite of his mental efforts, reservations, objections, questions and all, to understand God’s word.  This is the good news he wants to share with others.

Enns weaves his appeal around three foci: the Canaanites, historical errors, and contradictions between biblical writers (25). None of this is new, of course, nor does Enns offer new responses to them.  Rather, he’s trying to get those who paper over these biblical realities in an effort to defend the truth and authority of the Bible to face and feel their force.  And for Enns, that means a frank acknowledgment that there are things in the Bible we wish weren’t there and can’t accept – but they are there!

Enns takes no prisoners and paints just about the worst picture he can of the biblical material.  His wit and cleverness heightens the rhetorical power of his exposition. He robs readers of their innocence or duplicity if they have never wrestled with the material.

The examples Enns uses are well-known and I won’t detail them here.  But here are Enn’s own conclusions.

1.    “The Bible is an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one. So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place.

2.    “The biblical writers were storytellers. Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present. “Getting the past right” wasn’t the driving issue. “Who are we now?” was.

3.    “The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. This stands to reason, since the biblical writers lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons. In reading the Bible we are watching the spiritual journeys of people long ago.

4.    “Jesus, like other Jews of the first century, read his Bible creatively, seeking deeper meaning that transcended or simply bypassed the boundaries of the words of scripture. Where Jesus ran afoul of the official interpreters of the Bible of his day was not in his creative handling of the Bible, but in drawing attention to his own authority and status in doing so.

5.    “A crucified and resurrected messiah was a surprise ending to Israel’s story. To spread the word of this messiah, the earliest Christian writers both respected Israel’s story while also going beyond that story. They transformed it from a story of Israel centered on Torah to a story of humanity centered on Jesus.” (231-232) 

The second conclusion about history relates especially to those who find it non-negotiable that the “facts” of the Bible match those that historical research gives us.  Here Enns is spot on!  Trevor Hart (Faith Thinking) uses three images for the Bible I find very helpful.  He asks is the Bible is more like a window, a mirror, or a piece of stained glass art.  A window is transparent to what lies behind.  The Bible as a window is one that is transparent to the “facts” that lie behind its claims.  This is to read the Bible historically, a major preoccupation of much evangelicalism.

To use the Bible as a mirror is to read it for the meaning it has for the reader whose image is reflected in front of the text.  Here it is the present life and circumstance of the reader that determines the meaning one finds in scripture.  Using the Bible as a devotional resource, an inspirational anthology or book of uplift and thoughts for the day to enhance one’s daily is also a major preoccupation of evangelicals.

The Bible as a piece of stained glass art is akin to Enns’ assertion, “Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present. “Getting the past right” wasn’t the driving issue. ‘Who are we now?’ was.”  Stained glass art puts different colored pieces of varying translucence to tell a story that captures the meaning and significance of said story.  Get the history right is less important that communicating its meaning of that history.  Here the focus is looking at the story narrated in the piece of art.  The varying translucence may allow glimpse of what lies behind.  And its reflective quality may allow the reader to see themselves in the story.  And that’s just the point!  To see ourselves in the story, participating in it, adopting it as our own story, and allowing that story to shape our identity and vocation, that’s what reading the Bible as a piece of stained glass art is about.  And I believe it is akin to what Enns is suggesting and the most viable model for the Bible.

Enns’ third conclusion strikes at those who expect a systematic ordering of all the Bible’s teaching and parts into one self-consistent whole, like a melody.  If that was important to our faithfulness as God’s people, wouldn’t God have given us his book in that form?  No, stories are more important.  They’re more like a symphony that can incorporate and integrate disparate and even discordant pieces into the whole.  It tells a story in varying moods and modes.

Enns further claims that in this sprawling narrative of different genres we are able to watch the spiritual journey of ancient Israel as it unfolds.  This is surely true.  He comments: 

“What makes the Bible God’s Word isn’t its uncanny historical accuracy, as some insist, but the sacred experiences these stories point to, beyond the words themselves. Watching these ancient pilgrims work through their faith, even wrestling with how they did that, models for us our own journeys of seeking to know God better and commune with him more deeply.” (77).

This is fine, as far as it goes.  But biblical inspiration is grounded in God’s act of revelation (2 Timothy 3:16), in his “commandeering” (John Webster) of just these words to communicate his redemptive intent.  Making “sacred experiences” the ground of the Bible’s being “God’s Word” seems weak to me.  Who determines whether an experience is “sacred”; and what happens when Christians find such experiences outside the Bible’s witness and allow those experiences to inform their identity and direction?  Enns doesn’t do this, but it seems to me a potential weak spot in his presentation.

Conclusions 4 and 5 are fine statements of the impact of Jesus in both his earthly life and his post-resurrection existence on the traditions of Israel.  Bravo!

It is Enns’ first conclusion that seems most problematic to me.  God’s and Israel’s treatment of the Canaanites is without doubt a most difficult portion of the Bible for every reader.  It is here that we run up against weaknesses that, in my judgment, render this conclusion untenable.

“It’s hard to appeal to the God of the Bible to condemn genocide today when the God of the Bible commanded genocide yesterday. This is what we call a theological problem. And it’s a big one, not only because of the whole Canaanite business, but because violence seems to be God’s preferred method of conflict resolution.” (30)

To resolve this problem Pete appeals to the cultural background (and, therefore, limitations) of the ancient Israelites.

“The Bible—from back to front— is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living at a certain place and time. It’s not like the Israelites were debating whether or not to go ahead and describe God as a mighty warrior. They had no choice. That’s just how it was done— that was their cultural language. And if the writers had somehow been able to step outside of their culture and invent a new way of talking, their story would have made no sense to anyone else. The Bible looks the way it does because “God lets his children tell the story,” so to speak.” (62-63)

From this he reaches the conclusion noted above: “So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place.” 

It’s the “so” that’s troubling here.  There’s a very different way to construe this proper recognition of the cultural background of the Israelites.  One that draws on the intense passion of God to be with his people, so intense that he intends nothing less than incarnation becoming one of us.  As God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening in the creation story so he will be present with all of humanity and as one of us in the Lamb in the great visions of Revelation.  This incarnational drive of God’s also included “proto-incarnational” instances where God moves closer and closer to the people in preparation for the incarnation of Jesus.  At this point, let’s hear from Steve Chapman, an Old Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School from his essay in the book Holy War and the Bible:

“Warfare in the Old Testament, as indeed all killing in the Old Testament needs to be recognized within Christian theology as a strictly circumscribed divine concession to the brutal reality of human sin (Gen.9:3-6). However, someone still might ask, ‘Couldn’t God design a world in which war wasn’t necessary?’' The appropriate theological response is that God in fact did so (Gen.1-2), but human sinfulness spoiled it precisely by generating violence (Gen. 6:11-13). Someone might push further and say 'Even with the advent of human violence, couldn’t God have devised a strictly nonviolent method for dealing with it?" Here again the theological response is that God did just that in Jesus Christ, but in order for Christ to appear in the fullness of time (Gal.4:4) it was necessary for God to elect and preserve the people of Israel. And apparently - this is the hard part-God was not able, given the violence of the world, to preserve Israel purely nonviolently although, even so, Israel's history witnesses to and moves toward nonviolence as it moves toward Christ.” (63-64)

God’s willingness to “get his hands dirty” like this, according to Chapman (and, I believe, the Bible), is this incarnational passion to be with his people, the people he promised would the means of spreading his blessings to everyone (Gen.12:1-3), to protect and nurture them into actually being that people.  This incarnational passion entails God’s willingness to do what is necessary to protect the geo-political entity he has chosen to be his people.  It is an index of God’s intent to see his purpose through to fulfilment.    

“The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story’ so to speak.”  But the story they tell in this instance, I suggest, is not marred by unavoidable cultural blinders but marked by God’s unconditional faithfulness to be with and fulfill his promises to them and realize his own creational dream precisely amid the realities of the (fallen) world in which they live. Even when such commitment requires him to act in ways that do not represent the character of the world toward which he is moving but are a step in the direction he has chosen to go.  This seems to me a better reading of the text and the theological substance of the Bible than what Enns offers at this point. 

The Bible Tells Me So achieves its goal, I think.  No reader can come away from it and ignore it realities without a bad conscience.  But not in all respects, however.  The concerns I have voiced are serious missteps in my judgment.  Nevertheless, Enns’ work is profitable to read and wrestle with even if the reader finds reason to demur from it at some key points. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Christology: twelve grammatical rules (Ben Meyers)


I've just finished another semester teaching christology. This is one of my favourite classes. (My other favourite is the Trinity.) Really it's one of the joys of my life to be able to explore such things in a classroom setting. In the tutorials we worked our way through two of the richest works on christology ever written: the third volume of Irenaeus's Against Heresies, followed by Athanasius's On the Incarnation. The twelve weekly lectures were as follows:

Part I. Lord Jesus Christ: New Testament Christology 

1. The Son of Man: Christ in the Synoptic Gospels
2. The great interchange: Christ in Paul’s letters
3. The Word made flesh: Christ in the Gospel of John 

Part II. The Iron in the Fire: The Doctrine of the Incarnation 

4. Adam recapitulated (Irenaeus)
5. Wisdom, Word, and Image (Origen)
6. What is not assumed is not healed (Gregory of Nazianzus)
7. The iron in the fire: two natures, one person (Cyril of Alexandria)
8. Singing in one voice: the whole Christ, head and body (Augustine)

Part III. Redeemer of the World: The Doctrine of the Atonement

9. Deification: renewing the image (Irenaeus and Athanasius)
10. Satisfaction: paying our debts (Anselm and Julian of Norwich)
11. Reconciliation: bringing us home (Karl Barth)
12. Messiah: Prophet, Priest, and King (Calvin and Barth)

In the last class I tried to draw together some of the key points in a list of simple "grammatical rules" for talking about Jesus Christ. I'm sure I've missed some important points, but here are the twelve rules I came up with. Each is a negation followed by an affirmation:

1. Not to speak of Christ in any way that sidelines his human experience. Jesus Christ is truly human.

2. Not to speak of Jesus in any way that sidelines the divine depth beneath his human experience. Jesus Christ is truly God.

3. Not to divide Christ’s divinity and humanity, or to give the impression that he sometimes functions as God and sometimes as a human. Jesus Christ is divine and human in one person.

4. Not to give the impression that Christ’s divinity is fully contained within his humanity, or that his divinity is limited by his human experience. The human nature of Jesus is assumed by the person of the eternal Word.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change.


The people we elect aren’t the ones calling the shots, says Tufts University’s Michael Glennon

istock/photo illustration by lesley becker/globe staff

The voters who put Barack Obama in office expected some big changes. From the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping to Guantanamo Bay to the Patriot Act, candidate Obama was a defender of civil liberties and privacy, promising a dramatically different approach from his predecessor.
But six years into his administration, the Obama version of national security looks almost indistinguishable from the one he inherited. Guantanamo Bay remains open. The NSA has, if anything, become more aggressive in monitoring Americans. Drone strikes have escalated. Most recently it was reported that the same president who won a Nobel Prize in part for promoting nuclear disarmament is spending up to $1 trillion modernizing and revitalizing America’s nuclear weapons.
Why did the face in the Oval Office change but the policies remain the same? Critics tend to focus on Obama himself, a leader who perhaps has shifted with politics to take a harder line. But Tufts University political scientist Michael J. Glennon has a more pessimistic answer: Obama couldn’t have changed policies much even if he tried.
Though it’s a bedrock American principle that citizens can steer their own government by electing new officials, Glennon suggests that in practice, much of our government no longer works that way. In a new book, “National Security and Double Government,” he catalogs the ways that the defense and national security apparatus is effectively self-governing, with virtually no accountability, transparency, or checks and balances of any kind. He uses the term “double government”: There’s the one we elect, and then there’s the one behind it, steering huge swaths of policy almost unchecked. Elected officials end up serving as mere cover for the real decisions made by the bureaucracy

Glennon cites the example of Obama and his team being shocked and angry to discover upon taking office that the military gave them only two options for the war in Afghanistan: The United States could add more troops, or the United States could add a lot more troops. Hemmed in, Obama added 30,000 more troops.
Glennon’s critique sounds like an outsider’s take, even a radical one. In fact, he is the quintessential insider: He was legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a consultant to various congressional committees, as well as to the State Department. “National Security and Double Government” comes favorably blurbed by former members of the Defense Department, State Department, White House, and even the CIA. And he’s not a conspiracy theorist: Rather, he sees the problem as one of “smart, hard-working, public-spirited people acting in good faith who are responding to systemic incentives”—without any meaningful oversight to rein them in.
How exactly has double government taken hold? And what can be done about it? Glennon spoke with Ideas from his office at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. This interview has been condensed and edited.
IDEAS: Where does the term “double government” come from?
GLENNON:It comes from Walter Bagehot’s famous theory, unveiled in the 1860s. Bagehot was the scholar who presided over the birth of the Economist magazine—they still have a column named after him. Bagehot tried to explain in his book “The English Constitution” how the British government worked. He suggested that there are two sets of institutions. There are the “dignified institutions,” the monarchy and the House of Lords, which people erroneously believed ran the government. But he suggested that there was in reality a second set of institutions, which he referred to as the “efficient institutions,” that actually set governmental policy. And those were the House of Commons, the prime minister, and the British cabinet.

IDEAS: What evidence exists for saying America has a double government?
GLENNON:I was curious why a president such as Barack Obama would embrace the very same national security and counterterrorism policies that he campaigned eloquently against. Why would that president continue those same policies in case after case after case? I initially wrote it based on my own experience and personal knowledge and conversations with dozens of individuals in the military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies of our government, as well as, of course, officeholders on Capitol Hill and in the courts. And the documented evidence in the book is substantial—there are 800 footnotes in the book.

IDEAS: Why would policy makers hand over the national-security keys to unelected officials?
GLENNON: It hasn’t been a conscious decision....Members of Congress are generalists and need to defer to experts within the national security realm, as elsewhere. They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgment about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats. The courts similarly tend to defer to the expertise of the network that defines national security policy.
The presidency itself is not a top-down institution, as many people in the public believe, headed by a president who gives orders and causes the bureaucracy to click its heels and salute. National security policy actually bubbles up from within the bureaucracy. Many of the more controversial policies, from the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors to the NSA surveillance program, originated within the bureaucracy. John Kerry was not exaggerating when he said that some of those programs are “on autopilot.”
IDEAS: Isn’t this just another way of saying that big bureaucracies are difficult to change?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

7 Reasons Church isn’t for You

church-clip-art-2As a Pastor, a lot of people tell me their thoughts about church. My parishioners, my friends, my family, strangers, young, old and everyone in between. People tell me what they like and what they don’t like. People tell my what should be changed and how to do things differently. They tell me what they are looking for when they ‘church shop’. People tell me why they aren’t attending as often and when they plan to get back in the habit.
Like just about everything else in world, Christians and non-Christians are consuming church. More and more, churches and pastors feel pressured to attract and captivate people – code language for entertain the people into the pews.
Well… maybe I am the first to say, out loud, what a lot of pastors would like to say:
Church isn’t for you.
Here are 7 reasons why church isn’t for you:
  1. The Music isn’t for you. We all have opinions on music. Contemporary or Traditional. Praise Songs or Hymns. Piano or Organ or Worship Band. Upbeat or slowed down. Music has a powerful effect on us, and so we want to hear the music, hymns, songs, and styles we like. But the music isn’t to appease our preferences. Music supports the bible readings. Music speaks to the church season or occasion. Music is supposed to help us tell God’s story, not be the same stuff we choose to hear all week on our iPods.
  2. The Preaching isn’t for you. Preaching is supposed to be funny, interesting, and attention grabbing. Sermons should make us laugh and cry, learn and think. All in 20 minutes or less so that we are not late for lunch. Sermons are a central part of worship, and we want them to be things we want to hear. But preaching isn’t to appease our need to be entertained. Preaching opens up the scriptures to us. Preaching draws us into the unfolding story of God’s mighty deeds in the world. Preaching reminds us that we are sinners, which is hard to hear. Preaching reminds us that we are dead, which is even harder to hear. But Preaching also reminds us of God’s mercy for sinners. And Preaching reminds us of God’s promise of new life in Christ.
  3. The Building isn’t for you. Buildings are supposed to fit all our needs with comfortable pews, big gyms, space for youth, Sunday School classrooms,  nice bathrooms and lots of space for coffee after worship. Churches build, renovate and adapt their spaces to meet our demands. Often a few volunteers toil away, year after year to keep buildings in good repair. I once heard a church member say, “Being at Church should feel like being in your living room”. But Buildings are not for serving our comfort. Buildings provide space for people to gather. Buildings allow communities to be together. Whether it is hard pews or folding chairs, whether it is a rented school gym or a re-purposed store front, buildings help us tell God’s story by giving us a place to tell it. The Church is the people, not the building. Imagine if we put the same effort into caring for each other as we do for our buildings.
  4. The Staff isn’t for you. Churches spend most of their budgets on staff, and so we often have high expectations. We want staff to be always available, ready to drop anything and be at the church to attend to the needs of members, renters, or visitors. Staff are expected to always be courteous and kind, yet they get a lot complaining and criticism. But church staff are not the hired help for churches. The staff’s job is to support the congregation as they live out God’s mission. Staff does the in-between jobs that allow people to serve Jesus. Church staff remind us that God’s work is done with our hands and feet, and that God’s work never ends.
  5. Communication isn’t for you. Churches are expected to make us aware of everything that is going on. We all want to be in the know, and we want to be kept informed. We expect Church communication to be working well – all the time. Whenever we feel out of the loop, we complain about ‘communication problems’. But church communication isn’t for keeping us in the gossip chain. Most churches these days inundate people with communication: Inserts in bulletins, announcements before and after worship, newsletters, poster boards, emails, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and more. Communication is a two-way street, there needs to be senders and receivers. Churches communicate to let their members and their communities know what God is doing in their little piece of the Kingdom. Churches communicate so that God’s mission can be lived out by members between Sundays.
  6. Visitors aren’t for you. We all want our pews full and offering plates overflowing. We want visitors to come and give money, become new members, serve on committees, and volunteer at the soup kitchen once in a while. And still, visitors are glared at for sitting our pew. Visitors are whispered about, yet not greeted when they come to worship. But visitors aren’t for making us feel better or doing our work. Visitor’s are people. People who have come to us seeking a community. People who are seeking God. Visitors are people who give us the opportunity to tell about the ways that God is working in our lives. Visitors are people with whom we can begin relationships with and people that we can invite into our lives.
  7. The Pastor isn’t for you. This one is a little personal. As a pastor I am expected to keep track of hundreds of families. I am supposed to know who is in the hospital, who is sick, who is shut-in at home without being told (because God is supposed to tell me directly). I am supposed to be on call 24/7, 365 days a year. I am supposed to be at every meeting and every church event. I am supposed to remember birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions. I am supposed to celebrate every baptism and wedding, and grieve every funeral. I am supposed to have a great sermon every Sunday. I am supposed to attract the youth and get all the inactive members back. But Pastors are not for being Christians on behalf of the congregation. Pastors proclaim the good news and give out the means of grace in the sacraments. Pastors equip people for their ministry. Pastors help people to hear God’s call in their lives. Pastors help congregations live out God’s mission in the world. Pastors do what is good for the congregation, not what makes people happy.

Sometimes we forget why we are ‘The Church’ in the first place. Sometimes we treat the church like all the other things we consume daily in our lives, and so we try to shape and form the church in our own image. We want a church that meets our preferences, like personalized settings on our computer.
Yet, despite all that – despite us – God is still using The Church for God’s purposes. God is still doing God’s work in world, with or without us. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of that. Sometimes we just need to hear again:

Church isn’t for you.

You are for the Church.

The Scarecrow in the Cucumber Field – ISIL, Ebola, and the End of the World (Order) As We Know It


In his best-selling book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Penguin, 2011), popular science author Jared Diamond meticulously and relentlessly plunges into a wide variety of historical case studies using what he terms the “comparative method” in order to answer the question that has preoccupied scholars from Edward Gibbon through Oswald Spengler – why do societies decline and ultimately disappear?

Diamond makes it clear that he is not a “determinist,” particularly one of the ecological variety, although he does stress environmental issues, even in his earlier publishing writings, in an outsize way.

As the title of the book implies, history is in many respects like a game of cards.  Each people, nation, or cultural aggregate is dealt a certain hand with particular endowments, talents, or possibilities.  Yet it is how one plays the hand that counts.

Environment itself, or the pressure of powerful neighbors (think Poland), are constitutive factors.  But they are not destiny.  Destiny lies in the kinds of  “decisions” societies as a whole are apt to make.

As I write two of the four apocalyptic horsemen – pestilence in the form of the deadly Ebola epidemic and war in the guise of the unimaginably brutal, but militarily successful armies of the Islamic State – are  galloping across the global dais and shaping the destiny of many peoples and nations, including the United States.  If one takes seriously the doomsayers who are increasingly blogging on the internet and occupying the talk show air waves, the end of society as we know it may be looking less like the product of an ignited imagination and more like some kind of imminent reality.

Yet, as Diamond reminds us, the destruction of civilization is only conceivable these days at the planetary level.  “Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation…Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote … can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline. But we also are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past.”

The End of the New World Order


Re-Visiting The Shack (3): Ch.5 – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”

Mack Accepts Papa’s Invitation

Mack has decided to accept the invitation to meet whoever it is that sent him the invitation. The character of God has been identified as the central issue.  This chapter begins Mack’s journey into the swirling depths of encountering the true and living God in the midst of his Great Sadness.

And that’s the first learning we can take from this chapter.  God always meets us in the depth or center of our pain.  That’s why Mack has to come to the shack. Baxter Kruger says we all have a garbage can at the center of our being in which we stuff all the crap that shames, guilts, embarrasses, mortifies, isolates, and poisons us.  We sit atop that garbage can to keep the lid securely in place.  No one will ever get a look in there!  Yet it is just there that we will find God, ready and able to meet and minister to us in our crap.

Graham Greene, in The Heart of the Matter states what has to be the deepest truth of human life:  "Don't imagine you--or I--know a thing about God's mercy."  This is what Mack is on the way to learning, though the way will be long, convoluted, and painful.

But what can induce us to open up our garbage cans to find God there?  What is that finally makes Mack willing to go to the shack?  In my experience human beings change for three basic reasons.  The pain becomes unendurable, something or someone forces us to, or we discover a more compelling, healing vision to embrace and live into.  Mack goes for the first reason.  He can’t take the life-sucking, life-numbing, Great Sadness any longer.  Once there, he will find an unfathomable mystery – the presence of the triune God – that not only heals his hurts, banishes the Great Sadness, and restores Mack to the human being he was always meant to be. 

Why don’t you want to open your garbage can?  Too busy, always blaming others, engaged in denial, rationalizing?  These are common tactics all of us are well-versed in!

Mack Unlearns Goddddd!

Mack makes the long, terrible trek to the shack.  He trudges through the winter chill and starkness.  He makes himself climb on the porch and go in that hated, haunting place.  Everything remains the same as Mack remembers, including the demonic sacrament of Missy’s blood staining the floor.

The bloodstain unleashes all Mack’s fury and rage.  And it leads him to the first unlearning necessary to growth in knowing God, the true God.  Aiming his bile at the “indifferent God he imagined somewhere beyond the roof of the shack” (78), Mack cries out, “So where are you?  I though you wanted to meet me here.  Well, I’m here, God.  And you?  You’re nowhere to be found!  You’ve never been around when I needed you – not when I was a little boy, not when I lost Missy.  Not now.  Some ‘Papa’ you are!” (78-79).

The indifferent God, Goddddd, never shows up!  Because he doesn’t exist (save in our distorted imaginations).  This icon of useless deity needs to be shattered before all else.  And that’s what this chapter in the story is about.

Goddddd’s absence here, at the center of Mack’s pain, is the last straw for him.  “I’m done God, he whispered.  “I can’t do this anymore.  I’m tired of trying to find you in all this” (80).  Don’t most of us reach that point at seasons and places in our lives?  The tragedy is some of us do in fact give up and close ourselves off from the true God.  But what in fact is happening is an invitation, an invitation to be done with Goddddd and throw yourself into the vortex of hurt that engulfs you and, lo and behold, discover that Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu are already there waiting for you!

Reality Dawns

Mack thinks to leave this terrible place.  But God, the triune God, having invited Mack to meet him in the center of his pain, is faithful to his word.  Old Goddddd rebuked, the true God makes himself known to Mack!

It begins with a sudden – and impossible - Spring thaw.  Warmth and beauty return in moments as Mack steps off the porch to leave.  The shack was sparling fresh and landscaped like a postcard.  Was God really in there?  Fearing a psychotic break, Mack’s anger bubbles up again and he strides to the front door to find out.  But before he can bang on the door, it opens to reveal a beaming, large African-American woman arms wide open to embrace him!  She effuses,

“Here you are, and so grown up.  I have really been looking forward to seeing you face to face.  It is so wonderful to have you here with us.  My, My, my how I do love you!” (83)

And embraces him again.

Mack tears up and this woman tells him, “It’s okay, honey, you can let it all out . . . I know you’ve been hurt, and I know you’re angry and confused.  So, go ahead and let it out.  It does a soul good to let the waters run once in a while – the healing waters.” (83)

Mack, though, can’t let go.  Not yet.  He’s not ready to unreservedly give himself to this person.  The woman assures him it’s okay and that things will unfold in his “terms and time” (83).

Mack quickly learns that he and this woman are not alone.  In a beautifully drawn figure, he meets Sarayu, the Holy Spirit.  “She seemed to shimmer in the light and her hair blew in all directions even though there was hardly a breeze” (84).  She seemed Asian but was so fluid that it was hard for Mack to get a good look.  Sarayu glides over to Mack and with a little brush sweeps his tears into a small jar. “I collect tears,” she tells him.

And then a man arrives on the scene.  A Middle Eastern looking carpenter.  Guess who he is?

Stunned Mack asks if there are more people at the shack.  The woman chuckled, “No, Mackenzie, we is all that you get, and believe me, we’re more than enough.” (85)

Mack’s reality has been redefined!  His world, just like the physical surroundings of the impossible new Spring at the Shack, has been made new!  There’s no longer any bloodstain on the floor of the shack.  St. Paul put it like this:  “If anyone be in Christ, there is a new creation old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  He doesn’t quite know what to do, or exactly what’s happened, but he likes it (86). 

Such a fine description of what encountering the triune God instead of Goddddd is like!  It feels too good to be true, yet even our most expansive notions of the true fail to capture the reality of this encounter.  The woman’s “We more than enough” proves to be the quintessential understatement.

The three then introduce themselves to Mack.  The African-American woman is Elousia (Greek root meaning “tenderness”).  She is the housekeeper and cook at the shack.  Elousia is a name special to her but she tells Mack to call her what his wife Nan does, “Papa”! (86) As he tries to process this astonishing turn of things, the Middle Eastern looking fellow introduces himself as a handyman though he too enjoys cooking and gardening as much as the other two do.  He is also from the Jewish house of Judah!  Mack knows then who he is.  Jesus.

About to collapse under the wonder and marvel of all this, the Asian looking women steps forward to him.  “And I am Sarayu . . . Keeper of the gardens, among other things.” (87)

Finally, from his maze-filled mind, all he could think to ask is “which one of you is God?”  ‘I am’, all three replied in unison.” (89)

And there you have it.  Mack doesn’t understand what he has experienced.  But he believes it!

Meeting the Triune God

Mack discovers that God is NOT Goddddd but Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu, the triune God.  It a brave and risky move for Young to picture the deity like this.  Especially to have God the Father, Papa, be an African-American woman!  He is doing here, I believe what C. S. Lewis hoped to do in the Narnia Chronicles, draft an image of God so strikingly different yet true that I can slip behind the “watchful dragons” of our received, churchly images that come to obscure as much or more than they reveal.

And I think he succeeds.  “Papa” as a African-American woman reveals our inherited chauvinism and racism in regard to God.  It jolts us to remember, or think about for the first time, that God is neither male nor white.  Nor any other race nor gender.  While his biblical name is “Father,” the biblical God displays both male and female characteristics.  That’s why we claim the ground of our genders, male and female, are found in him.

Beginning with God as triune, Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, also cuts against the tendency iin the West to begin with God’s unity, his oneness, which often ends up in at least a functional Unitarianism from which it is but a short step to Goddddd!  The Eastern Church begins with the three persons of the trinity and moves toward their unity.  Young does this, I believe, to highlight the relational character of the biblical God.  He is love himself, consisting in the ever-living, never-ceasing, life-giving receiving and returning of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God is both in and is these relationships.  The ancient symbol, “The Shield of the Trinity” tries to capture the relational “thickness” of the triune understanding of God.

One good rule of thinking properly about the Trinitarian God of the Bible is this:  “In his eternal being and in all his activity, the one God is always and at the same time the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (A Declaration of Faith (PCUSA), ch.5, ll.124-126).  “Always and at the same time” – irreducible Threeness and relationship.

Another rule to be held together this that one is that the works of the trinity are indivisible.  That is, though each person of the trinity may have focal tasks (Father – creation, Son – redemption, Spirit – sanctification/Papa – housekeeping and cooking, Jesus – handyman, Sarayu – gardening), each is also involved in and committed to the tasks and goals of the others. Remember, Jesus tells Mack that he is interested and cooking and gardening as well as his handyman responsibilities. (86)

If we want to be theological about all this, we can say that Young has given us a view of the trinity from the traditions of the Eastern Church.  It is thoroughly orthodox and artistically risqué.  And it is all the better for the latter because his imagery requires us to consciously think about what we believe about God.  I believe he does manage to sneak behind our watchful dragons of inherited and churchy language and thought about God.

All this high-falutin’ talk about God may seem far from life-giving, not to mention intelligibility.  Someone once said of the trinity, “The father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible!”  Yet even though explanation of the triune nature of God eludes us (and ever will), description, intelligible description, is possible (as above).  And more, from that description we can get a grasp on the great love for us!

1.    Because God is love himself, consisting in the ever-living, never-ceasing, life-giving receiving and returning of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we can be certain that everything God is, wills, and does is from that love.  This is a reality Mack will struggle to learn throughout The Shack.


2.    Because God is love himself, he came to our aid in person in, with, through, and as Jesus of Nazareth!  He didn’t send a proxy or angels, or the like.  His passion for us and to be with us is such that nothing less than his coming as one of us, and remaining one of us through the rest of eternity as Jesus Christ, we have been embraced, reclaimed, healed, and restored by him in Christ.


3.    Because God has become one of us in Christ, we can trust his word to us.  God did not remain distant and aloof, up and far away, shouting commands and warnings to us.  No, in Jesus God came among us, spoke to us his word in the words of that first-century Galilean peasant, and, like the good prophet Jesus was, he bore the brunt of the judgment with and for his people.  And that is love, friends.

This is some of the “cash value” (forgive the crass metaphor) of understanding God as he presents himself in the Bible.  Nothing other than a Trinitarian view can sustain any of the points above.  And to grasp, or better, be grasped, by this God who is love, is the whole point!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Is Church Turning Us Into Nice People?

October 20, 2014 | By: 0 Comments


The other day someone told me about a discussion they had with a friend who said that they were leaving their church to join another church. Fair enough I thought, I hear this a lot. What caught my attention however is that the church that this person was leaving, I would describe as being missional and the church that they had decided to start attending  as more of an ‘attractional’ model of church. Why the move from missional to attractional I wondered? When I spoke with my friend further, apparently the missional church was small, met in someone’s home and the regular gatherings were too confrontational for this person. Once again I probed deeper. Too confrontational? I found out that even though the church was small it had managed to become a community of people from various backgrounds and socio-economic status. When time came in their gathering for sharing about their lives, many of those who were living a life of poverty told of their difficulties. This person who was economically privileged comparatively speaking, found it disruptive and uncomfortable to hear some of the things that were being shared. This person felt out of place, guilty and awkward in that church. They then started attending another church which was larger and the person said it was a church where they could remain somewhat removed, which had challenging messages and good worship.+
I’m sure that I am simplifying this ‘case study’ and that there were a lot of other factors that influenced my friend’s departure from that church. However, this encounter has puzzled me, unnerved me and again made me wonder with exasperation what the church is all about. What I do find myself asking sometimes is this; is church merely  turning us into nice people?  By that I’m asking if  belonging to a church is forming us into people who attend church gatherings, serve on ministry teams, listen to messages which are just challenging enough, are soothed by contemporary worship then we leave perhaps with the intention to do good works and tell our friends about Jesus? On the one hand there might be nothing wrong with this but on the other, I wonder if this formation process, which is partly unintentional, is bypassing a deeper transformation that still has to happen in the lives of many Christians. Could some of the practices in church community even be stopping this transformation from happening?+
Why do we see many mature Christians still  displaying deep patterns of racism, sexism, disregard for the poor, consumerism, hedonism and individualism in their thinking and behavior? My question here is not coming from a place of cynicism, nor is it an attempt to berate anyone. I also struggle with the ‘isms’ mentioned. My question actually comes from a desire to see the church truly breathe and practice the radical nature of the values of the kingdom of God. In the example that I gave above, it seems like my friend in Christ found that as they were confronted with the reality of poverty, they could not tolerate the dissonance that this caused within them and as a result they went to join a church where they could experience a little more comfort. Could this be an idol of comfort that has taken hold of a heart which is stopping a deeper transformation from taking place? If that person had stayed in that missional community and worked through their guilt and discomfort could this have led to further alignment with the values of the kingdom? Values such as koinonia, humility, service, kenosis and in effect, godly love? Would my friend have experienced the joy of ‘communitas’  rather than perhaps superficial community? Could the Holy Spirit have been at work in such a disruptive context in order to form this Christian deeper into the image of Jesus?+

What constitutes a church that is forming people into disciples who express the radical values of the kingdom of God?

I don’t think that anyone would argue with this point in terms of our formation into disciples of Jesus; as we continually receive and believe in the love of God through our Lord Jesus, we transform into his image which means we practice that radical love towards one another. The trajectory is then, the love of God is shown and given to us, we believe it and receive it, then we practice that love towards one another. John describes that process like this, ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 John 3:16).+
What would be some impediments to the practice of this godly, radical love which ought to produce deep transformation in the life of the Christ follower? I have found the book Godly Love: Impediments and Possibilities edited by Matthew T. Lee and Amos Yong helpful here. It focuses on that question of why there are not more radical expressions of the love of God (which leads to the manifestation of kingdom values), particularly in the Christian community, if we have in fact been shown and have received the love of God. Several of the essays are fascinating and helped me to think through the question above: What constitutes a church that is forming people into disciples who express the radical values of the kingdom of God?+
A church like this, through its gathered and scattered practices, firstly makes disciples of Jesus aware of the impediments to receiving and practicing godly love. In other words, that church makes people conscious of the ‘vices’ of our age such as consumerism, sexism, racism, individualism so that people are not blinded by these false worldviews that take us captive. Secondly, that church helps people to develop and be accountable to habitual life-giving practices that shape a kingdom people, which counter the practices that are forming people into narcissists,  consumerists, racists, individualists etc. I don’t think a church is taking discipleship seriously if they do not develop such communally agreed upon practices for formation. Thirdly, this church does not recoil from creating or resting in spaces which may cause discomfort simply because internal paradigms are shifting. The Holy Spirit is at work for our transformation in disruption, awkward moments and pain.+
I think any church whether attractional or missional, which engages with these three things and more, will help disciples of Jesus become not just nice people but a people who truly move towards being Christians who live and breathe the upside down nature of the kingdom of God. +