Who Am I?

The Shack

Posted: May 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Shack

Yes, I’m another Johnny-come-lately with this review of The Shack. In my defense, I only recently read the book and had not originally planned on reading it at all. My last attempt to delve into modern Christian fiction with the Left Behind genre ultimately left a sour taste in my mouth as that entire perspective formed little more than cotton candy in that deconstructive whirlwind I call a mind. I have been tempted to give Doystoyevsky another try now that I have a more Christian perspective, but that’s been the extent of my interest in Christian fiction these days. However, when a mostly Buddhist friend of ours bought the book for my wife and told her that the book helped her understand what Christians see in their God, I knew resistance was futile. 😉

From a literary perspective it was an easy read with a fairly gripping story and flow. Once you start reading it, you want to keep reading through to the conclusion. It’s a shame that the publishers gave the book a pass. I can see many areas where a good editor could have made significant contributions tightening the storyline and improving some of the places where the prose could be better. It’s not at all bad as written, but the editorial process could have tightened up its weak spots. There were a few instances where the prose made me wince, but others have already mentioned them. There’s no need to rehash them here. And there weren’t really that many of them.

From a theological perspective, The Shack necessarily suffers from the inherent limitation that any allegory, any description, any artistic work has when attempting to portray an ultimately transcendent God. With that said, I found the book did a surprisingly good job, much better than I expected. Many of the negative reviews I’ve seen focused on things like portraying the Father as a grandmotherly black woman for much of the book or the Holy Spirit as an asian woman also for much of the book. Honestly, there is nothing any more heretical or “wrong” about doing that than there is in portraying the Father as an old man with a long flowing white beard. They are anthropomorphisms, but we cannot actually think about God without anthropomorphizing him to some extent. As long as we are aware that that’s what we’re doing and that our effort is inherently limited and finite and thus flawed it’s really not a problem. God shows up to the protagonist as a woman because he has issues with the idea of “Father”. There’s nothing wrong with that idea. The bible is full of ways God is constantly accommodating our limitations and weaknesses.The fact that the manifestations are God accommodating the protagonist is made clear not only in the dialogue of the novel, but by the Father and the Spirit taking alternate forms over the course of the novel.

I most enjoyed the author’s effort to deconstruct the image of an angry God which has so dominated the West these past thousand years. He captured nicely the impassability of God’s love. God is love and we are his ‘very good’ creation. We have no language for that love. Everything we can say is necessarily inadequate. Nevertheless, the simple statement by ‘Poppa’ approaches the essential nature. “I am especially fond of you.” How true.

I also appreciated the manner in which the book captured the participation of the entire Trinity in the work of redemption on and through the Cross and the Resurrection. Too often in the West, the Trinity has been pictured at odds with each other during the Cross rather than acting in perfect unity.

I noted the attempt to portray the perichoretic nature of the Trinity. I know it’s extremely difficult to ever adequately portray the utterly self-sufficient, inter-penetrating, and mutually indwelling relational life of the Trinity. Nevertheless, I felt the attempt fell flat. I’m not sure, if you were unfamiliar with the underlying theology, that it would even be decipherable. That part gets an A for effort, but at best a C in execution.

The theodicy in the book was adequate. It was certainly better than you’ll get from some people, such as Piper, today. I could nitpick, but so many in our culture have heard such awful portrayals of God, they probably need the simplest window through which to begin to see the reality.

I was somewhat disappointed in the portrayal of Jesus. The book captured some of the implications for God of joining the human and divine natures. But I think the flip side of that equation got short shrift. It is through the Incarnation that human nature is healed. And it is through the union of the two natures of Jesus and only through that union that we are able to participate in the life of God. I don’t think the book did enough to bring that into the story. And without it, the story was less than it could have been.

I recognize that the lens through which this story was told was the lens of a particular individual. As such, it created an essentially individualistic framework. Nevertheless, it felt like the community of true human beings and our corporate effort was severely under-represented in the novel. That may be due as much to the way the story is embedded in our individualistic North American culture as to any intended or unintended statement by the author. Nevertheless, I wish more of the shared human nature and story had found its way into the story.

All in all, this is a novel that provides a better picture of God than much of what you’ll find in Western Christianity in a form that is accessible to everyone. Quibbles aside, there is much to be said for that. It’s a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.


Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

Posted: May 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

I was struggling to frame my thoughts for the next post in this series when I realized I needed to pause for a moment and explore the Christian concept of the Trinity, that is of a triune God. I will say up front that anything and everything we can express about the essence and nature of God will always be in some sense inadequate. We are finite and God is not. This is, in fact, so true that as soon as we say something about God, we almost have to say that insofar as we’ve encountered or experienced or understood that thing, God is not like that to which are comparing him.

For instance, we can positively say, as the Holy Scriptures affirm, that God is love. But when we say that, we need to also say that the love I have or which I have experienced from others falls so short of the love that is God that in terms of the love I have known God is not love at all. God transcends my understanding of love. Nevertheless, even though it is limited and finite, my understanding and experience of love do help me begin to understand God.

If we do not maintain that tension in our thoughts, especially when discussing the Trinity, it becomes far to easy to attempt to rationalize the Trinity, to make the essence of God make sense to us. This has been true throughout Christian history. When people have fallen into this trap, they have tended to overemphasize either the oneness or the threeness of God. In so doing they have on the one hand reduced God to a single person who adopts different roles or masks. And on the other hand, they have subtly shifted to three persons who can somehow act separately, stand apart from one another, or even act in opposition to each other. Tritheism tends to be subtle rather than overt.

So it is with fear and trepidation that I venture into this arena of words, praying that I will not misspeak or be misunderstood. This discussion is risky, but it is essential. For if we do not have some understanding of the nature of the Trinity, it is not possible to understand what salvation means in the Christian sense of the word.

Before I delve into the heart of what I want to discuss, I did want to mention one principle I very recently picked up from Orthodox theology that I have found surprisingly helpful. My first reaction was “so what?”, but as I’ve reflected on it, I’ve found that it sounds simple, but runs very deep indeed. Here it is:

Everything that can be said about God is either unique to a single member of the Trinity or is common to all of the persons of the Trinity.

Here’s how it works. Most things are common to all. All are uncreated. All are love. All together fulfilled certain roles. All are creator (we see that in both Genesis and more explicitly in the NT). All are our redeemer. Redemption of creation was a wholly triune act. However, only one person is Father, one is Son, and one is Spirit. Only the Son is incarnate. Only the Son is begotten. Only the Spirit proceeds. Most importantly, no two persons of the Trinity ever share an attribute or quality or role or action that the third does not. Unique to one or common to all. Think about it. As it sinks in, I think the value of this dogma in keeping our way of thinking about God on track becomes clear.

The best metaphor for the Trinity I’ve yet encountered is that of the dance, a dance which lies at the center of reality. The greek word for this dance is perichoresis. The word is used to capture a reality of three persons who are so mutually indwelling, interpenetrating, and united that they can be said to share a single nature, a single essence, to be one with each other even as each retains their own unique personhood. This perichoretic nature is described as a dance, each person constantly twirling with, around, and through the other two. It’s a dance where, as soon as one person finds themselves in the center of the dance, they immediately yield that place to the other two. It’s a perfectly spinning, eternal, communal dance of self-sufficient love. It is perfect relationship in eternal motion.

This is the God made known to us through Jesus of Nazareth. This is the God inviting us to join the dance.