Tag Archives: Jesus

Review ~ When the chains of dogma keep us from seeking truthfulness.

The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity, by William Paul Young. Available for $7-18 (movie released this month).

Th Shack

There was such a hullabaloo about the whole thing. There were people excited it was finally going to be on the big screen, as well as people resurrecting the battles over the theology and doctrine portrayed in the original book. As I attempt to do with at least some controversies, I let most of it flow on by. I am, after all, still an avid fan of Oh, God, a movie some evangelicals considered downright blasphemous. I was finally enticed to view the trailer; and I fell instantly in love. I had to have the book, sooner rather than later (and will watch the movie). Every spare moment this week, Kindle in hand, I devoured Young’s tale. Then, I spent a bit of time poking around on the Internet attempting to determine what all the fuss was about. You would have thought the story was a Doctorate Thesis, submitted to the public for vetting. On second thought, maybe it should be. Here is my take on the emotional and spiritual punch, and theological challenge, delivered by this lovely little book.

As a reference point for most of the criticism, I used a fairly prominent Christian blog, www.boundless.org. The article was articulate, and summarized most of the points others were making at various levels of ability and understanding. I found the criticism telling.

First there is the accusation that the story as presented seeks, in many subtle ways, to undermine The Faith. In my opinion, what the author is gently pushing against is the dogmatic doctrine of the church. A structure that believes, somehow, that the interpretations of the early Church Fathers are every bit as holy as the original text penned who knows how many millennia ago. The author points to a particular passage where the character of Jesus states that he is not Christian. Well, as it happens he was not. He was Jewish. Subversion of the “orthodox” view started a couple of millennia ago, I seem to recall the image of Jesus turning over tables in the temple courts.

Since folks like to quote things, let’s look at Proverbs 2:1-5 (ESV). “My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” As far as I can tell, scripture here, and in other places, encourages us to seek insight and understanding – not to accept it as a God-wrapped treasure from those who declare themselves our leaders and sole interpreters of ancient manuscripts.

There is also the issue of how we know God. Many Christians look to scripture as the beginning – and the end – of the discussion. They feel that messages, commands, and admonitions written for people in a different time, different country, and under far different circumstances, should be adhered to without fail today. There are two problems with this approach.

First, it is okay to hold tight to the letter of the law as long as it fits within preconceived notions. Many Christians have problems with the idea of an adulteress being stoned in a Muslim country – and yet that is scripture. Scripture indicates that we should not divorce and that if we do remarry, we are committing adultery. These may sound like old, worn-out arguments, but at the core is this issue: understanding what scripture is trying to impart about the duties of a person that follows the first and foremost command – to love – often comes to blows with modern science, understanding, and culture. The Bible is a living breathing text and should, by all accounts, serve us well whatever the century or however advanced the culture. Look for the message – not the letter – of the law. This is something that The Shack tries to drive home.

And while we’re on the subject, as much as the reader may wish that the Bible was God breathed in every syllable and comma – that is just not a possibility. We do not have access to the original, inspired texts, and we have pushed what we do have through centuries of cultural, personal, and faith driven interpretations. This, of course, it the purpose of the reference to the King James Bible in the book. The challenge to see beyond a specific translation, or interpretation, of scripture and to look for the message that sings the whole way through.

It seems hardly right to devote a short paragraph to the subject of Salvation and what, precisely, it was we see accomplished on the Cross. I keep it short because this is a subject which has been debated since the nascent church began to spread throughout the population of the early Middle East. All the more reason to ponder the thoughts suggested by Young. After centuries of having the hell-fire of sinners pounded into our heads and our souls (a vision we owe more to Dante than the Bible), it is difficult for Christians to see beyond that vision into the conundrum they have created. Simply labeling something a “mystery” is no more than a cop out. We cannot reconcile a loving Creator with an eternal fire – a really eternal fire – for the least of the possible infractions against a code. A code, by the way, we are quick to say was done away with on the cross. If we continue to lock ourselves away in these labyrinths of theological conundrums, we will awaken one day to find we have not done the most important thing we were commanded to do – love. The possibilities discussed by The Shack are thoughts and theories presented by many outstanding scholars within the field. Why would God expect us, no – command us – to forgive whatever the response from the target of our forgiveness – if He was not prepared to do the same?

Oh, and last but certainly not least – how do we portray God? This was a point well brandished in the article I read. According to that author, scripture tells us not to make images of God. Except – scripture does provide images of God and it is those images we defend the most. One is of God as some grandfatherly figure in long robes. And we read that as a white male. When was the last time you saw a portrait of Christ in a church that actually looked like a native of the Middle East? Personally, I was delighted at the portrayal of a functioning, interactive, personification of the multiple aspects of God as defined in scripture – including that of Sophia. I was delighted because that presentation challenges us to break our preconceptions down into the ludicrous assumptions that we defend. Who are we to describe what God would look like as He spoke from the burning bush? Can we really grasp what Daniel, John, or any other author saw in their visions? Would those visions not be based on the people and culture they knew? Do you know without a single doubt, how the Creating force of this universe operates and relates? If The Shack does nothing else – maybe it will break that fragile shell of how we perceive something which we can only grasp in brief and finite thoughts.

Did I agree with everything in the book? Of course not. But I found the story a real attempt to reach people where they are, in the middle of their pain, and carrying years of baggage, some of which they have nothing to do with. One of the most telling bits within the story for me was that Mack never realized that his older daughter blamed herself for the loss of her sister. He was so wrapped up in his own pain, he never thought that someone else may be suffering from the same burden. If you take anything away from this book – know these things. Creation meets us where, and when we are. Our pain is a part of an evolving universe, we are neither the worms beneath our feet, nor lords of the universe. Sharing our pain is how we love one another, and how we help those who also suffer, while healing our own hurt.

Before you attempt to doctrinalize (like that word?) this story into Gahanna – see if you can find some small bit of insight you can work into your own inquiring soul. Or use it to open your eyes to the vast, creative force behind and throughout the universe in which we live.

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Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Fiction

Reflections ~ The night before the night before and things are still stirring….

Hubble2So this is Christmas.  It is a time of year that some feel is quite magical while others shudder at the sound of the word.  Some people find much joy, and some suffer from uncontrollable depression.  It is a time of year when we find friends and family, and when we miss those no longer with us.  It is intense and liberating all at once.  There are many reasons for this and they go back to the beginning of human history.  So, it’s time for a history lesson and those that know me would expect nothing less.  You see, Jesus is a reason, but not the reason for the season.  No, you may not burn me at the stake; I must fix breakfast in the morning.

I truly love “digging around” in our ancient history and finding the roots of our most cherished beliefs and traditions.  Those that have remained with us are rich with meaning and it is not an accident that layer upon layer has been added as our culture and our understanding change.  The journey to learn about our December festivals begins millennium ago when we were an agricultural people and our lives depended on the coming and going of the seasons.  Life or death could come based on when things were planted and harvested.  So we studied the skies.  Long before we knew that the earth was round we knew that the sun changed its behavior.  We knew that there was a “shortest” day of the year and a “longest” day as measured by the time the sun was over the horizon.  I could not find any references to earlier names but in Latin we call these dates solstices.  The winter solstice is that day of the longest night in the northern hemisphere and always falls on December 21 or 22 of each year.

This was an important time and was a natural time to celebrate.  Whatever it was called by the ancient cultures, the term “solstice” derives from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).  This was the time when the sun “stopped” and reversed its direction to rise again above the horizon.  December 25 would be the point when the sun had risen a full degree above the horizon and the people could be assured that it was indeed “coming back.”

There is a reason that depression can be so prevalent this time of year.  Our bodies need vitamin D.  When we don’t get enough sunlight we lose vitamin D and it affects our attitude.  Scientists have studied people living in the far northern climes for a number of years and they find the phenomena quite common – we need sunlight and when we don’t get it we get depressed (and sometimes a little wonky).  (Note: “Wonky” is a lovely Canadian word meaning not quite right).  The return of the sun was important for any number of reasons, all most all of them an integral part of life itself.

As civilizations grew, the meaning and purpose of the solstice grew.  The celebration of Saturnalia (the king of the gods) was celebrated by the Romans this time of year.  It started on December 17 and eventually extended to December 23.  It was a time for public banquets and private gift giving.  Heralded as the festival of lights, it led up to the winter solstice.  A time announced as the renewal of light and the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun (Sol Invictus).  The Roman emperor Aurelian established this feast at December 25.  Celebrations turned the world upside down as slaves were served by masters, grudges were forgotten and schools and courts were closed.

From Scandinavia we have the Norse tradition of Yule which lasted for 12 days.  That should sound familiar.  It was during this time that the Norse celebrated the rebirth of the sun gods and the increasing light upon the earth.  In some countries the Yule log was burned to ashes and spread in the fields, in others a small piece was preserved to light the Yule log in the next year.  In Poland the ancient solstice celebrations included forgiveness and sharing of food.

Christians did not celebrate the holiday until 354 AD.  There are several proposed reasons that this particular date was chosen.  Keep in mind that the only religious holidays left to us by the apostles were Jewish holidays and these were presumed to be a foreshadow of the coming of Christ. Even Passover, the ultimate symbol of sacrifice, was converted to Easter.  Thus, without an historical basis, some appropriate time of feast and festival need to be selected.  As far as the actual birthday of Jesus, the general consensus (such as one is possible) is that it was most likely sometime in the spring, between March and May.  This is determined in part by the only hint in scripture which has the shepherds “watching their flocks at night.”  The hills above Bethlehem are entirely too cold to care for flocks of sheep at night in the middle of December.  The herds were moved to the hills in the spring.

Is this a bad thing that the birth of Christ is celebrated in the midst of so many pagan celebrations worshiping the rising of the sun?  Does it matter that we are still having academic and theological arguments over whether or not Christians “stole” the holiday?  Historical evidence points to two things.  People have been celebrating the winter solstice in a variety of ways as far back as history goes and what evidence we have indicates that Jesus was born in the spring.  However, all the richness of the combined holidays and feasts of this one week in December carry many symbols and lessons that can be applied to the birth of a child called the true light of the world.  All the many centuries of traditions expressing this as a time of forgiveness, sharing, peace, return or birth of light do no harm in developing a Christian observance.  It is a time of year that the human race has celebrated as a time of renewal since we started to plow our fields.  Why shouldn’t it be used to celebrate the “Lord of Peace,” the “Light of the World” especially since we don’t have a specific date for the birth of a child named Jesus?  I will admit that the wanton parties seem a bit inappropriate; and we still manage to practice that part with great verve.

Another tradition that is practiced at this time of year is Hanukkah.  This too is a festival of lights with a meaningful past.  The story is told in the Books of the Maccabees (apocryphal books of the Bible).  During the reign of Aniochus IV Epiphanes, a revolt of the Jews was crushed, the temple ransacked and Jewish religious practices forbidden.  After the decree was issued, a priest by the name of Mattahias initiated a revolt by refusing to worship the Greek gods.  He ended up fleeing to the wilderness with his five sons.  After his death (cir 166 BCE) his son Judas Macaabee led in a victorious gorilla insurrection against the Seleucid armies, regaining control of Israel.  After entry into Jerusalem, the Maccabees cleansed the temple and determined to re-institute the Jewish religious practices. There was only one problem.  The sacred oil that was to be burned in the temple had been profaned and there was only enough for one day.  The process to press and sanctify the oil took eight full days.  The lamps were lit anyway and, miraculously, the oil lasted the eight days needed to restore the temple’s supply.  This is the basis for the eight days of Hanukkah.  It is a celebration of provision, of re-dedication, of light.  Although the celebration of Hanukkah varies on the Gregorian calendar (December 8-16 this year) throughout the month of December, it is still a fitting feast for this time of year.

I think it is very important for us to understand how some of our hopes and fears, joys and sadness, wonders and even prayers are expressed in different ways as our world changes.  So, even though Jesus is not the reason for the season, the hope and purpose He represents to so many is certainly a major reason for the season.  Perhaps we should view this season as a time to focus on renewal, rebirth, forgiveness, sharing; all the things that our past tells us is symbolized in the birth of the sun, or the Son.  Let those Christmas carols stir  your heart and give you hope; they are, in many ways, universal.

Please, have Merry Christmas or whatever festival you celebrate this season and pass on some “peace and goodwill.”  As a special present I will post two offerings this week.  On Christmas Eve we will explore the historical adventures of Santa Claus.  Guess what?  He really did exist.

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Filed under Caregiving Backstage, Humanties for the Unbound Mind, Personal Journeys