Tag Archives: theology

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

The God Box ~ Part the Third

The next stop along my journey was a similar denomination but one with a slightly different point of view. You did not fall from grace with every odd transgression. Oh, no! You were safe and secure for all eternity regardless of the choices you made. Of course, you had to be a member. A baptized member.

“That’s very nice that you were baptized by immersion, but that church doesn’t believe the same things we do.”

Isn’t that interesting?

Gift 3

Here was another box. As long as you were a member of this club, you were safe for eternity. There was protocol to follow to become a member, of course. It required an obligatory walk down the aisle during the church service and an agreement to undergo the ceremonial baptism into the church. Yes, that was my interpretation, and I openly shared that thought with the kind lady who was supposed to lead me into my “new life.” The poor soul became perplexed and worried about the requirements of man versus the requirements of God. Not a good start for a supposedly new convert. I tried to put her at ease, and silently vowed to watch my tongue in order to avoid unwanted controversy. Who wants to be kicked out before you’re even a member?

A weary sense of apathy crept in. This was an extremely trying time in my life, for a number of reasons. Not only was my personal and business life in a major tangle, I suffered the church’s opinion of divorced women. A professional woman in Texas working in commercial real estate. Living alone. Could I possibly be any more immodest?

How I could be safe in the arms of Jesus forever and yet, well, be a yet-to-be-defined fallen woman, was a bit of a quandary for me. Who I was and what my needs might be appeared to be the farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

As long as I presented myself as a modest professional woman, one who was not on the prowl for eligible, upstanding bachelors in the church, then my contributions to choir, school buses, and refinancing of the church property, where accepted gracefully. I was tolerated as a business person of some influence, but not as a woman who might be interested in friendship or companionship. It was a church attended by a number of influential business people, and eventually I viewed the organization as little more than a service club with a cross on the door.

Resisting the tide was beyond my strength at that time. It was easier to “go through the motions” of being a good Christian. I attended church, sang in the choir, offered professional services at huge discounts, or for free when appropriate. The only place anyone wanted my opinion was in the Sunday School class. I sought some blend of honesty, and non-confrontation. Now and then, I run across notes from that teacher in my old files and realize that someone was listening, and that I did have some small bit to contribute. All without realizing the influence I did have.

I managed to tolerate this state of affairs for several years. The church demanded little of me at a time in my life when I had little to give. Eventually, I looked inside this new box, and I found no God. In fact, I had a hard time finding me. I needed more. A great deal more.

That box had to go.

The God Box ~ Part the First
The God Box ~ Part the Second
The God Box ~ Part the Fourth
The God Box ~ Part the Fifth
The God Box ~ Part the Sixth

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Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Journey with Job, Personal Journeys

The God Box ~ Part the Second

Gift 2

Picking up where we left off, why was it so hard for me to follow the “delivered word?” Peer pressure was not part of my lexicon, and rebellion was not part of my thought process. Due to the circumstances of my childhood I was a loner, and I did not engage with people my own age. I was an observer, a patient planner towards the day I would be on my own. Somehow I was able to hide from the deeper impact of childhood abuse. Certainly, once I was grown up, I would be able to avoid these sorts of things. I just had to wait it out. That thought process was part of what made me question the theology I was being taught.

The problem began with the God of Job. Or, perhaps, the popular interpretation of Job. In the book of Job we see a man that God himself declares righteous, and without fault. Then all hell rains down on the man, and his so-called friends spend the majority of the book trying to discover what horrible sin he committed in deed or in thought. Toward the end, God steps in and tells them they are full of hot air. The debate about the real meaning of the text has gone on for centuries, but the vast majority of interpretations lean toward figuring out what evil thing Job did, what higher level of spirituality he obtained, or what lesson God was trying to teach him. My problem was that God said Job was righteous. There was nothing to “punish.”

Something simply did not add up.

If I were to take church doctrine at face value, God was something like a Santa Claus, watching my every thought. If I was a very good girl, good things would happen. If I was a bad girl, God would punish me. The trick, though, was that I might not always know what I had done that was bad. Just like Job, I felt there was something really important being left out of the debate. Was I being punished for something I didn’t know I had done wrong?

That didn’t make sense. God had time to watch my every thought? A personal God is one thing, but one that follows you around and pokes you for every wrong—real or perceived, acknowledged or unknown—seems to be a tragic waste of creative power. If we are supposed to receive undeserved grace, then how could my being good influence the outcome one way or the other? Wouldn’t that be a reward system? Ask these questions of a church leader and they would smile, with a knowing look, and tell you that you just don’t understand.

Yes! I get that. So, please, explain it to me.

Silence.

Was it valid to pray for success? Perfect health? Or, say, healing when you refused to give up what was making you sick? Was is fair to accuse a dying patient of not praying hard enough? After all, “God wants to heal you.” Then bring it on, brother! Let’s get the show on the road! Was I subjected to years of mind twisting childhood abuse because I didn’t pray enough? Does an entire state or country deserve to suffer massive devastation because of the perceived infractions of a few? Is it fair or right that some people could tell lies in the presence of those who knew they were lying, and still be allowed to bear witness against another person?

Try as I might, I could not worship a sovereign that plagued His creation with constant earned, and unearned trials, and tribulations. Try the same program on a human teenager (or anyone except a fanatic) and watch the results. It just doesn’t fit with human nature. If a Sovereign Creator should know anything, it should be the nature of His created beings.

I had no choice. Even freed from a specific church body, the theology just did not fit. This God Box had to go.

Part the first can be found here.
The God Box ~ Part the Third
The God Box ~ Part the Fourth
The God Box ~ Part the Fifth
The God Box ~ Part the Sixth

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Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Journey with Job, Personal Journeys