Book Club Discussion: A God who both transcends and inhabits all pronouns

How would you respond if, for just one Sunday, your pastor consistently referred to God as “Them” throughout his sermon? (“For They so loved the world,” “Surrender your life to Them,” etc.) And what if the words to your favorite hymn were changed on the overhead to read “to God be the glory great things She hath done!” Do you think this would enhance or distract you from your worship? Would it help you think about God outside of the box, or simply place Him/Her into another one? 

I pose the question because I think that William P. Young does an excellent job of messing with common perceptions of God’s nature in his book The Shack. When Young’s protagonist, Mackenzie, encounters God in the shack, he experiences God as both male and female in the form of the Trinity. Rather than interacting with a single male father-figure, Mackenzie interacts with 1) Papa (a big black woman who represents God the Father), 2) Jesus (an ordinary-looking Jewish man who obviously represents Christ), and 3) Sarayu (an ethereal female presence who represents the Holy Spirit). 

When Mackenzie puzzles at these unexpected incarnations, Papa, responds, “Mackenzie, I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or woman, it’s because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning…To reveal myself to you as a very large, white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf, would simply reinforce your religious stereotypes, and this weekend is not about reinforcing your religious stereotypes.” 

I love that Young portrays God in this way, particularly for Mackenzie, a character who struggles with bad memories of his earthly father. I also loved the constant reminder of the existence of the Trinity. I sometimes feel like The Holy Spirit gets neglected a bit when we talk about God, and I welcomed the reminder of His/Her presence. 

It reminds me of how, when Moses asked for God’s name, God responded “I AM who I AM…Tell the Israelites you were sent by ‘I AM,’ the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” 

Sometimes I think we need reminders that God is not who we expect Him/Her to be, that He/She is wholly other,  both transcending and inhabiting our pronouns. It’s not about being politically correct; it’s about confronting the ways in which we have made God in our image.  For that reason, I don’t think it would hurt to spend a Sunday or two reflecting a bit on the mysterious nature of our God - Her goodness and mercy, Their holiness and might.

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Book Club Discussion: The Problem of Evil is more than a riddle

Anyone who’s read William P. Young’s The Shack will tell you that the first 80 pages are a difficult read. They take us through what the narrator (Mackenzie) calls his Great Sadness, as his youngest daughter Missy is abducted during a family vacation with the evidence pointing to her brutal murder. 

It’s not the best fiction I’ve ever read, but Young weaves together a compelling story, the first four chapters culminating with Mackenzie’s decision to follow up on a mysterious note he finds in his mailbox, apparently left there by God. 

These first few chapters are heartbreaking, but important in setting the stage for Mackenzie’s encounter with God. As difficult as it is to think about a little girl being kidnapped and murdered, I’m glad that Young doesn’t shrink away from the realities of the pain and suffering in the world. So often “The Problem of Evil” is discussed in abstract terms by college and seminary students in comfortable classrooms, far away from its horrific implications. Here, the advantage of using a fictional approach is that we become quite close to the characters affected by the “Problem of Evil” and so we are less inclined to resort to our theological expertise in explaining it away. 

As I understand it, the “Problem of Evil” goes something like this: 
    1. If God is all-good, He would destroy evil.
    2. If God is all-powerful, He could destroy evil. 
    3. But evil is not destroyed. 
    4. Hence there is no such God 

This line of questioning was first expounded by Epicurus 300 years before the time of Christ. It has always been explained to me as a sort of logical quandary with which believers must contend, a problem in the same sense that a mathematical equation is a problem, or a Rubik’s cube, or a crossword puzzle--a pesky riddle that secularists like to  pull out of their hats to deny the existence of God. 

The various evangelical solutions to The Problem of Evil have never made much sense to me. On the one hand, I’ve heard that evil exists because of human choice and that suffering is the result of rebellion against God, but on the other, I’ve been told that fallen humans have no choice but to sin because it is inherent to their nature, and God sovereignly allows suffering to continue.  In school I learned that if a skeptic asks about the Problem of Evil, the best approach is to remind the skeptic that the term “evil” suggests a universal standard of moral law, and that in order for a universal standard of moral law to exist, there must logically exist a supreme Law-Giver. This effectively diverts the conversation to issues of morality and absolutes and away from the unpleasant topic of the undeniable crappiness of this world.  

I think that just about everyone would agree that these explanations fall short whenever we personally encounter the Problem of Evil in our lives and in the lives of our fellow human beings. Reading accounts of the Holocaust from survivors, seeing footage of children starving to death in Sudan, and reading Young’s description of a senseless kidnapping and murder remind me that for those of us who have never witnessed genocide or war or widespread disease first-hand, a logical and succinct explanation for the Problem of Evil may be perfectly acceptable, but for the millions of people who have cried out to God in their distress to no avail, dignifying the grief and horror of their experience with an answer is nothing short of insulting. 

From this perspective, the Problem of Evil is not merely an intellectual problem, but an intuitive one, a problem that might be solved on paper, but never within the deep heart of man. 

We’ll talk more about Young’s take on “The Problem of Evil” as we continue our discussion over the next few weeks. Mackenzie’s story gets even more compelling in the upcoming chapters, when he goes to the shack and encounters God. 

Next week we’ll talk about that…and I want to know what you think about portraying God as the Trinity and with feminine qualities.

Keep reading!

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Book Club Discussion: It's all relative!

It’s Monday! Time for the final post on March’s book club selection- How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith by Crystal Downing. 

In Chapter 7, Downing examines a variety of approaches to relativism, arguing that what she calls “building relativism” is favorable to Christianity. This kind of relativism allows for absolute truth, while maintaining many of the epistemological ideas associated with postmodernism. In in, “truth meets human beings on their own ground…Truth, then is relative to each; all come to the light differently. Nevertheless, it is the same Truth they come to: Jesus is the way, the truth and the light.” Through Jesus, truth is found in relationship, not in a set of beliefs or ideas to which one ascribes. 

I like that. The beauty of relationship with God is that each individual experiences it quite differently. 

 However, what I enjoyed most about the last few pages of Downing’s book is what she says about the Bible. She writes that “while many modernists saw scriptural discrepancies as evidence that the Bible was not ‘true,’ postmodernists would attribute discrepancies to the pluralistic situatedness of interpretation,” making the Bible a more true-to-life and authentic account of human interaction with the divine. Therefore, “the incredible diversity and apparent contradictions within Scripture are its strength. Its pluralistic pronouncements and parables can speak to the pluralistic experiences of Christians…” 

I don’t know about you, but this calls to mind the many theological volumes that have been written in recent years seeking to address the discrepancies in Scripture. I’ve known theologians who could explain away everything from the historically impossible numbers associated with Hebrew battles to the differing accounts of the Sermon on the Mount to the alternating emphases on works and faith in the apostolic letters. These explanations always used to stress me out because I secretly felt like they sounded more like rationalizations than anything. They sounded a bit desperate, if you know what I mean. 

But Downing’s approach, which I’ve encountered in several places recently, is refreshing. Perhaps one of the greatest themes of Scripture is that there is no one theme. Perhaps in allowing such diversity in the writing and compiling of Scripture, God sought to protect us from making an idol out of any one interpretation of it. Perhaps rather than fearing apparent contradictions, we should celebrate them, knowing that they serve as affirmation that God speaks to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways.

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Book Club Discussion: Confronting our "situatedness"

Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith is our book club selection for the month of March. It’s Monday, so let’s continue our discussion. 

I don’t know about you, but I think Downing does an excellent job of bringing to light historical examples of the tendency of Christians to use the Bible to support views that, in hindsight, seem pretty irresponsible. This reinforces her point that interpretive communities do in fact  play a significant role in helping us define truth. Our  own history shows us that Christians are not immune to “situatedness.” Downing’s examples include: the Church’s stubborn marriage to geocentricism, the brutal persecution of the Anabaptists by Protestants for believing that confession should precede baptism, the use of Scripture to support owning slaves and marginalizing women. 

We would all like to believe that, had we lived in the days of the early church or the Protestant Reformation or the Civil War, we would have chosen the right side of things, but I think that’s a bit presumptuous. We must be careful not to imitate the Pharisees, who bragged that had they lived during the time of the prophets they would not have shed the blood of innocent men, but who then proceeded to crucify Jesus and persecute his disciples (Matthew 23:30-34). 

I can’t help but wonder what convictions I might have held had I lived in my hometown of Dayton, Tennessee just five, ten, or fifteen decades ago. Would I have used Scripture to defend my right to own slaves? Would I have opposed racial integration?  Would I have remained silent as the Cherokees stumbled by my house on the Trail of Tears? With this in mind, I often wonder if evangelicals will someday look back on our treatment of the homosexual community and wish we had done things a bit differently. 

Perhaps for this reason, Downing is refreshingly non-condemning of our historical counterparts. Instead of issuing a sweeping indictment on past believers, she uses these historical examples to warn Christians of the tendency to “presume that their construction of language is the true one: the tower that reaches into the heavens, the tower that encompasses the mind of God.” 

I think an appropriate response to this analysis is an attitude of humility, a willingness to release the death grip I personally have on certain theologies and interpretations of Scripture. All my life I was told that the most mature Christians were the convicted ones, the ones who believed without a doubt that they were right. Now I’m beginning to wonder if true spiritual maturity is marked by a healthy dose of trepidation, a willingness to be wrong and an openness to new ideas.

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Book Club Discussion: The Church's one foundation

Today we continue our discussion surrounding Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith

In Chapter 4 Downing develops the idea of “moving foundations” within the Christian faith.  She uses as an illustration the fact that foundations for new skyscrapers in Southern California are placed on rollers, enabling them to roll with the movements of the earth during an earthquake so that they won’t crack apart. “The foundations hold strong,” she writes, “precisely because they move.” 

The Church operates in much the same way. “Sometimes Christians get so rigidly committed to a certain idea of ‘truth’ as foundational that when the earth, or at least culture, moves under them, their faith develops huge cracks…” 

Of course, the best example of this is geocentricism. In Galileo’s day, support for the traditional paradigm of an earth-centered universe was adamantly espoused by the Church. Anyone presenting evidence to the contrary drew accusations of heresy. Even John Calvin argued that “those who assert that the earth moves and turns…[are] motivated by a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding; possessed by the devil, they aim to pervert the order of nature.” 

 If the survival of the Christian faith were dependent on the earth sitting still, Christianity would have most certainly perished sometime in the 18th century when the existence of a sun-centered solar system became widely accepted by the scientific community and the public. But because the Church successfully evolved, because believers were willing change their minds about the structure of the universe in order for their faith to makes sense in a modern world, what was once considered heretical is now embraced as scientific fact. What was once thought to be an essential, fundamental element of the faith-a geocentric universe-is now considered a ludicrous idea to any educated believer.

I often wonder if the current debate about evolutionary theory might turn out to resemble the fight about geocentricism. I saw in a Christian magazine the other day a headline that read, “Why we must teach our children to be young earth creationists,” as if young earth creationism was one of the most important, unmovable fundamentals of the faith. 

Is it? 

I’ll conclude with a quote from Augustine that I really think supports Downing’s theory. Oddly enough, Augustine was writing about the mysteries found within the book of Genesis, when he said, “in matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

While I don’t think Augustine would want us to abandon the evolution/creation dialogue altogether, I think he might like the idea of leaving a little room in our theology for God to surprise us now and again…even if that surprise involves evolution.

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