Monday, March 27, 2017

The Trinity and The Shack

When I was three years old (I am relying on my mother for this story… I don’t remember it), I apparently interrupted the family dinner conversation to ask my parents to explain the Trinity to me.

I don’t know what they said then, but like most Christians – if not most people in general – I have continued to wonder how best to explain the Trinity. The idea of “three in one” or “God in three persons” may speak truth, but there is a difference between understanding that a concept is true and having the first clue how to explain it. Historically, the Christian idea of the Trinity has led followers of Islam to label us as polytheists on the order of the Ancient Greeks.

In trying to explain how belief in the Trinity does not diminish our agreement that God is One, I am not a big fan of the sometimes-popular H2O analogy, that it can be ice or water or steam, because it is none of those things at the same time. It has to change form from one to the other, and it is dependent on temperature.

I resonate more with the idea that I am husband, son, and father. I am all those things simultaneously, so the metaphor is closer, but it is still far from ideal. After all, I am father to three people, and son to two, and husband to one, and my wife may at moments see me as father or watch me acting as son, but I always relate to her as husband. There is nobody to whom I speak one day as son and the next day as husband or father.

The fact is that we have no appropriate parallel for the Trinity. Indeed, the Bible does not use the word Trinity. That is a word we human beings have created to try to explain the way we experience the three persons of God.

There can be little doubt that the Bible teaches of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. When we have seen the Son, we have seen the Father. The Son is the exact representation of the Father. The Spirit is God’s Spirit, the way that Christ is with us always.

I have written before about the recent book phenomenon The Shack. I am writing again because it is now a major Hollywood movie, and it takes a shot at portraying the Trinity. God the Father is described in the book as a "large, middle-aged, African American woman" who likes to be called “Papa.” God the Son is a Middle-Eastern man, and God the Spirit is a youngish Asian woman. They sometimes appear at the same time, gathered around a table sharing a meal or walking together telling stories. They sometimes appear separately, each interacting with the story’s protagonist, Mack, in different ways. When they are together, sometimes they answer a question in unison, and sometimes one responds and the others beam their approval. It gets complicated.

It gets more intricate. At one place in the story, Papa becomes an older Native American male for a time when Mack “is going to need a father.” At another time, the Spirit appears as Sophia, the personification of Wisdom as we may picture her out of the scriptural writings of Solomon.

There are many who have written despairingly of the book and the movie. Some of those people have actually read the book or seen the movie, and others have dismissed them out of hand, with no apparent need to read or watch.

I understand their criticisms. Some dislike the theology of the author, William Paul Young, based on other things he has written. I cannot speak to his other works, as I have not read them, but I disagree with most of the challenges I have read to the theology of The Shack.

Those who accuse it of teaching universalism are not reading it very carefully, for it most certainly does not do so. In the novel, after Jesus explains that heaven will include many kinds of people, Mack asks, “Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?” Jesus replies, “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” That is not universalism.

Others criticize the book’s response to sin. In truth, what God says in the novel, and the movie, is that God “does not need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” Maybe I am being too forgiving, but I do not read that statement as a denigration of two thousand years of theology of the ultimate consequences of sin or of the nature of God; I read it as a statement that sin almost always carries its own reward, which of course includes separation from God.

Some find the story’s answers to hard questions about suffering and loss to be simplistic, and perhaps some of its answers are. But the central message of the goodness of God and how we can deal with suffering are sound.

Still others criticize the story because they do not believe that we should represent God through human actors. I understand that as a view of the Second Commandment, but I think it is misplaced. There is no attempt in The Shack for us to worship these representations as though they were idols, limited attempts to capture God within graven images for our own use (the real target of the Second Commandment). Instead, these are images, poetry, attempts to explain what is – and has been for me since I was three years old – accessible to believe but impossible to explain with any level of exactness.

The Shack is fiction, and judging it against the truth of scripture as though it were holding itself up as equal truth or even as a scholarly essay on scripture is wrong. It is a novel, a movie. It is not to be quoted and studied the way we approach a gospel. It is a story. It is a way to try to explain that which is hard to explain.

Without defending every word Young writes or each answer he provides, I find the novel and the movie extremely worthwhile. Certainly, as a movie, "The Shack" is orders of magnitude better than the recent tide of “faith movies.” It is far more professionally done, with top-level actors and writing. It is not the same ilk as “Facing Your Giants” or “God is Not Dead.” It is a true Hollywood movie. More important, it is a powerful portrayal of the goodness of God that seeks relationship and joy for God’s children.

But I write now, having seen the movie and re-read the book, because I am intrigued by the way the Trinity is portrayed. It is worthy of commentary.

If the racial choices for the persons of Papa and the Spirit offend you, you won’t like the book or the movie, but you won’t find anything in scripture to defend your position. If the portrayal of God the Father by a woman is a bridge too far for you, I understand that, but I would ask you to expand your idea of the limitlessness of our heavenly Father. In The Shack, Papa is at times feminine and at times masculine, sometimes black and sometimes red or brown. Depicting a spirit – for God is indeed Spirit – with human actors requires a choice, and for me, the choices here work.

So, I recommend both the book and the movie. They are not earth-shattering, and if you do not already know God, I doubt they will bring you to Him, although they can teach you much about Him. But if you do know Him, they are a moving experience of how we can and do find forgiveness, reassurance, and fulfillment.

It may not answer your questions about the Trinity, but The Shack will give you a lot to think about.