Monday, February 27, 2017

Lessons from the Shack: Perspectives for Enjoying the Book and/or the Film

Key Issues for Reading the Shack and/or Enjoying the Film
The Shack premieres in theaters across the country on March 3, 2017. I studied the original novel carefully and offered lectures and talks on it during 2009. I'm excited to see the movie and hope that it does well.  
Here are some initial thoughts and takeaways on the book/film:

1) The Shack is a work of fiction. It is rooted in life, Christian thought, and Scripture, but it is fiction and its author claims nothing more for it. Through story, The Shack offers a narrative that attempts to interpret key themes of Scripture in fresh and meaningful ways to a 21st century audience. In particular, it attempts to communicate an understanding of the God of the Scriptures that is capable of touching deeply a person who has grown weary of or hardened against a simplistic or naïve faith.
The Shack should not be read (book) or watched (film) as a systematic theology. Young is creative and imaginative in his writing. He deploys well the elements of fiction to craft a compelling and transformational story. This does not mean that every aspect or line will hold up to a rigorous theological critique. I think that Young succeeds in writing a powerful story about God’s missional love for the pinnacle of His Creation—humanity. None of the liberties that Young takes or imaginative illustrations that he deploys is detrimental to the Gospel message underlying The Shack. Ideally, through reading The Shack, men and women will be inspired to (re)engage God in relationship. This will lead inevitably to a return to the Bible itself.
2) The Shack joins a long line of fictional works that engage the riches of Christian theology and tradition. Here are some examples: C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia; Dante, Inferno; John Steinbeck, East of Eden; John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress; Flannery O’Connor’s short stories.
The Shack pushes the envelope through a personification of each person of the Trinity along with the figure Holy Wisdom (Sophia) from the Bible’s Wisdom traditions. Young takes a risk here. This move is made to emphasize the relational side of God. But its unconventional use of feminine and non-European imagery has raised issues for certain readers who forget (in my opinion) that The Shack is fiction and that the majority of the world’s Christians are now of non-European descent. Young’s portrayal of the Trinity is bold and works to put a human and gracious face on the biblical God who too many in our world think of as oppressive, distant, male, and neither loving nor faithful. I think that Young’s move works, but some (traditional) readers may not be able to get past the imagery to hear the good message within The Shack.
3) Reading The Shack is not a substitute for reading and reflecting on Scripture regularly. The Scriptures are God’s gift to humanity and serve as the authoritative guide for faith and life. The Old and New Testaments tell the story of God’s missional interactions with Creation in general and with the creation, fall, and redemption of humanity in particular. In fact, Young would not have been able to write The Shack without his own careful reflection on the Bible. The Biblical portrait of God is the inspiration for The Shack and Young alludes to the Scriptures subtly throughout the novel and screen play. The more that one understands and knows the Bible the more one can appreciate Young’s work. My hope is that The Shack will motivate its readers to read through the Scriptural story that inspired and informed the core of Young’s work.
© 2017 Brian D. Russell

Friday, February 17, 2017

Paradigm Shifts for Ministry and Mission: From Dispensers of Information to Interpreters for Transformation

As leaders in the Christ-following movement in the early 21st century, it has been many years since the public looked to its religious leaders as the primary source of information.  In fact, if the “information age” has brought anything, it has radically decentralized the availability of knowledge. The ivory tower has given way to the laptop and smartphone. We no longer need experts; all we need is Dr. Google. 

In this environment, we need to rethink the role of the body of Christ in teaching about Christianity. Instruction in the faith used to function through catechesis or discipleship training. It centered in local churches in Sunday School or Wednesday evening group studies. The Church trained believers in the basics of the faith including biblical content and an understanding of the theology of the Church. I am in no way against theological or biblical instruction.  It is crucial for followers of Jesus Christ to love God with their whole being—including the mind. It is equally vital that right thinking be demonstrated through right living.

Given the vast information overload that our 24/7 media saturated age has brought (including “fake news”), I want to suggest that the Church needs to concern itself less with adding to the glut of information and more with shaping how people interpret the information that they possess. In other words, we need stop focusing merely on what people should think/know and instead help Christ followers to learn how to think. Our world needs exegetes and interpreters more than experts. I have to credit Erwin McManus with this essential insight. I heard him speaking about this in Orlando back in January 2005. As I have reflected on the shifts that we need to make to keep the missional emphasis in our communities, moving to focusing on leaders as interpreters of information points the way forward. Scripture is more than a source of information; it is revelation from God that functions as a lens through which to understand the world. It is a call to us for ongoing (re)alignment with God’s kingdom.

Our culture does not need another expert or talking head. Instead, I believe that men and women are longing for profound speech that inspires and nourishes their very beings by pointing through the spin and gab of modern life to the true reality.  Will we make the shift to speak a bold and daring Word for God and from God to persons who are desperate for a taste of true reality in their lives?

What do you think?

© 2006 Brian D. Russell (Revised substantially 2017)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Video Blog: Navigating Toward Your Preferred Future (YourProfessorForLife #3)

In this short video (10 minutes), I will introduce you to a dynamic way of thinking about the futures. This is not a typo. Too many of us limit ourselves, our goals, and our thinking by mistakenly identifying the future as a single point. It is not. God has an ultimate future, but there are an infinite number of possible ways to arrive there. Much of these depend on us. What are our goals? What do we really want? Are we willing to take action to advance these?

Interested in participating in the creation of the future? As Seth Godin says, "You are more powerful than you think." 


Friday, January 13, 2017

3 Questions to Find Your Sweet Spot (Your Professor for Life #2)

Tony Robbins says, "The quality of your questions is the quality of your life."

In this brief (5 minute) video, I offer three questions for your reflection: Who is your mission? Who is your community? What kind of person do I need to become?

The intersection of the answers to these three questions is your "sweet spot" for maximum achievement and fulfillment in life. These questions correspond to three core values/needs in each of us: mission/purpose, community, and character/holiness.

Let me know what you think.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Review of Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World–Class Performers by Tim Ferris

I'm a Tim Ferris fan. I read his first book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. I also subscribe and listen to his podcast. He is a specialist in lifestyle design and refers to himself as a human guinea pig. I appreciate the work of Tim Ferris. He is a student of maximizing our potential through physical fitness, wise living, and efficient and effective work and learning strategies. Ferriss provides tools to help us live as the people whom God created us to be. Over the last few years, I've taken on many new challenges and responsibilities. To step up to these, I've had to stretch and grow. Ferriss has been a valuable virtual mentor. Much of life is tactics. We need to develop a positive mindset. We need to learn to leverage the connection between physical/mental health and effectiveness. We also need to learn to manage time. If you need help in these areas, Ferriss is an excellent resource. WARNING to my Christ Following Friends: Ferriss is not a Christian. He uses "salty" language and approaches life from a secular prospective. However, if you read between the lines, you will find discussions of habits that one may call "spiritual disciplines." For example, Ferriss promotes fasting, taking sabbaths (he doesn't use this language), taking care of the body, journaling, and quiet time for reflection in the morning.

His latest book Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers is a 600+ page summary of actionable information and takeaways from his podcast interviews. Ferris divides his book into three sections: Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise. This is a nod to Benjamin Franklin's old maxim. Ferriss synthesizes the wisdom of women and men at the top of their game. We get to learn from Brene Brown, Peter Diamandis, Seth Godin, Tony Robbins, Malcolm Gladwell, Whitney Cummings, Jamie Foxx, Arnold Schwarzenegger, General Stan McChrystal, and Peter Thiel to name just a few. His guests include entrepreneurs, comedians, authors, researchers, warriors, actors, and influencers. In Tools of Titans, he profiles 112 people.

In essence, this book represents a Cliff Notes summary of Ferriss' learnings from others. It can be read in any order. Each chapter profiles one of his past guests. Each begins with a pithy quotation from the guest. Then Ferriss summarizes the best ideas and practices from each high achiever. The advice is specific and includes precise details of produces, regimens, and resources discussed. A key part of each interview is getting to hear how various high achievers plan/order their days. Ferriss includes his own adaptations and experiments of the material. Ferriss personally tests the information before passing it on to the world.

Ferriss does an excellent job of cross-referencing between interviews that touch on similar themes and topics. Moreover, he includes helpful appendices. My favorite is a bibliography drawn from the recommendations of his guests. Out of this list he compiles the top 17 most recommended books by his pool of high achievers.

In addition, there are bonus essays placed strategically in the book. These include a fully updated version of Kevin Kelly's important essay on marketing "1,000 True Fans–Revisited"  (pp. 292–98). I personally found helpful his discussion of a "5 Minute Journal" (p. 146). I've worked a version of this into my own life and can testify to its helpfulness (here is a short video about my practice: "Five Minute Morning Journaling for Creating Your Best Day").

Becoming a Titan does not make one immune from pain and challenges. This is central theme of the book. Ferriss shares some of his deepest pain in an essay on suicide. We learn that Ferriss had planned his own death and was close to executing his plan before a fortunate chain of events intervened to save his life (pp. 616–627). He offers good counsel and hope for those who have suicidal thoughts. Ferriss' words are important because they hint at a core truth about life–even the most successful have personal demons and struggles. This is true for all of us. Ferriss tells his story and then provides help and hope for those who may feel as though the world would be better off without them.

  This is a fantastic collection of information for living well. There is insight into almost every aspect of life. The only area lacking is the role (if any) of traditional spirituality in becoming a Titan. This may simply be a matter of the selection of guests. As I noted above, there are secular spiritual practices included throughout the work. Moreover, one of the key takeaways is that 80% of the "Titans" practice some form of meditation. In sum, I recommend it heartily to all of my readers who desire up to date and actionable information to maximize the days that God has given us to live.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Video Blog: A Five Minute Journaling Practice for Creating your Best Day

I learned about the Five Minute Journal initially from the work of Tim Ferris. As I've gotten older, I recognize the necessity of getting each day off to a positive start. In this brief video, I describe my five minute practice. It involves: (1) Writing down 5 things for which I am grateful, (2) Reflecting on my internal feelings of worry or anxiety and writing down the causes as best as I can discern them, and (3) Writing down the key actions that I need to take today to make it a good one.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Wisdom for the New Year: Forgiveness (Dear Kittens #35)

(I write my daughters aka "kittens" a short letter each week under the pseudonym "TOC"="The Old Cat". We've always had cats so this rubric works for us. My daughters are both in high school. I try to distill the wisdom gained from my 47 years that I wish I'd have learned when I was a teen.)

Dear Kittens,

I’ve held too many grudges over the years. Grudges do nothing but keep us tied to painful memories of the past. There is an alternative to holding on to past pain. The alternative is learning to forgive.

Forgiveness is key for experiencing the life that God desires for us. Forgiveness is at the center of the prayer that Jesus taught his earliest followers. Jesus invites us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Jesus’ words assume our willingness to forgive others. Jesus emphasizes the necessity of forgiveness in the verses that follow his prayer. In Matt 6:14–15, Jesus adds, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Jesus’ intention was not to scare us into forgiving others. Rather Jesus highlights the important role of forgiveness for enjoying an abundant life. The irony of refusing to forgive is that we actually hurt ourselves. Lewis Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

Forgiveness does not mean that we minimize the pain we have suffered. It is not a white-washing of the past. It does not mean that we continue to allow ourselves to be mistreated by others. It does not always mean a full reconciliation with the person(s) who hurt us. Instead forgiveness is a refusal to allow another’s action to bind us to the past. By forgiving, we release junk that weighs us down. Kittens, if we want to move forward in life, we have to unclog our inner being. Grudges, old wounds, and memories of past pain serve only to weigh down our hearts. When we hold on to past pain, we turn our inner space into a warehouse of dusty and unused junk. When we forgive, we clear out our storehouses and create space for new good things.

As we move into a new year, I encourage you to spend a few minutes reflecting on your own memories of pain. Who has hurt you? Make a list of persons that you may need to forgive. Consciously remember how they hurt you. Don’t make excuses for their actions. Instead, think about how you’ve had to grow to overcome these events. Then begin to forgive each of these people one by one. Start with the easiest ones to forgive. This may not be an easy process. It may require the shedding of a few tears. It may have to occur without the other person ever apologizing. Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a decision. Make the decision to forgive and over time God will take care of your feelings.

Maya Angelou wrote, “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.” She is giving good advice, kittens. Take it. I am.

You may find it easiest to begin by forgiving yourself for not being perfect. Remember you are enough Kittens. Always. Since you are enough, you can forgive others for the hurts you’ve suffered. This will open up the future for you in ways that will astonish you.

With much love,

If you would like to be added to the mailing list to receive new "Dear Kittens" notes as soon as I write them, email me at brian.russell9113 at