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)