I have heard some really vitriolic criticisms of the movie, The Shack.
I am reminded of the parable of the emperor’s new clothes. A foolish emperor commissions new clothes to be made. They were invisible, a deception on the part of the tailors, but they tell the emperor that anyone who thinks they are invisible are foolish. So the emperor pretends he can see the clothes and scorns anyone that does not. On parade, an innocent child points out that he is naked, and the jig is up. The emperor realizes he is in fact naked.
Paul Young is that child, I think. The emperor is evangelicalism; his clothes the pretension to orthodoxy. Our children know our flaws better than anyone, and Paul Young, as a child of evangelical thinking, a pastor’s/missionary kid, is speaking from the inside. He is not an outsider.
Some of Paul Young’s testimony resonated with me. I was raised with a very conservative theological paradigm. I went to seminary, where we liked to joke, “Of course, we are fundamentalists, we just aren’t as angry as those other people.” But the truth was we were angry too. Anyone that held beliefs different from us, if they were significant, were wrong and worse than that, dangerous.
I have learned there is a big difference between “right belief” and “believing in the right way.”
Some of the biggest critics of The Shack have been Reformed Christians. Now, these Christians are our brothers and sisters. They often don’t recognize that, but that is on them not us. I’d prefer to take the high road. We have the same Gospel, just different particulars, but I would point out there are some particulars that I think are deeply problematic.
I do not speak as an outsider on this. In college, I loved listening to John Piper. I read Calvin’s Institutes and I thought Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology was the greatest contemporary work to put theological pen to paper.
Now, I think the only reason I thought that was because I had not read much else. Since then, I have read at least one systematic theology every year. For me I moved beyond some of my more ultra-conservative convictions because they fundamentally could not stand up to either the Bible, historical Christian thinking, or the phenomena of life itself. I’ll explain…
For Calvinism, since God elects some to salvation and others not, and there are those Christians that claim to be “Christians” (like those Catholics and liberals and people that watch HBO) but are not (grace was not enough for them), I had to be hyper-vigilant theologically. I found myself always angry and annoyed at someone’s theology, even disgusted. I did not want them to contaminate me. If there were people that were not Christians but thought they were, the only way I knew I was saved myself was to always keep articulating every question I had theologically, ever more precisely, and to stay away from those that differed (you can read more about my journey in learning to accept other Christians here). Questions over infra-lapsarianism or super-lapsarianism became faith crises as to whether or not I actually believed God was sovereign and therefore whether or not I was saved. Discussions like this all became slippery-slope arguments. Arminians denied God’s sovereignty; open theists God’s impassibility; egalitarians, God’s authority. I was very good a pointing out the proverbial speck in another, ignoring the proverbial log in my own.
I could not reckon with the fact that there were sincere, biblically-minded Christ-followers that did not think the same things as me. See, when I looked at a biblical passage, and had an interpretation I thought was by the Holy Spirit, I could not doubt that. Everything hangs on certainty. I have often said that a fundamentalist cannot ask whether or not they are truly wrong on a core issue of doctrine, because to do is to doubt God and to invite doubt about one’s salvation assurance. Self-fallibility is too risky, even if it is true.
In this scheme, I did not believe in justification by works, but that just meant I was saved by doctrinal works. I was certain of my salvation because of the correct ideas in my head.
This proves potentially fatal if you ever encounter an important yet ambiguous text, which was often in seminary, or change your mind, or just don’t know what to think. The Bible became a scandal to my own theology, whether it was the unsustainable idea of its inerrancy, the refusal to admit the existence of woman leaders, or passages that did not fit an impassible God. As I began to see some of my theological convictions being contradictory, I felt like I was losing my salvation.
In one summer, while that was happening, my “shack” occurred. My father died of cancer; my mother was also suffering from cancer. Several friends of mine went through severe moral and faith crises, which for their sake I will not go into (you can read more about the whole experience here). I was left penniless, working at a Tim Horton’s on night shift, wondering if all this Christianity stuff was even true.
I ended up having a remarkable shift where God encountered me in the abyss of my confusion. I realized that if God is love and God is in Christ, then my ideas of faith can fail, but God will still have me. It was a profoundly mystical experience.
That lead me on a journey to rethink my faith, since I suspected there was more to it than just one tradition that no longer nourished me. This is a hard thing to say to some of my Calvinist friends, who I do consider my brothers and sisters, but I find that this theology is so intellectually and biblically problematic that it induced a faith crises for me, yet still nourishes them.
Nevertheless, that summer I began to I read deeply. I went to the University of Toronto soon after where I got to study under so many different voices. In high school I was a fundamentalist, in college I moved to being a conservative evangelical, in seminary I felt like I was becoming increasingly liberal, in post-grad studies I read deeply in postmodernism and mysticism, by doctoral studies I found myself gravitating to the school sometimes call “post-liberalism,” which lead me to do my dissertation on James McClendon, a Baptist narrative theologian.
Along the way, I started reading church fathers, mothers, and doctors. These are the most esteemed thinkers and saints the church has looked to. I gravitated to the mystics: Dionysius, Nyssa, the Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart, but also Irenaeus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Anselm, and Augustine, etc.
One thing that I started noticing was that what I thought was “unorthodox” was widely held by those who were actively bound by creeds. When I told them about my upbringing, they looked at me recoiling, noting how unorthodox it was.
I found that, ironically, the narrow view of what I considered orthodox was actually not viewed that way by those who had read deeply in the tradition of historic Christianity and had strong conservative commitments to historic orthodoxy. What is “orthodox” here is the bounds of acceptable biblical reflection that the church over 2000 years has developed, using church fathers and doctors, councils and creeds. The sad thing was that the over-protective, arrogant, isolated, and suspicious mode of my past beliefs ironically made me closed to something the greater sweep of Christianity held to be appropriate.
Bonhoeffer once said that those that cannot listen to a brother or sister will soon find themselves unable to hear the word of God also. I think this statement is applicable.
Here lies the irony of those that criticize the “heresy” of The Shack. The notion that Young has moved beyond conservative evangelicalism is not abandoning orthodoxy; it is coming back to it!
I’ll explore this further in my next post.
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. – 1 Cor. 10:16-17
What is happening in the bread and wine when it is called the “body” and “blood”?
Some call communion a “sacrament” (a means of grace) and others call it a “ordinance” (a command). I don’t think there is a zero sum game here. God’s presence and grace should be expected when we obediently gather for worship. The grace is intimacy with Christ, which should be expected when we draw close to him in remembrance.
Roman Catholics have taken a rather literalistic view that states that the bread and the wine becomes the body and blood of Jesus. This is called, “transubstantiation” and it has an interesting development. Christianity has always held that Christ is real in communion, and thus, the language of “this is my body/blood” has always been used unabashedly. However, it was only later that Roman Catholics used Aristotelian philosophy to talk about the substance of the bread and wine changing while remaining bread and wine in its accidents: “trans-substance.” This causes an obsession about the material bread and wine that is unhelpful.
This breeds all sorts of weird concerns. What if we spill the wine? Are we spilling Jesus? What if there is bread left over? Are we wasting Jesus?
Protestants, sadly, go to another extreme. The Reformers resisted transubstantiation and talked about Christ being spiritually present in the bread and wine, called “consubstantiation.” This commits a kind of dualism where Christ is spiritually but not physically present, as if the physical is not where he is found.
Further reformers got increasingly more extreme in their anti-Catholic prejudice. They started saying communion is strictly a memorial to the point of saying Christ is not in communion at all. It is just a remembrance. That is too far. How could we not expect Christ to be with us in the fullest real sense when we worship him?
Now, let me go on record and say that I don’t like any of these schemes of thought. I think obsessing about what is going on in the bread and the wine is foreign to Scripture’s concern. We need to just remember Christ, thank him for what he has done for us, enjoy his presence, and commit to living it out. Yet, 1 Cor. 11:16 uses the term “participation in the body of Christ.” Christ is very real in communion, but saying “this is my body” is merely a way of affirming Christ is with us in this entire act.
Why do I say this? While, think about it this way: “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them,” says Matt. 18:20. If we gather to worship Christ in his name, we are already the body of Christ. That is why the metaphor cannot be stretched too far.
The entire act has to be taking into account for an understanding of his presence that is not an abuse. Christ shows up always in his surprising grace, but that can never allow us to eat refusing to thank him, remember him, and commit to living out the new covenant. Any theology of communion that allows us to be at one with the cross without having to take up our own crosses (Matt. 16:24) is a perversion.
Also, the language here is important, “one loaf, we, who are many, are one body” (1 Cor. 10:17). Eating is an act of unity. To eat and drink in the time of the fractured church, the time like ours in which we are profoundly aware that there are authentic believers found in churches not of our own, is to eat and drink, hopefully in a way that does not further add to division. So, this leads me to the next question…
How is it practiced?
Well, we should distinguish this question from “How was it practiced?” I say that because the original way the church practiced communion was part of the meal of the “love feast.” Acts 2:42 states that, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Meanwhile, 2 Peter 2:13 and Jude 12 allude to the agape meals. 1 Cor. 11 has the abuse of the Lord’s Supper. The reason it is abused is because it is a love feast. The believers in the church are gobbling up all the food and even getting drunk off the wine, all while the poor, who have not arrived yet, go hungry. Communion was originally practiced as a meal, but the church today has ritualized it
It should be insisted, however, that because communion was a meal, that basic act of eating together, fellowshipping as a church, should be considered spiritual. God means us in the midst of life, and that means acts like eating, especially in the community of the church, should be a place where we see God.
Today there are all sorts of modern ways to practice communion. Some use one load and one cup, still with wine rather than juice, to maintain symbolism; others use pieces of break and individual cups. Some give just the bread in lieu of both; others insist on dipping the bread into the wine, rather than having a cup. Some use a priest figure that dispenses the sacrament; others do so without an official person presiding. The point is not the precise “how.” Whatever way we practice it, it must be loving and conducive to remembering the Gospel.
Baptists tend to avoid hierarchical displays. He hold to the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5). So, while the pastor typically presides, the emphasis is on the equality of all believers to encounter God together.
Who can take it?
Our church is constituted that “All who confess Christ is Lord may eat.” We do this for a few reasons. First, we are careful to say that communion is the Lord’s Supper not the church’s supper, much less the baptist supper. The Eucharist is the symbol of unity in the church, and if we were to exclude other followers from Christ from it, we would be celebrating it in the sin of division.
Second, because it is “open communion” this means the unbaptized individuals may eat. This is important as to keep in the unity intended in the first reason. If Baptists are the only ones that baptize adults by immersion, and we see this as the only true baptism, it would be getting exclusion in the back door. It would be rather hypocritical to say, “Come, all Christian are invited to the table!” but then say in the fine print, “By the way, we believe that only we are the true Christians!”
This creates some interesting and messy situations where you don’t know who is coming up and where they are coming from. We leave that up to God and that person, but we also hope that as the worship with us we will get to know all our family members better in the church. It should be stressed that communion can only best be appreciated by a disciple, who has committed to walking with Christ, and thus, has been baptized, but again, the age of a fractured church simply does not allow us to vet individuals as the partake. The table is not a place for vetting who should properly be there, it is a place of welcoming the misfits that don’t have a proper place.
There are some who, like John Wesley, that would even allow communion to be the given as an evangelistic opportunity: come and eat and accept Christ. So, for him, it is not just Christ-followers, but those that are accepting Christ in that moment. I think this possibility is valid. It might not have been the normative practice of the church through the years, but we are not bound to tradition in that way when we see opportunities in the Spirit.
After all, the prefigures of communion in Jesus’ teaching are him eating with tax collectors and sinners as well as feeding the crowd of 5000. These prefigure communion because communion represents God’s love to sinners and our vocation to feed the hungry. So, with that in mind, we can never be too regimented in who is in and who is not.
So, all who confess Christ may eat, and perhaps, some will need to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” (Ps. 34:8) accepting Christ as they are invited to eat.
Can you eat of it when you are in sin?
Many Christians practice communion stating that you cannot “eat in an unworthy manner” (1 Cor. 11:27). They take this to mean that no one with an active sin in their lives may eat of communion.
The problem with this theology is legion. First, everyone has sin in his or her lives. We are all imperfect this side of eternity. All believers are waiting the day when God fully restores us. If you remove all the sinners from church, you would not have a church. Learning to have grace on each other as sinners is apart of the grace of the fellowship of the church.
Second, this warning was a communal warning. The passage leading up to this was Paul noting that the Corinthians were eating and getting drunk before the poor could arrive and be fed. This was despicable because communion was meant to be a sign of God’s love to the poor, not an act of exclusion. Paul reminds them that they should soberly examine themselves, then eat. He is referring, however, to the way the church eats together, not the individual sins of the people.
A contemporary example would be the instances where the Catholic Church barred a church from communion. One church during the civil rights debates, in their racist ignorance, barred black people from taking communion. The Catholic church, rightly I think according to their polity, removed their power to serve communion because of the unloving manner their racism caused. Baptists don’t have a hierarchical authority that revokes the power of communion, but I think the sentiment is correct.
Third, all that considered, we should use communion to examine ourselves personally. We cannot do otherwise when coming into the presence of God and remembering what he has done for us. However, notice what is being done there. When I eat at communion, I come to the table, not because I am perfect, but because I seek Christ’s perfection for my life. I do not refuse to eat until I am healed as a sinner, I am invited by Christ as a sinner to come to his table and be healed. The notion that we need to fix ourselves in order to be in God’s holy presence is extremely contrary to the way of the Cross, where God in Christ, in all his holiness, became sin to offer us new righteousness and life (2 Cor. 5:21).
If you ever feel like you are unworthy of eating the bread and the wine, that is probably a good indication that God welcomes you all the more to his table.