Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

3/31 2017

The Shack: A Movie Review

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A while back, my covenant group at church read William P. Young’s novel, The Shack. Honestly, I do not believe I even finished it—although I remember being gratified that this book, then making the rounds in conservative Evangelical circles, depicted God as an African American woman! Still, my wife, Wendy, reminds me that I was dismissive of The Shack, scornful of what I saw as its naïveté and theological shortcomings.

Then, I went to see the film version with my father and my sister—and I wept. It wasn’t that the movie was that different from the print version—both Dad and my sister agreed that it was very faithful to the book. The film is visually beautiful, and, I thought, very well acted: especially by the lead Sam Worthington, and by the luminous Octavia Spencer as the First Person of the Trinity. I will freely allow, too, that I was emotionally open and vulnerable, seeing this film with my father and sister on my late mother’s birthday, just a week before the first anniversary of her death. But mainly, I think, I was moved by the film’s potent portrayal of the boundless love of God, and the power of forgiveness.

The Shack Plot

In the movie as in the book, Mack Phillips has suffered a terrible tragedy. The loss of a child has plunged him, and his family, into darkness and despair. Led by a mysterious note to the eponymous shack, the place where his child had died, Mack is met by two women—a motherly African American cook and an Asian gardener—and a young man, a Middle Eastern carpenter. The three strangers reveal themselves as the triune Godhead, who teaches Mack about forgiveness, the major theme of this film: both the joy of being forgiven, and the freedom from anger and bitterness that comes when we forgive others.

The Shack Movie Reviews

The film, like the book, is already being harshly critiqued. Blogger Grayson Gilbert writes, “The Shack panders to the sensationalism brought on by emotional appeal and subjective relativism. . . . If you want to hear from God, open up the scriptures and read. Drink deeply of a brook that never runs dry; fill yourself with waters free from the bitter gall of heretical teaching.” Pastor Jack Wellman concludes, “Even though The Shack is fiction, I believe it is dangerous, particularly for new Christians, because they don’t have enough knowledge of the Bible and of God, and so they might confuse these fictional characters with the way God really is. . . . I don’t need another fictional book to tell me what God is like. We have the best source on earth for that and its call [sic.] the Bible. We don’t have to guess about the nature of God or His attributes, because we can know.” Yet on the other hand, scholar Allan R. Bevere writes, “I love reading theology. I enjoy parsing terminology and honing the sharp edges of doctrine into something finely tuned and precise. But I also enjoy reading the imaginative narratives that help me think theologically about life and faith in ways I had never considered. I am an unapologetic Nicene-Chalcedonian Trinitarian theologian; and I applaud Paul Young for his portrayal of the Trinity and his narrative display of some of our most significant beliefs and convictions in The Shack.”

The Shack and the Bible

I wonder how much of the fury directed at The Shack is really about mistaken notions of the Trinity or the Incarnation, and how much of it boils down to Wellman’s angry assertion: “the Father is not an African American woman and the Holy Spirit is not a mysterious Asian woman named Sarayu.” Reading this retort, I found myself thinking, “No, but neither is God an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), nor is the Holy Spirit a dove (Luke 3:22).” Scripture is filled with metaphors; indeed all of our language about God, without exception, is metaphorical. How could it possibly be otherwise, God being GOD, after all, and not an object in the world of space and time? I wonder how many of those who object to the fiction of The Shack also object to C. S. Lewis’ wonderful Narnia books, or for that matter, to the Left Behind novels of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LeHaye? But mostly, I wonder how winsome our faith can possibly be if it is so rigid, pedantic, pedestrian, and rule-bound? What room can there be in such confining doctrinal boxes for a vibrant relationship with the living Lord?

In a recent column on faith in the 21st century West, David Brooks argues for a “friendship with complexity” that engages the world, rather than an ideological purity that rejects it. Brooks concludes that the real enemy of faith is “a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.” To my astonishment and delight, I encountered that mystery of truth in The Shack. I am glad that I saw it. I believe that you will be, too.

The Rev. Dr. Steve Tuell serves as the James A. Kelso Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He regularly blogs at The Bible Guy and tweets at @Tuellbibleguy.

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2/21 2017

Visit to Mother Emanuel

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Just try to hide when you visit “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. They welcome you from the pulpit and ask you to stand. They hand you a microphone so you can give your name and your hometown. Then everyone sings Emanuel’s own welcome song, “Mother Emanuel Welcomes You.” As the song puts it, “We welcome you with our warm embrace.”

Their welcome is genuine, and so was the pain in my heart when I visited Emanuel. I couldn’t help but think of another white guy—Dylann Roof—who was also warmly welcomed to Bible study and prayer with church members on a Wednesday evening in June 2015. I knew before I entered that my feelings would be intense. And so I stood for several minutes and stared at the front of the church from across Calhoun Street, mustering up the nerve to go in.

From where I stood, Emanuel shone white in the morning sun, old, stately, smaller than I expected. No reason to hold back, I thought, and so I crossed the street and climbed the steps. The organist was playing “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” The choir entered and praise filled the sanctuary. But through their praise one can hear the overtones of sorrow and grief so fresh it can scarcely be spoken aloud.

They’ve Been Through A Lot

Phrases like “we’ve been through a lot” stood in for what cannot be described. I heard it when Pastor Eric Manning asked members to attend a funeral for a family affected by the June 2015 massacre and now mourning another death. “They’ve been through a lot.”

Then came a moment I will not forget. Pastor Manning invited the children to come to the front for the children’s sermon. He started by saying that it was Black History Month and that Mother Emanuel has a special place in that history. “Of all the great saints in our church’s history,” he said, “two people stand out the most for me.” These two that he named were the survivors of the shooting. One of the survivors was present, the other represented by a friend. They stood in front of the children, a scene that almost looked too normal.

And yet it is in the routine practices of Christian faith that this tight-knit community of believers came almost immediately to a place of grace and forgiveness so astonishing it silenced a nation.

Amazing Grace

We sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Whenever I sing it, I usually get through the first stanza, the part about the “harmonies of liberty.” And I usually manage the final stanza, “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears . . . ” It’s the second stanza that I find I simply cannot sing, except as a prayer of repentance: “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died.”

Singing it now at Emanuel, I found a line in the second stanza that jumped off the page at me, as if it were written just for the faithful worshipers who stood around me. “We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” Literally. Every week. Including the children. With those words, this great hymn will always be associated in my heart with the good people of Emanuel and what they walk through to worship.

After the sermon came the Altar Call. Pastor Manning invited those who needed to make a profession of faith to come for prayer. Then he issued a more general invitation for all who wanted to come for prayer and a blessing. About half the congregation went up, including me. In that moment, I felt an overwhelming need to pray with these people. Even now, they are in pain, and they need our prayers. But more than that, I know I need what they have—their amazing capacity to forgive, their “Amazing Grace” of which President Obama sang.

And so I went forward to join the line waiting for an open space at the altar. I knelt at the rail until I felt Pastor Manning’s strong hand rest on my shoulder. I had no words, no spoken prayer, only tears.

The Rev. Dr. Ron Cole-Turner is the H. Parker Sharp Professor of Theology and Ethics and teaches courses in the MDiv program including systematic theology, Christianity and evolution, and the Holy Spirit. He’s the author of numerous books including Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Advancement. He recently spoke in Charleston, S.C. and worshiped at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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2/13 2017

Reinhold Niebuhr’s Challenge to His Context and Ours

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Reinhold Niebuhr is considered one of the towering theologians and public intellectuals of the 20th century. His books are still widely read, he is frequently quoted, he has often served as an important point of reference for leaders of all sorts (including many recent U.S. presidents)—and most recently he has become the subject of a newly released film, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story.

Niebuhr’s Relevance for Today

Niebuhr remains relevant for a 21st century American and international context that is increasingly assertive in its diversities and aggressive in its divisions. Two dimensions of his leadership stand out in particular: his intellectual emphasis on moral approximation (rather than rigid dogmas) as both ends and means for public square participation and leadership; and his pastoral engagement on matters bearing upon severe economic inequalities (as experienced in his early 20th century Detroit pastorate).

More than one recent president has cited Niebuhr’s influence, particularly Niebuhr’s reinforcement of the idea that “politics is the art of compromise.” Most recently, Barack Obama’s presidency strongly embraced core tenets  of Niebuhr’s realism about the political importance of  policy approaches guided by approximate goals rather than absolutist objectives, and about the willingness to take required actions (even when inconsistent with deeper purposes and preferences) in pursuit of those goals.

Compromise in Politics

For Niebuhr, compromise was not something pursued simply for the sake of compromise or merely as a strategy for achieving or retaining positions of leadership. Compromise was a means for achieving a common good. Moreover, Niebuhr understood that in politics and public affairs you rarely get everything you want, and in order to set some of what you want and to lead on behalf of all of the people you may have to swallow some things you find unpleasant. Within the current American context of political polarization and zero-sum decision making, Niebuhr’s theological and political inclinations in the direction of broader, more consensual leadership are quite instructive.

Niebuhr was troubled by the ideological impasses of his day, but he was also concerned about the growing economic inequalities within his context and the systematic denials and obfuscations relating to causes and consequences of those inequalities.

Niebuhr as Pastor

Niebuhr served as pastor of a congregation in Detroit from 1915 to 1928, at a time when the auto industry’s influence was far-reaching. In Niebuhr’s public theological praxis during his Detroit pastorate as explicitly outlined in an unpublished essay on Detroit written about the same time, Niebuhr challenged social imbalances of power and divergences of perspective between “aristocratic” auto industry executives and Detroit’s laboring classes. He juxtaposed the political, economic, and moral self-certainties of auto industry movers and shakers with the day-to-day uncertainties and increasing misgivings of underpaid semi-skilled laborers.

Niebuhr objected to the indifference demonstrated toward the struggles of workers by persons in the power structure and by community constituencies actively or passively aligned with persons in power (including clergy) and made clear in his unpublished essay and in his public leadership within Detroit that an appropriate response to these community-threatening dichotomizations and imbalances was unionism. For Niebuhr, unionism was the best available strategy at the time and deserved broad support among community leaders entrusted with community interests. He applauded the handful of clergy leaders in Detroit who supported unionization, even in the face of the Detroit power structure’s systematic capacity for reprisal against pro-union community leaders, and he strongly criticized clergy “who talked endlessly about love and brotherhood but [whose] preachments had little relevance to the problems . . . of adjudicating interests and balancing power.”

Niebuhr addressed similar concerns in a published collection of reflections on his Detroit pastorate, entitled Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. In Leaves, Niebuhr assails the social inequalities, economic disparities, and racism evident within the Detroit context, he rejects prevailing rationalizations of Detroit’s growing inequalities as inevitable and acceptable costs of economic progress, and he challenges church conformity to these rationales and the failure of church leaders to draw connections between the spiritual and social aspects of their faith.

In these various Detroit reflections and involvements, Niebuhr’s intersecting theological and sociological positioning allowed him to bring into view essential contradictions between economically-defined panaceas of human fulfillment and the realities of social disparity and inequality characteristic of industrializing Detroit—while also disabusing the church sector of notions of neutrality on these issues. Given the enormous economic inequalities within our current national and global context, Niebuhr is instructive here as well.

Niebuhr Documentary: An American Conscience

A film reminding us of Niebuhr’s important contributions and extending his voice to a viewership perhaps as wide or wider than his readership is indeed a valuable contribution. Join Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Fri., Feb. 17, 2017, from 7:00-9:30 p.m. for a special screening of the new PBS documentary film An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. The movie details the life and influence of Niebuhr as a 20th-century American Protestant theologian, ethicist, and commentator on politics and public affairs. Following the film will be a panel discussion with community leaders reflecting on the relevance of Niebuhr’s work to current issues. Panelists include: Dana Gold, chief operating officer, Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Pittsburgh; Tony Norman, journalist, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Dave Swanson, pastor, Pittsburgh Mennonite Church; and John Welch, vice president for student services and community engagement and dean of students, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

The Rev. Dr. R. Drew Smith serves Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as professor urban ministry. He’s also involved in the work of the Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute which combines the theory and practice of collaborative community ministry into a program of urban theological education. Both a political scientist and a clergyman, he has initiated and directed a number of projects related to religion and public life which have collected research data on political involvements, community development activities, and outreach ministries of churches, especially African-American churches. 

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