Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Drives Imaging The Shack

Years ago,I was deeply moved by the book, The Shack. God used it powerfully in my life. In the Wisdom scene, I ended up on the floor, in repentance with the Holy Spirit overpowering my being in waves of tears of grace for 45 minutes. I had had no idea I had been angry at God for how others had treated me, and I was lead into prayers of forgiveness and healing.

That said..I was leaning towards not seeing the movie. Just as there's a difference in the role of the imagination between doing construction documents by hand as compared to using a 3-D computer generated model that was being used from the beginning of the design process, there's a huge difference between book and movie here, I think. I'm OK provisionally entering the world of the book, knowing it won't be perfect. I'm not sure I'm OK with the same story in film.

I feel like if Tarkovsky made the same film, the faces of the Holy Spirit and Father would remain hidden, and the face of Christ would be scarce. But the story would still be told. Sort of like his film Andrei Rublev. Which would be more appropriate? But which is more North American Evangelical?

Now, after seeing the film, all of that pretty much held. I was quite moved by the film, just as I was by the book. The problem of the fixed image of God on the big screen was even somewhat resolved in the same way that it was resolved in the book - by putting different masks on the Father.

Photograph of a shack by William Christenberry

But, by the same token, I was thinking: why are we moved to construct a vision or image of God that is more complete, final, or closer to ultimate than what we think or feel we currently have? I think I needed something like that in my life at that time when God moved so powerfully through my reading of the book, and God mercifully used it to work powerfully in me and in my life. For that I am thankful. And, since then, I've come to know God more closely and in very different ways or through very different means. But - or maybe I should say so - I think there's something off about that urge or need for a final image before the Omega appears in the parousia.

I think, in seeking such an image, or seeking to know God in such an image, I needed something more tangible or closer than what I had known up to that point. I think that the way we are taught to relate to God as evangelicals establishes the conditions for such a need. Commonly repeated refrains that organize how we relate to God include sayings like:

"I'm just a spirit in a temporary body."
The Jesus life isn't about behavior modification. The Jesus life is about being transformed from the inside out."
God is "not just at work on the outside" but is also at work "spiritually" "on the inside."
"To really change you from the inside out."
"It's not just about going to heaven when you die but about transforming your life now, too."
"The gospel is apolitical. Politics aren't spiritual."
"God's power is at work in the supernatural, not in the natural."

With such structures as those in place that govern how we see ourselves in relation to God, how could we possibly not long for some more tangible, intimate, closer to home image of God?

Since then, I have come to see God and His story very differently - as more INCARNATE, and more as the head of a LOCAL, TANGIBLE, INTIMATE BODY of believers who ARE the extension of HIS BODY, who are the people or FAMILY of God. There is much more to the difference between how, since first reading The Shack, my language of God organized my self and my imagination in relation to Him differently from before, but the point here is that I have come to see myself as an actor in God's script for what He's up to in the concrete reality of everyday life.

Do note that the image of a shack that I provided here is not only different from the one used in the marketing campaign for both the film and the book but is closer to the actuality and physicality of a PARTICULAR shack. And, it doesn't show us the contours of the WHOLE shack. We don't yet have the complete image. And, yet, the photo has an intimate and peaceful beauty that calls us to contentment in seeing within the limits of the frame within which we are given to see. We are then opened to and able to see the simple beauty of time, construction, and sheer physicality, light and shadow, human geometry and natural growth.

So, towards an answer to my question I came away from watching the film "The Shack" with - "why are we moved to construct a vision or image of God that is more complete, final, or closer to ultimate than what we think or feel we currently have?" - I no longer feel that same need or urge! The linguistic structures that organized how I related to God are no longer mine. Out of how those structures cast God at a distance from the here and now in concrete reality, I no longer long for an image to which I can relate more closely. My life and that of His local community of which I'm a part (basically and loosely speaking) IS the constantly incomplete image of that which I was seeking and which He will complete when He appears again in all fullness and glory.

The Terrible Beauty of "Manchester By The Sea"

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
- 1 Corinthians 12: 12

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.

- Isaiah 53: 4-5

Christ of St. John of the Cross, by Salvador Dali

On Facebook, David Fitch posted the following as a commentary on “Manchester by the Sea,” for which Casey Afflek won best actor: “Go see 'Manchester by the Sea' and notice the scenes that take place around a table. They reveal what presence or lack thereof looks like.”

Now, background information. Fitch has recently written a book called Faithful Presence where he talks about the importance of the “fullness” of the presence and work of Christ that occurs as the people of God are shaped by seven practices. One of those is The Table, where we gather “around the table” in the presence of Christ who is at work to redeem, heal, and reconcile us to him and to each other. It’s a practice initiated by Christ from the very first Passover.

So, back to the film. It’s all about this presence. The whole direction of the film is ordered around presence. It's partially an extended meditation that requires and depicts presence to simple life scenes and events, though also organized around a story of a family broken by unspeakable tragedy. And, when I say “unspeakable,” I mean that quite actually as played out by the film. And, as Fitch notes, the film is full of moments that reveal how gathering around a table is meant to be about being present to each other, even if this is often revealed by its not happening.

Another dynamic of this revealing of presence or lack thereof, other than around the table, is where and when characters look into each other's eyes. It's rare. And, one of the only times it happens is the moment of truth, which Lee can't face. It also happens to be a moment when he's asked to be around a table!

Randi (ex wife, now re-married): Could we ever have lunch?
Lee (ex husband, dead man walking): You mean you and me? Us?
Randi: Yes. Cuz I uhh....*long, painful pause* I said a lot of terrible things to you.
Lee: *shaking head, holding back tears* No....
Randi: I know you never. *can't finish sentence; sniffle* Maybe you don't want to talk to me.
Lee: It's not that...
Randi: Wait, lemme finish...However. *tears* My heart was broken. Cuz it's always gonna be broken. And I know yours is broken, too.
Lee: *shaking head, in obvious pain*
Randi: But I don't have to carry it. I said things that...I should F*#@in' burn in hell for what I said to you
Lee: No. No.
Randi: It was just...
Lee: Randi, No, no, no-no-no....
Randi: I'm just sorry!
Lee: It...it...It's...I, I can't expl...I can't...
Randi: I love you!
Lee: *deep sigh, puts head down*
Randi: Maybe I shouldn't say that *in obvious pain, still in tears*
Lee: No, you can say that.
Randi: It's just...
Lee: I'm sorry; I've gotta go.
Randi: We couldn't have lunch? *trying to look longingly into Lee's eyes, which are turned to the ground as he starts to move away*
Lee: I'm really sorry; I don't think so. I thank you for saying everything, it's jus...
Randi: You can't just die...
Lee: I'm not. I'm not. I'm....*deep, sharp breath in* I'm. M'. An' I'm....
Randi: Honey...
Lee: I want you to be happy. An' I, I
Randi: Honey I see you walkin' around here, an' I just wanna tell you
Lee: I would wanna talk to you Randi. Please. *shaking head* I, I, I, I'm trying to....
Randi: You gotta...I don't know what...
Lee: No, this is not. You're not, you're not torturing me.
Randi: I just wanna tell you *pause, struggling to speak* that I was wrong
Lee: No. Nope. You understand, there's nothin'. There's nothin' there. *Lee FINALLY looks Randi directly in the eyes*
Randi: That's not true, that's not true! *seeks eye contact, Lee looks away*
Lee: You don't understand. I know you don't understand me *starts to cry* I, I, I've gotta go, I'm sorry. *walks away*
Randi: *Lee is already gone* I'm sorry *still crying, standing totally still, wiping away tears*

One person, whose opinion I tend to respect, was of the opinion that the film is “too contrived in much of its construction.” To help articulate what he meant, he provided THIS comedic critique from Seth Myers. I've always found Seth Myers to be, like Lee in “Manchester by the Sea,” unable to be present. Myers just covers over presence with (what I usually take to be bad and not very funny) comedy rather than with the distant stoicism combined with occasional violent outbursts of the protagonist in “Manchester.” I should say, I can kind of see the point there of Myers’ critique. I mean, every film is, to some degree or other, a construction that frames reality, and even in order to bring about (oftentimes particular) emotions in the audience - to some degree or another. But I think we should consider the source of the critique. He himself regularly makes the point being made by “Manchester By the Sea” about presence (not to mention about contrivance) every night on TV in our living rooms. Perhaps this just goes to show how pervasive the lack of presence is apparent in peoples; language and longings.

Another person noted that the film is “a very sad and strange eucatastrophe.” I think that takes a very optimistic outlook on the turning that occurs in the film’s climax and resolution.

Sad and strange, like the cross? Yes. Eucatastrophe? But compare the two fishing scenes. Beginning: smiling, having fun, enjoying themselves, laughing, catching fish. End: none of that, including no catching of fish.

Lee still never faced what he did. He still wasn't able to be present to himself and others. In his words, he wasn't "able to beat it." He was never able to come to terms with the tragedy, with the brokenness of himself and his people. Which, of course, is true. No one can.

Another person, I think to the point of the film’s supposed taking of a happier turn, said this:

“A pivotal scene for me was when Lee and Patrick were walking together near the end of the movie and Lee says that he is renting a two bedroom apt in a nearby town so that Patrick could visit. It was a short moment and small thing but it was Lee intentionally making space in his life for Patrick after believing he could never make space in his life for another person. The fishing scene then, for me, represented an effort to be present again by a simple act of the will with no promise of fruitfulness or a return to what was, just a willingness to enter relationship again.”

Yes. I felt the same way, to some degree. But if Lee saw Isaiah 53 in his life story – if he saw Jesus present in his midst bearing his griefs and sorrows and at work in the ministry of reconciliation and healing - he would have been able to stay in the house in Manchester with Patrick. And I suspect that last fishing scene would have been different, more like the beginning one. I took that walking scene to foreshadow when Lee later laid out to Patrick what he had planned - while sitting with Patrick around a table (to tell him the rest of the arrangements around his leaving), BTW! That was when he told Patrick "I can't beat it." So, I saw his making those plans, after the conversation with Randi and the fight, as his accepting that he "couldn't beat it" - whereas before that he was struggling and hoping to do so. In the midst of the struggle, he wasn’t able to relate to Patrick in any meaningful way whatsoever. He was struggling to make sense of who Patrick even was to him, because he had no sense of his very self.

It wasn’t until Lee’s final decision that he was given some sense of closure, but it still wasn't victory. More like acceptance of defeat (per what’s below), I think, which allowed him to not be wound so tight in the struggle, as he was before.

At this point, the previous commenter says this in response:

“Hmm...I may have to give it another viewing. I understood the struggle throughout the movie as how to reject the invitation to relationship without entering into any kind of relationship. That is how thoroughly he had accepted that he had been beaten. He didn't even want to be obligated to explain himself. He didn't want to be forgiven or shown grace or kindness. The ending was simple desire that maybe it could be different.”

I think it would be more accurate or ring more with truth to say that, up to the time of Lee’s brother's death, he was completely unable to confront the reality of the tragedy that tore him to shreds so thoroughly that the horizon by which he might orient himself became shadows and fog. To Randi, he couldn't even say, "It's not your fault but mine!" All he could manage to articulate was, "No...there's nothing there." I think he was so alienated from himself and reality after the failed suicide attempt and Randi's leaving him that he wouldn't even have been able to even begin to articulate language of victory or defeat. That's precisely why the news from the lawyer of how his brother had arranged everything was so disorienting and shocking!

He was forced to try to attain the victory that he knew he didn’t have the power to grasp so hadn’t begun to gaze towards.

At that very point in time, I think Patrick became a living sign of his struggle. That's why, when he heard from the lawyer how his brother had said everything up, he simply said, "I can't," and then simply stared away out the window for an uncomfortable period of time. As Fitch said, the film reveals both presence and the lack thereof.

After Lee’s final decision to leave Manchester, he could now, with some sense of resolution, hug Patrick – the walking sign of his sorrow. The struggle had ended. He had found himself. He had faced his greatest fears. Who he found was the realization that said fears could not be overcome. So, though he could hug Patrick, he still couldn't bear to stay in Manchester, in his hometown where the tragedy that broke his soul made him an eternal alien. Some level of resolution allowed for an equally proportional level of relationship with the sign of his struggle.

And more to the point of David Fitch’s posts and book - that's why the film is about presence. Lee was unable to be present to…anything or anyone, including his very self and home town. Scripture points to the present one, the one who is the reason presence is, like, a thing. Christ provides for us a language without which we have no PLACE, no home, no words...without which we are aliens and subject to death.

The ancient Jews, btw, associated death not just primarily with physical end of life but, rather, with alienation. In “Manchester by the Sea,” Lee is a dead man walking. The film presents us with the Cross. A beautifully painful picture of piercing truth that is difficult to face in the midst of extended life scenes of excruciatingly ordinary lack of the presence that means life. Christ makes Lee’s cry his own on the cross when he shouts: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!”

I think Paul’s articulation of our “groaning” is Lee’s struggle, over which he is, in the end, unable to find victory. But, as per Paul’s whole point in Romans 8, I don’t think Lee even realized it was a struggle until he was forced by his brother’s death and the ensuing duty to fulfill the arrangements made by said brother, to face said struggle. His brother’s death became a mirror into which Lee was never able to fully gaze.

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
- Romans 8: 20-23

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

- 1 Corinthians 12: 12

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Wall Street Charging Bull As Ideology Revealed

He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it. – Exodus 32: 20

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities…

- Isaiah 53: 4-5


Evidence of one of the earliest known human civilizations is from the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, thought to be active around 2400 BC. A Frescoe can be found there depicting youths flipping over charging bulls as part of a communal, sacred processional ritual overseen by the governing priestess and spectated by the people. The element of the youths flipping over the charging bull was, on the one hand, part of a boy’s coming of age to manhood, and, on the other, part of a man’s participation in man’s taming of the great forces of nature represented in the nostrils’ breath of an angry bull. The element of the fertile, powerful, fearsome, strong, virile, and potentially deadly bull represents the people’s worship of mother earth. In a sense, the bull IS an image of the earth and all she provides for the people. The bull arises from and stands upon the earth. Also, though, as the earth is turned and cultivated to expose her flesh, as she opens herself to receive the rains, in the sacred ritual, the bull becomes a blood sacrifice and provides all manner of blessings for the community.

All of this, however, is long before the dawn of the age of ideology.


May I remind my dearest reader that the youths of Knossos flipped over ACTUAL bulls. I don’t say this to disparage the manhood of whoever that is riding the Wall Street Charging Bull. The point is, how many ACTUAL bulls has anyone ever seen in the city of NY? And, yet, a statue of a giant, exaggerated, raging bull is one of the most famous icons of the city.

The statue is now a mainstay in the Financial District of Manhattan and was installed following the 1987 stock market crash. The bull, as an echo back to Knossos, has been said to symbolize the “strength and power of the American people.” The same person said: “Charging Bull, then, shows an aggressive or even belligerent force on the move, but unpredictably....[I]t's not far-fetched to say the theme is the energy, strength, and unpredictability of the stock market." So, the bull appears to be a good representation of the stock exchange. People react to it both in fear and by vicariously participating in its energy and power, which comes out looking like public economic optimism.

Now, for my point here about ideology, the key word there is PUBLIC. Everyone isn’t so inspired by the bull as to go work on the floor of the exchange and go on competitive motorcycle riding excursions with their business associates to build bull-riding camaraderie. We are all, however, still shaped by the image of the bull. We all share in the optimism of the bull and the pessimism of the bear. The breath blown out of the nostrils of the angry bull statue shapes the hopes and fears of us all. We all take our turn riding the bull - or posing in front of it. There are even photos of women kind of hugging it lovingly. To some degree or another, we are all “The Wolf on Wall Street.”

So, ideology centers around nothing. There is no real bull in NYC. But, part of what defines ideology’s story is also that we all participate in this nothing. The very fact that the image of a bull that no one in NYC has ever seen was installed in response to a stock market crash shows how the hopes and drives of ideology are both empty and futile.


The headline of the story where I got this image read: “The Bull Tied to Occupy Wall Street.” That headline is more telling than it knew, I think. But, perhaps the headline got things a bit backwards.

Just as we all participate in nothing, we, when governed by ideology, also become nothing in reacting in and to nothing. I’m sure my dearest reader is aware of the Occupy Wall Street movement. What makes it a lesson in ideology and how it works is that the movement had no identity or definition of its own. It wasn’t defined by its own character or by something present within it. It was defined by what it stood against.

So, ideologically, as we ride the bull, we are actually defined by what we stand against. In being defined by a bull statue and the power it represents, we are actually defined by the absence of the real bulls that were present at Knossos. We are actually driven by the absence.

On the other side of that coin, Occupy Wall Street is defined by standing in opposition to and against the raging bull that doesn’t exist. Their hopes and fears are shaped by the same non-bull as those who ride it. Their very identity becomes tied to the bull. Just as the distance between NYC and any actual bull of Knossos becomes an identifying feature of that which is being protested, the barricade, the distance between bull and spectator, becomes the central identifying feature of said angry, raging protestor. The headline should have read: “Occupy Wall Street Tied to The Bull.”


The headline of the story where I got this image read: “One Women’s Day Eve, Statue of Girl Stares Down Wall Street Bull.” As a lesson in ideology, the same dynamics are at play here as those seen in how Occupy Wall Street was shaped. Women want their fair share in the corporate office. So, an innocent child’s version of themselves standing against what they see as a representation of men pursuing and in power is the womens’ image of working together more with men?

We could take the same lesson away from the shape taken by Occupy Wall Street, which was also, by definition, governed by ideology.

Occupy Wall Street was shaped and defined by what it stood against. It was a protest movement. It wasn’t about working with Wall Street to shape themselves, Wall Street, and the larger world. Similarly, the girl standing against the bull isn’t working with it, making deals with it, or, heaven forbid, lovingly feeding it. It obviously gets hungry.


The story I got this image from is about a guy who was moved in worship with fellow Christians who work with Sojourners, who are known as explicitly liberal Christians. In other words, they are governed by ideology. The same dynamics are again at play. These worshippers take the shape of protestors.

Here’s the thing. Moses didn’t protest the golden calf. All of our hopes and fears are shaped by the raging bull. Moses made the people drink it.

In Exodus 32, the people faced and actually took into their bodies what they did. Then, by the living Word of God who had carried them out of Egypt to bring life and freedom, said life was put to the test in and by the people. Do we really stand with that life or against it?

Moses then pleads to God to forgive his people for their great sin of worshipping the virile, raging bull. In his plea, he puts his own life on the line. In God’s response, he acknowledges Moses’ plea and says this:

now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.

In other words, God acknowledges that He will still be present and at work among them, though the people have explicitly sinned grievously against Him. God is also not a protestor. God doesn’t stand against. God is present and at work within and with.

Particularly interesting are the words, “in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.” What did that end up looking like? The ultimate picture of how that was fulfilled is spoken of by Isaiah:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities…

- Isaiah 53: 4-5

God’s “visiting of their sin upon them” was his becoming one of them and having the sin and suffering inflicted upon himself. And, this was only possible because the image presented is not that of a barricade and distance between God and His people. It’s not the image of an angry girl who has been sinned against standing defiantly against the sinner. The difference between the Lamb and the Bull is also the difference between the distance and the Incarnation. The image of the people of Israel drinking their calf-sin becomes the image of our drinking the blood of the Lamb.

So, yes, the Wall Street Bull reveals our ideology, our false worship. But it also manages to reveal how the same ideology and false worship is bound up in how we react to the Bull. God doesn’t react the same way. God kisses Judas. God heals Malchus’ ear and tells Peter to put his sword away. God says, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do!” God has breakfast on the beach with his betrayers.

It’s a different posture governed by a different image of reality, a different image of my identity. Do we identity with the optimism and fear of the bull, with the Wolf of Wall Street, on a path stampeding rage? Or, do we identify with the slaughtered Lamb who is patiently present and at work among his people?

God makes peace with Wall Street rather than protesting against it. In the meantime, he redeems it and blesses it. God sits at the Table with Wall Street and works with it in love rather than standing defiantly against it. In the meantime, God “makes them male and female” and says “it is very good.” The difference between God and ideology is the difference between the anger in slaughtering the Lamb and the love of the Lamb slaughtered. The difference between the images of the Lamb and the Bull is in Isaiah 11:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

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