The Incredibles 2

One of the greatest works of cinematic art of the early 21st century was The Incredibles. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but only slight. I never get round to ranking films but if I did it would be right up there in a top 5.

So, as with a lot of fans of that first film I guess, I went to see Incredibles 2 with some trepidation. It’s taken 14 years to make a sequel. Would it play it safe and essentially re-play the first film? Worst case scenario – would it ruin the perfection of that first movie with some crass plot and character development?

Well, all I can say is it is a worthy successor – and that’s a pretty big compliment.

We pick up where the first film left off. So our beloved family of Bob/Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson), Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet, Dash and baby Jack-Jack is as was we left them. Supers are illegal. Helen is flattered by a smooth-talking mega-rich salesman and persuaded to get back into Super mode to fight bad guys. Bob becomes a stay-at-home dad doing the supposedly easy stuff of guiding Violet through teen-age heartbreak, teaching Dash maths and minding Jack-Jack. What could be simpler?

Save to say that things get complicated for both Bob and Helen. The plot rushes along satisfactorily. Frozone (Samuel L Jackson) is along to help and a bunch of creatively imagined new Supers also join the cast.

One of the funniest elements of The Incredibles was the Pixar short of Jack-Jack’s babysitter discovering to her horror something of the baby’s multiple powers – you know, the usual things babies do like laser beam eyes, ‘monsterisation’, immolation, disappearance to the 4th dimension – stuff like that.

Jack-Jack and his out of control powers take centre stage in The Incredibles 2. Two encounters had me laughing out loud – his battle with a racoon and his meeting with the wonderful scene-stealing designer and inventor Edna E Mode (voiced brilliantly by director Brad Bird) who reappears from the first film (if all too briefly). It’s worth reading the wikipedia article on Edna and the sheer creative genius behind her character.

Edna E Mode

The wit, imagination and heart of The Incredibles all continue into the sequel. The animation is bold and stylish, as is the retro 1960s modernist look. Under the surface, there are pokes at capitalism’s ‘more is better’, the superficiality of modern marketing, gender roles in marriage, teenage angst and the human struggle of good against evil / darkness against light.

But most of all it is just great fun.

And that’s a significant achievement.

What do you hope for?: why Christianity is eschatology and why it matters

If one scene in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri raises questions of what it means to die well, another asks a profoundly important question.

It comes in one of the very rare tender moments when Mildred, planting tubs of flowers under the billboards looks up to see a deer standing quietly in front of her.

3 billboards deer

Normally guarded and combative, Mildred softens and shares her heart with the deer. She wonders aloud ..

Still no arrest, how come I wonder, because there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other? I hope not.

In one sentence we have:

  • the reality of evil (the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter)
  • the posited non-existence of God
  • the meaninglessness of existence if God is a fictional idea
  • a consequential absence of justice where evil goes unpunished

This little soliloquy faces head on a problem all of us face in one way or another – whether Christian or not. How to make sense of the reality of the world we live in?

A world about which, in these days of global communication, we know too much. The suffering of the planet fills our screens on a daily basis. This is a world where, as NT scholar Richard Hays puts it,

history continues its grinding litany of human atrocities, and we see no compelling evidence that God is answering the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: ‘May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10).

One response is to agree with Mildred’s question and face the implications head-on. So what if the universe is bleak, cold and empty? So what if there is no transcendent and good God? So what if notions of fairness and justice are fantasies? So what if nothing we do, for good or ill, has any enduring consequence beyond this life? Just get on with life as best you can. Find meaning where you can – whether in hedonism, materialism, relationships, power, experiences etc

Mildred’s question is a very 21st Century one. The 20th did a very good job of destroying centuries of Enlightenment optimism about human progress and the power of reason.  World wars, the Holocaust, the use of nuclear bombs on civilian populations, the Cold War and an exploding world population competing for scarce resources sort of does that to utopian progressivism.

Add to that developments in the 21st Century of a mounting ecological crisis, 9/11 and global terrorism, neo-liberal fueled economic crashes, and the development of artificial intelligence where robots may soon threaten millions of jobs – and you have the seeds of a post-Enlightenment, post-modern, post-progressivism that does not hope for the future to be better than the present.

As with Mildred’s first sentence – we are on our own and making a mess of things. And that is not a very comforting thought.

All this makes her second sentence all the more interesting.

‘I hope not’.

Now those three words are perhaps vague wish-fulfillment, but they express a longing for hope beyond the injustices and pain of this world.

What might a pastor have said to Mildred if sitting beside her, surrounded by the flowers planted in memory of her daughter? (and what follows is not a suggested counselling conversation!)

First, perhaps that she is exactly right. Dale Allison, a NT scholar, puts it this way,

… Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying … If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Second, here is exactly where Christianity says ‘Yes, there is hope’. And this hope speaks into the realities of suffering and death. It is not a vague hope that things will get better. It is grounded in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Richard Hays, says this

The church needs apocalyptic eschatology to speak with integrity about suffering and death. The New Testament’s vision of a final resurrection of the dead enables us to tell the truth about the present, including its tragedies and injustices, without sentimental sugar-coating, without cynicism or despair. It allows us to name suffering and death as real and evil, but not final.

Christian hope is not ‘going to heaven when I die’, but a realistic hope that faces death head-on. Hays again – this time about Paul in Thessalonians

The striking thing is that Paul does not seek to comfort the grieving bereaved Thessalonians by telling them that their loved ones are already in heaven with Jesus. He acknowledges that the dead are dead and buried. The apocalyptic hope is that in the resurrection they will be reunited with the living in the new world brought into being at Christ’s return. These are the words with which Christians are to “encourage one another” (1 Thess. 4:18). These same considerations apply on a larger scale to Christian theology’s reflection about the terrible tragedies that violent human cultures bring upon the world. In the face of mass murders, non-apocalyptic theology is singularly trivial and helpless.

In other words, Christianity is eschatology. It is nothing without the future hope of resurrection, of God’s justice being done and that one day death, pain and grief will be swallowed up in a glorious new creation (Rom. 8:18-25; Rev. 21:1-4).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] The Allison and Hays quotes are taken from Richard Hays, ‘”Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” New Testament Eschatology at the turn of the Millennium.’ Modern Theology 16:1 January 2000

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: suicide as altruistic love

SPOILERS AHEAD

Photo: Merrick Morton / AP

I went to see Martin McDonagh’s latest in the best cinema in Dublin (The Lighthouse) with some good company who are also good critics.

This isn’t a review – there are far better reviewers than me out there who can be read with a couple of clicks. It is a reflection on one particular scene in what is a pitch-black look at life, death and hate in small town Missouri.

McDonagh’s dialogue is brilliant, profane, darkly funny and utterly depressing all at once. Someone I was with said she’s seen the film a few days before and the audience in Belfast laughed throughout. There was hardly a peep in Dublin … the tragedy trumped any comedy it seems. Now what to make of that inversion of caricatures of dour sober-sided northerners and fun-loving southerners?!

I digress. Here’s why this post.

Woody Harrelson’s Police Chief Willoughby has pancreatic cancer and has months to live. Much is made of how he is practically the only main character who is not in some way consumed by hate and bitterness. His nemesis is Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, a scorching performance as a mother engulfed with grief and driven by rage at her daughter’s killer, the police, her violent ex-husband and very possibly herself.

Compared to her, Willoughby is a saint. He’s done his best on her daughter’s case but has no leads. He’s an older husband to his picture-perfect young wife Anne (at least 20 years his junior, over the top on the schmaltz here) and a doting dad to two lovely young daughters. There is time given to an idyllic family picnic; of the girls left to play a fun game set up by their dad beside a lake while their parents sneak off to make love (one last time as it turns out).

Willoughby (as we later learn) shows remarkable grace to, and belief in, Sam Rockwell’s vicious racist, homophobic and stupid policeman by writing him a letter (they must still do that in Ebbing Missouri) telling him (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that he is at heart a good man who needs to learn to love rather than hate. He also makes peace with Mildred despite her hounding of him in the in final weeks of his life (the three billboards of the film’s title ask why Willoughby has made no arrests for the murder and rape of her daughter). He writes her a letter too, hoping she catches the killer and regretting that he was not able to. He even pays for her three Billboards for another month.

I mention all of this because it sets Willoughby up in maximum sympathetic terms. Which all goes to make the scene which follows all the more horrible. After writing a third and final letter – this time to his wife after their day at the lake – he goes out to the stables, puts a black bag over his head, and shoots himself in the head. A message for Anne is written on the bag – something like don’t look, and call the boys at the station.

The letter to Anne is voiced by Harrelson. In it he explains why he has killed himself. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but he won’t have her watching him waste away and die a slow death. He wants to spare her that. He acknowledges she may hate him but he hopes only for a while. In time, he hopes she will come to see it was the best thing. The tone is tender and loving.

I gotta say I detested this scene. It made me feel sick. It was not only manipulative and fake, but the whole narrative arc was set to make Willoughby’s suicide a heroic act of love, wanting to spare his wife and children suffering. The note on the bag was obscene – as if it was one last act of kindness. Yet she still finds a bloodied corpse of her husband with his brains on the stable floor – an executioners bag over his head hardly makes a difference to the brutality of the act.

In Ireland, rates of suicide, especially in young men, are shocking. The impact is devastating. Somehow it is seen as ‘a way out’ of a hopeless future. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri plays right into that destructive narrative by dressing up suicide as a brave act of altruistic love.

Yes I know it is a film. Yes, it is ‘just’ telling a story and it is not necessarily ‘endorsing’ or promoting suicide. Yes, it shows the subsequent agony of Anne who asks ‘What are you supposed to do the day after your husband shoots himself?’ Yes, it advances the plot, because it raises the question in the public mind of whether Mildred’s billboards drove him to take his own life.

But, for me, McDonagh’s script glorifies suicide. The context portrays Willoughby as beyond reproach. He is not mentally disturbed or depressed. He calmly and almost naturally takes his own life, as if it was an obvious next step. The reading of the three letters after his death all portray him as noble.

Yet his supposed act of kindness was one of the most aggressive and violent scenes in a very aggressive and violent movie. Anne is left not only not knowing what to do for one day, but for the rest of her life as the widow of husband who blew his brains out. His children are left with the trauma of a daddy who killed himself. His suicide robbed them all of the time to love him, care for him and be with him when he died. To say goodbye and grieve with dignity. It left them victims of a violent crime. It was far from a loving, kind, considerate act.

I have known someone die from pancreatic cancer. It was awful but that person died with joy, faith and love, surrounded by family and friends. The Christian funeral was suffused with hope and thanksgiving for a life well lived. Pancreatic cancer, and the death it caused, did not, and does not, have the last word. There was no need either to play God by taking life, or grimly clinging on to life at all costs.

I hope, that when I die, I can do so with a little bit of that person’s faith in the God of life.

In other words, to be able to trust that dying is not the worst thing in the world.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (4): contemporary attitudes to celibacy

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1

Two strands of teaching on love, sex and the body

STRAND ONE:  a good gift to be enjoyed

In the last few posts we’ve sketched how the Song of Songs does not need to be interpreted allegorically in order to have a rich theology of love, sex and the body (somatology). It is a celebration of an exclusive, monogamous, heterosexual union of husband and wife in a relationship of intimacy, joy, play, and love. We might say that it is a picture of idealised love between an archetypal couple.

This, if you like, is strand one of the Judeo-Christian theology of love, sex and the body.

( I should add that the Song, being about two lovers coming together for the first time, has no mention of children. The book is not really about marriage per se, more about human love. Within wider Jewish and Christian theology, one of the key ‘goods’ of marriage and the central purpose of sex is the making of children who are raised within the security of a covenant relationship between the man and the woman. So this can be added to strand one).

STRAND TWO: an inextricable link to sin and shame

We’ve also jumped forward into the New Testament and early church history to note how the death and resurrection of Jesus was the catalyst for a radical re-thinking of sex, marriage and the body, so much so that celibacy became the highest expression of Christian spirituality for over a millennium.

Strand two is predominantly Augustinian – taking the examples and teaching of Jesus and Paul seriously, but with a deep ambivalence about sex and the body, a somewhat reluctant endorsement of marriage, and with celibacy the idealised state. Sex and body are tied to shame and sin. The less sex the better and the fun, play and delight of the Song of Songs is definitely off limits. This is the strand of sexual asceticism – a hugely influential distortion of the New Testament’s positive teaching on celibacy / singleness.

A more balanced view is that both sex and singleness are good gifts (charisma) of God’s grace (charis). Paul makes this clear in 1 Cor. 7:7

Each man [or woman] has his [or her] own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

There is no hierarchy of status or merit or achievement here – both are gifts of God.

FLUCTUATING FORTUNES

These two strands have in other words, had fluctuating fortunes in church history. To paint with a very broad brush, strand one has made a big comeback since the Reformation, to the point where it re-emerged as the overwhelmingly dominant model of a Christian ethic of love, sex and body. The fusion of marriage, sex and children long ago eclipsed celibacy as the ideal state, particularly within Protestantism with its married clergy and rejection of enforced celibacy. Indeed, it is the nuclear family which has become the Christian ‘ideal’ regarding sex, love, relationships and children and it is that ‘norm’ that churches are often structured around.

However, within both strands, it should be noted that sex is a good gift and belongs within the domain of heterosexual marriage. Sex outside that domain is a misuse of God’s good gift. This is the orthodox and agreed teaching of the Church catholic since the earliest days of Christianity and should not be lightly dismissed.

All this sets the scene for another big jump forward in this post to sex in the 21st Century West.

THE MARGINALISATION OF BOTH STRANDS WITHIN CONTEMPORARY WESTERN CULTURE

ATTITUDES TO CELIBACY TODAY

My suggestion, dear reader, (with which you are welcome to disagree) is that the second strand (the ideal of celibacy) is already completely incomprehensible to the modern mind. When I say modern mind I mean us Westerners – whether Christian or not.

Within the church, in my opinion, the ideal of marriage has been assumed and reinforced in a thousand ways. The strong biblical support for celibacy in Jesus and in Paul, as well as the early church, has been overwhelmed by modern romanticism. Singleness (and therefore celibacy according to Christian teaching) is implicitly viewed as a failure; to be regretted and rarely talked about. Single people in multiple ways are left on the margins.

‘Outside’ the church, attitudes to celibacy are less ambiguous. The 40 year old virgin is a buffoon, an immature idiot, a source of comedy and pity, who must at all costs, get laid belatedly to enter adult life. Sex is the rite of passage into autonomy and self-respect. Sex is an essential part of our identity and self-expression. Sexual identity is who we are – whatever our place on the spectrum of human sexuality. To deny that identity is to deny our core being. Celibacy becomes therefore virtually a form of self-harm; it is evidence of a lack of self-respect. This is why in the movie Steve Carell has to be rescued first and foremost from himself.

If sex is essentially our culture’s idealised form of adult entertainment, a playground of pleasure and enjoyment, then those that refuse to partake in its delights must be victims of a distorted vision of human flourishing. Celibacy, on other words, is not only an idiosyncratic life choice, it is positively harmful.

And when you connect this wider cultural attitude to images of Catholic Ireland, paedophile priests, abuse, repression, and hypocrisy, you can see how celibacy is now understood to be a very dangerous idea indeed.

It was not that long ago that having a son go into the priesthood was a mark of status and honour for an Irish family. No more … just think of the brilliant scene in Calvary where Brendan Gleeson happens to walk with a young girl on her way to the beach. All is charmingly light-hearted and friendly until her father screeches up in a car and tears her away from the insidious danger of a priest – any priest. Gleeson’s despairing slump of his shoulders as the car drives away spoke volumes of a fatally tarnished ideal. The point of the film’s (very) black humour is various residents’ pathological antipathy towards the Church and its representative – a hatred that leads to the climax of the movie.

This post was going to be the last, but it is already too long so we’ll look at contemporary attitudes to marriage in the (really) final one inspired by the Song of Songs.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Shack (2) Critique

A conversation with a dear friend this week about the release next Friday of The Shack in the USA, reminded me of a two part review that I wrote back in 2008.

So without any comment on or knowledge about what the film will be like, here is Part 2, unchanged.

PS: If you don’t want to know the story, stop reading now

Part 2: The Shack: a review article

Cracks in the woodwork

The sheer success of The Shack, combined with the controversy it has provoked, has meant that the book has been dissected, deconstructed, defended and derided by a phalanx of bloggers and commentators. One of the publishers (Wayne Jacobson) who had an active role in shaping the final script has issued a response to some of the main criticisms; presumably with the agreement of the author.[1]

So what is all the fuss about? First, a couple of alleyways we won’t venture down. Given that all art is subjective, to discuss whether the story works well as literature won’t get us very far. Some find the ending where the body is found and the killer caught far too neat by half. Others detest the book for being manipulative in terms of exploiting the deepest fears of parents of losing a child to a serial killer. Whether these reactions are fair or not, is ultimately a reader’s judgement. And since a fictional story of one man’s experience of God cannot be read like a theological textbook, I find criticisms that the book is not explicit enough on salvation, or the role of Scripture in the life of a believer, rather miss the point.

What is fair, and Jacobson welcomes, is a robust discussion of some of the theological ideas that are presented in the book. ‘Presented’ is the right word here. There is a definite agenda to communicate a corrective vision of an authentic relationship with God over against what the author perceives as the legalism, hierarchialism and institutionalism of much North American Christianity. This is where the story gets ‘edgy’ – it has a campaigning, anti-status-quo feel. In my opinion, the core theme of the book is that God desires people freely to choose to be in relationship with him. This is at once a source of some of its strengths (see Part 1) and its weaknesses. It’s the latter we’re going to look at now.

A reduced vision of God?

Young’s vision of a freely chosen liberating relationship with God has two sides. First, as Papa tells Mack, “True love never forces” (p.190). God’s love simply invites a response. Papa says “I don’t want slaves to do my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me” (p.146). At one point Mack asks Jesus “So now what I am supposed to do?” and Jesus replies “You are not supposed to do anything. You’re free to do anything you like” (p.89 emphasis original). In talking about the cross Papa says, “Reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done may part, totally, completely, finally. It is not in the nature of love to force a relationship but it is in the nature of love to open the way” (p.192).

Second, this inviting love of God is the antithesis of duty, law and obligation. This is what Mack struggles to grasp and has to be set free from for healing to occur. Repeatedly Mack is told things like “I’m not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation, or coercion, only through a relationship of love” (p.126). Sarayu tells him “I give you an ability to respond and your response is to be free to love and serve in every situation” (p.205). To be genuine, this response must be completely free from the pressure to perform to earn God’s approval. Papa says to Mack, ‘Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else … because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me.”

What should we make of this? The trouble is that it is at once absolutely right yet, at the same time, a damaging distortion. It is gloriously true that the heart of the gospel is about believers being set free in Christ from law and slavery (Gal. 5:1) and that the ‘only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Gal. 5:6) since love fulfils the law (Gal. 5:14). Since this relationship is based on grace, it cannot be earned, but is lived out day by day in thankfulness and joy. However, the repeated emphasis on our total freedom to choose this relationship by responding to God’s invitation leads to at least two problems.

First, God becomes dependent on human decision making. Jesus at one point is described as almost pleading with Mack. It is almost as if God is ‘waiting on the end of the phone’ for us to call and take up his offer of forgiveness and relationship. Young (and Jacobson) are obviously sincere and passionate about loving God. But I think that on this point they are more conditioned by the Western myth of the totally free individual making authentic choices than they realize.

Second, by focusing on only one aspect of God’s love, Young reduces God to having no expectations of Mack or anyone else. The real Jesus isn’t so undemanding!: “Take up your cross and follow me”; “If you love me, you will obey what I command”; “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Similarly, one of Paul’s favourite exhortations is “Live a life worthy of the gospel”. Despite the book’s claim that the word ‘responsibility’ is not found in the Scriptures, they are full of commands for God’s people to fulfil their responsibility of being in covenant relationship with a holy God. It is an over-reaction to equate works with law – we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph.2:10).

Church as optional extra?

It is also in the context of the absolute necessity of human freedom that the book’s controversial comments about the Church belong. On the one hand, Jesus tells Mack that he loves his bride, the Church, which is full of individuals in whom he delights. Yet, on the other hand, Young has Jesus say at one point “who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian” (p.182) and “I don’t create institutions, never have, never will” (p.179). This is obviously a deliberately provocative way to put it; the point being that, as Young’s Jesus puts it, the Church is a man-made system and “that’s not what I came to build” (p.178). Mack realises that his friends do love Jesus, it is just that they are at the same time “sold out to religious activity and patriotism.” (p.181). This sums up Mack’s negative church experience – and you get a strong sense the author is writing autobiographically here.

Of course what Young suggests here is not unique. Many have made similar criticisms of evangelicalism and undoubtedly there is truth to the charges. However, Young offers an overly negative way to interpret the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘Church’. He also buys into a popular – and mistaken – evangelical dualism about the Church as a body of genuine believers in opposition to being an organization. This sort of dichotomy would not only be foreign to the Reformers’ high view of the church, but it fosters a view of church as an optional add-on to personal faith – an attitude that would be baffling to Paul and pretty much all of church history. But, more seriously, this (very modern) sort of individualistic faith effectively detaches trust in God from the biblical narrative. For instance, apart from Jesus making a joke about his big nose, it appears virtually irrelevant for knowing God that a Jewish Messiah stands at the heart of God’s unfolding redemptive purposes for Israel and the world.

Is the God of The Shack too nice?

In response to criticism that God in The Shack is ‘too nice’, Jacobson points out that Mack is held to account for “every lie in his mind and every broken place in his heart.” This may be the case but it does not really address more important questions about the nature of God. Jacobson argues that God is “not the angry and tyrannical God that religion has been using for 2000 years to beat people into conformity”. Similarly, at one point in the story Mack asks God “Honestly, don’t you enjoy punishing those who disappoint you?” (p.119) Papa replies “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it” (p.120). Now, yes, sin is deeply self-destructive and there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. However, this is at best a partial view of God and sin. Is punishment really absent in God’s response to sin? Do we simply judge ourselves through our own bad choices? This cannot be squared with Scripture where God is the judge and it is unfortunate that both Young and Jacobson resort to presenting a caricature of a vindictive God who enjoys judging in order to reject the concept of his punishing sin. What then does God forgive us for if he only needs to cure our habit of making bad choices? It is the wonder of the cross that it is there that God’s wrath and God’s mercy meet. God’s judgement falls, not on us, but on the one who willingly gives his life, takes our place and dies our death. The problem with The Shack here is it ends up setting God’s love against God’s holiness – a nice loving God overcoming a nasty judgemental God. This will not do. God’s judgement is an act of love that establishes justice and gives hope. Without it, God is not God at all.

Universalism?

The Shack’s downplaying of God’s judgement inevitably means that there are strands within it tending towards universalism. The author’s attraction to Universal Reconciliation (UR) has been documented.[2] Jacobson candidly acknowledges that early drafts of the book leaned in this direction and the finished edition has corrected this error. Certainly there is a passage that explicitly rejects universalism. Jesus is asked by Mack do “all roads lead to you?” Jesus’ replies “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere [but] I will travel any road to find you” (p.182).

However, there are still strong traces of universalism within the fabric of the story. One is found in Mack’s meeting with his abusive, alcoholic father. The scene is a vision given to Mack by Sarayu of how God sees reality. Jesus is gloriously revealed as king of the universe, surrounded by his worshipping people. One of these is Mack’s father, with whom Mack is then reconciled. What is not explained, and needs to be, is what had happened to transform Mack’s father. The unspoken inference is of universal reconciliation with God. This implication surfaces again in Mack’s dialogue with Sophia when she shocks him by asking him to choose which of his children to send to hell. Mack cannot make such an awful decision and desperately offers to go instead. Sophia reassures him that his reaction is like God’s – a perfect self-giving love for all his children that costs everything. The message is clear: it is inconceivable that a God of such love could send any of his children to hell and that Jesus’ giving of his own life means that everyone is rescued from such a fate.

Trinity, Hierarchy and Women

Few issues are more significant, or hotly debated today, than the nature of relationships within the trinity. In Part 1, I argued that Young successfully helps us imagine the fellowship of mutual love between Father, Son and Spirit. Despite this, a couple of significant criticisms remain about other aspects of the book’s trinitarianism.

One revolves around the scene where Papa shows Mack the scars on her wrists remarking that at the cross “We were there together” (p.96 emphasis original). In one sense this is right; the Father does not abandon the Son to his fate. It is crucial to understand the cross as a triune work of salvation – otherwise you end up the gross caricature of a reluctant Son being punished by an angry Father. However, Young’s image is very misleading in that it blurs the distinction between Father and Son. It was NOT the Father who became the incarnate Word who was crucified at Calvary. This is a heresy called Patripassionism (the ‘passion’ [death] of the ‘patros’ [Father]). To be fair, I don’t think Young intends to say this. It looks like a case of pushing an idea (the unity of God’s saving action at the cross) too far.

The second idea, for which Young has been much more strongly attacked, is his insistence that the trinity is completely egalitarian, without any sense of hierarchy. Indeed, hierarchy is utterly foreign to God’s nature; it is a symptom of a human lust for power, control and independence:

“we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command … We don’t need power over the other … Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours … You actually rarely experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you … You humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that relationship could exist apart from hierarchy. So you think God must relate inside a hierarchy like you do. But we do not.” (p.122-4)

This flat denial of hierarchy within God is closely connected to Young’s simultaneous rejection of any notion of hierarchy between the sexes. Men and women, Mack is told by Papa, are also created for “a circle of relationship, like our own” in order to be “counterparts, face-to-face equals, each unique and different, distinct in gender but complementary” (p.148 my emphasis).

Now this is, of course, controversial territory. On gender, debates rage between ‘complementarians’ (affirming hierarchy between the sexes, the subordination of women to men, and leadership roles in marriage and church being restricted to men) and ‘egalitarians’ (who, like Young, reject all of those positions – although it must be said Young expresses a pretty extreme form of egalitarianism).[3] These discussions are closely connected to parallel ongoing conversations about whether the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. Christian orthodoxy as outlined in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds insists that Father, Son and Spirit are co-equal and co-eternal. This is not in dispute, but the question is can hierarchy co-exist with full equality? (as people like Wayne Grudem proposes in his influential Systematic Theology). Or is hierarchy within the trinity intrinsically incompatible with equality and may actually open the door to the old Arian heresy that the Son is lesser than the Father? (as Kevin Giles argues).[4]

Without getting deeper into what are complex discussions, the relevant point here is that these are very much ‘live’ questions without obvious ‘orthodox’ solutions. In lots of reviews of The Shack it is surprising to encounter the consistent assumption that what Young says here is obviously heretical. It is not! Many broadly agree with him here (me included) and it is historically and theologically wrong to dismiss his egalitarian views as unbiblical.

Conclusion

This has been a longer two part article than I imagined starting out, probably due to my verbosity! But it is, I think, also an indication of how remarkably, in a short narrative, the author manages to open up debates about a whole range of important theological questions. In my view, the biggest challenge the book poses is how can the thrilling reality of the triune God and the astonishing good news of the gospel be communicated in accessible, compelling ways to an Irish culture that appears inoculated against Christianity?  Yes, the book is deeply flawed, and certainly unorthodox regarding a number of core Christian beliefs. It needs to be read discerningly as a result. But it can also be taken as an invitation to think afresh about the God we worship. Certainly it is provocative – but if it provokes readers to go back to Scripture and wrestle with what it says about the trinity, human freedom, gender roles, the cross, judgement, and what it means to love God and be loved by God – then it is well worth spending some time in The Shack, cracks and all.

Patrick Mitchel

[1] Wayne Jacobson ‘Is The Shack Heresy?’ http://windblownmedia.com/shackresponse.html

[2] James B De Young, ‘At the Back of The Shack: A Torrent of Universalism’. May 2008. http://theshackreview.com/content/ReviewofTheShack.pdf. De Young lists 12 tenets of UR more than a few of which surface in The Shack. Basically it teaches that God has already effected reconciliation at the cross and this reconciliation will be applied to everyone, either in this life or after death.

[3] For a good explanation of both sides, see Craig Blomberg and others, Two Views of Women in Ministry (revised edition). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

[4] Kevin Giles, Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

The Shack (1) What the Shack gets right

A conversation with a dear friend this week about the release next Friday of The Shack in the USA, reminded me of a two part review that I wrote back in 2008.

So without any comment on or knowledge about what the film will be like, here is Part 1, unchanged. Part 2 to follow.

if you have read the book, what was your take on it? How do you think the film will be received?

 

The Shack: a review article

Part 1: What The Shack Gets Right

Warning: if you don’t want to know the story, don’t read on …!

What sort of God do you really believe in? How do you relate to God emotionally? Do you ever consider how the three persons of the triune God interact with each other? How do you square God being an all-powerful being of infinite love with the reality of unimaginable continuous suffering and injustice in this broken world? Why does the church so often seem very unlike Jesus? How will God treat all those people who are not Christians? How can I forgive those who have done great evil to me and my family?

If these sound like questions in the syllabus of a theology course, you begin to get the picture that The Shack by William P Young is no ordinary story of fiction. Given the subject matter and that it is virtually a self-published book, it is all the more remarkable that is has become a publishing phenomenon. As I write, it is no. 6 in the Amazon bestseller list and no.1 in the New York Times Bestsellers of paperback fiction for the 24th straight week. The Shack website announces that over 4 million copies are in print and a movie is on the way. While being a very North American story, its popularity in Ireland is widespread. As I talk to students and visit churches, significant numbers of people have read it, most love it and some churches are using as the basis of discussion groups.

It is also a book that provokes strong reactions. A few minutes of ‘Googling’ will reveal an apparently endless maze of critiques, reviews, comments, debates, warnings and ardent recommendations. (This article, I guess, will add one more link to that maze). Some issue cautionary advice never to open its pages; some offer balanced assessment of its pros and cons; while comments on the book’s cover say things like ‘The Shack will leave you craving for the presence of God’ or ‘this story has blown the door wide open to my soul’ or it’s as good as Pilgrim’s Progress (Eugene Peterson).  Wow.

The Story

The story is simple and is structured to facilitate one man’s encounter with God. For four years Mack has been living in his ‘great sadness’ following the kidnap and murder of his young daughter, Missy, whose body has never been found. His seminary training and former church experience have proved unable to provide answers to his anguished questioning of God. His faith has been mothballed, his life grey and without hope. In the midst of his depression he receives a mysterious invitation from God to journey back to the shack in the wilderness where Missy probably died. What follows is Mack’s life-changing meeting with God, who is astonishingly unlike anything Mack had imagined.

The attractive power of The Shack

Now The Shack is a novel, but it is novel packed with specific theological views, most expressed directly by God. So it would be fair enough at this point to begin a point by point theological assessment of the picture Young paints of God. While there are real weaknesses with what he says in places (and I’ll look at some of the reasons why the book is so controversial in part 2), a more constructive question to ask first is ‘What is it about The Shack that has so captured peoples’ hearts and minds?’ I think there are at least six things Young does remarkably well:

A personal God

In an increasingly post-Christendom and materialistic West, there is a widespread longing for ‘something more’, something spiritual. In Ireland we’ve had plenty of bad religion. Authoritarian leaders, self-interested church institutions, power games, frequent fusion of faith and politics (whether Protestant or Catholic), abuse of the weak, and lots and lots of conformity where faith in Jesus gets somehow reduced to the (often boring) routine of ‘going to church’. Mack too has struggled with an experience of Christianity that seems hollow. His meeting with God blows such religious staleness out the door because he meets a God who is ‘Good News’. Young captures something important here – something that recalls Jesus’ encounters with the religion of his day. The God of The Shack echoes the father figure in the parable of the Good Samaritan; shockingly forgiving, loving and joyful. Rightly, Young wants to remind us that the heart of the Christian faith revolves around a personal God who delights to be in relationship with those he has made in his own image.

God as a triune ‘dance’

One of the most discussed aspects of the book is Young’s depiction of God as a trinity of ‘Papa’ (a large cheerful African-American woman), Jesus (an ordinary looking guy of Jewish looks) and Sarayu (an Asian woman with a mysterious shimmering presence). Any attempt to depict the trinity is doomed to fail in some respect. However, before dismissing his attempt, he should be given real credit for taking the triune nature of God seriously. Yes, some of the dialogue and scenes between Father, Son and Spirit are cringe-worthy – but Young is on to something. He describes God as being in himself a united community of mutual perfect self-giving love. Papa tells Mack, “we want to share with you the love and joy and freedom and light that we already know within ourself. We created you … to join our circle of love” (p.124). The old Greek word for this is perichoresis – a ‘dance’ of love between the three members of the godhead – and it is into this community that Christians are welcomed by grace. Indeed, it is because God is in himself a fellowship of love that we, made in his image, are destined for love and relationship. Papa puts it this way; “If I were simply One God and only One Person … you would find yourself without something wonderful … all love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within me” (p.95). This sounds very like how Jonathan Edwards put it in The Mind, “in a being that is absolutely without any plurality, there cannot be excellence, for there can be no consent or agreement.” I suspect this is not how many Christians think of God. Young succeeds in making the reader think afresh about the remarkable wonder of God being one yet also a co-equal and co-eternal fellowship of three persons.

Hope beyond suffering

During the story, Mack undergoes a profoundly emotional journey through desperate grief. Any parent could identify with his numbing loss. I admit I cried! On meeting God, Mack is finally able to ask the deep questions that have so wracked his soul. The answers he receives are not the ones he had been conditioned to expect. He emerges changed forever. The ‘great sadness’ has been lifted and he can now live most days with a sense of profound joy, able to embrace ‘even the darker shades of life as part of some incredibly rich and profound tapestry; crafted by invisible hands of love’. What does God say and do to effect such a transformation?

It is here that Young is extremely creative in how he manages to conjure up a marvellous sense of Christian hope. This life, and all its suffering and pain, is not all there is. Mack weeps for joy not because he has intellectually grasped the free will argument (of which more below) but because of the vision given to him of Missy, alive and well with Jesus. God had never abandoned her, even in her suffering and death. Mack is transformed by this eschatological hope, that there is life beyond what Paul calls our ‘light and momentary troubles’. Young is spot on here. The gospel is such good news that it meets our deepest longings for life beyond death. The ‘really real’ world lies beyond this one – a healed new heavens and earth, of beauty, worship, justice, peace and joy. The Shack gives us a glimpse of how this powerful Christian vision of the future can transform lives in the here and now and is all the better for it.

The problem of pain

A central theme of the story is how can a good and omnipotent God can allow such evil as the kidnap and murder of a young girl? This is deep theological water that many of the greatest Christian thinkers over the centuries have tried to navigate. There are no easy answers, and The Shack is essentially is a re-statement of the ‘free-will defence’ – for our choices to be real, God allows us genuine freedom, but such freedom entails the possibility of great evil. As Papa explains to Mack; “All evil flows from independence and independence is your choice … This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil. Evil is the chaos of this age that you brought to me … all things must unfold, even though it puts all those I love in the midst of a world of horrible tragedies” (p.190-1).

What Young does exceptionally well is to hold onto a number of crucial truths about God and suffering:

i. God will overcome evil (“it will not have the final say … I purpose to work life out of death, to bring freedom out of brokenness and turn darkness into light (p.191)).

ii. He allows our broken world to exist but he is not the author of evil – in fact Mack’s real problem is disbelieving God is good (“Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes.” (p.185)).

iii. He is not distant from suffering. In fact, in Jesus he has self-sacrificially walked into the maelstrom of this world’s violence and injustice in order to overcome it.

iv. From our finite perspective, we cannot know the deeper purposes that God is working through suffering. During Mack’s encounter with Sophia (God’s wisdom personified), she invites him to sit in the judgement seat of God. His refusal is reminiscent of Job’s realisation that who is he to judge God? Overall, it is this capacity to ask questions many of us struggle with and answer them with depth and integrity that makes The Shack thought-provoking and helpful reading on the problem of pain.

The transforming power of forgiveness

Forgiveness is another deeply emotive issue that surfaces during the story. This is complex territory but I think Young strikes a compelling note of grace that resonates with the good news of the gospel. I have read some criticisms that Mack’s forgiveness of his daughter’s killer is not ‘biblical forgiveness’ because the murderer does not first repent. I could not disagree more! If we demand that the offender says sorry before offering forgiveness, then forgiveness is not of grace at all! Yes, full reconciliation is not possible without repentance, but this is a second step dependent on the response of the offender that the Christian cannot control. Christians are called to take the risky first step in forgiveness. Mack has been so transformed by God’s grace he is able to offer undeserved mercy (that is what grace is) to the killer without knowing the response in advance. Nothing describes the astonishing grace of God in Christ better. Such forgiveness is courageous, attractive and powerful – and is, I think, the most inspiring aspect of the book.

Truth in story

The final reason for the book’s popularity is, I suggest, the obvious fact that it is a compelling story. Young is not the best writer you’ll ever read, but he has created an honest, deeply human main character with whom readers can readily empathise. We are made with imaginations and emotions as well as minds. Does Jesus himself, the greatest storyteller, not remind us that truths about God, suffering, forgiveness and heaven need to be grasped at all these levels if they are to be truly known? As Lewis and Tolkien brilliantly demonstrated, Christian fiction has a unique capacity to engage the whole person with questions of faith. The Shack may not be up to their standard, but it does successfully invite the reader to become part of the story themselves, grapple with profound questions of life, death, forgiveness and redemption in an accessible way, and reflect on the wonder of a personal loving triune God in the process. Not too many systematic theology textbooks manage that!

Patrick Mitchel

Next Part 2: Cracks in the woodwork

‘Think on these things’ – watch this video, not Trump’s

The latest revelations of Trump’s abuse of power and subsequent abuse of women are not exactly shocking – what you see is what you get. And while possibly sounding sanctimonious, listening to that video leaves you feeling grubby for participating in the conversation.

Our pastor Keith McCrory today was preaching on Matthew 5:27-30

27-28 “You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.

29-30 “Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.

He linked to Paul in Philippians 4:8

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.

His point was that in a hyper-sexualised technological culture, we need to make good choices on what to put in our brains.

So, on that theme, don’t risk degrading yourself by watching Trump’s video, spend 18 minutes or so watching this one. In the first you will only encounter the spirit of the world; in the the second you will encounter the Spirit of God.

My wife and I watched it the other day. After spendng 18 minutes in this man’s company (and his wife’s) we felt refreshed, hopeful and joyful. For we were in the presence of love, respect, humility, kindness, gentleness and yes beauty – both the physical place and the people.

The video is directed by Greg Fromholz who lives in Dublin and was made by Tiny Ark a Dublin company which make beautiful films. The Bible quotes above are from The Message.

The Coldest of Cold Capitalist Hearts

Watched Nightcrawler (2014, directed by Dan Gilroy) the other day.

Spoilers ahead!

nightcrawler-posterJake Gyllenhaal (Lou Bloom) is a sublimely sinister guy on the make. There is an unnatural stillness in the way he stares and talks; like someone who instinctively knows they scare normal people and has learnt to try to minimise the creep effect.

He’s already ‘fallen’ when the movie begins – he starts bad and gets a lot worse. This is the story of his evolution from petty thief to finding his true ‘calling’ – a descent into the netherworld of ‘first on the scene’ news chasers.

This is a vocation of heartless voyeurism sold to the masses who consume others’ suffering from the comfort of their sofas.

Lou falls into his new career literally by accident. Out of curiosity he stops are a car crash and sees a film crew at work, catching the blood and pain for TV and he’s hooked. The next step is a low budget camcorder and radio and a relentless determination to work long night hours.

Lou is completely free of conscience or remorse, he will do (and does) virtually anything to get the video story.

He blags he way into the local TV news station where Rene Russo is the producer desperate for ratings who will take his material no questions asked – apart from ‘Are we going to get sued if we show this?’

A ‘Viewer Discretion Advised’ tag is added to the graphic stuff just to spark viewer desire.

So develops a symbiotic relationship but one where the power gradually shifts to Lou due to the quality of his ‘product’ and the need of the buyer (Russo).

Never slow to exploit an opportunity, Lou uses his power to coerce Russo into a sexual relationship (the film goes curiously coy here – just was well) as well as negotiating better pay and conditions. She’s outraged, exclaiming that friends don’t force each other to have sex. But of course, Lou doesn’t do friendship or ethics.

While Nightcrawler isn’t a great film, there are echoes of Taxi Driver. But where De Niro’s Travis Bickle raged violently against the world, Lou is consumed with calculating self-interest. He has a business plan and plots a route to profitability while manipulating the violence of others to his own advantage.

Lou is capitalism personified and his is the coldest of cold capitalist hearts.

The ‘virtue’ of ‘pure’ capitalism is that it marginalises and makes irrelevant things like compassion and mercy and social justice.

Lou knows that death, violence, fear, disaster and blood sells – and sells well. He knows how to produce what the market wants and is willing to put in the hours because he believes that “good things come to those who work their asses off”.

He also knows that the key to market success is creating a restless, unquenchable desire for more – and more.

And so the stakes continue to get raised – how can Lou top the last bloody offering to the masses? Without new product both he and Russo are going to be out of work.

And this leads to the climatic set-piece where Lou stage-manages certain death and violence between LA cops and drug dealers all simply for the lens of his (new bigger and better) camera.

It’s not often you see a film that follows capitalism all the way down to its logical end.

Lou has no ethics because ethics get in the way of what the market wants. Any competition – either in the form of other news chasers (Bill Paxton) or his Lou’s expendable partner with an inconvenient conscience – are ruthlessly eliminated.

In capitalism everything can commodified; here it is human suffering that is for sale. Lou’s competitive edge is that he is willing to go further than anyone else to exploit that market opportunity.

Lou’s genius is that he is able to offer the market a new choice – one that consumers willingly select. He can’t force anyone to watch what he films, but he knows the desire is there freely to choose to see real blood, murder, fear and tragedy – and his vocation is to oblige.

I liked how the film kept its nerve to the end. Lou’s aggressive entrepreneurial drive bears fruit. He is in the process of becoming a ‘self-made man’; a ‘success’ in business and ‘respected’ because he knows how to earn money and keep the corporate machine (TV station in this case) and himself in profit.

If ever a movie exposes the ludicrous idea that capitalism is a benign ‘neutral’ force and that markets should just be left to themselves to deliver the best of all possible worlds, this is it.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

True Detective: touch darkness and darkness touches you back

This post is inspired by Jaybercrow’s recent rare 6-monthly post about the bleak inheriting the earth.

true-detective-posterI watched True Detective with the rest of the family a while back – well we all watched it at different stages, sometimes together, and talked about it later: such is modern consumption of media! I’ve been meaning to blog about it since then but something has stopped me – something Jaybercrow put his finger on. There is a fairly vague spoiler ahead btw.

It is exceptionally powerful television. The desolate cinematography perfectly captures the sense of menace within lost backwaters of southern Louisiana in which cops Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaghey hunt a serial killer over 17 years. The foreboding soundtrack sets the scene for what follows – check out Far from any Road by the Handsome Family so see what I mean.

The plot isn’t unfamiliar: ritualistic murder, corruption, bad religion and politics. But what the writer, Nic Pizzolattto, managed to achieve brilliantly, is telling of the story of the compelling and complex relationship between Harrelson’s ‘Marty’ Hart and McConaghey’s ‘Rust’ Cohle.

Both actors give, I think, perhaps the best performances of their careers. Cohle’s relentless nihilism against family-man Marty’s flagrant hypocrisy sets up a narrative that shapes the whole series. That is, just below the surface of our apparently advanced ‘civilisation’ is a dark dark world: a world of violence, abuse, fear and horror in which the powerful take advantage of the weak with impunity. That darkness embraces individuals, the law, the church, the powerful, drug-dealers as well as obvious victims – murdered prostitutes and children.

Every major character is deeply flawed. But it is McConaghey’s Cohle who, alone, sees the world as it truly is. No-one can live with such searing ‘prophetic’ honesty – he can hardly live with himself.

And so the story under the story is whether there is any hope for McConaghey. And therefore is there any hope for any of us? That question is sort of answered in the last episode – of which a little more in a moment.

What’s so compelling about such a bleak tale? Well, its truth for one. ISIS? Indiscriminate killing by Drones? Child abuse covered up in Rotherham? In Ireland? A world in which the weak and vulnerable are ruthlessly exploited by the powerful with impunity. The sin and hypocrisy in my heart – and dare I say in yours. Law and politics, when working well, will never deliver utopia. At best, they will put boundaries on the depravity of the human heart and we fool ourselves if we believe otherwise.

Dwelling in such unremitting darkness feels true to life: it captures the reality of a globally twisted world that perhaps we now know far too much about. News about the darkness assaults our senses every day. It is compelling to watch someone like Rust Cohle face the darkness head on, with no illusions or sentimentality.

And it’s here that my ambiguity about watching True Detective comes from: there is such little light in TV series like these that they leave you in the dark. I’m thinking of other superbly made series like The Sopranos and the (Scandinavian) film / book series like Girl with a Dragon Tatoo, both of which I hugely ‘enjoyed’.

I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that there is a little shaft of light at the end of True Detective. But, for me anyway, it was unconvincing: the darkness had been so well drawn that the light felt contrived and out-of-place.

The gospel of Jesus Christ shares the truth that ‘Rust’ Cohle sees. Like him, it is not remotely sentimental or optimistic. Like him, it is unflinchingly realistic about human nature and the injustice and sin that is woven into all areas of life. But True Detective’s gospel struggles to get out of the darkness that is has so brilliantly described. It lurches, unconvincingly towards an illogical optimism.

Put it this way: Christian hope does not rest with you or me – or with ‘Rust’ Cohle or with any individual seeing life in a new way. Such hope is transitory, individualistic and ephemeral. But Christian hope is based on what God has done in history. It is not ‘cheap hope’ – but a deep hope that rests entirely on God’s victory over sin, evil and death at the cross and resurrection of his Son. It is only in God’s redemptive work that there is hope of the healing of this beautiful yet tragic world in which you and I live:

 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.  (1 Cor 15:55-58)