Portraying God

February 28th, 2017

Several weeks ago, when my husband and I went to the movies to see Hidden Figures, we sat through a variety of previews, including one for The Shack. Being generally averse to pop theology, I had not read the book, and I doubt I will see the movie, though I’m sure it will do well among a certain audience. I was surprised when a blogpost entitled “Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or Reviewing) The Shack Movie” from Tim Challies went viral in the Christian social media sphere.

Amidst some valid theological criticisms of the book and its portrayal of the Trinity, which some Christian thinkers have deemed heretical, Challies focuses his concern on its visual representation of God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the Christian tradition are depicted as an African-American woman called Elouisa and “Papa,” a Jewish carpenter, and an Asian woman named Sarayu. On-screen, the first person of the Trinity is portrayed by Octavia Spencer, which Challies argues is a violation of the second commandment – “You shall not make yourself an idol.” For Challies, the representation the Father and the Holy Spirit in particular as human beings is idolatry and blasphemy.

Human actors portraying God on-screen is not a new phenomenon. Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman took his turn in the role in the comedic movies Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty. In another controversial religious movie, Alanis Morrissette played God in the 1999 film Dogma. Other actors like Val Kilmer and John Huston have played roles as the voice of God without being visually represented.

Churches hold a variety of positions on the use of icons and symbols as prayer and worship aids, and Christianity has had periods of iconoclasm hearkening back the Byzantine era in the 8th century. The deliberate destruction of icons was formally condemned by the Second Council of Nicaea based on the argument that they were not portraying the invisible God but the God who had become flesh by the incarnation of Jesus.

Perhaps inadvertently, Tim Challies ends up arguing against the incarnation in his conclusion when he says, “The Shack presents God in human flesh. It makes the infinite finite, the invisible visible, the omnipotent impotent, the all-present local, the spiritual material.” Jesus also presents God in human flesh and makes the infinite finite, the invisible visible, etc. Per Philippians 2, Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, being born in human likeness.

Of course, any portrayal of God is going to be lacking, and it’s likely going to be a projection of ourselves and culture. Why else are all the pictures of Jesus in Western churches fair-haired and blue-eyed? Would Challies also refuse to see the Sistine Chapel and its visual representation of a gray-bearded male God creating Adam, or is The Shack more shocking and controversial because an African-American woman is representative of God?

No reasonable Christian relies on one image or metaphor to encompass the divine nature of Almighty God. The beauty of the poetry and imagery in Scripture is that it gives us a number of ways to understand characteristics of God  as an eagle, a mother hen, a rock, or an all-consuming fire. Art and film can help us get outside of our comfort zone by viewing something from a different lens. In the process of preparing a sermon, some weeks I seek out art from other cultures that portrays that lesson or story. The Chinese artist He Qi and the ‘Jesus Mafa’ paintings, a collaboration of French missionaries and Mafa Christians in Cameroon, routinely open my eyes more fully to God’s grace and glory.

God does not look like Octavia Spencer any more than God looks like Michelangelo’s version on the Sistine Chapel. If we are shocked and surprised by one more than the other, that might say more about our narrow vision of God than it does about threats of idolatry. Rather than limiting ourselves to certain portrayals of God, we would do better to expand these portrayals across gender, race, and ethnicity.

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