Tuesday, June 9, 2009

6-7-2009: Trintiy Sunday (B)

Deuteronomy 4:32-34,39-40/Psalm 33/Romans 8:14-17/Matthew 28:16-20

The ineffable mystery of the Trinity, not quite the cocktail hour topic of conversation, has made a big hit of late with the phenomenal success of The Shack, by William P. Young, a novel about forgiveness and the triune nature of God. Unlike the typical Renaissance depiction of the Trinity as the conventional Jesus seated below the white dove and old-white-man-with-flowing-beard, The Shack characterizes the Trinity as Black woman, Hispanic male, and androgynous Asian.

Readers remark that they were drawn by the shock of the unconventional, surprising characterization of the Trinity in this way. I wonder, though. I suspect these readers were anything but shocked: the characterizations appealing to them precisely because they met with certain preconceived stereotypes. The black grandma, as God the Father, sufficiently obese; the Hispanic male, as God the Son, sufficiently macho; and the androgynous Asian, as God the Spirit, either sufficiently feminized or emasculated depending on which profile you prefer emphasized. And the protagonist of the novel, Mack, as the devastated and, of course, slow-to-get-it white male (you can nearly hear the southern drawl) around whom the world turns and the Trinity saunters.

Reading The Shack made me better appreciate the Old Testament injunction forbidding graven images of God, if not for fear of apostasy than at least for embarrassment sake. But we mere mortals inevitably make such images of God, even if we don’t write them into novels or paint them on the Sistine ceiling or characterize them in movies. (As for me, I’ve long preferred George Burns as God in those Oh God movies, betraying my preconceived stereotypes, I suppose - though George Burns, being Jewish, did seem to add some authenticity to the mix). We carry those images around with us from childhood and become comfortable with them for better or worse. It’s when those ingrained images are somehow upset, overturned, demolished that we begin to seriously enter into that dialogue between the natural and supernatural, between us and the Other, between us and the nothing - what Hemingway called Nada.

At the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity (I think) is the notion of vulnerability: the perfections of divinity discarded for the flaws inherent in becoming human. The reason I believe The Shack just doesn’t work is because we no longer perceive these particular ethnic/racial identities as flawed or inherently less worthy of emulation.

The Trinity, whatever it is, is meant to make us more human, more aware of how vulnerable we are. Evidence of its ineffable presence is always residual: the awe, surprise, or shock we feel when long-held convictions are overturned. While promoting Blacks, Hispanics and Asians to the divine pantheon (or the United States Supreme Court for that matter) has not quite yet been totally achieved it certainly can now be imagined and, thus, doesn’t leave us especially shocked or surprised. What would really be shocking and perhaps awe-ful would be to picture a Mid-Eastern al-Qaida type as the Spirit; or some loathsome pedophile Irish priest as the Word Incarnate; or, go all out, and let George Burns as God the Father keep Gracie as his wife. Even better: take that obese black grandma and make her into the Blessed Virgin. I suspect that would raise quite a few eyebrows: not because she’s black – but because she’s fat.

The ancient description of the Trinity where each person of the Godhead is equal in majesty and power yet distinct in person reminds us that equality is not the equivalent of sameness, nor is unity mere uniformity. The ineffable nature of the Trinity, which we can only describe by analogy, suggests that God cannot be limited in the ways he seeks to touch us, and how that divine touch will always leave us vulnerable: to shock one moment, to awe in the next, but to peace at the last.

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