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KAMPALA, UGANDA – What is the gospel?

No, really. I’m not being facetious. What is the gospel?

I ask because summer reading during my recent tenure in Canada was different than usual. Sitting on the side of my bed late one warm night, I was reminded anew that we are more sinful than we know and more loved than we imagine.

I relearned these truths, which are as old as Eden, while reading the book The Shack.

At the time I was simply journeying quietly through William P. Young’s allegory, learning about Mack and his Great Sadness after the brutal loss of his young daughter. As a father of a little girl, I felt a twist in my own stomach about it all.

And so I read about Mack’s grief. And his anger. And eventually his unabashed judgment of others, including God. And I read about Mack’s broader human frailties, particularly our propensity to do things our own way, seeking security in the wrong places, then blaming everyone else when things go awry.

And as I realized I was actually reading about myself, I grew in my own understanding of my God, our God, the One who loves us more than we realize, the Almighty God who wants to bring us, like Mack, past our pains and fears into wholeness and peace and joy.

Then I discovered that this hugely popular novel, with sales now somewhere around a million, has caused a tempest in our community. And it’s left me wondering: is it just me, or is something fundamentally and horribly amiss in our courtyard?

It was at Canada’s largest gathering for writers who are Christian, in Guelph, where an American bookagent, a gatekeeper of the Christian publishing world, told me he had earlier rejected Young’s manuscript because, in his words, “I feared judgment.”

Oh?

And it was at Canada’s largest Christian retreat centre, visited in Muskoka by thousands, where a bookstore clerk told me the store didn’t carry The Shack because, “it’s not biblical.”

Really?

“It’s just fiction,” she said, as we stood amidst shelves of historical romances and End Times thrillers and other fluffy and certainly fictitious, yarns. Then came her real concern—exactly what the book-agent told me earlier: that “God is not a big black woman.”

So is the problem that this allegory depicts God the Father incarnated as a black person, or as a woman?

Understand that working in Africa most of the year, I see more black women than most Canadians do. But would anyone be troubled if the Divine was an allegorical figure like, say, a lion named Aslan? What about an old, white man with a long beard, stretching his outstretched hand from the heavens? Visit me in Uganda and you will see how offensive that old Western image is.

Jesus, of course, loved fresh stories and images and used metaphor often to keep us from falling into narrow presuppositions.

When He called Himself a good shepherd, for example, He knew very well that shepherds of His time were people of ill repute, respected even less than say, today’s large, black women.

So why aren’t we beyond this ignorance? Don’t we know our own Scripture? That in Christ, as Paul aptly notes, there is no gender or race?

Apparently not.

I wonder if this is, in part, because Christian subculture, in our fast and easy times, has made the entire gospel too small: a message reduced to a series of steps to enter eternity with some kind of ticket, a partial view that is void of God’s largeness and diversity and mystery, a clock marking time rather than a compass giving meaning and direction to every day.

When something outside its tidy box comes along, the subculture, illiterate to its own heritage, rejects it. Meanwhile, other everyday folks who are hungry and thirsty for understanding are finding it, in this case by bypassing our community on their way to Chapters.

At its heart, the gospel is Christ saying to those who would listen, “Wake up. God’s Kingdom is here.” We can get distracted with other, more insular messages and be irrelevant to today’s broader culture.

Or, as Christ’s ambassadors, we can do what we need to: wake up.