The Burning Bush, the Rublev Icon, and The Shack – Dr Marty Folsom

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If you ignite a bush in the wilderness, you may be an arsonist.

If you come across a burning bush and God speaks to you, your name is Moses.

If you encourage others to light bushes to see if God shows up, you are possibly starting a religion to conjure up God through strange fires.

If you are Moses and follow the Voice that has spoken to you, doing what it says, you will see God liberate and bring people to Himself. God will fulfill His gracious and loving covenant, using humble means to achieve His restorative end.

God can use burning bushes to speak, but we are called to pursue the God who speaks — without limiting how God may address us.

Moses himself was a kind of burning bush. He was a murder, an outlaw, one who did not want to answer the call of God. But he was also the one through whom God spoke to Pharaoh, Israel, and ultimately to us. God uses humble, imperfect bushes to call and connect.

Israel was a burning bush. God made the Hebrew people into a nation to be a vehicle of His covenant in order to bless the nations. In spite of a history of rebellion, they were the site of the story of the covenant conversation born in the heart of God and aimed at the reconciliation of the world.

We could go on through the Bible to recognize the places God uses imperfect means to express and fulfill His purposes. Jesus was a burning bush, unrecognized by the religious elite, but who spoke as God through human flesh. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were a burning bush to speak of the mighty acts of God. The Spirit used those who were otherwise ordinary humans for a burning bush.

The Bible itself is a burning bush; its human words are inhabited and ignited by the Living God to speak to us today—but we must always come as listeners, not as those who use the Bible for our own agendas. The Triune God is still Lord over this text. Otherwise, our misreadings will become acts of religious arson, making it burn for our self-serving purposes.

Today, we do not wait for burning bushes in the wilderness; instead, we wait for God. We neither exclude any means that God may use, nor accept any affirmation of truth unless it aligns with the Voice of the One God who expresses through the three personal voices of Father (This is My Beloved Son), Son (The Father and I are One), and Spirit (The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come”).

But there is a battle cry in the land. Some people today are concerned that certain images of the Triunity of God are misrepresenting the One God of the Bible as three gods: the heresy of Tritheism. God is One in the Bible. But still, there are three voices. No one ever said that explaining the Trinity was easy. There is a long history of naming: some emphasize the unity of God as Unitarians and some focus on the three persons as Tritheists. Both miss the duality of one God in three persons.

We must hold together both the unity (God is one) and the particularity (In three persons) if we are to stand in the tradition of Jesus who affirmed that the Father and He were One. This is a relational unity. It acknowledges an inseparable life expressed in the particular manifestations of Father, Son, and Spirit in loving, unified cooperation. The God of the whole Bible is One. The God of the whole Bible is inseparably expressed in all three persons. Thus, we always will be imperfect in our analogies of God—only God can represent God; all analogies are humble pointers.

At this point, I would like to address two specific concerns about how the Trinity is being imaged that are worth considering. First is the Rublev Icon (Google Rublev Icon image). In this icon, the three angels sitting around a table strongly suggest the persons of the Trinity. Some people are concerned that the icon of the three angels could lead to Tritheism in that they depict three human bodies. Rublev used the story in Genesis 18:1-15 of Abraham and the three angels who came to visit him as the biblical backdrop for the icon. Saint Augustine has suggested an observation similar to Rublev’s in asking, “So why may we not take the episode as a visible intimation by means of visible creations of the equality of the triad, and of the single identity of substance in the three persons?” (The Trinity, Book II.19-22). He is rhetorically asking us to see them as one God in three persons.

Both Rublev and Augustine are allowing a created form of appearance—human—as a vehicle to access the uncreated glory of God—imaging the Triune persons as present and active in the created world. It seems best to think of the icon as a burning bush that points beyond itself. The setting has the capacity to suggest the communion of the three persons of the Trinity. It is not to be taken as a literal snapshot of God. One must look through and past the physical to apprehend the spiritual. Might this not be said of all our words and propositions as well? All such symbols can either be abused or used to engage reality. We must humbly hold the physical aspects of the world, as God does, to accommodate to human interaction. Jesus, as the God-human, is the ultimate expression of this course of action, being embodied as Creator in a created form as an infant who grows to fulfillment. God speaks with humility as part of God’s glory.

The Rublev icon invites the observer to become a participant in a life of communion with God. Rublev takes a biblical story and presses it into the mystery of God. He suggests that in their unified life the three express the Trinity in earthly garb with heavenly overtones. Thus, Rublev breaks us out of our own story to indwell the story of God who comes into the earthly sphere and invites us into the scene. But the icon is a burning bush, not to be worshiped, but offered to listen to the God who is glimpsed through this window into Heaven as it engages the Earth. This is the function of icons as written images: to depict the biblical narrative and to be engaged by what, or rather who, is beyond and comes to meet us.

The second concern I will address is the book, soon to come out as a movie, The Shack by Paul Young. The book sold over 22 million copies because it offered a different image of God from what many had seen before. Gone was the anger of God, the judgmental God who watches from afar. Instead this book portrays a loving God in the form of three humans. It was criticized for its Tritheism, with God as Papa as a black woman; Jesus as Jesus, a Middle-Eastern man; and the Holy Spirit as an Asian female, Sarayu. The book was critiqued as feminist because two of the persons appear as females. Some think it is Universalist, meaning all are saved in the end and the judgmental God is dismissed. The story questions hierarchy in God’s life and in human structures. God seems too loving for some, failing to call humans to repent of their sins. The love of God wins and humanity is presumed to not be required to have faith. On the criticisms go. But this book is a burning bush.

The Shack is clearly a fictional book, an analogy in the tradition of Pilgrim’s Progress, as stated on the cover. It is not to be worshiped or to be used to establish doctrine. It is capable of suggesting, even opening wide, a God who appears much more like the God of the Bible than the gods who are shaped by different cultures—those that make God very much like their ideal of perfection. How much is the American Jesus a projection of an American ideal of success? How do the cathedrals of Europe reflect a God who is dismissible as an artistic creation of the past? How has each culture silenced the burning bush and replaced it with grand fireplaces that never burn?

At the American Academy of Religion, in a session with Paul Young, a professor stood and addressed Paul, saying “You have done what this room of academics has failed to do; you got people talking about God again.” She recognized the burning bush. Finally, people were asking questions about whether God actually cares in a manner suggested in the book. Rather than reframing an extinguishing religious tradition that served past generations well, The Shack provided a story of brokenness and a God who is personally involved in bringing restoration. It awakens curiosity to know what God is really like and calls into question all the domesticated ways that God is presented in churches and on TV around the world.

Rather than putting The Shack through a purity of doctrine test, it is best seen as a burning bush that calls us to obediently return to the living, Triune God who seeks relationship. Ironically, that is what sermons across the world attempt to do every Sunday. In them, all manner of images and illustrations are used to preach the Word, often to give people insight as to how to have a better life by applying Christian principles that miss God. Rules replace the relationship. But what people really need is to be reoriented to the living God revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit. God should not merely be a topic of discussion, but is to be known as the One who comes to meet us. The Shack succeeds where many churches fail. Most churches desire to change minds and actions, rather than pursue a transformed relationship with the God in whom we live and move and have our being. The Shack wakes people up to a God who still speaks. We need not despise the bush; we might instead heed the One who is speaking.

Both the Rublev Icon and The Shack are imperfect. They can be misread, but they can start a conversation that leads to connection with the Triune God. The Bible, too, can be misread. Many have dismissed it along with all God-talk. The Modern world has become Enlightened and self-sufficient, and God is absent from normal discussion. But those who believe that God is sovereign must consider the ongoing humble task of humanly engaging the God who holds the universe together in the language of the people who do not know this God. Tragically, we could simply live with an unknowing mystery. We could neatly tuck God inside our comfortable beds of thought. Militantly, we could try to protect God from being misunderstood to the point that people only hear the corrections and miss God.

When the movie comes out, we can spend all our energy pointing out where it misses a pasteurized form of Christian doctrine. Alternatively, we can ask people who see it what they think of the God portrayed. We can humbly state our reservations, but relish that we are talking to others about who God is and what God is up to. The story of The Shack is invitational in that it reveals the mission of God to restore humanity. It engages human suffering and brokenness. It is capable of awakening a love for God and a desire to know God more. Our churches have these same possibilities, as well as shortcomings in representing God.

“By this all will know you are my disciples, if you love one another” is the burning bush that the world wants to see and experience. Whenever we look through Scripture, sermons, the church, art, music, social justice projects, or our loving friends, we glimpse the God who made and sustains them. We are readied to hear from the burning bush, but none of these earthly gifts are God. We need to know the Voice of God as we learn to recognize it in the Bible. But we must not extinguish all other voices that echo from that divine source.

We need burning bushes. But even more we need the God who speaks. If we extinguish all burning bushes in order to hear only a purified form of theology, we will become like Saul of Tarsus, who tried to silence the Christians. He was committed to protect a single, traditional view that had mummified the life of God in zealous religion. But in the Bible, we see that Jesus can take care of sinners and tax collectors with amazing love that transforms them through non-judgmental presence and an offer of shared life. He had to confront the religious people for their fire that had gone out—they were white-washed tombs.

Much of the world has given up on reading the Bible or going to church. We might encourage them to hear the voice in the burning bushes and to clarify who God is so that they can answer the liberating call. There are plenty of other movies and books with alternate spiritualities that are filling the vacuum of empty souls. Let us point to and past the burning bushes like the Rublev icon and The Shack that come along so that the God who is pursuing us might be recognized and responded to in the wilderness of surprise.