2/28/2009

The Shack in Review

Stephen Shields, in another of his very helpful reviews and compendiums of what other people are saying on the internet, offers Some Thoughts on The Shack:


As of today, The Shack has been #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List for 36 straight weeks. At the time of this writing, The Shack was the #6 best-selling book of all categories on Amazon.com.

I cannot remember when I've finished a book and then promptly began it a second time the very next day, but that's exactly what I did with The Shack a couple of weeks ago. I finished my second reading of the book a few days ago.

I found the book to be quite powerful. Realizing that the book is controversial, I nevertheless am giving the book a qualified recommendation and am encouraging my friends to read it discerningly.

Some of the critiques that one reads of Young's work are theological. I do not believe it's invalid to criticize the theology behind a creative piece of fiction, but I do think it's unrealistic to expect comprehensive systematic theology from such a work. Some things are simply not addressed in a work of fiction that we would expect to be addressed in systematics. And so I'm hesitant to agree with those critiques that have foundation in a charge of incompleteness. Nevertheless, I did find theological shortcomings in the book and also appreciated other aspects of the work.

I did not agree with all of the comments in the book regarding authority and hierarchy. I got the impression from reading The Shack that all hierarchy is an unmitigated wrong. I, on the other hand, believe loving authority is not only legitimate on earth but that we also see it in the Godhead (in distinction from what Sarayu claims on p. 122).

I also was not sure what Young was getting at when he had Jesus say that He did not wish for folks to become Christians (p. 182). I have no problem with anyone saying that organized Christianity does not always equal true Christianity, but Jesus comments here seemed to be overstatement.

One critique of The Shack is that it promotes Ultimate Reconciliation (UR). When I read the book, I wondered about this myself. My feeling is that the book had the flavor of Ultimate Reconciliation. Moreoever, Young's story collaborator Wayne Jacobsen in his article Is THE SHACK Heresy? asserts earlier drafts of the the book did reflect William P. Young's leanings toward Ultimate Reconciliation at that time.

However, Jacobsen writes, "While some of that was in earlier versions because of the author’s partiality at the time to some aspects of what people call UR, I made it clear at the outset that I didn’t embrace UR as sound teaching and didn’t want to be involved in a project that promoted it." However, Jacobsen also implies in his article that the collaborative process itself had an affect on Young's theological views including, it would seem, any predispositions Young had toward UR. And I believe Young when I heard him say emphatically in interviews that he believes in Hell.

Regarding the critique that the book does not accurately convey the Trinity, for myself I was not looking for it to definitively portray the Trinity. It's a work of creative fiction and clearly the author took some liberties. When I have taught theology I have told my students that the day that I explain the Trinity to them in such a way that they go, "Ok, now I get it! That makes perfect sense" that is the day that they can be assured that I have no idea what I'm talking about. We should not be shocked that our finite minds cannot completely comprehend the One Who is infinite. And I felt that there was a definite tension in Young's portrayal of the Trinity that was consistent with the mystery of "God in three persons." But do I think Young got it right? No, of course not. But I do feel that he gave an interesting portrait of God.

One aspect of the book I appreciated was the honest treatment of the most difficult theological question encapsulated in Mackenzie's terrible tragedy: Why would a loving, all-powerful being allow six-year-old Missy to be brutally murdered? I was satisfied that Young did not attempt to provide a definitive theodicy but that in the book the author gave some hints toward an answer that had to do with humanity's freedom to choose. I personally believe that a completely satisfying theodicy is not possible this side of the Jordan. I appreciated that Young did not wrap this theological problem up in a artificially contrived bow.

But perhaps the aspect of the book I appreciated the most was the portrayal of God's personal involvement with Mack. I do believe that God's omnipotence implies his ability to deal with each of his creatures with loving individuality. It was moving to see Young's portrayal of this.

And so I found the book helpfully provocative but I am sensitive to, and in some cases sympathetic with, those who might critique its theology in places. I am also open to being shown that I have missed theological deficiencies in the book that should be highlighted.

But all these concerns expressed, I cautiously recommend The Shack as one way to helpfully challenge our paradigm of God in a way that might lead to a fuller understanding of Him.

Other Information Available Online About The Shack:

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Thanks, Stephen, for this helpful post!
-Bob
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2/25/2009

2/09/2009

A Comma or a Period?

Is God Still Speaking? And How Do We Know We Are Hearing God's Voice?

I’ve been intrigued by the promotional campaign, “God is Still Speaking,” which features a giant “Comma.” At the Still Speaking Store, you can buy banners, posters, apparel, party supplies, pens, and more with the Still Speaking logo.

This is the United Church of Christ's reaction to the conservative evangelical belief that God has already spoken in his Word, the Bible. It is a counter to the phrase often heard in conservative circles, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Period. Period. Period.

I have to admit that the "that settles it" approach is a very simple and narrow way of thinking about how God interacts with us. It is truncated and anemic. It is not a fully-formed theology of understanding how we interact with God’s Spirit as we are formed by the teaching of the Bible.

Most evangelicals believe that God does indeed still speak. At varying degrees, evangelicals believe in prophesy for today. At varying degrees, we believe that God speaks in and through culture and circumstances. At varying degrees, we believe that theology is a constant science of connecting the Bible to our contemporary culture and circumstance.

Admittedly, we evangelicals have a sad history of not being humble in our theological convictions. We tend to come to some theological conclusion and then draw a heavy line in the sand saying, "This is orthodoxy and can never change." But when we do this, it causes strife and division within our own community, creating new denominations based on every new line drawn in the sand. A new line is drawn, and a new denomination is born. Some Christians attempt to embrace the phrase, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” but we mostly fail miserably at it, for we all have different definitions of “essential” and “non-essential.”

I am sympathetic to the UCC’s new catch-phrase, “God is Still Speaking,” but I am also wary of it. The statement that accompanies the comma campaign is “No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here.” In other words (and I don’t think I’m being presumptuous with this), if you are openly gay and want to continue in your lifestyle, the United Church of Christ can be your home.

The UCC is capitalizing on the fact that evangelical churches are known as not being welcoming to homosexuals. This is granted. It is also sad. Evangelical churches have struggled with balancing their proclamation of the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality with living out the Bible’s calling to welcome all sinners into the loving and transforming community of the Church.

But what the UCC is saying is that they have definitively heard the voice of God on this issue – that God is “still speaking,” and has said that homosexuality is not a sin after all.

I want to embrace the idea that “God is Still Speaking,” but I want to be sure that what we are hearing is not our own fallen notions of right and wrong, or worse yet, the voice of the deceiver, Satan.

How do we discern that what we are hearing is actually God speaking?

The only controls that I can think of are these: Scripture, Tradition, and Community – all working together in the on-going work of understanding what God is saying to us in our contemporary culture and circumstances.

Some who claim to be Christians put all their marbles in the bag of “Scripture” and disregard what the Church has always believed (ignoring tradition) and neglecting interacting with other members of the community of believers. This creates all-new ideas about the Bible's teaching and often results in division and strange and novel doctrines.

Others who claim to be Christians put all their marbles in the bag of “Tradition” and ignore that, often, their church tradition rubs against the Scriptures. The Bible can take a backseat to what the church's leadership says is doctrine, in spite of no solid biblical teaching on the tradition.

The UCC is putting all their marbles in the bag of “Community.” Since they, as a group, have decided that the loving thing to do is to never tell someone that homosexuality is a sin, then that trumps Scripture and Tradition.

This is a problem that I see rising up in the emerging church as well. We are not paying enough attention to all three controls for hearing God correctly. If we do not do so, we will fall into the same mistakes that have happened before.

And that is not very "emerging" at all!

2/01/2009

Focus on the Family's THE TRUTH PROJECT

Does The Truth Project Have a Hidden Agenda? And If So, Is It Really Seeking "Truth?"

Many evangelical churches have been using Focus on the Family's new video curriculum, The Truth Project, taught by Dr. Del Tackett, in an attempt to educate their members in a Christian World View.

However, I think it would be wise for us to understand the manipulative slant that Focus on the Family gives in this video series.

Two bloggers that I just discovered take The Truth Project to task. Check out these insightful critiques of this series:

On not taking postmodernism seriously enough
This video highlights how unhelpful terms can be. "Postmodernism" according to Tackett is a false worldview that he groups next to "secular humanism," "Islam," among others. From my understandings, the philosophical foundations for this argument is not very accurate. Towards the end of the video the professor uses a chart which shows "Truth" on one side (what we're all after) and all the other "world views" on the other side throwing their lies at us, deceiving us. That is foundationalism. If we could just see those foundations, just weed out all the manipulations and half-truths and lies, we'd only be left with "truth." Tackett never addresses how we can do that when the only thing we have to work through are all those -isms and -ologies that shape our thinking.
On the nature of Man and God
His (Tackett's) discussion of sin was largely individualistic (our choices). His discussion of God was entirely individualistic (our own personal relationship). The remaining "pillars" that he sets out to address in the end of this series (economy, work, politics) are going to be malnourished because of this complete ignoring of the communal aspect of the essence of God: in theological jargon, a "functional trinitarian theology." This is where theology has moved in recent years, and to ignore it completely shows the reliance of antiquated, foundational modernistic philosophy underlying this entire video series.
On faith as it relates to science
The unfortunate aspect of the sessions are his insistently argumentative and combative tone when it comes to those to whom he disagrees - and in science he finds his enemy in Darwin. On several occasions, as he has throughout this series, he mocks and laughs at those who do not believe. If he had left the tone worshipful and awe-inspiring of the created order God has made . . . I would have nothing negative to say in regards to these two weeks. However, Tackett cannot leave it at that. He must deal with the "perniscious liars" who "manipulate truth" and are basically out to get us. I, again, cannot follow the rationale that gets him there. For Tackett, it's basically a black and white issue. God created everything (nearly, if not completey) literally as it is portrayed in the Bible. Anyone who sheds doubt on this fact is a pernicious liar and the Evil One has overtaken them. When you get through the two-week lesson you are led to believe that anyone who believes is evolution is completely ignorant and totally misled by the lies of the world. He, once again, builds up a strawman and blows him down.
On faith as it relates to history
I find it truly ironic that he accuses the "world" of myopia when that is exactly the problem I see inherent in his belief system in regards to history. He has a great moving moment in light of a painting of the Pilgrims and talks of the great sacrifices they made to follow what they thought of as God's will - coming to America, expanding the kingdom he even says. What a great people they were, following God's will even to the point of death from the elements. It's interesting that he determines that this is the meta-narrative, the guiding story and following of God's people that will lead no doubt to where he's headed with the session entitled the "Great American Experiment" looming. It was God's will that this nation was founded. Upon the great principles of God. Perhaps that discussion can be had in political circles - but NOT theological ones.
On how faith relates to work
I knew there would be some underlying agenda-driven points along the way. It met me squarely with this video on labor. Now, I do applaude the inclusion of this topic in the series. He is right that we too often do not speak of the place of labor in our theological framework. And for the first part of his video I felt he did a fair job of presenting a biblical perspective. Our role in work is rooted in God's working in the Genesis account. God worked. He created us to work. Work is not inherently evil. The Fall did affect work...
When he moves away from Genesis, however, he begins some hermentuetical gymnastics to make his right wing political ideology fit the Bible... Some of his statements and teachings in this series are downright misleading and un-biblical. I am flabergasted that he would spend 15 minutes of his hour long session on the gleanings passage and NEVER mention jubilee. Jesus reads from the text in Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry in Luke stating that he has come to fulfill this (in their hearing). Israel was intended to be built around the idea of redistrubtion of wealth - something he lists on the screen that the Bible teaches is a SIN! A sin! It is a biblical teaching! I'm not supporting socialism or anything like that . . . my point is that Tackett has allowed his culture to dictate his understanding of the text. The Bible does teach that this is a sin.
On "Culture" being evil and the enemy of Christianity
One of the first things the presenter does, and continues to do throughout the video, is refer to culture in a negative light. Culture is portrayed as "anti-God"... I think culture needs to be critiqued and looked at objectively, but it is neither good nor bad on its own. A demonizing of culture leads to an unhealthy view of those outside of the Christian subculture. This creates a fear response and often paranoia amongst many of the Christian populace.
On the purpose of Jesus' incarnation
At the beginning the presenter poses the question "Why did Jesus come into the World?" His "class" gave varied answers, many of which could be justified scripturally, but he stated that they were wrong (he might argue that they were wrong in reference to his particular scripture reference, but he never made that clear). He uses Jesus' statement in John to build his case. "In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." John 18:37b
The video seeks to prove to the listener that Truth is the point of everything God ever did and that one is either for or against it. Much of his argument throughout the video relies on proof-texting. Henry Neufeld gives a good definition of proof-texting:

"By proof-texting I mean the use of individual scripture texts to produce apparent support for a doctrinal position without adequate regard for the contexts of the individual texts which may indicate differences and nuances."

To discuss the scriptural reasons of why Jesus came would not have helped his argument. He wanted to divide everything into black and white terms. Therefore, other reasons were not mentioned and the answers of his class were dismissed.

Here are a couple of other reasons Jesus came: (these are just a few of the more blunt ones; inferred would be much longer)
  • "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." John 3:17
  • "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst." 1 Timothy 1:15
  • "Then he said, "Here I am, I have come to do your will." He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." Hebrew 10:9-10
  • "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." John 10:10
  • "For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me."John 6:38
These scriptures, and others like them, do not lend themselves to drawing a line in the sand... The purpose of this video was to bifurcate (his word) humanity to those who follow the Truth (by his definition) and those who do not.

Have you seen The Truth Project? What have you thought of it?