Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Shack

I first heard about The Shack last May, when my friend Bryan mentioned this book he was reading in which God was a "big black woman". I heard a few others mention it, and I finally picked it up and read it.

I was profoundly moved.

Let me say at the outset that I understand much of the criticism. This book uses language, metaphors, symbols, and ideas that are not at all what is taught in many churches today. Proof-texting this book and reading it literally can lead one to decide it is, as it has been called, "dangerous". I certainly understand why fundamentalists, Reformed Calvinists, and others would eschew it. I don't pretend to tell these friends that they are wrong.

But I was profoundly moved.

Yes, I am troubled with some things in the book. I do not think that evil is simply the absence of good just as darkness is the absence of light - I believe that evil exists forcefully in the world. I believe that the book makes a mistake by underemphasizing the importance of worship - although the entire book is so focused on our personal relationship with God and Christ that it of course encompasses worship without emphasizing it by name. I believe that there is a lot of good in the church and in organized religion, and the book certainly seems to be taking some unnecessary shots there.

I also believe that many of the critics misunderstand the book, but I understand why. The book is NOT universalist, at least as I read it, but it uses language that scares the fundamentalists when it says that some of Christ's followers started out as Buddhists or Mormons. But in response to the universalist mantra that "all roads lead to God", it definitely says that "most roads don't lead anywhere", and there can be no question, if one reads the book fairly, that its message is that salvation comes only through Christ.

The book's discussion of "rules" has led many to conclude that it is anti-Biblical. I don't think so at all. I think the author is trying to talk about the relative purpose and place of "rules" in our religious thinking. His treatment of the Ten Commandments is too brief, and I am sure that there are some who decide that he has discarded them. I think that is not what he is doing, but by giving them short shrift, he has left himself open to that criticism.

But the reason I am defending the book and encouraging others to read it is that it contains such profound statements of faith that resonate with me. Whether you agree with the author's ultimate point or not, surely we agree that some of these statements attributed to God in the novel are worth contemplation:

-- "Many folks try to grasp some sense of who I am by taking the best version of themselves, projecting that to the nth degree, factoring in all the goodness they can perceive, which often isn't much, and than call that 'God'. And while it may seem like a noble effort, the truth is that it falls pitifully short of who I really am. I'm not merely the best version of you that you can think of. I am far more than that, above and beyond all that you can ask or think."

-- "The real underlying flaw in your life ... is that you don't think that I am good. If you knew I was good and that everything - the means, the ends, and all the processes of individual lives - is all covered by my goodness, then while you might not always understand what I am doing, you would trust me. But you don't.... Trust is the fruit of relationship in which you know you are loved."

-- After the Holy Spirit tells Mack (the protagonist) to touch a plant that may be poisonous, Mack takes the twig and asks, "If you had not told me thas was safe to touch, would it have poisoned me?" God replies, "Of course. But if I direct you to touch, that is different. For any created being, autonomy is lunacy. Freedom involves trust and obedience inside a relationship of love. So, if you are not hearing my voice, it would be wise to take the time to understand the nature of the plant."

-- Some critics have accused the book of allowing us to throw out Biblical ideas of right and wrong in some sort of postmodern free-for-all of subjective "good". I think that is an unfair attack on a book that has God saying the opposite: "You must give up your right to decide what is good and evil on your own terms. That is a hard pill to swallow; choosing to only live in me. To do that you must know me enough to trust me and learn to rest in my inherent goodness."

-- "Evil is the chaos of this age that you brought to me, but it will not have the final say. Now it touches everyone that I love, those who follow me and those who don't. If I take away the consequences of people's choices, I destroy the possibility of love. Love that is forced is no love at all."

-- And perhaps the best: "Creation and history are all about Jesus. He is the very center of our purpose and in him we are now fully human, so our purpose and your destiny are forever linked. You might say that we have put all our eggs in the one human basket.... There has never been a question that what I wanted from the beginning, I will get.... Through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world.... The whole world, Mack. All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship, but it is the nature of love to open the way."

These are Biblically sound points. We tend to poo-poo the very simple message that God loves us, probably because we in the church have heard it so long that we can tell ourselves that it is too elementary to be a focus. This book suggests, and I agree, that much of our faith problem stems from our lack of belief that God really loves us. If nothing else, this book tackles our faith problem head-on, and I congratulate it. This is no postmodern "emerging church" attack on the basics of our doctrine - this is a Christ-centered call to personal relationship with God.

Yes, this story (and it is, in fact, a story, not scripture or even an essay) may not line up with my understanding of Jesus' divine powers while he walked on earth, but I cannot help but recommend a work in which God says, "I don't just want a piece of you and a piece of your life. Even if you were able, which you are not, to give me the biggest piece, that is not what I want. I want all of you and all of every part of you and your day.... I don't want to be first among a list of values; I want to be at the center of everything."

I daresay that there are few people whose testimony I hear and decide that 100% of their spiritual interpretations are correct. That does not make me discard their testimony, and it should not make me decide that God cannot speak to me through them.

I have not processed all that this book says. In coming days, God may show me other things in it that are wrong, or even "dangerous". But I do not think I will conclude that it was a bad idea to read it.

God spoke to me as I read. I closed the book and felt spiritually spent and full at the same time. It was a mediative workout for me. That leads me to say that it is worthwhile.

Read the book. You don't have to agree with all of it, or most of it. You don't have to like the characterizations of the persons of the Trinity. You may find much of it too related to postmodern ideas or to astral projection or to universalism to mean much to you. But I don't think so. I think you can read it as a whole and find an understanding of God's love, a meaningful examination of the reality of tragedy and yet our ability to live through it, a valuable discussion of the importance of forgiveness, and a creative attempt to get us to think about our ability to have conversation with God.

In the book, the Holy Spirit is called Sarayu. God is called Papa. If those names bother you, you won't like the book. But if you can get over that kind of creativity, you will work your way to the end, where the author tells us: "And one day, when all is revealed, every one of us will bow our knee and confess in the power of Sarayu that Jesus is the Lord of all Creation, to the glory of Papa."

I can't argue with that.


Krytlebit said...

I can't wait to read it!

Eric Bryant said...

Like you, I some of the book was rather cheesy (almost a copycat of the Matrix in some parts), but I couldn't help but be moved as well. When I realized the pain the author went through in his personal life (abuse and adultery) and that he wrote this book to help his family through the pain, it becomes that much more powerful.