Sunday, June 22, 2008

Is The Shack Emergent? Part 2

In Part 1, I commented on how The Shack removes God's justice and transcendence in a way similar to other books by emergent authors. There were other similarities as well.

Deprecating the Bible’s sufficiency and clarity:

Scriptural content was markedly missing in this book, and in fact, the picture is often at odds with the Bible. Young advances a low view of scripture:

In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. 63,64

Young’s own argument in this book, largely the product of his imagination, is a good argument for making sure our supposed encounters with God are moderated and governed by scripture. His characterization of scripture as limiting and incapable of being interpreted objectively matches other emergent arguments perfectly. Emergent authors use biblical points (like that God speaks to us today) to make points that the Bible never makes (that scripture limits God, or that it can’t be interpreted objectively).

Deprecating all authority:

Emergent authors are consistently repelled by authority of any kind. This theme comes across strong in The Shack.

Mack raised the question of authority within the godhead, and Jesus says “That sounds ghastly!” The Holy Spirit (Sarayu) explains: “We have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command… What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Heirarchy would make no sense among us. Actually this is your problem, not ours. Humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that people could work or live together without someone being in charge.”

Mack points that that every institution from government to marriage is governed by authority.

“Such a waste!” said Papa… “Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you.”

Mack points out that people have adapted to it.

Sarayu was quick to reply, “Don’t confuse adaptation for intention, or seduction for reality.” 122, 123

Then “Jesus picked up the conversation. ‘…If you had truly learned to regard each other’s concerns as significant as your own, there would be no need for hierarchy.” 124

“Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In Fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.”

I’m not concerned with the argument about authority within the godhead. But this picture suggests all authority is really unnecessary and unenlightened. Confused and fallen humans have mistakenly opted for authority, but it’s “such a waste.” On the other hand, the God we read of in scripture is very authoritative. God sees authority as a good thing, and no problem for godly people. It is not confused humans, but God himself who establishes authority in the world (Rom. 13:1), the church (Heb. 13:17), and even the family (Eph. 5:22). According to the Bible, relationship is compatible with God’s authority, and should not be put over against it.

Deprecation of Jesus’ exclusivity

According to the Bible, Jesus is God's only provision for forgiveness. Those from other religions are called on to repent from their error and turn to receive Christ. Emergent authors skirt around the issue of universalism with ambiguous language designed to create the possibility of those from other religions being saved, without actually saying that. McLaren is the supreme master at this kind of language, but Young takes his place with similar language.

After Jesus points out that he, himself is not a Christian, he says,

“Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christians, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters into my Beloved.” 182

The use of the past tense, “were” makes this comment ambiguous, especially when connected with his denial that he wants to make them Christians. What is the point in this statement? Is it that believers come from these different backgrounds before they were believers, or that they’re fine within their other religions? Hard to say. But it matches the ambiguous statements by McLaren. After explaining that Muslims do what they do because they love God, he says:

I am more and more convinced that Jesus didn’t come merely to start another religion to compete in the marketplace of other religions. If anything, I believe he came to end standard competitive religion (which Paul called "the law") by fulfilling it; I believe he came to open up something beyond religion—a new possibility, a realm, a domain, a territory of the spirit that welcomes everyone but requires everyone (now including members of the Christian religion) to think again and become like little children.’ It is not, like too many religions, a place of fear and exclusion but a place beyond fear and exclusion. It is a place where everyone can find a home in the embrace of God (A Generous Orthodoxy, pp. 266,277).

What does he mean by “beyond exclusion?” Again, it’s hard to say, but it creates the impression that Jesus’ claims are not exclusive. In other places, he has claimed that universalism is completely compatible with good theology.

So, in a word, while The Shack says more things right about God than flat wrong, the overall picture is very wrong. Omitting or deprecating God’s transcendence, justice, authority, and exclusivity leaves us with a caricature of God. This is the God humans would like to have—a big friendly teddy bear who wouldn’t hurt a flea. Bible believers will wonder who this god is.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Is The Shack Emergent?

At the heart of this book is a portrayal of God’s immanence. Young pictures God the Father, as a friendly “very large black woman” named “Papa,” Jesus as a jean-wearing guy who clumsily drops the bowl of sauce and says, “true that,” and the spirit as a partially transparent Asian girl. All three talk in a friendly, familiar way with Mack. The endearing, sometimes almost mushy love these three exhibit is appealing from the standpoint of our relationship with God, and I think this aspect of God is biblical, even if exaggerated in this story.

Unfortunately, God’s transcendence, justice, authority, and truthfulness are lost in this portrayal.

Lack of transcendence

I was uncomfortable with the notion of this large woman representing the Father who, according to scripture, “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” This is the same God who warned Moses that nobody can see God and live. Immanence is stressed in the Bible through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but the Father always stands for pure transcendence.

In the Bible, people usually fall on their face when confronted by God. Paul was blind for three days—and these encounters only involved the Son. In The Shack, the relatively irreverent Mac repeatedly throws caustic charges at God the Father:

“How can you say that with all the pain in this world, all the wars and disasters that destroy thousands?”

“But the cost!... It all sounds like the end justifies the means, that to get what you want you will go to any length, even if it costs the lives of billions of people.” 125

One’s credulity is stretched constantly by the plot anyway, but I found my credulity reaching the breaking point with this picture of a man challenging God the Father’s legitimacy and fairness to his face. No sufficient answer is given—Papa just gives smiling assurances that it all works out for love.

Lack of justice

The justice of God completely disappears in Young’s portrayal. And for this reason alone, I’m not surprised the book is popular with emergent thinkers. I think this is a major theme in emergent theology—they have virtually eliminated justice as an attribute of God. One emergent book after another heaps scorn on any portrayal of God as one who promises death to sinners.

This is why so many emergent thinkers have been questioning the penal substitution understanding of the cross of Christ. McLaren and Chalke are completely baffled as to why God would find it necessary to inflict pain on his son. They have both referred to this idea as “cosmic child abuse.” If God wants to forgive sin, they wonder, why doesn’t he just do it? That question makes sense for a human, or a God without the attribute of justice. The emergent god is way too nice to do anything like judging people in hell. An all-loving God unconcerned with righteousness and justice would never do something mean like that.

In The Shack, Mack asks papa whether she is especially fond of all or are there those who she is not especially fond of. She answers,

Nope, I haven’t been able to find any. Guess that’s jes’ the way I is.”

Mack, was interested. “Do you ever get mad at any of them?”

“Sho ‘nuf! What parent doesn’t? There is a lot to be mad about in the mess my kids have made and in the mess they’re in. I don’t like a lot of choices they make, but that anger—especially for me—is an expression of love all the same. I love the ones I am angry with just as much as those I’m not.” 119

Mack is incredulous. Responding to his amazement, papa says,

“I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” 120

In fairness, God doesn’t say sin is okay in this book, but the absence of justice is a glaring flaw. Apparently, we don’t need to be adopted through conversion to become a child of God. All humans are his children, and all entitled to his love as sons and daughters.

Other emergent themes emerge as well. We'll cover these in the next post.