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.


Karl said...

Hi Dennis,

Thanks for the thorough and thoughtful commentary. When I first read The Shack, I was enthralled--I found the depictions of Mack's coming to grips with his own sin and unwillingness to forgive powerful and moving, but I now see that I read the ambiguous passages you quote in the most favorable light I could.

I still think it's a good read (if a little melodramatic), but I'd only recommend it to believers strong in the basics of their faith. The hard-bound version includes an appendix where Young says that he and his partners performed an editing pass where, among other things, they removed items of questionable doctrine. Unfortunately, I suspect their idea of removing was simply adding ambiguity. Too bad; I think this could have been a great book.

Dennis said...

I think that'= happening alot. People are responding positively to the grace in the book, but I think grace makes little sense apart from the reality of justice.

Randall Neighbour said...

Dennis, I thoroughly enjoyed your in-depth review of this book, although I had not heard of it and probably will never read it. Your insight into emergent church theology is what made this review such a valuable read for me.

Keep up the great work and keep blogging. You've got readers!

Norm said...

Thank you Dennis for your discussion about The Shack. It seems like everyone is up in arms about this book but I can't understand why.

I think The Shack is rather innocuous, especially compared to other stuff out there. It doesn't really challenge beliefs in the way the Da Vinci Code, for example, operates, which very much puts forth gnosticism as a valid theological alternative in the framework of fiction.

I don't think The Shack purports to be a treatise on emergent theology. It's a piece of fiction, something dreamed up in Young's mind and put to print. Perhaps the wealth it is generating via publishing is an obvious connection to the emergent church movement and that would be a relevant discussion in my mind. But asking "Is The Shack emergent?" is not. This novel doesn't beg for a close reading anymore than a Danielle Steele novel does. It's just not worth it.

If you want to have a meaty discussion on postmodern Christian thinking why not go for the jugular and review "Your Best Life Now" or something along those lines.

Again thanks!

Dennis said...

Norm, I agree The Shack is nowhere near as bad as Davinci. But on the other hand, this is a Christian book, so the standard is different.

I also agree it is not intended to be theologically rigorous. But it does make theological statements and affirmations. In fact, that is the main point of the book--to advance a portrayal of God. So, I think Young is accountable for what he has written, and I worry that people will accept a view of God that is counter to scripture mainly because it is advanced under the guise of fiction.

Jesse said...

Hey Dennis -

I had a thought regarding "The Shack" - how much does genre play into the mix? Young does not set out to write a comprehensive, systematic theology. Therefore, some aspects of God will be played up, others almost completely absent. Isn't this what we see in Biblical books as well? We all know the book of Esther doesn't even mention the name of God...John emphasizes throughout his writings that Jesus was fully, fleshly human and fully divine. Paul addresses topics in his letters to the Corinthians that we don't find anywhere else in the Bible.

Is it fair to criticize an author who is admittedly writing within the fiction genre for not presenting a comprehensive and airtight view of God? Granted, he takes certain liberties and ideas a bit far, but overall I found the book a beautiful depiction. This brings us back to a question I'm sure you and I would debate for hours: If there is some truth in it, can we see that it is from God who is the source of all truth? Or does it have to be all true? And is it even possible to be "all" true?

Thanks for the review and the dialog! Blessings -

Jesse said...

Here is a review that discusses the nature and purpose of Young writing the book - thoughts?

Dennis said...

Just got back from the wilds of Canada, where we had no internet access.
Jesse, I wouldn't expect a systematic theology in a novel. But young comes right out and affirms that God doesn't judge. That's not cool. He's not just leaving out points, he's actually making claims that are untrue.

I wrote a novel called the Summons that represented God in what many felt were unbalanced ways. But I didn't have any occasion to put down the Bible or to imply universalism.

On the article in CT, I was disappointed that CT is backing the book by promoting it and passing out free chapter 1's. But the editorial line at CT has always been very favorable toward emergent leaders and writers. Their coverage of Rob Bell was super positive also.

kristopher said...

"this picture suggests all authority is really unnecessary and unenlightened"

Anarcho-Emergent thinking in the Shack? ;)

Political scientists have a saying that "politics abhors a vacuum" meaning that authority and hierarchy will emerge in any and all social settings b/c human nature requires it. The evolutionary psychologists and now many sociologists concur with this idea. The naive belief that all authority is bad is not only not biblical it contravenes human nature (and ironically paves the way for tyranny).