Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Wm. Paul Young: The Shack

A friend persisted in asking me to read The Shack. Although it has been a "#1 New York Times Bestseller", it came on the radar when I was in a busy season, so I'm not sure I would have read it or even noticed it-- without Jeff's encouragement.

I'm really glad I read it. Beyond enhancing my "cultural relevancy" (LOL!), The Shack was thought-provoking. Although I'm not sure I agree with everything in it-- especially where one must speculate a good bit to draw inferences-- I'm a wheat & chaff guy. And for whatever chaff Young delivers, he brings a lot of wheat to the table as well.

Young's book is well-crafted and an easy read. On occasion, the conversations come off as stilted, but that's difficult to avoid in a book so dominated by dialogue. And the book might not be easy to handle emotionally or theologically for some people-- an important point to which I'll return shortly.

In a nutshell, comparing it to some other relatively famous books, I'd say it's:

1.) 50% The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis;
2.) 30% The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee or The Saving Life of Christ by Ian Thomas; and
3.) 20% Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen.

1.) The Shack is a cousin of Lewis' book on Heaven and Hell in that it speculates on biblical topics that are vital but not clearly delineated in the Scriptures. (In the subject of his speculation, Young's work is more closely related to Joseph Girzone's "parable", Joshua-- a book I read and remember liking a long time ago. But Young's view is also Lewis-like in that "the real world" is much more real than our world.)

The Bible provides principles and pictures on the subject described by Young and Lewis. But trying to get "more concrete" requires speculation. One might argue that we should not move beyond what is laid out explicitly. But I don't see the harm in wrestling with the possibilities-- as long as we avoid heresy. And I see the potential for great gain in such wrestling.

In fact, at some level, we are commanded to do this. For example, we cannot "know" God. As A.W. Tozer notes, we limit Him every time we describe Him-- even with words like "infinity" (since we don't know what that means). And yet, we are called to deeper relationship, to understand Him better, and to explain Him more effectively to others.

Like Lewis, Young works (effectively) to give himself wiggle room within his artistic portrayal. (Young uses basic literary devices at the beginning and the end of the book.) This is absolutely key because it indicates the speculative nature of his work-- and it signals that Young does not take himself or the details of his picture too seriously.

2.) The Shack points to the importance of the "Spirit-filled life" within "sanctification". I benefited tremendously from more traditional, straight-forward works like Nee and Thomas. But Young is trying to communicate some of the same principles through narrative/fiction.

This is both vital and vastly under-sold within the Church. Too often, people try to "live out the Chistian life" in their own power-- "the flesh". The result is sub-optimal in terms of outcomes, motives, perseverance, energy, and so on. But it isn't meant to be that way. Christ himself said that it was for our own good that He would leave the Earth-- so that the Spirit would come to empower believers to live that life through us (Jn 14:26, 16:7).

The analogy I learned from my pastor in Texas is helpful here: Would you have a better chance to win a golf tournament with 20 lessons from Tiger Woods (assuming he's as good a teacher as he is a player)-- or if Tiger played from within you?

The result? Christ promised: "anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (Jn 14:12). Not greater in terms of quality, but in terms of quantity. Christ, in human form, limited himself in time and space. The Spirit living through innumerable believers can accomplish far more. And Christ could not accomplish as much as an external teacher-- compared to the Spirit who can teach, inspire, and empower from within.

Young writes: "Religion is about having the right answers, and some of their answers are right. But I am about the process that takes you to the living answer and once you get to him, he will change you from the inside."

This may sound like mumbo-jumbo to non-believers-- and even to believers who see their faith as more rules than relationship, more external than internal, more duty than opportunity. But it is actually at the heart of Christian living and discipleship to Christ.

3.) Young's work is like Osteen's in that it can be misread by some-- and is, at the same time, especially relevant for certain audiences. I've already argued this in my review of Osteen's book. I would recommend both books to most people who have been "wounded" by circumstances, a church, or the Church-- especially if they can read it alongside a mature believer. (The catalyst for the book's premise is a profoundly sad/tragic event and how it impacts the main character's view of God and life.) Beyond that, Young's book will also appeal to many "seekers".

That said, the book could easily be misunderstood and misapplied by those who tend to read things (too) literally. Despite the ample praise the book has received, I think that's the reason for the bulk of the criticism launched at it. In particular, Hank Hanegraaff's (surprisingly and perhaps tellingly brief) critique is a bit perplexing in that he often emphasizes the importance of literary type in understanding Scripture (especially Revelation), but he doesn't extend the same principle to Young's book.

Derek Keefe provides a nice overview of the debate on the Christianity Today blog.

He opens by citing two articles by Cathy Lynn Grossman in USA Today-- here and here-- as well as critiques by "several conservative Protestant heavyweights" (Al Mohler, Chuck Colson, Mark Driscoll, and influential blogger Tim Challies). In contrast, Keefe notes Eugene Peterson's "over-the-top endorsement" on the book's back cover. (I would also point you to a defense by those closely involved in the project.)

Then Keefe lays out a useful framework and asks some good questions:

Among other things, this growing backlash broaches important questions about the proper relationship between art, theology, and the Church for evangelicals and their close kin....Switching directions, we must also ask what it means for Christian traditions and communities to be faithful to artists and their craft. This, too, is a theological question: How does the Church show good faith toward those sub-creators in God's human economy whose very creative inclinations are evidence that they bear the image of a God who delights in creating?...My hunch is that we probably see a failure to keep faith on both sides here, and that it would be a good thing for all of God's Church to discuss the when's, where's, why's, and how's of our mutual infidelities.

In a separate post, I'll cover some of the particulars-- as well as other miscellaneous quotes from the book. But to wrap up the review, I'd recommend The Shack to those who are mature in their faith, those who have seen Christianity as duty and religion, those who are not prone to take things to literally/seriously, those who have endured profound pain and disappointment, and those who have been "burned by the church".

In any case, may God use The Shack as a blessing to those who read it.

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