Shack Attack 1: Cautionary Tales

The Shack by William P. Young is the latest Christian success story, currently at no.1 on the New York Times bestseller list, where it has been since June 8.There is a certain kind of person that is suspicious of success and seeks always to tear down what has been raised high. They’re usually called British. A fair proportion of British blood courses through my veins, as does such suspicion. However, with The Shack, and as an evangelical Christian, I feel this suspicion is justified. So, for the next few weeks, I will feature some criticisms of the theological pitfalls and half-truths that make this book so friendly to postmodern ears, and dangerous to the gospel.

The Shack is a well-written novel, and many of its insights are helpful and encouraging. In fact, given that it is ‘merely’ fiction, and emotive, devotional fiction that encourages deeper spirituality, criticism of the book will probably seem mean-spirited. However, let’s not make the same mistake that was made when The Simpsons first aired. Because The Simpsons is animated, people mistakenly assumed that it was intended for children, when its themes and approach made it far more suited to a young-adult audience. So, it was misunderstood and unnecessarily protested (its staggering drop in quality since 2001 is in fact reason for us to protest it, but that’s another story). The mistake that Christians will make about The Shack is to assume that because it is fiction, it is not theology.

The Shack is part of the postmodern Christian school, following in the footsteps of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. In postmodern thinking, monologue is the enemy, and story is the primary means of communication of ideas. Thus, the way in which postmodern theologians teach theology and persuade their students is by means of stories, not direct statements of belief. Stories are terrific teaching tools, as Jesus himself exemplified, but they have as many weaknesses as strengths. Stories admit a number of problems for the pupil sitting under postmodern teaching:

Problem #1: Story is manipulative
In contrast to orthodox evangelicals, postmodernist Christians believe that there is no objective Truth; that scripture is at best ideas about truth on the same level as anyone else’s ideas; and that authority and judgement and conflict are great evils that have no place in Christianity. A teacher-student relationship is hierarchical and presupposes power of one over another, and so is rejected. Ideas of ‘orthodoxy’ lead to conflict and attempts to gain power over people, and so orthodoxy is rejected.

The strange thing is that postmodern Christianity still teaches, and it has some key beliefs that do form a kind of orthodoxy. For example, a God of wrath definitely has no place in its theology. Those of us who do believe in God’s wrath are called outdated ‘modernists’, or nice words for ‘bigot’. However, the way in which this theology is communicated in story form ends up being heavily emotive and manipulative, and therefore no less a ‘power play’ than traditional teaching methods. If traditional teaching is too much like open conflict, then postmodern story amounts to espionage or sabotage, so that the enemy is disarmed, but it is no less an attempt at conquest. For example, a ‘modernist’ would engage in debate, defending his own teaching, and giving reasons why his opponent is incorrect. The postmodernist Christian novel never debates or appeals to reason directly. To persuade, the author creates a pretentious, despicable character to represent the opponent’s view, and an honourable, loveable, misunderstood, flawed-but-honest character to represent his own view. In so doing, the reader trusts the hero whatever he speaks, and dismisses the villain regardless of the truth of his words. The victory is won through emotion, not reason.

Problem #2: Story is ambiguous
A second problem is that, due to its inherent complications and ambiguities, story is extremely difficult to analyse. If the author provides too few guiding comments, the reader is unable to know for sure whether certain ideas should be accepted or treated with reservation, particularly if they are spoken by a flawed or developing character.

For example, in The Shack, even though the author does provide lengthy explanation, many people still trip over the representation of God the Father as a black woman.

Or, take this for example. The main character, Mack, receives a note in the post box signed ‘Papa’, which is his wife’s favourite name for God. He says, ‘I guess part of me would like to believe that God would care enough about me to send a note,’ (page 71). We’re left to guess whether the author is suggesting that this is a legitimate expression of God’s care. Is the book a fantasy story in which such things belong to a fictional universe? Is it just the rambling of a misguided character? Or should I be led to believe that the Christian life ought to be a supernatural, experiential relationship with God in which things of this order happen?

Problem #3: Story is subjective
The third major problem with story, especially postmodern story, is that it doesn’t insist that the reader should understand something particular and important, or that the reader should respond in a certain way. Postmodernists aren’t interested in being interpreted ‘correctly’, but rather that the reader gets something from it that is important to him. They call it ‘reader response’. So, in massive contrast to scripture that calls false teachers and any deviation from the original gospel fatal (cf. Matt. 7:15-29; Gal. 1:6-8), postmodern stories purposefully allow the reader to filter and select, and to draw whatever conclusion he likes.

So, if we as Bible-believing Christians are to assess postmodern theology well, we have to become adept students of fiction, and alive to the strengths and weaknesses of story.

Appendix: The Bible and Story
One might well object that the Bible makes use of story very often. Should we similarly distrust it? Well, the differences between the Bible and a novel are many. The Bible has books that are bald, direct theology that, in contrast to postmodern sensibilities, claim to be Truth and demand obedience. Even the gospel stories themselves contain many theological statements and other guiding comments from the author that would prevent us making unfettered subjective responses.

For more on postmodern Christianity, see my lengthy critique of A New Kind of Christian (http://www.studenty.org.za/c_nkc1.htm).

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Plato’s Critique of Democracy Holds True

Plato’s Republic is about the search for the nature of justice, and this pursuit leads its participants to consider the constitution of the truly just society. In his discussion of the merits of the various systems of government that fall short of the ideal, Plato says the following of democracy (which is the second worst in his list):

“Think of the considerateness of the city, its entire superiority to trifles, its disregard of all those things we spoke of so proudly when we were founding our [ideal] city; we said that, except from altogether extraordinary natures, no one could turn out a good man unless his earliest years were given to noble games, and he gave himself wholly to noble pursuits. Is it not sublime how this city tramples all such things under foot, and is suprememly indifferent as to what life a man has led before he enters politics? If only he asserts his zeal for the multitude, it is ready to honour him.” (Pg. 254, The Republic, Translation by Lindsay, 1954, London: JM Dent & Sons)

How chillingly true this is of our South African government, moving (as it seems to be) by degree to tyranny. Plato advocated education in seemingly ‘useless’ fields such as ethics, philosophy and astronomy as good for their own sake. For us, education is a means to an end, and nothing more. If it has no practical outcome, it has no place in education. In our government, the moral life of a politician has little relevance to his ability to govern; our law is content to swear in a leader so long as he or she has not spent more than a year in jail, and they hope to soon lower the bar even further. By and large, politicians show disregard for questions of right and wrong, justice and the good.

Worse still, we have growing support for the likes of Julius Malema, who is either thoroughly psychotic or stupid. He spews out talk of violent revolutions and killing… oops, that word wasn’t well received… eliminating the ‘counter-revolutionaries’, seemingly without any understanding of what these things mean, either conceptually or to civil society.

So, if Plato is right and democracy yields a colourful but morally weak society, then South Africa is the ultimate exemplar of how far that weakness can extend. In fact, if Malema continues to be regarded as a leader, or if Jacob Zuma is anything like ‘Mini-Me’ Malema, then South Africa is hell-bent on tyranny.

Atheism and the Need for Certainty

Atheists often criticise Christians for claiming undue certainty in their beliefs. Religious fervour can indeed carry doubtful propositions too far, force-fitting matters that properly belong in the realm of faith into the realm of knowledge.

 

Such over-reaching zeal is not peculiar to religious people, however. The human mind seems to be hard-wired with a craving for certainty. In fact, atheism might be accounted for more than any other position by the human need for certainty. The religious zealot, passionate for his faith and traditions, finds his counterpoint in the atheistic iconoclast.

 

Atheism offers two kinds of certainty. Firstly, atheists are usually content to limit themselves to belief in those things that are within the reach of the sciences. The atheist places his trust in that which is demonstrable and falsifiable – a limited sphere, but one of maximal certainty.

 

The second kind of certainty is less obvious. Belief lies between ignorance and knowledge. It is more certain than ignorance, but less so than genuine knowledge. By definition, then, atheism is able to pour doubt upon belief. Doubt is not very hard to achieve, after all. Atheism itself claims only to be a negation, rather than having positive statements that might be similarly open to direct criticism. So, for the atheist, all other belief systems yield themselves to criticism and doubt from which his own system is nearly exempt. Being certain of the comparative doubtfulness of every other belief system is a feeling very much like confirmation of one’s own beliefs.

 

So atheism achieves a level of certainty by reclassifying faith as superstition. Indeed, those of us who are Christians have to come to terms with uncertainties that need to be bridged by faith. But on the other hand, one wonders whether sacrificing all of the risky, untidy, magnificent promises of scripture at the altar of such a certainty is really worth it?

Troubling Trends in the Perception of Justice

In the super-violent Australian film, ‘The Proposition’, Ray Winstone plays a law-man trying to ‘civilise’ the wild Australian territories in the early days of colonial occupation. Winstone has captured the youngest member of a gang who raped and killed a pregnant woman, but, seeing as he is still a teenager and of diminished mental capacity, plans to use him to draw out the rest of the gang who are responsible for the atrocity. A local politician decides, however, that the furious public should be appeased, and that this young man needs to be punished. He sentences him to 100 lashes with a heavy whip, enough to kill him.

The following day, the outraged public surround the jailhouse to see that this sentence is carried out. Winstone’s character vows to oppose them, promising to kill whoever tries to enforce this unjust punishment. Just as the film promises to dole out some rugged lessons on impartial justice, a strange thing happens. His wife, played by Emily Watson, arrives, and having only recently discovered what the boy has done, with tears in her eyes, she says to her husband, ‘What if it was me? What if he’d done this to me?’ As this thought sinks in, Winstone lowers his weapon stands aside, and the lashing begins. By 40 lashes, the boy is unconscious, public blood-lust is replaced with horror, and the execution of the sentence ends prematurely. Even still, the boy succumbs to his wounds.

Movies are often not the most deeply considered philosophical vehicles, and so this disappointing scene in the midst of a powerful-yet-disgusting film passed me by. Or it would have, had I not come across exactly this sentiment in the mouth of politicians linked to controversy surrounding child rape.

There is much debate currently over whether the death penalty is too strong a sentence for child rapists, and that’s a question for another day. What interests me is the appeal that is often made to ‘imagine that it was your daughter that was raped’, which is what this politician said. The disturbing thing about this request is that it represents exactly the opposite of what ‘blind justice’ aims to achieve. The way in which we decide fair punishment for crimes is by reasoned and impartial judgement (in so far as that is possible for men). We achieve the opposite by attempting to be guided by the powerful emotions of the wronged party. The reason why we have a judiciary in the first place is because the wronged party cannot be relied upon to repay what a crime demands and nothing more. He executes revenge, not justice.

The Biblical maxim of ‘an eye for an eye’ is often misunderstood as providing justification for revenge, and yet it actually was given as a call to lawmakers to return only what a crime deserves. If we run with present trends in the public perception of justice, we will be avenging the loss of a tooth with an eye, or the loss of an eye with a life.