The Shack by William P. Young has been hailed by the likes of Eugene Peterson, and continues to make waves in Christian circles. Should we join the author of The Message in praising its spiritual merits, or are its numerous points of controversy sufficient to make it spiritually dangerous?
A key article of the postmodern faith is ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, which, when translated, means that postmodern culture disbelieves in the claim of any story to Truth-for-everyone. We are all free to name our own personal truths. So, postmodernism dislikes teachers, authorities and demands for obedience. Postmodernism prefers dialogue between equals in which stories can be shared relationally and without compulsion.
When disbelief in Truth finds its way into Christianity, it takes the form of rejection of Christian structures and teachers, especially teachers of the Bible or Christian ‘scholars’; disbelief in the final authority of scripture, which is rather seen as a human document describing relationship between God and man; it and it prefers a direct, unmediated dialogue with God. Postmodern Christianity stops just short of proclaiming God to be our equal, but the God of postmodernism is noticeably devoid of commands, demands and expectations. God wants relationship with people, and so has stripped Himself of the power and ‘otherness’ that (according to postmodernists) would stand in the way of genuine relationship.
Of course, it is gloriously half-true that God is only interested in relationship, rather than people with the right answers in their heads. A living relationship with God is indeed the point, but it is a colossal mistake to imagine that relationship with God can be held in the absence of the terms that God gives for that relationship. Notice how the distrust of Truth works its way out in The Shack.
DISTRUST OF TEACHERS AND ANSWERS
Young’s ‘modernist’ character in The Shack is Mack’s father. He is a power-hungry, abusive authoritarian who cares about being right, but not about people. On page 107, Mack’s memories of devotions as a family include ‘boring’ exercises in right answers to the same old Bible stories. His father, using the traditional King James Bible, of course, would be drunk and beat him if he gave wrong answers.
Seminaries or Bible colleges also belong to the modernist, authoritarian worldview, according to Young. They are places where ‘answers’ are dispensed, and their Bible is presented as a dead rule-book for life. Mack is a seminary graduate, but looks back on that time with dissatisfaction. When the big revelation of God occurs, he finds that his training was far off the mark:
“None of his old seminary training was helping.” (Pg 91)
By contrast, the postmodern way is one of direct, unmediated relationship with God, unfettered by structures and formal traditions and rituals. Right answers are neither here nor there; it is about experiencing God personally. For example:
“The long ride actually gave us [God and Missy] a chance to talk” (page 173).
“[People and God] are meant to experience this life, your life, together in a dialogue, sharing the journey” (page 175).
Spirit: “Mackenzie, you can always talk to me and I will always be with you, whether you sense my presence or not.” Mack: “I know that now, but how will I hear you?” Spirit: “You will learn to hear my thoughts in yours.” Mack then asks whether God’s voice will be clear so that he won’t make mistakes.
The Spirit answers that he will make mistakes, but will learn to better recognise God’s voice as they grow together in relationship (page 195).
Some of what Young teaches here is helpful (although well-worn territory in Evangelical circles). It is very true that right answers are no use if one has no relationship with God. What is desperately mistaken is the inference that relationship with God is held virtually face-to-face with God and outside of scripture.
To discuss this further, let’s examine the following quote from the book:
“Mack could not escape the desperate possibility that the note might just be from God after all, even if the thought of God passing notes did not fit well with his theological training. In seminary, he’d 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 uncivilised, while educated Westerners’ was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one, bound in leather with gilt edges. Or was that guilt edges?” (Pg 65-66)
This latter quote is shot through with cynicism and sarcasm (‘Guilt edges’? Come on!), and more than a few ill-conceived and imbalanced ideas. It raises the following questions that I’d like to examine:
- Is it a Modernist idea that God communicates via scripture, rather than ‘overtly’? Where does the Bible tell us to expect God’s voice?
- Has God’s voice been ‘reduced to paper’, and does the insistence on following scripture amount to ‘putting God in a box’?
- Is insistence on ‘proper interpretation’ the same as mediating and controlling communication from God?
In answering these questions, I will appeal to scripture, which may seem circular, seeing as scripture itself is in question. But what else can claim to be our primary source for Christian belief? It is our only definite source of information regarding the gospel. Non-Christian historical documents mentioning Jesus are only a handful, and even some of their very brief comments about him are under dispute by scholars. So, if we had no Bible, we’d have no Jesus, no Gospel, no God the Father, no anything else.
It’s no good saying that we meet Jesus in the personal testimonies of others, because from where does personal testimony get its knowledge of the gospel? Nor does it help to appeal to direct experience of God, because how do you know it’s God you’ve experienced, and how do you know it’s the Christian God? Both of these appeals beg the question.
So, before we dismiss the Bible as second-rate ‘mediated’ revelation of God, or no longer essential to our faith, we need to see what scripture actually says about itself, and whether it allows us to hold such an opinion.
IS THE EXPECTATION OF GOD’S VOICE IN SCRIPTURE A MODERNIST IDEA?
Young would have us believe that ‘Moderns’ originated the idea that God’s overt communication had stopped and been replaced by ‘paper’. It is certainly true that some people in the Modernist era were scathing of the idea of the supernatural and thought themselves superior to the ‘primitive’ cultures of the past. But such people were therefore also opposed to the idea that scripture was of supernatural origin – another opinion that scripture will not allow Christians to hold.
But the idea that God’s voice is found primarily in scripture was not a Modernist one. In Exodus 20:19, having heard God speak overtly, the Israelites request a mediated word of God, namely, a God-ordained prophet, rather than the direct speech of God. Throughout the Old Testament, this pattern of communication remains the same. God does not speak directly with every Israelite, but via a small group of chosen mediators.
Scripture is very clear that it is of divine character and infallible, for example:
- Scripture claims to be the very words of God (Romans 2:2)
- Jesus says, “…the Scripture cannot be broken…” (Jn. 10:35)
- Peter teaches that Old Testament Prophecy is not of human origin, but is the work of God’s Spirit. (2Pe. 1:20-21)
Furthermore, Jesus was clear that scripture remains relevant for future generations:
- Jesus was fond of saying of scripture, “It stands written…” (the perfect tense, not the past tense), which implies that what was written in the past continues to ‘stand’ into the future.
- In Matthew 22:31, Jesus answers a dispute by quoting words that God spoke to Moses. What is interesting is that he says that what is written is God’s speech to the reader! “Have you not read what God said to you…?”
Therefore, scripture itself claims to be God’s Word, and Jesus teaches us that that Word remains God’s speech to us.
One might be tempted to argue that scripture is insufficient, because it cannot address every circumstance that we might face. Paul says that Scripture imparts the wisdom of salvation and thoroughly equips God’s people for good deeds (2Ti. 3:14-17). Perhaps we only doubt the relevance of scripture because we are ignorant of the equipment that it provides, or have yet to learn wisdom?
One might continue to insist that a written document for everyone in history is not the same as a personal relationship. Are you sure? Indeed, it would not be, if we did not have God’s Spirit (who has come to us by means of the gospel we are now being tempted to call insufficient). But do not forget that we do not fully possess every promise of relationship in full measure. We are repeatedly reminded that we have hope, that is, something not yet fulfilled; that we live by faith, not by sight; and finally, ”Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1Co. 13:12).
While God is always with us, it is helpful to think of scripture as one would think of a letter from a loved one during a time of separation (we are called exiles in a foreign land, after all). A letter is deeply relational, though not face-to-face; it is precious and cherished and alive, not a dead word; it is a promise of a perfect relationship to come, though for now there is separation.
Let us not turn up our noses at scripture and ask for something ‘better’ before we have fully
plumbed the depths of the revelation that God has given us.
As we shall see, the consistent expectation in scripture is that God’s Word is heard in scripture. There are instances where God speaks to people (by angels or some other means), but no scriptural expectation that this should be our regular experience. The only passage that I can think of that might cause us to expect ‘overt’ communication from God is John 14:26:
“But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
This passage comes from Jesus’ last words to his disciples, and this promise is often mistakenly applied to every Christian. This cannot be so, because we cannot be reminded of everything that Jesus said to us if we were never present with him in the first place. This applies to the Apostles who were eyewitnesses, and were given the unique task of speaking Jesus’ words after his ascension. This leads me to the next question:
HAS GOD’S VOICE BEEN ‘REDUCED TO PAPER’? ARE WE ‘PUTTING GOD IN A BOX’?
As we have seen, God’s voice on paper is no less God’s voice, and it is not for that reason second rate. It is also true that God is not limited so that He is unable to speak in other means. It might be, however, that God has good reasons for limiting His communication mostly or entirely to the pages of scripture. It seems likely that God speaks in scripture for the unity and protection of the church body.
The Written Word unites
In Ephesians 4, Christian unity springs out of community love and service, which in turn springs out of the ministry of the teaching gifts. It is not doctrine that divides (on the contrary); it is false doctrine that divides. Having access to God’s Word in written form allows us to unite, because we have a written standard by which disputes and divisions can be
The Written Word protects
It is a very persistent theme in scripture that God’s people are under threat from temptation, deception and false teaching. There were always groups teaching variations on the Good News (and any distortion of the Good News is bad news). There were gospels that put legal requirements in the way of grace, or that removed requirements from the gospel altogether and gave people licence to sin. Jesus and the Apostles are abundantly clear that introducing such falsehood into the gospel is Spiritually fatal. For example, the Galatian church is rebuked most harshly for their speedy decent into a false gospel:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Ga. 1:6-9)
Or consider what Peter says:
Peter calls Paul’s writings God’s wisdom, and “hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore… be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position” (2Pe. 3:15-17). See also Mt. 22:29; Ro. 16:17-18; 1Ti. 4:1-13; 1Co. 15:1-4.
The written word is essential, because without it, the ‘true’ gospel would be a matter of hearsay and opinion. Hence, there is a strong emphasis on making sure that the Apostolic gospel is faithfully recorded and taught:
- “[An elder] must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers…” (Titus 1:9-10).
- “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you — guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (2Ti. 1:13-14).
- “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2Ti. 2:1-2).
- Notice how the NT writers insist upon the Apostolic gospel (or, if an Apostle is speaking, ‘our’ gospel): Ac. 2:42; 1Co. 15:1-4; 2Th. 2:13-15; 2Th. 3:6.
By contrast, false teachers deceive people by means of clever inventions, novelties and secret heresies, all of which might make the claim to have originated from unmediated communication from God to the teacher:
- “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up” (Ga. 1:11).
- “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (2Pe. 1:16).
- “There will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies… In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up” (2Pe. 2:1-3).
So, even if we go so far as to say that God only communicates via scripture (an extreme that we need not be committed to), we still would not be limiting Him. What we miss out on (face-to-faceness in relationship for now) paves the way for freedom to be secure in unity and in the knowledge of God in the gospel, and not forever in doubt about whether we’re hearing the true Word of God or some false voice. In a world where sin persists, this is an invaluable gift.
IS “PROPER INTERPRETATION’ CONTROLLING COMMUNICATION FORM GOD?
Postmoderns don’t believe that someone else’s writing can ever be interpreted correctly, or accurately communicate truth. They believe that the reader brings so much prejudice that it hopelessly colours what is understood. How it is, then, that we are able to understand postmodern writings on this subject is perhaps a question that they can answer for me.
Young seems to share this kind of belief, claiming that an insistence on proper interpretation is an attempt at controlling and restricting what God says.
“…direct communication with God… was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book” (Pg 66).
If there is no such thing as correct interpretation, the alternative is chaos. One is able to invent any number of creative interpretive principles if one bends one’s mind to it. A Korean cult active in our area called The World Mission Society Church of God uses a snatch of Isaiah 34:15, “each with its mate,” as their interpretive key for scripture. Each verse has a ‘mate’ in an arbitrary location in scripture that unlocks its true meaning. Obviously, there is no regard for context or storyline under such conditions, and so the church believes that Christ has returned to Korea, and now salvation comes via the Spirit, whose true name is Our Heavenly Mother.
But scripture itself gives us no room to be postmodern in our attitude to interpretation. On two occasions, Jesus issues stern rebuke to those who interpret one passage in violence to another:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “’He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’“ Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’“ (Mt. 4:5-7).
This passage illustrates that there is a way of interpreting scripture that is devilish. The fact that scripture is being used in no ways guarantees that God’s Word is being spoken. The Devil is not shy to proof-text his ideas from the Bible. It is only when scripture is interpreted with the meaning for which it was written that God’s voice is heard. Secondly:
“…You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mk. 7:8-13)
In this passage, the Pharisees have established traditions that are based on OT scriptures regarding the seriousness of vows. However, they have interpreted these passages in such a way as to commend a man for dishonouring his parents. Although these traditions are ‘biblical’, Jesus says that they have actually nullified the Word of God.
So, the insistence on proper interpretation does not hinder the Word of God, it prevents it from being destroyed.
Perhaps if more of our churches did insist on proper interpretation, instead of vague moral platitudes and proof-texts for the preacher’s rambling ideas, we’d hear the Word of God from our pulpits more often, and be less inclined to believe that scripture is devoid of God’s voice. It is serious study of scripture and correct handling of the Word of truth that is commended in scripture, and that is befitting of people indwelt by the Spirit of Truth (Acts 17:11; 2Tim. 2:15-18).