Monday, January 30, 2012

Burning Down the Shack by James B. De Young

There is a big Hollywood film which portrays religious conservatives in a very bad light.

The movie paints these pious, outwardly godly folks a self-styled, pretentious hypocrites. The basic plot of the film itself is that these conservative beleivers go so far as to essentially commit murder in their pursuit of power and maintan the social order.

Knowing the worldview of most of progressive Hollywood, there is very little which may seem striking about this.

What you might not have guessed is that the movie I am refering to is none oher than The Passion of the Christ, the multi-million hit directed by Mel Gibson, applauded by the majority of Christians, and panned for alleged anti-Semitism (and even homo-eroticism)by progressives.

My point in bringing this up is a fact that most Christians would (and ought to a bit, in my opinion) make them rather uncomfortable, and also one I really never considered until recently.

The Pharisees, those pious leaders of the Jewish church, who spelled the crucifixion of Jesus, who did not recognize their own Messiah, who were repeatedly taken to task for their legalism, were....conservatives.

That's right. In the Pharisees, Jesus was not up against liberal humanists seeking to displace faith with secularism, but very pious religious leaders who saw Jesus not only as a threat to themselves but to their faith and tradition. Christ was in fact sacrificed on the very altar of tradition, so to speak. Even, perhaps especially, Saul of Tarsis beleived he was faithfully serving God in persecuting Christ's followers.

What makes me so uncomfortable about this as an unborthodox Christian ( I still consider myself largely to be an unorthodox conservative--there's too much about liberalism I still not endorse), is that the basic concerns of conservative Christiandom in general appear very much to be grounded in the same fear that motivated the Pharisees.

What fears are these?

Fear of social change and the errosion of tradition.

I already know the ojection to this: the Pharisees did not even recognize the Savior, while today's conservatives are very much on the side of Jesus against the tide of secularism. Right?

The problem, however, is not so much the values and beleifs conservatives subscribe to as it is their underlying motivation. Indeed, most conservatives, if asked, would proclaim that they are placing God and Christ above everything else, while their opponants are relying merely on human opinion. Many, if not mot, would, I beleive, sincerely beleive this to be the wholehearted truth. But remember: Fear of the future, fear of change, and the tendency to favor the old ways over the new is a deep human instinct. It is encoded deep in our genes. Thus, it is very easy idolize tradition itself, not as a means of serving Christ, but as means of passing the torch to the next generation regardless if it is "moral" or not.

Consider the abortion issue: Abortion is nowhere prohibted by scripture. So why is this particular issue so often portrayed in a strictly religious framework?

And though homosexuality is clearly condemned by Scripture, why the fuss over these two particular issues?

Answer: both homosexuality (in particular gay marraige) and abortion constitute a real or percieved threat to the nuclear family and to tradition.

My last three posts should demonstrate the dire need to keep the faith alive as expressed by religious conservatives.

And this brings me (at last) to the topic at hand, Burning Down the Shack by James De Young.

I have not yet read Paul Young's The Shack, so am unable to access it on it's own merits.

However, it is more than obvious that virtually all the criticism leveled at The Shack is by religious conservatives, and almost everything taken to task is a percieved departure from orthodox thought.

The Shack has been also applauded vigorously by Christians who found it spiritually enlightening and faith affirming, calling some to a spirtitual awakening. It may indeed have actually broght some to Jesus. I, myself, came to Christ late in 2009 after reading Darren Hufford's The Misunderstood God, also by the same publishing company which Paul Young started up for The Shack. It, too, paints a picture of God that is at odds wih many conservative pastors. It, too, challenges the image of God as cruel, vindictive, proud and punishing.

De Young's chief criticism of The Shack is that it promotes universalism, the beleif that all will now, or eventually, be saved. This was the view held by fantasist George MacDonald, a friend and correspondant of C. S. Lewis, who held him in great esteem. Lewis himself was an inclusivist, no a universalist, as is sometimes falsely assumed. Lewis himself is (in general) widely praised by conservatives in spite of his lacking orthodoxy in certain areas.

A confession that I must make at this point: I myself am attracted to idea of universalism, and at the same time I fear it somewhat. Not, as conservative evangelicals might charge for the "right reasons," but becuase I realize that being a "universalist" opens the door to harsh criticism by evangelicals. Universalism is just a little too unorthodox for comfort. It also, indeed, appears to be directly conbtradicted by scripture, even if one interprets the Lake of Fire judgement as annhilation. The inclusicism of Lewis is a much more comfortable a place to be theologically. When I once prayed as to the eternal (or noneternal) nature of hell, I actually drew a blank, even though the Lord convinced me that hell was real. However, the answer I recieved to a more recent prayer suggested universal reconcilliation: in other words though some may be lost, they will not remain lost: God will save every soul eventually.

There are however, more possibilities than just these two; perhaps God will try to save all, but will only end up saving some; or perhaps it is not predetermned who and how many souls will in the end be saved.

The one thing I do reject, however, and this is in departure to most religious conservatives, is that God sentences his children to everlasting punishment for finite sins.

But this is the conservative postion, sad to say, and it is rapidly losing ground in the modern world. That The Shack has evidently brought so many souls to Christ, and that it is an unorthodox book to boot, is powerful testimony to this.

What's wrong with universalism? The answer, for De Young, is simple: it doesn't scare people enough. However, I would submit that someone who continues to sin under the beleif that they'll still saved has not truely experienced a rebirth in Christ!

Another major issue which De Young levels at The Shack is the author's apparent condemnation for any and all institutions, whether the government, tradition or marraige, to the point of demonizing them. Since I've not read The Shack, I cannot verify this, though if so, Paul Young has gone more than a bit too far. Still, it is certainly legitimate to criticize tradtional institutions, and the church, in particular DOES have much to answer for in driving people away form God and Christ. Young claims that Satan works through false teachers who claim the gospel. Undoubtedly that's true. However, there's also little doubt he works through conservative churches as well, since this is where most of today's young people are disenfranchised with Christianity. Also, though deYoung credits Jesus for establishing the church among his followers (I would submit that it was still very far from being an "institution"), he seems to forget that Jesus was also very critical of the church as it existed in his own day:

Mathew 5:6 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This sounds very unlike what one would expect from an upholder of church tradition!

Another point of attack by deYoung is Paul Young's depiction of the Holy Trinity as multi-racial, and in particular, of God the Father as a large Black woman. Now doing so appears to be (and perhaps is) a deliberate PC attempt to present a multicultural version of the Trinity. Clearly, in depicting the Father as both female and Black (virtually opposite of how God the Father is tradtionally depicted)he is playing on gender roles and expectations of readers. But is this, on the whole, a bad thing? I would say that it is not. God the father is capable of taking on any from He wants. He has no true gender, and, I would argue, lacks any true shape at all. Young may well be reinventing our perception of God and the Trinity to fit our evolving faith and moral knowledge. There is no real fault to be found here, unless you percieve change in itself to be a bad thing. Does De Young find the tradtional paintings of God looking like Moses or Dumbledore to be offensive?

There are, however, two areas where I find myself siding with De Young and other evangelicals against The Shack. One is his observation that the Devil has been virtually ommitted from Young's book. If so, I agree with him: this is a serious ommission indeed. Maybe Young will get around to Satan in a future book; perhaps not. However, Satan is a very dire force in the world today, in the churches, and in billions of individual lives. According to De Young, it is a hallmark of universalism to beleive that Satan either does not exist, or will eventually reform and take his place among the Godhead. I've noticed this--Phillip Gulley, in his book Evolving Faith (which I find enlightening on many of his arguments) says precisely this. Whether or not Satan will ever repent, however, his reality, given the amount of suffering in the world, should be evident to Paul Young. The existence of evil and Satan is the very reason for Christ's sacrifice. the fact that Young's protagonist has suffered a terrible tragedy indeed makes Satan's ommission a bit puzzling.

A related charge leveled by De Young is that Young's novel downplays sin, and suggests that all will be uncondtionally forgiven. Again, I do not yet know if this charge is valid; however, if so, there is indeed he implication that one is free to sin as one pleases and morality itself is undermined. While threats of hellfire may not be the most effective in this area, a change of heart, a rebirth in Christ most certainly is. Perhaps Young does not mean for his novel to downplay the seriousness of sin, but the reality of that seriousness needs to be acknowledged.

However, in a list of Paul Young's views which De Young uses to back up his charge of universalism promoted by The Shack, I find myself in agreement with many of them. Among these:

Jesus is a Lamb who would never harm or torment.

Eternal judgement is "unresonable, illogical...wicked and unjust" for a temporal judgement committed within time. Eternal Judgement is "sadist humbug."

He (Young) asserted that "God in the end is grossly unjust", and that in compariosm to Pharoah, Nero and Hitler, "The doctrine of eternal torture makes jesus a million times (italics his) more vindictive then these three put togather

Either those who teach eternal torture are extremely and brutally calloused or they do not truly beleive what they teach (italics his)

Now I don't necessarily agree with the last statement; though they often come off as indeed quite calloused, religious conservatives have very real motives in promoting such an unjust doctrine. As I've argued, such a doctrine is necessary (they beleive) in order to conserve the culture and Christianity itself. I also beleive they are very badly misguided here. Understand also that Young is refering to this cultural caricature of god here, and NOT the true god. A god who deliberatly condemns finite beingsto eternal torture is indeed a fiction, Paul Young is arguing. And I agree with him. Though I also beleive hell is real, and needs to be acknowledged, I do not credit God with creating hell or with sending people there.

So far as a torturing God is concerned, I am an athiest.

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