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Archive for January, 2009

We’re just starting a section on Jesus and the gospels in our missions training school, and much like what Brian did with the Pentateuch, I thought I’d share some good books on this section of Scripture.  After all, it’s about Jesus; you can’t get more important than that!

But let me start with an important point.  There are more books on Jesus and the gospels than I have time to read.  In fact, there are plenty of books that have been published in the last couple years that I have yet to read.  A couple are on my shelves, crying out to me for attention.  Some I possibly haven’t even heard of yet.  So, if you know of any, I’m more than happy to hear suggestions- just leave a comment. 

The pride of place, in my opinion, goes to Craig Blomberg’s Jesus and the Gospels.  I’ve read this book 4 times and have used it every year I teach on the gospels.  In short, it includes everything you need in 5 sections: Historical Background, Methods, Introductions to each gospel, A Survey of Jesus’ Life, and a Historical & Theological Synthesis.  Blomberg includes a ton of information, but is so readable it should put other scholars to shame (note: informative≠boring).  But, before you run out and buy this book, note that a newer edition of this book is supposed to be released this year at some point.  I’d suggest waiting until it comes out, then purchase it ASAP.

Another indispensable resource for me during my teaching prep is the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (The IVP Bible Dictionary Series), put out by IVP.  It’s full of articles covering a wide range of subjects related to Jesus and the gospels, written by top notch scholars.  It’s nice to have a wealth of scholarship in one book, though perhaps it, too, will need to be updated before too long.

If you’ve paid any attention to Jesus studies (or New Testament studies in general), you’ll have heard of NT Wright.  The first book I ever read of his was Jesus and the Victory of God one of the best books on Jesus in recent times.  Mind you, I disagree with him strongly at points (particularly his understanding of the Olivet Discourse), but you can’t help but come away having learned so much about Jesus and His historical context.  Along with this book is Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.  Quite frankly, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Both of these are heavy reads, so be aware.  You can always pick up his smaller The Challenge of Jesus to get an idea of his approach.

Under the category of Historical Jesus studies, I still find Ben Witherington’s book The Jesus Quest to be helpful.  I’m holding out hope that Witherington will update this helpful survey of scholarly portraits of the Historical Jesus (it’s been over a decade since it’s original publication).  One aspect I appreciate about this book is that you learn how to critique and discern differing views on Jesus simply by reading how Witherington does it.  Thus, it’s still quite helpful even if outdated.  Lastly, though I haven’t read too much of his stuff, I know that Craig Evans also has a number of books that are immensely profitable to read.

If you really want to wade through an important- and unique- book, check out Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.  Bauckham is in the category of “you should read whatever he writes.”  In this book, he helps demonstrate that the gospels do in fact go back to original eyewitness testimony, contra the common scholarly view of floating stories about Jesus circulating in distinct “community traditions.”

Though I haven’t had much time to work my way through it, Klyne Snodgrass’ new book on the parables, Stories With Intent, has received rave reviews.  I’m a huge fan of the parables, and from what I understand, once you own this book, you won’t need another one on the parables.  So, since I own it, I guess I don’t need to look for any more books on the parables, huh?  Also note, Blomberg has written extensively on the parables as well, and has good insight in his previously mentioned book.

On the Sermon on the Mount, I know D A Carson has written a useful book.  I’ll confess, I haven’t read his book on the Sermon on the Mount, but I do own his Matthew commentary and find it excellent, so I’ll bet the book is good, too.  Also, John Stott’s book, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, in the Bible Speaks Today series is good.

Before anyone complains that I neglected their favorite author or book, I want to point out that I’m trying to select a representation here.  I’m also intentionally leaving books on Christology and commentaries out for now, though perhaps those will come in later posts.  As I previously stated, there are plenty of books out there that I’m sure are excellent.  I think especially of those by Darrel Bock, but I have yet to read much of his stuff on the gospels (except his Luke commentary, which is tremendous). 

So, I say start with Blomberg and the Jesus and the Gospels.  Mind you, I’m offering my opinion as one who teaches in a local church context, not an academic one.  So, Bauckham’s book might be more important in terms of scholarly research than either of these.  But when I’m teaching, theories of criticism are not as important as dealing with the content of the gospels themselves.  And for that, I have yet to read anything better than Blomberg’s work.

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Christian Carnival CCLXI

The Christian Carnival is up over at Ignorant Historian.  It includes one of our posts from the last week.  Check it out when you get the chance.

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This post is part of the continuing series known as Resource of the Month, where we highlight one particular resource for Christians and churches and show how it can help us in our walks with the Lord and ministry.  This month Brian and I have chosen to highlight the church, specifically the local church, as a resource.  This post focuses on one particular way the church (the gathering of Christians) can help each other.

In our circles, where not only the Sunday meeting is attended but smaller groups (which we call “Faithgroups”) are also emphasized, you won’t have to wait long before you hear someone quote Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another- and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (TNIV).

We apply this in any number of ways, moving beyond the “official” church gatherings (the aforementioned Sunday meeting and Faithgroups), and include meeting together in homes for dinner, discipling others, accountability, etc (many of which happen in our Faithgroups).  All of these fall under the application of the verse above.

But why was the author of Hebrews so intent on his readers meeting together regularly and purposefully? 

I think it’s easy to miss the connection with the verses around Hebrews 10:24-25, specifically what comes after it.  When you read verses 26-31, it seems like the author switches gears and begins a new topic, the problem of believers falling away.  But, the writer didn’t simply move on, these verses are connected.  If you are reading a more dynamic equivalent translation (TNIV, NLT), you might miss this connection (fans of the NASB & ESV cheer loudly). 

In fact, the writer gives us a clue that he is about to tell us why it’s important to continue meeting together when he uses the little word “for” (gar in Greek).  I’ll give verse 26 from the NASB translation: “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins…”  You can read the rest of the section for yourself to get an idea just how bad this “falling away” or “deliberate sinning” can be.  (Note: I’m well aware of the theological debates around these verses and the issue of someone “losing their salvation”, but I’m not going to address this here, since the point of this post stays the same.)

The author of Hebrews lets us know that regularly meeting together to encourage each other to live faithfully is vital in keeping us from falling away from our faith.  He knows, and we should too, that there is a day (or “Day” if you prefer) when God will judge us all, and you do not want to be on the side of those who “trample the Son of God underfoot” or “treat as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them” or “insult the Spirit of grace.”  Such people need to hear the warning in verse 31: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

But God has not left us alone to fight against sin and temptation.  He has given us each other.  He tells us to assemble together, not to meet a requirement or get a star on our Sunday School attendance chart.  He tells us to meet together so we can build each other up and keep each other from sinning.  We are given the responsibility to restore each other when we do sin (Gal 6:1, I deal with that verse here).

We were not saved so that we could become an “army of one.”  We were saved into a community, bound with other believers by the empowering presence of God, His Holy Spirit.  While this is not the only reason, we do need to continue meeting together so that we do not fall away, so that we can live out the words in Hebrews 10:23: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”

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It seems that I and my e-friend Steve both dislike the phrase “doing chuch,” so I will coin an alternative for this post: “churching.”  For my money, churching is an unbelievably difficult topic to tackle, though I wonder how much of the difficulty is self-inflicted.  Must it be so complicated, so nuanced, so controversial?  I would answer a non-committal “yes” and “no.”  It seems rather easy to paint broad strokes about what church should look like.  People are coming together to care for one another, share life, worship, serve, be edified, etc.  Simple enough.  The complexity, or difficulty comes in when one actually has to do something, rather than talk about it.  Sooner or later, the rubber must meet the road, and we need to get practical.

This tension has been one of my frustrations with discussions about churching.  There is no shortage of writing out there criticizing the way church is done today.  Much of this criticism is excellent, and I find myself saying “Amen,” multiple times.  Writers like David Wells and Marva Dawn make insightful observations about the church.  I’ve found comparatively few such books or articles, however, that get practical.

For example, at Steve’s recommendation, I recently read an article by David Fitch that is quite good.  Fitch makes a statement towards the end of his article that I believe is typical of the churching dialogue:

If then we would see people formed into the Missio Dei we must order our worship so as to be encountered by the living God.

Yea, and amen…but how?   Fitch offers some vague ideas towards the end of his post, but they don’t get much more specific than “simplifiy the service.”  So what does this ordering of worship actually look like?  Do I sing hymns?  With guitar?  Organ?  Contemporary?  Lyrics on the screen?  Hymnals?  How many songs?  Where?  What day?  How long?

I don’t wish to criticize Fitch here (indeed, we shall vindicate him!), but rather make the point that much of what I read about churching is ivory tower-esque; that is to say, true but ethereal.  (Much of my own writing is no exception, either).  The answers given to the practical questions, such as mine above are often “it depends…” or “ask God,” (ahem), or “pray about it,” or “with wisdom.”

I believe there is something important that we can learn about these nebulous recommendations.  Perhaps we shouldn’t get too specific.  Given the variety of circumstances, cultures and persons in and to which a church will minister, offering specifics could be either impossible, or at least, unwise.

I think the key to churching is not found in the specifics but the efficacy.  Are lives changed?  Are people growing in love and knowledge of God?  Is the community served?  Are people coming to saving faith in Christ?  In short, is the Kingdom advancing?  All of these questions transcend how slick the service is, how big the building, how entertaining the pastor, how numerous the programs, or how large the numbers.

I believe that it is possible to have a Kingdom-advancing, God-centered church all over the practical spectrum: from 10 believers meeting weekly by a tree in a field to something like Willow Creek (n.b., not an endorsement of Willow Creek).  To adapt part of Obama’s inaugural speech, it doesn’t matter if it’s big church or small church, but church that works.  Examples of church working are found in the pages of Scripture (as are examples of church not working!)

Back to Fitch’s (justifiably) vague advice, how do we order worship so that people encounter God?  Well, we pray about it.  We think about it.  We examine the assumptions about our methods as best we can, and make our choices intentional and theologically informed. 

Following the cultural norm of American churches isn’t ipso facto wrong, or automatically doomed to inefficacy.  What’s wrong is blind, thoughtless conformance to it.  What’s wrong is making the claim that certain forms of churching are normative for all Christendom.  What’s wrong is measuring the success of churching with a yard stick borrowed from corporate America, tempting though it is (after all, it’s easy to know if your weekly attendance has increased year-over-year; compare that with measuring the wax or wane of a congregation’s love and knowledge of God!)

My personal opinion is that a great deal of life could be breathed into the local church if people simply asked “why?” more often, and didn’t settle for half-baked answers.  Why do a drama?  Why choose this type of music?  Why get a building?  Serious interaction with these questions can go a long way.

In the end, I’m quite confident that God is supremely capable of working with and through any number of methods or forms of churching.  Go figure, but in terms of advancing the Kingdom, it’s always God that does the heavy lifting.  The trick to churching is to make sure it’s as useful as it can be for His purposes.  The church must be properly aligned and submitted to Him, no matter what it actually looks like.  Some churches might be a saw, others a hammer.  So long as they are effective at their job, I believe God will use them.  (Ah, the sweet, ethereal smell of vagary, I shall never tire of your ivory-tower baked goodness!)

Coming in Part II, I want to consider “cultural infections” in the church.  Whence do they infect?  How do we diagnose and treat them?  Better yet, how do we predict and prevent them?

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As I considered the local church for this RoTM (RoTNMaaH), I began to think of the ways that it has been a part of my life as a follower of Jesus.  One of the first things that came to my mind was how I’ve been blessed by the diversity of the local church.  A clarification is in order, however.  It seems to me that today the concept of diversity has, quite oddly, taken on a more narrow focus than one might expect.  The mention of the word typically calls to mind different races: Asian, African-American, Latino(a), etc.  Diversity tends to be a synonym for multi-culturalism or simply a plurality of races.  This is especially apparent in light of the buzz around Obama’s historic inauguration and cabinet appointees.  This notion of diversity isn’t wrong, of course, but there is a broader sense of the word that comes to mind when I consider my experience in the local church which is independent of race.  I speak of the simple diversity of persons, or more specifically, backgrounds.

This was especially striking to me a few months ago on a weekend on retreat with about thirty people from my congregation.  The purpose of the retreat was to share our personal testimonies, so we spent our days in a large circle doing just that.  I was struck, awestruck even, by the tremendous diversity among the testimonies shared that weekend.  So many different people, from so many different backgrounds, all telling vastly different stories of God’s enduring faithfulness in pursing them and calling them to faith in Christ.  It was a perfect case study of unity in diversity; one body, many parts.

The local church has been an excellent vehicle for me getting to know brothers and sisters all over the demographic map.   As such, I’ve known deep friendships with people who I never would have met in any other capacity, and I’ve been exposed to personalities, histories, and gifts I might not otherwise ever experience.

I believe that the diversity of the Body of Christ is one of the most powerful encouragements available to us through participation the local church.   I could spend many paragraphs on the manifold blessings of diversity within the church community, but the one on my heart lately is the simple fact that it speaks to the inexhaustible grace of God in reaching so many different people, through so many different means, at so many different times.  God is still changing lives, and the diversity of these lives within the church is revelatory of His awesome power.

This fact is a counter to the pessimism one might feel in response to our fallen world.  There is no paucity for examples where we might heave a saddened sigh at some tragic news.  “How will that woman ever recover such a loss?  What chance do those children have?  How can he or she live a ‘normal’ life anymore? How will those wounds ever heal?”  The testimonies of the Church body answer the question: “By the awesome power of God.”

It is an encouragement to me as a parent when I wonder how my son will navigate through the jungle of lies that will surround him every day, or how he will weather the inevitable suffering that is a part of life.  Here again I can consider the testimonies of my brothers and sisters, who collectively have walked similar (often more treacherous) roads.  How will my son remain in the Truth? The same way my many brother and sisters have: By the awesome power of God.

God is the one who has redeemed, and will redeem, countless millions for His Glory.  Indeed, the whole earth shall be redeemed with them.  The Church is one of many indications that His redemptive power never rests, and His reach knows no bounds.

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Hey everyone, I thought I’d let you know that the Christian Carnival CCLIX is up over at Parableman (Cousin Jeremy’s site).  This is a collection of posts from around the blogosphere written by Christians about a variety of topics.  Brian’s 1st post on the Church is included this week.  We’ll try to submit posts to the Carnival on a weekly basis, we encourage our reader(s) to check it out when you get a chance.

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RoTM: The Church

Danny and I have been negligent about our Resource of the Month (RoTM) posts, and since this one is coming in the middle of Janurary, it shall be our RoTNMaaH: Resource of the Next Month and a Half, despite the unfortunate phonetic coincidence that the acronym sounds “rotten.”  Regardless, join us for the next 6 weeks as we write about the Church.

Growing up in New England, the start of winter meant the beginning of the snow day season. I remember the feeling of expectation and excitement that welled up in my heart when snow was in the weekday forecast. I’d wake up, look out the window, and rush to the radio, eager hear my school called. I doubt I ever listened so intently to an otherwise dull list of school names. The benefits of a snow day were twofold: (1) no school, and (2) playing in the snow. So powerful were these childhood emotions that the feeling sticks with me to this day; I’m still excited when it snows. The difference is that now I have no good reason for excitement.  Snow means little more than inconvenience, perilous travel, and back pain.

We got about six inches this past Sunday in Boston. Since I was serving in the worship band (a ministry that requires me to get to church a few hours early), I checked the cancellation web-sites (my, how times have changed) before I cleaned off my car. I didn’t want to get to church only to find out that our pastor had called off our service. He hadn’t. As I drove in on the snowy roads, I wondered to myself, “When is it appropriate to cancel Sunday worship service?”

The question nagged at me, because the more I thought about it, the harder it became to answer. The reason, I believe, is that the cancellation question really asks a bigger question: How important is Sunday worship service? Indeed, why go to church in the first place? We could probably write a book here, hence our decision to explore (the C)church over the next few weeks.  However, if I had just a few sentences to spend, I’d say that we go to church for (1) worship, (2) community, and (3) hearing the Word preached. Negatively, we don’t go to church to (1) throw God a bone, (2) earn our salvation, (3) feel good about ourselves (i.e., self-righteous).

The other meta-question asked by the prospect of cancellation is “Why would you cancel church in the first place?” In the case of a snow day, I propose two broad categories of answer: (1) Safety – it is unsafe to travel, (2) Pragmatism – nobody will be there anyway.

So, tackling my meta-questions in reverse order, I find more tensions than answers.  The pragmatic “nobody will be there anyway” reason for cancellation is valid:  Why labor for hours in travel and setup, or spend money on heat and electricity for a few (if any) congregants?  Fair enough, I guess, so long as the reclaimed time and resources are better spent.  Against the validity of this claim is the awesome truth that our God can be decidedly impractical.  How do we resolve the tension?  Ask God.

Regarding the reasoning from safety, we may ask the fair question, “Why risk injury or accident for church?”  What if the governor declares a state of emergency and it’s illegal to travel?  Against this, of course, is the conviction afforded us by looking to countries like China, wherein millions literally risk their lives to illegally attend a worship service in the cold darkness of a cave.  I would guess that a few inches of snow would not deter these brothers and sisters of ours in the least.  How do we resolve the tension?  Ask God.

Working back to the first question, “how important is worship service?” we can notice that in many ways the answer is a barometer for somebody’s feelings about church. It could also serve as a barometer for a given church’s efficacy at ministering to its congregation.  I submit for now that worship service is very important (more on this over the next few weeks).  If you should feel otherwise, you might ask yourself why.  If it’s because of your church, perhaps you’re there to be an agent for positive change (prayerfully, lovingly, and thoughtfully implemented without subversion), or, you might need to move on.  Ask God about it.  If it’s not because of your church, perhaps there are heart issues upon which God is placing His finger, or past wounds that need healing.  Ask God about them.

We might also think outside of the proverbial box, too.  “Church,” of course, is not the building we attend, and there is no hard requirement that we have to go there to worship, connect or be edified.  In the case of a snow storm, perhaps people who live near one another could gather together in houses.  Or, perhaps a simple phone call could be made to a brother or sister for prayer and connection over the phone.  The pastor could e-mail sermon notes, record it and post it on a web site, or families could have their own worship service.  Here, I think, is the key to my point above.  If service is cancelled, or it is truly insane to attempt travel, we ought to put the reclaimed time to good use.

In my personal experience, the church has vascillated between being a spa and a gym.  Sometimes, it’s immensely refreshing and I can’t wait to go again.  Other times, I dread going, labor at participating, and feel sore days afterwards.  In either case, I’m the better for having gone, and it’s been good for me.  As for the snow, since God gives it to us in the first place, it only stands to reason that He’ll tell us what to do about it if we ask Him.

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As promised in Part I, I hope to take a closer look at the theology of William P. Young’s The Shack.  As an opening remark, I do not believe Young set out to write a systematic theology, and he should not be chided for failing to do so.  Young is bringing to bear characteristics of God as they are experienced by one who is in need of emotional healing and a restored relationship to God.  As such, the focal points of God’s character are His love and His desire for relationship with us.  An emphasis on these traits is no real problem; indeed, emphases are all over the Bible.  We hardly decry the fact that there are four gospels, after all.  Each contributes in its own way to fill in the picture of Christ’s life.

 

This is one intrinsic problem with The Shack:  It has no companion(s) to balance it, and give us a more rounded picture.  As such, we must remember that overemphasis on The Shack (or any other book) to the peril of regular and thoughtful Bible study, is dangerously unwise, since we’re not getting the whole story.  (This applies to you, too, Narnians.)  If the highest heavens cannot contain God (2 Chr.2:6), we certainly should not expect The Shack to do so either. 

 

I write the above in Young’s defense.  We should expect, by the inherent nature of his project, that Young’s depiction of God will fall miles and miles short of that found in Scripture.  If that were the end of it, I could stop the review here.  Unfortunately, Young takes a project already predisposed to imbalance and heaps more stones on the heavy side of the scale.  These errors we cannot pardon as “the nature of the beast,”  especially when they go against the authorative grain of Scripture.  Let us then focus on the primary question of Part I:  Is Young’s god really God?

 

As for the Trinity, the god of The Shack is indeed triune: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  These are presented to the main character (Mack) as “Papa,” Jesus, and “Saroyu” respectively.  Upon meeting the three in the shack, Mack asks which of them is God.  They reply in unison, “I am” (p. 87).

 

Young’s treatment of the Trinity, however, strays from the Biblical path.  His denouncement of a Trinitarian hierarchy is one example.  While Young is right to assert that each person of the Trinity is equal with the other, he makes a great fuss about there being no hierarchy among them (p. 122), and that they all submit to one another (p. 145).  This is not taught in the Bible.  Rather, there is clear functional submission within the Trinity.  The Son submits to the Father in Gethsemane (Lk. 22:42), the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son (Jn. 14:6-7; 16:7).  The Son can do only what He sees The Father do (Jn. 5:19).  Never do we see The Father submitting to the Son, nor the Son to the Spirit, nor the Spirit sending the Father.

 

Young seems to base much of his anti-hierarchy polemic on the unsubstantiated claim that hierarchy is antithetical to true love and relationship, because it demands rules (pp.122-3).  If Young is right, then my relationship with my son Henry is doomed, and I can also write off my relationship with my earthly father as less than authentic.  Obedience to commands is no detriment to love, either.  As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commands” (Jn. 14:15).  Neither is the giving of commands less than loving.  When I got my driver’s license, my father was plenty loving and relational by frequently issuing the command, “Drive safely.”

 

Young twists submission even further by suggesting that God submits to Mack per the requirements of a genuine “circle of relationship” (p. 145).  Again, this enjoys no Biblical basis.  It could be argued that Jesus submitted to the ruling authorities in His day (e.g., by paying taxes as in Mt. 17:27), but we never see God the Father or Holy Spirit in submission to any human.

 

Young blurs the distinctiveness of the Trinity by also stating that all persons suffered when Christ was killed on the cross.  Indeed, even Papa has scars on his wrists (pp. 99, 164).  The lines continue to blur as Young describes the Incarnation: “When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.  We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed.” (p. 98 ).

 

In Young’s god, then, we have an anti-hierarchical portrayal of the Trinity, with each person in a circle of submission to the other, and all of them being “one,” all of them experiencing what the other experiences; indeed, all of them became human in Christ.  This is actually an ancient heresy known as Sabellianism (or modalism, or patripassionism; a flavor of monarchianism, for those who want the words I had to lookup in my church history notes).  The error of this heresy is that it loses the distinction of the persons in the Trinity.  Only Jesus suffered and died on the cross.  Only Jesus became man, not the Father.  Jesus is indeed fully God, but He is not God the Father or Holy Spirit.  Only the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles in Acts 2.  The Holy Spirit is indeed fully God, but He is not God the Son or Father.

 

Of course, it is fair to ask if this really matters.  After all, who among us thought (or will think) “Sabellianism!” when reading The Shack?  It took me a second reading; I even had to look up the terms.  So why make a fuss about a theological nuance?  Is Young’s error tantamount to saying that Jesus is a now-deceased moral teacher?  Of course not.  However, making a claim about God that contradicts Scripture is no small matter, and I hesitate to draw some arbitrary line of severity to determine what constitutes a “big” problem and a “small” problem.  For now, I posit that no error should remain unchecked, no matter the “size.”  Any misconception about a matter of infinite import (i.e., God) has the potential to grow, especially when combined with other misconceptions, into something far more troubling, often with unanticipated consequences.  I will for now defer a deeper discussion to another post.

 

The Shack also has some awkward Trinitarian moments, like Jesus giving Papa a foot massage, Saroyu collecting Mack’s tears, and a spilled bowl in the kitchen caused by Jesus’ slippery fingers.  Corny?  Cheesy?  Syrupy?  The proper food-based adjective eludes me.  These episodes are more awkward than anything else, and we can give Young some grace here, as I believe he’s just trying to show the intimacy and loving relationship among the persons of the Trinity.  We could just as well forgive me for my cynical reaction to his efforts.

 

Papa’s portrayal as a large African-American woman will no doubt ruffle feathers.  Aside from eye-rolling (okay, we get it, you’re trying to break paradigms), I found Young’s choice more ironic than anything else, since he’s just swapping stereotypes: the stereotypical sassy African-American woman is chosen over the stereotypical “Gandalf” depiction of God.  So in an effort to avoid pig’s meat, Young chooses bacon instead of ham.   In so doing, we could even argue that Young breaks the second commandment, and creates an idol.

 

Papa explains his (her?) appearance to Mack saying, “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature.  If I choose to appear to you as a man or woman, it’s because I love you” (p. 93).  The ostensible reason for Papa’s choosing a woman is because Mack still has issues with his earthly father.

 

Young’s assertion that “both genders are derived from [God’s] nature” is valid, since man and woman are both created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27).  I am skeptical of the premise of an embodied Father, however.  God the Father never appears vis-à-vis with anyone in Scripture, although Moses comes close (e.g., Ex. 33).  The reason is because “No one can see [God’s] face and live” (Ex. 33:20).  Furthermore, Jesus reminds us that “no one has seen the Father,” (Jn. 6:46).  Indeed, every appearance of the Father (fancy word: theophany) is marked by stormy language, and terrifying fear on the part of the observer (e.g., Sinai, Mt. 17:5-6).

 

Really what we have in Young’s trinity is just three copies of Jesus: three versions of God incarnate.  We could play the “God can do anything” card in Young’s defense, and claim that it is within God’s power to appear however He wants to whomever He wants.  Indeed, God can do anything, but only that which is consistent with His nature and character.  (So to answer the childhood riddle, no, God cannot create a rock that he cannot lift anymore than a circle can be a square).  Given the testimony of Scripture, it does not appear to be in God’s nature or character to reveal Himself as three incarnate persons, let alone two women (Papa and Sarayu) and one man (Jesus).

 

The Shack also tends to diminish God’s justice, especially in the area of punishment for sins.  Papa states that he does not delight in the punishment of the wicked, which is fair enough, but Young goes on to say that God does not punish sin, since sin is punishment enough (p. 120).  For sure, sin is punishment in itself; it is not the best for us, nor were we created for sin.  But the Bible clearly teaches that God punishes sinners for their sin.  From the third chapter of Genesis onward, we read of a God who, while he may not delight in punishment, punishes sinners none the less. 

 

Young shows great concern for preserving human free will, (indeed, it is the crux of his theodicy). Young’s god “submits” to human choices, even when they are harmful, so as not to violate our will (pp. 145-6). Also, Young’s god uses our choices to work into his purposes (p. 192). In isolation, statements like these don’t give me great alarm, but they contribute to an overall flavor of Young’s god that tends to soften God’s activity in history. God is portrayed more as a healer, one who fixes the messes, rather than one who is proactive in bringing about his will.  The Bible testifies that God comes on the scene, often without our permission or consent, and makes things happen.

 

So, is Young’s god really God?  There is much we can take away from Young’s god, and much I appreciate about the way Young creatively explores his character.  He is indeed more loving than we can imagine, and wishes to be in loving relationship with us so much that He sent His Son to die to bring about our reconciliation.  I doubt we’ll ever comprehend “how deep and how wide” runs the river of God’s love.

 

On the other hand, Young’s god is not God as He is revealed in the Bible.  What I struggle to record here, is an overarching feeling throughout The Shack of a watered-down god.  All that I mention above combines with an unrelenting emphasis on love and relationship.  This is all couched in a narrative where the main character chums around with the God of the universe.  Scripture might allow chumming around with Jesus, but not the Father or Holy Spirit.  The net result is a god much diminished from that of Scripture.  Yes, “God is love,” (1 Jn. 4:8,16; c.f., p. 101), but God is also a consuming fire (Dt. 4:24).  As He is loving, He is also holy, just, righteous, fearful, awesome, compassionate, mighty, majestic and merciful.  He is personal, but that doesn’t mean we would ever be able to curse in his presence (p. 224), or snap at him in anger (p. 96).  Just ask Job.

 

I have just been able to scratch the surface in this theological review.  There are other issues in The Shack.  Time and space limit me to highlighting a few problems that are exemplar of the kinds of subtle distortions Young makes, however well-intentioned.  Similar warnings could be made about Young’s take on salvation, the Church, Scripture, sin, and evil.  As such, below are some other reviews of The Shack that might fill in some of the gaps I’ve missed, and provide some more food for thought.

 

Ben Witherington’s review:

http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2008/07/shacking-up-with-godwilliam-p-youngs.html

 

Tim Challies’ review:

http://www.challies.com/media/The_Shack.pdf

 

James B. DeYoung shines a harsh light on The Shack (long):

http://theshackreview.com/content/ReviewofTheShack.pdf

 

A shorter version of DeYoung’s review:

http://theshackreview.com/content/TheShackReview2Page.pdf

 

A collection of links to several different reviews; scroll down to catch them all:

http://www.andyrowell.net/andy_rowell/2008/05/four-church-lea.html

   

Wayne Elliot’s review:

http://hereiblog.com/2008/08/08/the-shack-review/

 

Wayne Jacobsen (the publisher of The Shack) responds to various criticisms:

http://www.windblownmedia.com/shackresponse.html

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I’ve always tried to place myself in the service of the church, specifically my church.  I don’t say this to make myself sound humble, but to explain my basic ministry strategy: if there is a need, and I can fill it, I try to do so.  The reason for this is fairly simple- “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil 2:3-4).  So, whatever the hole is (someone to set up chairs, teaching a class, etc) I think it’s is wise for church members to do what they can to fill it.

But I’ve been challenged recently in the area of spiritual gifts.  Now, I’m a charismatic (notice the small “c”, though I realize the hot new term is “continuationist”), by which I basically mean that I believe that the spiritual gifts listed in the Bible still exist today and we ought to seek the spiritual gifts for use in the church.  Why I hold that position is for another post somewhere down the line, but suffice to say I find it the only viable exegetical position.

So, about that challenge I mentioned- these two points, the continuation of spiritual gifts and the need to serve the church actually go hand in hand.  The spiritual gifts exist primarily for the sake of the church, not the individual.  “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7).  True, there has been plenty of abuse in the church in this area, and no doubt there are plenty of selfish people floating around in the charismatic movement.  But that doesn’t negate what Paul tells us is their primary purpose: the edify the church.

This is what confuses me most about the “Open but Cautious” camp.  I’ve heard many people claim they are “open but cautious” in regards to the spiritual gifts (this is fairly common in seminary).  This means that they understand that a cessationist point of view lacks biblical warrant, but they are often afraid of the excesses in the charismatic movement.  Fair enough point, but given the purpose of the spiritual gifts, this ultimately is a selfish stance rather than a “church oriented” position.  Just as the Lord’s Supper is open to abuse (see 1 Corinthians), preaching, teaching, and a host of other good things, so are spiritual gifts.  And just as we don’t cease to participate in those activities because of the potential for abuse, so we shouldn’t cease to seek and use spiritual gifts because of what may happen.

If I truly consider myself a servant of the church, I will seek spiritual gifts.  I will put aside my own preconceived notions, my own comfortability.  Spiritual gifts exist to build up and strengthen the church, and if I care about building up and strengthening the church, I will “eagerly desire spiritual gifts” (1 Cor 14:1).

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Special thanks to Caitlin from Baker/Brazos for a review copy of this book.

I’ve already reviewed one book by Stephen J Nichols, Jesus Made in America, which made my top 5 new reads of 2008.  I was so impressed, in fact, that I was genuinely excited when I heard he had a new book coming out, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation.  This was not only due to the fact that Nichols is an interesting and excellent writer, but it’s a genuinely unique book.  I know more about blues music than most 20-something white guys from New England, but I’ll still admit most of what I know has to do with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, which isn’t exactly old-school blues.  Nichols’ book deals with “Delta Blues,” the blues music that sprang up from the Mississippi Delta in the early 20th century.

I was also intrigued by the irony of a book written by an educated, relatively affluent white man living in Lancaster PA dealing with the Delta Blues, a form of music developed and mastered by the black community living in a time when gross injustice and suffering was a daily reality in that region.  This, of course, isn’t a knock on Nichols or any kind of statement that he somehow ought not to write such a book.  I simply found it interesting.  In fact, he notes in his book that he is on the outside looking in, an approach that may lead to thoughtful insights for the rest of us in the same position.

Nichols sets out to attempt “a theology in a minor key… I am not a musician, but a theologian, and so I offer a theological interpretation of the blues” (14).  Noting that evangelicals tend to avoid dealing with the difficult aspects of life and the Bible, the blues can offer us something we desperately need: an honest look at the difficulties of life. 

To be sure, Nichols shows us that the difficulties we encounter in blues music fall into different categories: women, racism, floods, insects, alcohol, etc.  Sometimes those difficulties are to be expected- you run around with loose women, they’ll probably leave you for another man.  Sometimes those difficulties are an unfortunate reality- natural disasters, for example.  Other times those difficulties are injustices that ought to be righted- racism and the refusal to allow a better life for the sharecroppers living in the Delta region.

So the greatest strength of Nichols book is that he exposes us to more than just the blues music, he reveals the reason the blues existed, and even the theology (though I doubt any of the old blues singers would have used that word) behind it all.  We are living in a painful and cursed world, awaiting the day when God sets all things right but striving to change our world for the better in the meantime.  God’s ways are difficult to understand, but He is still merciful and present.

The tour of the world of the Delta Blues is fun in its own right.  Some of the singers are well know: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey.  Others are folks I hadn’t heard of: Son House, Charley Patton and Thomas Dorsey (well, I should note that I never knew Dorsey had any connection to the blues).  I even find myself inspired to start nicknaming some of my friends, though I noticed that they tend to be slightly repetitive in the Delta Blues world (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson and The Reverend Blind Gary Davis).

Admittedly, there are times Nichols lapses into repetition, though its fewer than 200 pages.  I suppose he can’t help that, after all, the subjects of blues songs don’t stray too far from the short list given above.  And, this being my second Nichols book, I find myself contemplating the contrast between Nichols’ treatment of the blues singers and his treatment of contemporary Christian music in Jesus Made in America.  He blasts (sometimes rightly so) contemporary Christian songwriters for their often shallow and trite lyrics, whereas he praises the blues songwriters for the depth of their insight into the human condition.  I guess I can’t help but wonder if part of this is due to the fact that Nichols simply likes the blues more than CCM pop-candy.  Mind you, I can’t blame him.  If I had to choose between listening to Muddy Waters or Rebecca St James, it’s a no brainer.

But, in the end, the “theological” key is that the bluesmen (and women) are writing out of their pain and the pain of those around them.  They recognize injustice and call it out when they see it.  True, there may not be a strong variety in their lyrics (it doesn’t take long to notice some of the phrasings get recycled), but there probably wasn’t a strong variety of experience for them either.  They weren’t allowed the luxury of variety.  Thus, they lamented the pain and sought relief, sometimes from the bottle, sometimes from God, often from both.

Nichols is to be commended for writing another outstanding and incredibly fascinating book.  It’s worth reading just for the insight into blues music.  But more importantly, it’s worth reading because it helps us remember that there is a “minor key” to theology.  There are times to lament and times to cry out for justice.  Admitting that we live in a fallen and cursed world is not a lack of faith, it’s reality.  The Delta Blues, perhaps more than any music form in recent times, helps us connect to this reality.

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