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“It’s the economy, stupid.”

Whether or not you remember this popular campaign slogan from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid,  17 years later, it would seem that the US economy still ranks in the top 3 stars that share the media limelight (global security and Michelle Obama’s wardrobe appear to be the other two).  Much of the economic news today seems to fall somewhere between “disheartening” and “terrifying.”  Indeed, the words “economic” and “crisis,” once mere friends, are now considering marriage, much to the chagrin of their disapproving parents.

I’m not made of wood, so from time to time I struggle to divorce myself from the sense of impending doom that hangs heavy in the air.  Praise be, God alone is our provider, and my ultimate hope rests in Him.  We’ve heard these sermons, and they make the excellent point that we needn’t worry ourselves to death about money, or even worse, let it take the place of God (e.g., Mt.6:19-34).

Balancing this is the call to be wise stewards with what God has given us, and the very practical matter of deciding how to spend, give and save our money.  God is my provider.  Amen.  Now, what should I do with my paycheck?  The parable of the ten talents surely isn’t talking about money alone, but it’s not not talking about money either.

The problem I’ve encountered as I’ve looked into financial matters is that nobody seems to agree about much of anything, save the fact that the world economy is in big trouble.  (Read a few articles and financial blogs for a week and you’ll see what I mean.)  The whole endeavor seems steeped in opinion and speculation.  One expert will tout their prescience of the economic collapse while failing to mention that they’ve also lost their shirt in the downturn.

The same phenomenon seems evident in the world of dieting.  Atkins diet?  South Beach?  Eat your blood type?  Mediterranean Diet?  Weight Watchers?  Shall I even broach the topic of parenting?  Attachment parenting?  “Ferber-izing?”  Co-sleeping?  Cry it out?  To spank or not to spank?  Experts wage war along these and numerous other lines, and lay people such as myself are left confused, wondering how to sift through the claims and find out what’s actually true or false.  Unless you make a career out of investigating every truth claim, it seems impossible to sort it out.

Enter relativism.  Enter agnosticism.  So many truth claims, such passion behind the arguments, so many “studies” that “show” said argument to be correct, so many testimonials, so little time, know-how, and expertise to sort it out.  What we are able to sort out are some superficial generalizations upon which everybody agrees:  “Don’t spend what you don’t have,” “Exercise and avoid fast food,” “Love your kids and be a vital part of their lives,” etc.  At the limit, we find an expert or two with whom we agree, providing us with a permission slip for our actions:  Spanking is wrong; Dr. Spock says so.

Is religion any different?  “Just believe in something,”  “Don’t kill anybody,” “Be tolerant of other beliefs.”  There can’t be just one way to Heaven; Oprah says so.  Where does that leave us?  I sympathize with the honest agnostic relativist, but are there some differences?  If agnosticism and/or relativism “works” in other areas of life, is it fair to say it “works” for religion?

I would suggest several differences that set the religios project apart from those mentioned above.  First, there is a matter of degree.  Religious claims (at least, those of major world religions) are umbrellas under which all other truth claims fall, and a lens through which they are viewed.   They are meta-claims, as it were.  “Follow this person and lose weight” is a vastly different claim from “Follow this person and inherit eternal life.”  When we weigh a truth claim, the scope and import of that claim ought to factor into our consideration.  For example, if I claim that crushed ice will chill water much faster than cubed ice, I doubt any reader will struggle for long weighing my claim.  The scope is limited to cold beverages, and the importance is minor at best.  If I claim that all perceived reality is an illusion, as the Bhuddist does, the scope and consequences are enormous, and merit more thoughtful, probing consideration.

Second, we must note the predictive nature of so much information.  Study A shows that gold is the safest investment over time.  Study B shows that people who cut their carbohydrate intake by 50% lose an average of 10 pounds a month.  Study C shows that spaking children increases their propensity for violent behavior.  (N.b., all said studies above were pulled out of thin air for illustrative purposes only.)  In every case, we have an (sometimes subjective) analysis and interpretation of data with a tremendous reliance on statistics.  Worse yet, all such studies attempt to predict the future in some way.  Furthermore, all the studies above interact with a wide variety of variables that can drastically affect the predicted outcome.  The differences in analysis, and the affect of unknown or misunderstood variables lead to the sea of differing opinions that litter our bookshelves.  Finally, the truth claims of investment, diet, and child rearing are, to a great extent, empirically verifiable.  Did you get a good return on your investment?  Did you lose weight?  Is your child in prison for aggravated assault?

Religious claims, on the other hand, lack many of the characteristics above.  At their core, religious claims do not predict the future so much as they explain and assign meaning to reality.  “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah,” is not a prediction of the future.  It’s an existential claim.  How would one confirm that Mohammed is God’s prophet?  That all of life is illusory?    That there is a Heaven and Hell?  These claims are arrived at through different means, and must therefore be treated differently.

While there may be empirical evidence to support religious claims (e.g., the observation of a changed life upon accepting Christ), none of us can verify them in the same way we would verify the efficacy of a diet.  Of course there are predictive claims in religion (e.g., if you reject Christ you will suffer eternal torment), but again, these are not empirically verifiable (at least, until it is too late to do anything about it).

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is a difference between the statement “I don’t know,” and “I can’t know.”  The former is simple ignorance, the latter is agnosticism, and there is an enormous, unsubstantiated leap of faith between the two.  Every student of apologetics has heard the rebuttal to the agnostic:  “How do you know that you can’t know?”  Indeed economists have a difficult time predicting market behavior, but does that mean that market behavior is unknowable?  Even if we grant that market behavior is unknowable on the grounds that it is attempting to predict the future, why should we conclude that other knowledge (i.e., religious knowledge) is unattainable?

In the end, the agnostic must ask him or herself whence their agnosticism.  Is it apathy?  Why wouldn’t we investigate the outrageous claim of the Christian faith that our eternal destiny hinges upon how we respond to Jesus?  Is it simply because we prefer to spend our time in other pursuits that we (erroneously) find more satisfying?  Is it confusion?  Are we trying to fit the round peg of religous claims into the square holes of scientific ones?  Is it laziness?  Weeding through the average religious section in a book store is daunting, after all.  Is it wishful thinking?  If we cover our eyes and ears, we may not have to deal with whatever unpleasantries lurk in religion’s murky waters; pleading ignorance is a “safe,” easy way out.

Despite my strong words above, I do hold a great deal of compassion for those who would claim to be agnostic.  In the information age, we are assaulted on all fronts, and at all times, with truth claims ranging from trivial to terrifying, and monumental to minute.  There is no escaping it, save the fleeting release proffered by so many other vices that vie for our time and money, or the simple bliss of shutting it all out.  I do not minimize for a moment the depth and breadth of the human struggle for truth and meaning in our world.  I pray regularly that God would break my heart for those who are captive to that struggle, and do not yet know the freedom available to them in Christ.  Still, we must note that the rejection of Christianity in favor of agnosticism (or any other world view), is not a matter of knowledge alone.  In actuality, it is resisting the work of the Holy Spirit (c.f., Jn. 15:26; 16:8-11), for which we will have no good excuse.

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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 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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Tyler Wigg-Stevenson has written a great article about the dangers of “marketing” Christianity.  It is well worth the read.  Check it out here.

(Thanks to our good friend Ben for spotting this one.)

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In his preface to the 1961 edition of the The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis laments that his book is unbalanced.  Screwtape tells the one-sided tale of two demons seeking to keep an individual from God.  He wishes there could have also been written an account of angelic responses to the lies of the demons, but notes that no man could write such answers: “Even if a man – and he would have to be a far better man that I – could scale the spiritual heights required, what ‘answerable style’ would he use?…Every sentence would have to smell of Heaven.”

51p-xoe2ajl_sl160_While Lewis was disinclined to imagine angelic responses, William P. Young boldly envisions the words and manner of God Himself in his spiritual juggernaut, The Shack.  The result is an emotionally charged novel with millions of copies in print, multiple translations, and all of the controversy one might expect from a novel wherein the main character eats dinner with the Trinity.

The story is simple:  Mack, the victim of unspeakable tragedy, is invited to the very scene of the tragic event (a shack in the woods) by none other than God Himself.  So begins a weekend-long journey of healing as Mack encounters the Trinity firsthand, complete with hugs, lively conversation, hiking trips, and all the camaraderie one might expect from a weekend in the woods with three close friends.  Readers looking for numerous characters, intense action, or plot twists will be disappointed.  The heart of the book lies in the exchanges between Mack and God.  The story is just substantial enough to create a backdrop for the dialogue, and little else.

We must therefore realize upfront that although Young’s book is indeed a work of fiction, its purpose is to teach about God.  If the text itself were not obvious enough, the advertisements that follow the author’s acknowledgements are a dead giveaway.  Here, readers are encouraged to share The Shack with others.  In this way, they may get “a magnificent glimpse into the nature of God.”

It is therefore entirely fair to ask if Young’s depiction of God is true.  After all, I have no more interest in knowing a god of fancy than I do in knowing Frodo Baggins; both are a fiction.  I wish to know the God who is.  This issue I hope to address more thoroughly in part II, when I consider the theology of The Shack.  For now, I wish to make some preliminary comments to motivate and frame such a venture.

As to Young’s method, I tend to find the dialogical approach to teaching overly contrived, and The Shack is a perfect example of why.  The veil (dialogue) that conceals the author’s intent (exposition of God’s character) can wear thin.  The puzzled interlocutor (Mack) lobs up meatball questions as the teacher (God) winds up to spike the answer.  This can make the story facile, or even trite.

My own preferences aside, however, the real difficulty in Young’s method of teaching is that it is difficult to check (per 1 Ths. 5:21; 1 Jn. 4:1).  As a Christian, I believe Scripture holds the place of absolute authority for truth when it comes to the character of God.  Everything should be weighed against Scripture.  Since The Shack is a piece of fiction, Young doesn’t cite Scripture references to back up his theology.  This makes it difficult to weigh what is being said, because you do not always know its basis.  The reader is left to wonder if a statement is either based on or inferred from Scripture, or simply Young’s artistic imagination.

This is especially problematic because Young does not give us much insight into his view of Scripture.  The glimpses that we do get tend to be pejorative, or at best, focus only on the abuses of Scripture rather than its proper use (see pp.65-66).  Much greater emphasis is given to knowing God through experience (e.g., pp.195, 198).  Indeed, the very premise of the book is about a man coming to know God through experience!  This is not intrinsically wrong, but it is dangerous to let experience hold the highest position of authority in a Christian’s life.

Therefore, given the book’s purpose, it is advisable to read it with a critical eye.  While I take no issue with suspending a critical reading to allow the emotive force of the book have its effect, the content oughtn’t be taken for “Bible Truth” at face value.  It is worthy of a critical reading as well, perhaps even more-so since the emotional weight of the book could easily suspend our better judgment.  As good as Young’s god might feel, we must test him and ask, is he really God?  I believe the answer is a mixed bag, but we shall make a better go at this in Part II.

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The following is an edited combination of two posts I put up on my personal blog almost a year ago. After a conversation of sorts with a commenter on my Maher-ulous post, I thought these were germane to the discussion (tangentially, at least).


I’ll begin with a scene from a Simpsons episode:

Flanders:(reading softly to Rod and Todd)…And then Harry Potter, and all his friends…went straight to Hell for practicing witchcraft!
Rod and Todd: Yay!!!

My brother bought me the Harry Potter anthology for my birthday this past fall. I started them after the Christmas holiday and was instantly aware of why the books enjoy such outrageous popularity: they’re very entertaining (go figure). I finished book 7 just last week, and have to admit, I’m sad that there are no more left to read.

Of course, as a Christian, I am accutely aware of the controversy surrounding these books. So aware, in fact, that I’m going to address this controversy very little in this post. Instead, I want to think about a bigger issue: Should Christians ever “forbid”, “ban,” or even disregard ceratin media?

We might also consider how the content of said media plays into our choice. Compare the Harry Potter series with something like Pullman’s “His Dark Materials.” The former is just Halloween made real, while the latter is a subtle (though ferocious), attack against the Christian worldview (per the author’s own admission). What about Nietzsche? Dawkins? Harris?

Like most matters in life, I think a blanket answer is impossible, but here are some initial thoughts:

1) If a Christian man or woman has never had any serious interaction with something that challenges their world view, I would maintain that their faith and witness is significantly weakened. I strongly believe that faith is like a muscle: if it is not used, it atrophies; moreover, if it is not challenged, it will not grow.

2) Christians must thoughtfully engage with their culture. Automatic and uneducated dismissal of non-Christian media is horribly damaging to our witness in the world. This doesn’t require that we live ever-immersed in non-Christian books and films, but it does mean that we at least consider them thoughtfully as they come into public view.

3) We should guard ourselves agaisnt stumbling blocks. If a particularly raunchy movie comes out to much fanfare and discussion, there are ways I can learn about it without compromising my purity (e.g., Wikipedia, IMDB, Amazon). Clearly, we shouldn’t watch pornography so that we can better interact with the millions caught in its snares.

4) As parents, we certainly must take great care in how we walk the balance of guarding our children against that which might harm them, and teaching them to stand firm in a hostile world (c.f., point #1). Pray for wisdom.

So, should Christians ever ban, forbid, or disregard certain media? My answer, for those who want to read between the lines, is “no” with a “but.” The “no” stems largely from the fact that I believe Christians must thoughtfully engage their culture.  The “but” finds most of its basis in stumbling blocks: We have to be watchful of what we ingest, and how much.  Moreover, what we ingest may also impact our brothers and sisters around us (c.f., 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 10:31-33).

The matter of media becomes much more complicated with respect to children. As I watch my son grow up, I’m already thinking ahead to how I balance protection with allowing an instructive bump or bruise. Of course, with the Harry Potter books, I find them as harmless as any other fiction I’ve read. I will be quite comfortable letting Henry read them when he’s of age, and will lose little sleep wondering if he’ll become Wiccan as a result.

One anonymous commenter has expressed certainty that children wouldn’t pick up on religious subtexts within books (e.g., Potter, Narnia, His Dark Materials). I think this is a tough nut to crack, so I’m not as certain. As Danny mentioned, their (our) worldview is shaped, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, by our culture, and what our minds ingest day to day. If a child (or adult) reads many books with a strong anti-authority or anti-institution bias (e.g., His Dark Materials, Catcher in the Rye) it is quite possible that s/he may begin to develop a suspicion of authority in part thanks to these books.

Now, again, this isn’t intrinsically wrong. In my anonymous poster’s words, “Isn’t it better to allow, and even encourage, our children to read these books, even the most controversial, and then provide the opportunity for safe, frank discussion of the issues therein?” Yea and Amen.

What we mustn’t forget, however, is that sometimes these “issues” are hard to get at, because they are subtexts: they’re subtle, and often dovetail very nicely with the cultural milieu. They are the unexamined assumptions that litter our culture today: We don’t really know whence they came, but they’re always there, coating the lens through which we view the world. In this way, I would almost prefer overt assaults on Christianity over and against the subtle ones: they’re easier to target and discuss.

This just to say that with regards to media, we must be prepared to carefully examine the assumptions and subtexts in what our children read. Note that said assumptions aren’t necessarily bad. Take Harry Potter: (1) There’s a very clear line drawn between good and evil. Even more, Human egalitarianism is clearly associated with the “good” and cultural elitism is clearly associated with “evil.” (2) The theme of friendship is honestly portrayed, complete with arguments and reconciliations. (3) Self-sacrifice for a greater good is a neon sign throughout.

So, read and watch everything, and let your kids do the same (age appropriate and within reason, of course!) BUT be ever ready to uncover and examine the unsaid but implied, good and bad. I would go so far as to say that we would do well to apply such advice to anything we encounter.

Finally, I would add that we should be sure to watch our diet: Watch and read everything, yes, but be sure that you’re spending copious time engaging with the Truth, too. Harry Potter will entertain, but God’s Word will sustain. Assaults on our faith can challenge and strenthen us, but so also can the Word. Let’s thoughtfully engage on both ends, and all across, the spectrum. Given our fallen world and hearts, I submit that the scales of our diet should always tip towards “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…or praiseworthy” (Php. 4:8).  Even more, “whether [we] eat or drink or whatever [we] do, [let’s] do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

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As promised, I wanted to continue exploring some of the issues brought about by the recent release of “Religulous,” starring Bill Maher. To be clear, the intention in my first post was really to bring up some of the issues that surface when we consider the premise of Maher’s film. I cannot review the film itself, as I have not seen it, though from reviews and trailers I did offer a few reasons why it may not be worthy of any serious consideration, save that it provides an opportunity to share the Truth. I therefore agree with commenter smhjr: Religulous is not a threat, but an opportunity, and perhaps a catalyst spurring others to ask good questions about faith and religion (questions, mind you, for which Christianity has satisfying answers, so long as you’re willing to dig deep enough, and perhaps even talk to people other than those on the fringe of reason).

However, I do find the genre of Religulous more troublesome, hence the promised “real danger” I mentioned in the teaser at the end of my first post. For me, my worry is that films like Religulous, or similar media that lampoon people or institutions on moral grounds, foster an unhealthy attitude towards important issues. In this sense, Religulous is worthy of serious consideration.

Consider The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Each day politicians or the media that cover them are sliced and diced with great skill. Double talk, direct contradictions, or otherwise ridiculous statements are put right out in the open thanks to some brilliant editing and smart writing. The result is the fulfillment of Stewart’s admitted intention: Many “schnicks and giggles.” A comparison of Maher’s work and Stewart’s reveals similarities in method, intent, and result.

I must make the point upfront that Stewart and Maher are not “harmless” by virtue of their profession. In other words, we can’t say “Relax, it’s just a joke.” Your chosen profession or genre does not absolve you from social responsibility. Comedians writing comedy ought to be held responsible for taking a part in shaping public opinions and attitudes as much as anybody else. Repeatedly making the president of our country look incompetent is perfectly legal in our country, but it has real consequences for the social milieu. The same applies to Maher and religion.

That said, whence the resultant “danger” of Religulous, The Daily Show, and their like? First, I believe that such humor, if viewed frequently and uncritically, will subtly desensitize us to the gravity of some of the issues at stake. What, after all, is intrinsically funny about people killing each other over religious differences? Or (ostensibly) corrupt politicians running our country aground? Comedy by its nature requires some trivialization and/or emotional distance from the issue(s) at stake. Most of us have made the social faux pas of telling a joke at a party about a certain issue only to find that somebody nearby has suffered greatly from that about which we poke fun. Popularizing humor that plays on serious issues requires a loosening of sensitivities to real suffering. Suffering which, for most who are laughing, happens “out there.”

Second, Stewart and Maher do such a good job of making their point that in the end you’re left feeling helpless. For Maher, we’re proffered the notion that any member of an organized religion is ipso facto irrational. In Stewart’s case, we’re sold that politicians and the news media are so hopelessly bankrupt that there’s no point in actually doing something about it. In the end, any real engagement with serious issues is so futile or pointless that laughing about it is all we can do. Where I live, cynicism about politics and religion is rampant, and media like Maher’s and Stewart’s fuel that cynicism. At my last check, cynicism rarely brought about any lasting good, if any good at all.

The “real danger,” then, of Religulous is more subtle than the knee-jerk offense it may create. Like The Daily Show, and others of similar stripe, these media engender cynicism or apathy to serious issues. If indeed said issues are worthy of the moral offense that underlies the comedy itself, for all their intelligence, Maher and Stewart are a part of the very problems they purport to condemn.

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