Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"'Who said anything about being Christian? I'm not a Christian. Those who love me have come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims; some are Democrats, some Republicans and many don't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and Daughters of God.'

'Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?'

'Not at all. Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you'"

-'The Shack,' p. 184

I finished Young's 'The Shack' today, as I planned to do. I suppose if we must dispense titles, we must refer to it as an allegory--whether it be 'high' or 'low,' that is for the real critics to decide, perhaps those who suggest--as the cover states--that Young's book will do for its readers what Bunyan's book did for its own. I guess we'll see.

But, for the most part, I cannot say that I am disappointed with it. Admittedly, there are sections--the camping trip, the hunt for Missy, various dialogues, and especially the ending--that are cursory, reading like a perfunctory overview of a Hallmark movie or a family vacation gone awry. But I think the real beauty of the book lies not so much in the plot as it does in the ideas it exudes--ideas made all the more effective with any number of lines whose beauty comes not just from choice words and phrases, but also from their source: the forgotten, nearly abstruse aspects of Christianity that, in its becoming something of an extrinsic social club, have been abandoned, nearly lost.

The fact that Young portrays God as big, approachable, sometimes very funny African-American woman, and the Holy Spirit an elusive, 'out there' Asian woman is enough for me to dispense my respect. Very often, as the book suggests, people confuse Christianity with a very simplistic, very structured, very extrinsic form of living--a club of sorts, a gathering of tie-wearing subservients who aggregate if only to benefit from either a social atmosphere or the spewings of some dogmatic and egotistical pulpit pit-bull. Or perhaps both.

What Young reminds us is merely a restating of the argument Lewis makes in 'The Four Loves.' That Jesus was not at all the picture-perfect man within the context of the society into which he was born. Was not, in fact, for He was never meant to be. You cannot be psychologically 'stable' and societally form-fitting if the world spits at you, cries that you are a demon, and then strips you of your clothes and your skin if only to nail you to a tree and watch you slowly die.

I think 'The Shack' is a very good book for people who are not religiously inclined but still have questions concerning what is deemed religious--beginners, in essence. People who are hungry for that very thing which only God can satisfy, the thing that only an intrinsic, time-invested worldview can afford. So, I think the book is 'good' for everyone, essentially. If you are to ask me if I think it the best book in its form, using the best dialogue or the best devices, then no. In fact, I would recommend instead 'Mere Christianity' or maybe 'The Screwtape Letters.' Maybe even 'Letters to Malcom,' since those are the ones which have helped me personally by breaking some of the paradigms which so easily--and egregiously--crawl out of us when we become Christian. Since those modes of thinking are not, in fact, Christian at all.

Broken down, this religion came about by a dark-skinned Hebrew carpenter who wasn't even Christian at all--a rogue Jew who up-ended the rules and--even more shockingly--claimed to be God incarnate. Lewis makes the argument: you must decide for yourself whether Christ was in fact what he claimed to be, for He was either exactly that or else, a raving lunatic. The hollow arguments of His being simply another great moral teacher waste away, because His claims demand affirmation or refutation. The nonsense about His being simply 'moral' must fall away. Make your claim.

But I also think that Young answers very universal questions in dialogue that is basic, yet polished and approachable. The protagonist struggles with the loss of his daughter. Struggles even more so since she has died at the hands of a serial rapist-killer. From this one tragedy alone grows a web of grief in whose confines are caught all the members of his family. And the age-old questions regarding God in relation to suffering and grace and omnipotence and mercy, ensue.

And I think it is these 'age old' questions and their lucid responses which make the book enjoyable. This is not, mind you, to say that the concept of Christianity--of any religion-- can be whisked into pellucidity by means of one-line or one-paragraph responses. But I do not think this is the message Young puts forth. Instead, we get stepping stone answers to Stonehenge questions. Answers that satisfy, that are probably very correct, but answers that are 'beginning' nonetheless. Let us not forget the reminder to "work out your own salvation in fear and trembling" (Phillipians 2). And the argument has been made before that it is the saints who experience the midnight terrors, not the plain men with a spirituality unexamined--if they hold any concept of spirituality at all, mind you.

So 'The Shack' borrows, as duly noted, from any number of writers and philosophers: from Lewis and The Inklings to Chesterton and Eliot. And from many more as well. 'The Shack' is a microcosm of macrocosmically dispersed ideas. With his book, Young sweeps away all the trivial arguments of division and political agendas with the stark, ice-cold realities that Scripture very much foretells, that we very often forget and are too terrified to remember. Namely, he draws out the spiritual aspect of the Christian religion, leaving behind the structures and frameworks we have imposed.

And so God is a woman (remember, friends, that he is sexless). And Jesus scoffs at your WWJD bracelet (his life was for you, designed as the centerpiece from which our own history would flow, and was never meant to be imitated in that well-intentioned, yet dangerous sense). The Church is a Bride (so we are told, so we forget), and to love her is to love all of her--the myriad people and their myriad personalities. To claim that God demands your obedience is like speaking in metaphor: to make God out as an angry Gandalf, insatiably hungry for your pain and submission and sacrifice.

So really all you have done is to judge God on man's level with your own conscience and emotionally-fueled spewings. You have placed limitations on He Who is infinite, forgetting that you stand by the dictations of time, acting, instead, as a god illimitable, with the powers to judge and eat up people in tow. What you have forgotten, however, is that the God you judge is the very compass by which you judge all others: the atavism from which the very values themselves are fully derived. By sawing off the branch on which He sits, you saw off the tree entirely, yourself included. That God is love and is good are not limiting factors but simply factors lovely and good. He offers everything He has, not that which He has not. Personifying God as some staff-carrying, white-bearded, redoubtable sage is to use metaphor in a limiting sense. It utilizes the human image and so excludes everything of the sublime. Should it come as any surprise, then, that God defined Himself simply as 'I Am'?. And should we raise our eyebrows that the creation of the universe is relayed in the context of a Hebrew folk tale?

Find a better, more concise way to fix "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" and I will acquiesce to the new minimalism. But remember, too, that our ancestors knew nothing of atoms and much of angels. To speak eruditely with all the talk of Newtonian physics and relativity and the time-space continuum would have been as laughable to the ancient Hebrews as the Genesis account reads inane and ludicrous to the contemporary skeptics. And so you have forgotten, again, that to worship a fully comprehendible deity is not to worship at all; rather, you lay at the feet of some projection your fears and angers and doubts and loyalties. You offer yourself in all of your contradictions. But only submission to the God of Whom you will never know everything can offer the terror and the beauty that only an Infinite Existence can exude.

Also--and I write now about something I think is very important, and very much neglected--Young takes a page from Lewis and Tolkien and writes that everything we know and see is nothing but the unreality--the shadow or the echo--stemming from some other ultimate world. So all that we have is a real lie, and, again, as in Narnia, the waking world is the dream and the dream the waking world. You must die before you die so as to wake after you sleep--in an existence timeless.

And so when Paul instructs his listeners to be slaves unto Christ, I think he means it in the sense of self-surrender, where one doesn't aim to necessarily parallel the life of Christ--indeed, we know so little of it--but to exude that level of spiritual inwardness and charity that only living in Him can proffer.

Also, I think Young handles the role of God in the framework of tragedy well. Perhaps addressing one of the oldest theological arguments of them all, he makes big arguments, again, accessible. But I think to get a better grip of the problem of pain, you should probably read 'The Problem of Pain.'

So when people claim that reading 'The Shack' changed their lives, I believe them. Not because it's a work of great profundity--complex or insanely wild--but because it wakes them up. And looking at the world consciously is better than to live in illusion. Especially when the tangible world is nothing but an illusion. Or allusion.

Whichever you prefer.

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