We’ve all had that frustration of suddenly realising the mot juste to clinch an argument … long after it has been lost and forgotten. ‘If only I’d thought of saying …’ or words to that effect. (And as Don Carson once pointed out, we never lose arguments during their mental rerun.) Well, this is essential what Chris Russell has done in his Ten Letters: to be delivered in the event of my death (DLT, 2012). Though I’m being harsh – to reduce this extraordinary book to argument-clinching zingers after the event is very unfair. These letters are more like deep pastoral meditations after encounters, events, conversations which subsequently required extended reflection and heart-searching
Bizarrely, two new books from the same author arrived in the post on the same day. Sam Allberry’s new IVP UK book on the Trinity called ‘Connected‘ appeared alongside the American edition of his earlier book ‘Lifted’ – both of which were books I’d done blurbs for. Read more
One of my big tasks every summer is to do the talks for our church week away, usually all from one book. It’s a challenge, but one that is a joy because it is the only real opportunity for getting stuck into one book of the Bible. This year the focus was John’s gospel. One of the problems with the gospels is our over-familiarity. So to give it all a bit of a different spin, I took John’s bookends (his prologue (John 1:1-18) and closing summary statement (20:30-31) as our base of operations), with a view to seeing how they point to the book’s big themes.
Here is the outline of the talks
- The Beginning: THE WORD OF LIFE (John 1:1-18)
- The Revelation: SIGNS OF GOD (John 8:31-59)
- The Gospel: LOVE FOR THE UNLOVELY (John 3:1-21)
- The Battle: LIGHT vs DARKNESS (John 9)
- The Family: LIFE ON THE VINE (John 13:1-17)
- The Privilege: TRUST & LIVE – ALL-AGE TALK (John 20:24-31)
- Seminar: CAN WE TRUST JOHN’S GOSPEL?
In case it is of interest and use, there are various means for getting hold of some of this material. The talks are available as an iTunes podcast (click on the image). If you don’t have iTunes, you can get hold of them thru Jellycast.
Handouts are available for download from Scribd.
For those who prefer the printed word, here are the transcripts:
Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places is one of the most beautifully written and evocative books I’ve read. It is the sort of book that reminds one why we read (and should read) books in the first place, and it’s done for me what Joseph Banks and Captain Cook did for armchair traveller William Cowper.
MacFarlane is an English Literature lecturer at Cambridge – and in this book, he has gone in search for the last remaining places in the UK & Ireland that could genuinely be described as wild. In 15 chapters, he records his visits to the different wild landscapes to be found in the 5000 islands of the British archipelago. The descriptions are so compelling, and his references to literature, history as well as science so wide-ranging, that we feel as if we are learning and broadening our horizons with his every step. More importantly, I want to visit them all – and yet, conflictingly, yearn for them to stay wild.
Anyway – I found myself underlining bits on almost every page – a sign of an enjoyed read. Here, in the chapter called ‘Valley’, he visits the area around Loch Coruisk on the Isle of Skye (there are various photographs of it on Flickr, of which the one below by landscapepics is one of the best).
A hundred yards or so out across the loch was an island. Just a shallow hump of bare black rock, smoothed by the passage of the glaciers, and no more than a foot above the water at its highest point. It looked like the back of a whale, and its form reminded me of the outline of my beachwood.
I swam across to it, clambered out and stood there, dripping, feeling the roughness of the rock beneath my feet, and the warmth it had already gathered from the sun. Then I lay down on my back, tucked my hands behind my head and looked into the sky.
After three or four minutes, I found myself struck by a sensation of inverted vertigo, of being on the point of falling upwards. The air was empty of indicators of space or time; empty, too, of markers of depth. There was no noise except the discreet lapping of the water against the island. Lying there, with no human trace except the rim of my own eyes, I could feel a silence that reached backwards to the Ice Age. (The Wild Places, p60)
I love that concept of inverted vertigo – it is very suggestive: ‘falling upwards’ is exactly how it feels to look up into a deep blue sky. I just wonder though whether there is something here analagous to a relationship with God, who is higher, greater, more overwhelming and yet more magnetic than anything else in human experience. Isn’t that in a sense what worship is…? The gravitational pull towards the grace of the greater? Just as the psalmist feels and sings in the songs of ascent like Psalm 122.
My previous post generated some discussion on and offline, which is great. But I suspect that a few more comments are in order. I’m not here to defend or attack the book, per se – it can stand on its own perfectly well. But I feel the need to make a few more points of clarification…
- It’s Fiction! this is crucial; saying such is not an excuse for the book but merely an explanation of it. And the nature of fiction is that you create a parallel universe. But good fiction uses that parallel universe to highlight and even expose truth and reality in our world. And so in the parallel world of the Shack, you come face to face with all 3 persons of the Trinity – that’s not the way things happen in real life. But we do relate to all 3 persons in some ways in the real world – and so (as I said in my comments on the previous post) the book acts like an extended sermon illustration. No illustration is perfect, especially when it attempts to communicate about God. But that won’t necessarily stop it pointing us to reality.
- God as She? This is clearly something that gets people immediately alarmed. And in many ways, i completely understand why. But i think 2 things need to be said:
- In his defence, Young certainly appears aware of the problems – which is presumably why The Father is always addressed as Papa (his take on ‘Abba-Father’ – there are questions of course on what precisely Abba-Father means, but that’s not for now). And by the end of the book, the Father has appeared as an older man (albeit with a greying pony-tail!). The point is that the protagonist, Mack, has had such a terrible experience of his own human father, that he struggles to conceptualize God’s goodness in Father terms (in common with SO many people), until the end of the book. As this book is about coming to a renewed trust in the sovereignty AND goodness of God, i can see why Young does this in his book. It is clever. You may not like it – but at least understand what he is seeking to do.
- The truth is that God is neither male nor female – both are men and women are made in his image. This is important. This means that neither one gender is better or superior to the other. But it is true that in the Bible, God is predominantly revealed as Father – a male metaphor. I say predominantly, though, for good reason. It is not an exclusive metaphor, as the following verses point us to. Of course there are not many, and they are clearly in the minority. But they are there nonetheless…
- The metaphor of God as Mother: Numbers 11:12 (Moses didn’t do this, implying that God did); Isaiah 49:15; Isaiah 66:12-13; cf Ps 131:2, I Peter 2:2-3
- The metaphor of God as Midwife: Psalm 22:9-11, Psalm 71:6, Isaiah 66:9
- Parables using male and female analogies for God: Luke 13:18-21, Luke 15:3-10
- Images from the natural world: Psalm 57:1; Deuteronomy 32:11-12; Matthew 23:37/Luke 13:34; Hosea 13:8
Now please don’t jump to conclusions from this small bible trawl. I’ve not lost it, nor am i wanting to make a very big deal about it. For to be frank, there are not many other passages that we can turn to. The vast majority of the metaphors are more male than they are female. But never let us get into the hole of making God out to BE male from that. He’s neither. I think the point behind much of the predominance of male imagery is to provide a clear-cut and strong contrast between YHWH and the fertility cults and idols of the ancient world (which were nearly always explicitly female). And we can never escape the scandal of Jesus’ particularity, in that he came as a male Jewish carpenter in ancient Galilee 2000 years ago (which makes us all different from him in some way or another). And the bottom line is that he teaches his followers to pray to God as ‘Father’. We are in no position to overturn that or to start praying to God our Mother. And the intriguing thing is that The Shack never goes near that.
- There ARE problems! As I said in the previous post. These should not be underestimated: particularly concerning in my mind are the omission of divine holiness, the flattening of the Trinity’s inter-personal relationships (eg where does John’s gospel’s frequent insistence that the Son submits to the Father fit with all this), and the problems about the atonement. As long as we are aware of these, i think there is still MUCH to learn.
- Should you avoid this book? Well I would never give a blanket no – simply because there is so much that is good and helpful. As I said, it has shaken up what I really think about God AND how I relate to him. I’m a great believer in all truth being God’s truth, wherever it is found – so in principle I’m not afraid to read anything (more or less).
So, I would heartily agree with this helpful opinion piece, entitled ‘READING IN GOOD FAITH, in last month’s Christianity Today magazine, which calls for the book to be given a fair hearing. It helpfully explains more of the background and alludes to some of the limitations, while rightly highlighting the book’s merits.
How on earth do you articulate what it is like to know God? I’m not just referring to knowledge about God – but knowledge of God. And I mean, really articulate it? Preachers are quick to remind us it’s all about relationship not religion, and rightly so. But what does that actually mean? We all know what we think it means, but what about in practice, in reality, in everyday life?
One problem is that God is God. That sounds dumb, but it’s one of the great Godness things about God that he is beyond us, beyond the finite. But because we are not, everything we say about him is going to be limited to some degree by our human limitations – we are finite creatures whose very language is confined by our existence, not his. We simply do not have the words to encompass an infinite God, let alone describe the experience of knowing him. But that does not mean our words are pointless or empty. They can still paint pictures and evoke reality.
Of course, our predicament is transformed when God himself gives us the vocabulary. He alone can bridge the chasm between the infinite and finite. And that is what the Bible essentially is. He speaks in words that are both intelligible to us and that articulate divine reality; and the glory of the Incarnation is that God does this to perfection. By accommodating himself to our level, Christ made the invisible visible, the remote tangible and the infinite finite. So when we relate to human friends, we have intimations of our relationship with our divine friend.
And that I think is partly what’s going on in William Young’s THE SHACK. This book brings this divine relationship into breathtakingly vivid reality by bringing God the Trinity right down to earth in human relationships. That’s a pretty daring thing to do; some would say it’s even dangerous. For while that is precisely what the Incarnation of the 2nd person does, it’s quite another thing to do this for the Trinity as a whole. So it’s fair to say that I’ve never read anything quite like this book. And despite some personal quibbles and John Crace’s cynical and bolshie precis in The Guardian, I still think it’s hugely helpful and lendable.
Eating with God?
Without giving too much away (though inevitably there’s the odd small plot spoilers), a man called Mack (beset still by his ‘Great Sadness’) encounters the Trinitarian God in a disused shack in the Oregon wilderness. 4 years before in that very shack, Mack’s 5-year old daughter Missy had been abducted and probably killed. As the result of a weird letter, Mack returns and spends an extraordinary weekend with God. There they are, all 4 of them, chatting, laughing and eating round the kitchen table! Mack + Father, Son & Holy Spirit. It is utterly captivating. Mack, the flawed, agonized and uncomprehending man, is drawn into the wonderful dynamic of divine love. And where better to do this than over a meal.
This has clear biblical precedent. Some of the disciples’ most life-changing encounters with Jesus happened over food (eg Jesus’ anointing by the ‘sinful woman’, Zacchaeus, the Last Supper, the post-Resurrection beach BBQ). And heaven is frequently alluded to as a (wedding) feast (Isaiah 55, Matt 22, Rev 19). And The Shack’s kitchen scenes powerfully evoked in my mind an extraordinary painting.
Andrei Rublev was probably the greatest ever icon painter. Very little is known about his life in a 15th Century Moscow monastery, but some of his images have become, well, iconic. Perhaps the most famous is this one here. It’s a depiction of Abraham’s 3 angelic visitors at Mamre in Genesis 18 – Abraham shares a meal with these mysterious guests – and throughout Christian history, this has been taken by some to be an illustration / metaphor / pointer to the relationship we have with the Trinitarian God. Notice how in the picture, each figure sits humbly bowed towards another, and how there is a gap at the front, space enough for the viewer to join the table.
Whether or not this is primarily or precisely what Gen 18 is on about, Rublev points us to truth. And so does The Shack.
Why The Shack Sticks in the Mind
But of course this is extremely risky ground. Words are placed in the mouths of each member of the Trinity, and each person is given some sort of form. Nothing in the narrative fits exactly with what one would expect. Which is where its power lies. For every chapter makes you THINK – about what you really believe and why, about what is actually biblical as opposed to what is culturally assumed.
Heresy hunters will assume this book offers them a field-day (and the fact that it reached the New York Times bestseller list will only confirm their worst fears). And there are certainly questions about the book (to which i’ll return) and it doesn’t always avoid elements of American schmaltz. But this is fictional narrative, don’t forget, and i did feel it was right more often than it was wrong. It confronts, without trite or easy answers, the biggest theological problem for the contemporary mind: divine goodness and human suffering.
Mack’s suffering is every parent’s nightmare, particularly close to the bone after the media-frenzied horror of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. But as Mack is drawn back to God by the most sparkling intimacy and joy, so are we. This book is truly a tonic for a tired, cynical and faithless believer (which describes me more often than I’d like). In the course of its affecting narrative, biblical realities come across strongly:
- The Persons of the Trinity are in constant, dynamic relationship, which is one of profound mutual love and commitment. It is a love that draws in and never excludes. And as Mack is drawn in, so are we.
- But most importantly, God’s Sovereignty is fundamental throughout the book – even in the face of terrible circumstances. And strikingly, the love of God is what underpins this sovereignty. This is a truth that seems in short supply in too many believers’ theology matrix.
- Mack’s reaction to his daughter’s disappearance is not so much to reject God’s sovereignty but his goodness. He finds it impossible to trust him. This is a book about having that trust renewed – and it is fascinating how the book shows Jesus being the one that Mack most easily relates to initially, because of his shared humanity. But because of that, he is drawn to the others. It is all about knowing him – not about being religious.
- At times, the book might appear universalist (not least because of how the Holy Spirit is initially described) and hardly seems to mention the atonement – but these fears are eventually allayed. While not spelled out, the wonder of what Jesus is and has done underpins everything.
But there are still some Eyebrow-raisers
- The Father is initially encountered as an African American woman – John Crace’s precis bitingly assumes that this is because it is written by an American liberal (but at least’s she’s American, he states). At first all one’s theological hackles are raised by this theological outrage (!)- but as the book goes on, it seems to me to be fully justified and explained, if one would just give it the initial benefit of the doubt. If she reminded me of anyone, it was the Oracle in the Matrix movies.
- A bit more worrying are the marks of the cross (stigmata) on the Father’s body. Is this verging uncomfortably close to the old heresy of Patripassionism which states that the Father himself suffers on the cross. If the point is simply that the Father is fully committed to the Son’s mission to make atonement on the cross (in defence against the charge of Chalke et al of cosmic child abuse – see my previous article on the Atonement) then fair enough, I suppose.
- Where does the church fit? Religion and institutions are in the book’s firing line, and rightly so, because in themselves, they always fail to help a person in the face of pain. But the book could have done more to show how God’s intention is to build a community through which he can work and dwell on earth.
- But my biggest concern in all this is the almost total omission of the doctrine of God’s holiness. It seems to fall into the classic error of assuming that divine love/forgiveness and divine holiness are mutually exclusive – and of course, we all know which one we’d prefer. This is to miss the fundamental coherence between the two brought about by the cross. And from an apologetic point of view in a suffering world, divine holiness is essential.
But why it’s worth reading
The bottom line, though, is that this book makes us want to know God better and deeper – or to be more precise, to know the Trinitarian God revealed through Christ, and as a result, to trust him in the face of whatever life flings at us. How many other best-selling novels do that? And I think that this is probably what lies behind Eugene Peterson’s rather over-blown endorsement:
When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!
Well, it’s nothing like the biblical, allegorical genius of Bunyan – but it IS a book to deepen faith that is getting a much wider airing than most Christian books. So read it and make your own mind up.