The God of The Shack in a World Without Enemies

The Shack movie poster

It’s hard to throw a stone in the Christian blogosphere right now without hitting a review of The Shack, the bestselling novel by Paul Young which was just released as a motion picture. And if you’re reading evangelical or Reformed writers, the reviews are going to be pretty uniformly negative—a negativity which finds justification in Young’s just-released Lies We Believe About God, which explicitly teaches the unbiblical and even heretical ideas which critics saw woven into the fiction of The Shack.

For what it’s worth, allow me to join my voice to the chorus saying that The Shack should not be on a Christian’s reading list. Yes, it has a worthy goal (showing the love of God amid the realities of suffering and pain), and yes, it gets some things right, but it also gets some things badly, badly wrong. It is true that it is “only a story,” but story can influence and shape us just as powerfully as more direct teaching. In fact, bad theology in fictional form can actually be more dangerous, as it digs deeper into our mind and is harder to recognize than straightforward false teaching.

But my interest today isn’t really in The Shack itself. If you want some good, biblical perspectives on the book, check out the articles I linked above. My interest, rather, is in what makes the God of The Shack so appealing.

Keep reading…

Christian decision-making

I just finished reading Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung, an argument against the semi-mystical attempts to discern God’s specific “will for your life” that are popular today in Christian circles. DeYoung lays out a clear case against the idea that God has some hidden plan that we have to ferret out before it’s safe to make any significant decisions. Yes, God has a sovereign plan, but it’s not our job to know each step before we take it.

As James reminds us, “You do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.  Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.'” Our lack of foreknowledge creates room for faith. Imagine Joseph’s story, or Daniel’s, if they had been granted the sort of detailed plan for the future that it is so tempting to demand from God.

Instead, DeYoung says God’s revealed will for us is very simple: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

He doesn’t call on us to seek a divine word before scheduling another semester of classes or deciding between bowling or putt-putt golf. He calls us to run hard after Him, His commands, and His glory. The decision to be in God’s will is not the choice between Memphis or Fargo or engineering or art; it’s the daily decision we face to seek God’s kingdom or ours, submit to His lordship or not, live according to His rules or our own. The question God cares about most is not “Where should I live?” but “Do I love the Lord will all my heart, soul, strength, and mind, and do I love my neighbor as myself?”…

So go marry someone, provided you’re equally yoked and actually like being with each other. Go get a job, providing it’s not wicked. Go live somewhere in something with somebody or nobody. But put aside the passivity and the quest for complete fulfillment and the perfectionism and the preoccupation with the future, and for God’s sake start making some decisions in your life. Don’t wait for the liver-shiver. If you are seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, you will be in God’s will, so just go out and do something.

I strongly agree with DeYoung’s overall point, but I wish he had been less dismissive toward what he calls “nonmoral decisions” (i.e. decisions between two or more options, neither of which are sinful). He writes, “God doesn’t care where you go to school or where you live or what job you take,” and though he acknowledges that he’s using hyperbole to make a point, one still gets the sense that DeYoung wouldn’t much mind if we made most of our “nonmoral decisions” on the basis of a coin toss. On the one hand, that might actually be a better option than a frantic, paralyzing search for a specific, hidden Plan, but on the other it seems to reduce the importance of wisdom in the Christian’s life.

Some nonmoral options are better than others. As a teacher, I have to choose the cities where I’ll offer classes. It wouldn’t be sinful for me to teach in Wilmington while living near Charlotte, but it certainly would be foolish, because it would be a huge drive that would significantly reduce my time for other, more productive work. It wouldn’t be sinful for me to marry a godly girl who hated reading or the outdoors, or who I didn’t find attractive, but it would be pretty foolish.

Of course, one could say both of those are moral decisions, the first because it would affect my ability to serve God in other ways and the second because it would decrease the likelihood of a happy marriage. I would actually agree. However, if we adopt this view of decision-making we’ve essentially defined “nonmoral decisions” out of existence. If I have to choose between eating out at Taco Bell or Chick-fil-a, the decision has implications for my financial wellbeing, my personal pleasure, and my likelihood of becoming violently ill from food poisoning – each of which is a moral issue. It’s hard to imagine any decision which is utterly lacking in moral significance, if traced back far enough.

At this point, one can feel a hint of panic at the prospect of dozens and dozens of decisions to be made daily, each of which matters in one way or another. But frankly, that’s silly. We all know that even small decisions matter. Every morning, I choose to brush my teeth. The decision matters: My body is the temple of God, so I have a responsibility to maintain it. I don’t agonize over the decision though, or even think about it very much. I just brush my teeth.

Some decisions are easier than others, but either way we are commanded to be wise in our decision-making. Jesus instructed his disciples to “be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” Proverbs declares, “Take my instruction and not silver, and knowledge rather than choicest gold. For wisdom is better than jewels; and all desirable things cannot compare with her.” And, having given the command, God also offers the means: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”

Wisdom is certainly needed for momentous decisions, but it is also a very everyday, practical thing. The Book of Proverbs promises instruction in wisdom, then offers such observations as, “He who gathers in summer is a son who acts wisely,” “In abundance of counselors there is victory,” “He who is guarantor for a stranger will surely suffer for it,” and “Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much revenue comes by the strength of the ox.” One gets the sense that only an accident of chronology prevents Solomon from reminding us to change our oil every 3,000 miles.

So how should we make decisions, whether large or small? First, ask for wisdom. Not merely for a specific decision, but in general. We ought not merely desire to make this or that decision wisely, but to be wise. Second, we must seek to be in right relationship with God, as DeYoung emphasizes. Peter warns his male readers to honor their wives, “so that your prayers will not be hindered.” The Christian who is rebelling against God in some area of his life is setting himself up to make foolish decisions. Third, know the Scriptures and seek wise counsel. And finally, consider the options and make a decision, confidently and in faith.

Sometimes we will make decisions based on the counsel of others. Sometimes we will ignore advice because we are sure some other course is better. Sometimes our decisions will be coldly rational, and sometimes we will “go with our gut.” Sometimes we’ll make mistakes, and that’s okay, because our sovereign God can alchemize even our mistakes into good. To quote from a faintly cheesy but wise Keith Green song, heard years ago, “Just keep doing your best, and pray that it’s blessed, and Jesus takes care of the rest.”

There is no secret, hidden plan for us to find, but we are called to be wise. So let us seek wisdom and incline our hearts to understanding, then just do something, trusting God to take care of the rest.

You should be ashamed if you are male. Or female.

Conservatives frequently lament the cultural attitude that it is a shameful thing to be male. It is certainly a sad thing when half of our population is ashamed of one of its most fundamental characteristics; when large segments of our society believe that men ought to cringe along through life, engaging in spiritual self-flagellation over the shame of being born with a Y chromosome.

A book I’m reading has convinced me that I have been underestimating the problem by half, however. A Return to Modesty is one of the most interesting books I’ve read recently, and I’ll likely be posting more about it in the coming weeks. Wendy Shalit argues that our society’s decision to discard the virtue of modesty is “no less than an attempt to cure womanhood itself, and in many cases it has actually put us in danger.”

A young woman today has basically two options open to her: to pretend she’s a man, or to be feminine in a desperate, victim-like way. There’s Rene Denfield; she’s a boxer, her book jacket announces. There’s Camille Paglia; she’s very tough and even has a taste for gay male pornography! “Take your blows like men,” she advises young women in Vamps and Tramps. Then there are the women whose femininity is expressed by sleeping with a lot of men and then lamenting how much they resent men. Whether a young woman should opt for man or victim, the message sent by our culture is clear: it’s not a good thing to be female.

If you are male, you should be ashamed. If you are female, you should be ashamed. If you’re keeping score at home, we just reduced the options for living without shame by 100 percent…

Worth reading: Boys Adrift

My earlier post on my most formative books reminded me of another book I read recently that didn’t affect my foundational worldview enough to warrant inclusion on the list, but which I nonetheless highly recommend. Boys Adrift by Dr. Leonard Sax is the best examination I’ve seen of the various factors contributing to, in the words of the subtitle, “the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men.”

Anyone who has spent much time around young men knows the problem Sax is describing, but he provides plenty of statistics to back up the anecdoctal evidence (only 42 percent of current college students are male; one in three men ages 22-34 lives at home with his parents). At a prominent seminary where I have taken some classes, faculty recently put out a request for missionaries. I am told they intentionally worded the appeal to emphasize the danger and excitement of the proposed mission, in the hope of attracting male volunteers. Seventeen students signed up. Seventeen of them were women. One professor explained the result by noting that it’s hard to power a Wii on the mission field.

Sax suggests five factors that are creating a generation of young men who don’t care that they don’t care, discussing changes in schooling, video games, medications for ADHD, endocrine disruptors, and a lack of male mentoring. It’s a fascinating and disturbing book, backed by copious references to peer-reviewed research. Well worth the read. (Also worth reading is Sax’ Why Gender Matters.)

My four most formative books

It struck me recently that I can easily list the most formative books I’ve ever read. I was surprised to realize how significant a gulf exists between these four books and any other competitor. I’ve been interested, affected, and challenged by many other books, but when it comes to the formation of my basic worldview, there are no close competitors. (With the exception of Scripture itself, which ought to be awarded pride of place in the ranking, but which I’m excluding in the interest of brevity.) The following books are listed chronologically, based on the first time I read them.

Orthodoxy, by the inimitable G.K. Chesterton, a man who could say more with an offhand witticism than some authors manage in a whole book. Chesterton’s brilliant mind combined with a slightly madcap passion and deep appreciation for life to create an unusual apologetic that reminded me of the appellation “Happy Warrior,” a title that has always held a peculiar appeal for me since I first read it years ago in some forgotten article. On an intellectual level, his defense of his faith offered a more organic compliment to the formal arguments with which I was familiar. (I heartily recommend anything else written by Chesterton, in particular St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.)

Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Though written as an apologetic, this book has influenced my theology more than any work other than the Bible itself.

Iron John: A Book About Men, by Robert Bly. It’s a mythology-filled book by a non-Christian based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and anyone who wonders why men aren’t showing up on Sunday morning needs to read it (and then go watch Fight Club).

Existentialism and Human Emotions, by Jean-Paul Sartre. Before I am stoned as an infidel for including one of the 20th Century’s foremost atheists on my list, allow me to offer a quote in my defense:

But when the existentialist writes about a coward, he says that this coward is responsible for his cowardice. He’s not like that because he has a cowardly heart or lung or brain; he’s not like that on account of his physiological make-up; but he’s like that because he has made himself a coward by his acts… [A frequent complaint is] as follows: “After all, these people are so spineless, how are you going to make heroes out of them?” This objection almost makes me laugh, for it assumes that people are born heroes. That’s what people really want to think. If you’re born cowardly, you may set your mind perfectly at rest; there’s nothing you can do about it; you’ll be cowardly all your life, whatever you may do. If you’re born a hero, you may set your mind just as much at rest; you’ll be a hero all your life; you’ll drink like a hero and eat like a hero. What the existentialist says is that the coward makes himself cowardly, that the hero makes himself heroic.

We are the product of our choices. When I choose to look at that pornographic popup ad, when I choose to gossip, when I choose to dwell on bitterness, I am creating the person I will be tomorrow. While Sartre’s atheism yields only a fumbling in the dark, pointless choices creating meaningless men, our choices are made with Jesus Christ as both means and end; but we are shaped by those choices nonetheless.