Thursday, January 8, 2009

Shackin' Up

Recently, a couple of friends at work were very excited by this book, The Shack, and were curious what I would think of it. It took about as month for me to get to it, but I finally did. Sad to say, I didn't enjoy it as much as they had. The premise was promising enough: a man grieving the murder of his young daugher spends a weekend in a shack, conversing with the three Persons of the Trinity. And I must say, the book does some things very well, probably the most important being its presentation of God as a Being of infinite tenderness, Who continually pours Himself out to His human creatures. Because of that, one of my friends described the book as "life changing." Now that's fantastic - God using this book to increase her understanding of how perfect His love for her is and that Christianity is a RELATIONSHIP, not a list of arbitrary rules or rituals to be performed. (Not to say that "rules" and "rituals" aren't a part of every relationship though. You've been to a birthday party, right? Cake, singing, make wish, blow out candles, can't tell wish, cut cake, etc.)

I did feel like there was a distortion, however, in the image The Shack gives of God and the definitive image we find in the Jesus of the Gospels. I felt I was looking at a caricature. God IS all Love, but that Love is perfectly one with His justice and holiness (aka, "total otherness"). In an infinite Being these qualities aren't contradictions. I couldn't see the God of The Shack ever recommending excommunication as an act of Love, but that is what the Jesus of the Gospels advised the Apostles:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault...If he will not listen, take one or two others along...If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven. (Matthew 18:15-17)

And the Apostles took Jesus at His word, as can be seen from the Apostle Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you...A man has his father's wife...Shouldn't you have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?...When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that his sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. (1 Cor.5:1-12)

That's right, put him outside the assembly - treat him as if dead, because spiritually he is. Does it look intolerant on the part of Jesus, of Paul? It's TOUGH LOVE, and it's meant to be medicinal. It is a last-ditch effort to wake the offender to how destructive his behavior is, and that if it isn't changed, it can cost him his soul. The Church would be supremely unloving if it failed to intervene. (It strikes me as funny that a psychologist can use this technique, call it an "intervention," and receive accolades; but when a bishop does the same, calling it "excommunication," he's despised.)

This leads into what I consider The Shack's largest deficiency - its conception of the Church. The author, William P. Young, clearly recognizes the spiritual reality of the Church; I liked the visionary image he used of Jesus standing at the center of the Communion of Saints - that heaven and earth are bound together in Christ. What Young doesn't grasp though, is how the Church can be both spiritual and material, simultaneously. (It's a both/and thing, not an either/or - as are the Sacraments and the Incarnation itself!) It leads Mr. Young to break with the four gospels, creating this exchange between the characters of Mack and Jesus:
"You're not too fond of religion and institutions?" Mack said, not sure if he was asking a question or making an observation.
"I don't create institutions - never have, never will."
"What about the institution of marriage?"
"Marriage is not an institution. It's a relationship." Jesus paused, his voice steady and patient. "Like I said, I don't create institutions; that's an occupation for those who want to play God. So no, I'm not too big on religion." Jesus said a little sarcastically, "and not very fond of politics or economics either." Jesus' visage darkened noticeably. "And why should I be? They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about. What mental turmoil and anxiety does any human face that is not related to one of those three?"

Whoa, whoa, whoa. There's Young's either/or slant; and it's unwarranted. Lets take economics. Now honestly, can't there be both good and bad economics? And marriage, of course it's a relationship. But there are legally-binding vows taken before witnesses, joint property, responsibilities, custody of children...I don't know, sounds like there's a formal/institutional side to me.

In the same vein, it has become quite fashionable to pit "religion" against "having a personal relationship with God." I did it myself for several years, and in public talks no less! "I'm a spiritual person, not religious. Religion is about binding us to certain practices, but spirituality is the living out of a relationship." What God finally opened my eyes to, however, was that these things aren't mutually exclusive; they're meant to fit like hand-in-glove. Jesus Himself, bound us to certain practices: "This is My Body; this is My Blood. Do this in remembrance of Me." He bound us to the practice of confessing our sins when He told the Apostles, "If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven" (John 20:23). The Sacraments are Exhibit-A that practices/rituals can be filled with all the spiritual power we can imagine (and then some)! Granted, a man can come forward to receive Communion without the least thought that he is about to receive the God-man (His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity) into himself - just as another man can take a stranger back to his bed for the night, without the least appreciation for the magnitude of the sexual act. The second man's failure to engage in sex the way God intended, and to reap the intimacy it was created to enhance, doesn't lead us to label sex "meaningless." The same goes for religion: just because we are surrounded by Catholics and other Christians who have never grasped the power inherent in the Sacraments, Scripture, or life within the Church, it doesn't mean these are lacking in power. Spiritual blindness has kept us living in poverty, unable to see the million dollars lying on the kitchen table!

When we turn from religious ritual to religious leadership, the same is true. There are good and bad shepherds out there; it doesn't negate the need for shepherding though. It doesn't negate the fact that Jesus established a Church, with visible leaders, for that very purpose. We could look at Scriptural citations and historical studies illustrating it until we went cross-eyed; glancing up above at the quotations of Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 above should suffice though. And what we see when we reflect on those passages is how "institution" can be the very vehicle of relationship! God works, God speaks to us, through the leaders of His Church. The Incarnation is continued as Jesus makes use of the pope and bishops, members along with all of us in His Mystical Body, to speak His Word. Our religion isn't just citing passages from a holy book, trying to shoe-horn all of the modern world's questions so that they match "old" answers. No, it is bringing our confusion and questions to God, and allowing the Holy Spirit to breathe through Scripture and Tradition, illuminating the minds of the Apostles' successors as they formulate responses that are ever-faithful to the past, but capable of speaking to new situations. (You might want to glance at my last post where I touched on the Church's opposition to in vitro fertilization.)

The sinfulness of Christian ministers doesn't negate this either, anymore than Judas' betrayal negated the role of the Twelve. After Judas' defection and suicide, another was appointed to his office (Acts of the Apostles 1:20). The Truth and Power within our Faith isn't undone by human failings; our God, dwelling within His Church, is way too powerful. I've got to go with St. Irenaeus on this one. As a disciple of Bishop Polycarp (himself, a disciple of the Apostle John) Irenaeus was in a much better position than we in the 20th century, on the other side of the world, to know what Jesus had communicated to the Apostles. In 180 A.D., Irenaeus wrote, "Where the Church is there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God, there the Church and every grace."

So, can I recommend The Shack? In my own life God has made use of materials that were less than perfect to help me along; the book Joshua, with a message similar to The Shack's, is an example. That said, there are other books that can be of a lot more benefit, C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity for starters. A good rule of thumb: (With the exception of the Bible itself) If it's palatable enough that it has made it onto a shelf at Wal-Mart, then whatever good points it has, it probably isn't the Gospel as preached by Jesus and the Apostles.

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