Christian Fiction Must Be . . . You Know, Christian; Or, The Shack Is Back


This past week, I saw the TV add for the upcoming The Shack movie. I’d seen the trailer some time ago, but was dismayed that the promotion was reaching a TV audience. And in LA. We don’t often hear about “Christian” projects here.

There’s no doubt that The Shack positions itself as Christian. After all, Jesus shows up, albeit in imaginary form. But is it Christian?

What constitutes “Christian fiction”? That’s a question we at Spec Faith have answered and revisited since our inception some ten years ago (see for example this early post by one of the founding members of Spec Faith).

Not only have writers and readers debated what constitutes Christian fiction, and particularly Christian speculative fiction, we’ve debated the rightness of and the need for good doctrine in our fiction (see for example “Reading Choices: Realism, Truth, And The Bible“). “Doctrine” encompasses both theology and beliefs concerning morality, and we’ve discussed those too (see for example “Marcher Lord Press and the Hinterlands Imprint“).

On top of these generalized discussions, we’ve also posted articles and comments specifically about The Shack. But that was eight years ago, when the book was still on the top of best-selling lists and Christians and non-Christians alike were passing it around from one person to another and discussing it over coffee.

Now the movie version of Paul Young’s book is about to come to a theater near you, and the question no one could answer back then is bound to resurface: Is The Shack truly Christian?

There are some specific issues that came under scrutiny concerning the book.

Some people stumbled over the most glaring issue right from the gate. I mean, isn’t it blasphemous to depict God the Father as anything but a Father?

I understand how portraying God as other than how He portrays Himself, can be troublesome. At the same time, I can see how others accept “God’s” explanation: that He needed to reveal Himself to the main character in a way he could receive Him.

That being said, I suggest one of the central problems of the story surfaces within the discussion of this rather peripheral issue. The Shack has little use for the Bible. Hence, God the Father is easily replaced by the needs of the character.

There are other major issues—the attitude toward the Church and universal salvation and an understanding of the Trinity.

Yet more than one Christian has reported how life changing The Shack was for them, how they wept as they read it, how they understood God’s forgiveness in a way they never had before.

So . . . is it Christian?

Can it be Christian if it shows God in ways He does not show Himself? If it does not point people to His word or His body, the Church? If it falsely claims universal salvation?

On the other hand, how can it not be Christian if it gave many believers renewed faith and deeper love for God and a deeper understanding of forgiveness?

On one hand, The Shack may not tick all the intellectual, theological boxes, but on the other, it more than makes up for that lack by the emotional, spiritual juice it provides.

In thinking about the “what makes something Christian” question, I have to look at the object itself, not the results that may come from it.

The Apostle Paul did just the opposite when he was imprisoned in Philippi and a bunch of so-called Christian brethren started preaching. Paul identified their motives as envy and strife and selfish ambition (Phil. 1:15, 17), but he basically said, so what? As long as they preached Christ, who cared that they had bad motives?

the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. (vv 17-18a)

Paul was only concerned with the bottom line: the result. These “brethren,” false or true, were telling people about Jesus.

So, isn’t that the best test? Shouldn’t we be applauding The Shack, if the movie is successful, because it is bringing people to Christ?

I said above that I have to look at the object itself, because my question is, Is The Shack truly Christian? Lots of things can bring people to Christ. War has been known to do so. A friend of mine came to Christ by reading a novel. Others look at the heavens and know they need to find the One who made them. After 9/11, here in the US any number of people turned to God in the midst of their fear and uncertainty.

Would we say war is “Christian” because some soldiers reported coming to Christ when faced with their own mortality? No, certainly not. God can and does use whatever means He wishes, but His use of the thing does not baptize it as emblematic of His Good News.

So I reject the idea that The Shack must be Christian because people report a deeper relationship with God after having read it.

When Paul talked about those so-called brethren in Philippi, he gave no indication that they were preaching anything but what was true about Christ. Elsewhere, however, he addressed those who were not preaching the truth.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds. (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

In writing to the Galatians he also brought up the matter:

But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. (Gal 2:4)

Clearly, Paul was not hesitant to call out those who were not preaching the gospel but who were masquerading as if they were fellow believers. The same is true throughout the Bible about false teachers and false prophets. Jesus Himself made some of the strongest statements about “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” about false prophets misleading many, even about false Christs.

So determining who is and who isn’t a Christian, what is and what isn’t true Christian teaching, seems like an important aptitude.

Yet I know people will hold back for fear of judging. We aren’t supposed to judge each other, are we?

We’re not.

But that doesn’t mean we’re to put our brains on hold, either. We can still think. We can still look at the story on the screen and compare it with what the Bible says. Which is, after all, the unchanging, authoritative Truth by which we know what “Christian” means.

This article is a re-post of the one I published today at Speculative Faith.

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Published in: on February 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm  Comments (11)  
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What Postmodernism Gets Right


The Audacious Ride for Visions, painting by Leda Luss Luyken

When I first started examining postmodernism to know how precisely that way of looking at the world differed from what I was used to, my pastor at the time, Dale Burke, said that postmodernism is no more dangerous than modernism — neither one is a Biblical worldview but neither one is all wrong either.

He was right. And yet it seems so much easier to camp on the ways that postmodernism contradicts what I believe rather than affirming the things about this way of thinking that are helpful.

First, postmodernism is essentially a way of looking at the world that stands against the ideals of modernism — things like socially progressive trends; affirming the power of the human being to create, improve, and reshape the environment; and replacing the old with the new to facilitate the advance of science and technology.

One thing that seems true of postmodernism is that science and materialism is no longer the end of all knowledge. Instead, there’s a new awareness that there is spiritual knowledge — influences that can’t be scientifically defined or measured and a world beyond the material that can’t be quantified.

This is a good thing. In some ways it’s a replication of the difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the latter being the Jewish sect that didn’t believe in supernatural intervention in the world such as angels or visions or presumably, the Holy Spirit, and certainly not the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

It was the Pharisees that could say when Paul was arrested, Wait a minute; maybe he has seen an angel.

The point is, the refusal to see beyond the material world is a huge barrier to anyone coming to Christ. How do you explain God’s existence to someone who begins the discussion believing that the only viable proofs are material in nature? It’s like saying, Show me love.

Postmodernism reintroduces the spiritual into the conversation. Granted, another part of postmodernism wants to accept all and any spiritual experience as equally valid and true, so it’s still far from a Biblical position, but nevertheless, it seems to me more Pharisees were likely to believe Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road than Sadducees who thought communication with a supernatural being an impossibility.

Something else I think postmodernism has right is validating human experience. Today there’s much more emphasis put on a person’s story, and on story in general. Telling stories as opposed to delineating facts puts the heart back into history. How people feel and how they act as a result is a holistic approach to understanding others.

Of course, postmodernism misses again by thinking that no one can understand another person’s experiences because of the limitations of language and that all experiences, even those that clash, are equally true because they are true for each person in question.

The important thing for the Christian, I believe, is to pay attention to what our culture says and to measure it by the standard of God’s word. How others in society perceive the world matters a great deal.

In many respects, someone like Rob Bell (Love Wins) or Paul Young (The Shack) is doing nothing more than mirroring the thinking of the age. Christians can pooh-pooh those ideas and scorn those books, but we had better understand why so many people listened. Two of those reasons are things postmodernism gets right — stories touch our hearts and the spiritual is real.

Those things are consistent with a Biblical worldview, and it would be wise for us to admonish and teach and evangelize by capitalizing on exactly those things.

This post first appeared here in April 2012.

Christians And Unity


Crowds_in_the_Big_TentOne thing evangelical Christians in particular get dinged about, especially by atheists and liberal or progressive “Christians”–Big Tent advocates–is our lack of unity. If your god was real, the implication seems to be, you’d all be one big happy family, not a bunch of squabbling, self-interested nay-sayers.

There’s some truth in this accusation. Jesus told His followers that their love for one another would be the thing that would draw others to them. And still, the early church was fraught with division.

Some problems were personal. Take, for example, Paul’s rift with Barnabas. We know Paul didn’t want to take John Mark along on what would have been their second missionary journey after he deserted them during the first one. Barnabas insisted. And Paul refused, so they parted ways.

Or what about the two women in Philippi–fellow workers with Paul–who had some disagreement with each other that required the apostle to tell them to knock it off.

James wrote to all the Jewish Christians scattered beyond the borders of Judea, and he addressed the problem of “fights and quarrels among you.”

Besides personal discord, the Church also faced disunity because of personal sin. Corinth is the most obvious example. That body of believers was tolerating a man who paraded his incestuous relationships in the church. A faction apparently was patting their backs for their tolerant attitude toward him, thinking their acceptance was a demonstration of grace.

On top of this kind of personal sin, there was also false teaching. Peter said there would be false teachers who would introduce “destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1).

Jude referred to people who

are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever. (1:12-13)

Later he said they are ones “who cause divisions,” are “worldly minded,” and “devoid of the Spirit” (v. 19).

I think it’s significant that in the first two instances, personal squabbles and personal sin, the Church was instructed to take steps to correct the situation. The fighting fellow workers were to stop, those lacking unity were admonished to be of the same mind, to look out for the interests of others, to bear with one another, forgive each other. Brethren were instructed not to judge each other or complain against one another.

At the same time, the Church received instruction not to tolerate sin. The brother living like a non-Christian was not to enjoy the fellowship of the Church, but the purpose was to draw him into repentance and restoration. The “disunity” then, was purposefully and temporary.

The situation with false teachers was different. Jesus Himself warned of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15). Paul went so far as to say those who were “rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers,” needed to be silenced because they were “teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain” (Titus 1:11b).

In other words, there is no plea for unity with these divisive false teachers. They, in fact, were the cause of disunity, disrupting and scattering and devouring the sheep, as wolves are wont to do.

The mistake, I believe, evangelicals have made is trying for a false peace. We are in danger of becoming like those Jeremiah spoke of:

They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially,
Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
But there is no peace.

For some reason, we have no desire to pretend unity with a hateful group like the Westboro Baptist cult, but we turn around and gloss over the blatant misuse of Scripture from any number of others. Who are we to judge? we say.

But the fact is, universalists like Paul Young (The Shack) or Rob Bell (Love Wins) can’t be right if Jesus said the things the New Testament recorded about separating sheep from goats and sending wicked slaves into outer darkness.

I don’t think we need to be unkind or snarky or offensive. I mean, the point of silencing false teachers in the church is not to come out looking superior or more knowledgeable or highly spiritual. It’s to keep their teaching from gaining traction and spreading. We’re not standing in God’s place to judge them. At best we can pray, “The Lord rebuke you.”

Nevertheless, we ought not seek unity with those who say they are Christians, but who do not believe what the Bible teaches about God, His Son Jesus, and what He did at the cross in order to make a way for humankind to be reconciled with the Father.

So why is there disunity among evangelicals? First because we are sinners–saved by grace, yes, but prone to wander, and in our wandering we do disruptive things that require discipline and forgiveness and restoration.

Second, there’s disunity because people who aren’t believers say they are. They believe something, surely, but it is a different gospel, a result of “taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind” (Col. 2:18b).

rose-1441525-mAre we to pursue unity with these wolves in sheep’s clothing? Not while they are trafficking in heresy. But that judging question comes up again. Who are we to judge?

We aren’t judging when we call a spade, a spade or a rose, a rose or false teaching, false.

Discernment and judging are two different things.

Discernment 101 Revisited


About the time you think it’s safe to return to the water, it isn’t. So, too, with reading and going to movies and watching TV. Well, pretty much everything related to culture. Western society has largely spurned its Christian underpinnings, requiring those of us who still cling to the Solid Rock to think carefully about what our minds dwell on lest we also get washed away at sea.

Mormonism is one example of this need. Are they a cult or are they Christian? Another is the murky theology of those who are “progressives” or who identify as “emergent.”

A year and a half ago we had the over-hyped discourse Love Wins by Rob Bell with its ideas that there is no hell and all will eventually make their way into God’s presence in the after life.

Before that we had Paul Young’s controversial, rambling theological discourse disguised as fiction, The Shack, which, among other things, cast aspersions on the Bible and suggested universalism.

Now we’re at the threshold of another similar “story,” complete with media hype. Mr. Young has just released Cross Roads and has begun a book tour, complete with book signings, an appearance on The Today Show, and an interview with People magazine.

Have I read this book or know its theological content? I don’t.

I’m also not aware that Mr. Young has re-examined or changed any of his erroneous beliefs peppered throughout The Shack. Consequently, when we see a book on the horizon that may contain ideas contrary to Scripture (most books) and yet purports to be Christian, we as Bible believing followers of Jesus Christ need to keep in mind some basic principles of discernment.

  • The Bible is the ultimate authority of what is True. We need to examine the things we read and hear and see to determine if they are so or if they come from someone’s fabrication of God and His way.
  • Because someone is friendly and encouraging or is a good speaker or is entertaining or . . . ad infinitum, does not increase the likelihood that they are telling the truth.
  • That someone claims Christ is no guarantee their story will reflect Christ truthfully.
  • Christians are admonished to test the spirits to see if these things are so.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

  • False teaching abounds which should make Christians more alert, not more reclusive.
  • Legalism is not the same thing as discernment.

What are your thoughts about discernment? What else should be included in a list of basic principles to keep in mind if we are to be discerning about our culture?

You might also want to read the first “Discernment 101” post written three years ago.

Fear And Forgiveness


One of the things that has come up in exchanges with emergent thinkers, whether through blog posts, videos, or books, is the idea that God is not to be feared. Some believe this a la Rob Bell — hell isn’t God’s wrathful punishment on the unrepentant.

Others, a la Paul Young — God, as portrayed in The Shack, serves Man. (“I’m not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love.”)

Another group, a la Mike Morrell — God is to be re-imaged as a learning, evolving being who himself repented of his violent nature and through Jesus preached love instead.

One commenter to a year-old post said, “And for the first time in my life, I no longer fear GOD…which is a huge step toward maybe coming to a place where I can trust GOD.”

That attitude stuck with me. Consequently, as I’ve read through the Old Testament, I’ve made mental notes of people’s response to God. What I noticed most was reverential fear.

The people of Israel, for example, were so afraid of God after He talked with them, they told Moses to be their intermediary from then on because they didn’t want to die! Others fell on their faces, some apparently became as dead men.

The fear of the Lord is a theme throughout the books of poetry, too. But none grabbed me more than this one:

But there is forgiveness with You,
That You may be feared.
– Psalm 130:4

That short verse contains the heart of God’s nature, I think. Yes, God is all powerful and will pour out His wrath on unrepentant sinners, but those who fear Him are the forgiven.

It is we who revere Him because we realize He is our lifeline, the enduring thread that holds us to His side. How can we but bow down and worship when the insurmountable debt we owed has been lifted from us to His scarred shoulders?

Might the unrepentant sinner also fear God? Perhaps in an angry, rebellious sort of way. The unrepentant sinner who believes in God may not see that He is just, that when He stands in judgment, His view of His creation is right and true. Consequently, a person who believes God to have the power to mete out punishment may not think it is fair of Him to do so.

This is not genuine fear, but imagined fear, more closely aligned to being afraid of the monster under the bed than the reverential terror described in Scripture when someone came face to face with God.

And yet …

The amazing thing is that God loves us. Which explains the forgiveness part. And the forgiveness causes the face-to-the floor response to God because of the wonder that such a Great Person could and would and did die for me.

Published in: on April 7, 2011 at 6:18 pm  Comments (13)  
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God In A Box


God does not contradict what He revealed about Himself

I’ve heard it before. Today’s traditional church has God tucked into a Bible-shaped box. Remember how Paul Young put it in The Shack?

Educated Westerners’s access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?

Or how about the discussion over at Mike Morrell’s site more than a year ago when these kinds of things were bandied about:

Thereby, organized (“professional”) religions propagate themselves and ensure their future through fear and elitist ideations, which sadly inevitably result in keeping the Unlimited in a box – and usually for sale. Today, more than ever, religion is big business ($)!

Rob Bell said as much in his promotional video and talk show appearances when discussing his new book Love Wins. God is big enough to handle questions, he said. What’s more, the traditional church has the idea that there’s this narrow way across a chasm that leads to “evacuation” and only the chosen few or the ones who worked, served, believed, said the right prayer, or whatever “their tribe” mandated, would get the ticket. By implication, such beliefs confined God too.

It dawned on me this morning that these claims are spurious for the very fact that God IS in a box — one of His own making.

At first glance, that grates against our picture of a limitless God. And yet, I don’t think we’d want it any other way. I know I don’t.

For example, God “limits” Himself because He is good. James says, “For God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13b). He cannot be tempted by evil. Sounds quite limiting.

Then there are the limits imposed by His faithfulness. He says repeatedly in Deuteronomy that He will not fail or forsake His people.

In addition He limits Himself by His immutability. He remains the same today as He was before the creation of the world, as He will be when He comes to judge. No “learning” or evolving for God. He is who He is.

Or how about the limits of His love?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
– Romans 8:38-39 [emphasis mine]

Sounds confining to me. Restrictive. Very “in a box.”

And what about the incarnation? Wasn’t that event God voluntarily putting Himself in a human-shaped box?

Although He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.
– Philippians 2:6-7

How limiting was it for Him to go to a cross, for His body to be placed in a tomb, for Him to be dead for three days? We don’t even know what all that entailed, yet it’s clear He restrained His power and glory for a distinct purpose — His act of redemption that made it possible for me to be reconciled with Him.

So yes, I’ll gladly admit — I put God in a box, the one He has revealed about Himself. I won’t re-make Him into my own likeness or any other way of imagining Him (some of the Israelites had Him pictured like a golden calf). Anything other than what He’s told us is too small and quite frankly, dead wrong.

Published in: on March 30, 2011 at 7:19 pm  Comments (7)  
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