Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thoughts on The Shack

I know I’m years behind on this post, but I put off reading The Shack
by William Paul Young until recently. It didn’t look like the kind of book I would enjoy, and I’m always a bit skeptical of something that is too popular (does it ever live up to the hype?), but the recommendations I received from friends finally reached critical mass, so I picked it up. I posted these comments on Facebook in the hopes of starting a discussion with some friends who have read it, and I thought I might as well post them here, too:

As a novel, The Shack is slightly better than I expected, but still mediocre, at least in the beginning – the writing style is more tell than show, which leaves the characters seeming shallow and the motivations weak. (For example, the law enforcement officers would not normally share so much with the parent of a crime victim – what about the situation caused them to break protocol?) The part of the book where Mack is meeting with God is definitely stronger, though the plot still doesn’t follow naturally from the characters’ actions; the content – a conversation with God – seems better suited for a nonfiction book than a novel.

I do, however, understand why the author chose a novel as the vehicle for his ideas – I doubt that many of the book’s readers would have picked up a nonfiction book with a lot of Scripture references in parentheses. I also believe the fiction format brings a fresh perspective to the gospel, and it has brought understanding to many people who couldn’t relate to old-fashioned ways of telling the story of redemption or who missed some crucial points in their Sunday school classes. In fact, I am surprised by the variety of friends and acquaintances who have commented on this book – among them are people from a range of denominational backgrounds, an ordained minister, and one person I was surprised to learn had enough interest in Christianity to read this book.

I didn’t find much I considered blatantly unscriptural in the theology of The Shack. The way “seeing as God does” involved seeing people’s auras was more Shirley MacLaine than the Apostle Paul, and the suggestion that God can only redeem someone once the human victims of that person’s sins offer forgiveness was so inconsistent with the rest of the book that I wonder if I misread it both times it appeared. (If God has to wait for us to forgive first, whom could He ever forgive?) I also disagree with the author on a few more (mostly minor) points, such as the ideas that evil does not exist except as the absence of good and the Holy Spirit is inspiration and creativity. What bothered me most, however, was not an undertone of false doctrine but the absence or underemphasis of a few key theological ideas:

First, the holiness of God – correct me if I’m wrong, but in the Bible, when people see God (with the exception of the incarnated Jesus), they only see a glimpse of Him or a symbolic representation of Him. He is too holy for us to see Him face to face and live (Exodus 33:19-20). While Christ enables us to approach God as a loving parent, I believe that the initial response to seeing Him would still be overwhelming awe and fear, mixed with a sense of one’s own unholiness – not Mack’s response of confusion at the visible form He takes. I believe God can show Himself to individuals, but I don’t believe He would show Himself so casually. The ending, which plants doubt as to whether Mack actually saw God in the flesh, may have intended to address this problem, but it does so inadequately.

Also in relation to that sense of holiness, I am bothered by the fact that the author made God such a tangible character in the book. It seems presumptive to put words in God’s mouth, even if those words are consistent with what He has already said in the Bible. Putting words in God’s mouth demonstrates an overconfidence that your own particular theology is absolutely correct, and while I believe that we can be certain of some of our beliefs – the basic orthodox doctrines that Christians throughout the ages have believed – I suspect that all of us are wrong about at least a few of our beliefs on minor points of doctrine.

Second, the authority of Scripture – the Bible plays a very small role in The Shack. In fact, the presence of a Gideon Bible in Mack’s nightstand is almost a joke. He is, after all, visiting with God – why does He need a Bible? Yet, the Bible is God’s inspired Word, and I believe it is the primary way He communicates with us today. Yes, God does still speak to us and direct us individually as the Holy Spirit resides in us, but any time we hear from God, we still need to turn to the Bible to make sure it’s really Him we hear speaking.

Third, the need for confession and repentance –Yes, I know this book is about the problem of pain and the value of a relationship with God, but a basic tenet of the gospel is that our own sins create a barrier such a relationship. Mack could not have had intimate conversations with God until he addressed his own specific sins, such as the sin of poisoning his father. (He does, late in the book, apologize to his father, but he never asks God to forgive this murder.) In The Shack, repentance is seen as the result of a relationship with God, not the cause of it. Conviction and repentance are ongoing in a believer’s life, as the book portrays well, but they also need to take place to some degree when we start a relationship with God.

So, I’d love to hear from you – What did you all like or dislike about The Shack? How has it affected your life?

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Life of O'Reilly: An Argument for God?

My parents just read Bill O’Reilly’s memoir, A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity. He was pretty naughty as a child,” my mother said.

My father was impressed by O’Reilly’s argument for God: “He says he likes to talk to atheists,” Dad said. “He says to them, ‘What would you say about someone who got into fights and all kinds of trouble when he was young and then grew up to speak in front of millions of people and write several books? If God can do that for me, He can do it for anyone.’”

“I don’t think that’s a very good argument for God,” I said to Dad.

He was irked by my comment. “Well, that’s your opinion,” he said in the tone of voice that implied my opinion meant nothing.

My opinion might not be worth much, but I am sure I share it with many of the atheists my father says O’Reilly is trying to convince. Many childhood troublemakers grow up to be successful in their chosen careers. Many atheists are among them. I doubt any of them would see a successful career and a lot of media exposure as proof of God at work in their lives. A much better argument for the existence of God than the one that impressed my father would be “He got into fights and all kinds of trouble when he was young, but now he is humble and kind and selfless.”

As a freelance writer, I often get to talk with people who have undergone or witnessed dramatic transformations. It’s one of the best parts of the job. You probably haven’t heard of David Cruz, one person I recently interviewed. He isn’t famous, his influence extends to several hundred people (not millions), and I doubt he’s written any books. But my opinion (however little it is worth) is that David Cruz’s life story provides far better evidence of God’s existence than Bill O’Reilly’s. *

Success in the world can come without dependence on God; inner transformation cannot.

*Disclaimer: I have not read O’Reilly’s memoirs, so there may be more to the story than what my dad reported. It’s possible he gives more evidence of inner transformation, in which case, it could be a good argument for God.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Why Don't More Faith Communities Emphasize Simple Living?

My church is part of a denomination whose doctrinal statement reads in part, “Nonconformity calls us to reject the world’s unrestrained materialism, its sensualism, and its self-centeredness. Rather we seek to express the values of God’s kingdom by a lifestyle of modesty and simplicity.” Nevertheless, in the eight and a half years I have been a part of this denomination, I remember hearing only one sermon on simple living.* In fact, I believe that was the only sermon I ever heard on the topic, despite having been a part of various Christian churches all my life.

I wouldn’t call the members of my congregation extravagant, but most are saturated in consumerism, just like the majority of people in our culture. They drive big cars, wear fashionable new clothing, eat out frequently, pursue expensive hobbies, and think nothing about paying to attend church events. Those who do live simply are usually those who are forced to do so by below-average household incomes.

The church has started offering Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University courses, and those who have taken them seem to be trying to live debt free and within their means, but few truly make an effort to live substantially below their means, which is what I think of when I hear “simple living” or “frugal living.” (As an aside, I don’t understand the point of paying $93 to take the Ramsey course when the same information is available for free online and through the public library.)

At my church we hear frequent sermons on giving, but without specifics on how to live so that we can afford to give. One prayer we pray, thanking God for rebates, clearance sales, and freebies that allow us to be good financial stewards, seems almost like a joke. Frugal living goes far beyond buying things on clearance.

Sadly, not only have few churches emphasized simple living (even in denominations that make it part of their doctrinal statements), but many people see the North American church as completely intertwined with consumerism. Televangelists preaching material prosperity are the dominant images of Christians in many people’s minds. In reality, most Christians would say they believe in the doctrine of stewardship, defined in Christian terms as the belief that all our money and material goods belong to God and are ours to manage for Him, to use for His purposes. I remember little more than the basics from my college world religion class, but I have the notion that other faiths have similar doctrines to this Christian doctrine of stewardship.

So why don’t more faith communities practice frugal living and more clergy preach it? For one, I think part of it is that a frugal lifestyle seems too radical. The Amish, cloistered nuns, and others who actually choose to live simply are seen as inherently different from the rest of us. Typical believers can’t possible attain that level of holiness or separatism, many believe. However, we don’t need to completely separate ourselves from the world to reject consumerism (even though cloistered living would help!)

I also believe that many members of the clergy are afraid to preach about frugal living because they struggle with living that way themselves. The one sermon I did hear on the topic was from the perspective of “I know this area isn’t my strength, but here’s what I’m learning” rather than “Follow me, and I will show you how it’s done.” At the same time, the topic of how we spend our money (or not) can be seen as too personal, even in a culture with few other taboos. Few people are willing to talk openly about their income and spending habits, even with those they call “Brother” and “Sister” in a house of worship.

At the risk of attributing false motives to others, I will also say that I believe some clergy (certainly not all) are afraid that if they start to talk about living simply, they will scare away potential converts and even dedicated members. I hope I am wrong. I hate to think that faith leaders are willing to ask their congregations to give up drugs and alcohol, limit sex to marriage, practice honesty in all circumstances, and dress modestly, but believe that the typical person of faith is unwilling to address greed and consumerism in his or her life.

Speaking as a layperson, I would love to get more support from my church in my efforts to live frugally. Sermons offering practical tips for rejecting consumerism, encouragement in simple living from fellow members of my faith community, and more free fellowship events would go a long way in helping me and others like me who want “to reject the world’s unrestrained materialism, its sensualism, and its self-centeredness” but feel like we are going against not just the world’s dominant culture, but also the culture of our own faith communities (no matter what the official doctrine states).

*I originally wrote this post in April 2008 for the blog at Saving Advice. Since then, our pastors offered a series of sermons on the church’s core values, including an excellent one on simple living that included some practical tips. It was a great start, but I believe we still have a long way to go.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

You May Gladly Have My Trash!

“Some guy with a truck took that broken lawnmower you left out for the trash last week,” a neighbor recently told us with a hint of scandal – even offense – in her voice.

“Great!” my husband and I both responded. “Glad someone could use it.” She seemed surprised that we weren’t as shocked as she was.

I like my neighbor, so I hope she doesn’t know about the time we agreed to hold a hot-tub cover in our yard for a passerby who spotted it on a different neighbor’s trash pile. (“My husband can pick it up this afternoon,” she had promised. “We were just about to spend $100+ to buy one!”) Or the time I offered to help a different couple load a perfectly good sofa into their truck after it [the sofa] appeared on the curb in our neighborhood. I might start to get a reputation as the neighbor whose love of “junk" is bringing down property values!

I do love seeing “junk” saved from the trash and made useful again. Maybe it’s the symbolic redemption I love, or maybe the resourcefulness of trash pickers simply appeals to my frugal nature. Whatever the cause, I hate to throw away anything that someone else can use; on the occasions when no one we know would appreciate what we need to get rid of, I hope for a stranger to take it home before the garbage collectors take it to the landfill. But I am certainly in the minority in our area. In fact, one of our township newsletters urged residents to report anyone seen “stealing” from the recycle bins. (The argument was that the trash company would raise rates for garbage pickup if it didn’t get enough recyclable materials to earn money on.)

I can understand the argument against stealing recyclables, but what I can’t understand is this: How did Americans become so stingy that we would rather see something be buried than give it away?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

That Old-Time Religion: Not Good Enough for Me

Sunday school songs taught me many theological truths, even before I was old enough to realize I was learning anything more than simple lyrics and a simple tune. For this reason, I have been trying to expose my preschoolers to some classic Sunday school songs. Last week I was playing a CD of these oldies-but-goodies (Cedarmont Kids’ Sabbath School Songs) when I really listened to the lyrics of one I hadn’t learned as a child:

“Give me that old-time religion. . . . It’s good enough for me.”

Ignoring the use of “religion” (a term I hate because it suggests lifeless rituals as opposed to an active faith in a living God), I was shocked to hear some entirely unbiblical ideas in a few of the verses of this particular version:

“It was good for the prophet Daniel. . . . It was good for the Hebrew children. . . . and it’s good enough for me.”

Wow! Doesn’t the New Testament say that the religion practiced by the Israelites was not good enough, that the Law was only a shadow of the coming Messiah, designed to show us that we cannot achieve perfection on our own (Hebrews 10:1-4)? I began to wonder if I had a CD of Jewish songs, rather than Christian songs, but no, the playlist includes “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and “Twelve Disciples,” among other distinctly new-covenant tunes.

I believe in the value of tradition, but I am not willing to embrace a pre-Christian, old-time religion as “good enough for me.” I will settle for nothing less than a living, relevant faith that makes a difference in my life today.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Christian College Porn Star: How Should Christian Schools Handle Students’ Sin?

My alma mater, a conservative Christian college, recently made the news for suspending a student for acting in porn films.

I got an excellent education at my alma mater. I love that it taught me how to evaluate all areas of life from a Christian perspective but did not require students to be Christians to attend. In fact, some of my best and most thought-provoking conversations about faith on that campus were with agnostic and Deistic friends. (I also felt fit in better with those friends than with many of the Christian students, but that’s a post for a different day. . . .)

The college had (and still has) far fewer restrictions than most Christian colleges; in fact, its rules are similar to those of many secular universities, but they are actually enforced. Students know that they will face serious consequences if they break one of the school’s two big rules: One involves the hours that girls and guys are allowed in each other’s dorms (intervisitation). The other strictly prohibits drinking. Being a non-drinker who liked being able to walk from the bathroom to my dorm room wrapped in a towel and not run into any guys, I was glad for these rules. I felt like I had just the right amount of freedom for that stage of my life, and the rules created an atmosphere where I felt comfortable.

So, my first reaction in hearing of the porn actor’s suspension was that the school handled the situation well. He was treated as any student caught violating the big rules might have been – suspended with the possibility of returning in a year if he showed a willingness to find another way to earn money. The student knew the rules when he chose the college, and he should be willing to accept the consequences. If he wanted to become a porn star, he should have gone to a different college. My initial concern was whether the student who recognized the student and reported him was also disciplined for viewing pornography.

However, the more I think about the situation, the more I’m not so sure the aspiring porn star (who, based on a quick Google search, might not need the “aspiring” qualifier) should have been suspended. He is a student, not a faculty member, and he is not necessarily expected to adhere to Christian doctrine, even if he did agree to follow a certain code of conduct when he accepted the school’s offer of admission. Do his actions outside of class really affect the college’s core values? (News reports do say that he considers himself a Christian and suggest that he sees no conflict between those beliefs and his acting career.)

When the local Christian high school expelled a student who got pregnant, I was disgusted. It seemed to me that the school was suggesting her sin was worse than anyone else’s. Am I being inconsistent in abhorring a high school student’s expulsion but supporting a college student’s suspension for similar offenses?

I can’t quite explain why my initial reactions are so different in situations that are so similar. I think maybe it has something to do with the different nature of high school and college. High school is required (at least until a student reaches a certain age), and while a Christian high school is a private school that should certainly have the right to enforce a higher standard of morality than a public school, expelling a student from high school seems to be a harsher punishment than suspending a college student for a year. College students are also legal adults (most of the time) and should be expected to take greater responsibility for their actions.

Higher education is a privilege. Students tend to have a much greater choice in which college they attend than which high school they attend. Being suspended from college does not necessarily derail an academic career; in fact, in this particular case, I expect the student will have many offers from liberal schools who want to denounce what they undoubtedly see as discrimination. (In fact, in one of the articles I read about the matter, the student’s lawyer used the word “discrimination.” I think that’s a false accusation, however, as any student caught acting in a porn film would have received the same treatment from the college.)

In the end, the question I can’t quite answer is "What is the most Christlike way for a Christian school to respond when students’ sin becomes a public matter?" Should the school make and consistently enforce rules that foster spiritual growth among the majority of the student body, or should it extend extra grace and mercy to individual students who sin, particularly if students have not professed a faith in Christ or have professed faith and show repentance from the sins in question? And does it make a difference whether the school is a high school or a university?

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Christian Carnival, Edition 275

Being relatively new to blogging and to the Christian Carnival, I am excited to be a first-time hostess for this, the 275th edition! The carnival brings together Christian bloggers from many different denominational (and nondenominational) backgrounds, offering readers a variety of Christian thought on many topics of interest.

Next week’s hostess will be Michelle from Thoughts and Confessions of a Girl Who Loves Jesus. Enter your best post for the week (today through next Tuesday) here. Join the carnival’s Google group to get notices when new carnivals are posted.

Now, a review of the week in Christian blogs:

Wednesday, April 29, and earlier

Brandon Peterson, who states his conviction “that reformed theology properly captures the essence and the transcendent nature of God,” outlined the five core doctrines of Calvinism in “Human Responsibility vs. God’s Sovereignty.”

Free Money Finance addressed the fine line between saving and hoarding in its weekly feature on Money and the Bible.

Jeremy Rooney at Your Christian Voice related a parent’s love to God’s love for us in “A Father’s Love.”

“God doesn't want us to be afraid of the hard road, because he will be right there beside us,” Tracy Dear wrote in “This Is Sin – The Easy Road” at New Mercy.

Martin Roth at Christian Counseling Services played virtual matchmaker in “The Single Christian,” which he describes as “a commentary on the extent to which God has a plan – and an ideal mate – for every Christian.”

Thursday, April 30

Jeff from concluded his Wolves in Wool series on false teachers and false doctrines with “From Christ to Antichrist.”

Ronnica at Ignorant Historian took on the controversial topic of whether homosexuality is genetic in “Gay Worms?”

In “Persecution & Compromise: Double Trouble for Revelation’s Readers” at Boston Bible Geeks, Danny offered “some thoughts on the message of Revelation for the original readers and for us today,” including this one: “Perhaps the American church isn’t facing the beast, but we are facing the harlot.”

Explaining that “You can tell a lot about your future by your attitude towards God and life,” Christian Personal Finance submitted “Attitude: Turning the Negative into the Positive,” which discusses how putting your faith in God can change your attitude and help you see the opportunities around you.

Scripture We Like to Ignore: Mark 10:17-30, Giving to the Poor” right here at The Minority Thinker also encouraged readers to think about money and our attitudes as Christians.

Friday, May 1

The Problem of Evil” at Weblog of a Christian Philosophy Student is the result of “a discussion that a Christian friend found helpful on the problem of evil - using the difference between 'brain' and 'mind' to explain why we must suffer,” according to blogger William Green.

Lynn Fowler of Christian Spiritual Warfare said in “Walking in Peace” that in Ephesians 6:15, “Paul is not talking about our taking the Gospel to others, but rather about the effect that the Gospel has on us personally.” She then explained that the Gospel of peace means both having peace with God and having the peace of God.

Robert Minto stayed up late to watch X-Men Origins: Wolverine and reviewed it at The Veil Away. When submitting this post, he remarked, “the purpose of the review is to reflect on the way that super-heroes pose and answer a theological question [the righteous and merciful character of God] and how that is at the base of their appeal to us.”

Saturday, May 2

Rey Reynosa from The Bible Archive continued a series on the resurrection of believers with “The Possibility of a Resurrection,” a post that explains “how a physical resurrection is possible based on our own biological and cosmological experience” and what having a resurrection body means.

Michelle made some resolutions to celebrate a new year of life (happy birthday, Michelle!) in Psalm 139:13-16 at Thoughts and Confessions of a Girl Who Loves Jesus.

Sunday, May 3

Jim DeSantis submitted his post, “Are There Only Nine Commandments?” from On Line Tribune Reports: Spiritual Maters, along with this summary: “One of the most controversial subjects among Christians today is whether or not the Ten Commandments are still valid today. While many concede that nine of them are still valid, but the 4th one concerning keeping of the Sabbath on the day ordained and sanctified by God is no longer necessary, some even go as far as to say that all ten have been abolished and that we are now ‘Under Grace, not the Law.’ How do these viewpoints line up biblically?”

Monday, May 4

In my favorite post of this week’s carnival, Weekend Fisher explored “Christian themes – and their opposites” in the Twilight novels. Check it out in “Twilight: Fantasy, Romance, and Gospel” at Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength.

Richard Anderson quotes scholars with contrasting opinions in “Different Views of Luther’s Atonement Thinking” at dokeo kago grapho soi kratistos Theophilos.

Stephen Miracle offered us “Conquer The Unknown and Fulfill Your Destiny” at Inspirational Thoughts & Stories for the Spiritual Christian. I can’t relate to his fear of approaching women, but I can agree with his thesis that “All important things – whether God, life, or relationships – come with uncertainties and a need for faith. If you dream for more, then you must get beyond yourself.”

Mark Olson considered two words in “Word and Meaning: Sin and Mystery” at Pseudo-Polymath.

Tuesday, May 5

Can We Trust the Gospels?” at Homeward Bound addressed some comments from an earlier post by pointing to the work of Mark D. Roberts. When submitting the post, Chris B. wrote, “Why should we believe what the Gospels tell us about Jesus? That is the fundamental question we have to answer before we approach the resurrection or any other topic relating to the life and ministry of Jesus. Join [the discussion] as we explore the answer to this question.”

Jeremy Pierce posted “Anti-Creationism Unconstitutional”at Parableman. He writes, “A U.S. District Court in California has applied Supreme Court precedents on endorsement of religion to rule that it's unconstitutional to declare creationism to be superstitious nonsense. This post argues that this is the wrong result constitutionally, but it gets Supreme Court precedent right.” Thanks, Jeremy, for a thoughtful exploration of this topic – and for your behind-the-scenes advice for my first carnival hosting job!

One thing this week’s submissions show is that a lot of thoughtful Christians are blogging. May these posts encourage you to refine your thinking and renew your commitment to Christ!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Life Verses – Special Calling or More Christian Conformity?

My niece graduated from a Christian high school, and each yearbook photo included the student’s “life verse” alongside his or her name and accomplishments. The idea of claiming a life verse at that point seemed both encouraging and absurd – encouraging that students were beginning to see specific callings and directions for their lives; absurd that someone’s life purpose could be reduced to a single verse, especially when so little of that person’s life had already been lived at that point.

I have since gained a better appreciation for life verses and have even claimed one of my own: Romans 12:2, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. . . .” (NIV). It seems that no matter what God has called me to do at each stage of my life, it involves using my mind and doing things that aren’t considered popular.

Speaking of what’s popular, I noticed in my niece’s yearbook that even certain “life verses” were more popular than others. Multiple students claimed verses like Jeremiah 29:11 or Philippians 4:13. No one seemed to want Acts 9:16 or Matthew 8:20. Even Exodus 31:3 and Song of Songs 7:8 (which may better state many teenage boys’ goals!) were missing from the list. I wonder why, if God made each of us unique, most of us tend to identify with the same few verses – and evidently the same purpose or calling – as so many others.

What about you? If you have a life verse, how did you choose it? How does it fit your unique personality and calling?