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Why might an Orthodox Christian read The Shack? Why might it better not to? Fr. Anthony shares and evaluates many of the critiques of the The Shack, putting it within the context of evangelism. Enjoy the show!
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Book Discussion on The Shack (10/19/2017)
St Sophia Seminary Library
Fr. Anthony Perkins
By way of an introduction: how does Orthodoxy relate to the culture?
The Shack is polarizing. Why? For theologians, I think it has to do with how comfortable each is with “the edges”. Explain edges. Explain core.
Prophetic Impulse: Understand & Serve Truth (great commandment?)
Pastoral Impulse: Understand & Serve People (part two of great commandment?)
Evangelism? Requires both. It also requires going to the edges; that is where people who need to be evangelized are. We have to know them and use their words.
[Small note: there’s also some knee-jerk opposition to books like The Shack. Instead of asking “what can I learn from this person or thing” we often ask “what can I find wrong in this person or thing?”]
— begin review of review of a good critical/risk-averse review –
Department of Christian Education (OCA; Bulletin Insert)
The book’s trinity bears no relation to the Triune God, or to the teachings of the Creed. God the Father (in the book a motherly Afro-American woman who is called “Papa”) tells Mack, “We don’t need power over the other…Hierarchy would make no sense among us.” But Christ’s obedience to His Father is not based on power, but on trust and love. To assert that hierarchy must be based on one person having power over another is simply wrong.
We’ll set aside the observation that “the book’s trinity bears no relation to the Triune God”; the author is exaggerating to make a point (ironically, this is something I see the book is doing). As for power and hierarchy, it seems that either the book is wrong about the relationship amongst the Trinity OR it mis-specifies what a hierarchy is when it has that “Hierarchy would make no sense among us”. Because it is not a work of systematic theology, it really could be either one. The irony is that The Shack is specifically written to show that relationships must be built on “trust and love” rather than power. Within the context of the book’s message (and the order of my my Orthodox mind), I automatically added “[THAT KIND OF] Hierarchy would make no sense among us.” The author has noted that power corrupts almost of all our human institutions (“Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you”); he is trying to get us to imagine or allow for the possibility of a relationship that was mutually re-enforcing. Rather than a chain-of-command and the exercise of authority, there is the same will. Here is how Fr. Thomas Hopko put it in the rainbow series book, Volume 1 – Doctrine and Scripture (https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/doctrine-scripture/the-holy-trinity/one-god-one-divine-action-and-will)
One God: One Divine Action and Will
Since the being of the Holy Trinity is one, whatever the Father wills, the Son and the Holy Spirit will also. What the Father does, the Son and the Holy Spirit do also. There is no will and no action of God the Father which is not at the same time the will and action of the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In Himself, in eternity, as well as towards the world in creation, revelation, incarnation, redemption, sanctification, and glorification—the will and action of the Trinity are one: from the divine Father, through the divine Son, in the divine Holy Spirit. Every action of God is the action of the Three. No one person of the Trinity acts independently of or in isolation from the others. The action of each is the action of all; the action of all is the action of each. And the divine action is essentially one.
Young is arguing against an understanding of that dogma that would have the Father imposing his will on the other members of the Trinity; that would be our fallen instinctive understanding. It’s a useful corrective, even though saying that “we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being,’ as your ancestors termed it.” God the Father begets the Son and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. They are equal in divinity and one in essence.
“The Shack” also muddles the distinctive acts of each Person of the Trinity. Papa’s wrists bear scars, and Mack says to Papa, “I’m so sorry that you, that Jesus, had to die.” But Scripture tells us that Jesus, not the Father or the Spirit, died on the cross. By diluting this truth, the book could undermine an uninformed reader’s comprehension of the depth of Jesus’ love for us. He willingly died shamefully, painfully and alone so that we could have eternal life!
On the other hand, the book never says that God the Father was incarnate or that He was nailed to the cross. This was a visual part of the book’s point that Jesus Christ was never alone and that God “feels” the pain of His Son. Did Christ die alone? Does the compassion the marks on Papa lessen the reader’s appreciation for Christ’s death. Perhaps. But one of the book’s main points is that God is with us always. Unfortunately, much of the water that should be carried in the person of Christ gets moved to God the Father. What we really end up with is two Christs; kind of like with The Ancient of Days.
Some have praised this book for its down-to-earth way of depicting God and His purposes. But presenting the almighty Lord as a pal with whom we can be familiar and casual is dangerous. We are not God’s equals; we are His creatures. Nor are we in a position to demand explanations from Him, as Mack does.
Is it wrong to ask questions of God? Of the Church? Is Mack’s anguish and challenge so different from the Psalmists? The point on God our buddy is a good one. Although the approach is scriptural (No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. St. John 15:15) and serves as a necessary corrective to an idea of a second story God, many Orthodoxy suspect that Protestants do not take the glory of God seriously. Orthodoxy embraces both the humanity of God (icons, sacraments) and His glory (our Revelation architecture and worship). Given the way our psychology works, those who want only to fear God will not really notice His humanity in the icons or sacraments; for them, the Shack is a useful corrective. HOWEVER, several times it downplays and even has God speaking against ritual (once this was in the context of a meal). This really is problematic; no one supports ritual as a replacement for authenticity – but it is a much better vessel for that authenticity than pretty much anything else. Which is why God ritualized the New Covenant with mankind!!!
Readers also say the book comforted them in sorrow. But we have real stories of real people to inspire us in dark times. Mother Maria Skobtsova and Father Arseny are just two Orthodox believers who struggled with great loss, yet forgave their persecutors and persevered in trusting God.
This is a strange critique as it is a bit of a non-sequitur. Of course there are many examples of saints who suffered and forgive, and we are inspired by their examples and strengthened by their prayers. But that does not mean that “imagined stories” (as opposed to the “real stories” the essay recommends) are not useful. We wouldn’t be talking about this book if so many millions had not read it and found Christ’s healing through it. Fiction can do things that straight theology and even the lives of the saints cannot (not the least of which is to be accessible).
The clericalism of Orthodoxy really hurts our ability to witness Christ to people in a way they will understand. I think that if it were up to many priests teaching and ministry would be confined to the divine services, prescribed prayers, and the Church Fathers. Oh, and maybe Russian books and movies like Ostrov and The Brothers Karamatsov (both of which I love, but the latter of which is not accessible in the way The Shack is).
Most of all, we have the Trinity, not an imagined one but the One shown to us through Jesus Christ, who as we remember today can even make simple fishermen “most wise.”
Yes, the Holy Spirit can make folks wise enough to keep away from popular heterodox Christian fiction, but we cannot trust that He will make them wise enough to read them with anything like discernment.
— begin review of review of a good critical/risk-averse review –
Other critiques that also have some merit.
Why might it be worth reading? What did the book get right?
Here is a wonderful quote from The Catholic World Report movie review of The Shack ( http://www.catholicworldreport.com/2017/03/11/the-pain-of-two-fathers-a-review-of-the-shack/ );
Despite these occasional frustrations, it’s striking how orthodox and thus counter-cultural The Shack can often be. Heaven, Hell, Sin, Penance, the Afterlife, and Redemption are all very real and must be faced with courage. There are tangible consequences to breaking God’s law and even a beautiful burial scene that suggests the importance of sacramental Christianity. It’s hard to place the theology of The Shack in any particular camp; it’s enough to say that while it gets many things right, it also wants to stay relevant in a way that compromises its overall message.
I suspect that THIS is what people read it for. It isn’t heresy that makes it attractive: it is the reality of God in the midst of our struggle, of His great love for us, and the healing that He offers to all of His children.
It is a compelling story that all of us can relate to.
It gets a bit long winded with theology, but the story is well told.
It gives us all hope; the right kind of hope. The world is full of hurting people. God wants to heal us and them.
It corrects some of the more egregious heresies out there about God and Christianity.
So how would it have been different if an Orthodox Christian had written it?
The beauty of ritual; the scene of people and their lights was a time to do that. Young is not liturgical and has anti-traditional biases, so I suspect this is as close as he could get.
The guardian angel as guide. Would not “meet” God the Father or God the Holy Spirit directly; face to face. Could still meet wisdom, walk on water, etc.
How (not) to make the Bible say the opposite of what it means. Examples from Numbers on how to draw out Scripture’s deeper meaning.
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OT Bible Study #21: No Redemption? Plus the Spiritual Interpretations of Scripture
Make the pure light of Your divine knowledge shine in our hearts, Loving Master, and open the eyes of our minds that we may understand the message of Your Gospel. Instill also in us reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that overcoming all worldly desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, both thinking and doing all things pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the Light of our souls and bodies, and to You we give the glory, together with Your Father, without beginning, and Your All Holy, Good, and Life- Creating Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen. (2 Corinthians 6:6; Ephesians 1:18; 2 Peter 2:11)
Answer the Question about Leviticus 27:29.
Furthermore, people devoted to the Lord shall not be redeemed, but shall surely be put to death. (Orthodox Study Bible!)
This has to be one of the very best examples of the need for context (or at least a different translation) I have ever seen (but see Luke 19:27 and Matthew 4:9b for a couple of NT examples). It looks like the Bible is saying that believers can not be saved, but have to be put to death (this is a paraphrase of the above).
Some fun with words (Greek; Septuagint). The Greek for “devoted to the Lord” is anathema. This is NOT a believer; it is something else. Ransomed is a better word than redeemed (because of the baggage). Put to death really is put to death.
Some fun with words (Hebrew). The Hebrew for the “devoted to the Lord” bit is cherem. This is a word that does indeed mean “devoted to the Lord”, but it has the negative connotation because evil or sacrilegious or idolatrous things (or people) must be “devoted” or given over to the Lord through the destruction of the person.
The Faithlife Study Bible has this footnote;
27:29 on “is devoted”. While the same Hebrew term used in v. 28 is used here, cherem, here it does not refer to a positive connotation of dedication, but instead to the idea of fulfilling the law. This law suggests that a person who has committed an injustice that would result in death (according to the law) must be put to death—they cannot be redeemed from that punishment.
This leads to this gentler translation from The Message (Eugene Peterson);
No human who has been devoted to destruction can be redeemed. He must be put to death.
Hebrews 9:6-12. And just so we don’t miss the main point…
The Holy Bible contains many commentaries on itself. The New Testament is especially good at helping us understand the Old Testament. In this verse of Hebrews, St. Paul is using what his audience knew about Jewish ritual to help them understand the role of Jesus Christ.
Numbers 7:89 (e.g.) A Nice Meditation on the Tent of Tabernacle: The Sacred and the Profane
What does it mean that Moses often enters the tabernacle and comes out, except that he, whose mind is raised up in contemplation, must go out to deal with the affairs of the weak? Inside he contemplates the mysteries of God. Outside he bears the burdens of carnal persons. And Moses, who always has recourse to the tabernacle in matters of doubt and consults the Lord in the ark of the covenant, undoubtedly offers an example to officeholders. When in their public lives they are unsure of what to decide, they should always ponder in their minds, as in the tabernacle. They would seek advice, as it were, at the ark of the covenant, if they study the pages of sacred Scripture in their hearts when they deal with a doubt. Truth himself, manifested to us by taking on our humanity, devoted himself to prayer on the mountain and performed miracles in the cities. Thus he showed good pastors a model to imitate. They should desire what is highest in contemplation but care for the needs of the weak by their compassion. Charity rises up to the heights in a marvelous way when it mercifully turns to the depths of the neighbor’s needs. When it descends in kindness to the lowest, it returns in vigor to the highest…
leave the crowds and return to the tabernacle means to leave the tumult of external things behind and enter the hidden places of the mind. For the Lord is consulted there, and one hears, silently and within, what should be done outside and publicly. Good pastors do this every day. When they do not know how to decide about doubtful matters, they return to the hidden place of the mind as if to some tabernacle. They ponder the divine law, as if they were seeking advice from the Lord at the ark of the covenant. What they first hear silently within, they later make known when they act publicly. To fulfill their external offices without blame, they have recourse unceasingly to the secret places of the heart, and thus they hear the voice of God through his hidden inspiration, as they withdraw from carnal sensations in spiritual meditation. St. Paterius; Exposition on … Numbers.
Numbers 8:7. Should Priests Shave? Only spiritually!
Hairs of the flesh mean whatever human corruption is left. Hairs of the flesh are the thoughts of the old life, which we so expel from our minds that no grief at their loss fatigues us. Levite means “one taken up.” So all Levites should shave the hairs of the flesh. For he who is taken up into divine service should appear before the eyes of God cleansed of all carnal thoughts. His mind should not bring forth illicit thoughts and deform the beautiful shape of his soul with unruly hair. But as much as the virtue of holy conversation draws a man up, as we said, he was still born into the old life, and he bears it with him. Thus the hairs of the Levites are to be shaved off, not pulled out. For when hairs have been shaved off the flesh the roots remain, and the hairs grow and are shaved off again. Vain thoughts should be cut off with great effort, but they can never be entirely rooted out. For the flesh always begets what is vain, and the spirit cuts it back with the knife of watchful concern. We see this happening in us more subtly when we reach the heights of contemplation. St. Paterius (ibid).
How the Jews Knew When and Where to Go
Numbers 9:15-23. The Cloud and the Fire. How do we know where we are supposed to go? Is our guidance as obvious as it was for the Jews in the wilderness? If not – why is that? If so – why do we sometimes feel lost or overwhelmed?
Next Week: The People are NOT HAPPY! (to include “family troubles”)
Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Le 27:29). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Lienhard, J. T., & Rombs, R. J. (Eds.). (2001). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.