Wednesday, August 11, 2010

* Shacking-up with the Trinity

From The Shack:
(Jesus to Mack)
"But I can give you freedom to overcome
any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social or political." (kindle, large text, 2888), Briefly
Publisher Has Court Date In Dispute Over ‘Shack’
Published: July 13, 2010

A federal judge is expected to hear arguments next month in the legal skirmish that has broken out over the novel “The Shack,” a story of redemption and loss with Christian themes that has sold more than 12 million copies, The Los Angeles Times reported. William Paul Young, the book’s author, sued his former partners at Windblown Media and his marketer and distributer, Hachette Book Group, in a California state court in November, arguing that he had been deprived of more than $8 million in lost royalties from sales of the book, The Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday. In March Windblown Media countersued for $5 million in federal court, calling Mr. Young’s lawsuit “ridiculous.” Hachette jumped in with its own motion on July 2, saying the case belonged in federal court. Judge John F. Walter of the United States District Court in Los Angeles is expected to hear arguments on Hachette’s motion in August.

Upping the "Primacy Problem*" a Notch

*(Christianity's assertion that ONLY through Christ can one come to God)

(Warning: Parts of this review may be hard trudging for those not familiar with theological gobbledygook. It's worth the trudge, though.)

I was going to post this under the heading "Redemption?"  a heading which I created below as a title for my reaction to the last third of the book.  Instead I am placing it here, at the beginning.

Credit Where Credit is Due

 First,  let's acknowledge that The Shack belongs to  a genre: Christian literature.  As such it is entitled, indeed expected, to have Jesus and the Trinity function as a deus ex machina in the plot.  And indeed they do.

I do not find their answer to the abduction and murder of Mack's six year old daughter, satisfactory; but,  I am sure many readers of Christian literature will find it so.

However, let's give credit where credit is due: despite  falling into the age-old trap of "exclusiveness" (see below) the book does some surprisingly  controversial things in the service of shocking American Christians out of their ethnocentric cocoons: God is a black female named Papa; the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman named Sarayu; Jesus is a modern carpenter in bluejeans who is facially "ugly".

One  unintentionally surprising thing which the book does is reserve until its final pages a  'springing'  which  may unsettle  even readers of Christian literature. 

Hear these words from Papa (aka God). God has the murdered six year old daughter of Mack appear from the dead and later God describes  to Mack how she [Missy] "has already forgiven him [the murderer]."  God is about to ask Mack to do so also.

" She has [?]. . . How could she," says Mack.

God answers: "Because of my presence in her. That's the only way true forgiveness is ever possible." (my emphasis)  (kindle, large text, 3618-22)

I suspect that springing this word "ever" would be news even to readers of Christian literature.

Does it mean that  the non-trinitarian gods of other religions do not provide their followers the "possibility" of  "ever" experiencing "true" forgiveness?

And is the forgiveness  second-best or invalid when offered to others by those who do not believe in a trinitarian god  ?

This seems like upping the "Primacy" assertion of Christianity even a notch higher. 

Now, it is not only necessary to experience the Father by way of the Son, but true forgiveness cannot ever be possible unless the presence of the trinitarian god resides in the would-be forgiver.


But then, Christian literature was meant for those who accept such exclusiveness.

Such a pity to alienate so many people this way.

Mine  is not an opinion which Christian readerships are hungering to proclaim.

And here is another ethnocentrically jolting sentence: At one point the author has Jesus tell Mack "Who said anything about being a Christian. I'm not a Christian."  (kindle, large text, 2897)

This is factually true. If there was a "historical" Jesus (see Albert Schweitzer's In Quest of the Historical Jesus) then his name was Joshua ben Joseph---- not Jesus or Christ----and he was Jewish from the day he was born to the moment he was crucified. Christianity was created 70 to 90 years after his death.

Many readers of Christian literature either do not know this, or prefer to deny it.  So it is surprising and refreshing to have the author tweak their self-imposed  ignorance here with this assertion from the Master's own "ugly" lips.

But if Jesus is not a "Christian" why the insistence on the Trinity as the access code to the Father (through the Son)? 

At one point in Mack's weekend with the Trinity, Mack  is introduced to Sophia who, once upon a time,  was the Goddess of Wisdom in ancient Greek mythology.

It looks for a moment as if the Trinity is about to get a "fourth" person, and a female one at that. 

(Jung says Sophia already was incorporated into the Christian godhead with Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical making the physical assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven a Church doctrine. See: Carl Jung, The Answer to Job)

Rather than challenge the 1700-year-old Nicene Creed (which solved the political problem of "many gods vs. one god" by creating the Trinity--THREE persons in ONE God) , the author leaves the Trinity intact with this adjustment : Sophia is "the personification of Papa's wisdom," not a goddess herself, just an attribute in God's personality.


Wouldn't want to make all those fourth century Fathers turn in their Nicaean graves! (After all, 1700 years is an admirably long time for a political settlement to last---let's stick with a winner!)

Finally, a quote from Papa "herself" : "Papa again interrupted, 'You see, Mackenzie, I don't just want a piece of you and a piece of your life. Even if you were able, which you are not, to give me the biggest piece, that is not what I want. I want all of you and all of every part of you and your day.'" (my emphasis) (kindle, large text, 3308)

I do not know why anyone would find this attractive. It sounds creepily voyeuristic and obsessively micro-managerial to me, Divine Love or not.

Similarly, Papa "herself" tells Mack that his ("her") locus is in "DNA, your metabolic uniquesness, the quantum stuff that is going on at the subatomic level, where only I am the always-present observer."  (my emphais) (kindle, large text, 1475)

The exclusiveness problem aside, (Is Papa present at the sub-atomic level in Jews, Muslims, atheists?) it seems a bit unkind to fetuses with spina bifida that an "always-present" observer powerful enough to have created the entire universe, observes the DNA as it is translating the code for "interior spine" erroneously into an "exterior spine" in a fetus; yet this all powerful being does NOT intervene to correct it. 

Papa later claims that he (or she) doesn't manipulate human beings, that they must come to him (her) on their own 'free will' and that although he could have prevented the murderer from killing Mack's daughter, Missy, he "did  not" do so. 

Free will was the rationale for not intervening with post-partum human beings like Missy's murderer;  but, a fetus does not have free will so why not intervene on the subatomic level without anyone knowing it to correct the error?

Seems cruel.

I, for one, have always preferred non-anthropomorphic descriptions of deity.

For  three decades I have said that if you changed all the words "Jesus" and Christ" in the bible to the word "Forgiveness" (with a capital "F") Christianity would make complete sense, without the problem of having a "person-god".


Sublime Emersonian heresy.

My reaction to the first third of the book:

I am reading on my kindle  The Shack  by Paul Young. It has been on the NY Times best seller list for a long time.  I'm only half way through it, so I really shouldn't write this post.  But I got curious and read a few reviews of the book midway through it, one of which was a devastating lambasting of the guy as a poor writer.

I feel a need to come to his defense.

He says he wrote the book for his children and I believe him.

The fact that it has been on the bestseller list for so long doesn't surprise me, for we all are children in our knowledge of theology; even I am, and I went to divinity school.

We're perfect clients for this literary approach.

Let's give the guy credit.  He tries to make the Trinity understandable to children : Us.

And that ain't easy.

He surrenders to a lot of the canned phrases from the Bible ("I am that I am", etc.) and even a phrase or two from Paul Tillich "the ground of my being". 

And he falls into the trap of country-club exclusiveness (Jesus says he is "the best" way to understand his "Papa" ---- who in this book, btw, is a black woman --- and  also to understand the third part of the godhead, the spirit part--- which is portrayed as an Asian woman in this book). 

Exclusiveness is always a way to make Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians feel second best and arouse their ire.

But so far, exclusiveness aside,  he hasn't made the Trinity intelligible to me at all.

Someone once said that there are only three people in the world who understand Einstein's Theory of Relativity. 

I'd say the same thing about the Trinity. 

I recall in div-school studying Theodore of Mopsuestia and homooosion and homoouision (terms about  divine substance: three persons, one susbtance /one person, three susbtances) and the Nicene Creed, the final compromise at the Council of Nicaea in  325 CE  solving the polytheism vs. monotheism battles by making many gods (polytheism) one substance (monotheism) in this political compromise called the Trinity.

Perhaps it's ponotheism or mollytheism.

Paul Young leaves me baffled.  No idea.

The Trinity remains  a remote theological construction.

So give the guy credit and cut him some slack:  He's trying to make an idea many people think is critically important to their faith, intelligible to the ordinary Joe and Joan.

I'm reserving judgment till I finish the book; but, I wanted to get this off my chest . . .

The Primacy Flaw (second third of the book):

I am now 2/3 of the way through the book and have 14 pages of highlights from it on my kindle.

One of those highlights I repeat here for it is a completely unsatisfactory answer to the problem presented in the opening chapters of Mack's six-year-old daughter's kidnapping and murder.

Jesus (at the shack) gives Mack this reassurance (after his morning-long experience with "Sophia," the "personification of Papa's wisdom" NOT a fourth person in the Trinity) :

You dont need to know "all the details [of the murder]. I'm sure they won't help you. But I can tell you there was not a moment that we were not with her.  She knew my peace, and you would have been proud of her.  She was so brave!" (kindle, large text, 2753)

This simply doesn't wash. A six year old girl forcibly abducted from her father's campsite and murdered "is brave" and "knows peace" through it all?!


Ask Charles Lindbergh?  Or the absolved Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey, Jon Benet's parents?  Or the thousands of parents of children slaughtered or mutilated in African wars?

Divine accompaniment of these innocents on their way to being murdered is not enough comfort for me: It does not wash.

Nor does the "relationship" model of the Trinity satisfy. 

Here, a completely modern,  New Age, pop-psychology phenomenon (the turning of "Relationship"  with a capital "R" into an answer for everything and the highest form of human developmental experience) is offered by Young as  a definition of a concept arrived at in 325 CE at the Council of Nicaea to  prevent a theological war from breaking out between polytheists and monotheists: The Trinity
(monotheism and polytheism amalgamated : ONE God/ THREE persons).

These fourth century theological  intellectual combatants would find  Paul Young's 21st Century  explanation laughable if not irrelevant: the Trinity as an archetypal example for perfect "Relationship"? 

Theodore of Mopsuestia might say, "So what?"

Doesn't work, especially if women are considered a part of that "Relationship" which they definitely were NOT in the fourth century.

It (The Shack's beatification of "Relationship" as the behavior being modelled in the Trinity) may help modern Americans make sense of their own cultural idols ("Relationship" being one of them) but it does not make sense of the Trinity.

And it does not encourage non-Christians to feel included when 'Relationship' depends on the Christian Holy Ghost (the Asian female character named "Sarayu" in The Shack ) for "all true power and authority":

"We [the Trinity: Papa, Jesus and Sarayu] want male and female to be counterparts, face-to-face equals, each unique and different, distinctive in gender but complementary, and each empowered uniquely by Sarayu from whom all true power and authority originates"  (my emphasis)(kindle, large text, 2334).

Don't get me wrong. 

The book is a compelling read.  But it has the "Primacy" flaw: without Christianity (and the Trinity) the full sweetness, the full peace,  the full complexity, of God cannot be experienced.

Offputting to Jews, Muslims and other religious folk, to say nothing of doubters and unbelievers.

And , irony of ironies,  "Primacy" is the very problem which The Shack says alienates man from God: "Men [the gender], in general, find it very hard to turn from the works of their hands, their own quests for power and security and significance, and return to me [Jesus]." (kindle, large text 2325). "This legacy of brokenness goes all the way back to Adam . . ." (kindle, large text, 2538)

 Please note the NY Times article in yellow text above stating that Young is suing his publisher for millions of dollars: A "quest for power" if I ever saw one.

Isn't the exclusiveness of the fourth century compromise called "The Trinity" precisely that which Young's God disparages in the preceding quote: a "quest for power and security and significance" on the part of the Nicene fathers?

Exclusiveness excludes !

Papa to Mack:
      "Like I said, everything is about him. Creation and history are all about Jesus. He is the very center of our purpose and in him we are now fully human, so our purpose and your destiny are forever linked." (kindle, large text, 3069-72)

Redemption? (Final third of the book):

I have one third of the book to go, so we'll see if he can "redeem" this Primacy Flaw.

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