Evangelizing the Religious Imagination
A novel is meant to be, first of all, a work of art. That is why it is always risky to try to use a novel to try to promote, however subtly, any political or religious idea. Apologetics, of any kind, usually does not make for good literature, irrespective of how good the cause might be.William Young, in a recent, best-selling novel, The Shack, (Windblown Media, Los Angeles, 2007) takes that risk. The son of missionary parents, Young has written a novel which invites its reader to meet God, not just in the abstract, but specifically in how God is revealed in Christianity, as Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.Without wanting to give away too much of the plot, here is the main story line: Mack, his hero, suffers a great personal tragedy that leaves him religiously numb, with a lot of unresolved questions. Through a series of circumstances, he ends up spending a weekend within which he is privileged to have heart-to-heart conversations with the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. In those conversations, some of the heart of humanity and the heart of God are laid open. The book has been both highly praised and severely criticized across denominational lines. Its critics struggle with its audacity (What nerve for a mere human to attempt to speak for God!) and for the way it in which it conceives of God (as too gentle and non-demanding).Personally, I do not agree with its critics. In my view, this is an excellent book that presents a wonderfully positive and healthy theology of God. I heartily recommend it.I should perhaps qualify that with this comment: I read for essence more than for detail. No doubt there are parts of this book that would need more qualification, more theological nuance, but that is true for all theology, especially when it speaks about the ineffable, God. It took the apostolic community and the early church some 300 years to agree upon even a few basic concepts about God. So, no doubt, anyone who risks 250 pages in trying to give this a contemporary interpretation will not always and everywhere be perfect, nor to everyone's theological taste. But this effort has to be judged in its essence, not on the basis of some detail that might need more nuance. The book is not perfect, but it is excellent overall.What Young gives us in The Shack is a very healthy theology of God and an insight into the Trinitarian nature of God. Like Pope Benedict's first Encyclical, this book might too be entitled: God is Love. It is a good corrective to many popular and intellectual images of God that conceive of God as cold, distant, impersonal, and needlessly judgmental. The God that you meet in The Shack is personal, warm-hearted, invitational, loving, understanding, with a sense of humor; and He is closer to the God that Jesus preached, the God who embraces the weakness of the prodigal son and the anger of his older brother, who washes the feet of his servants, and who lets his sun shine on the bad as well as the good, than is the God that is often met in popular theology and ecclesiology. The God you meet in The Shack will walk with you, no matter what your journey, and, like the God of Jesus, wants more than anything else that we forgive each other. Judgment, this God says, is not about punishment or destruction, but about setting things right and ultimately about reconciliation and forgiveness.How does the God we meet in The Shack answer the question of evil? Pretty much like Jesus at the death of Lazarus, when he is asked: Where is God when bad things happen to good people? God, Jesus tells us there, does not necessarily rescue us from suffering and death. Rather He enters into them with us and ultimately, though not immediately, redeems them.Asked if he could have prevented Mack's daughter's death, God answers: Yes. First, by not creating at all. ... Or secondly, I could have chosen to actively interfere in her circumstance. The first was never a consideration and the latter was not an option for purposes you cannot possibly understand now. So what is God's answer to the problem of evil? The God we meet in The Shack replies: At this point all I have to offer you as an answer is my love and goodness, and my relationship with you; essentially what Jesus offers us in the Gospels, not an intellectual answer but a relationship.The real task of evangelization today is very much that of trying to evangelize the imagination, of trying to put healthy, life-giving images of God into the popular imagination. We have libraries full of scriptural and theological books that are solid and orthodox. These are important because without a solid grounding we soon go astray, but they need to be supplemented. By what? By attempts like this one by William Young which try to evangelize the popular imagination.