Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Rev reviews The Shack

Dear Rev Know it all;

I have just read the book The Shack. It was very interesting, but I’m not sure that it very Catholic. Could you please comment?

Yours, Frieda Reid

Dear Frieda

I once heard the eminent Fr. Bob Barron say that The Shack was like watermelon; very sweet but one had to spit out the occasional seed. To his perspicacious comments I would like to add something said by the sagacious Dr. Ashleigh Brilliant, “I may not be perfect, but parts of me are excellent!” I recommend the book to those who understand that it is a fantasy, and not a work of theology. It is more of a meditation to be taken with a grain of salt. It is particularly good for those who suffered some great grief or for those who have trouble with forgiveness or believing that God loves them. It struck me as I read it, that it is sort of a Protestant longing for what Catholic visionaries experience. Some of it sounds like the accounts of the Fatima visionaries. It describes the intimacy with God that believing Catholics almost take for granted when we encounter Jesus in the Eucharist and in the tabernacle, body blood soul and divinity,

The Shack is quite a book. When I first started it, I was alarmed at the mention of a chai latte with soy milk. That certainly did not bode well, but my fears of new age voodoo were largely unfounded. What I found was modern American non-denominational Protestantism lite.

To briefly summarize the plot without giving anything away a good man, an unsure Christian has his life and faith shaken when his very young daughter goes missing on a camping trip. It is clear that she has been molested and murdered by a serial killer, but her body cannot be found. “Mac” the protagonist sinks into a depression for years that he calls the great sadness. He receives a note saying that God would like to see him in the shack where his little daughter’s bloody dress was recovered. Desperate, he goes and there he meets God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

His first encounter is with God the Father who is an ample African American woman, maternal and warm, one of the most delightful characters in the book. Jesus is, of all things, a Jewish carpenter. The Holy Spirit is an Asian woman. I can hear staunchly orthodox people gritting their teeth. You needn’t. At least not right away. The author’s point seems to be that God is never quite what we expect, and in this he is quite accurate.

First what’s good about the book? The plot is very compelling. Though you know what’s going to happen, you still want to keep reading. The portrayal of the Trinity is largely orthodox, with an important exception to which I will refer later. The book seems in its discussion of Jesus and salvation. It is wonderful in the way it discusses the love of God for creation and humanity. It rhapsodizes about the way God knows. I kept remembering the Scripture verse, “We shall know as we are known for we shall see Him as He is.” God is very humanized in the book.

Second what’s not so good about the book? Evangelical leader R. Albert Mohler, Jr. called The Shack "deeply troubling," saying that it "includes undiluted heresy." To a Catholic, this is quite a comment. From a Catholic perspective, evangelical Protestantism is undiluted heresy, but it still makes some interesting points. William Young, the author, considers himself a great fan of C.S. Lewis, and The Shack is a fantasy, not unlike CS Lewis allegorical works about God. C.S. Lewis was just inches from Catholicism himself. Perhaps that is why the Shack gives certain evangelicals the shpilkus. Mind you, I am a believing Catholic, thus my critique. To be quite honest the plot drags in spots when Young psychologizes or theologizes at great length. Sometimes his language is very, well, new age groovy, but he is after all a Canadian who lives in Oregon.

Third: What’s really not so good about The Shack. Being a theological descendant of Father Martin Luther, that renegade Catholic priest, Young doesn’t realize that there should be four people in the Shack, Father, Son, Holy Ghost and the Bride (that is the Church.) Jesus mentions the Bride, but she isn’t really there. That’s why he has to make the Father a woman who eventually turns into a man. We Catholics understand that the feminine in God is wrapped up in Mother Church, personified in our Blessed Mother, Mary. This blind spot means that Young humanizes God, but doesn’t really understand the Incarnation. How could he? He is the theological descendant of Father Martin Luther and Uncle John Calvin. He makes God out to be very human, but not very incarnate. There is a difference.

In the chapter “God is a Verb”, the author’s Lutheran inheritance becomes clear. God doesn’t like religion very much and the 10 commandments exist only to point out the futility of trying to follow rules. We Catholics think religion is a virtue. Its purpose is to render God the worship due to Him as the source of all being and the principle of all government. God owns us, body and soul. This is the reason for religion and ritual. We are not spirits trapped in flesh. We are incarnate spirits. What I do with my body, I do with my soul. Jesus doesn’t destroy the law. He fulfills it. The Law is a gift of God’s love, warning us of the dangers of sin and pointing us to the beauty of virtue. Ritual is the worship that our embodied spirits offer God. In The Shack God seems to say that there are no rules or rituals or restraints, just love. There is also no hell, no fallen angels and no ultimate freedom. One cannot finally choose evil. God’s love seems irresistible. This is pure Luther. Young seems to believe in predestination without hell. Everyone is predestined to go to heaven, but predestined none the less. God will eventually have his way. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Fourth: What is excellent about The Shack? Its treatment of God’s universal love and forgiveness is very good. In classic Protestantism and Islam, God loves some and hates others. It is called predestination. In Judaism, God’s justice demands punishment for heinous crimes. On the other hand Catholicism and in the New Testament teach that God is universally just, universally merciful and universally loving.

This is the problem is that The Shack really tackles. Mac comes to believe that God loves him even though he did not prevent his daughter’s death. He finds assurance that his daughter is in God’s safe keeping, but he cannot cope with God’s love for the perpetrator of this horrific crime. The “!%*# deserves to burn in hell. I cannot forgive him!” God explains that Mac is His child, Mac’s daughter is His child and the murderer is His child. They are all brothers, children of the same Father.

By my lights, this section of the book is the most Catholic part. It is why Catholicism is so universally hated when it is fully Catholic. The world wants thing to be good or bad, black or white, up or down. That is why God describes himself as a parent. For a parent who loves his children nothing is all one thing or the other. While acknowledging the bad, a father -- a real father -- still sees the good.

These have been hard times for Mother Church, the Bride. The world the flesh and the devil say that there are some who are beyond her maternal embrace. There are some whom the Father should not forgive. The Father, the true Father, the Father who is God punishes in order to heal, not to delight in the pain of the punished. He is not the sadist Luther believed Him to be. Poor Luther seems to have hated God. Luther says “He (God) gorges on us with great eagerness and wrath . . . he is an avaricious, gluttonous fire." The children of Luther have never quite understood the universal love of God because their father, Martin Luther never did. He stands solidly with the world saying that a very human, a very incarnate, church should be destroyed. Only the perfect church as Luther defines it, should be left. And so says all the modern world. They cannot understand how universal love can be reconciled with justice.

A case in point. Despite what you may have heard Pope Pius XII is credited with saving 700,000 Jews from the Nazi ovens in the Second World War. (If you don’t believe me, read “The Myth of Hitler’s Pope” by Rabbi David Dahlen, “Special Mission” by Dan Kurzman and “Triumph, the Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church” by H. W. Crocker III) Shockingly, the Church has been implicated in the flight of some Nazi criminals from justice after the war. How can a church which saved Jews then turn around and save Nazis? That is the wrong question. The real question is how can a God who loved and chose the Jews allow them to suffer so hideously and then, if He really loved them, how can He also love the fiends who tortured and killed them? The idea that God’s love is universal sounds good on paper, but its demands enrage savage, fallen humanity.

Here’s an example of the problem. The world wants full disclosure. The Church offers the Holy Seal of Confessional. Untold numbers of priests have gone to their death rather than betray criminals. This is unacceptable to a blood thirsty world. Criminals should be betrayed -- unless of course that criminal is your son or daughter whom you love.

We don’t really want a God who is love, a God who is Father, loving both victim and perpetrator. We want a God who will take just revenge on those who have hurt us. That is why God allowed us to brutally kill His own beloved Son and then heard His son’s prayers that his “Papa,” His “Abba” forgive them. Sometimes the Catholic Church fails to punish evildoers in the way that the world believes they should be punished. The church, or rather the weak and sinful people in whose hands God has placed the Church, tries to imitate their Lord. Sometimes they get it wrong. Most parents get it wrong, but often they get it wrong for the right reason. The pastors of the Church are compelled to see the common humanity of victim and perpetrator, indeed more than that. They see the potential divinization of both!

That is part of the reason why the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty. The death penalty is not necessarily forbidden. It must simply be administered with perfect justice. And who is the perfect, just judge in this sorry world. The death penalty is abhorrent to us partly because it ends the possibility of repentance, and God does not wish the death of a sinner, even though the world longs for it.

What about all those people consigned to the flames by the Inquisition etc. etc. When the state has masqueraded as the Church it has done horrible things wearing clerical vestments, but when the Church has done the right thing and has been truly Herself, she has always struggled to love the sinner as Christ Himself loves the sinner. For this, she has been hated more than for any other thing. She holds up the high moral standard of Christ that Young’s book seems to brush away. She is hated for reminding people of their sins. At the same time holds out the hope of complete forgiveness, and she is hated all the more for doing so. May she always stand with her Lord at the cross which was intended for His shame but has become His sign of victory and the very emblem of God’s glory.

Rev. Know it all

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