Tag Archives: Christianity

Review ~ When the chains of dogma keep us from seeking truthfulness.

The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity, by William Paul Young. Available for $7-18 (movie released this month).

Th Shack

There was such a hullabaloo about the whole thing. There were people excited it was finally going to be on the big screen, as well as people resurrecting the battles over the theology and doctrine portrayed in the original book. As I attempt to do with at least some controversies, I let most of it flow on by. I am, after all, still an avid fan of Oh, God, a movie some evangelicals considered downright blasphemous. I was finally enticed to view the trailer; and I fell instantly in love. I had to have the book, sooner rather than later (and will watch the movie). Every spare moment this week, Kindle in hand, I devoured Young’s tale. Then, I spent a bit of time poking around on the Internet attempting to determine what all the fuss was about. You would have thought the story was a Doctorate Thesis, submitted to the public for vetting. On second thought, maybe it should be. Here is my take on the emotional and spiritual punch, and theological challenge, delivered by this lovely little book.

As a reference point for most of the criticism, I used a fairly prominent Christian blog, www.boundless.org. The article was articulate, and summarized most of the points others were making at various levels of ability and understanding. I found the criticism telling.

First there is the accusation that the story as presented seeks, in many subtle ways, to undermine The Faith. In my opinion, what the author is gently pushing against is the dogmatic doctrine of the church. A structure that believes, somehow, that the interpretations of the early Church Fathers are every bit as holy as the original text penned who knows how many millennia ago. The author points to a particular passage where the character of Jesus states that he is not Christian. Well, as it happens he was not. He was Jewish. Subversion of the “orthodox” view started a couple of millennia ago, I seem to recall the image of Jesus turning over tables in the temple courts.

Since folks like to quote things, let’s look at Proverbs 2:1-5 (ESV). “My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” As far as I can tell, scripture here, and in other places, encourages us to seek insight and understanding – not to accept it as a God-wrapped treasure from those who declare themselves our leaders and sole interpreters of ancient manuscripts.

There is also the issue of how we know God. Many Christians look to scripture as the beginning – and the end – of the discussion. They feel that messages, commands, and admonitions written for people in a different time, different country, and under far different circumstances, should be adhered to without fail today. There are two problems with this approach.

First, it is okay to hold tight to the letter of the law as long as it fits within preconceived notions. Many Christians have problems with the idea of an adulteress being stoned in a Muslim country – and yet that is scripture. Scripture indicates that we should not divorce and that if we do remarry, we are committing adultery. These may sound like old, worn-out arguments, but at the core is this issue: understanding what scripture is trying to impart about the duties of a person that follows the first and foremost command – to love – often comes to blows with modern science, understanding, and culture. The Bible is a living breathing text and should, by all accounts, serve us well whatever the century or however advanced the culture. Look for the message – not the letter – of the law. This is something that The Shack tries to drive home.

And while we’re on the subject, as much as the reader may wish that the Bible was God breathed in every syllable and comma – that is just not a possibility. We do not have access to the original, inspired texts, and we have pushed what we do have through centuries of cultural, personal, and faith driven interpretations. This, of course, it the purpose of the reference to the King James Bible in the book. The challenge to see beyond a specific translation, or interpretation, of scripture and to look for the message that sings the whole way through.

It seems hardly right to devote a short paragraph to the subject of Salvation and what, precisely, it was we see accomplished on the Cross. I keep it short because this is a subject which has been debated since the nascent church began to spread throughout the population of the early Middle East. All the more reason to ponder the thoughts suggested by Young. After centuries of having the hell-fire of sinners pounded into our heads and our souls (a vision we owe more to Dante than the Bible), it is difficult for Christians to see beyond that vision into the conundrum they have created. Simply labeling something a “mystery” is no more than a cop out. We cannot reconcile a loving Creator with an eternal fire – a really eternal fire – for the least of the possible infractions against a code. A code, by the way, we are quick to say was done away with on the cross. If we continue to lock ourselves away in these labyrinths of theological conundrums, we will awaken one day to find we have not done the most important thing we were commanded to do – love. The possibilities discussed by The Shack are thoughts and theories presented by many outstanding scholars within the field. Why would God expect us, no – command us – to forgive whatever the response from the target of our forgiveness – if He was not prepared to do the same?

Oh, and last but certainly not least – how do we portray God? This was a point well brandished in the article I read. According to that author, scripture tells us not to make images of God. Except – scripture does provide images of God and it is those images we defend the most. One is of God as some grandfatherly figure in long robes. And we read that as a white male. When was the last time you saw a portrait of Christ in a church that actually looked like a native of the Middle East? Personally, I was delighted at the portrayal of a functioning, interactive, personification of the multiple aspects of God as defined in scripture – including that of Sophia. I was delighted because that presentation challenges us to break our preconceptions down into the ludicrous assumptions that we defend. Who are we to describe what God would look like as He spoke from the burning bush? Can we really grasp what Daniel, John, or any other author saw in their visions? Would those visions not be based on the people and culture they knew? Do you know without a single doubt, how the Creating force of this universe operates and relates? If The Shack does nothing else – maybe it will break that fragile shell of how we perceive something which we can only grasp in brief and finite thoughts.

Did I agree with everything in the book? Of course not. But I found the story a real attempt to reach people where they are, in the middle of their pain, and carrying years of baggage, some of which they have nothing to do with. One of the most telling bits within the story for me was that Mack never realized that his older daughter blamed herself for the loss of her sister. He was so wrapped up in his own pain, he never thought that someone else may be suffering from the same burden. If you take anything away from this book – know these things. Creation meets us where, and when we are. Our pain is a part of an evolving universe, we are neither the worms beneath our feet, nor lords of the universe. Sharing our pain is how we love one another, and how we help those who also suffer, while healing our own hurt.

Before you attempt to doctrinalize (like that word?) this story into Gahanna – see if you can find some small bit of insight you can work into your own inquiring soul. Or use it to open your eyes to the vast, creative force behind and throughout the universe in which we live.

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Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Fiction

Book Review ~ Learning a New Language

God Is Not One, by Stephen Prothero available for around $12.00

godnotoneOne of the joys of officially becoming an author, at least for me, is the excuse to read for “research.”  As if I needed one.  All those books I wanted to “get around to someday” are now, well, part of the job.  Consequently, I spend time poking and prodding through bookstore shelves for different points of view.  Or, I might be looking for an answer to some conundrum I’ve come across.  Sometimes I’m looking for something that will tell me if I have completely missed the point, or that my insight is perhaps different, worth sharing and defensible.  That means I spend a lot of time in religious and philosophical works from any age.  This book caught my attention because it addresses something rather fundamental to a writer in these genres: are all religions really different paths to the same goal?  Professor Prothero says no.  As a professor of religious studies at Boston University, he has a great deal to share on the subject.

I did venture to read a few of the hundred or so reviews on Amazon.  This is a touchy subject very near the hearts and minds of people, even for those who do not have a belief or are adamantly anti-belief.  Prothero presents his material in nine chapters with an introduction and conclusion.  The eight religions that he discusses are Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism.  The ninth chapter is an interesting take on Atheism.  For each religion or philosophical belief he brings out four points.  1) What is the problem as define in that belief, 2) What is the solution, 3) How is it accomplished, 4) Who does one emulate to accomplish the goal?  By using these yardsticks, the differences between the religions and belief systems with the greatest impact on our world today come out in stark contrast.

Some years ago I had a plan to start a retreat center that would provide pastors, lay people and administrative people of any faith a place to “come away” for a time and seek answers to the questions facing our world today.  To assume that any one individual has the answer to poverty, health care, education, social institutions, foreign aid, acts of war or any other such issue is, in my opinion, rather arrogant.  I sincerely believe that if the human race is to find solutions to the problems we face on this planet we will have to learn how to talk to one another; not shout, bully or order one another about.  We cannot invade the privacy of others and expect them to leave us alone.  We cannot address concerns and fears unless we understand something of the language being spoken.  Thus my title, “Learning a New Language.”

What this book does is provide a brief, easy to read description of what the central goal of each system is, and what the participants believe the path to that goal is.  It does not cover the wide ranges of mystic to conservative follower; it provides overview.  It is, in fact, a joyful presentation of the characteristics of each of the “paths” discussed.  In a nutshell, Prothero guides us through the diverse ways mankind has found to resolve the question each society has found as paramount.  Briefly, we find this:

Islam is the way of submission.  The human problem is pride and the way to control it is to learn total submission.  Perhaps you can see why martyrdom can become a path; it’s not the virgins, its total submission.

Christianity is the way of salvation.  It is the only religion that looks at the problem as sin and, therefore the solution to be salvation.  So if, as a Christian, you are speaking to a follower of, say, Hinduism, the whole concept of sin and some need to seek forgiveness is foreign.  To have a conversation you need to understand the language a Hindu would use.

Confucianism is the way of social networking , so to speak.  To the Confucians we are not fully human unless we learn propriety, social relationships, and how to treat each other rightly.

Hinduism is the way of devotion.  It is a religion of many, many gods, some major, some more personal, but the whole point is devotion to one or more entities.  If you are devoted to some divine being, then that being will look out for you.

Buddhism is an awakening.  There is no God here unless you envision an over-spanning entity, a self-aware Nirvana.  With the Buddhist, the problem is human suffering and the way to solve it is to reach a level of awareness where suffering is no longer a hindrance.

Yoruba Religion comes out of Africa and is very much about the here and now.  It has taken many forms in the new and old worlds, mixing with Christianity and Islam to cover and to grow.  It spread everywhere the slave trade took it and morphed to meet the needs of its followers wherever they went. The premise is that there are beings between heaven and earth that help us manage our lives; not to be sinless, but to find our original destiny and to live it here in this life.

Judaism, often misunderstood and morphed by Christians, is the way of exile and coming home.  It is about telling the stories of old and studying the law.  It is about questions where the best of friends can be on opposite sides of a deep argument of Talmudic law, and still be fast friends.  Never stop asking, never stop learning, and always preserve the history.  Jews do not look for salvation.  They believe they were appointed by God to show the world how it is supposed to work, here on earth.  That by following the laws as laid down for them; society will become whole and healthy.

Daoism is a way of “flourishing.”   It is about seeking freedom from society by separating yourself and going to the mountains or any place where you can seek personal freedom.  A way of looking for release from the bondage of relationships and all the expectations that go with them.  It is, in many ways, the opposite of Confucianism.

Last, but not least, Prothero addresses the issue of Atheism.  He makes a clear distinction between those that simply don’t believe in some superior being, or don’t really focus on the question at all, and those that are every bit as evangelical as any religious fundamentalist.  There are those who are so virulent in their pursuit to stamp out all “nonsensical religious stuff” that they lose the initial premise, “the way of reason.”  They are not interested in conversations involving reason; they only want to shout louder.

Prothero leads the reader on an interesting journey if the goal is to learn the language of the people we share this globe with.  Here is a bit of his closing analysis.

“Godthink is ideological rather than analytical—it starts in the dense clouds of desire rather than with a clear-eyed vision of how things are on the ground.  In the case of Hitches and the New Atheists, it begins with the desire to denounce the evil in religion.  In the case o Huston Smith and the perennialists, it begins with the desire to praise the good in religion.  Neither of these desires serves our understanding of a world in which religious traditions are at least as diverse as our political, economic, and social arrangements – where religious people make war and peace in the name of their gods, Buddhas, and orishas.  It does not serve diplomats or entrepreneurs working in India or China to be told that all Hindus and all Confucians are equally idiotic.  It does not serve soldiers in the Middle East to be told that the Shia Islam of Iran is essentially the same as the Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia, or that Muslims, Christians and Jews in Israel do not disagree fundamentally on matters of faith or practice.

If religion did not matter, this collective confusion would not cloud our understanding of the world.  If human beings acted in their families, communities, and nations purely on the basis of greed and power, then economists and political scientists could do a decent job of describing the world.  But people act every day on the basis of religious beliefs and behaviors that outsiders see as foolish or dangerous or worse.  Allah tells them to blow themselves up or to give to the poor, so they do.  Jesus tells them to bomb an abortion clinic or to build a Habitat for Humanity house, so they do.  Because God said so, Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that this land is their land, so they fight for it in the name of G-d or Jesus or Allah.  Call this good news or bad news, but by any name it is the way things are.   So if we want to live in the real world rather than down a rabbit hole of our own imagining then we need to reckon with it.”

Learn the language of your neighbor so you know the message you convey.  Many years ago I worked with a Mormon gentleman that had developed a piece of software I was using.  I shared a brief conversation with the people of the little church I was attending; it happened to be 7th Day Adventist.  You see, as of sundown on Friday night I would go home, returning at sundown on Saturday night.  He would leave the office Saturday night and return Sunday.  His quip was that between the two of us we would cover for the pagans.  My church was briefly shocked.  Please keep in mind this is long before the recent election made Mormons part of the “in” Christian family.  My point was that we both found comfort and fulfillment following the precepts of our faith.  We had a common ground from which we could engage in honest conversation regarding that faith.  Before you drive someone away by insulting their intelligence, their belief, the things they hold dear; learn the language.

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Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Bookshelf ~ Current times, My Journey with Job