A late look at “The Shack”, by Wm. Paul Young

I’m a little late to the table with this one. Yes, I’m very aware that the book is 15 years old, has been a multi-million copy best seller, and The Scroll has carried it for the whole time. But I hadn’t ever read it before. With the advent of the movie, I decided it was time to see what the fuss was all about.

To say the least, this book has it’s ardent supporters, and just as ardent detractors. To be honest, if I had been doing my job better, I should have read it before now, if for no other reason than to assure myself that it deserved  a place on our shelves. I’ll discuss my decision on that a little later in this post. In the meantime, for those few of you who are still unfamiliar with the book, here’s the quick rundown.

Mackenzie Allen Phillips is a man in great pain. Three years have passed since his youngest child was abducted and murdered, and the “Great Sadness” still overwhelms Mack & his family. His relationship with God, never foremost in his life is perfunctory now with more than a tinge of distrust. His wife’s own faith is bruised but strong and she still expresses love and trust in “Papa”, as she calls the Father.

Out of the blue comes a cryptic letter, signed “love, Papa”, inviting Mack to return to the location of the murder. Mack finds himself compelled to go there, where he is confronted with Papa (or God, as a middle-aged black woman), Jesus (as a young Jewish man), and the mysterious Sarayu (the Holy Spirit as a beautiful young woman.) This representation of the Trinity takes Mack through conversations and experiences that allow him to unburden himself of grief and unforgiveness, and Mack is returned to his family a different man.

This story is fiction, and as such is allowed some latitude in theological rigorousness. It is understandable, however, since the theology and opinion are being put in God’s mouth that some readers would have cause to cry foul at those points they feel miss the mark. As a result, there has been considerable controversy over whether this book is perfectly acceptable, mildly controversial or completely heretical!

There is much to be admired in The Shack. I was actually surprised at how powerful the story is, and how much emotion it evoked in me. I have long held that all story is based on THE Story. When the good guy saves the girl from the bad guy and does so with great wisdom & virtue, that is reflection of how God saves us from many spiritual bad guys around us. When the protagonist sacrifices his or her life for the good of their story mates, we remember Jesus and His sacrificial love. The Shack is primarily a conversation about God’s love for his creation.

To sum up the message of the book in a few words, it would have to be: “God is good, all the time.” That’s not my favorite saying – a bit trite, and not terribly sophisticated. But it completely summarizes a bottom-line statement of our faith. We live, to borrow another phrase, “in a world of hurt” — a world of pain created by man turning from the creator in numerous daily ways. We see evil, greed, pain, sorrow on every side, and it is one of the prime reasons many  use to defend their atheism. “How could a loving God allow…?” We’ve all heard it, or even asked it.

Mack is asking this question pointedly throughout the book. Why did God not intervene to save his innocent daughter from such evil. Did God intend it to happen? Was it necessary to further some other important plan of God? Can I trust a God like that? The conclusion he reaches is the one we all need to reach. God is Good! A Romans 8:28 kinda good. ALL things are worked to our benefit, even the things God would prefer we not do. Even the things that hurt deeply. This is the basic theology that permeates the book, and I agree with it.

There are question marks. At one point (while Mack is still a bit skeptical about who Papa really is ) he asks Papa if she isn’t angry at her creation. What about God’s wrath?

“It seems to me that if you’re going to pretend to be God Almighty, you need to be a lot angrier… Weren’t you always running around killing people in the Bible? You just don’t seem to fit the bill.”

Papa’s answer doesn’t respond to the “God of the Old Testament” question.

“I’m not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”

This certainly has to raise red flags for many. Loving the sinner, but hating the sin is a central component of the faith, but to deny God’s just wrath at the unrepentant goes against many traditional grains. There are other areas I noticed that undoubtedly rub some theological fur the wrong way, but I think I’ll let you google reviews from folks who are better qualified than I to share their thoughts about the doctrinal mishaps of The Shack.

I said earlier that I would answer whether I thought the book deserved a place on our shelf. I have decided that the answer is “yes”. In spite of doctrinal wobbliness which concerns some, I believe that this depiction of a God who is in love with His creation is important. Most of us have no difficulty feeling guilty, unlovable, undeserving of grace & mercy. I suspect more than a few of us attend church and take part in beneficent activities partly out of a desire to “make good” with God rather than from a joyful expression of thanksgiving for God’s love. And there are many who harbor doubts & question whether God really does have their backs. “How can a loving God…?”

There is a part of The Shack where Jesus has just told Mack that there are those who love Him from every system and religion in the world. Mack in response asks “Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?”

“Not at all.” Jesus smiled as he reached for the door handle to the shop. “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”

That is a message that needs to be heard.

What’s funny about that?

 

I’ve written a number of posts on Bible translation. As a Bible salesman I am often asked which is the most “accurate” translation, and just as often experience resistance to various translations due to “missing” elements & verses. You can read my thoughts on that subject HERE.

As I was poking around the web recently, I noticed an excellent article that did a much better job than I of talking about translation difficulties. I can’t link to it as the blog is apparently now defunct and redirects to an add for nutrisystem. But I’m copying the article here. Hopefully the author won’t mind

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Sunday, October 15, 2006
What’s the joke?
One of the things about living in an environment where you regularly hear (and see) languages that you understand other than your native language is that you are constantly noticing things about what it really means to translate.

For example, being on sabbatical here in Austria I take the bus to the university every day, about a half an hour ride from my apartment. At every bus stop they have free newspapers, OK and Heute, which have sudokus. OK, I’ll fess up. I’m a sudoku addict. I grab a copy of each and see how much I can get done on the lurching and bumpy ride to campus. I also skim through the papers, which are pretty much worth what they cost, and I read the cartoons. Cartoons are great fodder for the translation theorist. Heute carries Perscheid, Germany’s answer to Gary Larson. Monday last, they ran this cartoon:

Since most of you don’t speak German, you’d like to know what the joke is. Well, let’s apply the kinds of principles that most Bible translations use. If we translate word by word, we get an understandable English sentence. (We wouldn’t want to change the meaning by changing the structure.)

“Oh my God! I can see no oil!”

Not a joke.

Well, you say, the object of a German sentence attracts the negative, so the negative should be associated with the verb in English.

“Oh my God! I can’t see any oil!”

Still not a joke.

By now all the German speakers reading this blog are squirming. But, but, but …

You see the German word sehen can also be used in contexts where English requires us to say look at rather than see, so a better translation would be:

“Oh my God! I can’t look at oil!”

Close, but no cigar.

If you really want to know what Perscheid meant, you have to know that this wording is the way squeamish German speakers talk about blood, so to have a translation that passes muster you need to say about oil what squeamish English speakers say about blood.

“Oh my God! I can’t stand the sight of oil!”

Now you have a joke.

And in case you haven’t realized it, translating Ich kann kein Öl sehen. with I can’t stand the sight of oil. demonstrates exactly what is meant by dynamic equivalence. Here the fact that it is a joke is what keeps us honest. If we get the translation right, we have a joke. If we don’t, it’s not a joke.

Our long use of translations that only approximate the meaning of the Greek (or Hebrew) has dulled our senses. It’s only in live cross-linguistic situations that we are confronted with the fact that language is regularly used with a precision we fail to appreciate from the inside. And it’s that precision that gets washed away in most Bible translations by our preference for literalness. Ironically, that preference all but guarantees that we will get it wrong.

Not a joke.

posted by Richard A. Rhodes

One more Bible translation comment

Had an exchange with a customer the other day that made me think. He was sent in to purchase a Bible for an incarcerated friend. That friend had specified that he wanted the NIV translation, but the customer was unwilling to purchase that translation. He was looking for a KJV that had good notes to explain the hard parts. The reason? “The NIV left a bunch of stuff out.”

My unspoken response? “How do you know the KJV translators got it right?”

Bottom line, no matter what translation you prefer, you are placing a great deal of trust in the translators as well as in the folks who collect and collate the original texts. One reason some things are “left out” of the newer translations is that the source text has undergone changes.  Recent archeological discoveries and textual comparions have caused scholars to question the accuracy of the collection of texts that were used to create the King James Version.

So that leaves us to ask “Who got it right?” I’m not sure I have an exact answer to that. That takes me back to my sort-of-mantra “Just read ’em all…” God has protected His word. The clear message of the Gospel is in all the translations. I personally think the most important thing is that you read it – whatever translation it is!

A few thoughts on the difficult art of Bible translation…

I have to wonder if there isn’t just a touch of masochism in the character of a typical Bible translator. It really is a massively difficult undertaking. Think about it;  The translator has the task of rendering ancient texts, written by many people across centuries of time & culture, so that a modern reader can not only read the words, but understand the meaning behind those words. And that description doesn’t even touch the preceding task of collecting, choosing and collating the best and most likely accurate-to-the-original text among the existing copies of copies of copies that make up our source documents. And we’re talking about the Word of God!

The pressure must be enormous to get it right.

I was reading in my Jesus Centered Bible again the other day and noticed an interesting side issue. In the footnotes to the text in the book of Philemon, it states that the word “you” is plural in verses 3, 22 & 25, but singular elsewhere. It doesn’t really affect much of the meaning of Philemon if you don’t know whether Paul is speaking to multiple people (plural you) or just to Philemon (singular you), but it does illumine just one tiny issue in translation. English doesn’t delineate you from y’all. (Of course I realize that y’all can be singular as well, but you get my meaning.)

So, even though the word “you” is absolutely appropriate in both cases, there are times when it is not really clear who it refers to. In the letter’s introduction, “you” is everyone in Philemon’s household or circle of friends and Paul is opening the book with a general “hello”. Likewise the ending is again speaking to everyone. But the rest of the time “you” refers to Philemon. But the reader doesn’t know that if they don’t read the footnotes. I just thought that was interesting.

Philemon is one of my favorite books as you get to see Paul at his manipulative best, and it’s a fascinating look at the developing social issues in the young church. It’s also a book I turn to when I want to illustrate one of the reasons I’m not fond of the venerable King James Version.

Philemon 6 in the KJV reads:

[I pray] That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

As a modern reader, I read that Paul is saying my ability to share my faith will be made more productive by agreeing with and speaking out about our benefits in Christ. In fact, I once heard a long sermon, based on this one scripture, about how speaking aloud the promises of God would create powerful faith in us.

Regardless of your position on speaking in faith, there is a small problem with this rendering. The word translated “acknowledging” comes from the Greek word “epignosis”

ep-ig’-no-sis; from G1921; recognition, i.e. (by implication) full discernment, acknowledgement:—(ac-)knowledge(-ing, – ment).

So, in a nutshell, the emphasis isn’t on speaking, but understanding, recognizing, and internalizing all the good things we have in Christ. If you only read the KJV you might miss this distinction.  And to make matters even more interesting, different translations put different slants on the whole sentence.

In the NIV it says.

I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.

What? Now the logic is reversed! In KJV, the acknowledging or more accurately understanding of what we have in Christ results in effective sharing or communication or our faith. In the NIV the sharing of our faith results in improved understanding of our position in Christ. I’m so confused.

I think I like the NLT version the best.

And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ.

The purpose of this letter was to encourage (some might even say coerce) Philemon to receive his runaway slave Onesimus back as a brother in Christ. So in that context it makes sense that Paul would pray for Philemon to consider the benefits he had received as a child of God  and to put into action an energized & effective faith by showing mercy where he had every right to exact punishment.

But all this goes to show once again the difficulties in translation. I’m certain that the translators had no intention of wresting the scripture to some devious end. I’m also certain that they had many discussions on exactly what the best rendering was for a modern reader. Different translation teams came up with slightly different results. And probably got hammered by another team for the way they did it! We do love to argue, don’t we?

Whatever your favorite translation is, the most important thing is that you have one, and read one. But I highly recommend checking out other versions and seeing how the translators have rendered different passages. It will broaden your understanding of all the good things we share in Christ Jesus, and that’s a good thing!

 

Sharing an email with you…

In the midst of my 200 spam messages I get to clear out of my in-box everyday, I do get some worthwhile items. This devotional excerpt from Kate Merrick’s book “And She Still Laughs” seemed a good message for all of us. I thought it was worth sharing here.

blessings… dr

#blessed  
by Kate Merrick, from And She Still Laughs

Meet Kate Merrick

God's Love is Outside the Circumstances
My daughter died of cancer at 8 years old, and I am blessed.

Excuse me? Yes, you read that right. This statement appears to be oxymoronic, to be oil and water. Delusional. After all, the loss of Daisy Love drove me to spend some serious time questioning. Why, God? Why a broken world? Why me? But I never got the answers.

It really is a long story on how I came to this conclusion and it’s taken me a couple of years of sweat and tears. But the story is a good one, and for today, we can start where I started not long after my devastating loss: perspective. Allow me to pull you in to a story that began to break open my tightly closed heart. It involves some excitable bearded men and God made flesh. And it rocked me.

You know, Jesus’ disciples crack me up. They seem like my kind of people. They were working folk, sinners, a brotherhood, and — well, let’s just say they were keeping it country. I love how they could be so teachable one moment, learning from the lips of the Messiah about His coming suffering, death, and resurrection — basically the most pressingly important thing — and then the next moment they were pulling Jesus aside to ask for special recognition and honor, for their definition of blessing.

“Sure, Jesus, that’s nice. Now, back to me.” (See Mark 10:33–37.)

Really, guys? Unbelievable!

But aren’t we just the same? We tend to nod and say “yeah, yeah” to so many of the most important things He wants to tell us. Then, as quickly as possible, we try to refocus the conversation on “what really matters”: our own wants and desires. It’s easy to point the finger, to laugh out loud at Peter’s foibles and James’s and John’s zealous and thunderous proclamations, but that is you and that is me. We are the same. We see things through an unfocused, muddied lens, not as they really are.

Jesus is so loving, so warmhearted and tender. I always imagine Him gently guiding me to a better place after I’ve failed to see clearly: “Maybe if you feel like it, Kate, or feel led, or feel called, would you want to journal about seeing things from God’s perspective, possibly looking just a teeny bit past your own? Only if that feels right to you while you’re having your fair-trade coffee and gluten-free croissant. And yes, I’ll be your boyfriend and hold your hand and affirm your musings while you fill the pages of leather journals with the incredibly important feelings from your heart.”

Or sometimes, I imagine Him good-naturedly shaking His shoulder-length, naturally highlighted hair, thinking, Aren’t they cute? Aw, they’ll learn. Just kids. Then He picks us up and swings us around, never wrinkling or spoiling His white robe and light blue sash.

But as I’ve dug more deeply into Scripture, I’ve found it to be a different story. In Matthew 16:21-23, Jesus again predicted His death and resurrection to the disciples. Peter took Jesus aside (first red flag — I mean, who takes Jesus aside?) and reprimanded Him (what?!), saying, “No way! Heaven forbid that this should happen.” Peter was filtering the terrifying but lifesaving words of Jesus through his own lens — his finite, natural, man lens. Can’t say that I blame him, by the way. It would also seem to me that the torture and murder of the Son of Man would be the most deplorable of things to happen; but the well-intentioned Peter was about to get the smack down from the gentle Lamb of God.

“Get away from me, Satan!” Jesus said. “You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” — Matthew 16:23

Um, did Jesus just call Peter “Satan”? It seems that my imaginary pushover Jesus is just that: imaginary. This was no wink of the eye, no waving away of errant thinking, but a solid rebuke. I mean, getting called a jerk is a bummer, and liar or thief or tramp is never good. But Satan?

Jesus meant business. He was about to do the hardest thing in the history of the universe, to embrace pain and suffering and hardship, and He didn’t need any of His buddies tempting Him to do otherwise.

Just like Peter, we flinch at the slightest prospect of discomfort. We’ve been conditioned to expect ease as a sign of God’s blessing, but that is not how Jesus would have us live. It’s not how he lived. The last time I checked, He came to give life — abundant life — but maybe that looks a little different from what we thought.

I need this new vision; I need this rebuke. I still find myself momentarily lost in memories driven mercilessly by my darkest moments, when my tongue is thick in my mouth as if numbed by novocaine and my heart is lodged firmly in my throat. I relive the long nights at the hospital in flashes, the burning sensation of fear taking over my skin. My eyes prickle, face hot, when I think of Daisy’s sunken eyes, her weak body, her inability to lift her head. And I feel the emptiness in my body caused by the moment when her lifeless shell was taken from my arms and left them hanging like an old rusty swing, nodding in the breeze to no one in particular.

That is my life. And it feels anything but blessed.

I think the core of how we define blessing, is how we feel the love of God — tangibly with the way our lives shake out, with what we receive. If life goes well for me, then I am blessed. God must love me. But if things don’t go according to plan, suddenly I am thrown for a loop. Doesn’t God promise to care for us? Isn’t His love shown most clearly when He blesses His children with good things?

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He tells us not to worry, convinces us we are far more valuable than the birds God provides for, lacking nothing. He promises that if God cares so wonderfully for the wildflowers, He will certainly care for us. And by the way, why do we have so little faith?

I’ll tell you why: because Daisy died.

My daughter endured brutal sickness and died a tragic death. Because God allowed so much tragedy in my family. Because it appeared He didn’t hear our cries, because He turned His face from our deepest desire. Because my sparrow fell, and He didn’t seem to notice. That’s why I have so little faith. That’s why it’s difficult to believe I am valuable to God.

But here’s where I’m wrong. Here’s where I have exchanged what I see dimly for what God is crystal clear about. Here’s where I shake up our Western understanding of blessing.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we tie God’s love directly to the tangible presence of what we consider to be good things, but what if His care for us means something else entirely?

What if my life turning out exactly the way I wanted it to doesn’t equal God loving me? I didn’t feel God’s love for a while in my grief, but it was there. I had just forgotten the truth.

I was so irked by Paul and his “all things work together” spiel? I was so busy asking Paul snarky questions that I missed how he himself had a tough row to hoe. Mere days after his conversion on the road to Damascus, he started receiving death threats. In the coming years, he was beaten with rods, whipped, given thirty-nine lashes five different times, imprisoned, shipwrecked, stoned. He knew hunger, thirst, heat, and cold, faced dangers in cities, deserts, and on seas. Paul knew suffering.

Yet he wrote this in Romans 8:35, Romans 8:38-39 (emphasis mine):

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean He no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?.. I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow — not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below — indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Exhale… The love of God is outside of circumstances. I had believed a lie.

Adapted by Kate Merrick from her new book And Still She Laughs: Defiant Joy in the Depths of Suffering, copyright Kate Merrick.