Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Shack, Lies, and Questions for Paul Young


Paul Young has sought God and wrestled free from the sexual molestation he suffered as a boy, as he testifies publicly and boldly – first by tribal people in Papua New Guinea, and second, by upper classmen in a missionary boarding school. It took him decades, and it was painful to escape such imposed evil. His book, The Shack, was written in this process, and in his recent book, Lies We Believe About God, Young seeks to give theological explanation.

Underneath the hell of his sexual molestation is the question of a prior theological molestation. Rob Bell, in his book, Love Wins (p. 7), quotes the opening words of Renee Altson in her book, Stumbling Toward Faith:

“I grew up in an abusive household. Much of my abuse was spiritual ... my father raped me while reciting the Lord’s Prayer.… I mean that my father molested me while singing Christian hymns.”

I trust we can all understand the pain of reaction to evil, as we seek to escape it. But too, reactions to reactions only beget further reactions. So, I have some concerns, not about Young’s integrity of Christian faith, but about his reactions to perceived theological lies he came to diagnose. And thus there are the reactions to him in the church.

At the outset, Young states: “The world I grew up in did not place a high value on questions. At best, questions were a sign of ignorance and, at the worst, were deemed evidence of rebellion. Anyone who disagreed with our theology, science, or even opinion was an enemy or target. What mattered was certainty” (p.16).

Now, whereas all non-biblical institutions resist being questioned, biblical faith celebrates our given freedom to ask the toughest questions of God, leaders and one another. Questions serve our learning curve as image-bearers of God. Thus, in Lies, Young’s self-defined starting point is in reactionary pain to a non-biblical censorship of the childlike freedom to ask any and all questions.
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In the book, he identifies twenty-eight “lies.” This is a concern for all of us. But do we address our concerns from a proactive perspective or a reactive one? As Young titles his book by diagnosing “lies we believe,” to what extent does it put readers on the defensive and hinder communication on the deeper substance? Accordingly, here are at least seven concerns I have.

First, who is the “we” in the book title? It proves to be an autobiographical angst of the “missionary kid” world in which Young grew up. The twenty-eights questions he formally poses aim at deficiencies he experienced in such a world. Well and good, but too, how many of his questions are needlessly provocative?

For example, in various chapter headings he defines some of the “lies” as: “God is in control,” “You need to get saved,” “Hell is separation from God,” and “Sin separates us from God.” The metaethics of these chapter titles are clear: If it is a lie that God is in control, then the “truth” must be that God is not in control. If it is a lie that we need to be saved, then the truth must be that we do not need to be saved. If it is a lie that sin and hell do not separate us from God, then sin and hell must reconcile us to God. These questions do open the door for a doctrine of an “ultimate reconciliation” universalism.

Now, in these chapters, as elsewhere, Paul Young pulls back some of these provocations, but why start that way?

Young frames these issues in deep visceral and honest pain to the theological violations in his formative identity, one where he was taught that God, salvation, hell and sin are all arbitrary, that they operate apart from justice, love and mercy. But in many of his answers, there is no biblical exegesis present, only some proof-texting and a few atomistic observations, mixed in with free-standing opinions.

Second, Young says: “There is a common appeal, whether in the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Analects of Confucius, etc., to what many of us would recognize as the Golden Rule” (pp. 46-47). The Golden Rule is the proactive of treating all others as we wish to be treated, loving all our neighbors, and is highlighted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in summing up the Law of Moses.

However, the Golden Rule cannot be located outside the Bible, where there is only a reactionary “silver rule” of “don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” The only proactive in history, in any capacity, is found in the biblical orders of creation and redemption. To be reactionary thus submits to pagan and secular constructs. To be raised without the Golden Rule is to be theologically molested.

Thus, what are Young’s sources for this statement? And for example, does he know how the Sira of Ibn Ishaq interprets the Qur’an, and the only “golden rule” located there is for fellow Muslims, and not for Jews, Christians and pagans? From the seventh century on forward, non-Muslims were all subject to Islamic domination or death as inferior peoples.

Third, Young says: “The image of God in us (imago dei) is not less feminine than masculine. The feminist/masculine nature of God is a circle of relationship, a spectrum, not a polarity” (p. 73). Where does this “spectrum” of sexual theology finds its biblical warrant? Is this reactionary language against a violent fatherhood he experienced as a boy? If so, a boomerang ensues where Young feminizes God in The Shack and Lies, against those who masculinize God. Neither will do, for in both cases, people are viewing God in the image of their own broken human sexualities. The biblical understanding is that man and woman are equals and complements as joint image-bearers of God, where the Fatherhood of God is greater than male and female.

Fourth, Young’s reactionary posture is evident as he says something genuinely silly: “Government is not instituted by or originated by God” (p. 103). His reference is rooted in a reactionary definition of human governments poisoned by sinful nature, reacting to the reactions of the socio-cultural “religious right” (with the “religious left” found at the other end of the reactionary spectrum). So, when he makes a subsequent passing reference to the kingdom of God, does he not know that he has identified the original and enduring government of God?

Now here, we can identify (as we can anywhere) the all-defining interpretive assumptions of the biblical text rooted in the storyline of creation, sin and redemption introduced in Genesis 1-3. The good assumptions in the order of creation (Genesis 1-2) interpret the whole Bible, and we must always start here if we are to understand the depths of the subsequent sin nature, and thus, the heights of redemption which restore and fulfill the original trajectory of the order of creation.

Across his whole book, Lies, Young starts not with the biblical leverage of the order of creation, but with the sin nature and reactions to the sin nature. The reality of sin in Genesis 3:1ff is the storyline of broken trust – vertically with God and horizontally with one another. And Paul Young’s life began with the imposition of broken trust.

Young yearns for a freedom from such molestation, but to do so, he – and all of us – first need to know the prior and defining freedom for, that to which redemption restores us, even in the face of the sin nature, and fully sealed when Jesus returns.

In fact, every definition of freedom in human history that originates apart from the good order of creation, cannot grasp more than a freedom from violation. Understandable, but too, it is an endless cycle, and especially exacerbated in political theology where we identify Young’s wrong starting point with respect to government.

The freedom for is found in Genesis 2:16. Most translations speak of Adam being free to eat from any tree in the Garden, then in v. 17, the exception of the deathly fruit. The Hebrew text in v. 16 is far more dynamic: “In feasting you shall continually feast from any tree in the garden …” The Hebrew here, akol tokel, is in the infinitive absolute and imperfect tenses of the verb to eat, namely a feast that is intrinsically full in any given moment, and which never ends.

In its metaphorical power, it is the freedom to choose from an unlimited menu of good choices in the creation, the power to do the good, and thus, the freedom for creativity as stewards of the good creation. And the kingdom of God, from Genesis 1:1ff, is rooted in such goodness and freedom, and not in the reactionary pain of a molested theology.

Fifth, Young argues that hell is not separation from God (pp. 131ff), some important questions are raised, but in his answers, no biblical texts are cited in this regard. For example, he does not even look at the etymology of “hell” in Jeremiah 7 and 19, in the Valley of Ben Hinnom (abbreviated as g’hinnom in the Hebrew) outside Jerusalem. It is the place of the continually burning trash dump where child sacrifice proliferates between 609 and 586 B.C., preceding the judgment upon Judah in the Babylonian exile.

So, as Jesus speaks of “hell” (transliterated into the Greek as gehenna from Jeremiah 7 and 19), he uses a metaphor known in painful depth in the Jewish soul as a real separation from Yahweh Elohim whom most of them had then rejected. There are other metaphors for final judgment in Scripture, and hell is the most well-known because of its historical force used by Jesus. But the interpreted reality is located in Genesis 2:17.

Here, we now we arrive at the other side of the feast of freedom. The fruit which is then prohibited (which equals the boundary of freedom) comes from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This is a grammatical merism that profiles opposite ends of the spectrum. In other words, everything there is to know is between good and evil, only Yahweh Elohim can know evil in its totality and not be polluted by it, and to eat of it is to say Yahweh is a) not good, b) we can redefine reality as we see fit, and in c) seeking to make ourselves equal to him.

Accordingly, in Genesis 2:17, Yahweh says that if Adam eats of the forbidden fruit, moth tamuth, “in dying you shall continually die” (likewise in the infinitive absolute and imperfect tenses). This is a death that is experientially full in the moment as separation from Yahweh Elohim is chosen, and it never ends apart from choosing to receive the Messiah.

The grammatical parallel in Genesis 2:16-17 is dramatic, and interprets the whole Bible on matters of freedom for the good life versus the slavery and evil of death. Feast or die. And it interprets the whole biblical witness where in the end we choose light or darkness, what and whom we love, and if we choose an idol, we join the fate of idols which are mere fronts for demons. In the end, we either love mercy or we cling to bitterness, which is the poison of idolatry (as identified in the Law of Moses and the Book of Hebrews). Thus, how does Young exegete and understand the actual language and theology of hell?

No one is eschatologically judged in the whole Bible apart from his or her chosen deeds. C.S. Lewis profiles these ethics in The Great Divorce and The Last Battle which reflect a biblical literacy on the subject suitable for further in-depth conversation. I am convinced that hell is a minority and oxymoronic community, and that the abyss (with corresponding “lake of fire”) that is outside creation in Revelation, is the original abyss in Genesis before the creation. It is unsuited for humanity, lacking in foundation, boundaries, identity, relationships, creativity and hope. Yet it is a bitterly chosen false love in an ever-shrinking humanity across eternity – the imperfect tense reality of the Hebrew grammar.

Sixth, Young further opens the door to a “universal salvation” in Chapter 21 (pp. 181ff.), and does not close it, where the “lie” is stated as “Death is more powerful than God.” This “lie” is posited in an answer to a friend where Paul Young says: “God would never say, “I’m sorry you died. There is nothing I can do for you now. Death wins.’ ” His friend believes our choices are sealed at death, period.

We need to be careful when we paraphrase a hypothetical of what we think God would or would not say in a given context …

As the conversation continues, Young says to his friend: “To be clear, you don’t think we should have any choice postmortem, after we die? You don’t think we can change our minds?” He continues a little later: “Is it possible that the intent of judgment is to help us clear away the lies that are keeping us from making a clear choice?” Both of these are very good questions, and need address. But their trajectory also puts the conversation into the arena of a possible ultimate universalism.

Then Young says a little later: “Personally, I believe that the idea that we lose our ability to choose at the event of physical death is a significant lie and needs to be exposed; its implications are myriad and far reaching.”

The implications need to be reviewed, but Young does not do so in this book. Historically, the implications equal a form of ultimate universalism, whether via purgatory in classical Roman Catholicism, or in the view that George Sarris argues in his new book, Heaven’s Doors. I think a full biblical review yields far more dynamic realities. And I also think Young has excellent reasons for raising the question in the face of some genuinely facile fundamentalist or “missionary kid” theologies.

And seventh, Young provocatively argues that Jesus made “mistakes” (in minor things) because this is “an essential part of being human” (pp. 225-226). But if in the minor, why not the slippery slope down to the major? What then of his incarnation? And yes, none of us can grasp the power and nature of Yahweh Elohim taking on human form without sin (he comes as the second Adam to complete what the first Adam failed to do). But where in Scritpure does it talk about the Messiah making mistakes?

In order for Jesus to die in our stead as the Lamb of God – which Young affirms – only a spotless or sinless Lamb qualifies. But he has just opened the door to disqualify the Savior he professes. How well is his theology thought out?

Thus, I have noted seven places where Paul Young’s theology provokes reaction in the church. They are questions well worth asking, but not well served by being needlessly provocative, and sans good biblical exegesis. An in-depth and patient conversation is needed. And Paul Young can be honestly asked: Does he identify with a molested theology reality to which Renee Altson testifies? May Paul become further and totally free; may we all.