Wednesday, April 19, 2017
The Shack, Lies, and the Theological Molestation of Paul Young
Paul Young has sought God and wrestled free from the sexual molestation he suffered as a boy. It took him decades, and it was painful to escape such imposed pain. Part of his self-therapy is found in The Shack. And in his recent book, Lies We Believe About God, Young seeks to give theological explanation.
But his new book only chronicles a series of visceral reactions to the deeper theological molestation of his youth.
Now, can Young also manage to gain freedom from this deeper pit? How long will it take? And too, is a freedom from either molestation sufficient? What about the possibility of a prior and redeemed freedom for that has no need for reaction?
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).
This is indeed a deep theological molestation that spreads widely. For 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, opposite the fear of ignorance into which Young was baptized as a child.
So, in Lies, he unloads visceral questions as he seeks freedom from his theological molestation. Here, then, are a few selected questions I pose that lead to the need for good and patient theological conversation.
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. Many of the twenty-eights questions he formally poses are facile, and/or from facile sources, chosen to be needlessly provocative, playing the iconoclast as he tears down the theological idols of his youth.
For example, in various chapter headings he defines some of the “lies” as: “God is in control,” “You need to get saved,” “Not everyone is a child of God,” “Hell is separation from God,” and “Sin separates us from God.” Young frames these issues in deep visceral and honest reaction to the theological molestation in his formative identity, one where he was taught that God, salvation, identity, hell and sin are all arbitrary – apart from any sense of real justice, love and mercy.
This begs a truly patience conversation the church needs to address. Young is thus aiming to place a stake in the heart of socio-cultural reactionary western fundamentalism and evangelicalism in his reactionary pain. But reactions to reactions only deepen the miry pit for all concerned.
Then, in the chapters themselves he qualifies many of these deliberate provocations in what sometimes appears as a “bait and switch” motif. And the answers he gives are also largely facile. There is no biblical exegesis present, only some proof-texting and a few atomistic observations, mixed in with free-standing opinions.
Now, this is a strong critique, but it should also be exactly what Paul Young wants as he moves from the fear of questions to their head-on embrace. For my own life – starting as an agnostic Unitarian – I have pursued the toughest questions that would challenge me head-on. It led me to Jesus, I have followed him relentlessly for the subsequent half-century, and I make myself accountable continually to the toughest questions I can find.
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, it 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 located in the biblical order of creation, and in the order of 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 facile 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, they who are all subject to Islamic domination or death as inferior peoples? Such a statement on Young’s part thus opens the door to bad theology, including the road he paves for himself to “universal salvation.”
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? This is reactionary language against a violent fatherhood he experienced as a boy -- theological molestation -- and thus 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, and Young only compounds this error.
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. Also, technically but importantly, we are made in the image of God (our totality), we do not merely have the image of God “in us” (a portion). This leads to the need for some good theological review, and this impacts Young’s whole use of the feminine for God the Father.
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 in this discussion) 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 with the sin nature and reacts to the sin nature. And crucially in the story in Genesis 3:1ff, the word “sin” is not used, but rather trust is broken vertically (with Yahweh Elohim) and horizontally (between man and woman). And Paul Young’s life began with the imposition of broken trust.
Thus, Lies is rooted in a molested theology that has de facto poisoned most of the church for two millennia. 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, apart from one forbidden 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 his answers are facile, and he cites no biblical texts that address this matter. 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), 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.
Sixth, 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 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 whole 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.
Seventh, Young’s belief in “universal salvation” is the capstone of his reactions to a molested theology. If people are not free to say no to the Gospel, then they are not free to say yes to it. They are not fully loved. This is the radical nature of Genesis 2:15-17, where evil is placed next to the good, and we are empowered to choose between the two. The Good News is that the Messiah comes to die on the cross to slaughter death once and all for all people, but this sacrificial love it is not imposed on anyone.
Is Yahweh Elohim sovereign and free? Yes. Is he free to choose evil? No, this is an oxymoron, for to choose evil is to reject the power to do the good. It would be to choose a slavery to evil, Yahweh is a slave to nothing, and to make him thus, is to make him into a pagan deity, and to regard him thus means he would not be the sovereign Creator, the creation could not exist, and we could not exist.
The pagan gods and goddesses are finite, petty, jealous, ruled over ultimately by chauvinistic male deities, and they enslave men and women to their arbitrary caprice, to the dehumanizing realities of sorcery, sacred prostitution and child sacrifice (as Jeremiah sums up the pagan sins that destroyed Judah in their own chosen hell of g’hinnom).
Thus, a doctrine of universal salvation runs into dangerous shoals that can shipwreck the faith. It is ultimately tethered to a pagan imposition, violates the God-given human will, and de facto defines as evil the work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Goodness imposed is an oxymoron, where the putative good is transmogrified into evil. Do we know people who would rather die in bitterness than to forgive someone who betrayed them? They love the deeds of darkness more than those of the light, as Jesus speaks about with Nicodemus.
If people would rather be crushed by the mountains and rocks than to look at the Lamb of God (Revelation 6), does this means God’s love failed in this life? That he somehow must fine tune it, and change his character accordingly, so that after death a person’s dying love of bitterness is changed? Or rather, is God’s will rooted in a deeper and dynamic grasp of his own eternal freedom to do the good, given to his image-bearers to celebrate in finite but unending capacity? Young opts for the former, I opt for the latter, and I am glad for a conversation about which is biblical.
In the essence of a reactionary and molested theology, we can note the larger milieu in the church. This is where, on the one hand, we note those who believe that God forces people into hell apart from their own will. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who believe God forces people into heaven apart from their own will. Both are ethically pagan.
Thus, in a reaction to the theological molestation of an arbitrary and unjust definition of hell, where justice, mercy and love are forfeit, Young boomerangs to a "universal salvation" where from the other extreme, justice, mercy and love are also forfeit.
And eighth, 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 here we have another reaction on Young’s part that dismantles the Christian faith.
In order for Jesus to die in our stead as the Lamb of God – which Young affirms – only a spotless or sinless Lamb qualifies, and Young has just opened the door to disqualify the Savior he professes. How well is his theology thought out? Or is he a slave to a molested theology he has yet to identity and reckon with? Does he here find need to bring Jesus down a notch in order to raise himself up a notch? Is he is thus his own savior?
I pray he does reckon with it. Paul Young has courageously overcome sexual violence and its assault on his human soul, that which was visited on him as a boy by the tribespeople in Papua New Guinea, and at the boarding school for missionary children. But the deeper molestation is of a prior theological nature whereby a violent human father, in the role of a Christian missionary, unknowingly made his son thus vulnerable. His father came from a theologically molested culture himself, and from this reality Young – and any or all of us who have been likewise poisoned – have need for deliverance.
To address human suffering, and any other reality in a broken world, we need to root ourselves in the self-interpreting biblical reality of creation, sin and redemption. And, therefore, rooted in the original and proactive freedom for in Genesis 2, Jesus the Redeemer sets us free from the reactive freedom from which means restoration to the original freedom for. That is, the freedom for doing the proactive, for choosing the good, for being creative accordingly, and not being bogged down trying to flee from reactionary pain. Reactive and facile theology does not serve the freedom for doing the good.
On the cross, Jesus, willingly gives up the power of deity, and embraces his broken body in our stead while facing the highest pretenses of Satanic military power. This he does, crushing death in his atonement and resurrection through the deeper power of his eternal unbroken trust within the Trinitarian community. Only his power of unbroken trust can heal our broken trusts and molested theologies.
This is but a brief review of the theological implications of The Shack and Lies, and there are many other issues worth addressing. Thus, and as well, I am sure I have raised more questions than I have addressed. I will chalk it up to the nature of learning, and as a predicate for a necessary conversation on all the issues Paul Young raises in The Shack and Lies.