It does not take much revelation to know we live in an imperfect world. That imperfection, of course, lives in us Christians even as we try to live out and minister our faith. Given that reality, how then do we embrace the ministry of other imperfect Christian brothers and sisters? How do we express both a sunny positivity—incorporating a “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, … think about these things” mindset (Phil. 4:8)—without lapsing into a childish naivety which foolishly ignores the reality of evil? a naivety which ignores the equally biblical, and far more negative, mindset to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (I Jn. 4:1)? This positive-negative two-step is required of us as Christians but needs some clarification below.
A Difficult Dance: Embrace the Good while Identifying and Distancing the Bad
Shawn Bolz’s podcast-interview with The Shack author William Paul Youngdemands this two-step approach. Here we have Young both at his God-glorifying best and at his worst (though only hinted at). Let’s be clear: Young’s God-glorifying side clearly predominates in this podcast as he regals us with a heart-warming, compelling testimony of God’s miraculous grace in his meeting, as he films part of The Shack in Canada, a couple struggling with their fury at God for allowing their 16 yr.-old daughter to commit suicide. Their meeting with Young and the film crew explodes the festering hurt so long blocking this couple’s access to God (I won’t spoil the story by telling you how). Wonderful!
But what to do when alongside these God-glorifying elements more harmful elements (addressed later in the second section below) also find a place? I suggest three steps:
#1 Totally affirm and cheer on the basic spiritual direction of a person’s effort and ministry when we see it is God-honoring and Jesus-affirming, despite misstatement here and there. Spirituality can be real and vibrant in the midst of a woolly understanding that mis-explains. Often the order in spiritual life is “experience first, understanding follows.” Jesus himself told Simon Peter, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand,” (Jn. 13:7) Similarly, 11thcentury church father Anslem described the Christian walk as “faith in search of understanding.” We see in a mirror but dimly, the apostle Paul tells us. Thus it is that we need to honor people’s spiritual attainments and intuitions, even where their minds have not yet fully caught up; even when they explain themselves poorly.
#2 At the same time, we should never, in the name of “spirituality,” surrender our minds to vacuous thinking. “Stop thinking like children … but in your understanding be adults,” (I Cor. 14:20) is a biblical command. Concepts are important! A science writer once commented, “There’s nothing so practical as a good theory.” They make a real-world difference, in the science arena but equally in the religious arena. Paul warned Timothy to “Watch your life and doctrine” (I Tim. 4:16) because doctrine—concepts about God—were important. The “faith once for all delivered to” us for which we are to “contend” (Jude 3) is not just a mystical experience, but a set of beliefs and convictions set in propositional form. Thus the apostle Paul, when explaining what it is that he “delivered of first importance” to the Corinthians, lays out a whole series of propositions (see I Cor. 15:3f.).
#3 Finally, we should strive for the wisdom to discern when it is important, and when not, to challenge faulty understanding, and when to simply let it go. Never confuse majors with minors, and vice versa, straining out gnats while swallowing camels (Mt. 23:23)—it only leads to spiritual indigestion! The apostle Paul is a model for these three steps when in Philippians 1:15-18, despite the envy and ill will (towards Paul) which motivated the gospel preaching of some of his colleagues, Paul still rejoiced that in the end the gospel was being preached.
Applying all this to Young: I affirm and admire the way his creative book The Shack has touched the hearts of many non-Christians for God. At the same time, as explained below, I cannot agree, firstly, to his (over)reaction to his fundamentalist, intellectualist upbringing by which he overly distances himself from rational truth. His anti-rationalistic reaction against propositional truth is, in fact, highly ironic given the subject and title of his recent book Lies We Believe about God. Its very title makes clear that its basic presupposition is that propositional truth IS important. Its focus is the deadly role of “lies”—which is nothing other than a statement (i.e. a proposition) out of line with reality.
Secondly, neither can I agree with where Young takes his anti-propositional stance, when he states that “God is not a Christian.” Below we examine these two disagreements.
Young’s Anti-Doctrinal, Anti-Line-drawing Turn
William Paul Young in the Bolz’s podcast only subtly hinted at his downgrading of the importance of propositional revelation. As mere hinted asides, I could ignore them and simply be blessed by all that was good in the podcast. As to these hints: they were there both in his highlighting his rejection of what he called his “highly rationalistic, intellectualist, evangelical and fundamentalist upbringing in Canada” (5:00 minute mark forward) and also in his oft-repeated emphasis throughout the interview that “Nine years later I still have no clue what I am doing” (Whereas, successful author and communicator that he is, he clearly does have a very good idea within his field of what he is doing; but he was signaling already that “conceptual vagueness rules my life.”). But these hints took full-blown form in his later-published Lies We Believe About God where he further explained himself. Now my worries became concrete.
That is, in Young’s Bolz interview he only fleetingly mentions his controversial statement in The Shackthat “God is not a Christian.” Unexplained, this provocative but vague statement could be taken either innocently or badly. But that was before Young’s Lies We Believe About God where he does explain, writing:
[T]hat book [The Shack] … challenged deeply held assumptions and embedded paradigms…. There is the infamous page … which has been a topic of passionate conversations … [where] Jesus says, “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian.’
God is not a Muslim, either, or a Buddhist … or any other category that we humans have manufactured in order to confiscate God and God’s “blessings” over to our side of the ledger.
Why do we do this? Why must we insist on creating ways to define ourselves in opposition to someone else? Why do we then build empires on these divisions, justifying our superiority and our brutality?
… But our religions assume separation—being apart—…. Jesus challenges every religious category. If we take Jesus seriously, then we are not dealing with outsiders and insiders….
So is God a Christian? If you are asking if God is about separation and treats people of different denominations, faiths, and ways of thinking as outsiders until they pray a special prayer to “get in” … then, of course not. If you are asking, does God relate to all of us as beloved insiders who are completely ignorant and miserable, does God love us and incessantly find ways to lead us to discover Jesus as our only way, truth, and life … then, of course.
(W. Young, Lies We Believe About God(New York: Atria Books, 2017), 53-55)
My problem with Young’s explanation is two-fold: first, a “religious/theological” problem and, second, a “philosophical” problem. As to the first, it seems that Young confuses the question of whether God a) loves everybody, believers and nonbelievers, equally (the answer is clearly “yes”) b) and whether God communicates not just with believer but also with non-believers (here too the answer is “yes”) with c) the quite separate issue of whether there are “insiders” and “outsiders” in the kingdom (answer also clearly “yes”). There are simply too many scriptures on God’s judgment both in this life and in the next, on the necessity of new birth and conversion for the purpose of entering the kingdom of God (talk of “entering” is non-sensical if there is no “outside” in the first place), on God’s purpose to “save” (again, the very concept is non-sensical without there being an “unsaved” category), and on direct statements of the Bible’s outside/inside mentality: “outside are the dogs” (Rev. 22:15)—ouch!—or “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom.” (Mt. 21:3) All this indicates that “yes, there are insiders and outsiders.”
Young is to be lauded for his desire to be as inclusive as possible, to reach out to those who are non-Christians. But inclusivity should be done the Jesus way. For surely there is a Jesus way of recognizing a non-Christian’s spirituality without also confusing it with actual inside-the-kingdom spirituality. Indeed, Jesus shows his own approach when he responds to the Jewish scribe who answers Jesus with some real spiritual perception: “And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” (Mk. 12:24) Jesus is both positive and negative, both embracing and distancing. There is both a “You are close brother” and “But you are not there yet.” To be “not far from” means that one is “not yet inside; you are close but not yet ‘in.’”
Secondly, Young’s problem is not just the unfortunate theological conclusion he reaches above, but howhe gets there. He does it by denying the validity of “categorization,” writing that “Jesus challenges everyreligious category.” But this is simply not true. “Categories” are not inherently non-Christian or unbiblical. Indeed, the very opposite is the truth: categories reflect the very thinking and acting of God and are essential to the way he deals with man. God himself operates with and expresses many a category: good vs. evil, Christ vs. anti-Christs, love vs. hate, truth vs. falsehood, life vs. death, wheat vs. chaff, etc., etc.
Young suggests that categorization is rooted in evil motivation, used by Christians “in order to confiscate God and God’s ‘blessings’ over to our side” and to create “divisions, justifying our superiority and our brutality.” Yes, people misuse truth and definitional categorizations, but to suggest their misuse proves their non-usability is both silly and, frankly, dangerous.
It is silly because categorization is simply inescapable. It is the way we think. Young himself cannot escape it. Already noted above is how Young himself looks to categorization—lies versus truth-telling—and its essential importance in his book Lies We Believe About God. Again, condemning categorization is not simply silly; it is also dangerous in that the Christian faith rests on categorization, on ideas and doctrine about reality. Christian faith is not just an experience, but a “belief.”
Lutheran-turned-Orthodox theologian Jaroslav Pelikan put it well when he said, “The church is always more than a school…. But the church cannot be less than a school.”Pelikan’s point is that the church is not just an ideas-factory; it is rooted in love in action and the mystical presence of God. But “ideas” are still part of its essential oxygen. It is not anti-intellectual. Rather, ideas, concepts, doctrine—the correct interpretation of God’s central acts—are fundamental. As Evangelical theologian George Eldon Ladd points out:
[R]evelatory history is not bare history. God did not act in history in such a way that historical events were eloquent in and of themselves…. The historical events are revelatory only when they are accompanied by the revelatory word…. The event is never left to speak for itself, nor are men left to infer whatever conclusions they can draw from the event. The spoken word always accompanies and explains the revelatory character of the event…. Christ died is the deed; Christ died for our sins is the word of interpretation that makes the act revelatory. It was only after the interpretive word was given to the disciples that they came to understand that the death of Christ was revelatory of the love of God.
Ideas and words (which are only ideas expressed) always involve categories. “Categorization” is simply the art of proper line-drawing. It is not an evil. Regarding driving in traffic, someone once said, “Lines are our friends!” It is true of traffic and beyond. Paul instructed Timothy to “watch your life and doctrine” not because he was a hidebound legalist, but because doctrine provides the lines and categories—what God thinks and feels and commands—within which the life of God can freely flow to us.
God is so “into categorization” that Genesis 1 reveals that in his creation scheme, action was God’s first step and categorization his second! That is, three times (Gen. 1:1-9) after he has done something he then makes two pronouncements: first an evaluation, calling it “good” (here’s line-drawing again, as evaluation only makes sense if there is range of distinguishable possibilities stretching from good to bad), and then descriptive categorization wherein he names the object, “God called the X X.” Once again, in naming an object, there is that inescapable line-drawing. It is called one thing in order to differentiate it from another. This is what makes communication, and the resultant relationship-building, possible. If “plant” to you means “elephant” to me, we will never get past first base in talking. God is so keen on this process, he gets man, made in his image, to do the same thing, bringing the animals to Adam to see what he will name them (Gen. 2:19).
In his opposition to categorization, then, Young takes a step too far. Here one must “eat the fish and spit out the bones.” Much of what he does deserves celebration; not so some of his rationale for his doing. At these points he acts better than he knows.
J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic
Tradition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1971), 1.
G.E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 30-31.