Book reviews


the-shack

Me and writing reviews

I find that I am not very good at writing book reviews so if you want to read a good review on The Shack read this one writen by my friend Chad Holtz. If you would like to know what I think of the book then read on…

Why I read such a “blasphemous” book:

My wife was given The Shack, writen by William P. Young, as a present and because of all the noise that has been made about it on some discernment blogs I decided to read it and see what all the hoo-ha is about. I strongly believe never to make up my mind, comment or speak my mind about something I have not investigated myself, so I decided to read it.

What is the book about?

Mackenzie Allen Phillips (Mack) is married to Nan and a father of three boys and two girls. During a camping trip with three of his children the youngest, Missy, is abducted and evidence found in an abandoned shack suggests that she is brutally murdered. After some years he gets invited back to the shack by a person named “Papa”, the name by which Mack’s wife calls God. At the shack God reveals himself in three persons to Mack. Papa, an African-American woman (The Father); Jesus, a Middle Eastern man (The Son) and an Eastern woman named Sarayu (The Holy Spirit). During his conversations with God and experiences Mack receives healing from his inner hurts to the point where he can forgive his father and the man who killed Missy.

So… What did I think about it?

I must say that I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed reading the book. It is well written and engaging. It leaves one with that feeling that everything will be ok.

Young touches on a few controversial subjects and I think it is these that get him in trouble with the fundamentally minded folks.
The first subject is the sexuality (or rather the non-sexuality) of God. When God the Father reveals himself as a woman to Mack, Young challenges our premise that God the Father is male. Though Scripture refers to the Father in the male form I think there is a cultural (the patriarchal nature of the ancient cultures) reason for that. I think Scripture makes it clear that God neither male nor female.

Genesis 1:27 So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (NKJV)

John 4: 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (NKJV)

I think Young challenges this common idea in a very creative and respectful way. Later in the book, after Mack was able to forgive his father, God reveals himself as an older man to Mack explaining that Mack was open to relationship with God the Father thinking of Him as a male father figure.

 

The second subject is the fairylike, mystical nature of the Holy Spirit and given the name Sarayu in the book. Some people claim that the name Sarayu means goddess of the wind or something like that. I googled the name and this is what I came up with:

From Wikipedia:

The name is the feminine derivative of the Sanskrit root सर् sar “to flow”; as a masculine stem, saráyu- means “air, wind”, i.e. “that which is streaming”).

And from behindthename.com:

“Sarayu” is also a Sanskrit name of India which means “moving fast”, and also “air; wind”.

Then I searched the meaning of the word “pneuma” the Greek word used in the New Testament for the Spirit.

From Wikipedia:

Pneuma (πνεύμα) is an ancient Greek word for “breath,” given various technical meanings by medical writers and philosophers of antiquity, including:

Pneuma, “air in motion, breath, wind,” equivalent in the material monism of Anaximenes to aer (ἀήρ, “air”) as the element from which all else originated; the earliest extant occurrence of the term
Pneuma (ancient medicine), the circulating air that is necessary for the systemic functioning of vital organs, according to various medical writers of antiquity
The connate pneuma of Aristotle, the warm mobile “air” that in the sperm transmits the capacity for locomotion and certain sensations to the offspring
Pneuma (Stoic), the Stoic concept of the animating warm breath, in both the cosmos and the body

Pneuma also refers to:
The pneuma or “spirit” in Gnosticism
Pneuma, a concept of Christian pneumatology

Using the name Sarayu for the Holy Spirit is not that far off from the Greek word used in the New Testament, so I find no problem with that.

 

The third subject that strikes me is the nature of the relationship between the Trinity. On pages 121-124 Mack has a conversation with God:

(p121) “I mean,” Mack hurried on, “I have always thought of God the Father as sort of being the boss and Jesus as the one following orders, you know, being obedient. I’m not sure how the Holy Spirit fits in exactly.”

(p122) “You know what I am talking about.” Mack was a little frustrated. “I am talking about who’s in charge. Don’t you have a chain of command?”
“Chain of command? That sounds ghastly!” Jesus said.
“At least binding,” Papa added as they both started laughing, and then Papa turned to Mack and sang, “Though chains be of gold, they are chains all the same.”

(p122 Sarayu speaking) “Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being’ as your ancestors termed it. What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem not ours.”

(p122 Jesus speaking) “It’s one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you,” Jesus added. “Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it.”

I agree with Young that there is equality in the Trinity, though from my understanding of Scripture there is some form of authority within the relationship of the Trinity and this comes from the following scriptures:

John 8:28 Then Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things. 29 And He who sent Me is with Me. The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him.” (NKJV)

Here Jesus says that He only does what the Father tells him which for me refers to some kind of authority that the Father has.

John 17:1 Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, 2 as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. (NKJV)

When Jesus says that the Father gives the authority it implicates that the Father has the authority to give to Jesus.

I however think that our understanding of authority is tainted by our fallen nature and we mostly misuse authority to lord over other people, getting them to do what we want. This is not in line with biblical authority which Jesus came to show us. He ruled with a towel (John 13) and through service gained authority. Biblical authority only comes through relationship and it is never forced onto someone, but rather a choice of submitting under authority like Jesus chose to submit to the authority of the Father.
Young also touches on the theme of Universal Restoration which has become a theme that I think a lot of these last few months. I am still gathering my thoughts on this subject and hope to write something about this new journey I find myself on very soon.

My conclusion

I think Young did an excellent job of telling a story of pain, forgiveness and healing. He presents God as approachable and ultimately good. As far as the theology that is presented through this tale, I do not agree with him on every point but he is no heretic

Chapter 4 Trying To Be Good

The external transformation of Christ likeness is not the focus of Christian spiritual transformation. When the outwardly becomes the focus it leads to legalism, which is a major barrier to spiritual transformation. To merely strive to act in conformity with Jesus’ expressions (Matthew 5-7) is to attempt the impossible. Christ likeness of the inner being is not a human attainment. It is a gift of grace.

 

When we come to faith, we realise that we were saved by grace and that salvation is a free gift. But after a while we are encouraged to try to be good but this is exhausting. When we seem to be successful at growth, our spirituality becomes about us and not about the power of God. The weight of trying to be good is unnecessary because the way God wants to transform us is an inner transformation done by Him with our cooperation and it is that cooperation that is explored in this book. We need to ask God what the next small steps are and how to take them.

Experiment

Confess any attempts to become like Jesus by trying hard to do so. Then, feast for a moment on this idea: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27 NIV). Ask God to do this work in you and show the next step you need to take to cooperate in this process.

 

Chapter 5 Who We Are, Not How We Act

Transformation of the heart is the only way to definitively conquer outward evil. To dress up the outward with good deeds is a failure to grow spiritually. According to 1 Corinthians 13:4 love is patient and kind but if we try to be loving by acting patiently and kindly, we quickly fail. Little progress is made in the acts of love until we advance in love itself. When we take love itself, God’s kind of love, into our inner beings it will enable us to act lovingly to a surprising extent.

Experiment

What would it look like for you to take God’s kind of love into the depths of your being through the way of spiritual formation?  Consider the following steps:

  • Read through a Gospel, pausing to reflect on and relish each loving thing that Jesus did.
  • Focus on one loving thing Jesus did and picture his face as he did it. Maybe even put yourself in the place of the person Jesus loved for a moment and absorb that love. Hold on to that as you go to sleep tonight.
  • Spend a few minutes with the most loving person you know, thanking God for the window into God’s heart
  • Do some small act of service for someone you love who is feeling overwhelmed

 

If you choose to do any of these, do them slowly with the intention of exploring the way God loves while doing it.

Chapter 2 No Unsolvable Puzzle

Formation in Christ is not a haphazard thing. Though mysterious spiritual experiences like Paul’s Damascus road can be meaningful, it does not constitute spiritual formation. God is not a God of disorder and although He can choose to work in disorder it is not His preferred way of working. Why should spiritual formation be any different? We must humble ourselves and submit to the ways that God chose to work in us.

 

Experiment

What do you already know about how God is forming your soul? Make some notes as you read through this book. What do you think of the following ideas of soul transformation?

  • Immerse yourself in the words of the New Testament. What would it look like to experience Scripture passages and taste and see that God is good? How does it help you to hear God speaking to you?
  • “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is not true. When have you strained to become a better person, relying on your will alone?
  • Spiritual formation in Christ is an orderly process. Confess to any beliefs that you might have that spiritual growth somehow without you paying attention to it. Consider what God has done that has facilitated the most growth in you. How did you cooperate in this?

 

Pray and ask God to show you today the small steps in your life that would lead to inner transformation.

 

Chapter 3 Change Me On The Inside

Our lives are the result of what we have become in our inner being. From our inner self we make the choices that affect our lives and those around us.  That is why Jesus’ revolution is one of the heart, to bring all human life under the ruler ship of God. The revolution is one of character of individuals that in the end form society and we will see “… a mighty flood of justice, a river of righteous living that will never run dry.” Amos 5:24 NIV.

 

Spiritual formation of the Christian’s soul is Spirit-driven forming the inner man into the image of the inner being of Christ. The outer life is a natural outflow of this. Christian spiritual transformation is entirely focused on Christ and is brought on through the purposeful interaction with the grace of God in Christ.

 

When regrettable words “slip out”, we didn’t have the time to dress up what was in our heart before it came tumbling out of our mouth. Unsavoury thought leaks out in objectionable words and actions. (Luke 6:45). [Note: I remember my dad explaining to me Galatians 5 and how a tree doesn’t strive and try to produce fruit, it just does it.] As we let what is stored in our hearts be transformed, we behave as Jesus would have.

Experiment

What sort of heart would you like to have? Read 1 Cor. 13:4-5. Form your dreams and desires for your heart into a prayer.

As we as ordinary people read passages in the Bible such the Gospels and letters like 1 Peter and Ephesians we read of this divine life so different from the life we daily experience in this world. When faced with this truth we are faced with our personal inability to reach the standard set out in these passages, or as Willard puts it the “kingdom personality” of “genuine mutual love” that is free of “all malice and al guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.”. This inability is usually met with the response of “Nobody’s perfect”. What if our response is rather that we believe in God’s power to transform us into people who actually have this “kingdom personality”?

Today’s Experiment

“Read slowly through these phrases describing the kingdom life and personality:

  • to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge
  • to be filled with the fullness of God
  • power at work within us
  • able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine
  • rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy
  • genuine mutual love pouring from their hearts
  • without malice, guile, insincerity, envy, and slander

Thank God for the beauty of the kingdom life and for the possibility of the transformation of your soul. Spend a minute or two longing for the kingdom of God in your life: “Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done!” “

I am part of a learning community in South Africa called EChruch and MissioNet Learning Community where we read material on certain subjects and then get together once a quarter do discuss what we have learned.

One of the books we have read and discussed is Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard.  We somehow got the wrong book here at Impetus, Renovation of the Heart in Daily Practice, instead of Renovation of the Heart, but despite that I jumped into the book and found it very engaging. The book is  co-written with Jan Johnson, and on the back the following is noted:
“Spiritual director Jan Johnson guides you through sixty-one carefully selected chosen selections from the renowned author Dallas Willard’s best-selling book Renovation of the Heart.”
After each chapter in the book there is a section called “Today’s Experiment”, where some guidelines are given to put what was discussed in that chapter into daily practice.

As I read through the book I will try to summarise and note my own thoughts.