Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Shack and the Function of Narrative

As I mentioned in my previous post on The Shack, I do not intend to spend much time and space critiquing the theological and biblical content of this book. But even this week a member of my congregation asked what I thought of the book. So I do not think I can get away with saying nothing at all, although in that earlier post I linked to several sites that do a thorough job exploring and evaluating the doctrinal content of The Shack.

I found some good things theologically in The Shack. There were discussions of love and relationships within the Trinity that echoed Augustine and Jonathan Edwards, though Young takes those ideas and uses them to ascribe a lack of hierarchy in the Trinity that is simply inconsistent with Scripture -- just the relationship between the Father and the Son in John 17 poses problems for Young. He does very well in describing the sin of idolatry, and he is more honest about confronting evil in this world than much Christian fiction. For all of this he is to be commended.

But anyone who puts these words in the mouth of Jesus has to be prepared for scathing critique: "My life was not meant to be an example to copy" (on p. 149 of the edition I read). Compare Matt 16:24, Phil 2:5, and 1 Pet 2:21-25. Young never explains how Jesus' death reconciles the world to God, places the cultural phenomenon of anti-institutionalism in the mouth of Jesus, and borders on antinomianism and universalism. If he does not sail into the waters of modalism when he says that the Father and Spirit were on the cross with the Son, then at the very least he goes wading up to his knees. The book has big theological and biblical problems.

But my critique, however minimal, provokes an objection that I have heard frequently from those who love and endorse this book: "It's just a story, a piece of fiction. The book is not claiming to teach truth -- it's not a theology book. You are making too big a deal out of it. Besides, people are reading this book and connecting with God." This is probably the most common objection I have seen raised in defense of The Shack.

As I think about this objection, it seems to me that behind it lies one of three notions: (1) narratives do not present propositional truth, or (2) narratives are not subject to criticism regarding the truth they teach, or (3) propositional truth does not matter. Otherwise it is hard for me to see where the objection even comes from.

I will not at this point give a lengthy rebuttal of option (3) except to say that no one really believes it. If my wife says, "Pick up some milk on the way home," and I show up with bread instead and cite in my defense hermeneutical differences, I will quickly find out that propositional truth matters and is knowable. Nor will I engage in a lengthy critique of (1) because any study of history and literature proves it wrong. Margaret Atwood has said, "If you want to preach, write a sermon." But her own work The Handmaid's Tale "preaches" quite eloquently through the use of a science fictional dystopia. Abraham Lincoln famously quipped upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stow, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!" Stowe was the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Lincoln and his contemporaries understood very well what she was saying in that novel. Anyone who read my first post on The Shack knew how I felt about the book by the end of the second paragraph, even though I did not mention the book until paragraph three.

Propositional truth does matter, and novels communicate through the tropes of the genre truths that can be re-cast as propositions. After reading The Shack, I can state with great certainty that there are things that William Young wants his readers to believe to be true about God. And that leaves us then with option (2): narratives are not subject to criticism regarding the truth they teach.

Why do we use narrative? Almost everyone likes a good story. Narratives are universal. They help us develop meaning; we feel that we understand and can come to terms with both joy and suffering if we can place them in a narrative framework. We use them to communicate morality; when I want my daughter to understand a truth that is too complicated for her two-year old mind to grasp in propositions, I use analogies and stories instead. I love to preach narrative because truth comes home in a way that most people find accessible. Truth communicated in propositions can feel cold and bloodless; truth communicated in narrative has warmth and vitality. Propositions describe the world we live in, but our actual experience is a narrative, a story. So narrative has persuasive power that goes beyond intellectual engagement and touches something in the human heart and imagination.

Narrative communicates propositional truths in a way that most people find engaging. People like stories. And so I draw the conclusion that works of fiction such as The Shack are not less susceptible to criticism than theology textbooks, but rather that they should be subject to greater scrutiny because of the inherent power of story. The Shack gains no immunity from theological criticism because it is fiction. Rather we must exercise extra care in reading it because it is a story.

And in my next post I plan to talk about how the story of The Shack is developed.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

An Apology for Reading The Shack

When the book and the movie The DaVinci Code came out several years ago, many evangelicals were alarmed. A myriad of books, pamphlets, videos, and websites were published addressing the errors and correcting the falsehoods in Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel. Willow Creek broadcast a video seminar that churches across the country received via satellite, including one megachurch in our area.

I tried to avoid The DaVinci Code. I have been successful at not watching the film – critics across the country panned it, and the buzz quieted quickly. But too many people from within the church had read the book and had questions about it. As a pastor, I felt an obligation to shepherd the sheep. So I blocked out an afternoon in June 2006 and read the book. Dan Brown’s religious agenda and the fictions in which he peddles are well-documented and obvious. The craft of the book itself is mediocre at best and shoddy at worst. I closed the book and wanted those four hours of my life back. But having read it, I was in a better position to pastor my congregation.

In regard to William Young’s book The Shack, I find myself in a similar circumstance. Only the stakes are higher. This is an enormously popular book among evangelicals. Eugene Peterson’s praise for the book comparing it to Pilgrim’s Progress has been widely cited on the Internet and is printed on the cover of the copy I read. I have been asked for my thoughts on the book by friends, family, and parishioners. I have tried to avoid this book, but as I pastor I do not think I can.

The biblical and theological problems with the book are well-documented. While I have some additional qualms with the book, I do not intend to rehash what others have done. There are some genuine strengths of the book that I want to discuss. But what I most desire to do is to offer a few thoughts about The Shack as a novel, to look at the elements that make a novel such as character, plot, setting, and conflict. At that point, I can offer my reflections on The Shack as a book and my concerns for The Shack as a phenomenon.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Looking back and looking forward

At last, it feels like I can come up for air. The last two months have been chaotic as I have been working full-time and my wife has been caring for our daughter and her mother. At the same time we have been preparing to move to Richmond, VA, to begin what we pray will be a long and fruitful time of ministry.

Back at the end of October, I had the best of intentions for this blog: a final post or two about biblical interpretation, and a belated review of The Shack that will take at least two posts. And over the past weeks I have had several ideas for blog posts that never materialized, including a post reflecting on Payton Manning, last minute victories, and how we sometimes view the sovereignty of God (which I thought sounded incredibly creative at the time). But it never came to pass.

And now it is Christmas Eve. My family intends to go to church tonight, to have family worship and open gifts tomorrow morning, and to rest and enjoy being each other. In less than two weeks my wife, daughter, and I will begin the drive to Richmond. We have hopes and dreams for what that time will be like. But just as my blogging plans did not come to pass, so also the fulfillment of our plans for life does not always come to pass.

I was reflecting on Galatians 4:4-5 today: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons." When the fullness of time had come. Here we see God's intentions, God's plan. And His intentions are not like mine. What He intends comes to pass. And even before the foundation of the world, God intended to send His Son to become one of us to redeem His people and give them eternal life (Eph 1:4; 2 Tim 1:9-10; 1 Pet 1:20-21; Rev 13:8). What God intends comes to pass.

And I find that reality to be a great comfort this Christmas. So I still intend to post on biblical interpretation and The Shack. But not till after I enjoy this Christmas with my family.

May the wonder of God incarnate never cease to thrill your soul. And may you always remember the slain and risen Lamb who is the returning King when you think on the babe in a manger.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Historical and cultural context

I need to revisit a series of posts in which we were discussing different types of context and how they affect how we interpret texts of Scripture. So allow me to offer some thoughts in regard to the role of knowing historical and cultural context.

I have some reservations about the use of historical and cultural context. The controversy within evangelicalism surrounding I Tim 2:8-3:7 might help illuminate why. I am not going to attempt to enter fully into the debate about gender and roles in the church and home in this blog post. But as a complementarian, meaning that I believe that men and women are equal in dignity but different in roles and responsibilities, I read such passages and see male leadership in the home and church as rooted in creation and redemption. An egalitarian reading understands it as culturally and historically conditioned such that it does not apply the same way today. I become suspicious of any approach to Scripture that uses extra-biblical material to undermine what appears to be the plain meaning of the text.

But having reservations is not the same thing as refusing to make use of historical and cultural context. Another controversial issue illustrates how such information can be helpful. The New Testament never explicitly condemns the practice of slavery, and in some places even tells slaves to submit to their masters (Eph 6:5-8; I Pet 2:18). Slavery in the Old Testament was a means, tightly regulated in the Law, of protecting society against the effects of poverty (c.f. Exod 21:2-11). Practices such as the kinsman-redeemer and Jubilee made Hebrew slavery fundamentally distinct from the American institution of the 18th and 19th centuries (Lev 25:10-55). Kidnapping someone in order to enslave them was punishable by death (Exod 21:16). The apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon also effectively undermines the ability of Christians to keep slaves (c.f. Phm 1:15-17). Knowing that slaves in the world of the New Testament were often educated professionals who earned wages and were entrusted with significant responsibility also helps us understand the perspective from which the apostles Paul and Peter were writing.

The principle that seems to emerge is that historical and cultural context are not determinative for getting at the meaning of the text. What we need is there in the Bible. But culture and history are helpful in expanding or nuancing our understanding. Knowing Palestinian farming methods is not necessary for grasping the parable of the sower (Mk 4:1-20), but it does help bring the story to life. Knowing some basics about Ancient Near Eastern history is not necessary to understand what God wants us to see in 1 and 2 Kings, but it does add an element of concreteness – these things really happened in to real human beings.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Weeks both recent and to come

There will be a delay before I can continue with the series on context and interpretation. The past week has been quite busy, as the next couple of weeks will be as well...

Last week on September 23rd, I had the privilege of preaching at Adirondack Bible Chapel. You can find the audio for the message here, though I seemed to have some trouble staying behind the microphone on the lectern. The text was Luke 15:11-32.

Last weekend my wife and I candidated with a Free Church in Richmond, VA. It was a great weekend, we made many new friends and enjoyed seeing some of Richmond, and the church is joining us in praying and fasting as we seek wisdom from God for 2010 and beyond.

This week will be spent packing. As much as we have enjoyed our stay in the Adirondacks and come to love the people of Adirondack Bible Chapel, the time has come for us to move on. We will be leaving this Monday to spend a few months with Michelle's family in Bloomington, IL, which we hope will be a time to serve her family and to enjoy the holidays with them.

So it's been quite busy, and will continue to be! Once we are more settled, I hope to continue the series on context.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An example of context in narrative

Last time I stated that noticing discourse is helpful not only for epistles, but also for other genres. I thought it might be helpful to present a narrative example.

In Mark 8:22-26, Jesus heals a man in two stages. Many a commentator and teacher has foundered in seeking an explanation, especially given that just a few verses earlier in Mark 7:31-37 Jesus healed a deaf-mute completely and immediately, and in Mark 10:46-52 He heals the blind beggar Bartimaeus. The suggestion has even been made that Jesus healed the blind man of Mark 8 in two stages because a two-stage miracle would have looked more powerful to the Jewish authorities in the cultural milieu of the day. I will comment on historical and cultural context in a later post. But for now let me observe that if we paid more attention to the broader flow of the text, we would come up with a more textually and theologically satisfying explanation.

One trope of the Gospel according to Mark is the “Messianic Secret.” More so in Mark than in the other gospels, Jesus commands those with whom He interacts not to tell anyone who He is. The series of stories in Mark 8 helps us understand why as well as what Jesus’ solution is. In vs. 1-9 Jesus performs a great miracle in feeding the 4000. In vs. 10-13 Jesus confronts the Pharisees, and then He warns the disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees in vs. 14-21. When they do not grasp what He means, Jesus rebukes them: “Do you not yet understand?” Why are you worried about mere bread? Do you not yet see who I am? Are you yet so spiritually blind?

Now they come to Bethsaida in vs. 22-26. Jesus partially heals the blind man. Initially he sees in part but not in full. So Jesus continues the healing and gives him full sight. When we see this healing, what we are seeing is an acted-out parable. Rather than telling us a parable about spiritual blindness, Jesus acts it out in a physical healing. The disciples only see in part, but eventually they will come to see in full who Jesus is. And when they do, it will be because Jesus Himself has granted them sight. It is no coincidence that in the very next passage Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, but then receives Jesus rebuke because he does not understand that the Christ must suffer (Mark 8:27-38). Messiah must be kept secret until His work is completed and they receive spiritual sight. But eventually Peter will understand.

When we grasp the narrative flow of Mark’s Gospel, we are kept from confusion and speculation. Instead we arrive at textually grounded truth that is a great encouragement. Jesus gives spiritual sight. Those that belong to Him can come to Him asking for greater insight into the Word of God, and can ask expectantly knowing that Jesus will indeed give sight to the blind. We can also be encouraged in regard to those who do not have faith in Jesus, who lack that kind of "spiritual sight," that Jesus is able to give it to them even as He has done for all who now believe in Him.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The context of the discourse

Previously we looked at the importance of linking words, of conjunctions and repeated words that link a passage to its immediate context. In a sense, that is just an example of the next type of context, what I will call the context of discourse.

I should note that this post is getting as close as I am going to come to the discipline of discourse analysis. If discourse analysis were a well, then I have taken only a drink or two from it. But there are insights here into handling the biblical text that are helpful. The basic idea is that even as there is structure to a sentence, so also is there a deeper structure to the "discourse" or "text" that goes beyond the grammar of its component sentences.

What I intend to do is take this basic insight that sentences are placed in paragraphs, and paragraphs in larger units, and these larger units in books of the Bible, and apply it to how we handle the Scriptures.

Every book in the Bible is written to make a point or a bundle of points. Genesis tells God’s people how they came to be and where they are situated in God’s world. Isaiah prepares God’s people for their coming exile and offers the hope of pardon and return, particularly through the Servant. Matthew describes Jesus as the new Moses and the true Israel, and defends the Gentile mission to Jewish believers. Galatians serves as a polemic against legalism.

One of the keys to adequately understanding a particular passage of Scripture is to understand how it functions to advance the argument of its book, or how it functions in the discourse. In other words, we need to ask each passage of Scripture how it relates to what comes before it and after it in the book. This is easiest to see in the New Testament letters. But this principle also holds for other genres.

The apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians is often called “the epistle of joy” because its main theme is taken to be joy. And within this letter, Phil 4:10-13 is a key passage for understanding Christian contentment. But when we understand the rhetoric of the letter, we see that the letter is not simply about joy. In the first chapter, Paul reframes the difficulties that both he and they are experiencing so that they will see how God is being glorified and the gospel advanced through it all. In the second chapter, he exhorts them to work towards unity rooted in service for one another, using not only the example of Jesus Christ but also that of Timothy and Epaphroditus. In the third chapter he warns them against the danger of self-righteousness, using the negative example of the circumcision group and the positive example of his own life, pointing them to the righteousness that can only be found through faith in Christ. In the fourth chapter he begins by begging Euodia and Synteche to live at peace before continuing into the familiar teaching on prayer, anxiety, and contentment.

Paul’s immediate concern in Philippians seems to be preserving unity against dangers from without and broken relationships within. The key to unity is self-sacrifice. The ground of self-sacrifice is having our hope, encouragement, joy, and righteousness in Christ alone. So now we can turn to Phil 4:10-13 and understand better what Christian contentment means. Philippians does not teach that we should be content regardless of our circumstances. Too often this passage is used to teach resignation to whatever happens rather than gospel-centered contentment. There are some things with which we should not be content: broken relationships, disunity, self-righteousness, false teaching, lack of gospel-centered living and ministering. But the people who know Jesus Christ as their all-sufficient righteousness and joy, who are therefore freed to live in radical love and self-sacrifice, will not worry about whether they have plenty or poverty, whether they receive praise or disparagement. Those things do not occupy central stage in their hearts.

Seeing the flow of Philippians and the place of 4:10-13 within the book as a whole can keep us from confusing contentment with resignation. The former is a Christian virtue; the latter, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones helpful reminds us in his book Spiritual Depression, is stoicism.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Children's Bibles

In this review by IX Marks, several children's Bibles are reviewed by Justin Taylor. Some friends whose theological judgment we trust had recommended The Big Picture Story Bible to us for toddlers, so we bought it and started reading it to our daughter before she turned one-year old. And indeed, it has been everything we had hoped for, with a big picture view of God's plan to bring His kingdom, just enough text but not too much for a child her age, helpful questions along the way, and detailed illustrations that keep both children and adults paying close attention.

But as much as we love The Big Picture Story Bible, we recognize its limitations too. Our daughter is now a very precocious two-year old, and soon we will want more text and more detail from the biblical narrative in the children's Bible that we use. So when we saw a copy of The Jesus Storybook Bible during a recent trip to a bookstore, we took a long look while our daughter ran amok in the children's play area.

And we were impressed. While preserving the big picture storyline of the Bible that culminates in Christ, and offering helpful illustrations, there is more explanation. This will help our daughter learn the Bible stories and connect them to the cross. So when Zondervan asked for bloggers to write about The Jesus Storybook Bible (and thereby enter a drawing for free copies), I was happy to oblige. The Jesus Storybook Bible will be the next Bible we use as our little girl continues to grow.

The importance of linking words

After a lengthy hiatus, I would like to return to the importance of context in interpreting Scripture. In the last post, I wrote about literary context – the kind of writing in which a passage occurs.

The next topic I would like to discuss we could call linking words. Many churchgoers have heard this heuristic of Bible study: If you see the word therefore, ask what it is there for. And that idea is what I mean. We need to notice linking words that connect a passage with what comes before it or after it. That means noticing conjunctions (and, but, for, since, therefore, although, etc.) and repeated words and phrases.

Noticing these sorts of details is crucial to understanding what the writer of Scripture is trying to get done with the passage at hand. In a talk given at the Worship God 2009 conference, John Piper quipped that he spends two or three years with his students at Bethlehem just helping them see conjunctions. (Yes, John Piper quipped.)

An example should help us see how important conjunctions and repeated words are. In 2 John 1:4, the apostle John rejoices that the Christians he is addressing are following the truth. In v. 5 he writes “and now” (kai nun in Greek), indicating not a new command (entole) but a renewed emphasis on an old command to love one another. John tells us in v. 6 that we love God by obeying his commands, and goes on to say that the command we must obey is to love one another. Many commentators take vs. 4-6 and 7-11 as separate units. But notice that in v. 7 the apostle uses the conjunction “for” (gar) to link our love with the problem of false teachers. Through the use of conjunctions and a repeated word, the apostle is telling us that our love for one another within the church is vital to standing firm as a community against the danger of false teaching.

Noticing conjunctions and repetition will make us better students of Scripture, and it will help keep us from using a passage of Scripture for different purposes than that for which it was intended.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Literary context

In the previous post, I argued that properly understanding any portion of Scripture requires knowing its context, and that most of our errors in interpreting Scripture would be corrected simply by being aware of context. In this post, I want to begin to look at specific ways in which context aids us in biblical interpretation. Or to put it another way, I want to begin to look at specific kinds of contextual tools.

One helpful way to understand context is to understand in what kind of book the passage of Scripture sits – the genre. We need to know the literary context of a passage. We do this automatically in our everyday lives. Take the words, “Toilet paper.” If those words occur on a grocery list, we respond to them differently than if they occur in a short story or newspaper advertisement. We read a grocery list differently than we do a personal letter, and both of those differently than a novel, and all of those differently than an essay in a journal. The kind of material determines how we read it.

The same thing is true in the Bible. When reading a letter, we will want to see how each passage is developing the writer’s argument, and application will often be more direct. When reading a narrative, we need to keep in mind elements such as plot, character development, and conflict when understanding the themes the writer is developing; application may be imitation of behaviors in the story, but may not be since narrative is fundamentally descriptive. And Hebrew poetry is organized around imagery, meter, and parallelism. It does not flow as a letter or a story, so it needs to be handled on its own terms. And there are other genres as well: legal material, apocalyptic, and so on.

Examples are always helpful, so we will look at Luke 15:11-32, commonly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, to get a feel for the importance of literary context. Parables are short stories, which means they contain the elements found in narratives such as plot, character, theme, and conflict. In addition, parables describe everyday realities in order to make a moral or spiritual point. On the lips of Jesus, parables describe the kingdom of God.

I have heard Lk 15:11-13 used to illustrate the need for wisdom in parenting and in sharing wealth with children. No doubt many a father needs such wisdom, but using those verses to make that point takes them out of their literary context. A parable is a narrative, and we will not understand the role these sentences play in making Jesus’ intended point until the narrative is concluded and plot, character, and thematic development have been analyzed.

Later in the passage in Lk 15:22-24 the father calls for his restored younger son to be given a robe, a ring, and shoes, and for a fattened calf to be slaughtered for a feast. I remember a Bible study in college in which the leader went to great lengths to connect each of those gifts to an Old Testament passage to show what the gift represented (see for example Hag 2:23 or Isa 61:10). Although the effort was well-intentioned, it was also misguided. If a narrative is going to function as an allegory, with each and every element having a deeper meaning, there are typically clues in the narrative (see for example the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4:1-20). While the mistake in the previous paragraph underanalyzes the narrative, this mistake overanalyzes it to find meanings that are not there.

The title “Parable of the Prodigal Son” obscures the reality that the father in the parable has two sons, one who has lived a profligate life but then repented, and one who has lived such a moral life that he does not realize his need for repentance. The parables of Jesus use earthly stories to tell us about the kingdom of God; this parable tells us how God relates to the unrighteous and gently challenges the self-righteous to self-examination, an interpretation the previous two parables confirm (Lk 15:1-10).

Perhaps Tim Keller has a better title for this parable: The Prodigal God. Attention to literary context helps us understand what Jesus meant when He spoke, and what Luke meant when he wrote it down.