Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

William P. Young’s The Shack

Posted by Clamence/The Chaplain on July 23, 2008

shackBack in January, a Christian friend sent me a message telling me that she had recently read a book that she and her husband, “enjoyed so much [they] bought 20 of them to give away.” I have felt similar enthusiasm about books I have read, minus the purchase of 20 copies, so I was intrigued to find out what this book could be.

The book she sent me, signed especially for me by the author, was William P. Young’s The Shack. This book is currently a hot item in evangelical Christian circles and has sold more than a million copies. I can assure you that if I had no ethical code and had no problem contributing to the ignorance of others, I would immediately begin work on a book to be marketed to Christians—the church is an amazing business machine.

Here is what I wrote in my reading journal and sent to my friend:

I wrote three pages worth of stuff as I read the first 70 or so pages of The Shack.
Let me begin from the end of today’s reading, on the bottom of page 65, continuing to the top of page 66, where we see the concepts that birthed the Protestant Christian movement: the People vs. the Priesthood. Young appears to be promoting the idea that the average Christian layperson is capable of “discovering” the “true” meaning and message of the Bible without the help of “intelligentsia.” This assumes that a Christian layperson, with no training in ancient texts, etc., etc., can plug into an infallible translation/interpretation machine (sort of like the Babblefish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Growing up, I remember being taught that the Holy Spirit is that machine. Plugging into Him, or having Him “fill you,” results in the ability to comprehend exactly what is there in that holy text, the Bible. That is a perfectly fine belief, but I doubt that anyone truly believes that. If they did, they wouldn’t need to hear a preacher tell them what they already discovered on their own. In fact, Young contradicts the anti-intelligentsia concept in the “Acknowledgements” section at the end of the book. He writes, “He and Brad bore the lion’s share of work in the three major rewrites that brought this story to its final form, adding their insights into the ways in which God works and keeping the story true to Mack’s pain and his healing.” Perhaps Brad and Wayne are not “intelligentsia,” but I can see that Wayne has written a Christian book and revised this one. So, it appears that yet again what Mack the layperson says about God has to be checked out by those in the priest class who really know “the ways in which God works.” So much for talking directly to God without the guidance and approval of a priest class. (I realize that Mack is a fictional character. I’m just trying to make the point that no one really believes that just anyone can interpret scriptures. There is always a priest class of varying degrees of education, integrity and competency.)

Back to the subject at hand…so this section of the book provides a set up for what follows at the end of page 66, and on page 67. In these sections, Mack, according to Young (and Wayne and Brad), expresses dissatisfaction with the rituals that are connected to his belief in the supernatural Judeo-Christian deity (what modern-day Evangelicals would refer to negatively as “religion”). He notes that, “Sunday prayers and hymns weren’t cutting it anymore, if they ever really had.” I assume this means that those rituals are not adequate to make him feel like God is a significant presence in his life. It is noted that these rituals are adequate for his wife. Nan’s ability to feel close to God through the old (bankrupt, for Mack) rituals is probably due to the fact that she is a more perfect human (or, at least, that is how she is presented so far in the novel—as my annotations for her character traits reveal: she “sacrifices” herself [her career as a doctor] to take care of her family [of course, it is possible to become a doctor and have kids, but that fact would get in the way of showing her “sacrificing” character], she teaches her kids to pray at night, she is able to accept “God’s plan” better than Mack is, etc.).

So Mack needs different rituals, or a different way of “feeling” God. Mack’s desire for a new form of Christianity is necessary for him, because, in his words, he is “a screw up.” So, the argument appears to be, for people who aren’t as perfect as Nan, a different form of Christian rituals become necessary.

The first page of chapter five is where I really engaged with this book. Young writes, “There are times when you choose to believe something that would normally be considered absolutely irrational. It doesn’t mean that it is actually irrational, but it surely is not rational.” Then he introduces the idea of “suprarationality,” which he defines as “reason beyond the normal definitions of fact or data-based logic;” Young might be referring specifically to the idea that God would deliver a typed letter [a typed letter from God appears in the main character’s mailbox in this book], but he is also clearly writing about the overall belief in the Judeo-Christian deity. I’m guessing that his concept of “suprarationality” is a rebuttal to the charge a stereotypical non-believer would level at the religious: believing in the supernatural, miracles, and other aspects of religious belief that offer no observable or measurable evidence is irrational. However, Young is relying on a stereotype of people who disbelieve the existence of an invisible, supernatural realm and deity. Young would have benefited from reading the Wikipedia entry on rationality. I, for one, know that Christians ARE using rationality when they make the assertion that the supernatural exists. As my father used to say, “My belief is rational, because I looked at the world around me and how it worked, and I saw that it matched the way the Bible explains it.” This use of rationality differs from that used by freethinkers.

What Young describes is an assertion about life, the universe and everything based upon the application of rationality. Namely, that the supernatural exists (and then the details about the assertion change, depending upon which religion is being discussed). Therefore, rationality IS being applied. People point to evidence or they reason things out to reach a conclusion and make an assertion based on what they have observed in the past or heard. My father claimed to have reasoned things out, based on his observations, but he believes in one specific deity as he is presented in a book. Thus, he ultimately points to evidence: the Bible. Young does the same thing when he defines suprarationality: “something that only makes sense if you can see a bigger picture of reality. Maybe that is where faith fits in.” Where does this “bigger picture of reality” [belief in the supernatural] come from? Since this book promotes belief in the Judeo-Christian deity the answer is clear: the Bible (and not the Koran, the Vedas, etc.). Young’s argument is an application of rationality that points to evidence, and that evidence is the Bible. So his argument boils down to this, “Non-believers would say that it is not rationally sound to make the assertion that the Judeo-Christian God exists, since there is no observable or measurable evidence. However, we know this deity exists because the Bible says He does.” Young sounds like he is making a new argument, through the use of his new word, but he is making the same “It’s true because the Bible says so” argument that is a regular standard in Christian apologetics.

A person who accepts this argument is still applying rationality. However, not everyone has the same standards for rationality. As a freethinker (here is a brief section from the Wikipedia entry on Freethought that describes what freethinking is, “Freethought holds that individuals should neither accept nor reject ideas proposed as truth without recourse to knowledge and reason. Thus, freethinkers strive to build their beliefs on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of any factual/logical fallacies or intellectually-limiting effects of authority, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmatic or otherwise fallacious principles. As such, when applied to religion, the philosophy of freethought holds that, given presently-known facts, established scientific theories, and logical principles, there is insufficient evidence to support the existence of supernatural phenomena.”), I view the “Because the Bible says so” argument to be circular reasoning. I view the “Natural Revelation” argument to be a causal fallacy. My standards for the application of rationality are different from the standards used by believers in the existence of the supernatural. I would never say that belief in a god, and in a specific god as described in a book, is irrational. However, it doesn’t fit my standards for what qualifies as a good application of rationality. Rationality is simply a model developed by humans to explain what humans do when they use their brain cells to arrive at assertions. Some of the processes humans rely on to arrive at assertions have been labeled fallacies, because it has been observed that relying upon them does not result in correct predictions, or because they redirect or are irrelevant to the issue being discussed.

One of my favorite concepts is heuristics. Heuristics are simply processes to aid in solving problems in fields or areas where there are no absolute answers. In English and Composition studies there are no absolute answers. You can’t say to a student of writing, “Do it this way, because there exists a supernatural realm where the perfect essay exists. You are trying to attain the perfection of that supernatural essay.” Instead, you have to rely on heuristics. You have to inhabit a process that will solve your writing problem. That problem could be communicating your ideas in the most effective manner, getting want you want, etc. Some heuristics will result in better end products, but there is no one, single best way to solve that problem or achieve that end result. Also, different heuristics will work better for different people, and the standards for what a good solution is (or end product is) will vary based on time, culture, etc.

Life is the same way. There are no supernatural lives of perfection. There are heuristics we can use to achieve our goals in the best possible manner, but those goals and end products can be arrived at in different ways by using different heuristics. However, there will not be endless variation, since they will operate within the realm of human “grammar.” To continue with the grammar analogy: there can only be so much variation in human language, due to the similarities in human vocal cords, brains, mouths, tongues, etc. Likewise, there will only ever be so much variation in moral codes (and other aspects of human culture), due, once again, to biological similarities. Awhile back, when I joked with you about being prescriptive rather than descriptive, I was pointing to this difference in our world views. I will overstate things slightly by assuming that you really do think there is such a thing as “perfect English”—although I know you don’t—to make the following point: I view grammar as descriptive, because I see the world in constant flux, constantly evolving. Language, rules of grammar, moral codes, everything linked to humans and human culture is dynamic and not static. Everything humans use to explain the world around them is descriptive; it is a model, and it is an imperfect, incomplete and constantly changing one. A static, perfect model does not exist and could never be attained, simply because the perfect model would be the thing itself (the model would morph into the thing it tries to represent) and also because a static model would be less accurate than an evolving one (since things are constantly changing at an incremental, barely noticeable pace—as with Natural Selection—, or at a rapid pace—as in a burning fire.).

You might have noticed by this point that I am not writing a “five-paragraph essay” with a clear main idea and supporting paragraphs. As I strike upon a concept in the book that interests me, I “flow” (to use a hip-hop term) off of that. So let me roughly transition to another part of the book, prior to the pages I just described. It deals with what Young calls The Great Sadness…[more of The Shack reading journal to come]…

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3 Responses to “William P. Young’s The Shack

  1. Jordan said

    Sorry you wasted your time with this book because even doctrinally sound Christians don’t like this book. It’s a book that is made for the one foot in the water the other out Christian community who don’t understand the Bible or their God and instead watch Dr. Phil, read the Shack and listen to Joel Osteen to “Feel good” about their god.

    • The huge volumes of sales for this book doesn’t mesh with your claim. Perhaps your form of Christianity is now in the minority?

      • Ann said

        Actually I don’t think there is an honest difference. It’s window dressing. This majority-held, mainstream Christianity is equally fundamentalist since the basic doctrine is the same (sin, salvation, heaven, hell, holy trinity). It’s simply been gentrified for the 21st century and today’s “multicultural” society. My entire family believes in the gentrified version. It sounds nice and accepting until you ask the right questions and find out the acceptance of diversity is bunk. In the end, you’re still a sinner and will go to hell, or be eternally separated from God (the new interpretation of hell for the more caring Christian) if you don’t believe in Jesus.

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