One does not have to be a professional Scot to note that Aaron Belz's review of Robert Crawford's biography of Robert Burns, The Bard ["The Jerk," January/February], falls wide of the mark. Aside from an error of fact—Burns thought of emigrating to the West Indies but never carried through with the idea—Belz misses the social context of Burns' 18th-century world. Burns was a Scottish peasant, scorned by the aristocracy, yet deeply aware of the common humanity that all groups shared. Moreover, he derived much of his sense of equality from the teachings of the established Church of Scotland, which stressed both an inherited common depravity and the equal opportunity for God's grace. Burns' greatest poems—hardly cited here—have become part of American English ("The mice and men gang aft agley," etc.). And in so doing they influenced the prose of Americans from Abraham Lincoln to John Steinbeck, with thousands in between. Burns touched countless lives across the world, but one would hardly know why from reading Belz's review of this fine biography.
Ferenc Morton Szasz
Regents Professor of History
University of New Mexico
Aaron Belz replies:
It's true that Burns has had a profound impact on Western poetry and culture, and I think the review acknowledges as much. However, Crawford's account devotes quite a bit of attention to Burns' promiscuity and dirty lyrics, such as, "my downcast eye by chance did spy / What made my lips to water, / Those limbs so clean where I, between, / Commenc'd a Fornicator." According to Crawford, the Church of Scotland regarded neither this kind of poetry nor Burns' sexual escapades, which included the patronage of prostitutes, favorably. Burns was keenly aware of the official disfavor. "Sick of his sex life being criminalised," writes Crawford, Burns wrote a poem called "The Holy Tulzie," which "mercilessly sent up [the church's] most rigid representatives: two fundamentalist Old Light ministers revile each other as 'Villain' and 'Hypocrite.' Drinking at 'Calvin's fountain-head' they curse moderation at the Kirk." Reading passages like this, it's hard to imagine that the Bard's relationship with the church was anywhere close to as peaceable and fruitful as Szasz claims. That Burns' moral life was in tatters and that he took a low view of the Church of Scotland do not preclude an argument for his cultural influence, but maybe they will qualify our adulation.
I was delighted to see a writer, Katherine Jeffrey, willing to deal with the literary and theological issues that The Shack raises, especially the literary ones ["I Am Not Who You Think I Ama," January/February]. However, the content of her piece was a bit of a disappointment. Admittedly, as a (distant) acquaintance of Wayne Jacobsen, I was able to read the book in its pre-release stage, and saw the value in it right away. I had some concerns, also, but I, like Young, had been raised in Christ in a very legalistic mindset, seeing God as ready to smack me at every wrong turn I made, every wrong thing I chose. Each alcoholic drink was a reason for deep repentance; every time I glanced the wrong way toward a woman, even for a second, showed the gaping chasm between me and God's will for me.
What Young offers is overstatement, but it's overstatement that is in reaction to very real problems within the Christian church in general. And I wonder if my sister Katherine can notice, in her pronouncement of The Shack as "post-biblical," that she is seemingly not only laying the Bible itself over Young's book as a measuring stick; rather, she is also subtly affixing an apparently long-held conservative, traditional view of scriptural interpretation to it.
Jeffrey says, "Young (through Mack) identifies the Bible itself with the religion that has traumatized him." I contend that it is this traditional interpretation that Paul Young is questioning, not Scripture itself. And if we, as Young's fellow believers, are not willing even to ask the question about whether we have misunderstood Scripture (no matter how long we have been doing it), then we are no better than the scribes and Pharisees, who concluded that Jesus could not be the Messiah based on their very good understanding of their own Scriptures. And each comment that Jeffrey's article makes about the literary aspect of The Shack seems to have the single purpose of marginalizing that book as heretical.
Young is starting a conversation (which continues on his website), and he is more than willing to continue the discussion with anyone willing to talk (as he has demonstrated via email and in person numerous times). Katherine, you are very right in some of your observations. Mack does not have the impulse to fall on his face when in the presence of God—and this is worthy of discussion. But you mirror some of my early mentors when you would rather stand at a distance and write off a brother in Christ when he is inviting conversation. Religion is the source of much pain in the world, and stands in the way of people relating to God. There is nothing biblical that points to Jesus wanting to "make people Christian." Your pointing to this phrase, with all of the modern underpinnings of meaning that evangelicalism has imported into it, as problematic for whether Young is being "biblical" is one of the greatest indicators to me that you are using the Bible Plus that evangelical understanding as your litmus test.
Personally, I hope that Books & Culture will invite Katherine Jeffrey to have an open dialog with Paul Young in its pages about her concerns. I believe some problems with Young's understanding may very well rise from such a discussion. But I'd be willing to wager that The Shack's theology will not be the only theology that shows shortcomings.
Katherine Jeffrey replies:
I have tried, in my review, to avoid indulging in a version of the "dueling autobiographies" (my experience of the church vs. your experience of the church) that seem to define much discussion of The Shack. Instead, I chose to do something rather straightforward—to test whether The Shack can be said credibly to inhabit the same ground as other notable Christian fiction, especially under the categories of theophany and theodicy, which Paul Young has explicitly embraced. In so doing, I've drawn on biblical, medieval Catholic, Reformation Protestant, and a few more modern sources. I suppose this is what Mr. Wehde means when he says I have (unfairly, in his mind) applied an "apparently long-held conservative, traditional view of scriptural interpretation." Well, yes, that was the point, although I think the term "conservative" is merely pejorative here and lacks content: was Bunyan "conservative"? Was Milton? Or Chaucer? Or Tozer?
I used the term "post-biblical" advisedly and after several readings of the novel. There is a "biblical" way of doing theophany (and theodicy); it is quite unlike various pagan ways. Scripture itself is remarkably consistent and emphatic on this point. Young has chosen, self-consciously, to turn biblical (and subsequent Christian literary) precedent on its head. That he finds autobiographical warrant for it in the pain of a legalistic and unworthily Christian upbringing, and that many of his readers find it consoling or therapeutic, does not, it seems to me, change that fact.
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