It Ain't The Shack
William P. Young contributed six million copies of confusion to culture. Christopher J. H. Wright calls us to contribute substance.
Young's popular book, The Shack, sings a consistent song: "I don't understand." The protagonist, "Mack" Phillips, wades through theology with Papa, a large African American woman (God the Father). Mack repeats the I-don't-understand chorus nearly a dozen times in the course of the novel. The Shack's characters wrestle with the God who appears either omnipotent or loving, but not both. Many appreciate the book's playground-style scuffle with the problem of evil, but many others regret its jumbled theology.
Wright's The God I Don't Understand sings the same chorus, but with different verses. His position as a respected theologian with a long string of books to his credit leads us to wonder, "If he doesn't understand God, can anyone?" Wright responds: yes and no. He walks readers through four questions about the Christian God: What about Evil and Suffering? What about the Canaanites? What about the Cross? What about the End of the World? Throughout, he aims to refute misleading answers, confirm what we do know, and admit what lies beyond our understanding.
In part 1, Wright refuses to trivialize evil. The ultimate origin of evil remains unexplained, though we understand its entry into our world through Satan. If we think we understand its origin, Wright observes, we may mistakenly think it makes "sense." Its mystery enlivens its assault, and Scripture calls us to protest—more with "How long?" than "Why?" Contrary to the theology of The Shack, Wright argues that we cannot dismiss evil as " 'the risk God was willing to take' for allowing us the gift of free will. This provides no explanation for the origin or cause of evil, and it tends to reduce the evilness of evil by giving it a validated place in God's moral universe."
Part 2 addresses the Canaanite "genocide." Wright avoids the term genocide because it implies man-driven ethnic cleansing. Joshua's orders came from Yahweh's divine judgment against disobedient people. In fact God threatened the same judgment against Israel using the same language. Moreover, as Wright notes, the Old Testament hums with God's love as much as the New Testament barks out God's wrath. Wide-eyed we read the conquest chronicles, stopping to admire God's love for the foreigner (especially pictured in Rahab).
Though the Canaanite issue may perplex us, the Why? What? and How? of the Cross is clear, right? Not entirely, contends Wright in part 3. The Cross provokes tough cosmic questions. "We must never reduce the cross only to the small scale of our own individual salvation," Wright argues. The Shack's Mack receives a different message: "'I would have done it even if it were only for you!' [Jesus] said with an inviting grin." And when Mack asks Papa directly, "What about your wrath?", she replies, "I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don't need to punish sin." This, coupled with countless kisses on the cheek between Papa and Jesus, contribute to the anemic view of holiness throughout The Shack. In contrast, Wright articulates the biblical tension: the Cross broadcasts God's anger and God's love, humanity's wickedness and God's judgment.
Moving millennia ahead in time, part 4 explores the End of the World. Wright starts by rejecting the contemporary emphasis on the millennium, the rapture, and the land of Israel. Yet he lumps serious students of Scripture together with the "speculators." In so doing, he casually dismisses that strand of evangelicalism which finds biblical warrant for a literal millennium.
The closing chapters of The God I Don't Understand offer an eschatological hope hardly visible in The Shack. Here Wright gives Christians a reason to contribute to culture. His description of the new earth rebukes folk Christianity's gnostic embrace of a disembodied eternity. He pictures our future: the "city of God in the new creation will be filled not just with the rescued souls of people from many nations, but with the accumulated cultural richness of human civilizations."
Wright's work invites the iPod generation to the table: its cover scripts the title as "the GOD i DON'T UNDERSTAND." Herein lies the genius of the book. It stands on foundational doctrines, engaging the modern who embraces certainty, while confessing inadequacy, identifying with the postmodern who experiences uncertainty. And both grow as a result. If Wright were to counsel Mack, the counsel would be that theology is not "just words." Theology brings clarity of thought. And clarity brings hope. Throughout The Shack, Mack states his displeasure with any "theological thing." Yet at a time when millions of readers' minds are muddied, Wright washes away the grime with truth and humility so that we might understand.
Josh Bleeker is Director of Admissions at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), where he earned his ThM in Systematic Theology. An ordained minister, he serves as an administrative faculty member at DTS and has published reviews in Bibliotheca Sacra.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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