Friday, September 04, 2009

The (Shocking?) Shack

Over our summer hiatus, "Theologically Speaking," the theological discussion group that I'm part of at my local Anglican church, has been reading The Shack by William P. Young. Although I have very little time to read anything that I don't have to read for my doctoral studies, I'm going to try reading a few chapters of this a night, ready for our meeting towards the end of September (also when I hope to have a finished "first final draft" of my thesis for my supervisor to read!).
I'm not particularly looking forward to reading it. I've only ever read Brian McLaren's "Christian fiction" (A New Kind of Christian, The Story We Find Ourselves In, and The Last Word and The Word After That). I found the quality of writing rather disappointing, even though the theological perspectives put forward (not necessarily all held by McLaren himself - this is fiction, after all, and aims at provoking indepdent thought rather than instilling a particular line) were moving closer to my own position. However, I find the fragments of fiction in the work of someone like Pete Rollins (now collected here) and in the liturgical practices of communities within the emerging church milieu must more inspirational than I imagine any single sustained work of ficiton could be (as it often entails the systematization of perspectives into a unified narrative). Anyway, my presuppositions about The Shack (based only on a quick reading of a few reviews, see here and here for example) are that it is going to be theologically "daring" only from the perspective of conservative Christianity. I don't think it is going to be that radical - i.e. it is not so audacious to imagine God as a black woman - and so will end up, I imagine, coming off as a bit pedestrian from the perspective of my own thinking.

But, I stress, I haven't even opened it yet. I am prepared to be shocked by The Shack. In fact, I hope it does surprise me out of my own presumptions. It would be great for it to stimulate some thinking for me and, hopefully, in conversation with everyone else at my discussion group, it will. I imagine that some of the others at Theologically Speaking will also be hoping that The Shack doesn't still domesticate whilst seeking to radicalise. I'll have to wait and see. Anyone else read it?
[Post Update: Having read it, you can now read my reflections on The Shack here.]


Irritable said...

I've read it. As an artifact of evangelical culture, it's interesting. As a novel, it's rubbish, though there is one good moment. As theological reflection, you're spot-on that its shock value presupposes a pretty conservative audience.

To me, it's a creative but still rather tired attempt to make theodical sense of the Trinity.

Katharine Moody said...

I'm sure it would be fascinating to study lots of evangelical literay culture - although theologically frightening, to me at least, I think its very sociologically interesting!

Theodicy is one of the aspects of theology that deals with pressing and abiding human experiences, but it's also one of those "classical" aspects that are hard to look at in refreshing ways - just like the classical arguments for the existence of God. So, avoiding being tired is a feat in itself, I imagine, for anyone writing on these subjects - whether fiction or not.

Have you read anything covering similar subjects as The Shack that you found more helpful / thought-provoking?

Irritable said...

You make a good point, and I know a number of people for whom the text was deeply inspiring and thought-provoking. So I don't rain on their parade, but it didn't do much for me.

Then again, I'm not particularly looking for answers to those questions. I'm more interested in how they get answered in evangelical circles, so the book's reception and popularity is much more significant to me than the text.

Or, to put it differently, the book has definitely made a splash, and it's the splash that I find fascinating -- though I don't have the time to do much more than be fascinated.

Katharine Moody said...

I'll post again once I've read it / as I go !!!

Katharine Moody said...

I'll post again once I've read it / as I go !!!

Anonymous said...

'Brilliant! One of the most faith-enhancing books I have ever read'
Bear Grylls

I've not read the book, but this quote on Amazon says it all. Christianity surely has to rely on emotionally manipulative fiction to hold water in an impressively educated society. We know that the notion of God (the real and ever present God as believed in the hearts of all but a negligable proportion of believers) has become totally redundent in the knowledge of our existance through pure naturalistic processes.

So, where do you go from there? Surely theological discussions have reached a dead end? Thoughts?

Katharine Moody said...

Hi James, thanks for commenting. You raise some interesting but hard questions.

Yeah, Bear Grylls' endorsement doesn't really fill me with confidence, either. He's someone who, as far as I know, became a Christian through the Alpha Course which is a course with some very problematic (to me and other non-evangelicals, at least) theological assumptions. Many mainstream churches that run these courses don't seem to see that the course is asking people to commit to a form of Christianity that only evangelical communities can sustain.

For example, the course involves a point where you are strongly encouraged to speak in tongues (far enough into the course to have already gotten people interested before they get to this bit!). So it's a bit odd when Anglican parishes churches put the Alpha Course on.

Anyway, what this suggests is, as I mentioned in my post and in other comments, that this book is only theologically radical if you come from a rather conservative evangelical theological background. Otherwise, most of the theology is not actually that subversive. And I mean subversive in an good way, as a person who believes that reading should radically change you.

I disagree that Christianity (or any religion) has to resort to emotionally manipulative literature, as you say. That said, the book IS emotionally manipulative. Plus, it could have been written a lot better than it is.

But I don't think that anyone can (and I'm not saying you are doing this) use the failings of this and other religious fiction as justification for the belief (and it is that, a belief, not fact) that "God" (however imagined) is redundant.

The questions involved here (about whether theology is realist, anti-realist, or beyond that dualism) are complicated. I don't think that your belief (that the notion of a "real and ever present God" is "totally redundant" due to knowledge gained through "pure naturalistic processes") takes into account what belief in God DOES. If it forms us as particular types of human beings, socialising us in the same way that any belief does (including your beliefs in the progress of human knowledge), then the theological vision that we have about God (and therefore about ourselves) is anything but "redundant." It makes theological discussion of incredible important if we are to change the world for the better.

Would you agree that you've got some quite strongly formed beliefs about the value of the notion of "God" and of religion in general? I think you might be presuming a lot about these things calling them "redundant."

You wouldn't happen to be Janet's ex James, would you? If so, hi. If not, you sound like a guy I knew (but I won't hold that against you!!! ;-). Thanks for commenting!

Irritable said...


I appreciate your thoughts about what belief in (or about) God does. Would you say that such belief is effective regardless of whether or not it can be said to correspond to anything outside itself? This seems clear to me -- we really have no idea to what extent any of our language corresponds to the "really real" -- and nothing outside of language to which we can appeal for a ruling on such matters.

Katharine Moody said...

I think beliefs invariably have an effect. It's hard to imagine a situation in which belief doesn't have some sort of effect. And so that wouldn't have to be connected to whether the accurate correspondence of the belief were (or could be) proven, no.

I think that inherent in many beliefs (obviously not just so-called "religious" belief) is a vision about the world that accordingly shapes our individual subjectivity, our collective sociality, and both our individual and collective behaviours. In this sense they are connected to transformation (of ourselves, of our world) rather than (or, as well as?) representation. NB: If we can't know whether beliefs correspond to reality, they might, after all!

Irritable said...

We agree; I was just curious. And of course, if we don't know, some of our beliefs could be right. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes. :)

Katharine Moody said...

I like the blind squirrel analogy!!! Derrida writes about faith and blindness. He doesn't like to speak of communities, which for him are totalities that perpetrate violence against the singularity of the other both within them and outside them. But when he talks about "community without community" or communities that both keep their own identity, their own boundaries, and are hospitable to the other, he talks about "communities of the blind." Part of my thesis asks how we might actually "do" this form of community. I like your blind squirrel very much!

Irritable said...

I'm glad you liked the squirrel. I can't claim it -- it came to me as a well-worn aphorism.

Anonymous said...

Hi Katherine,
Thanks for your expansive reply. I was being purposely contentious in my language, keen as I was to hear back! Yes, of course, theological discussion isn't redundant, society at large is far from capable of throwing off its superstitious shackles just yet. The fact that so many otherwise intelligant people still earnestly believe such obvious bronze age myths or belief in the paranormal without a shred of evidence to believe any of it, tells you exactly how strong human emotional behaviour can over-ride good sense. And I don't have an issue with that at large.

I don't disagree with you that belief in god can impact peoples behaviour (for good or bad), and with this in mind it is crucial that while theology is with us, it is essential that it is progressive in the way that secular thinking is clearly progressive. I think your own personal brand of adaptive religious thinking you contemplate is clearly good for this end

I don't have any preformed beliefs of what god is, since there is nothing to have preconceptions about. And I can say this with 100% assuredness. That CAN be said and certainly said without fear of being considered fundamentalist. Dualism is mere word play, poetic language which says nothing about our reality. We live in a material universe, a universe we now understand better than ever, we know why people think the way they do. I have no axe to grind with anyone who is religious, some of my favourite people are religious since they are often willing to think that bit deeper, and peversely, try that bit harder (which is the greatest virtue there is).And who am I to begrudge someone who needs the comfort of religion in their life if I can avoid being patronising for a second.... which I can't. I know full well that ones religious understanding and practice encompases the full spectrum of hard line fundamentalist to new age relativist thinking, but at no point in that spectrum is there any truth worthy of the name, I would suggest.

Anyway, ha yes, I can reveal it is James Janets ex. I had your blog saved on my favourites from when you sent me some work last year knowing how much I love discussions grenerally. Great to see your PhD still going strong, hope it all works out for you afterwards. We both know nothing I (or anyone says) will ever influence anothers theistic beliefs, but I have the modest aim of hoping you'll quote me in your thesis as the steriotypical hardline Dawkin "believer" ;-)

Katharine Moody said...

Hi James,

Hopefully at some point you will be able to see that to have "no belief in" God is to have a preformed notion of God, since you can't reject something without having an idea (several ideas) of what it is that don't believe in. That seems perfectly clear to me. You have a notion(s) of God that you are rejecting. That's fine. Though I don't think you can be 100% sure of your (non)beliefs. Nothing is ever that certain.

Also, I think that you are often assuming that what people believe in when they believe in God is what you reject when you don't believe in God. The two are not necessarily (and probably aren't) any where near each other.

You make clear assumptions about what you think "truth" is. This understanding is based on modernist principles "believed" in by many - not all - in scientific communities. But such an understanding of truth is alien to, for example, the Hebrew and Christian scriptural understanding of truth. Interestingly, this is actually what my whole thesis is about.

When Christians say that Christianity is "true," do you think that they are all saying that there is a God "out there" independent of our thoughts about God? Or do you think that maybe Christians might be saying something else when they say that Christianity is "true"? Is "truth" in Christianity about the correct correspondence of statements made in language and thought to the external world? Might "truth" in Christianity be a different kind of truth?

And who are you (or Dawkins) to say that the truth of Christianity has to be the same as the truth of science (which, if you actually look into the sociology of scientific knowledge is a lot nearer to religious knowledge than you'd probably want to admit)? It is only a certain form of Christian accommodation to the scientific model that would want to argue that Christian truth is in any way similar to scientific truth. And that is the kind of Christianity that me, my research participants, and a whole heap of contemporary Christian philosophers and theologians are trying to think otherwise.

I think you're assuming something that many Christians wouldn't recognise when you talk about "truth."

K xxx

Anonymous said...

Hey again Katherine

OK, so firstly the thing which you hope I will one day understand, that to have a nonbelief in something, you need a notion of what that something is, I get. We both know what the accepted understanding of God, in a religious context, is ( an entity outside the natural realm, that created the physical universe and explicitely or not, has interplay with the universe). Now, no amount of word-play can hide the fact that THIS is the notion of god which is believed in by religious, and which I reject as not existing. This, surely, is not a difficult thing to understand either. What "God" which I reject do other people of a religious bent not reject? I'd be interested to know, becuase I don't think that any different understanding of god has any meaning whatsoever.

Secondly, I would say you can be 100% certain in life. Insofar as I'm 100% certain I'm not going to float away from the planet tomorrow, then I am certain god doesn't exist. Putting "truth" in quotations about ideas around god has no more meaning than putting quotation marks around the "truth" of gravity, say.

Your question :"When Christians say that Christianity is "true," do you think that they are all saying that there is a God "out there" independent of our thoughts about God? "

Yes, of course I think that, because it's the reality of the situation. You may have contact with a handful of Christian "philosophers" who have dismissed the central tennants of the faith and hence aren't Christian. Christianity, by the definition, is entirely based upon the supposed teachings of Christ who spoke of an "outside" God (his father), who acted independently of human thought since he designed them, and everything else. THIS is the very definition of Christianity, and it's simply disingenuous to suggest that Christianity doesn't have a prerequisite of belief in an "outside" god. Anything which doesn't has nothing to do with Christianity.

I'm not quite sure where you're going with the "truth" of science, I'm sorry but it does sound like philosophical riddles to me. Yes, the truth of science, that which is emperically observable, is most certainly at odds with the religous "truth" of Christianity. The "Truth" proclaimed by Christianity is that God made us independently from animals, and this is absolutely in contradiction with scientific reality. I don't know about the "sociology of science", but I know that in science nothing is accepted until it is proven beyond doubt, whereas in a religious context, truth is proclaimed without scrutiny or ANY evidence to back it up. I'd really like to know which "truth" Christians you know have which is different from the truth I have assigned to their religion? A world view which doesn't believe in an outside god simply does not constitute religious belief, and hence I am making no preformed judgement on anything, merely stating the reality


Irritable said...


I'm going to shameless jump in here, which is somewhat unfair to Katharine since it's really her conversation (not to mention her blog) and I'm sure she's got something much wittier and more brilliant to offer that I am summarily pre-empting. But this sort of thing does not usually stop me.

I would agree that one needn't have exhaustive knowledge of all the possible permutations of something before one can decide that it is the kind of thing they want no truck with. I don't believe in fairies, and I'm not terribly afraid that I've neglected the possibility of a particular kind of fairy that I might believe in.

I also don't think you need to have canvassed every possible manifestation of Christianity to decide that you're simply not interested, and since neither of us believes in a conscious afterlife, there doesn't seem to be much riding on that. You're not interested. Fair enough. I'm certainly not one to convince you otherwise.

Where you lose me is in your insistence that only what seems, by your description, to be a rather conservative and fideistic Christianity is worthy of the name, and is therefore, by virtue of entailing a metaphysical commitment you can't abide, worthy of your scorn.

It would not make sense in social science, or anthropology, or religious studies, to posit such a narrow definition of any religion as authoritative. Your evaluative definition is, in fact, curiously theological. It's almost like saying you believe in predestination but you're one of the damned. Not quite, of course.

Wouldn't it be more accurate -- and, in a sense, more honest -- to say that you don't believe in God and aren't interested in Christianity, especially inasmuch as they are often connected, without taking the additional step of weighing in on who is properly Christian and who is not? Why would it matter?

My understanding of the scientific process is that proof "beyond the shadow of a doubt" is not the point, but that successful theories are those that are potentially falsifiable but have not been falsified -- in other words, they are not so much proven as they go long enough without being disproven to be useful. For practical purposes, this comes to the same thing, I suppose, but outside of geometry I get uncomfortable with talk of proof.

And if I may ask for clarification: You don't seem to have much use for a distinction between the existence of God and the vitality of the idea of God -- a distinction that I think Katharine is making (though I could be wrong). Is that the case?

Anonymous said...

Hi Irritable,
Thanks for your reply. Firstly, I don't buy into your false modesty, you're clearly witty and have a fine way with words ;-)

Now, my original point on this was that without the existance of a metaphysical god, ergo sum, theology is redundent (aside the obvious point that it isn't insofar as people still believe in such an idea of god). This has yet to be countered.

My insistance in those who don't believe in such a god are also not Christians was a side issue, but I stand by that as well (noting, that this in itself isn't an issue I'm especially concerned with, people can label themselves however they wish, it is the belief system in which I am interested).

I will firstly add that I am interested in Christianity contrary to what you may think. I've written a book on the subject, been to a variety of churches up till my mid 20s (ranging from reformed to highly charasmatic), and my best friends at Uni were Christians. So I feel I have an interest in it, yet where we depart is your seeming insistance that it is in any way relevant without belief in "God".
Following Christ, has to entail a belief that his ONLY remarkable claim (to be the son of such a god) is not a lie. By suggesting that entity doesn't exist, or that there is no afterlife renders both the scriptures and Christ absolutely worthless, and surely means a statement of still being a Christian is worthless.

This is also set against a backdrop of a society trying to rid itself of superstition to better itself for the greater good, and I don't see how the clasification of someone not believing in Christ or the Bible, as still being a Christian can do anything other than provide harmless subversion of the truth.

I'd like to go on, and hear more from you without clogging up this comments board, so feel free to email me on, be good to hear from you!
Take Care

p.s. Katherine\Irritable, I'd like to know your thoughts on the following.
1) What proportion of people who actively consider themselves a Christian don't believe in the afterlife would you posit?
2) For empirical rationalists, such as Dawkins, what is your basis for considering him to be fundamentalist?

( oh, and Irritable, I am with you that "proof" is really reserved to euclidean algebra and fundamental maths, as a mathemagician myself, I liked that one! When I said 100%, more precisely, I should have said the probability of it not being true is vanishingly small)

Irritable said...


I started out answering you here in the comments, but I ended up over the character limit so I sent you an email (which bears artifacts of having begun as a blog comment; you can ignore those bits). But since you posed some more general questions to both of us, I thought I'd leave those here:

I imagine the percentage of self-described Christians who do not believe in an afterlife, etc., to be quite small -- but I'm not sure this would be appreciably smaller than the population at large.

I don't consider Dawkins a fundamentalist. When he writes about religion, he seems to choose the most dogmatically fundamentalist forms of religion as a foil, and he does seem to proceed on the presumption that nothing outside the empirical compass can possibly exist. Like you, he seems to think that "irrelevant in terms of scientific hypothesis" and "useless in terms of the social habits of the human species" are ways of saying the same thing. I don't.

I don't think there's any way to say that an uncreated universe is inherently more or less absurd than an entity capable of creating such universes. Stopping at the former is scientifically valid, and may be intellectually satisfying, but to say that this is the totality of the Real is to cross unnecessarily into metaphysics.

Enjoying the chat,


Irritable said...

BTW, Katherine, if for some reason you'd like to be in on the email conversation, give a shout and I'll be glad to do that.