When it comes to Christianity, listen to the experts (and they’re not who you think)

In most things, if you want to succeed, it is very helpful to have expert advice. This, I think, applies to the Christian life as much as anything. This might sound a bit off at first, especially if by “experts” you think I mean Bible scholars and famous pastors. Can’t you thrive in Christ without that kind of help?

But those aren’t who I’m talking about. Experts are generally people who have had lots of practice and have learned successfully from that practice. They’ve spent thousands of hours learning and training. Expertise is the result of a long, slow, devoted process.

What we often forget about Christianity is that, with this kind of qualification being the most important to define an expert, we have loads of them in almost every church. And they are unfortunately the people we tend to listen to the least. A lot of times we even treat them dismissively and condescendingly.

I call this group “experts,” and the Bible sometimes calls them “elders.” But too many people call them just “old people.”

Yes, it is of the senior adult Sunday school class that I speak. These experienced Christians often have behind them decades of service to Christ and tens of thousands of hours of “practice” at Christian living. But for some reason, at least from what I’ve seen, younger people make very little use of their wisdom.

Of course, we have our excuses. I mean, some of our elders voted for Trump. Some of them say rock and rap music are of the Devil. Some of them are KJV-only. A lot of them don’t seem to understand our super-serious theological debates like Calvinism v. Arminianism. And instead of serious doctrine, a bunch of them seem to have nothing to say but “pray more” and “it’s all about loving Jesus.” Aren’t these all proof that the seniors don’t have what it takes to lead us in our Christian walk?

The responses to this kind of nonsense seem obvious to me. All generations have their flaws, and one flaw doesn’t poison everything else a person believes. If Brother Tom voted for Trump, that doesn’t mean he can’t give you sound advice on how to flee temptation, how to spend effective time with God in prayer and Bible reading, and how to share your faith with others. Maybe Mrs. Edith won’t use anything but the KJV, but she has been in so many ways transformed by the renewing of her mind.

There is also wisdom in the way many older people do seem to care less about theology and more about Christian living. For ultimately, it is the living which counts the most. The most ignorant Christian who has lived a consistent life of faith, hope, and love will be greater in the kingdom of heaven than the most theologically astute Christian whose sanctification never made it past infancy. As Paul said, knowledge without love is worthless, but love is enough to fulfill the whole law, with or without knowledge. Many people come to realize this more and more as they grow older, and we would do better to pay more heed for that reason alone. Mrs. Edith might not have anything to say except, “It’s all about loving Jesus, and don’t forget to pray,” but in 10 years when you’re spiritually burned out from life’s troubles, that may be the most nourishing thing you could possibly hear, and it will seem infinitely more important and memorable than how Peter Leithart exegeted that one text in 1 Kings.

So, in the end, I’m just saying that we (young people, Millennials, etc.) need to listen to the experts more. We don’t do a good job heeding our elders, whether because of pride or culture or whatever else. Of this we must repent. They know what they’re talking about.

The female form is a fountain

Some ramblings about the natural place of the woman’s body:

Contra a popular, fake C. S. Lewis quote, we are not souls who have bodies. We are body and soul equally, and in truth the line between the two is blurry and ambiguous. So to speak of a person’s body is to say something about who and what they are. In modern culture we like to pretend that this isn’t true, which is why Western progressivism is really Gnosticism reborn. But I digress.

Back onto the point, the woman’s body is extremely unique. It, and thus she, is literally a source of life. She is a fountain of flourishing. I’ve said before that the man makes a home a household, and a woman makes a household a home. This is true, and comes close to what I’m saying here. It begins with the beginning of life. The first woman was called Eve, Mother of All the Living, and the first man was not called the Father of All the Living. For the woman is more inanimately associated with the spread of life. When a new human comes into being, he emerges in the womb of a woman. This womb gives him protection and health, everything he needs to grow and enter the world of the living. His mother swaddles him in her very flesh, and she, like Christ to us, nourishes him with her own body and blood.

This role, of course, does not stop after birth. A child born is still bodily dependent on his mother. For the longest time, he can eat and drink nothing but what comes from her breasts. Her body saps her own nutrients to give strength to the infant. Even once weaned, she continues to expend her physical energy, aging time, heart, and many opportunities to go, do, and be in order to grow the child from infancy to adulthood so that he can have a life of his own. His life is a gift from his mother.

Even after the child grows up, the female form remains a source of life. But at this point it is not the mother, but the wife. People make a lot of jokes and throw a lot of disdain to the male sex drive, but few stop to think just how vital it is to masculine life. There is a very real and very serious sense in which a man comes alive by his union with woman. When her flesh meets his in a healthy context, he can receive a strength, boldness, identity, and place in the world which is simply absent otherwise. In so many cases, men become men precisely because they are united to a woman. She empowers him and gives him something to fight for, something to (literally) lean on, and the assurances that he is worth something to at least someone. She does this all by the gift of her body.

The female form is the fountain of life, then. This is its, and thus her, nature. Woman are life-givers in a way that men aren’t. The man helps create life in a one-off action, and the woman nurtures and grows it in an ongoing manner. This is like the relationship between God and man, in which God is, as Father, the one who creates us ex nihilo and the Church, as mother, nourishes and teaches us that we might grow up into the image of our elder Brother, who was Himself grown in the womb of the Church when she was known as Israel. This is why the Spirit is also the only member of the Trinity who is sometimes referred to with a feminine pronoun in the Scriptures, for God as the Spirit uniquely continues in the ongoing action of sustaining and forming human life towards its fullness.

In the end, this is largely why I am so skeptical of modern feminism. Even when it gives lip-service to motherhood, it militates against it. The push for endless birth control and abortion proves as much, along with the push to fill corporations and legislatures with women as well. They try as hard as they can to rip the woman from the home, where she is an omnipotent goddess, to the workforce and the state, where she, like men before her, may easily become either a faceless cog or a soulless beast. They may possibly be right to suggest that no one hates women like some redneck Trump supporter with a picture of Hillary Clinton on a dart board, but I suspect that no one hates Woman as much as these feminists. Let them not dry up the fountain of life. Let them not tame the woman and turn her into an atom. If they succeed too far, it will be everyone who perishes.

If The Shack isn’t heresy, it might be worse

I argued earlier today that the charges of heresy leveled at The Shack really don’t hold up. This was, of course, a rather controversial claim. But what I’d like to add to the previous post is that The Shack being non-heretical doesn’t make it okay at all. In fact, it might make it much worse.  How do I mean?

The most insidious lies often look a lot like truth. The most dangerous scams are the ones that have some genuine credentials. And in this case, a Christian book can cause more damage if its overall project is deeply flawed while nonetheless at a technical level skating past the charge of heresy.

Make no mistake: even if I’m right that Young’s sketchy-looking theology can mostly all be classified as muddy represenations of some orthodoxy traditions, that doesn’t mean his overall project is okay. It is skewed toward a progressive perception of God as essentially toothless love, as egalitarian relationality with no concept of standard or holiness. These are framed in a way so as to not technically violate any orthodox doctrines, but create a bizarre and deficient view of God. Tim Keller put it well in his reflections on The Shack:

But here is my main problem with the book. Anyone who is strongly influenced by the imaginative world of The Shack will be totally unprepared for the far more multi-dimensional and complex God that you actually meet when you read the Bible. In the prophets the reader will find a God who is constantly condemning and vowing judgment on his enemies, while the Persons of the Triune-God of The Shack repeatedly deny that sin is any offense to them. The reader of Psalm 119 is filled with delight at God’s statutes, decrees, and laws, yet the God of The Shack insists that he doesn’t give us any rules or even have any expectations of human beings. All he wants is relationship. The reader of the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah will learn that the holiness of God makes his immediate presence dangerous or fatal to us. Someone may counter (as Young seems to do, on p.192) that because of Jesus, God is now only a God of love, making all talk of holiness, wrath, and law obsolete. But when John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, long after the crucifixion sees the risen Christ in person on the isle of Patmos, John ‘fell at his feet as dead.’ (Rev.1:17.)

All of this is far more dangerous and insidious when heresy is technically lacking. Where heresy is clear and obviously present, people can far more easily avoid danger. But when the danger hides behind orthdoxy, attempting to introduce a heterodox worldview behind technically orthodox doctrines, much more damage can be done.

This is the problem with The Shack. It takes the cover of acceptable doctrines in order to promote an imagination and worldview for Christian thought that funds modern progressive theology, the kind that leads to the dissolution of Christian beliefs on all sorts of important issues. So bear that in mind as a qualifer on my last post.

A reluctant defense of The Shack

One of the few things as bad as heresy is accusing people of heresy when it’s not justified.

Unfortunately, a lot of conservative Christians spend a lot of time doing just that. Especially the ones who get into Reformed theology, for whatever reason. This is a shame, and I wish we as a whole would repent.

This most recently has come to my attention with the hubbub surrounding the movie adaptation of The Shack. The heresy hunt has come out full-force, warning Christians not to go see what might just be the most theologically awful movie since The Da Vinci Code (but even more dangerous since it pretends to be Christian).

The problem for me is this: I think we’re dealing with mass hysteria caused by reactionary impulses rather than reasoned reflection. Some of the charges escape this fault, to be sure, but many of them have other problems (such as insisting that everyone but Calvinism is terrible theology, etc.).

Now, that said, I would not point to The Shack as good theology. That would be a stretch. I wouldn’t even use it as a Sunday school illustration because I think much of it is muddled and problematic. But to say something has bad theology is one thing. To call it heretical is on another plane altogether. I have no sympathy for this latter move in this particular case. We must always seek to give people the benefit of the doubt, read charitably, and interpret anything which can be interpreted non-heretically as non-heretical. Sometimes after doing all of these things we will still find heresy, but from what  I can tell this is not the case in The Shack.

This brings me to my reluctant defense. I want to address the most common criticisms, and I will do this with reference to an image I saw on Facebook from Presbyterian Memes listing 13 heresies:

Phew, that’s a list. Here are my issues with it:

  1. This is not what is says. Though Papa does say, “We were all there,” and bears scars, this does not imply the heresy of patripassionism to which the point refers. Instead, it really only implies the orthodox and biblical doctrine of perichoresis, mutual indwelling, where the Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father, etc., as John 14 and 17 mention.
  2. That’s not really what it says, so I’m not sure how to counter it. I am curious, though, how this is different from the popular view that God is required to damn people according to His justice (limited by His justice) and therefore cannot practice love without the atonement first.
  3. God did forgive all of humanity, regardless of whether they repent or not. That’s just universal atonement, which is the true and correct doctrine of the atonement despite Calvinist eisegesis and protest. In any case, how is this heretical unless Arminians and most Baptists and whatnot are all heretics?
  4. That’s just not what it said.
  5. That’s a superficial reading. Young is basically going with a more Eastern (in the sense of Eastern Orthodoxy and many early church fathers, not Buddhism and Hinduism) conception of God’s wrath/judgment which is based on the organic relationship between sin and death or non-being. Is this the normal Western framework behind most of Protestantism? No. Is it heretical? No.
  6. That is the correct, orthodox understanding of the Trinity, unlike the Eternal Functional Subordinationism being touted these days by people like Wayne Grudem and others.
  7. Meh, that’s a criticism which could be thrown at any Arminian, or C. S. Lewis’ “Thy will be done” view of Hell, etc. Calvinists may disagree, but it’s not heresy.
  8. That’s not really what it says, either.
  9. Again, while Young probably leans (or leaned) that way, the book does not make this explicit. Even then, whether universalism is truly heresy or not is a controversial and questionable issue.
  10. That’s a bit of a caricature, and what is actually in The Shack is no worse than the view of inclusivism (explained here), held by C. S. Lewis, the Reformer Ulrich Zwingli (kind of) who invented the purely symbolic views of the sacraments which most evangelicals these days seem to hold, and the great early church apologist Justin Martyr, among others. May be wrong, but still not heresy.
  11. I don’t remember what this is in reference to, sadly, so I can’t really comment on it.
  12. That’s also not explicitly taught in The Shack.
  13. It does not at all say, “The Bible is not true,” so this is silly. It certainly subordinates the Bible to Christ, but that’s just orthodoxy. It also does hint at a more progressive view of Scripture, but your view of biblical inspiration is not a matter of heresy one way or the other.

So, that concludes it. For these reasons I don’t think The Shack is heretical. Does it have problems? Yes. Does it lean towards social Trinitarianism? Yes. Is it very, very non-Calvinist? Yes. Does it have progressive and Eastern (in the sense of Eastern Christianity, again, not Buddism) tendencies? Yes. But are any of these things heresy? No.

I wish we as conservatives could start using charity, stop being contentious, and overall use prudence in how we throw around the term “heresy.” Human beings are at stake here, and they’re in as much danger from contentious heresy-hunting as they are from actual heretics.

Biblical terms we usually misunderstand

Does “saving justice” sound right to you? How about “holy love”? What about “gracious judgment” or “avenging mercy”? They should, but I suspect that for many, or most, of us at least some of these don’t really make sense.

Sadly, I’ve gotten the impression that over time our theological technicalities have led us to miss the actual meanings of many biblical terms. But these are important terms, and when we misunderstand them we misread the Bible and end up with confused theology. So without further ado, I want to list a few terms we tend to misunderstand:

Justice
Often, we think of justice as “punishment for wrongdoing,” but this is overly narrow. In Scripture, especially in the Psalms and the prophets, God’s justice is also connected with salvation, love, and faithfulness to the covenant (see Psalm 98, for example). Biblically, God’s justice is better described as His commitment to “rightness,” to putting things right in creation. This includes both salvation for His people and judgment for the wicked, healing for the hurting and destruction for the evildoers. This also connects with God’s righteousness and faithfulness. In Scripture, God’s justice includes a strong note of faithfully exercising His covenant responsibilities.
Mercy
The most common definition I’ve heard of biblical “mercy” is “not getting the bad you deserve.” Again, this isn’t necessarily wrong to say what it says, but Scripture treats mercy as a larger topic. Mercy in the broader sense is simply to alleviate suffering. If someone is suffering and you help them, it is mercy. This can, and in Scripture often does, apply to people who don’t deserve the suffering they are experiencing, like the exploited poor. But it does apply especially to us who are suffering deservedly under our sin, when God freely rescues us anyone.
Grace
In parallel to the definition of “mercy,” people tend to define grace as “getting the good you don’t deserve.” Again, though, this seems slightly off, although closer to the biblical usage. It seems closer to the biblical use to say that grace essentially means “gift.” The point of the gift isn’t specifically that someone doesn’t deserve what they’re getting, but that dessert has nothing to do with it at all. Gifts are regardless of merit or demerit, and are not specifically about what you don’t deserve (or what you do deserve).

I thought of trying to add some other ones, but these are the bigguns I’ve been thinking about lately, so I’ll leave it at that. Try these alternative definitions out for a test drive in your Bible reading.