Monday, July 28, 2008

What is the Gospel?

Let’s do a hypothetical: You’re waiting in a grocery line, or waiting for the next subway train, or waiting for a doctor’s appointment, or waiting for an oil change; and there are people all around you. One of these people, surprisingly, notices something about you that is intriguing, perhaps a book you’re reading, and asks you, “So I bet you are a Christian. I’ve heard about this Gospel of Jesus Christ thing – what is that exactly?”

What would you say? What is the Gospel? How do you explain it simply, completely, correctly, faithfully, effectively, in a relatively short period of time, and recognizing that the person who is asking you undoubtedly has countless preconceptions, experiences, and understandings as a result of being immersed in this post-modern culture?

Well, this is not a new question, nor an easy one, and the Church has been trying to figure it out for years. This blog specifically has been trying to do it for about seven months, offering it as simple truth for a complex culture. But unfortunately, because the culture is complex sometimes the truth is not that simple. So, if you’re willing, I’d like to encourage some reader participation and ask you to respond with what you think. What is the Gospel? I will try to do the same myself after a little while.

But first, here are some of the guides I have used as I wrestled with this issue. I encourage you to check them out – sometimes it takes a lot of information to understand a simple truth. Otherwise, perhaps, the Bible wouldn’t have to be 66 books. As you’re thinking about it, remember that “the Gospel” is true, and necessary for the ultimate hope and joy of every human being; that helps me put it into perspective when I am thinking about how (or whether) to explain it to someone who looks like they are getting by fine without it, or to someone who is desperate because they’ve never heard it. And those someones could be the same someone.

The Christian Vision Project – Is our gospel too small?

Tim Keller – The Gospel in all its Forms

D.A. Carson – What is the Gospel?

Al Hsu – A Multifaceted Gospel

John Piper – How I Distinguish Between the Gospel and False Gospels

Mark Dever – Improving the Gospel: Lessons in Unbiblical Theology

James Chambers – Gospel Zeal

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Broad Side of The Shack

So now I have read The Shack. There are a lot of good things in this book, and truly it is interesting as to a perspective on the most important being in the universe, namely the Triune God. It is emotional, especially at the beginning, and then it is deep, penetrating, and revealing throughout. You will be better, and not worse, off from reading it. My favorite exchange is between Mack and the three members of the Trinity, because it reminds me of the powerful truth found in Romans 8:

“Look at the cost – all the pain, all the suffering, everything that is so terrible and evil….and look what it has cost you. Is it worth it?” “Yes!” came the unanimous, joyful response of all three.

If it does nothing else, the book does make you long for a true, lasting, living relationship with God, who is uniquely and mysteriously in a relationship within Himself. This is convicting for me. As I was reading it, I struggled to pinpoint exactly what it was about the book that I most enjoyed, or most connected with. Was it the characters? Yes, maybe, but in the end, they were not real. Even the Godhead, who is real, was only a fictional interpretation here. Was it the detailed, narrative beauty of the writing and the pictures it painted? Yes, maybe, but in the end, these pictures fade away when the book is not in front of you. After pondering, I realized it was the truth in which I most connected to, and most warmed my heart. The truth lasts. It was the truth that God exists in three persons, and this concept is mysterious and glorious beyond words. It was the truth that this same God is working out all things together for good for those who love him, even in the abduction and murder of a little girl. Those truths do my heart good. Imagine, if those truths were not true. Imagine, if the abduction and murder of a little girl was only a random act of violence that had no meaning, no purpose, and had nothing from which to derive comfort. Sure, we as humans appeal to God, and ask why these things have to happen at all to accomplish His ultimate good. And we lose faith sometimes in our confusion. But isn’t it so much better that there is purpose and comfort and hope in these types of evils? What a frightening thought that such things could happen outside the will of the God of the Universe. I choose the Sovereign God any day of the week, and will brace myself for what that means, because the truth is worth it, and it is ultimately where my joy comes from anyway.

So then, it is the truth that I most like about The Shack. But alas, it is also the truth in which I am the most frustrated. I still ultimately agree with the review written by Tim Challies that I posted before. There still are theological errors in this book, and the errors matter. Without the errors, the book would have been better. It makes me wonder in general why the temptation is so strong to fabricate or reduce or theorize the truth when the truth is clear and in its entirety is better. My general synopsis is this: God is more holy, we are more sinful, the Bible is more preeminent, and the cross is more central (and shocking and appalling and glorious) than the author of The Shack would lead you to believe. I can accept that his intentions were good and that some readers will benefit from his story, but I believe more people would benefit, and it would be more helpful, encouraging, and fruitful for the reader if these things were magnified and not undermined. The most striking example to me is the following excerpt:

“Don’t ever think that what my son chose to do didn’t cost us dearly. Love always leaves a significant mark. We were there together.” Mack was surprised. “At the cross? Now wait, I thought you left him – you know – ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’” It was a Scripture that often haunted Mack in The Great Sadness (his daughter’s death). “You misunderstand the mystery there. Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him.”

This is not true. The Bible teaches that the Father did forsake the Son when He poured out the wrath that we deserved at Calvary. If this is not what happened, then the accomplishment on the cross was something less than the once-for-all, complete, definite, substitutionary sacrifice that otherwise we justly deserve. The Gospel is incomplete and downright insufficient if those agonizing words from Jesus on the cross were not literally true. The fact that the Father did forsake the Son is kind of the whole point; otherwise the sacrifice would not have been completely in our place, because our sin deserves complete separation from God, and only by Jesus stepping in that place do we have any hope.

Responding to the claim that everything sinful and agonizing would be forgotten in heaven and in eternity (which would include Calvary), John Piper says, “Calvary will not be forgotten! Hell exists, sin exists, the cross exists, heaven exists, we exist, everything exists to magnify the worth of the Scream of the Damned! That is the whole point of the universe!” The Scream of the Damned; a description of those infamous words at the cross used originally by R.C. Sproul, and further by C.J. Mahaney and Randy Alcorn, to reinforce the shocking revelation we see through this event. If the Savior’s scream on the cross is explained as anything less than the agony of being forsaken by His Father, for a time, to completely and definitely be our substitute and absorb the wrath we deserve, than the Gospel is diluted, the good news is less good, and the whole point of the universe is missed.

Make no mistake, I fall on my knees in awe and surrender at the implications of what I am saying. I take no pleasure in making the allegation that some people miss the whole point of the universe. I also fall on my knees as I am convicted of daily, reminded of often, and strive to remember always that I don’t want to love studying God more than I love God himself. I don’t ever want to be so into doctrine and theological interpretations that I neglect a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior. I don’t only want to know Him through propositional truth, but also as Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting God, and Prince of Peace.

“There are a lot of smart people who are able to say a lot of right things from their brain because they have been told what the right answers are, but they don’t know me at all. So really, how can their answers be right even if they are right, if you understand my drift?”

I do think that my relationship is deepened by focusing on doctrine and theology, and I do believe He can (and has to) be known through propositional truth, but it should never be at the expense of the relationship itself. Additionally, I don’t want to ever love the gifts of God more than God himself. I don’t ever want eternal life, escape from hell, forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with family and friends, heaven, social justice, etc. to be so much my focus that I lose the source of all those things. Those gifts are precious beyond words, but not more precious than the God who makes them possible.

I don’t want to discourage the helpfulness of this book, especially to those who seek an answer to or comfort from suffering. And I also don’t want to assume that The Shack was written by a theologian for a specific theological purpose, because I know it wasn’t. But I think that like The Pilgrim’s Progress, fictional accounts of this nature have some level of purpose of expressing truth for the spiritual benefit (or consideration) of others. I believe that the author of The Shack, while not attempting to make truth claims, had the intention of using a narrative to interpret truth. (And good for him; thousands of people will be encouraged by that to the glory of God). Or maybe he didn’t mean to address theology, but he did nonetheless. When someone, even through fiction, put words into the mouth of God, which the author of The Shack clearly did, that person is addressing theology and means to say something about who God is and what He would say. Outside of the Bible, if you do this, you have to understand the fact that you could be wrong about some things; and wrong in a way that is dangerous.

Theology will never only be scholarly; it will always also be practical, because God is sovereign, and involved in the details and experiences of our life. If someone at the store says in frustration while waiting in line, “Jesus Christ, come on already!” that person just addressed theology. “Where is God when the line is a million people long and I have to get to school to pick up my kids? Why would he let that happen? I can’t understand a God like that.” Silly, maybe, but a simple example of the ubiquitous reality of theology in our lives.

I don’t automatically believe that seminary or formal theological education is necessary to write books or serve in a church (or write on blogs, obviously, or I would be a hypocrite). But the reason I think it is a popular prerequisite is because it shows a commitment to interpret and apply truth with truth (assuming “seminary” is most fundamentally and generally a prolonged study of the Bible in various ways, and the person of Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life). To interpret and apply truth with experience, or culture, or our immediate surroundings, or our own creative imagination is not always wrong, but it is more likely wrong than using the entire Bible first, and these things second. And truth is not just true; it is helpful – more helpful than untruth.

I passionately believe that a true understanding about God and a theology of who God is and how He works in our lives, as revealed in the entire Bible, is better, and more comforting than a less than true understanding. In other words, I don’t think we as Christians should put the Bible aside and just imagine the true nature of God and the true meaning of His sovereignty, or goodness, or love, especially in suffering. I don’t want to get God off the hook for suffering or misunderstand the nature and purpose of it if His ultimate, eternal plan through suffering is much better than the alternative, which I believe it is. Parts of The Shack refreshingly confirm this reality. I don’t want to expect God to reveal himself separately from the Bible if his revelation in the Bible and the implications of that revelation fulfills the deepest longings of my soul, which I believe it does. I don’t want to explain the mystery of the Trinity in a way that is close to true in regard to roles, hierarchy and distinction, when an explanation that is more true presents a Godhead that is the culmination of every desire I’ve ever had and every relationship I’ve ever pursued, which I believe He is. So in that sense, I don’t necessarily believe certain theological errors relating to revelation, salvation, and the Trinity in The Shack are altogether dangerous, but that they just take a little away from the potential comfort and helpfulness of the entirety of God’s truth.

In my brief tinkering with theology, I have seen that the error of reductionism (which means not necessarily saying things that are untrue, but not saying everything the Bible says about a particular subject) is not only flawed, but also unhelpful. It would be more helpful, and more comforting, and more encouraging to say everything that the Bible says about a subject, like the nature of God, or suffering. To truly believe in the sovereignty of God means to believe that His plan, which He is working together for good in all things for those who love Him, is the “best of all possible worlds”, as John Piper would say; even as hard as that is to believe or accept in the face of unthinkable suffering, such as the abduction and murder of an innocent little girl. We see now in a mirror dimly; but then, we will see face to face.

Alongside Paul, I am convinced that these present sufferings are not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us, and that these light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, as we wait for the things that are unseen, namely, the Triune God and His coming kingdom. With or the without The Shack, I hope this is your heart and perspective day in and day out.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Allure of the Allegory

That, is my best title yet. Say it ten times fast. The allure of the allegory, the allure of the allegory, the allure of the allegory, the aloe of the allegory, the aloe of the alligator, the lore of the alligator. The Lore. Of the Alligator. What? What was I talking about again?

Oh yes, the allure, or appeal, or attraction, or any other word starting with ‘a’ that you may know, of, the allegory. What is an allegory (and why do I keep saying it)? An allegory is a metaphor of sorts, used in many cases for deep, spiritual symbolism. They are common in the Bible as seen in the parables of Jesus, and more abstractly in unique narratives or stories such as the ones I will mention.

This may be dangerous, but because I can’t read fast enough to read all the books I want to read, and then write about them, I’m forced to write about books I haven’t read yet, or in this case, just started. But the reason I think this is safe is that I very seldom read books that don’t have the endorsement and overall recommendation of those whom I greatly respect. Or, if I do, I read them with the perspective of caution, and would warn myself and my readers accordingly. This is not to say I am biased and narrow minded in what I read; but I try to be biblical, and therefore if I am going to help interpret truth using other books as a resource, I am careful that the things I read support the general narrative and theology of the entire Bible supported throughout history by orthodox Christianity. Does that make sense? I know everything (like fiction) is not written to necessarily support or help interpret the general narrative and theology of the entire Bible. But chances are, if I am writing about it on this blog, or if I am spending considerable time reading it, it is written for that purpose.

All that to say I have not yet read, or finished, the two allegories that generated this post. But I know the basics of them enough to say a few things, and lead you to a few things, that will hopefully be beneficial to you. And I plan to read them both very soon.

Enough with introduction. Let me start by saying that The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is an incredible book. I mean beyond-belief incredible. This is the type of book that changes the trajectory of a person’s life; encourages and lifts up the downcast; convicts and humbles the worldly or materialistic; liberates and converts the burdened; excites and unleashes the creative. It is the type of book that not only keeps a person from blowing their brains out but also gives them an unspeakable joy and purpose to get out of bed each morning. (Actually, if you want to read deep, powerful, life-changing stuff on theology and culture that will have this same effect, there are a bunch of dead guys named John who are waiting to blow your mind: John Owen, Jonathon Edwards, John Bunyan, John Calvin, John Wesley, etc.) And Bunyan is basically in the dictionary under the definition of “allegory”. So when you talk about allegory, you talk about The Pilgrim’s Progress, and vice versa.

So why am I reading it? First reason is because I’m an idiot and I’ve gone 27 years without reading it. Second is because another allegory has come onto the scene in the form of a Christian fiction bestseller, and I want to be able to compare and contrast the style and biblical consistency as best I can to the glory of God. This will be a challenge, so I welcome your input.

The aforementioned bestseller that has come onto the scene is The Shack. You may have heard about it or even read it. On the cover, Eugene Peterson, author of the popular paraphrase of the Bible called The Message, gives this endorsement: “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!”

The Pilgrim’s Progress is a story about a man named Christian, who journeys from the wilderness of this world to the glory of the Celestial City, encountering temptations, threats, and dangers in the form of obscure characters and situations, in an allegory of the soul’s search for salvation in Jesus Christ. The Shack is a story about a man who revisits the site of his daughter’s abduction and alleged murder to meet with God, in an allegory of the nature of the Triune God and the age-old question, “how can a loving God allow suffering in the world?” As I mentioned, I am only part way through The Pilgrim’s Progress, and I have not yet read The Shack. But it does not take a lot of reading through articles and reviews to realize that The Pilgrim’s Progress has very strong theological and biblical precision (Bunyan was a pastor and theologian) while The Shack has less, if any (which does not necessarily mean that it is altogether unhelpful spiritually). The best defense I have for this claim is a review by a popular blogger Tim Challies:

A Reader’s Review of The Shack

This review is 17 pages long, but if you want to have a responsible understanding of a piece of popular culture that many of your family or friends, some unbelieving, may ask you about, this is a must-read. Without reading the actual book (yet) my general thoughts from reading this review is that The Shack is undoubtedly engaging as a novel, possibly encouraging as a counsel, but erroneous as a theological guide to the nature of God and the biblical understanding of the working together of God's sovereignty and human responsibility. I might change my mind after I read it. But rest assured I am warned and will be using my spiritual discernment muscles to the core under the direction of Almighty God as I read.
In the end, don’t shy away from the allure of the allegory; but be careful if you are lured anywhere other than into the arms and to the feet of the Savior of the World as revealed in the narrative and theology of the entire Bible. Jesus Christ is the culmination of ultimate reality and the completion of every story. True understanding of Him from the Bible is not only eternally helpful to us, but also eternally honoring to Him.