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.


Amber said...

Hey Joey, Get ready. I'm feeling poetic :) Two thoughts. Maybe three. 1. Read it. 2. Listen to the author talk about it at 3. (and this is more like 3-10) I wasn't spiritually altered by the Shack at first read. But the interview with Young was enough to make me want to go back and read it again..which I haven't yet. He talks about living a lie-free life. Whoa. Huge. Bold. Scary. He doesn't pretend to be a theologian. I'm about to dive into the review you posted, but I'm a little hesitant cause I think sometimes we take theology more seriously than we do God, you know? Like, what's more important than churning away through the muck of ourselves doing everything we can to get to know God more and get rid of ourselves? But alas, I will read the review, and try to remember the importance of the more scholarly approach to a relational God. Oh, and here's thought no. 11 - our campus pastor at Buckhead Church didn't go to seminary and he more spiritual sound and reverent and faithful than any pastor with a degree I've ever me. Ever. seriously. Andy included. So, that really shakes it up a bit, eh?

dottie said...

Hey Joey-

(... holy long blog comment, Batman. Sorry for my inability to be concise! I should have just put all this on my own blog. Hah!)

Thought-provoking stuff. Thanks for posting. I hadn’t heard of The Shack prior to your post, and it’s been a really long time since I’ve even perused Pilgrim’s Progress, so I appreciate that you’ve brought them up for discussion as helpful or harmful, theologically speaking.

Personally, I greatly admire the literary tool of allegory. When used properly, it can be tremendously effective and really move a reader in important and life-changing ways. I love the way we (as writers, as readers, as critics, as scholars, as average joes) can wrestle with concepts brought up in texts, can be challenged through the way a character encounters life, can be drawn more closely to our Lord through our experiences with written word. And isn’t it remarkable how God can use so many varied things to get our attention, turn our affections toward Him, refine our understanding, allow us room for struggle, room for doubt? I’m thrown back to the secular/sacred debate I tossed around a lot during my own searching in college—can a Christian artist produce anything other than sacred art… art is given the label “sacred” based upon what criteria and who decides? What is my obligation, what is my joy, as a Christian writer? Must everything I write be overtly Christian, or will it be such simply out of the overflow of God’s Spirit within me? And I suppose these aren’t necessarily questions each reader would need to ask him or herself, but I bring them up nonetheless.

Clearly, spiritual discernment is of great importance in such matters, and I appreciate the way the reviewer of The Shack brings that up in his review. It’s also interesting to note where characters draw their primary theological conclusions: personal life experience, longstanding tradition, time-tested reason, or God-breathed Scripture. That, I felt, was a noteworthy point the reviewer made and something that perhaps most readers would overlook.

I also really appreciate Amber’s comment that sometimes we take theology more seriously than God. That’s a great point.

As a side note, have you read C.S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress? It’s worth adding to the never-ending "to read" list...

Amber said...

Joey, I read some of the Shack to Amber at night, but haven't read the whole book yet myself. However, I was about to post essentially the same thing Amber did... prior to seeing that she already posted it all.