Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

bestsellers

8 months 4 hours ago

For quite some time now, Malcolm Gladwell has been one of my favorite authors. He is a skilled wordsmith to be certain, but what compels me even more is the way he draws connections between facts and statistics that otherwise seem to have nothing in common. His great strength is finding significance and even fascination in the mundane. The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers were all fascinating books (and, incidentally, they are currently all just $3.99 on Kindle).

Gladwell’s latest is David and Goliath and here he challenges how we tend to think about obstacles and disadvantages. Where we do all we can to avoid obstacles and disadvantages, and where we consider them necessarily negative, Gladwell believes they can actually make us better and stronger. “David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants. By ‘giants,’ I mean powerful opponents of all kinds—from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression.” Each of the chapters tells the story of a different person who has faced a great challenge and been forced to respond to it.

Through the book he explores two big ideas:

The first is that much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate…

He begins with the biblical story of David and Goliath in the valley of Aijalon, saying that where we tend to think of Goliath as having all the advantages over David, in actual fact it was David who had the advantage. While his interpretation of the story borders on the fanciful and ignores the obvious divine empowerment behind David and the shadow of a much greater David, his point stands. From there he writes about little league basketball, the battle against cancer, the quality of university graduates, Northern Ireland’s Troubles, civil rights leaders, and much else. Each of the stories highlights an apparent disadvantage and how it was actually anything but.

While I enjoyed reading David and Goliath, I found it more enjoyable on the descriptive than prescriptive level. In one much-discussed chapter Gladwell shows how having dyslexia may actually offer advantages to some who have it. Though he makes a compelling case, I don’t know what that does for me or how I can apply that knowledge to my life. Not only that, but he does not speak to the many people for whom dyslexia has only ever proven a disadvantage. One or two men who have risen to fame despite the condition hardly prove that it is an advantage. The book suffers from a confirmation bias and from too little interaction with dissenting views.

Gladwell wants us to believe that people succeed because of their difficulties rather than despite them. But in many cases I don’t think we can so easily determine this. We are unique individuals, a conglomeration of strengths and weaknesses, so that one man’s advantage may be another man’s disadvantage. But this would hardly make a compelling book.

This is the first of Gladwell’s books I’ve needed to push myself to finish. My interest waned. Where I usually finish his books in a day or two, this one hung around for a week. That may say as much about me as it says about the book, but I find it noteworthy. In the end I just wasn’t convinced and I wasn’t all that interested. There is plenty of human interest in this book, but not a lot that I will apply to my life.

10 months 2 days ago

This book is going to be big, a near-lock for the bestseller lists. First Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard teamed up to write a book about Killing Lincoln and it sold more than a million copies. They followed it up with Killing Kennedy and it sold briskly as well. And now they turn their attention to their greatest subject: Jesus of Nazareth. Killing Jesus: A History is a short biography of Jesus, focusing on the events leading to his death.

From the outset, the authors make it clear that though they are Roman Catholics, they are not writing a religious book. Rather, they are writing a historical account of a historical figure “and are interested primarily in telling the truth about important people, not converting anyone to a spiritual cause.” They necessarily rely on the four gospels for their source material and often tell their story by directly quoting the Bible.

They begin, though, by setting Jesus firmly in his historical context and skillfully telling about the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and the subsequent ascension of Caesar Augustus. They introduce a cast characters who each make an appearance in the pages of the Bible: King Herod who would hear of a potential challenger to his throne and order the slaughter of innocent children, Herod Antipas who would behead John the Baptist and later refuse to deal fairly with Jesus, and Pontius Pilate, who would cave to pressure and order the execution of an innocent man. Each of these men becomes a living and breathing character in the narrative.

As the authors begin to tell about the life of Jesus, they follow the biblical accounts quite closely. They tell his life skillfully and with all the narrative tension and interest they used to tell their compelling accounts of Lincoln and Kennedy. The reader is left with no doubt that Jesus’ whole life was leading to a cross and that Jesus knew he would end up there. The reader sees that the claims Jesus made about himself put him at odds with both the Jews and the Romans.

As they approach Jesus’ death, the authors slow the pace a little, showing the injustice of the trial, the torment of crucifixion, and the necessary conclusion that Jesus really and truly died.

They take some license along the way, of course. The gospel writers were selective when they wrote about the life of Jesus and any author must at times fill in or at least imagine certain details. But even then, O’Reilly and Dugard have done their homework and refrain from taking large or irrational leaps from their source material. And because they tell the account using the Bible as their source, they are able to tell the story as if it is true and as if they believe it. They do not say, “he supposedly did this” or is “reputed to have done this.” They simply tell it as the Bible tells it.

As a historical account of the life of Jesus, the story, though selective, is well told, well written, and very, very interesting. This is especially true when it comes to the historical and cultural contexts, details the biblical writers were able to assume and, therefore, not describe in great detail. I am no expert on this period of history, but spotted no major missteps and felt the authors were attempting to do justice to the historical facts the Bible presents. Their list of secondary sources is quite strong, leaning more toward conservative than liberal authors.

However, Jesus’ life is not mere history. Yes, he was a real man who lived a real life and died a real death, but that is not all he was and all he did. He also claimed to be God’s Son and his followers claimed that in his life and death he had done something unique and, literally, world-changing. The same Bible that describes Jesus’ life, also interprets and explains it. And this is the story the authors do not tell.

Any author who writes a narrative account of Jesus’ life will find it difficult to do justice to both his humanity and his divinity (and we saw, for example, in Anne Rice’s series on Jesus). These authors err far to the side of his humanity. It becomes quickly apparent they will not focus on Jesus’ miracles. While they mention a few of the wonders he performed, and especially the ones involving healings, they do not commit all the way and tend to present these as events Jesus’ followers believed had happened as much as events that had actually taken place.

The authors primarily portray Jesus as a rebel against Rome who threatened to destabilize the region and who, therefore, suffered the inevitable wrath of the empire. They show that through his life Jesus believed he was the Son of God and even suggest this must mean he was either a liar, a lunatic, or that he really was who he said he was. As the book comes to a close they state that Jesus’ followers soon claimed he had been raised from the dead and that his followers believed this to such an extent that they willingly gave up their own lives to his cause.

But O’Reilly and Dugard do not ever explain what happened there at the cross between Jesus and God the Father. Of all Jesus said on the cross, each word laden with meaning and significance, they mention only two. They do not explain the cross as substitution, where Jesus went to the cross in place of people he loved; they do not explain the cross as justice, where Jesus was punished as a law-breaker; they do not explain the cross as propitiation, where Jesus faced and emptied the Father’s wrath against sin; they do not explain the cross as redemption, where we now need only put our faith in Jesus in order to receive all the benefits of what he accomplished.

Killing Jesus is not a bad book as much as it is an incomplete book. As history it is compelling, but of all historical events, none has greater spiritual significance than the life and death of Jesus Christ. And this is the story they miss.

A brief aside before I wrap up: If you have read Killing Kennedy you may remember that the authors seem have a strange obsession with kinky sexuality. Both Kennedy and the Roman rulers give them a lot to work with in that regard, and in this account they are sure to point to the ugly sexual deviancies that marked the Roman rulers of that day. While they do not go into lurid detail and do not mean to excite lust, neither do they exercise a lot of discretion, making this a book you would probably not want to hand to a child.

As O’Reilly and Dugard begin this book they claim the story of Jesus’ life and death “has never fully been told. Until now.” That’s very dramatic but also ridiculous. This story has been told repeatedly over the past two millennia and it will be told again and again in the millennia to come. Killing Jesus is another account that will be here for a while and then disappear and be forgotten. In the meantime, it will take Jesus out of the realm of fantasy and place him squarely in history, but even as it does that, it will neglect to tell why his life, his crucifixion, his resurrection are of eternal significance, a matter of his life and death and our own.

2 years 4 days ago
Have you ever read one of those books that is so strange, so unbelievable, that you are just waiting for the author to admit that she has just been making it all up? On more than one occasion I found myself waiting for that kind of a punchline while reading The Devil in Pew Number Seven. A recent addition to the New York Times list of non-fiction bestsellers, the book tells the sad, tragic and yet remarkably stirring story of Robert Nichols, a old-fashioned revival preacher who moved to Sellerstown, North Carolina, to serve as pastor.

I hesitate to say too much about the story because, well, the Devil (in Pew Number Seven) is in the detail. To say too much, would be to give it all away. Let me stick with the publisher’s carefully-chosen description:

Rebecca never felt safe as a child. In 1969, her father, Robert Nichols, moved to Sellerstown, North Carolina, to serve as a pastor. There he found a small community eager to welcome him—with one exception. Glaring at him from pew number seven was a man obsessed with controlling the church. Determined to get rid of anyone who stood in his way, he unleashed a plan of terror that was more devastating and violent than the Nichols family could have ever imagined. Refusing to be driven away by acts of intimidation, Rebecca’s father stood his ground until one night when an armed man walked into the family’s kitchen … And Rebecca’s life was shattered. If anyone had a reason to harbor hatred and seek personal revenge, it would be Rebecca. Yet The Devil in Pew Number Seven tells a different story. It is the amazing true saga of relentless persecution, one family’s faith and courage in the face of it, and a daughter whose parents taught her the power of forgiveness.

That is detailed enough to give a sense of the book’s content, yet vague enough not reveal the strange twists and turns. At heart the book describes a real-life fight of good versus evil and it is never certain who will triumph and how victory will come. Even now it is hard to say.

Let me share just a few favorite quotes that typify its subject and theme:

  • “One side does its fighting with terrorist tactics—dynamite, letting air out of tires, cutting phone lines and shooting out lights. The other side answers with preaching, prayer, patience and the sheriff.”
  • “Violence typifies the spirit of the opposition,” Daddy said, dismissing the notion of fighting fire with fire. “They are not Christian people. I know who they are. I know they are violent, mean-spirited people. I will only leave this church if it is the Lord’s will. And if it is the enemy’s will for us to leave, then it is God’s will for us to stay.”
  • “When the Lord gets ready for me to leave this church, He won’t send the message by the devil.”

The Devil in Pew Number Seven will draw you in, shock you, and probably bring a tear to your eye. I sat down with it one summer afternoon and barely looked up until I had finished the last word. It is not a particularly deep read, but it is certainly engaging and awfully surprising—just the kind of book to read on vacation. However, one thing you may want to consider is skipping the Epilogue; it is the weakest part of the book and clashes with the rest in both theme and tone. It is a better book without it.

3 years 1 week ago
Whatever David Platt is selling, people are buying it. At last count 750,000 copies of Radical were in print and it had been on the New York Times list of bestsellers (paperback advice) for 52 weeks. That is no small achievement! To be frank, it is the kind of achievement every author dreams of.

Radical is a book about escaping the doldrums of the American dream. The American dream (which is a dream shared by pretty much all of the western, developed world and, hence, equally applicable to this Canadian) calls us to complacency, to a life of comfort and ease. We live in big houses and drive nice cars and worship in multi-million dollar churches custom built around all of our favorite programs. We give away a bit of our wealth—the kind of wealth that much of the world can only dream of—but largely live in great comfort. Occasionally we are stirred my images of starving children or by tales of God’s work in foreign lands. But quickly we forget and we go on with our lives, growing our portfolios and filling our homes with stuff.

It’s all very boring. We are born into wealth (at least when compared to the rest of the world), we live wealthy lives, and then die, leaving our wealth to another generation.

Against this backdrop it is not too hard to get us stirred, to get Christians to want to wake up and to do something better, something that seems to count for more. Something radical, even. This is where David Platt comes in and this is where hundreds of thousands are eagerly drinking in his message.

Before I began reading Radical I assumed it was just another of a long list of books that would build upon a shaky theological foundation. I was delighted to find that one of Radical’s great strengths is that it is firmly grounded in the gospel. Platt spends a good bit of time discussing the gospel, the real gospel, and calling the reader to embrace it and live as if it is true. And then, on the basis of that gospel, he calls the reader to do what is radical, to let go of the American dream, a dream that is as alive within the church as it is outside of it. It’s a powerful message that falls on eager ears.

Throughout the book Platt seeks to show how Christians have been drawn in by that American dream and how that dream has influenced our theology and practice. “We have in many areas blindly and unknowingly embraced values and ideas that are common in our culture but are antithetical to the gospel [Jesus] taught.” He admits that he has more questions than answers and that he sees many disconnects in his own life, a humility that serves him well. It is not lost on the author or the reader that Platt is a megachurch pastor who lives in the same comparative luxury that most of us enjoy.

By the time you finish Radical you’ll be charged up. You’ll be ready to sell your home, to give up your car, to move across the world, to ditch the American dream in favor of moving across the world to do mission work. But here’s the thing: You’d better do it quickly because a couple of weeks later you’ll probably be back to normal, back to ordinary.

Platt will get you all fired up. That’s a good thing. At least it can be. But in the midst of all the excitement I worry about excitement fatigue. After all, Radical is far from the only book of this kind—the kind of book that seeks to shake up the western church, to get the church to do something more, something, well, radical. Read Do Hard Things and Crazy Love and Radical and all the rest and you’ll get worked up every time. But the reality is that for the vast majority of us, our lives will not look much different 2 weeks or 2 months or 2 years later.

It’s not that the books are bad as much as they give us little to work with as we move from fantasy to reality, from abstract to personal. In the middle of reading a book it is easy enough to say, “I am going to give it all away.” But then you realize that your wife hasn’t read the book and isn’t quite as eager. And then you realize that you have children and hauling them halfway around the world would have a profound effect upon them. And then you realize that it’s been 6 months and you still haven’t done anything. In fact, the excitement has passed and you realize that life isn’t so bad. There may be some lingering guilt, but you’ve realized that is just isn’t so easy to extract yourself from all of this. Neither does the conviction remain that it’s actually necessary.

So I guess I have several concerns with the book—concerns that stem from the fact that it is well-written and built upon a gospel foundation and very compelling and exciting. These aren’t the kinds of concerns that equal “Don’t read it!” but the kinds that make me wonder if we enjoy reading these books more than we like applying them.

First, I think our attempts to live radically can ignore the Bible’s concern that we be radically godly in character. There is no doubt that I am called by God to live sacrificially and generously. My first calling, though, is to know God, to be shaped by him and on that basis to preach the gospel and to live as if it is true. I am called to do all of this right where the Lord has placed me. This means that there is great dignity and great value in doing whatever it is that I want to do, like to do, and can honor God doing. We do not all need to be foreign missionaries and evangelists; we do not all need to move to faraway lands. We can (and must!) primarily honor God in whatever it is he has given us to do. I am concerned that it is difficult to read this book and believe its message and not feel that normal life is dishonoring to God. Maybe we need to recover a better doctrine of vocation before we are ready for the radical message. Maybe we need to learn to be faithful in our own neighborhoods before believing we will be faithful in other things.

Second, I think we would do well to wrestle through some of the difficult questions of economics. This is one of the great tensions of living in this place in this world. A $300 car payment sounds shameful when you consider that for many people that is as much money as they live off for an entire year. But it’s also just reality—we need cars and that is just what they cost in our context. We may feel evil for spending $20,000 on a car; but that is just what cars cost. The simple solution is to drive beat-up cars and send as much money as we can to foreign missions. But it’s not that simple. Third world countries do not need money; they need economic infrastructure that can generate wealth. Helping the poor is not as simple as giving them money—something to keep in mind when approached on the street by a panhandler. These are the kinds of things I find myself wrestling with.

Maybe this is why Platt says that he has more questions than answers. At the end of it all, I did too. I love the call for radical living and think the western church would do well to be shaken up. I’m just not convinced that this book and the others like it are helping us answer the more difficult questions. But then again, I think that’s okay. I love a book that makes me grapple with difficult questions, even if the answers are hard to come by.

There is genuine value in reading Radical, I’m sure of it. But maybe it’s best not to read it if you’ve already read several other books in a similar vein. Maybe it would be best to go back to some of those books and ask, “What have I actually done about it?” Sooner or later we either have to take action or figure out if maybe we need to go about being radical in a whole different way. If your big takeaway from Radical is a short-lived excitement followed by long-term guilt or apathy, either the message is wrong or your application of it is wrong.


 

3 years 10 months ago
Let’s start with a trick question. If I were to ask you what connects Lance Armstrong to Arnold Schwarzenegger, how would you respond? If you mumbled something witty about steroids,” I’m afraid you’d be wrong. According to Rhonda Byrne, what connects these two men is that they both harnessed the law of attraction in order to bring about their wildest dreams. They wanted money and fame and success, and wanted it so much that the universe delivered it to them (and not in the shape of a syringe, apparently).

In June of 2007 I wrote a review of Byrne’s The Secret and posted it at this blog. Three years later it remains one of the most-viewed pages, still racking up thousands of page views per month. The book has sold millions of copies and has been translated into 46 languages. It is a worldwide bestseller and one that has spawned many imitators.

The Secret is an introduction to the law of attraction. The law of attraction, which Byrne says is the most powerful law in the universe, states that people experience the logical manifestations of their predominant thoughts, feelings, and words. The law says that your thoughts become things so that your thoughts shape the world around you. You shape your own life and destiny through the power of your mind. The positive things in your life appear through your positive thoughts and feelings and the negative things in your life appear through your negative thoughts and feelings.

The Power is the just-released 2010 follow-up and one that immediately raced to the top of the New York Times list of bestsellers. The problems with the book are too many to catalog in a short review. It is almost mind-boggling how much unsubstantiated and blatantly contradictory nonsense Byrne manages to pack into just 250 pages, many of which contain little more than pictures and out-of-context quotes (from people as diverse as Gandhi and Jesus, Albert Einstein and Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

The book apparently began with a great discovery. Byrne’s great discovery was that in order to receive everything you want, you need to feel love for it. Hence love is the theme of this book. The power behind the law of attraction, it seems, is love. The logic here is a little bit opaque but I think Byrne means to say that the law of attraction is the most powerful law in the universe and love is the most powerful force since it is the force that motivates attraction. When you love something, you draw it to yourself through a kind of universal magnetism. Hence she can say, “Everything you want to be, do, or have comes from love … The positive force of love can create anything good, increase the good things, and change anything negative in your life.”

Did you catch that, young Skywalker? It’s pretty simple—we are all magnets and we draw to ourselves whatever matches our thoughts and feelings. The things we love most are irresistibly drawn to us through a universal law of attraction. It may sound fishy, but it’s been championed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres before their audiences of millions. And people are lapping this stuff up.

So how does this law and the power of love manifest itself in a life? The challenge of a good life is to get yourself to the point where 51% of your feelings are good and are marked by love. At this point things will cascade and all the good that must come your way will soon overwhelm the negative. So “to change your life, all you have to do is tip the scales by giving 51 percent love through your good thoughts and good feelings. Once you reach the tipping point of giving more love than negativity, the love that comes back to you then multiplies itself.” Want some examples of how this works out? Well, if you help someone who dropped an object in the street, you may then find a parking spot right outside the supermarket door (page 51) or you may do a favor for a friend and then find that your boss gives you complimentary tickets to a sports game (page 51).

Much of the book is dedicated to giving instruction on how you can have everything you’ve ever wanted (which we all know is crucial to true joy and fulfillment, right?). The key is to imagine, to feel and then to receive. First you imagine what it is you want. Whatever it is—a new life, a new wife, never-ending perfect health, an awesome bowler hat—you need to first imagine having it, doing something great with it. Then you are to feel the love for what you’re imagining. “You must imagine and feel being with your desire,” doing things with it, having it, owning it. At this point the force of love will work through the law of attraction and bring it to you. It has to! Your job is just to receive it as it comes to you. “Whatever you desire you must want it with all your heart. Desire is love, and unless you have a burning desire in your heart, you will not have enough power to harness the force of love.”

Awesome, eh? Want it, love it, get it. It couldn’t be easier. And she provides lots of stories (and not a shred of evidence) to prove her case.

Not surprisingly, Byrne spends a good bit of the book discussing the three things people want most: money, love and health. In every case, you can have it all as long as you believe it and love it enough.”The only difference between the wealthy people and everyone else is that the wealthy people give more good feelings about money than they do bad feelings. It’s as simple as that.” Uh huh. Tell that to the child born into poverty or to the person whose wealth was annihilated in a bank failure. “You just don’t love money enough. It’s your fault, don’t you know? The love of money is the root of all sorts of joy and peace.”

There is a large sense in which all of this talk about love and attraction is inherently materialistic, in which it is inherently envious. If I can set my eye upon something and love it, Byrne promises that I will receive it. The universe has decreed that it will be so. And so my task in life becomes looking at all the world has to offer and setting my mind upon those things that I want. I cannot just want it one time, but I must dedicate myself to wanting it until I want it so much that the universe responds. I must live much of my life focusing on those things I feel that I need in order to be happy, those things I feel I must have in order to find significance. Some life.

Of course feeling is not enough; I need to actually begin to live like what I want is already mine. So if I want to find myself a new wife (which I don’t, by the way), Byrne counsels me to live as if she is already mine. I need to sleep on one side of the bed, not in the middle, I need to leave half the dresser empty so there is room for her clothes, I need to set the table for two (Truly! She actually says this.). Because as I live like it is true, it will come to me. And who cares if I look like the utter fool I am for doing it? She even says that a good way of looking for a job may be to not look at all—just act like you’ve already got one and one will come your way. I dare you to try that at the unemployment office. “Yeah, I stopped looking and started acting like I have one. Rhonda says it’s better this way.”

The section on health is downright comical. Or is it tragic? Is there such thing as a tragicomedy? “Do you have more good feelings about health than you have negative feelings about disease? Do you believe in lifelong health more than you believe in the inevitability of disease? If you believe that your body will deteriorate with age and that disease is inevitable, you are giving out that belief, and the law of attraction must return it to you clothed as the circumstances and state of your body and health.” Did you know that you can live forever if only you can generate enough love, if only you convince yourself that you’re not getting older? She honestly says this. I couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s that vapid, that stupid. I couldn’t even parody it; it’s a parody of itself.

This whole book is premised on complete selfishness. According to Byrne I am to go through life constantly generating good feelings about myself so that I can have everything I ever wanted. Whatever makes me happy can be mine if only I feel good about it. How does that leave me living on behalf of others? “When I see a person who seems to have a particular need, someone who can’t afford to buy something they want, for instance, I send them thoughts of abundance of money.” Isn’t that kind? “Here, have some good feelings about being full; that should help ease your hunger. And good luck with all of your hopes and dreams.” Didn’t Jesus have something to say about that kind of a person?

Where the law of attraction is most sickening is how it plays out in times of grief. What happens when bad things come? We have nowhere to go but introspection; no one to blame but ourselves. We have to look inward and find negativity there. I read recently of the systemic rape in an African nation—thousands of women raped, many of them repeatedly, as soldiers march through their land, are chased out, and return again. It’s horrifying and nauseating. And the law of attraction can explain it only by saying that these women brought about their own rape by thinking negative thoughts. They were afraid of rape and therefore they were raped. When the armies of drugged-out, terrorized young boys came marching through their land, these women felt fear and negativity and brought rape upon themselves. Do you really want to believe this? Unbelievably, Byrne even quotes the book of Job as she goes. Job! Didn’t she read to the end? How on earth could an honest reading of Job do anything but convince people of the folly of her brand of reasoning.

Needless to say, The Power is a bad book. A really bad book. It’s so utterly stupid, so unbelievably vapid, that it boggles my mind that anyone could read it and believe it. If you could package foolishness, if you could slap stupidity between two covers, you’d end up with The Power. Read it if you must, but as you do it, you’d better generate some good feelings toward brain cells; you’ll need to attract a few to yourself if you’re replace all the ones that are sure to die as you give hours of your life to all of this drivel.

4 years 8 months ago
I kind of like Sarah Palin. I did, really, from the moment she burst onto the international scene as John McCain’s running mate. Of course I live in Canada so she would never have been my Vice President but still, I found in her qualities that I admired. Mostly I appreciated her common sense approach to politics and her aw shucks, hockey mom persona. It was attractive mostly by virtue of how approachable it made her, how normal she seemed. She compares very favorably in this way to the many career politicians who seem completely out-of-touch with the rest of us—men and women who have lived their whole lives in the upper tier of society and who can’t imagine life on the other side of the Forbe’s lists.

With an initial print run of 2.5 million copies, Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue is a guaranteed bestseller. It is interesting to note that it is selling faster than Hillary Clinton’s memoir did in the days after its release and only moderately slower than Bill Clinton’s. Going Rogue has dominated the Amazon sales charts and remains today at #1. Clearly I am not the only one who likes Palin and neither am I the only one who is interested in learning more about her. Not by a long shot.

This is not a memoir written by a politician in the twilight of her career, one who is reflecting on a long life in the public eye (as, for example, Ted Kennedy did very recently). Instead this is a memoir written by a woman who hopes that the best is yet to come. Because of this, the book often reads as an attempt to drum up support and to put to rest the tired old rumors and innuendo. We all know that she will be a front runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 (though she obviously never says anything about it in the book) and it is clear that the book is part of a carefully-crafted advance campaign. She has the difficult task of attempting to win over the American people. She needs to tread carefully, drawing in the all-important evangelical vote but without alienating herself from others. She needs to be the all-American mom but without leaving the impression that all she can be is a mom.

Palin positions herself as the anti-Obama, the anti-Democrat. Yet she also distances herself from much of the Republican party. She writes about her fiercely independent Alaskan spirit and her evangelical faith. She provides abundant examples of her leadership skills and her constant battles against corruption. She writes about the delight she finds in being both a mother and a career woman and defends her ability to do both with excellence. She does not quite seek to be all things to all men, but still she seeks to be the every-woman, or perhaps the any-woman. She portrays herself as a completely normal person who has been given remarkable opportunities. She writes often about her faith, though she is sure to mix in the occasional caveat (yes I believe in creation but don’t worry, I believe in evolution too) and the occasional “ass” or “hell” just to show that she isn’t one of those fundies. While she will discuss her faith, she says little of church or denomination or anything that might indicate that her faith is something more than personal. It is, all-in-all, a very carefully-crafted book that must have been vetted by long lines of politicos.

Along the way Palin answers many of the charges against her. She writes about Troopergate (or Tasergate depending on the side you take), about her daughter’s pregnancy, about the firing of one of her subordinates, about her infamous and ill-advised interview with Katie Couric, about the birth of her son Trig and the ridiculous assertions that he was not her son at all. The bulk of the book is given to her weeks in the international spotlight as she joined the McCain campaign trail. There are some very interesting inside looks at life in that spotlight. She tells about having press releases dealing with her family released in her name even though she had not signed off on them. She talks about the campaign completely abandoning her the very moment the election was over. She writes about the constant and vicious attacks against her that she had to defend with her own money and how she spent over a half million of her own dollars simply to head off the worst of these. We see how some people will stop at nothing (nothing!) to implicate her in something (anything!) that will discredit her. The level of corruption in the American political system is both sickening and infuriating.

Palin inadvertently raises some interesting issues for the Christian. Predominantly, Christians will need to consider the implications of having the most powerful woman in the world be a career woman who holds such a job despite having young children. While Christians will be pleased to be able to support a woman who is strongly pro-life, pro-family and pro-constitution, they will also wrestle with the fact that she will want to lead the country even as the mother of several young children. And Christians may wonder what she really believes and how strongly she believes it. She is anxious to win over evangelicals but in the end she offers little of spiritual substance beyond what we might expect from any American politician. After all, no President has yet denied being a Christian.

Going Rogue is well-written and flows very nicely. I suspect that those who hate Sarah Palin will hate her even more by the time they read the last page, and I suspect that those who love her will love her all the more. Already the book has several hundred reviews on Amazon and, judging by the ratio of positive to negative reviews, they show the expected partisan spirit.

Having finished this book I still like Sarah Palin. In my mind I have a difficult time picturing her as President of the United States of America, but I can’t deny that it would be awfully refreshing to see her bring just a little bit of common sense to the White House. Of course 2012 is still a long, long way away and a lot can change between now and then. But still, if half of what she says about herself is true and if she does half the things she claims she would do if given the opportunity to lead, well, we may all be a little bit better for it.

Buy this one. I think you’ll enjoy it.

 
4 years 9 months ago
I did not ever read Tuesdays With Morrie, a book that has been described as “The bestselling memoir of all time.” I find that claim a little difficult to believe, but I suppose that the eleven million copies in print may prove it correct. From the pen of that same author, Mitch Albom, now comes Have a Little Faith, a book that shot straight to the top of the New York Times list of bestsellers within days of its release. Like its predecessor, this book is probably best-termed a memoir, a book that describes the impact of a pair of clergymen on the life of the author.

The book begins with a request. An eighty-two year-old rabbi from Albom’s hometown asks if he will deliver his eulogy. This leads Albom on a quest to learn enough about the man that he can deliver an effective eulogy. This in turn draws him back to a consideration of the Jewish faith he had walked away from as a young adult. At the same time, near his new home in Detroit, he encounters a pastor who, despite a past in which he was a drug dealer and convict, is leading a ministry that serves the poor and destitute. The book alternates between these two worlds, between these two faiths and Albom’s attempts to get to know both of the men.

Have a Little Faith is a well-written and interesting book that has already been widely praised. The endorsements on the book’s cover range from Bob Dole to Bishop T.D. Jakes; from Rabbi Harold Kushner to Coach Tony Dungy. The book reflects the diversity of the endorsers, seeking to emphasize what unites these faiths and all others. It is a defense of the kind of faith that is so popular today-a type of religious belief that de-emphasizes distinctives and plays up the importance of unity. It is a book about religion, about faith in general, more than it is a book about the Christian faith. Unfortunately but undoubtedly, it is a book that could easily comfort a person in a faith that excludes Jesus Christ. And in that way it is a book that misrepresents the Bible, for the Scriptures will not allow for such a faith. The Bible demands exclusivity, it demands that we understand that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father.

So I guess the irony in Have a Little Faith is that the unity Albom purports to find between all faiths is a unity that comes at the expense of at least one of those faiths. It is a unity that cannot be sustained or supported by one who holds fast to the Bible. This is a book that makes for a quick and enjoyable read, but in its moral, its great theme, it falls tragically flat. It tickles the ear of those who read it, but does not strike straight to the great truths of the Christian faith.

4 years 9 months ago
It has been a couple of years since Richard Dawkins’ last major work, The God Delusion (my review). That book was a long-time fixture on the bestseller lists and served to establish Dawkins as the foremost spokesman for the New Atheists. Dawkins has long had two related emphases in his writing and speaking: the non-existence of God and the evidence in nature that evolution is responsible for all that exists. Where The God Delusion emphasized the former, his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, emphasizes the latter. It is primarily a counter-attack to advocates of Intelligent Design, and represents Dawkins’ attempt to provide natural evidence for evolution. He says simply, “Evolution is a fact, and this book will demonstrate it.”

It will not surprise you to hear that I was not convinced by Dawkins’ evidences for evolution. I will not provide a rebuttal of those evidences here since I know that others who are more qualified than I am will do just that. Instead, in just a few paragraphs, let me share a few of my thoughts on this book and what I consider its more prominent flaws.

Overall, there is a thread of arrogance in many of Dawkins’ arguments. On the one hand Dawkins wants to show how science continues to make vast and important discoveries; he wants to show that science is living and always advancing, disproving old theses in favor of new ones. On the other hand he wants to act as if all we know about evolution we know for certain. So when we see that the retina in the human eye has the appearance of being installed backwards, we can therefore state with certainty that this is the case and that it is the result of a mutation that was overcome by fortuitous adaptations in the human brain. In other words, the human eye is a mistake. But how are we to know that an advance in science, two years from now, will not show that this is no accident but is just that way it has to be—or, to borrow from the world of software, that it is a feature instead of a bug. He relies on science to prove what is absolutely true or false, never pointing out how often science has been wrong in the past and how often a new advance overshadows or disproves an old one. The history of science gives me little confidence that, in the end, he will be proven correct even with an issue as simple as the human eye.

Dawkins holds up the invariability of DNA code across all living creatures as evidence of shared ancestry (since the genetic code is shared across all living things—it is what is written in the code, not the code itself, that distinguishes one creature from another). But when I look at the same thing, I see that it points in the opposite direction. I see it, quite obviously, as evidence of a common artist. If I look at two paintings and see that they bear a great degree of similarity to one another, that they feature similar scenes and a similar brand of realism or abstraction, I do not assume that one painting evolved from the other or that together they evolved from a common ancestor; instead, I assume that they have come from the hand, the brush, of the same artist. I can grant that there is a sense in which man is related to ape and aardvark—we share a common designer. The fact that my DNA resembles that of any other living creature simply reinforces this fact. Believing in Creation does not demand that we suppose God did not reuse any parts or that every creature has to be entirely different from every other creature. One who believes in God as Creator can affirm that he is the designer and that he based all living things on common elements.

One thing I noted often in the pages of The Greatest Show on Earth is that it is often difficult to know where fact ends and speculation begins. When Dawkins says that a kind of beetle has, over evolutionary time, evolved to resemble the ant it preys upon, do we know this is the case, or is Dawkins simply filling in what he considers a logical hole? Can he prove that this beetle began looking like something other than it is now using the same scientific rigor he demands of Creationists? Or is this just speculation? In this book he rarely distinguishes between the two. Needless to say, this leads to a fair bit of potential confusion.

There is a deep and obvious irony in Dawkins’ constant use of words of agency. In his worldview there is, at least in nature and in the universe, no planning, no design, no invention, no creation, no purpose. Everything has come to be through a long process of chance. Yet throughout the book he constantly softens this harsh reality by borrowing the words of agency and purpose. Why? Could it be that the world just too hard to contemplate without injecting some kind of higher purpose into it? But there is more. Very often he turns to examples or metaphors to explain what he is trying to communicate and, again, almost invariably these examples depend on some kind of agency. So, for example, he will discuss how there came to be so many varied breeds of dog, each descended from the wolf. This may be an evidence of evolution, but if so, it evidences a designer who made the decisions about which breed would have long legs and which would have short ones, which would have big ears and which would have small ones. It was human agency that shaped each of these breeds of dog! How can this then stand as an example of the agent-less, impersonal forces of nature? Again and again he falls into this trap.

All this caused me to reflect on how cold, how stark the world would be without some kind of agency. A scientist can conjure up in his mind ways of describing the world without God, but he has a lot more trouble explaining it. Design seems to scream for a designer, elegance for agency. Even Dawkins cannot deny that the world gives the appearance of design; so his task is to prove that the most obvious explanation is not the correct one. I would challenge Dawkins in his future books not to use this cop out, not to say photosynthesis was “invented” by bacteria more than a million years ago. This is an unfair condescension that perhaps just proves that he cannot maintain his line of reasoning with any kind of consistency. Always he denies a designer, yet so often he perhaps-inadvertently invokes one.

In this book I see the importance of what we can call worldview—the way each of us understands the world, the way each of us interprets all of life. Dawkins’ worldview demands that there is no God and that everything came to be without the assistance or oversight of a designer. Not surprisingly, then, everywhere he looks he sees evidence to support his presuppositions, just as a Creationist looks to Creation and sees evidence of God. If I go out hunting for bigfoot, convinced of his existence, I will inevitably find evidence to support my theory. I will find vague footprints and half-eaten meals, each of which will prove to me that I am hot on bigfoot’s trail. My presuppositions shape my conclusions. So this book shows me again that it is impossible, or near-impossible, to overcome our worldviews.

This book shows that Dawkins is still angry, still shocked that anyone could be so hopelessly confused as to believe in God and to doubt naturalistic evolution. In fact, he refers to such people as “history-deniers,” people who see the evidence, spit on it, and turn instead to their comfortable old deities. “No reputable scientist disputes it,” he says, but of course he would use circular logic to define a reputable scientist. He would never admit that a scientist could be reputable and deny evolution. Here we have the same old Dawkins. Sure he tries a new approach, but ultimately it is more of the same.

Is there value in reading The Greatest Show on Earth?. I am inclined to think that there is, at least for some people. I find it useful to read books written from an opposing viewpoint since they provide a very natural “check” for me. They help me wrestle with not only what I believe but how I express what I believe. This book gave me a lot to think about in that regard. And, though Dawkins insisted that the unbiased reader will close the book convinced of the validity of evolution, this was not the case for me. Then again, does the unbiased reader even exist? We’ve already shown that Dawkins is far from unbiased himself.

6 years 4 months ago
I’ve read the books of today’s leading atheists—Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins. I’ve read their books and know all about their reasons for hating Christianity and despising the very idea of God. They’ve all sold millions of books and have all traveled the world with their message that God and His followers are what’s most wrong with the world. But I don’t know that anyone of them ever sounded so irrational and so ignorant as Chris Hedges (and, if you’ve read their books, you’ll know that this is saying something!).

Chris Hedges, a long-time correspondent for The New York Times and apparently a Liberal Christian, hates the Christian right, believing that it is in the midst of waging on America. He has seen this war coming for some time and feels as if he needs to speak out. Though he directs his vitriol at “radical Christians” or the “Religious Right,” he seems to define a radical Christianity as one that really just takes the Bible seriously. He has sympathy for those who regard the Bible as a flawed but useful guide to morality, but none for those who believe it to be a normative standard for life and faith. Radical Christians, the objects of this book, are really all Christians. Nowhere does he make the careful, deliberate and important distinctions that would delineate mindless radicals from rational believers. He just tosses them all together and levels both barrels.

Probably the strangest and most ironic aspect of the book is that Hedges, who lauds reason and fairness, seems willing to constantly violate his own standards. As another reviewer has aptly stated: “Hedges incessantly declares ‘rational, dispassionate, scientific analysis’ his standard for all thought and action yet uses inflammatory, demonizing, unsubstantiated language throughout. I constantly felt like Action T4 was about to be implemented - with Christians heading Hedges’ list of impediments to his Uberliberal Reich.”

Here is a sampling of what the reader will encounter and what he’ll learn in American Fascists:

“Dominionists wait only for a fiscal, social or political crisis, a moment of upheaval in the form of an economic meltdown or another terrorist strike on American soil. to move to reconfigure the political system.”

“The split in America, rather than simply economic, is between those who embrace reason, who function in the real world of cause and effect, and those who, numbed by isolation and despair, now seek meaning in a mythological world of intuition, a world that is no longer reality-based, a world of magic.”

“What is happening in America is revolutionary. A group of religious utopians, with the sympathy and support of tens of millions of Americans, are slowly dismantling democratic institutions to establish a religious tyranny, the springboard to an American fascism.”

“Doubt is a sin. Questioning is a sin. The only proper relationship is submission to those above you, the abandonment of critical thought and the mouthing of religious jargon that is morally charged and instantly identifies believers as part of the same, hermetic community.”

“The hyermasculinity of radical Christian conservatism, which crushes the independence and self-expression of women, is a way for men in the movement to compensate for the curtailing of their own independence, their object obedience to church authorities and the calls for sexual restraint.”

“The danger of creationism is not that it allows followers to retreat into a world of certainty and magic—what it does—but that it allows all facts to be accepted or discarded according to the dictates of a preordained ideology. Creationism removes the follower from the rational, reality-based world.”

“It is the duty of the Christian foot soldiers to bring about the Christian utopia. When it is finished, when all have been stripped of legal and social protection, it will be too late to resist. This is the genius of totalitarian movements. They convince the masses to agitate for their own incarceration.”

“When there is no other place to turn for help other than the world of miracles and magic, mediated by those who grow rich of those who suffer, when fealty to an ideology becomes a litmus test for individual worth, tyranny follows.”

“This movement is bent on our destruction.”

“The radical Christian Right calls for exclusion, cruelty and intolerance in the name of God.”

And so it goes, though thankfully for only 200 pages. The pattern is established early on: half-mad, unsubstantiated ranting and unfair, biased descriptions through the first ninety five percent of the chapter with a summary of what it all means and why it is so dangerous in the final few paragraphs. It’s tiresome, it’s ridiculous, and it’s just so utterly irrational. Like many of today’s foremost atheists, Hedges can say nothing positive about Christianity. It is all, entirely evil, it seems. We’ll claim that Christians desire a return to slavery while ignoring that they paved the way for its abolition. We’ll claim they are all greedy while ignoring the innumerable sacrifices by Christians for the poor and disadvantaged. We’ll ignore all the good they do, and paint them instead with a broad, hyperbolic brush. Reason most not sell books or foster invites to the talk shows.

If you are a Christian I am sure you won’t recognize yourself in the pages of American Fascists. The honest and thoughtful reader will have to admit the same.

6 years 6 months ago

I am certain that there is no other book I’ve been asked to review more times than William P. Young’s The Shack, a book that is currently well within the top-100 best-selling titles at Amazon. The book, it seems, is becoming a hit and especially so among students and among those who are part of the Emergent Church. In the past few weeks many concerned readers have written to ask if I would be willing to read it and to provide a review. Because I am always interested in books that are popular among Christians, I was glad to comply.

The Amazon reader reviews for The Shack are remarkable. With 102 reviews already posted, it is maintaining a five-star rating with fully ninety three of the reviewers awarding five stars. Only two have offered one star. A search of blogs and websites turns up near-unanimous enthusiastic (and almost unbridled) praise for the book. “This book is a life-changer, a transformer.” “[The Shack] has become a favorite book OF ALL TIME.” “I am changed. I pray indelibly. My oh my!” This book, which was released in May but which has already gone into its fourth printing, is making a major impact. It has obviously struck a chord with Christians.

I’ll warn in advance that this review is going to be long. My major focus will be the book’s content though I’ll pause to glance fleetingly at the book’s style as well. Because I’ve received so many questions and because the author covers so much ground in the book (and sometimes in a way that is somewhat unclear) I am going to proceed carefully and with many quotes.

There are two things I would like to note about this type of book—theological fiction. First, because of the limitations of the genre, it is sometimes difficult to really know what an author means by what he says. There is often some question as to what comes from the author and what comes from the characters. The author cannot always adequately explain himself; nor can he provide footnotes or references to Scripture. It can be challenging, then, to turn to the Bible to ensure that what he teaches is true. This makes the task of discernment doubly difficult, for one must first interpret the fiction to understand what is being said and then seek to compare that to the Bible. We will do well to keep this in mind as we proceed.

Second, we must also realize that, because of the emotional impact of reading good fiction, it can be easy to allow it to become manipulative and to allow the emotion of a moment to bypass our ability to discern what is true and what is not. This is another thing the reader must keep in mind. We cannot trust our laughter or our tears but must allow our powers of discernment to be trained to distinguish good from evil (see Hebrews 5:14). Discernment is primarily a Spirit-empowered discipline of the mind rather than an emotional response.

So let’s look at this book together, doing the task God requires of us when he tells us to be men and women of discernment—Christians who heed God’s admonition to “test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” We’ll simply compare what Young teaches to the Bible.

The Book as a Book

First, a word about the book as it is written. William Young shows himself to be a capable writer, though I would not have believed it through the first couple of chapters. The book began with far too many awkward sentences and awkward sentence constructs (e.g. “One can almost hear a unified sigh rise from the nearby city and surrounding countryside where Nature has intervened to give respite to the weary humans slogging it out within her purview”). But as it went on and as the story took over the book became easier to read. The story itself is interesting enough, though certainly it lacks originality. The last chapter should have been left on the editing room floor and the final paragraph (before the “After Words”) was a ridiculously terse attempt to provide closure to remaining plot lines. But on the whole the book is readable and enjoyable. Never does it become boring, even after long pages of nothing but dialog.

But Young did not write this book for the story. This book is all about the content and about the teaching it contains. The book’s reviews focus not on the quality of the story but on its spiritual or emotional impact. Eugene Peterson grasps this, saying in his glowing endorsement, “When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel on the order of “The Shack.” This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” did for his. It’s that good!” Could it really be that good? Is it good enough to warrant positive comparison to the English-language book that has been read more widely than any other save the Bible? Let’s turn to the book’s content and find out.

What Is The Shack?

The Shack revolves around Mack (Mackenzie) Philips. Four years before this story begins, Mack’s young daughter, Missy, was abducted during a family vacation. Though her body was never found, the police did find evidence in an abandoned shack to prove that she had been brutally murdered by a notorious serial killer who preyed on young girls. As the story begins, Mack, who has been living in the shadow of his Great Sadness, receives a strange note that is apparently from God. God invites Mack to return to this shack for a get together. Though uncertain, Mack visits the scene of the crime and there has a weekend-long encounter with God, or, more properly, with the godhead.

What should you do when you come to the door of a house, or cabin in this case, where God might be? Should you knock? Presumably God already knew that Mack was there. Maybe he ought to simply walk in and introduce himself, but that seemed equally absurd. And how should he address him? Should he call him Father, or Almighty One, or perhaps Mr. God, and would it be best if he fell down and worshipped, not that he was really in the mood.

As he tried to establish some inner mental balance, the anger that he thought had so recently died inside him began to emerge. No longer concerned or caring about what to call God and energized by his ire, he walked up to the door. Mack decided to bang loudly and see what happened, but just as he raised his fist to do so, the door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman.

This large and oh-so-stereotypical matronly African-American woman is God (or at least an anthropomorphism of God she chose to take on in order to communicate with Mack). Throughout the story she is known as Papa. Near the end, because Mack requires a father figure, she turns into a pony-tailed, grey-haired man, but otherwise God is this woman. Jesus is a young to middle-aged man of Middle-Eastern (i.e. Jewish) descent with a big nose and rather plain looks while the Holy Spirit is played by Sarayu, a small, delicate and eclectic woman of Asian descent. By this point many people will choose to close the book and be done with it. But for the purposes of this review, let’s just assume you are able to get past seeing God and the Holy Spirit portrayed in this way and let’s press on.

There is very little action in The Shack and the bulk of the book is dialog, mostly as the members of the Trinity communicate with Mack, though occasionally we see glimpses into their relationship with one another. The banter between the members of the Trinity, most of which is geared towards helping us understand the love that exists between them, leads to some rather bizarre dialog. Take this as a typical example:

Mack was shocked at the scene in front of him. It appeared that Jesus had dropped a large bowl of some sort of batter or sauce on the floor, and it was everywhere. It must have landed close to Papa because the lower portion of her skirt and bare feet were covered in the gooey mess. All three were laughing so hard that Mack didn’t think they were breathing. Sarayu said something about humans being clumsy and all three started roaring again. Finally, Jesus brushed past Mack and returned a minute later with a large basin of water and towels. Sarayu had already started wiping the goop from the floor and cupboards, but Jesus went straight to Papa and, kneeling at her feet, began to wipe off the front of her clothes. He worked down to her feet and gently lifted one foot at a time, which he directed into the basin where he cleaned and massaged it.

“Ooooh, that feels soooo good!” exclaimed Papa, as she continued her tasks at the counter.

Young covers a wide variety of theological topics in this book, each of which is relevant to the theme of Mack’s suffering and his inability to trust in a God who could let his daughter be treated in such a horrifying way. The author is unafraid to tackle subjects of deep theological import—a courageous thing to do in so difficult a genre as fiction. The reader will find himself diving into deep waters as he reads this book.

Much of what Young writes is good and even helpful (again, assuming that the reader can see past the human personifications of God). He affirms the absolute nature of what is good and teaches that evil exists only in relation to what is good; he challenges the reader to understand that God is inherently good and that we can only truly trust God if we believe Him to be good; he acknowledges the human tendency to create our image of God by looking at human qualities and assuming that God is simply the same but more so; he attempts to portray the loving relationships within the Trinity; and so on. For these areas I am grateful as they provided helpful correctives to many false understandings of God.

But the book also raised several concerns. Young covers many topics and time would fail me to discuss each of them. Instead, I will look at concerns with some of the book’s broader themes and will do so under several theological headings.

The Trinity

Young teaches that the Trinity exists entirely without hierarchy and that any kind of hierarchy is the result of sin. The Trinity, he says, “are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being’… Hierarchy would make no sense among us.” Now it’s possible that he is referring to a kind of dominance or grade or command structure that may well be foreign to the godhead. But a reading of the Bible will prove that hierarchy does, indeed, exist even where there is no sin. After all, the angels exist in a hierarchy and have done so since before the Fall. Also, in heaven there will be degrees of reward and there will be some who are appointed to special positions (such as the Apostles). And the Bible makes it clear that there is some kind of hierarchy even within the Trinity. The Spirit and the Son have submitted themselves to the Father. The task of the Spirit is to lead people to the Son who in turn brings glory to the Father. Never do we find the Father submitting to the Spirit or to the Son. Their hierarchy is perfect—without anger or malice or envy, but it is a hierarchy nonetheless.

There are other teachings about the Trinity that concerned me. For example, Papa says “I am truly human, in Jesus.” This simply cannot be true. God [the Father—a term that the author avoids] is not fully human in Jesus. This melds the two persons of God in a way that is simply unbiblical. Some of what Young teaches is novel and even possible, but without Scriptural support. For example, he teaches that the triune nature of God was an absolute necessity since without it God would be incapable of love. His reasoning is not perfectly clear but seems to be that if God did not have such a relationship “within himself” he would be unable to love. But this is not taught in the Bible.

Overall, I had to conclude that Young has an inadequate and often-unbiblical understanding of the Trinity. While granting that the Trinity is a very difficult topic to understand and one that we cannot know fully, there are several indications that he often blurs the distinct persons of the Trinity along with their roles and their unique attributes. Combined with his novel but unsupported conjectures, this is a serious concern.

Submission

Young uses the discussion about the Trinity as a bridge to a the subject of submission. Here he teaches that each member of the Trinity submits to the other. Jesus says, “That’s the beauty you see in my relationship with Abba and Sarayu. We are indeed submitted to one another and have always been so and will always be. Papa is as much submitted to me as I to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.” Why would the God of the universe seek to be submitted to mere humans? “Because we want you to join us in our circle of relationship.” Genuine relationships, according to the author, must be marked by mutual submission. “As the crowning glory of Creation, you were made in our image, unencumbered by structure and free to simply ‘be’ in relationship with me and one another. If you had truly learned to regard each other’s concerns as significant as your own, there would be no need for hierarchy.” Submission, according to this book, must be mutual, so that husbands submit to wives while wives submit to husbands, and parents submit to children while children submit to parents. While the Bible does teach that we are to submit to one another, it also teaches that God has ordained some kinds of hierarchy. While a husband is to submit his desires to his wife, even to the point of sacrificing his life for her, he is never called to submit to her in an authoritative sense. Wives, though, are commanded to submit to their husbands, acknowledging that the husband is the head of the family. Similarly, all people are to submit to the God-given authorities and every person is responsible to submit to God.

This understanding of absolute equality not just in value (which the Bible affirms) but also in role and function (which the Bible does not affirm), leads to a strange idea about why God created Eve out of Adam. He teaches that it was crucial for man be created before woman, but with woman hidden inside man. Had this not happened, there could not have been a proper circle of relationship since otherwise man would always come from woman (through childbirth), allowing her to claim a dominant position. She came out of him and now all men come out of her. This allows total, absolute equality, says Young. I can think of absolutely no biblical proof for this and neither does the author offer any.

And so we see that Young uses The Shack to teach an unbiblical understanding of submission. And he uses this topic to bridge to another.

Free Will

Young’s understanding of free will seems to follow from submission. “I don’t want slaves to do my will,” says Jesus. “I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me.” Speaking in veiled terms about conversion or something like it, Jesus says, “We will come and live our life inside of you, so that you begin to see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, and touch with our hands, and think like we do. But, we will never force that union with you. If you want to do your thing, have at it. Time is on our side.” God, it seems, has already forgiven all humans for their sin and has willingly submitted himself to them, though only some people will choose relationship. He is fully reconciled to all human beings and simply waits for them to do their part. Never does Young clearly discuss the consequences that will face those who refuse to accept this offer of union.

Overall, Young presents a God who is unable or unwilling to break into history in any consequential way. He is sovereign at times, but certainly not so in conversion (a topic that receives only scant attention) and is limited by the free will choices of human beings. Scant attention is paid to God’s fore-ordination, the understanding that nothing happens without it somehow being part of His decree (even while God cannot be accused of being the author of evil). Papa explains to Mack, “There was no way to create freedom without a cost.” But nowhere in the Bible do we find that God is somehow made captive by human free will and that He has to allow things to proceed in order to maintain His own integrity as Creator. Always God is sovereign, even over the free will choices of men. Our inability to understand how this can be does not preclude us from the responsibility of believing it.

Forgiveness

Much of the story focuses on forgiveness. Mack has to learn to forgive first God (or at least to come to an intellectual understanding of why God was unable to intervene to save Missy) and then, at the book’s culmination, to forgive the murderer. I am adamantly opposed to the idea that we would ever need to forgive God for anything. However, because this teaching is seen only vaguely in the novel, I will pass over it for now and turn to another area of forgiveness—that of unconditional forgiveness.

Nowhere in Scripture will we find the idea that we can or should forgive an unrepentant person for this kind of crime. Rather, Scripture makes it clear that repentance must precede forgiveness. Without repentance there can be no forgiveness. This is true of God’s offer of forgiveness to us and, as we are to model this in our human relationships, must be true of how we offer forgiveness to others. So when, at the book’s climax, Mack cries out “I forgive you” to the murderer (who is not present and has not sought forgiveness) he cannot offer true forgiveness. Neither can true forgiveness exist where Mack is unable to pursue reconciliation with this man. Forgiveness makes no sense and means nothing if we require it in this way. It may make a person feel better about himself, but it cannot bring about true forgiveness and true reconciliation. And so Young teaches a therapeutic, inadequate and unbiblical understanding of forgiveness.

Scripture and Revelation

There are few doctrines more important to Christian living than this one—understanding how it is that God chooses to communicate with human beings. Though the Bible teaches that Scripture is the “norming norm,” many Christians give precedence to other supposed forms of revelation, and particularly promptings, leadings and “still, small voices.” Sure enough, such an emphasis is seen clearly in The Shack. How will we hear from God in day-to-day life (away from the miraculous shack)? “You will learn to hear my thoughts in yours,” says Sarayu. “Of course you will make mistakes; everybody makes mistakes, but you will begin to better recognize my voice as we continue to grow our relationship.” And where will we find the Spirit? “You might see me in a piece of art, or music, or silence, or through people, or in Creation, or in your joy and sorrow. My ability to communicate is limitless, living and transforming, and it will always be tuned to Papa’s goodness and love. And you will hear and see me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship—a way of coming to be with us.”

Beyond looking for new revelation, The Shack says little about how God has communicated or will continue to communicate with us in Scripture. There are a couple of times that it mentions the Bible, but never does it point to Scripture as a real authority or as the sufficient Word of God. “In seminary [Mac] had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects… Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?” Here we see Young pointing away from Scripture rather than towards it. Through Mack he scoffs at the idea that God has spoken authoritatively and sufficiently through the Bible. And if he points away from Scripture he points towards subjective promptings and leadings.

Though common, such teaching is dangerous and directly detracts from the sufficiency of Scripture. When we admit that God has not, in the Bible, said all that He needs to say to us, we open the doors for all manner of new revelation, much of which may contradict the Bible. What authority is there if not the Bible? Ultimately the issue of revelation is an issue of authority and too many Christians are willing to trust their own authority over the Bible’s. What authority does Young rely on as he brings teaching here in The Shack? Does he look to a higher authority or does he look mostly to himself? The reader can have no confidence that Young loves and respects God’s Word has He chose to give it to us in Scripture.

Salvation

The book contains surprisingly little teaching about salvation. When Young does discuss conversion, he places it firmly in the camp of relationship but also uses the stereotypical phrases such as “this is not a religion” and “Jesus isn’t a Christian.” Jesus apparently loves all people in exactly the same way, having judged them worthy of his love. Young also wades dangerously close to universalism saying that Jesus has no interest in making people into Christians. Rather, no matter what faith they come from, he wishes to “join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa.” He denies that all roads lead to him (since most roads lead nowhere) but says instead, “I will travel any road to find you.” Whether Young holds to universalism or not, and whether he believes that all faiths can lead a person to God, the book neither affirms nor refutes.

Conclusion

Many other topics receive less attention but also raise concerns. For example, Jesus comments on religion, politics and economics saying “They are the man-created trinity of errors that ravage the earth and deceives those I care about.” But Young offers no biblical proof that this is something Jesus would teach. In other places God seems to gloss over sin, judging certain sins almost inconsequential. And so it goes.

So where does all of this leave us? It is clear to me that The Shack is a mix of good and bad. Young teaches much that is of value and he teaches it in a slick and effective way. Sadly, though, there is much bad mixed in with the good. As we pursue his major theological thrusts we see that many of them wander away, by varying degrees, from what God tells us in Scripture.

Despite the great amount of poor theology, my greatest concern is probably this one: the book has a quietly subversive quality to it. Young seems set on undermining orthodox Christianity. For example, at one point Mack states that, despite years of seminary and years of being a Christian, most of the things taught to him at the shack have never occurred to him before. Later he says, “I understand what you’re saying. I did that for years after seminary. I had the right answers, sometimes, but I didn’t know you. This weekend, sharing life with you has been far more illuminating than any of those answers.”

Throughout the book there is this kind of subversive strain teaching that new and fresh revelation is much more relevant and important than the kind of knowledge we gain in sermons or seminaries or Scripture. Young’s readers seem to be picking up on this. Read this brief Amazon review as an example: “Wish I could take back all the years in seminary! The years the locusts ate???? Systematic theology was never this good. Shack will be read again and again. With relish. Shared with friends, family, and strangers. I can fly! It’s a gift. ‘Discipleship’ will never be lessons again.” Another reviewer warns that many Christians will find the book difficult to read because of their “modern” mindsets. “If one is coming from a strong, propositional and, perhaps, fundamentalist perspective to the Bible, this book certainly will be threatening.” Still another says “This book was so shocking to my “staid” Christianity but it was eye opening to my own thoughts about who I think God is.” At several points I felt as if the author was encouraging the reader to doubt what they know of Christianity—to deconstruct what they know of Christian theology—and to embrace something new. But the faith Young reconstructs is simply not the faith of the Bible.

Eugene Peterson says this book is as good and as important as The Pilgrim’s Progress. Well, it really is not. It is neither as good nor as original a story and it lacks the theological precision of Bunyan’s work. But really, this is a bit of a facile comparison. The Pilgrim’s Progress, after all, is allegory—a story that has a second distinct meaning that is partially hidden behind its literal meaning. The Shack is not meant to be allegory. Nor can The Shack quite be equated with a story like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where C.S. Lewis simply asked (and answered) this kind of question: “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?” The Shack is in a different category than these more notable Christian works. It seeks to represent the members of the Trinity as they are (or as they could be) and to suggest through them what they might teach were they to appear to us in a similar situation. There is a sense of attempted or perceived reality in this story that is missing in the others. This story is meant to teach theology that Young really believes to be true. The story is a wrapper for the theology. In theory this is well and good; in practice the book is only as good as its theology. And in this case, the theology just is not good enough.

Because of the sheer volume of error and because of the importance of the doctrines reinvented by the author, I would encourage Christians, and especially young Christians, to decline this invitation to meet with God in The Shack. It is not worth reading for the story and certainly not worth reading for the theology.

Pages