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Learning From Bad Books, Part 6

People yelled at me a lot two summers ago for fault-finding with a popular Christian book I had not, technically, read myself. Yet it’s odd how many people never denied my perceptions of this book, which were based on negative […]
| Oct 14, 2010 | No comments | Series:

People yelled at me a lot two summers ago for fault-finding with a popular Christian book I had not, technically, read myself. Yet it’s odd how many people never denied my perceptions of this book, which were based on negative reviews by those who had read the book and were informed.

Last week, during the same bookstore visit I mentioned before, I found that book and tried a version of Bible roulette. You know, flip to a random page (122) and get the day’s “word”:

[Question from Mack:] “Isn’t there a chain of command within the Godhead?”

[“Jesus”:] “Chain of command? That sounds ghastly.”

[“Papa,” symbolizing God the Father:] “We have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. […] What you’re seeing here is a relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we’re always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours.”

The day’s “word” was un-Biblical. Straw-man fallacy, false dichotomy, argumentum ad hominem. In short, Shack fail. (Side note: even a liberal version of Jesus sounds wimpy by uttering the Victorian-sounding word “ghastly.”) And furthermore, Christian fantasy fail.

Because even fantasy has its limits. It must seem realistic. And whether applying to The Shack or my favorite fiction foil in this series, I contend this is true: any fantastic story set in this world, but violating specific tenets here, slams a reader’s formerly suspended disbelief into the ground, and worse, slams God and His truth.

Bad fiction, worse doctrine

Most of my discussion over The Shack was at several Boundless webzine blogs, including this. Writer Tom Neven followed that with reminders, not only about the need to discern according to Scripture, but about fiction.

While fiction is by definition a story that doesn’t pretend to be true, it still must adhere to certain basic rules. You can create any universe you like, but once you’ve created it, you must stick to its internal logic. If zurts are green and fly and jurts are blue and don’t fly, you cannot willy-nilly switch these “facts” around, even if they are totally products of your imagination. And if for some reason in your story we see a blue jurt that is flying, you’d better have a good narrative explanation for why or else you’ve confused the reader.

If you’re going to ground your fiction in the real world, then it must conform to the rules of the real world we live in. No unicorns or magic squirrels allowed. Even one of my favorite literary genres, Magical Realism, adheres to certain basic rules.

So if you’re going to have God as a character in your real-world fiction, then you must deal with God as he has revealed himself in Scripture. By using the Trinity as characters in this story set in the real world, The Shack author William P. Young is clearly indicating that he’s supposedly talking about the God of Christianity. But God has said certain things about himself in Scripture, and much of what Young does in this novel contradicts that. I don’t care if he’s trying to make God more “accessible.” He’s violated the rules of fiction.

So “but it’s only fiction” isn’t an excuse for writing untrue things about God. That’s not only slandering God, but insulting a reader’s intelligence — especially Christians.

If you’re a Christian and your story has slightly unorthodox elements — say, characters who return to Earth from the dead, or who achieve sinless perfection in this life or something — I’ll go with that, at least for a while, so long as it’s integral to a well-written story. After all, most people do the same thing while enjoying a non-Christian story (and non-Christians do that while enjoying a Christian story). But if a writer intentionally makes claims about the real God that Scripture shows are untrue, Christian readers will likely reject him — especially if those points are mere propaganda, or conversely have nothing to do with the actual story and are pointless.

In the Millennium end-times books that started this series, wrong ideas about God are rampant, for sure, yet often aren’t even integral to the story. In Beyond the Millennium, two angels (who have already been so clichéd as to be embarrassing) dig it in even worse when, at the very end, they offer two Scooby-Doo-villain-esque demons a chance to be saved. Perhaps even sillier, another divergent, propagandistic scene shows a psychiatrist (hey! like the author, it turns out) feeding humanism slogans to a patient, such as “listen to your feelings.”

‘Metaphor’ as an escape hatch?

Not long ago, having clearly not learned my lesson before, I began another short “research project” about The Shack: talking with strangers in yet another Facebook discussion. Many of the same you-haven’t-read-it objections arose (yet no one said I was stating untruths about it).

Yet something new came up, something I hadn’t considered: using “metaphor” as a magic word.

Figure A: someone said he could defend The Shack because it did not purport to give “facts about God.” “Heck, where does the Bible even do that?” he asked. His support for this eyebrow-raising claim, not just about The Shack but the Bible itself? He said that’s a metaphor.

Have you ever heard of a metaphor? If the Bible says, God is a mothering hen. does that make it a fact?

So we’ve redefined the word metaphor. Once it meant a figure of speech or mental image to suggest allegories or parallels between one or more elements. So though a metaphor has more than one meaning — this, that or more — it logically also has a not something else meaning. But in this “new” definition, apparently metaphor can mean anything we believe it means.

Better living through non-communication and obfuscation? Hardly. And not better stories, either — or an escape hatch, magic word, spell or anything else to make it easier to write lies about God, a real-life Person, and escape consequences by calling them “metaphors.”

Learning from nonfiction

Discerning readers and authors can evade “arguments”-through-fiction that slander God, the same way we do this in real-life living: keeping up with solid, Biblically based nonfiction.

To be sure, our first source is Scripture itself. Also helpful are books by Christian pastors and authors that exposit truth, either by Biblical book or by topic — not just the personal-devotion, help-us-develop-character variety, but the deep-doctrine-magic, focused-on-the-Gospel variety.

I once heard someone (I think it was a Christian fiction author) claim quite contentedly that he never read Christian nonfiction. It’s pointless, he said, adding that almost all the books he’s seen are rehashing the same topics. Instead he keeps up with fiction and certain publications about fields that interest him. Now, perhaps he hadn’t found the good books, but even reviewing truths we already know is vital to Christians; we can never exhaust this. Moreover, thanks in part to the internet, we have access to even better materials emphasizing the Gospel and God’s truth.

Critiques from friends and other writers could also prove invaluable. Already writing is such a personal experience, so it makes sense that those who help us in our Christian walks could easily blend that task with finding style errors or suggesting revisions. When I read this, it seems to say God doesn’t/does (et cetera), or that (truth) isn’t true, so you might change that. Or, Your theme here could be much more subtle/clear/powerful if you added (this and such).

Denying the value of Biblical truth leads not just to a “priesthood of artists” who may work apart from glorifying God. It leads to poor storytelling, and worse, responsibility for calling evil good.

(Finally, next week: Christian accountability may also help cut out a novel’s cheese. Yes, there will certainly be corny quotes.)

E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Kaci Hill
Member

People yelled at me a lot two summers ago for fault-finding with a popular Christian book I had not, technically, read myself. Yet it’s odd how many people never denied my perceptions of this book, which were based on negative reviews by those who had read the book and were informed.

Well, I’ve never read it either, likely never will, and probably would have called foul on you too. Just to be fair.

Cited text:

[Question from Mack:] “Isn’t there a chain of command within the Godhead?”

[“Jesus”:] “Chain of command? That sounds ghastly.”

[“Papa,” symbolizing God the Father:] “We have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. […] What you’re seeing here is a relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we’re always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours.”

Yeah, if he’s going for modern vernacular, ‘ghastly’ was not the word he needed there. Second, Mack’s question is badly worded and never corrected. But people have no concept of mutual submission these days, so it’s not surprising that the idea that Jesus submits to his Father’s will even though they are one and the same is lost.

As for that answer…I’m not going to even bother with it. This entire section has at its core a problem of thinking of the Trinity as three gods on an equal plane, not the Three-in-One.

So “but it’s only fiction” isn’t an excuse for writing untrue things about God. That’s not only slandering God, but insulting a reader’s intelligence — especially Christians…

On the one hand, I agree. On the other, I suppose I can’t fault a character for having bad theology. I guess it’s in how it’s done.

Figure A: someone said he could defend The Shack because it was didn’t claim to give “facts about God.” “Heck, where does the Bible even do that?” he asked. His support for this eyebrow-raising claim, not just about The Shack but the Bible itself? He said that’s a metaphor.

Well, it’s not really a true “defense” when Jesus himself is saying it in the book. That’s just a poor attempt at a dodge. If a human says it, or the god of a particular universe (such as in a sci-fi or fantasy world) is slightly different, well, it’s not as big a deal because that’s the god of that world, not ours. But, to completely rip off another statement I heard about the book, “If you’re going to put words in God’s mouth, they better be correct.”

Tim George
Guest

Thank you for voicing so many things I have tried to sound out about The Shack. If the problem with the book was simply bad writing I could live with that. As far as I’m concerned Dan Brown is a terrible writer but millions read him. If The Shack was a non-fiction theology book filled with bad theology (as in a erroneous view of the Godhead), I could live with that. When people read non-fiction they should be discerning about everything they read.

The problems with The Shack is the author hides under the guise of fiction while presenting views about the One very real God and how He works in this very real world. I’m all for speculative fiction and read a good bit. Even so, there is no liberty to speculate about God Himself in ways that are foreign to His own revelation.

teamcurtisfamily
Guest

If it isn’t Biblical, it isn’t worth reading.
Blessings,
Ron

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

I finally went ahead and read it (got it from a library so didn’t have to give my money to support the thing and help it stay on the best-seller lists). I ended up writing ten blog posts in response but mostly about the theology, not the fiction.

Still, I agree with you and think I argued a similar point in the discussion connected with your original post—basically that contemporary fiction or historical fiction must be faithful to existent rules.

However, in reading the quote from Tom Neven’s article, I have to disagree—in a story set in the real world, one way to write fantasy is to add fantasy elements such as a magic squirrel or a unicorn. Or a hidden wizardry world.

BUT, the elements that are consistent with reality must be consistent with reality.

So in The Shack I can say Mr. Young employed fantasy when he showed God as three persons with physical bodies (one a woman and one morphing from woman to man at will). I cannot, however, consider the things he says (or has the characters say) about God’s nature as part of the fantasy or even the fiction equation.

To illustrate, I can put a magic squirrel, one that talks, perhaps, into my contemporary story if I want to. But if I make that squirrel blood-sucking, I no longer have a squirrel. I have created a vampire-squirrel. It’s a different entity from an actual squirrel. I’ve changed the nature of squirrel-ness. My story is no longer set in reality. To say that I am showing what a squirrel is really like through the vehicle of story would be a lie. I would be deceiving any readers who come away from the book saying, Now I understand squirrels so much better.

Becky

Kaci Hill
Member

We declared squirrels evil in middle school, so calling them undead bloodsuckers isn’t a huge stretch for me.

::runs madly from the discussion::

Steve Taylor
Guest
Steve Taylor

As an ardent appoanant of The Shack I find it great wisdom on your behalf to dislike or disagree with something without reading it. Who said we have to submit ourselves to things we find offensive just so we can disagreew with them? (i.e. I’ve never seen child porn and never will but I seriously disagee with it) I read The Shack twice. My copy has yellow highlighter on every page! I found it so anti-biblical I could have easily written a book on the false teaching (not to mention that as a novel it stinks). I even listened to interviews and sermons by Mr. Young just to see where he was coming from. This said, I was able to keep many people I personally know from reading the book. They respect my commitment to Biblical Truth and therefore respected my oppinion on the novel. Were they wrong for not reading The Shack? I should say not. And neither were you.

Steve Taylor
Guest
Steve Taylor

Sorry for the bad spelling in the post above. I forgot to spell-check it. I think I have Alzheimer’s.

Kaci Hill
Member

I go back and forth on that one, Steve. I don’t think it’s a blanket statement. Moreover, what is child porn is obvious. What someone declares “heresy” might really be code talk for “I don’t like it” or “I disagree with it.”

As far as a book goes, I think if you want to say “The Shack portrays a bad picture of God,” that’s fine. But if you want to explain to someone why, you’re going to have to give most people more than “Well, I heard such and such.” It may be true. But people don’t like relying on second and third hand information (well, in important things, anyway).

It’s one thing for me to disagree with the Koran. It’s another for me to have read part of it and be able to dialogue with a Muslim about why I think it’s wrong.

I suppose it depends on what your goals are. Sometimes, though, people consider you more credible if you’ve taken the time to read it. And I’m not sure, again, that child porn is a proper comparison in this instance. I mean, many people have read The Prayer of Jabez and The Purpose Driven Life. I personally haven’t – and likely never will. Why? I have problems with a single random verse in the middle of a genealogy being made into a whole treatise; and I have problems with reading a book everyone is reading.

At any rate. I’m tired and missed the part about the interviews and sermons you’ve heard with him. That makes sense. I think I”m tired and being contrary today.

Steve Taylor
Guest
Steve Taylor

Kaci, I agree with some of your points but I’ll stand by mine. In reference to The Shack there are hundreds of negative reviews of the book (even two complete books written about it) and therefore it’s not necessary to read it in order to have a good understanding of its contents. If a Christian is called to an apologetics ministry then by all means you should study all the false doctrines, religions and philosophies our world has to offer but for the rest of us who are not called to spend our time learning about the enemy I’d say learning from someone we respect is good enough.

Example: I’ve read Walther Martin’s “Kingdom of the Cults” and found it to be excellent and pretty much all I really need to know on the world’s major cults and ‘religions’. Sure, it’s second hand but Walter was a learned and brilliant man.

Kaci Hill
Member

No worries. Like I said, I don’t completely disagree.

I suppose my real-world example is this: I know of someone (we’ll call him Fred) who read part of a novel and dismissed it for its “unbiblical” worldview. The problem: Fred does not believe in original sin, nor does he believe that innocents suffer along with the guilty sometimes. So he never finished the book. Fred has publicly slammed the book and said some unflattering things about the writer.

I promise I’m not suggesting you or Stephen are doing the same. (Actually, I agree with the criticism of The Shack, and I haven’t read it. From what I can tell and the excerpts I’ve run across – just what he puts in Jesus’ mouth alone is inappropriate. I can get passed some of it.) I suppose my hesitation is more that because of my response to Fred’s actions, I now have trouble doing the same. I thought Harry Potter was evil until I actually read it. (Well, and I had heard some positives from a good source.)

Anyway, again, not really disagreeing, just suggesting that in some cases it’s more obvious than others. And, in all fairness, with me it depends on who’s telling me it’s heresy. But that’s just me.

Thanks again. 0=)

Kaci Hill
Member

Addendum: Major typo. I haven’t read Harry Potter. I’ve seen movies 2-7. My apologies.