An Invitation to Christian Analytic Theology: A Guest Review

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This is a guest review from Ben Nasmith, an excellent young theologian and current student at Briercrest Seminary. Be sure to check out Ben’s own blog, Meta-Theology Quarterly, as well. Disclaimer: I received this book as a free review copy from IVP which I’ve asked Ben to review.

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As an interdisciplinary field, analytic theology faces trouble from the start. Few people posses both the needed theological erudition and general competence in analytic philosophy. Those with one often mistrust those with the other. As such, most philosophers and theologians are non-specialists when it comes to analytic theology. Thomas McCall aims to bring us up to speed with his new book: An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (IVP, 2015).

 McCall defines analytic theology as theology “attuned to and committed to the ‘goals and ambitions’ of analytic philosophy” (21). Analytic theologians do theology in the style of analytic philosophy. This style values conceptual clarity, precise argument, and logical coherence. Analytic writers use metaphor and antitheses with caution. Paradox and mystery are permitted, but never to conceal logical incoherence. 

Some theologians associate analytic theology with Christian analytic philosophy. That field tends to major on prolegomenon, like the existence of God or the rationality of theism. By association, analytic theology seems inseparable from conservative apologetics, natural theology, and a general naiveté of the history of doctrine.

 McCall assures us that this is not the case. The analytic method could just as easily serve liberation theology, Barthian theology, or an analysis of the patristics. The analytic method must be distinguished from the content of typical Christian philosophical work.

McCall practices some analytic theology in his book. He address a variety of theological topics, including perfect being theology, scripture as “revelational control” for theology, D.A. Carson’s compatibilism, the metaphysics ofincarnation Christology, the historical Adam, and evolution vs. creationism. McCall also discusses various challenges facing analytic theologians. These include the broad competencies required to practice analytic theology and the ever present danger of intellectual pride.

All told, this book offers an informative introduction in the analytic style to a variety of questions. I for one value analytic theology. I am thankful for this book and excited to see the field grow. However, I have some concerns that McCall does not address to my satisfaction. I’ll outline these below, along with a way forward based on my reading of Christian analytic philosopher Paul K. Moser.


First, McCall is quick to praise the virtues of the analytic method and slow to warn of its vices. He likens analytic theology to scholasticism without addressing scholasticism’s shortcomings. The analytic method is a worthy servant but a poor master. If analytic theology is “attuned to and committed to the ‘goals and ambitions’ of analytic philosophy,” it would be prudent to question whether those goals and ambitions serve theology well.

Theology as mere truth-seeking about God would face no conflict in a marriage to analytic philosophy. But theology cannot be so reduced. Theology seeks todiscern the word of God and articulate it. This word, and its existential freight, is impatient toward mere inquiry for inquiry’s sake. The analytic theologian must remember that their method is a tool and not a telos. The goal of theology is personal and corporate knowledge of God rather than systematic knowledge about God.

Second, McCall only briefly addresses concerns about metaphysics in theology. He notes that analytic theologians are unmoved by Kant’s critique. Paul K. Moser offers a stark contrast in his book Philosophy After Objectivity.Moser warns against waging “losing battles against ontological agnostics” (58). We face an “inescapable human cognitive predicament,” namely, we cannot confirm that our cognitive processes reliably grant us access to conceiving-independent reality without begging the question of their reliability (43). They may in fact deliver knowledge of conceiving-independent reality, but we cannot confirm this. “What is intelligible for us can . . . outstrip what is effectively answerable or testable by us” (57).

Christianity depends on de re encounter with God rather than mere de dicto assertions about God. If metaphysics is beyond our grasp as an experimentalsubject, what do we gain from it? Although we cannot escape from usingmetaphysics, we also cannot discern whether we posses the correctmetaphysics with certainty. Analytic theologians ought to take this predicament, and the agnostics who raise it, seriously.

Third, McCall very briefly addresses a concern raised by Stephen R. Holmes, who writes, “analytic discussions . . . seem generally to proceed with a remarkable confidence about the success of language in referring to the divine” (32). This concern relates to Moser’s objection to metaphysics. Our theological notions may successfully refer to the realities they address, but we cannot know for certain that they do.

Theology is therefore irreducibly perspectival — namely, from a human perspective. We cannot silence the ontological agnostic until we grant their point. Analytic theology should acknowledge this and proceed with appropriate humility. It should do so without sacrificing its other virtues, such as clarity and coherence.

How do we proceed? Moser warns against the “myth of the definite article” (8). Namely, we must not confuse our preferred notion of X (divinity, for example) with the objective notion of X. We employ our theological notions with various purposes in mind. Having granted to the ontological agnostic that we cannot discern whether our notions are the objective ones, we are free to proceed with a perspectival analytic theology. Our notions serve our purposes, not the purposes of the ontological agnostic.

This approach should allay the concerns of those who fear that analytic theology cannot do justice to the subject matter of theology — the transcendent God. A humble analytic theology, I think, could do theology a great service. It could treat the analytic method as a means rather than an end. It could acknowledge that theology is irreducibly perspectival (at least from the human perspective). Finally, it could admit that our theological notions are relative to our purposes as theologians. As we seek to discern God’s purposes for our theology, and adopt them as our own, we can adapt our notions and systems accordingly. Like the “hermeneutical circle,” analytic theologians may discern God’s purposes with greater clarity as they allow those purposes to govern their inquiry.

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Confessing Christ for Church and World: A Review

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First, a few biases and necessary qualifications.

  • Kimlyn J. Bender’s book, Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology was graciously sent to my by IVP for review. I was under no obligation to present a review in positive terms if I didn’t see it as a strong work. Fortunately, I have no problem, as you will see, giving this book high commendation.
  • Generally speaking, I tend to be wary of collections of essays–which this book is. I find that too often the essays are only loosely connected at best, and often it is difficult to see what they are together trying to accomplish. Bender’s collection does a lot to help me see how collected essays can actually be worth the effort of reading.
  • I am, for those who know me, obviously drawn to anything connected to the study of Karl Barth. So it was natural for me to want to take a closer look because I know of Bender’s earlier work on Barth’s ecclesiology.

With those biases and qualifications now on the table, let’s get into the review. I wish I could engage the book at the level it deserves, but there are such wide ranging issues covered in the book, that it would be impossible to do justice to them here. So instead, here are three of the most important qualities of this book which makes it worth getting and reading.

1) Confessing Christ for Church and World isn’t about Karl Barth, even though Karl Barth is Bender’s main interlocutor. 

This observation shouldn’t come as a surprise: the book’s title doesn’t even mention Barth.

But I admit that I came to the book with expectations that indeed, Barth would be mentioned often. He was.

Bender has previously published one of the best recent books on Barth’s ecclesiology, so I was expecting that Bender would carry on the good work he started there. He did.

But as noted, this is not a book about Karl Barth.

On the contrary, Bender succeeds, as well as anyone I have read in the past decade, to examine some central aspects of theological concern (ecclesiology, canon, christology, atheism, creation, redemption, etc.) and did so through the christological and dialectical lens which Barth has supplied.

In this regard, I think Barth would be gratified to read Bender’s book, because Bender only tells us what Barth believed about this or that topic for the purpose of getting to the substance of the debate itself, not to put Barth on display per se.

To put it another way, this is no collection of essays that tells us what Barth thought about canon or church or Christ, but it is a collection of essays displaying how understanding what Barth thought about these topics can help us to think through those topics today. Consequently, Bender should be upheld as one of that younger generation of Barth scholars who understands that Barth is important not primarily for his own sake, but because Barth helps us grapple with Scripture and the theological issues we are facing today–decades after Barth has already passed from the scene.

2) You’ve heard Barth is a “dialectical theologian.” Bender’s book not only reaffirms this, but displays how “dialectic” can actually be applied theologically today.

Again, Bender is not concerned primarily with the proper historical-theological task of documenting the various ways in which Barth’s theology is “dialectical.” That has been done ably many places elsewhere (most notably, of course, in Bruce McCormack’s work). Yes, Bender highlights Barth’s dialectical positions in many such ways in  this book. But Bender goes beyond this and takes those dialectics–the dialectics of Christ’s humanity and divinity, of Scripture as diverse and yet unified, of the irreversible dialectic of Scripture and tradition (or confessions), of the dialectic between Scripture and Church,  etc.–and shows how such upholding of both sides of the dialectic (often asymmetrically) is necessary to avoid forms of theological reductionism. It is unhelpful, in other words, to try to say, for example, “It is either Scripture OR tradition.” On the contrary, it is rather more important to say, What is the relationship between Scripture and tradition (or confession, or the church, etc.)? It is here that Barth’s dialectical positioning as highlighted in Bender can help guide us through these thorny issues.

As one who has actually worked in Barth for many years, even I have sometimes wondered how “dialectics” apply, even while I admit that it has become a lot clearer in past years. For me, the studies presented in Bender’s book will either help readers to understand what dialectics really are and why they are important, or it will provide concrete illustration of how dialectics actually informs theological decision making for those who are already theoretically committed to the underlying rationality of dialectical theology.

3) Many of Bender’s chapters simultaneously stand as self-standing primers and as constructive ways forward on certain theological topics. 

What I appreciated most about Bender’s skill is that many of his chapters could be read as stand-alone primers on a topic for a relatively keen theological novices. Want to know what’s going on in some of the contemporary currents of ecclesiology in American evangelicalism? Bender has a chapter on that. Want to know the basics of Schleiermacher’s christology? Read the “concluding postscript on Schleiermacher.”

But the great thing about Bender is that he is not satisfied with only setting out the contours of a theological debate, but expertly suggests constructive ways forward as well. Clearly, Bender is bringing pedagogical skill into his writing because he not only gives enough information on the topic to get a reader “up to speed” but invites the reader to move beyond the basics and to begin to participate in the act of theologizing itself.

Now, I wish I could summarize all of the chapters, because really, they are all worth reading. ( I don’t think I found myself once thinking, “I’ll just skip this one for the next.”) Thus, if pressed to select a favorite chapter, I would find myself in a quandary. So instead, I will highlight three of my favorites, one from each of the three sections of the book.

In “Part One: Church and Conversation,” Bender situates Barth’s ecclesiology in conversation with the dialogue partners of American theology, American  evangelicalism, and Catholicism. Here I believe that his chapter entitled, “An Old Debate Revisited: Karl Barth and Catholic Substance” gets at the heart of what it is that really sets Protestant and Roman Catholic ecclesiology apart. Bender’s ably engages with the Catholic theologian, Reinhart Hütter on the role of tradition and confession, but in the end shows why Hütter’s, and other Catholics, imprison the agency of the ascended Christ into the practices of the Church–a position which is ultimately incoherent with the ongoing free Lordship of Christ over the Church.

In Part Two: Canon and Confession, Bender’s chapter on “Karl Barth and the Question of Atheism” stands clearly out for me. This is because Bender once again uses Barth to give a theological strategy of dealing with contemporary atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris–all without having to go into the messy details of what each of these have actually proposed. This is because Bender shows how Barth’s response to the atheism of his day can still stand as a model for how we engage those atheists of our day.

Most helpfully, Bender points out Barth’s refusal to address the atheist objectors on their own terms. This is usually the strategy of those who set out to respond with a apologetic for a general philosophical theism rather than a christologically and historically particular confession of the Gospel itself. Apologists have understandably struggled to provide philosophical “proof” for the existence of a triune God and have often opted simply to try to prove the reasonableness of an infinitely powerful, eternal deity.

But here Bender (via Barth’s guidance) counters: The best response to atheism is to refuse to try to prove the existence of the “god” whom atheists reject, but rather to out-narrate the atheists by re-telling the narrative of Jesus Christ. This is especially important because of how modern atheism is “parasitic” because it has its identity primarily in that which it rejects. Let’s just say, I loved this chapter and will point students to it regularly in the future.

There is a real treat in last section of the book, “Christ and Creation” and it is Bender’s essay entitled, “Standing Out in the Gifford Lectures: Karl Barth’s Non-natural Lectures on Natural Theology.” For those who may not be aware, Barth was asked in 1937-38 to deliver a series of lectures for the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, famous for being the most sustained conversation on the possibility of natural theology. Of course, Bender rightly notes the irony: “the world’s foremost opponent of natural theology now asked to give the world’s most famous lectures on natural theology” (315). It is well known that Barth, after giving only brief mention of natural theology, went on to deliver a series of lectures on the Scots Confession, an explicitly Christian theological confession written in 1560 by the Scottish Reformed church.

Barth’s tactic has often been viewed as simply his way of snubbing his nose at natural theology–and to be honest, it is at least that! But what is fascinating is how Bender draws out how Barth may not have actually been alone in questioning the assumptions of natural theology in the history of this event, noting how others such as McIntrye, James, and Hauerwas, too, have delivered the Gifford Lectures with implicit agreement with Barth at several points.

Once again, Bender is not simply satisfied with pointing out the historical parallels between what Barth and other Gifford lecturers did, but draws attention to how Barth’s lectures foreshadow what is now increasingly becoming recognized in scientific circles: that the object of inquiry demands its own methodology, and that the seeking of a universal scientific methodology which the Gifford lectures seemed to presuppose is no longer tenable even within the sciences themselves. Consequently, theology no longer needs to apologize for its own distinctive methods.

Conclusion

Bender’s book is, admittedly, not aimed at the beginning theological student and those without some training will likely get lost all too easily. That is too bad, because at another level, I think that Bender is doing something exemplary for us all: He is showing us how historical theology cannot be an end to itself, but serves systematic and confessional theology, and of course, the Church.

Bender teaches us that we read Barth and Schleiermacher and Calvin and Wesley and Augustine and Irenaeus and others not for their own sake, but because through them we have hope of seeing what they themselves saw or missed. In that regard, I would commend Bender’s essays as exemplary for theological students and scholars alike who want to know just what a theological essay in service to the Church looks like. May his lot increase!

Kroeker on Guretzki on Barth on the Filioque

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I’m pleased to point Theommentary readers (just in case you care–if you don’t, I won’t be hurt…just don’t tell me!) to a fine review of my book on Barth and the Filioque. It is by Sarah Stewart-Kroeker, a Princeton Seminary PhD student. You can find the review here.

My response to Sarah’s review is threefold.

1) Sarah does a fantastic job of expositing the most important points of the book. This is concise, clear, and faithful exposition at its best. If you have no time to read the book, read her summary, and you will get an excellent abstract. Indeed, it is abstracted better than I think I could even accomplish! If people want more than a one or two sentence summary of my book (that I sometimes try to give), I’ll just point them to her review!

2) I think Sarah rightly critiques my imprecision in distinguishing between the analogia entis and vestigium Trinitatis in Barth. She is right that these aren’t to be conflated in Barth, and I admit I could have done a better job of clarifying my point here. So what is my pont? I think I wanted to argue that Barth could be in danger of unwittingly falling into supporting one or the other of these concepts which he explicitly and adamantly opposed. I agree that the concepts aren’t the same thing, but the question for me remains: Did Barth’s opposition to one or both of these concepts run contrary to what he actually does when he perceives a trinitarian pattern in creation, history and creation-history? Sarah suggests (plausibly) that “The systematic formalization of the analogies lends them the false appearance of being revelatory in themselves, rather than as the imperfect but faithful labor of human speech about the self-unveiling God.” But that, in my opinion, still supports what I am saying: If Barth didn’t intend some kind of vestigium Trinitatis (or analogia entis), and if he did intend a faithful human discourse about God’s self-revelation, he presents his case in a way that is difficult to separate his “intention” from the “appearance” of what he is really doing. More simply point, if Barth wants to maintain distance from a vestigium Trinitatis or an analogia entis, why then does he work so diligently (and extensively) to show a Trinitarian pattern in his doctrine of creation, or to show how the self-revelation of God is echoed in creation? To me, this is at best puzzling, and worst, internally contradictory.

3) The only part that I wish Sarah had highlighted a bit more was my insistence that Barth’s pro-filioque position not be pigeon-holed as typically Western. Whether or not he is fully convincing to Eastern (and Eastern leaning) anti-filioquists, Barth nevertheless manages to be “pro-filioque” with much greater affinity to Eastern concerns than any other Western theologian of which I have knowledge. And he does so not as an upholding of the ecclesiastical authority of bishops, popes and councils, but on the grounds of a theological-exegetical reading of Scripture. He affirms the filioque not because it is affirmed by Latin authorities, nor because it is against Greek authorities, but because he truly believes that it is biblical.

Airing the Hitchens’ Differences

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Most everyone has probably heard of Christopher Hitchens, the author of God is not great – how religion poisons everything. Hitchens represents that new breed of angry atheists who are not only convinced that God does not exist, but want to show just how dangerous it is to keep allowing religions to keep saying that he does. What many may not know is that Christopher has a younger brother named Peter, also a well known (though obviously lesser so) author and journalist who is now a man of faith.

Interestingly, both Hitchens brothers have recently released memoirs that appear to be written from almost entirely opposite perspectives. Brother Christopher’s memoir is entitled, Hitch-22: A Memoir, but brother Peter’s is evocatively entitled, The Rage Against God – how atheism led me to faith. You can read a review of both by Simon Smart on the Public Christianity website.

While you are over at the Public Christianity website, you might as well head over to another good review by Smart on David Bentley Hart’s book called, Atheist Delusions – the Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, as well as a series of interesting interviews with Hart here.

How to cure a fanatic

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amosoz1A friend passed on a neat little book entitled, How to Cure a Fanatic by the Jewish novelist and political activist, Amos Oz. I highly recommend it. It only takes about 30-40 minutes to read and contains two essays, originally delivered as lectures:  “Between Right and Right” and “How to Cure a Fanatic.”

In the first essay, “Between Right and Right,” he argues that both parties in the Palestinian/Israeli dispute are “right”: both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate claim to the land, and the sooner they both see each other as at least partially right, the sooner real peace might be possible. As Oz notes, both Palestinians and Israelis view the land as the only place in the world they can legitimately call their own. Indeed, Palestinians and Israelis ironically are more alike than different because both are “hysterical refugees and survivors, haunted by dreadful nightmares.” Neither party has anywhere to go because they have been already chased out of everywhere else.   Consequently, Oz argues that the solution to the Palestinian/Israeli crisis is relatively simple, but very difficult to swallow. Using the metaphor of a divorce, he says, 

[This] is going to be a very peculiar divorce, because the two divorcing parents are definitely staying in the same apartment. No one is moving out. And the apartment being very small, it will be necessary to decide who gets bedroom A and who gets bedroom B and how about the living room; and the apartment being so small, some special arrangement has to be made about the bathroom and the kitchen. Very inconvenient. But better than the kind of living hell that everyone is going through now in this beloved country. (19)

Beyond the illuminating discussion of the Palestinian/Israeli question, the most important contribution Oz makes in this essay is his terribly important insight upon the word “compromise.” As he explains,

The word ‘compromise’ has a terrible reputation in Europe. Especially among young idealists who always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity. Not in my vocabulary. For me the word ‘compromise’ means life. And the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death. We need to compromise. Compromise, not capitulation. . . [and] I should tell you that this compromise will be very painful. (8)

In the 60’s, peace activists proudly declared, “Make love, not war.” Resisting the uncompromising idealism of this slogan, Oz instead offers the slogan,  “Make peace, not love.” In the context of the Middle East,  Oz is unconvinced that what Palestinians and Israelis need (as most liberal democratic idealist ‘outsiders’ think) are “greater understanding” of each other.  “A little group therapy, a touch of family counselling, and everyone will live happily ever after” (7). Thus, Oz is convinced that combatants don’t simply need to go for coffee more often until they “understand” each other, nor will any amount of “dialogue” solve the problem. On the contrary, any distant or faint hope of them “loving” one another will require them to settle the claim–as painful as it is–and partition out the apartment for the sake of a compromised peace settlement. Then, and only then, he says, might there be a chance that some might be willing to “hop over the partition for a cup of coffee together.” (20) In short, Oz argues that peace does not come about through dialogue, but dialogue only is made possible once peace has been established. And peace necessarily means compromise instead of holding fast to ideological convictions that can never be attained in the real world. (In this regard, Oz seems to sound a lot like the Christian Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr who also resisted ideological forms of pacificism in favour of concrete solutions in the here and now.)

As far as this first essay goes, I can only follow Oz half-way, even if I  follow him half-way whole-heartedly. I can only follow him half-way because I think he confuses the idea of “peace” with the important concept of “compromise” that he argues for (and which I particularly like). In this sense, I see Oz’s concept of compromise as parallel to the biblical idea of “forgiveness” (rather than peace) which means, “clearing the obstacles to peace and reconciliation.” For Oz, peace means the absence of war and conflict, though that, I believe, is only the “half-shalom/peace” of which Scripture speaks. For peace, in Scripture, means harmony and fecundity, not simply the absence of conflict. But nevertheless,  I applaud Oz’s ordering: Reconciliation (or what I would call a true biblical sense of peace/shalom) must start with compromise–with agreeing to draw the boundaries and stop the fighting so that, eventually, we might begin to see the possibility to “go for coffee” and perhaps begin to see signs of true peace and reconciliation emerge.

The second essay, “How to Cure a Fanatic,” I think, is even better and easier to summarize. Oz observes that the “essence of fanaticism lies in the desire to force other people to change.” (57) And though he doesn’t come right out and say it in so many words, I couldn’t help but notice that fanaticism is therefore inherently paradoxical in that the very value or ideal for which the fanatic fights also becomes a tool in his or her hand to force that change upon the other. For example, “Do I know the anti-smokers who wil burn you alive for lighting a cigarette near them! Do I know the vegetarians that will eat you alive for eating meat.” And, we might add, “Do I know the pro-choice fanatics who will do everything to take away the choice of a child to live. And do I know the pro-lifers who will kill an abortionist to keep him from killing.” 

So what is the solution to fantacism? Oz refuses to dictate the solution, lest he fall into a fanatical stance himself, but he does suggest two things: 1) Humour; and 2) Reading good (though not all) literature. Why these two? In light of his suggestion that humour is a first line of defense against fanaticism, Oz says,

“I have never once in my life seen a fanatic with a sense of humor, nor have I ever seen a person with a sense of humor become a fanatic, unless he or she has lost that sense of humor. . . [but] humor is the ability to see yourself as others may see you, humor is the capacity to realize that no matter how righteous you are and how terribly wronged you have been, there is a certain side to life that is always a bit funny. The more right you are, the funnier you become.” (65)

As for the importance of reading (good) literature (and I suppose that qualifier “good” begs the question of how to sort out the “good” from the “bad”), Oz points out that literature “contains  an antidote to fanaticism by injecting imagination into its readers. . . [Though literature] cannot work miracles, it can help. Shakespeare can help a great deal. Every extremism, every uncompromising crusade, every form of fanaticism in Shakespeare ends up either in a tragedy or in a comedy. The fanatic is never happier or more satisfied in the end; either he is dead or he becomes a joke. This is good inoculation.” (62-3)

If in fact Oz is right (and I have a gut feeling that he is on to some pretty important things here), I would suggest that Christians might profit from reading their Bible as the divinely inspired “literary comedy” that it is. For after all, what is the Bible but a book that shows the lunacy of human hubris and fanaticism in the light of God’s gracious overflow of joy? (In this regard, see Psalm 2). And though I believe the Bible is more than just literature, it is certainly not less than good literature.

the metamorphosis and Incarnation

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I just finished reading Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis. I’ve had it on my shelf for some time, but finally read it this weekend. (It doesn’t take long–it’s only about 60 pages long).  Warning: plot summary ahead, so if you haven’t read the novel yet and don’t want it spoiled, I suggest you read it online here first.

The opening line of the story is indicative of Kafka’s idiosyncratic style: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself  changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” From there, there’s not a whole lot more to the story’s plot development or even changes of setting. In fact, the whole story takes place in Gregor’s family’s apartment and consists of nothing more than a painful recounting of how Gregor’s father, mother and younger sister, Grete, have to learn to deal with this “unfortunate” turn of events.

Not surprisingly, initially everyone is shocked and traumatized to see that Gregor has turned into a bug, though there is no investigation of why this happened or any attempt to find out if there is any way to reverse the change. In fact, it’s unsettling to see how fast the family turns from initial shock and revulsion to simply trying to figure out how to carry on as if nothing has happened!

Gregor’s transformation has earth-shattering implications for the family, especially since Gregor is the sole breadwinner. Yet, somehow the family “adapts” to the metamorphis, if you could call their constant “dis-ease” with Gregor’s presence “adapting,” despite all the awkwardness that comes with a big bug son/brother in the next room. They quickly turn to the family savings which Gregor himself has supplied and settle in for the long haul, without any apparent sense of gratitude or awareness that it was Gregor the vermin that had the foresight to set this “rainy day fund” aside in the first place. Much more sadly, though Gregor hopes and dreams for some semblance of a relationship with his sister who at least shows some initial mercy toward him, it is not long before all familial relationship to Gregor is practically severed, not least because of the family’s inability to hear what Gregor is saying, even though he is able to continue speaking and hearing them. Thus, through the remainder of the story, Gregor remains more or less confined to a corner in an increasingly crowded room (they keep moving things that are in their way into his room since he doesn’t need the room anymore anyways) as his family continued to find ways to cope with his presence. Not surprisingly, they increasingly treat him as  a pitiful but grotesque animal, with occasional “sacrifices” of  food left in his room and an occasional quick, but careless, cleaning of his room. The family, it seems, hopes that this is enough to keep things basically “normal.” Otherwise,  life goes on with the rest of the family finding jobs, along with bringing in three boarders to help pay the bills. Ironically, Gregor spends some of his days looking out his bedroom window at the hospital right across the street, yet neither he nor his family seems to think that perhaps they should seek advice or help there for their situation. Indeed, no one seems to have the presence of mind even to ask the question of how this extraordinary thing could have taken place in the first place.

To begin with,  Gregor’s transformation into a big dung beetle is a source of irritation to the other family members. But as the story progresses, his presence more and more becomes a source of bitterness and despair for all involved. Finally, Gregor’s presence becomes catastrophic for the family when one day the three boarders discover Gregor creeping out from his room (the family had managed to keep him hidden from their sight) as he was drawn to the sound of the violin played by his sister. Pandemonium erupts: the boarders threaten legal action and father counter-threatens to throw them out. However, all is settled when, one day, Gregor’s beetle-like body is found by the cleaning lady–dead. Though Gregor had been a loyal son, a hard-working employee, and a loving brother who had supplied all the family needs, his death brings no mourning, but only great relief. It is as it is only by his death that the three, father, mother and Grete, finally are “saved” from their perpetual awkwardness. Upon being discovered dead, Gregor’s father simply proclaims, “Well, now we can thank God!” It is then, and only then, that Mr Samsa summons the courage to fire the troublesome housekeeper, evict the boarders, and find enough energy (he is pictured as sleeping for most of the novel) to take his wife and daughter for a trip into the country side. The novel’s last lines end with Mr and Mrs Samsa marvelling at their young daughter, “communicating almost unconsciously through glances, . . . that it would soon be time, too, to find her a good husband. And it was like a confirmation of their dreams and good intentions when at the end of their [trolley] ride their daughter got up first and stretched her young body.” Tragically, it is as if it is only through the final forgetting of the hideous son Gregor that they are finally set free to live life with joy themselves.

As with most Kafka stories, there are numerous lines of interpretation begging to be explored. But I was struck by the parallels between the Gregor’s metamorphosis and the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Of course, there is a clear contrast between the two: in Gregor’s case, the metamorphosis involved a man being transformed into something clearly and wholly other than man, even while retaining his essential humanity,while in the incarnation God is transformed into a man, even while retaining his essence as divine. But beyond these inverted images,  I see a parallel between how the family reacts to Gregor’s metamorphosis and how humanity has historically reacted to the incarnation. Though the extraordinary miracle of God becoming human in Jesus Christ has actually happened, like Gregor’s family, the human family finds such a happening, well, frankly, irritating. (I think of Herod here who hears of the birth of the annointed child and reacts out of fierce irritation).  And in some respects, a good portion of the history of humanity since Christ’s coming  has been a history of trying to “adapt” to this irritating fact of the Incarnation while trying to do everything in our power to resist having to change anything in our comfortable lives. Put another way, though the Incarnation has happened, we humans have tried our best to try not to allow it to disrupt or disturb us too seriously. Perhaps we can pretend it never happened, or simply see it as a bad dream or out-of-date myth. Or perhaps we can respectfully theologize it to the point where its extraordinariness is no longer quite so extraordinary. Like Gregor’s family,  we have “tried our darndest” to go on living as if the Grand Metamorphosis of God becoming man never happened.

Again the contrast between Gregor’s metamorphosis and the Son of God’s incarnation is vitally important because, after all, it is frankly so much easier to deal with man becoming a “a god.” Indeed, this is so easy that we have a tendency to do this over and over again (Cf. Rom 1:25). We’re happy to promote even our peers to godlike status, whether moviestars, sports stars, politicians, or even friends and family.  But for God to become man? This is just so inconvenient for us. For it means that no longer can we keep God locked up neatly in “heaven,”  (cf. the room where Gregor’s family kept him locked up) while we can keep on living our “normal lives” here on earth. Instead, we  have this “irritating” reminder (especially at Christmas time!) that not only has God refused to remain splendidly isolated from us in glory, but that he has come and dwelt among us in flesh (John 1:14). He came as Immanuel (Matt 1:23) and now promises to be with us, even until the end of the age  (Matt 28:20). Yet we continue to live in darkness, even though this great light has dawned upon us.

Where The Metamorphosis ends, however, is not where the Christian story ends. Even though it is only upon Gregor’s death that Grete’s young body can finally be stretched out for the first time in her existence, her “resurrection” must be judged to be a farce; for all that she has gained is what she and her family secretly desired from the start: freedom from the irritating presence of Gregor. How quickly they forgot how much he had supplied for them! How quickly they forget that his payments kept the debtors away! How quickly they forget that it was he who stowed up savings for the future! How quickly they forgot that he was–one with them in blood! But of course, such “forgetful freedom” is no freedom at all, but biblically, the illusory fallen life which is only death and decay. And in many respects, that is what the Fall represents for us–a “forgetful freedom” of  “independence” from God. The Fall represents forgetting God and getting what we want–forgetting that God, from the beginning, walks with us, and getting the fruit of what we want as if God hadn’t supplied our needs from the beginning. And in the depravity of our think, we even begin thinking we are better off without him.

Fortunately, our God has not only metamorphosized into a living man who dies, but is transfigured, transformed, and exalted through his death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father. And because of this “metamorphosis,” we, too, live in hope of that day when our bodies, though inevitably to become a carcass like Gregor’s, will be “stretched out” anew when our Lord returns.

The Shack – A Review

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Many have asked me to comment on the self-published best-selling novel called The Shack by William P. Young. So here is my review! 

A disclaimer: Before reading too far, you need to know that The Shack is not the kind of book that naturally appeals to me and I likely wouldn’t have read it if so many hadn’t asked me my opinion. That’s obviously not a judgment on the book at all–I’m sure there’s lots of books that are good even though they do not appeal to me! But to be fair, I wanted you to know that I read the book more out of compulsion to know what everyone is talking about than because of an innate interest. And now that I’m done reading it, my initial feel for it is about the same: I found the book only marginally interesting and probably would have never finished it if I didn’t feel like it was a “task” that I wanted to complete.  But enough pre-qualifications! Here’s my take on the book under three headings: 1) Things I like; 2) Things I think are problematic; 3) An assessment of the book as theological literature.

1) Things I liked

  • Anything that gets so many people thinking about what it means to have a triune God has to be at least partially commended. I’m writing a book on trinitarian theology right now and I’m glad to see that maybe the “renaissance” of trinitarian theology is starting to filter beyond the scholars and theologians and bit more into the popular mind. If the book pushes people to learn more about this central aspect of Christian belief about God, great! More power to it!
     
  • It’s true–Young has a knack of making you think outside the box about things you might otherwise take for granted. Though several examples could suffice here, I thought that chapter 14 entited, “Verbs and other Freedoms” was very thoughtful and actually fits theologically well with much of the “actualistic” interpretations coming out of the Barthian theological stream of trinitarian interpretation. As Jungel puts it, “God’s being is in his becoming,” or in more everyday language,  “God is what he does.” In this regard, I think the following line spoken from Sarayu’s (a.ka. the Holy Spirit) mouth is really insightful: 

…My very essence is a verb . . . I am more attuned to verbs than nouns. Verbs such as confessing, repenting, living, loving, responding, growing, reaping, changing, sowing, running, dancing, singing, and on and on. Humans, on the other hand, have a knack for taking a verb that is alive and full of grace and turning it into a dead noun or principle that reeks of rules: something growing and alive dies. Nouns exists because there is a created universe and physical reality, but if the universe is only a mass of nouns, it is dead. Unless ‘I am,’ there are no verbs, and verbs are what makes the universe alive. (206-7)

2) Things I think are problematic

  • I realize that Young intends this story to be an extended parable. But as a parable–which is usually understood to be an everyday story intended to illustrate a profound truth–the story-line is simply too unbelievable and fantastic. Unbelievability could be fine if the genre demanded it (e.g., fantasy). But if The Shack is supposed to be a parable that relates something of the truth of God to us, then the very way in which the triune God is brought into the narrative actually violates the integrity of the story as parable. Rather than illustrating the truth indirectly, the book ends up with God telling us directly and from his own mouth in an unusual, isolated experience. Unfortunately, that’s not how most of us experience God in our day to day lives, not to mention in the midst of unspeakable tragedy.
     
    To illustrate what I mean, consider the biblical parable of the prodigal son. This story succeeds as a parable precisely because it does not bring God directly into the story as an actor or character.  Imagine how the prodigal son parable would break down if in its telling, the son came into direct contact with the Triune God who converses with him and through which the son finally comes to his senses. The conclusion of the story (reconciliation with the father) might be the same, but what otherwise could have been a believable, everday scenario that virtually anyone personally identify, suddenly becomes unbelievable and fantastic because, well, how many can claim to have had such vivid “experiences” (or even dreams, if that is what it was) of the triune God as Mack did in the novel?But the parable of the prodigal son succeeds precisely because it is so believable–that a son could squander what he has and still come to his senses and return to his father, and that the father would welcome him upon his return. That is something we can all potentially relate to, and which illustrates indirectly, parabolically and profoundly the love that the Father has for his creatures.  
     
  • As insightful as many of the conversations that Mack has with the Trinity, and even though Young is trying to picture God in ways “outside the box,” the portrayal of the Trinity is, at least for me, quite distracting, mainly because it flirts with theological error in order to make it “work” in the story. And no, I’m not even talking about Young’s portrayal of God the Father (“Papa”) as a female. Indeed, as far as errors go, portraying the Father as a female is no more problematic than portraying the Father as a male, especially since it is only Jesus Christ who has taken on a human gender. But even that distracting detail aside, I think portraying the Trinity as three human persons will actually serve to confuse people even more than they already are when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity. Whatever Young intends to portray, the Trinity in The Shack finally ends up leaning dangerously close to tritheism. And that is the problem with any attempt to try to “picture” the Trinity: the analogy always breaks down simply because, in Karl Barth’s way of putting it, there is no analogy for the Trinity but the Trinity itself. Now, I have no doubt that God is able to manifest himself even today in miraculous ways and I do believe he has the perogative to do this at times. But if and when he does, there is virtually no evidence biblically that he would appear as three individual human forms of mixed genders. Jesus is the only one who has taken on (male) flesh, and yet ironically he appears to play only a limited role in The Shack. (I could say lots more here about how little of Christ’s atoning work seems to come into play here, but I will reserve comment here realizing that not everything of theological significance can be mentioned…but this element does seem to be an aspect oddly neglected!). Of course, one would necessarily have to portray all three trinitarian persons in human form in order to make it work in a fictional novel. But that is a theo-fictional license that I think actually detracts from the potential of the story. Had Young told a story about Mack stumbling across a group of three human persons living in a form of genuine Christian community with one another, despite their brokenness and sin, the parabolic insight into the perfection of the triune relationships might have worked. But again, the full parabolic potential was lost when Young introduced the trinitarian characters directly into the story. 
  •  As for Young’s portrayal of God as being beyond hierarchy (pp. 120ff.), this is theologically the most problematic, both biblically and from the perspective of the history of trinitarian theology. While there have been and continue to be theologians who want to do away with any and all forms of “order” in the Trinity and make the Three exist in a non-hierarchial “circle” of relationships with no one in “charge” (e.g., Leonardo Boff), orthodox trinitarian theology has always recognized that biblically, there is a primacy to the role of the Father relative to the Son and the Spirit, even if at the level of “divinity” all three are “equally divine.” In short, orthodox trinitarian theology has always recognized that the Son and the Spirit are sent and do God the Father’s will. Conversely, the Father is not sent, but only he is the Sender. However one finally ends up interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ saying “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28), we must not explain it away as something other than a permanent “ordering” in the Trinity, even while maintaining the orthodox consensus that all Three are equally divine.  So, in short, The Shack depends upon a fictionalized rendering of the Trinity to make it fit into the story, but it has to take a level of theological license in order to do so. Thus, in the end The Shack portrays a Trinity that looks more like an ideal form of democratic socialism rather than the Sovereign Father in Heaven who sends his Son and his Spirit to enact his Kingdom of love and judgement on earth. 
      

3) Assessment of the book as theological literature

  • I’ll just come out and say it: The Shack, in my opinion, is not great literature, not even great Christian literature. Sure, the story line is initially compelling, but about a third of the way through, the narrative gets bogged down and taken over by a wholly different story of the “quadra-logue” between the “Trinity” and “Mack.” Without giving away too much to those who still want to read it, I think the ambiguous ending actually works against the whole story when everything that one was once led to be believe was “real” may or may not have been. My criticism here isn’t because I want everything to be clear-cut in the end–I happen to enjoy an element of ambiguity in stories and film. But in this case, the ambiguity seems damaging to the integrity of what Young seems to be trying to communicate.  
     
  • I know that this isn’t something directly about the novel itself, but I get a little nervous when I read comments like the following in the some of the reviews. One reader says, “I plan to read this book several more times, taking notes and highlighting passages that speak to me. Such intimacy with God seems so much more tangible since I’ve read this book – I couldn’t ask for a better gift.” (customer review from Amazon.com). I have no doubt that Young’s book has and is ministering to people, but I hope even Young would be a little more than uncomfortable if he knew that people were starting to study the story the way one might study scripture. Of course, Young can’t control what his readers do, and I don’t hold him responsible for the theological naivete of many readers who read the book in this manner. But I think that this is exactly why a cautionary note must be sounded for those who read the book, especially if they have limited theological discernment or training.  If Young could have resisted bringing the Triune character into the story directly, people may not feel the need to “study” it in quite the same way, looking for insights into the nature of the Trinity.  (Incidentally, I think this was the same problem with the Left Behind series of novels, and Peretti’s Piercing the Darkness which so many people took to be near to “Gospel truth” about the end-times and angels/demons respectively–they took these stories far too seriously as the bearer of detailed theological truth). Yes, The Shack could be edifying, but it is unfortunate that so many want more than encouragement or edification out of such a book. The dangerous thing is that too many people may think that the Triune God actually is the way he is portrayed in the story. But I, for one, am wholly unconvinced in this regard. And so you know that I am trying to be fair, I also think the same standard applies for even the great Christian works of fiction such as The Chronicles of Narnia. These works are meant to inspire and edify Christians, but they certainly are not meant to provide wholly biblically accurate insights into the nature of God, salvation, sin, etc. Indeed, one can imagine that Lewis and Tolkien would be horrified if they discovered that people studied their works to find out theological truth rather than to be moved and inspired by the triumph of good over evil that their works consistently sought to portray.
     
  • The Shack stands as an example of what we call in literature, a Deus ex machina. You will recall from your High School English classes that a Deus ex machina (literally “a god from a machine”) is literary device that originated in the Greek and Roman plays where in the course of a story, a character finds himself in an impossible situation which is resolved by “dropping a god in from above” to save the day. (See more on deus ex machina from this Wikipedia entry). In short, The Shack is a grand deus ex machina all the way through. Let me explain. Mack and his family face an impossibly tragic situation with the loss of their dearly beloved little girl. But rather than having to deal with this terrible state of affairs like so many millions of other people of Christian faith in similar situations, Mack has an extended (visionary?) dialogue with the Trinity which helps him to make sense of it all and makes it possible for him to go on. But I ask: What about the millions of us who have had to endure tragic loss without such a grand deus ex machina? I’m sorry to say, but this is simply too convenient and unsatisfying way to tell the story. I’d rather hear a story about someone who faces a tragedy such as Mack faces but who manages through belief in God and by God’s grace experienced in the Christian community of sinning saints manages nevertheless to keep believing God despite all reasons to lose faith.  
     
  • I noted above my wariness about someone reading this book as if it were something to be studied as one might study Scripture. Granted, I do not deny that Young brings up some very thought provoking reflection that requires you to pause and think. This is, after all, the sign of a good novel. But when great novels require us to read them over and over again (i.e., classics), it is not because they need to be “studied” as a theological treatise, but because they are thought provoking and profound as they remain faithful to their genre as extended metaphors, parables or even allegories. The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia (extended parables) or even Pilgrim’s Progress (extended allegory) are profound literarily and theologically precisely because they remain consistent to their literary function. The problem with The Shack  is that it starts out as a potentially provocative novel with implications for theological discourse, but ends up abandoning its character as a novel in favour of a theological discourse, indeed a discourse thinly disguised as a novel. But even that wouldn’t have been so bad had the theological discourse itself been a discourse between human interlocutors (such as what Dostoevsky sometimes does) rather than a discourse between a human and the divine interlocutors themselves. Even in the book of Job, or in Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday, the human/divine discourse is rather short and actually tends to heighten the mystery of God, not resolve it. The main theo-literary problem with The Shack is that it tends to try to resolve the mystery of the Trinity to make sense of life rather than than to preserve the mystery of the Trinity to show how problematic our reductionistic explanations of life tend to be. 

Concluding Remarks

So what is my overall assessment of The Shack? While I know there are some Christian commentators who have praised the book, on one hand, or soundly condemned it on the other, I do neither. I happen to think that the book is mediocre at a literary level, and at least partially theologically problematic, even slightly dangerous at times. Consequently, it isn’t a book that I intend to recommend. But on the other hand, neither do I think that it will do great harm to the Christians who choose to read it, providing the book is read as a piece of fiction–and as a piece of fiction only. I fully acknowledge that many might in fact be touched spiritually by this book and in that regard, I have no reason to denounce it. But I also say, if you are going to read this book, by all means, remember it is supposed to be a parable, not a theological treatise. As such, read it,  and enjoy it as you can. But do not expect it to clarify your doctrinal understanding of the nature of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, because if that is what you expect The Shack to do, I regret to inform you that 1) there are many better books to learn about such things; and 2) you will go astray theologically if that is your expectation.