I Still Need the Bible

Frog and Toad Are Friends.

That’s the first book I remember reading from start to finish. I picked up on reading quickly, training myself on the backs of cereal boxes at age 4. But I remember feeling a deep sense of satisfaction about this book. For the first time, I could immerse myself in an entire story, by myself. (With assistance from Mom, Dad, and Arnold Lobel.) I read it out loud, of course—the only way a child knows. I remember reaching the final word of the book: together. I didn’t recognize the word, so I ended the book with my own triumphant pronunciation: “TOGG-e-ther!”

I never stopped loving books. As a child, I enjoyed learning and reading about all sorts of subjects: dinosaurs, space, the Titanic, the human body, how stuff worked. I spent hours staring at the pages and diagrams. And of course, stories. I graduated to novels such as The Chronicles of Narnia. Michael Crichton thrillers. And then, anything with a story: comic strips, video games, TV shows, movies.

It’s easy to disappear into a good story.

Several years ago, I was seated in the Phoenix airport, waiting for a flight to begin boarding. This airport is officially known as the “Phoenix Sky Harbor”—filling my head with absurd visions of a gleaming airborne structure drifting above the desert, to which are moored a dozen giant Zeppelins. The reality is mundane: it was a large but ordinary airport, and my departure gate was undergoing renovation. So I had to sit a couple gates farther down that day. I began reading a Stanislaw Lem book (good sci-fi!), and I was engrossed. I “woke up” from my intense focus and looked at my watch. I was bewildered to see that my departure time had come and gone. What! I hurried to the gate counter, where the unimpressed staff told me they had paged me on the P.A. system several times. Then they finally gave up and let the flight depart. In my defence, that P.A. system was blaring out so much incessant, irrelevant information that I had mentally tuned it out. But in so doing, I had tuned out my own name. I had withdrawn from our world of bland airports with their pretentious names and irritating P.A. systems, and into a realm of scientific and philosophical wonder.

I’m told I was often lost in a book as a child. I sometimes wonder whether this explains why I don’t have many clear, precise memories from my childhood. My mind devoted itself to other worlds revealed in books and stories. From the vantage point of an adult, I don’t know whether this was always a good thing. I think one reason I have withdrawn over the years has been to avoid difficult relationships and situations that I didn’t know how to handle. Put those difficult things in a room in your mind, close the door behind them, then withdraw into another room where a better story is being told. Sometimes I told my own stories: my brothers and I built a vast world of Lego sets, less interested in engineering new creations, and more interested in telling new stories. By the time we stopped buying Lego, we had nearly 200 mini-figures. They all had different names, personalities, backstories. All absurd and outlandish, of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I even wrote down a few stories about them.

Then there were the stories I heard again and again. I knew the stories of scripture—not only in Sunday School, but in family worship as Mom invited us to read them. In high school, I read the Bible all the way through for the first time. I’d like to say I understood it all—I certainly thought I did. I always loved the Bible, enough that I gave away my well-worn NIV as a gift once, because it was the most meaningful thing I owned.

The Bible has been different from any other story I’ve ever read. A truly engrossing story would pull me in for a while. I would binge on stories long before Netflix made it cool. Then the story would be over, and the time would come to leave the universe of the author (or auteur) and re-enter the real world. The real world—with its overbearing people, overwhelming situations, its confusion and complexities. The refuge of a good, simple story never lasted long. It couldn’t hold the real world at bay forever.

The Bible did something different. It led me back into the real world.

I didn’t recognize this as a child, because I didn’t understand the Bible well then. But in university, I started reading it and comprehending what I was reading. Through the help of faithful teachers, the Holy Spirit began putting the pieces together for me. I understood the gospel, the central message of the Christian faith. I began reading it with new eyes. And I found that the Bible didn’t speak of an imaginary religious world; it speaks of the real world I had been avoiding all those years. It speaks of people who were a lot like the people I knew—and a lot like me. It speaks of the problems of sin, shame, and suffering. It speaks of God and all he has done to create, redeem, and one day restore the real world. He is not a God of the illusory, but of the real. He is not the God of another world, but of our world. So the Bible has slowly led me back into the real world.

More than that, the Bible led me to Jesus Christ. I didn’t fully appreciate this when I was younger. I affirmed all the things Christians are supposed to believe about Jesus Christ, but I didn’t find myself enthralled by him as a person. That’s something that has changed. The older I get, and the more I know people, the more I marvel at the holy, wise, loving person of Jesus Christ. (More about that in a couple weeks.)

What’s obvious to me is that, during his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ treasured the Bible he had (the Old Testament) even more than I do. When you cut Jesus, he bled Bible. He would critique his enemies with challenges such as “have you never read…?” (Mark 2:25) or “you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mark 12:24). He was quoting it constantly, and not simply for instructional or polemical purposes, but as the Word of God, the words of his own life and faith. Jesus trusted the Bible, and he loved it. In fact, I have never encountered a person who loves the scriptures more than Jesus did.

If the Bible was an anchor for Jesus when everyone around him was falling away, why would I not want the same for myself? God’s Word is my anchor, too. Lies may have more power for a time than the truth, but this Story is truth that outlasts every lie. My faith, hope, and love are built on God’s promises, and I find them in the Bible.

Of all the stories I watched and read, of all the stories I told and wrote, this is the only one that has ever been True.

This God—his way is perfect;
the word of the LORD proves true;
he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.

Psalm 18:30 (ESV)

Authority in The Shack

The ShackOn Sunday, I posted a one-sentence review of The Shack and promised to return with a couple more posts:  the first critiquing its teaching on authority, and the second examining why it seems to be so popular and emotionally powerful.

So…the first.  If you haven’t read Gerald Hiestand’s review, do that first; then come back here.  Before I had read The Shack, I read his review, and it sounded over-the-top to me.  After reading the book, I’m convinced that, far from exaggerating the problem, Hiestand has put his finger on the single most dangerous theme of the book—that authority is a human construct brought about by the Fall, that God considers it “ghastly” (p. 122), and that it is incompatible with true relationship.  Though there are many serious errors in the book, this is one that Young relentlessly pursues throughout the course of his story.  He lays it all out explicitly on pp. 121-124 in a conversation among Mack and the members of the Trinity.  During the course of the dialogue, Jesus explains:

Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it.  You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power.  Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you.

One possible response to this is to engage in an imagined philosophical debate with Young over whether authority or hierarchy really is incompatible with relationship.  Instead, I simply want to appeal to God himself—to the words given to us by God, not merely by William P. Young.  The true God reveals himself primarily through the holy and precious scriptures “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).  The inherent goodness of God’s authority is stunningly obvious throughout the pages of the Bible.  The first recorded words of God to man reflect his authority in an unbroken, sinless love relationship with his creature; in a rapid series of commands, he tells the man and the woman, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion…” (Genesis 1:28).  That last one, especially, reminds us that man was created as part of a hierarchy, as God’s vice-regent over the creation.  Throughout the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2, prior to the Fall, God commands all things into being, and he commands Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:16).  Throughout the rest of the Bible he issues commands and decrees, and one day he will return to rule the nations “with a rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15).  The one true God is not afraid of authority; he is not afraid to reign.

Because Young is familiar with the Bible, he can’t help but slip back into hierarchical terminology when referring to God, describing Jesus as “Lord of Creation” (p. 176) and “king of the universe” (p. 216).  But otherwise, he’s pretty consistent in applying this principle because he proceeds to denigrate the authority of the Bible, of the church, and of men.

The Bible

The only time Young mentions the Bible with more than a passing reference is when he attempts to devalue it.  This takes place on pp. 65-66, where he portrays it as God’s words “reduced to paper.”  It is not “overt” or “direct” communication by God.  It is “moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects…the intelligentsia.”  It limits God:  “No one wanted God in a box, just in a book.”

While Young uses biblical terminology throughout much of the book, he feels free to supplement the teachings of scripture with his own ideas about God, even going so far as to contradict the Bible if necessary to suit his agenda (as we have already seen).  He does not respect the authority of scripture as Jesus Christ did (Matthew 5:17-19).  He does not treasure its words as the psalmist did (Psalm 119).

The Church

Once again, every mention of the church as an institution is negative.  Using Jesus as his spokesman, Young explains that the church “is all about people and life is all about relationships” (p. 178).  It’s hard to argue with that…until we remember that to him, relationships are incompatible with authority.  Young’s Jesus insists, “I don’t create institutions—never have, never will” (p. 179).  This is utterly absurd; Christ did institute his church.  He gave it the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism.  He established procedures for church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).  His apostles, sent with his authority, affirmed the offices of elder and deacon (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9).  They laid out rules and guidelines for proper conduct in the church (1 Corinthians 14) and care for the widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16), among other things.  The Holy Spirit equipped the people of the church with spiritual gifts “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7)—including the gifts of leadership (Romans 12:8) and administration (1 Corinthians 12:28)!

If the church—local and universal—is not an institution, I don’t know what is.  Institutions are not inherently bad; in keeping with his response to the concept of authority itself, Young is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Just because the church can be twisted and imperfect doesn’t mean that structure and hierarchy are themselves evil.  In the church, they are the structure on which relationships grow and flourish.


Hiestand came down hard on this one, and after reading the book, I understand why.  Let’s set aside the jarring fact that God the Father appears as a woman (Young insists on veering from the almost exclusively male depiction of God in the Bible).  Beyond that, the author undermines male headship and strongly implies that women are superior to men.  As a result of pitting relationship against authority, Young ends up rightly affirming feminine virtues while criticizing a caricature of masculine virtues.  His Jesus explains to Mack, “Like most men you find what you think of as fulfillment in your achievements, and Nan [Mack’s wife], like most women, find [sic] it in relationships.  It’s more naturally her language” (p. 146).  It’s not hard to figure out where this is leading.  Young spends the entire book rejoicing in relationships, so of course women, who are apparently better than men at this, end up being naturally superior to men.

Young’s Jesus goes on to say, “The world, in many ways, would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled.  There would have been far fewer children sacrificed to the gods of greed and power” (p. 148).  When Mack speculates that perhaps it would have been better if women were given the role of authority, Jesus responds, “Better, maybe, but it still wouldn’t have been enough.”  Then he goes on to insist that power in human hands always corrupts and is inherently bad.  So the damage has been done to masculinity; perhaps the world wouldn’t be a perfect place if women were in charge, but it would be better.

The Shack is all about a love relationship.  This would be a great thing if Young left room for other perspectives offered by the Bible, which talks about our spiritual journey as fearing the Lord (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14), as a sacrifice to God (Philippians 2:17), as slavery to a new master (Romans 6:15-19), as a battle “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12; tellingly, The Shack never once mentions the devil or demonic forces).  But rather than leaving room for these and many other perspectives, he excludes them.

God has and will use The Shack to remind people that he loves them and longs for a deeper relationship with them.  For that, I praise God and marvel at his use of flawed instruments to accomplish his perfect will.  Yet I am afraid that this book will not only lead people astray with blatantly false teaching but encourage people to become fatally unbalanced in their understanding of masculinity, of the church, of the Bible, and ultimately of God himself.