I received a note on my Wall on Facebook, which I thought would be worth answering here. (I received permission from Bethany.)
I'm an avid reader of Critique and Toad Hall, and I met you once at a L'Abri conference in MN, though it was several years ago, and sufficiently brief enough that I would be shocked if you remembered.
At any rate, I've been mulling a question over in my mind, and revisiting some of the articles on Ransom Fellowship's website about discernment, but I don't see anything that really answers my question directly. So here goes...lately a lot of people in my church small group have read The Shack and loved it. I have not yet read it, but I have read about it—I plan on reading it soon. From what I understand, there are significant theological issues with the book, including deeply flawed understanding of Scripture and the nature of the Trinity. From interviews with the author, he has said himself he intends the book as a theodicy, and the whole thing is written as a Socratic dialogue, where the God characters impart knowledge to the human character.
The people from my church who love the book, when asked about its flaws, say they are rampant and if you read it analytically then you will probably throw it away, but that one shouldn't analyze it; one should simply read it for the great story it is.
While I am sympathetic to this line of reasoning, and I agree that if the story itself is truly great, if the writing style is lovely, then that is something to appreciate and praise. However, I am alarmed when the consistent response I am given from fellow believers is to “shut off” the analytical part of your mind that would throw up red flags at the portrayal of God, and simply go for an emotional ride while reading the book.
I guess my question is, how do you respond to this sort of reasoning from brothers and sisters in Christ? My other thought/question is, it seems that when someone purporting to be a Christian writes a book that is full of claims about God, we have even more cause to be discerning, to weigh its contents against Scripture, because unlike a novel written by a nonbeliever which may not make any particular claims about God, this author is putting forth theology and asking the reader to accept it.
I checked your photo on Facebook, and do remember you (the wonders of technology!). Good questions. Questions worth considering, and that I don’t think I’ve addressed very sufficiently before now. So, I’m glad for the chance.
Like you, I have not read The Shack, but unlike you, I have no plans to do so at this point. My reason is simply that I have not heard sufficiently compelling reasons to add it to the huge pile of books I intend/need/want to read. I mention this not to suggest you not read it, but to emphasize that what I want to address here is not the book, but your friends’ badly mistaken impression of the process and purpose of Christian discernment.
The process of discernment allows us to engage a book more fully. The purpose is not to throw out books that are flawed, but to more deeply appreciate what is true and beautiful while more deeply understanding how what is less true or untrue can be made so attractive and plausible.
When I read, for example, Life of Pi, I was entranced by the story. Engaging the book critically deepened my appreciation for the craftsmanship author Yann Martel demonstrated in his prose, wit, and ability as a storyteller. The trajectory of the plot is utter fantasy—the adventure of a shipwrecked boy stranded in a lifeboat with a wild tiger—but Martel drew me in for the ride. It was delightful, and I found myself amazed that someone could tell such an unbelievable story in a way that made it deliciously plausible. This was the image of God breaking forth in brilliant creativity. Engaging Life of Pi critically also helped me unpack the two central themes of the story, namely that God exists and that the three major world religions (Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism) can be believed simultaneously. Though I agree with the first theme, I would challenge the second. This didn’t cause me to throw the book away; in fact, it did the opposite: I tried to get all my friends to read it. The novel helped me understand how this notion could be made so attractive, even though it is both untrue and dangerous.
This is not a word from the Lord, merely my opinion, but if I were you, I’d forget about The Shack, and try to find winsome ways to help your friends think about what being discerning is really about. The Shack is merely the latest cultural artifact they are consuming without being discerning, and they will soon pass on to other things. Finding ways to help them grow in discernment is more important than counteracting anything in The Shack that might need challenging. Some specific pieces on Ransom’s web site that might prove helpful in your case are “Discernment 101” (an introduction to the process); “Discernment 102” (how to disagree agreeably); “Discernment 201” (a guide to reading fiction Christianly); “Where Least Expected” (how God warned the exiled believers in Babylon to be discerning about their own spiritual leaders); and my review of Life of Pi.
Yes, we should be discerning when we read a book by a Christian, just as we should when we read one by a non-Christian. The danger is not that the second will contain more nontruth, since the opposite might be the case, but that it is easy to get lazy, assuming that if the author is a believer all is fine. (The same danger exists for students in Christian schools, but that’s another topic.)
One of the ways we have found to teach discernment skills to Christians is to lead discussions on something (a book or short story or film) in which they will be certain to find things with which to disagree. But then mention in your invitation and begin the discussion by saying the goal is not just to address the book or film, but to also deepen our skill in being discerning (rather than being reactionary). So, we will answer the discernment questions in order—no exceptions. Begin with “What is said?” (emphasizing that objectivity is required, so much so that no opinion of ours is even hinted at, and if the author was present they would say our answer to this question is correct and fair). Then ask, “With what do we agree?” and after that, “What is made attractive?” Only when those things are fully explored, can anyone address, “What might we challenge?” (and then do so in the form of creative questions we might address to a friend, Christian or non-Christian, in order to keep a winsome conversation going).
Approaching the discussion this way helps people begin to see the real process and purpose of discernment. Which is not to throw books out, but engage them with the gospel of Christ.
I hope this helps, Bethany. If I’ve missed something, or if this raises further questions, please feel free to ask away.