Archive for March, 2017

Let My People Think

Culture, Religion | Posted by Shannon
Mar 15 2017

In the lately-renewed controversy surrounding The Shack, two defenses of the book, and now movie, stand out to me. Both are meant to silence theological critiques. “It’s just a story,” runs the first. The second is more varied and a bit harder to sum up, but it turns on how the book makes people feel, especially about God’s love.

These defenses don’t answer criticisms of The Shack; they dismiss them out of hand. They make me critical thinkingthink of what Ravi Zacharias called his radio program: “Let My People Think.”

To dismiss criticism of a novel’s theology by pointing out that it’s just a story implies one of two things. The first is that stories can’t present a theology. As a statement regarding stories generally, this is wrong; as a statement regarding The Shack in particular, it’s absurd. The whole purpose of The Shack is to expound on theology, and it has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. No one who has read the book will doubt that it makes a theological statement with clarity and at great length.

I think, then, that It’s just a story carries the second implication, namely that the theology of a story is irrelevant. But once admitting that a story has a theology, how can that theology be irrelevant? A story’s elements differ in importance, but no element is simply irrelevant, and a story’s ideas about God are far from the least relevant. Further, stories have power in that they work through the imagination and the emotions, sometimes bypassing the head. A story’s ideas, especially about God, matter.

There might be a third, more sophisticated understanding of this argument; it may mean that stories shouldn’t be judged too strictly because their form creates limitation and an inherent ambiguity. Generally, this is true; specifically regarding The Shack, it isn’t.

C.S. Lewis, when he wrote a novel about a mortal demanding answers from God, set it in an ancient, mythical world that required something more imaginative and more allegorical than a straight-up discussion of Christianity. But The Shack takes place in our world, and it’s chock-a-block with straight-up discussions of Christianity. Unlike other novels, it doesn’t present its ideas through fallible characters, who might be wrong, or events, which are open to interpretation; it has the Almighty state its ideas in endless exposition. There are few novels more obvious in their theology, and any notion that that theology is beyond the bounds of critique is simply wrong.

Other Christians justify The Shack by how it makes them feel. I don’t dismiss the importance of feeling God’s love, or the value of a bridge between the head and the heart. And yet: Feelings are no justification in the end.

Human feelings, no matter how spiritual they may seem, are not incontrovertible proof of God’s work; God’s work is not necessarily a seal of approval on His instruments. Maybe God has used The Shack, as people say, but you know, He used Pharaoh, too.

That The Shack makes you feel (correctly) that God is love doesn’t mean that it isn’t wrong in other respects; neither does it make significant errors all right. And it’s not enough to feel rightly about God; we need to think rightly about Him, too. Even the feeling that God is love, without any feeling that He is also majestic and terrifyingly holy, leaves us stranded a long way from home.

We live in an anti-intellectual age, where feelings are taken to be the basis of everything from moral truth to government policy. But Christians should swim against that current, too. We shouldn’t dismiss what a novel or movie says about God because it’s just a story; we shouldn’t be so carried away by how something makes us feel that we don’t want to think about what it means. Ideas matter, and they can be bad even when the feelings are good.

Let my people think.

When Fandoms Attack

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Mar 01 2017

We all have our fandoms, and other people have theirs. With the never-ending expansion of shows and movies and franchises, no one has the time to join every fandom. Even if we did have the time, no one would have the inclination; human tastes and interests vary too widely. But isn’t it nice to witness the endless enthusiasm other people can show for things that hold, for us, so little interest?

No, not really. Because to be subjected, at length, to enthusiasms you don’t share is so much aggravated boredom. You can’t tell other people you don’t think their fandoms are interesting, any more than you can tell them you don’t think their pets are cute, but you can certainly think it. Dwell on it, even, until your indifference is gradually transformed, by dint of another person’s passion, into implacable hostility.

Why should this be? For one thing, we are all self-centered. If I were a kinder and more generous person, I would have more patience, and even interest, for other people’s enthusiasms. But sometimes fangirlfans go too far in insisting on their opinions – over contrary opinions, and contrary evidence, and obvious disinterest. Sometimes, fandoms really do attack.

We all have our fandoms. In the interest, then, of not going on the offensive, here are three principles that we should all, as fans, try to live by.

Number one, in order to have an actual conversation on your fandom, you need another fan. Trying to talk fandom with people who are not fans is like trying to talk shop with people who are not in your business. They likely won’t know what you’re talking about, they probably won’t care, and they certainly will have nothing to add to the conversation. Indeed, this is one of the surest signs of a fandom attack: a conversation – in the loosest sense of the term – that goes on and on even though one party’s main contribution is “Uh-huh.”

Number two, retain your objectivity. I cannot stress enough the importance of this. The worst sort of fan is the one who has lost all critical judgment; who in regards to their fandom will hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil; who insist that the newest movie in the franchise is awesome before actually seeing it, and perfect after seeing it; who feel greater affinity for those who share their fandom than for those who share their nationality, religion, or blood; who can scarcely credit the intelligence or motives of critics; who still cannot admit that Tom Brady probably did not destroy his cell phone because he was innocent.

Don’t be this fan.

Number three, keep your perspective. The better part of no one’s life consists of his fandoms. It really is all right if other people reject, even strongly, your fandoms. And don’t be offended by jokes or parodies or insulting memes. It’s not worth the energy or a fight. Everyone has the right to object to, for example, parodies of his religion or jokes about his mother; no one’s fandom is that important.

These principles will help all of us to, in our fandoms, keep from going on the attack. And if we’re on the defensive when fandoms attack, there are three principles for that, too. Smile. Nod.

Back away.