The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (3): celibacy better than sex?

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In this post (it’s in the text if you look hard enough) and this post (an ambivalent attitude to sex and the body) we have looked at two reasons why in Church History Christians have defaulted to an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs.

So far we moderns may be feeling rather smug at the naive foolishness of our predecessors.

Of course let the text be the text!

Of course the body and sex are to be celebrated and enjoyed! 

Not so fast. As we come to the third reason we begin to be faced with some uncomfortable truths about the Church’s accommodation to Western romantic individualism and its idolisation of the body and sex.  The third reason is this:

3. In the New Testament, celibacy IS the better option than marriage for a disciple of Jesus.

The first Christians and the early church fathers knew this far far better than we do. They knew the words of Jesus and of Paul. Let’s remind ourselves of them:

JESUS

In Matthew 19:1-12, after an exchange with the Pharisees about divorce (which Jesus seems to prohibit but that is another story) his disciples say

‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’

To which Jesus does not disagree. Later in Matthew 22:30 Jesus states that

At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven

Which rather drastically relativises the significance of marriage in the future life to come.

PAUL

In answering the Corinthians’ belief that “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7:1) Paul takes a path that, I think, we would be very slow to walk today.

Basically he disagrees with their renunciation of sexual relations. He sees the place for sex within marriage, with a remarkable and counter cultural sense of mutuality between husband and wife it should be said.

The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 1 Cor. 7:3-4.

However – and it is a big however – he sounds quite Augustinian (yes I realise that is a wee bit off chronologically) in saying that sex and marriage is OK for some, but really he wished that they were all like him – single and celibate.

The whole of chapter 7 can be summed up with Paul’s teaching to ‘Stay as you are’. If you are single, stay that way. Don’t pursue marriage and sex and children and all those responsibilities and burdens, leave yourself free to live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord (v. 35)

each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. 1 Cor. 1:17.

Marriage is specifically described as not a sin (v. 28) but that is hardly the most ringing endorsement of marital bliss that you have ever heard. (Don’t hear this bit of 1 Corinthians preached too often at weddings funny enough – that honour goes to chapter 13).

Yes Paul is clearly NOT laying down laws here. He is at pains to emphasise that much of this is his personal preference – he has taken his apostolic ‘hat’ off. But the fact remains that this teaching, like that of Jesus, radically redraws the purpose and importance of marriage, sex and procreation within the kingdom of God.

My point in this post is to suggest that the early church recognised far more clearly than we do, the radical implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus as inaugurating God’s kingdom within the world. Death itself has been overcome in Christ.

The realities for Christian discipleship meant that martyrdom and celibacy were very much live options for serious believers. Marriage and sex and family were ties to ‘this world’. They were not a wrong choice, but the overwhelming consensus of the early church fathers is that celibacy was by far the better option.

If this is so then some questions for us today:

How is celibacy viewed in contemporary Western culture today? (Hint – the picture below).

An Irish related context question – how has the recent religious history of Ireland helped to shape contemporary attitudes to celibacy?

How is celibacy and singleness (whether for heterosexual or homosexual people) thought of within the Church? How do you think of it?

If you are single, what has been your experience ?

What do Christian divorce rates tell us about contemporary Western Christianity – its priorities and real beliefs ‘on the ground’?

In the last post on this mini-series, we’ll turn to think about the revolution in thinking about gender and sex in Western culture and questions it poses for Christian witness and discipleship. Easy answers guaranteed (not) !

The Song of Songs: love, sex and hidden meanings (2): Augustine – ‘the less sex the better’

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In the last post we looked at the first reason why allegory has been the overwhelmingly dominant approach to the lyrical love poetry of the Song of Songs.

Here’s a second reason:

A deep rooted theological ambivalence about the body and sex

Take, for example this passage of the man extolling the physical beauty of his beloved in Song of Songs 4. This is a wasf – a love poem focusing on the other’s body starting from the head and working downwards (he gets as far as her breasts and gets distracted 🙂 )

How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh, how beautiful!

Your eyes behind your veil are doves.
Your hair is like a flock of goats

descending from the hills of Gilead

Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn,
coming up from the washing.
Each has its twin;
not one of them is alone.

Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is lovely.
Your temples behind your veil
are like the halves of a pomegranate.

Your neck is like the tower of David,
built with courses of stone;
on it hang a thousand shields,
all of them shields of warriors.

Your breasts are like two fawns,
like twin fawns of a gazelle
that browse among the lilies.

Until the day breaks
and the shadows flee,
I will go to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of incense.

You are altogether beautiful, my darling;
there is no flaw in you. (NIV)

This doesn’t need a lot of clever interpreting. She’s drop dead gorgeous and he’s drinking her beauty in. The mountains of myrrh and hill of incense are obviously metaphors for her breasts – he is dying to spend the night in their contours! She is his darling, perfect in every way to him.

The Songs are about young love. Their bodies are in the full flow of youth. It is marital love – she is his bride. But there is no mention of children. Nor, indeed, of God. The structure is centered around their sexual union at the end of chapter 4 and start of chapter 5.

All of this poses a fairly major problem if you come to the text with certain theological assumptions like:

  • sex and sexual desire are inseparably linked with sin
  • sex and marriage are second best to God’s higher calling of celibacy
  • holiness is to do with sexual renunciation. It is the celibate and virgin who is the ideal Christian

Very quickly you can see how, when it comes to sex, the past is another country.

The person who has had greatest influence on Christian attitudes to sex is Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD). He held all of the assumptions above. But we have to be careful not to caricature. He actually developed a fairly positive theology of marriage in contrast to other more radical early church figures and movements.

Some of his thinking can be summarised like this:

  • Human sexuality is a good gift of God
  • It is within marriage that sexual desires can be rightly ordered
  • Sex itself is made by God as the means of procreation
  • BUT (and it is a very big but) – sex cannot happen without the sinful desire of lust (concupiscence). Lust is a lower order desire that acts against reason and will.
  • It is the result of sin (it did not exist in the copulation of Adam and Eve before the Fall)
  • Sex and procreation are essential but are tainted by sin and shame
  • So it is OK to have sex in order to have children. BUT it is a venial sin to have sex for pleasure since that is unnecessarily engaging in lust.

All in all, Augustine might be summarised as ‘the less sex the better’

You can see why I suggested that the past is another country to day when it comes to sex!

Augustine’s reasoning is shaped by platonism – the duality between the higher will / reason and the lower flesh and desire.

But now the soul is ashamed that the body, which by nature is inferior and subject to it, should resist its authority. (Augustine, CIty of God, Book XIV, para. 23)

He, like pretty well all the church fathers before and afterwards – and right up through the Medieval church, through the Reformation and to Wesley and up to many today, allegorised the Song of Songs.

 

It is not so much that sex itself is despised (Augustine’s achievement was to counter that thinking), but his was a theology of profound ambivalence towards sex and the body.  He reluctantly saw that this was God’s way of doing things but because of the Fall and original sin it is shameful.

His ideal for sexual intercourse was Adam and Eve copulating in full control of their wills, free from the dangerous passions of lust. He imagines the first human sex scene thus:

without the disease of lust … at the command of the will … without the seductive stimulus of passion; with calmness of mind and with no corrupting of the integrity of the body, the husband would lie upon the bosom of his wife. (City of God, XIV, para. 26)

A bigger contrast to the Song of Songs is hard to imagine!

A couple of questions to ponder:

What are our modern day theological assumptions about sex and the body today?

What place is there for celibacy?

What are the assumptions of the culture we live in?

The Song of Songs: sex, love and hidden meanings (1)

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1How does a Christian read the Song of Songs?

What to make of it?

How to interpret it?

My guess is the default approach in church is to play safe and ignore it.

As we saw in the last post, it has not been ignored in church history. The overwhelming consensus has been, when faced with startling erotic poetry, to deflect attention to ‘higher’ things via allegorizing the Song of Songs. It started early on in church history and continues to have traction (though less than in the past) today.

The reason to discuss this is it touches on areas of somatology (the theology of the body) :

What is a Christian way of thinking about bodies, sex and love?

How has this shifted over time?

There are few more contentious and ‘hot’ issues that this in contemporary culture and theology. So this is the first is a wee series of short posts on suggested reasons for the popularity of allegorizing the Song of Songs. It will lead on to some posts on love and sex today.

The first reason for allegory is that interpreters see it in the text (or just below the surface of the text):

1. It is there in the text (if you look hard enough)

There are exegetical and theological arguments for allegory within the Song itself. Some are well made. Here are couple of very recent examples:

A Jewish Vision

j10560One such is Jewish scholar Jon Levenson in his recent book The Love of God. He is well aware of the problem of allegory that has nothing to do with the text and exists only in the mind of the allegorizer. He is also aware that the book can be read profitably on its own terms. He acknowledges that identifying the man and woman with Israel and God is ‘not defensible within the plain meaning of the Song’. But, he says, it is far from arbitrary.

He proposes a form of Midrash that brings different texts together to give a deeper unity of Scripture to light (132). And that unity speaks of

‘the longest and most consequential romance ever – the unending romance of God and the people of Israel’ (134).

Israel is ‘wedded’ to God – the background here is Jeremiah and Ezekiel speaking of Israel as his (unfaithful) bride. But here in the Song it is the faithful community of Israel in covenant love with her God. It may not have the reality (witness exile and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem), but it is an ideal, a vision of her true calling.

At the heart of the Torah he says, is love.

A Christian Vision

9781783595396In a recent book on Marriage, Family and Relationships, Rosalind Clarke suggests, like Levenson but from a Christian perspective, that the Songs has different layers of meaning. So, for her, the Song is about THREE layers of meaning:

i. Human sexuality.

This is what I’d call the plain meaning or surface meaning of the text –  ‘The Song of Songs honours human love and human marriage.’ 51.

Her endorsement of this level of meaning is, I think, rather perfunctory. It does not capture the sheer joy and celebration of erotic love that is everywhere in the Song.

2. God and Israel.

The text, she argues, points ‘beyond’ the surface. He is the shepherd-king-bridegroom who embodies the idealised Solomon. The vineyard owner, analogous to YHWH

She is the landscape of Israel – a ‘darling Jerusalem, the promised Land’ (there are a lot of geographical metaphors used of the lovers’s bodies).

Clarke acknowledges the ‘connection between the Song’s male character and YHWH is not made in directly in the Song’ but is suggested by the worship of the male elsewhere. [She does not deal with the fact that there is parallel praise, and even more so, for the woman by the man).

3. Christ and the Church.

Here she goes for the typical allegory of Christ the bridegroom and the woman as the church / bride (Ephesians 5:23-32).

I don’t know about you, but I think it is revealing that Levenson and Clarke both freely acknowledge that the text itself does not clearly point to ‘hidden’ meanings – whether allegorical or a Midrash.

It is, I think, relevant that while Levenson sees levels 1 and 2, Clarke, as a Christian, sees Level 3 as well.

My problem here is that the interpreter sees what he or she wants to see. Getting to the meaning of the text itself and what it says about human love is complicated enough given multiple uncertainties such as the identity of the lovers, the date, whether Solomon is an active participant or whether the two lovers are simply idealised figures etc .

Better to stay at Level 1 is my opinion. The Song is about love, sex, desire, marriage, joy and embodiment. That’s plenty to be getting on with without ‘leaving the text’ and searching for other levels of meaning.

How about you? How have you been taught (or not taught) to view the Songs?

(and regardless of this question, can I recommend that if you have not done so for a long time, dust off that section of your Bible and have a good close read – it is well worth it).

The next post will look at a second reason for allegorizing the Songs (cliffhanger here).

Contested Love (5) the deadliest opponent of love?

9780300118308Getting back, eventually, to Simon May’s fascinating book Love: A History.

We are in chapter 7 on ‘Why Christian Love is not Unconditional’

We don’t tend to link thinking about money with thinking about love. They are very distinct things are they not? What has one to do with the other? We assume that wealth, and the things that go with it, are benign, if not actively good. It does not have much to say, one way or the other, about our loves lives does it?

May writes as a philosopher looking in to Christian theology and ethics from the outside. While I don’t agree with some rather sweeping generalisations, he nails the Bible’s warnings about the spiritual danger of wealth and its connection to pride.

Pride destroys our capacity for love. Thus it is the deadliest sin of all.

Jesus’ greatest enemies, he says, are money, pride and hypocrisy. They feed into vanity, greed, selfishness, a lack of concern for others, and a vain morality that pretends to be for the good of others but is about making ourselves feel good.

Love, in contrast, is a determined focus on the good of the other.

“Jesus’ tremendous focus on money and the vices of pride – hypocrisy and self-righteousness – returns us to a central theme of this book: the precondition for love … is submission to the real presence of the other; submission to her individual lawfulness and what she calls on us to do …

And this is why money and the pride and self-sufficiency it fosters, are Jesus’ main target in his prophetic denunciations within the Gospels

… pride and the some of the conditions of wealth-accumulation can be huge impediments. Pride is about self-protection, self-sufficiency, barricading oneself against one’s neighbour, absorption in, or the business of self-esteem, a myopic dedication to one’s own prestige and power that darkness the mind to the reality of others – all attitudes that exclude submission; while the pursuit of wealth necessarily places the impersonal demand of utility at the centre of our relations with those caught up in this ambition – a far cry from the attentiveness that is at the heart of love …

This theme is so overwhelmingly pervasive in Jesus, that May asks this question.

What might your answer to it be ?

Why then has Jesus’ message been so perverted? Why has Christianised civilisation been so concerned with sex, and so much less inhibited by Jesus’ preaching against pride, possessions and power? Whether we are talking about the historical Church, the ‘civilising mission’ of Victorian Britain, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the atheistic embodiment of the deeply religious Russian nation) and its unspeakable vanity of bringing revolution to the whole world, the ‘manifest  destiny’ with which American ‘Anglo-Protestantism’ dignifies itself, or the Christian fundamentalism that gives it such strident voice today – in all these cases intense sexual prudery is combined with ruthless pursuit of power and property, flaunted with the very pride, the very self-congratulatory lording it over others, to which Jesus’ whole life and death are a standing reproach …

He concludes with this stinger.

it is remarkable how often people who seek to civilise the world by force, often in the name of Christianity and with a sense of being guided by God, themselves profess a hierarchy of values so completely at variance with those of Jesus.”

pp. 105-6.

Do you agree – is pride the greatest opponent of love? What else makes the flourishing of love all but impossible?

An Easter Reflection: 1 John 4, love, life, wrath and the cross

In 1 John 4: 7-10, the apostle writes this:

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

That is 9 occurences of the noun or verb for love of [agapē (love) and agapaō (to love)] in 4 verses. I John is easily the most ‘love saturated’ book in the Bible and these verses represent the most ‘love saturated’ section of the epistle.

Famously – and uniquely in Scripture – John states that ‘God is love’. Love ‘comes from God’ because God, in himself, in his essential being, is love. This means everything that he does is loving – whether creating, sustaining, redeeming or judging.

For John, love is never abstract; it is always concrete and practical. God’s love takes the visible and tangible form of sending his one and only Son into the world – in John a realm of sin, death, rebellion and hate. If love is the motive, the result is that we might have life through him.

John thinks in big picture theology rather than systematic details. The ‘sending’ of the Son is shorthand for the whole story of Jesus – his incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection. His focus here is on the cross as verse 10 makes clear.

The Son is sent in love to give us life. But how does this work?

1. Somehow the death of the beloved Son is an ‘atoning sacrifice’ (hilasmos) for our sins – yours and mine. Despite some attempts to evade this, hilasmos has the sense of propitiation – turning away divine wrath against sin and sinners via an acceptable sacrifice. The love of God sits right alongside his anger and judgement against sin. It is at the cross that the love and judgement of God meet. To see Easter and the cross only as a supreme example of divine love and to airbrush atonement for sin out of the picture is to depart from the apostolic gospel.

2. In atoning for our sins, the death of the Son gives believers life. This implies a doctrine of regeneration. To be in the world is to be in a realm of death. Through God’s loving initiative, we are given the gift of eternal life. We no longer are to belong to the realm of the world.

3. Easter is solely dependent on God’s love and is God’s initiative alone – we are utterly unable to deal with our sin or be reborn into new life. It is only God who can  atone for sin and give us life. He does so at supreme cost to himself.

4. If the whole point of Easter is to give us life – what does this life look like? Quite simply it is a life of love. John’s focus is our love for each other. If we do not love, it reveals that we do not actually know the God who is love. Love is the ‘proof’ that we have received new life and our sins have been atoned for in the death of the Son. As we enter this Easter weekend, let’s first and foremost remember that both the motive and the ultimate purpose of the cross is love.

Easter is therefore a good time to reflect on our ‘love lives’ – how well are we loving?

Easter is an appropriate time to pray, repent and ask God to help us love – to be the people that the atoning death of Christ is designed to make us be. Perhaps there is someone we need to act to be reconciled with this Easter.

Easter is most of all a time to rejoice and worship the God who is love and who acts in love so that we might have the privilege and joy to know him.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Shack (1) What the Shack gets right

A conversation with a dear friend this week about the release next Friday of The Shack in the USA, reminded me of a two part review that I wrote back in 2008.

So without any comment on or knowledge about what the film will be like, here is Part 1, unchanged. Part 2 to follow.

if you have read the book, what was your take on it? How do you think the film will be received?

 

The Shack: a review article

Part 1: What The Shack Gets Right

Warning: if you don’t want to know the story, don’t read on …!

What sort of God do you really believe in? How do you relate to God emotionally? Do you ever consider how the three persons of the triune God interact with each other? How do you square God being an all-powerful being of infinite love with the reality of unimaginable continuous suffering and injustice in this broken world? Why does the church so often seem very unlike Jesus? How will God treat all those people who are not Christians? How can I forgive those who have done great evil to me and my family?

If these sound like questions in the syllabus of a theology course, you begin to get the picture that The Shack by William P Young is no ordinary story of fiction. Given the subject matter and that it is virtually a self-published book, it is all the more remarkable that is has become a publishing phenomenon. As I write, it is no. 6 in the Amazon bestseller list and no.1 in the New York Times Bestsellers of paperback fiction for the 24th straight week. The Shack website announces that over 4 million copies are in print and a movie is on the way. While being a very North American story, its popularity in Ireland is widespread. As I talk to students and visit churches, significant numbers of people have read it, most love it and some churches are using as the basis of discussion groups.

It is also a book that provokes strong reactions. A few minutes of ‘Googling’ will reveal an apparently endless maze of critiques, reviews, comments, debates, warnings and ardent recommendations. (This article, I guess, will add one more link to that maze). Some issue cautionary advice never to open its pages; some offer balanced assessment of its pros and cons; while comments on the book’s cover say things like ‘The Shack will leave you craving for the presence of God’ or ‘this story has blown the door wide open to my soul’ or it’s as good as Pilgrim’s Progress (Eugene Peterson).  Wow.

The Story

The story is simple and is structured to facilitate one man’s encounter with God. For four years Mack has been living in his ‘great sadness’ following the kidnap and murder of his young daughter, Missy, whose body has never been found. His seminary training and former church experience have proved unable to provide answers to his anguished questioning of God. His faith has been mothballed, his life grey and without hope. In the midst of his depression he receives a mysterious invitation from God to journey back to the shack in the wilderness where Missy probably died. What follows is Mack’s life-changing meeting with God, who is astonishingly unlike anything Mack had imagined.

The attractive power of The Shack

Now The Shack is a novel, but it is novel packed with specific theological views, most expressed directly by God. So it would be fair enough at this point to begin a point by point theological assessment of the picture Young paints of God. While there are real weaknesses with what he says in places (and I’ll look at some of the reasons why the book is so controversial in part 2), a more constructive question to ask first is ‘What is it about The Shack that has so captured peoples’ hearts and minds?’ I think there are at least six things Young does remarkably well:

A personal God

In an increasingly post-Christendom and materialistic West, there is a widespread longing for ‘something more’, something spiritual. In Ireland we’ve had plenty of bad religion. Authoritarian leaders, self-interested church institutions, power games, frequent fusion of faith and politics (whether Protestant or Catholic), abuse of the weak, and lots and lots of conformity where faith in Jesus gets somehow reduced to the (often boring) routine of ‘going to church’. Mack too has struggled with an experience of Christianity that seems hollow. His meeting with God blows such religious staleness out the door because he meets a God who is ‘Good News’. Young captures something important here – something that recalls Jesus’ encounters with the religion of his day. The God of The Shack echoes the father figure in the parable of the Good Samaritan; shockingly forgiving, loving and joyful. Rightly, Young wants to remind us that the heart of the Christian faith revolves around a personal God who delights to be in relationship with those he has made in his own image.

God as a triune ‘dance’

One of the most discussed aspects of the book is Young’s depiction of God as a trinity of ‘Papa’ (a large cheerful African-American woman), Jesus (an ordinary looking guy of Jewish looks) and Sarayu (an Asian woman with a mysterious shimmering presence). Any attempt to depict the trinity is doomed to fail in some respect. However, before dismissing his attempt, he should be given real credit for taking the triune nature of God seriously. Yes, some of the dialogue and scenes between Father, Son and Spirit are cringe-worthy – but Young is on to something. He describes God as being in himself a united community of mutual perfect self-giving love. Papa tells Mack, “we want to share with you the love and joy and freedom and light that we already know within ourself. We created you … to join our circle of love” (p.124). The old Greek word for this is perichoresis – a ‘dance’ of love between the three members of the godhead – and it is into this community that Christians are welcomed by grace. Indeed, it is because God is in himself a fellowship of love that we, made in his image, are destined for love and relationship. Papa puts it this way; “If I were simply One God and only One Person … you would find yourself without something wonderful … all love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within me” (p.95). This sounds very like how Jonathan Edwards put it in The Mind, “in a being that is absolutely without any plurality, there cannot be excellence, for there can be no consent or agreement.” I suspect this is not how many Christians think of God. Young succeeds in making the reader think afresh about the remarkable wonder of God being one yet also a co-equal and co-eternal fellowship of three persons.

Hope beyond suffering

During the story, Mack undergoes a profoundly emotional journey through desperate grief. Any parent could identify with his numbing loss. I admit I cried! On meeting God, Mack is finally able to ask the deep questions that have so wracked his soul. The answers he receives are not the ones he had been conditioned to expect. He emerges changed forever. The ‘great sadness’ has been lifted and he can now live most days with a sense of profound joy, able to embrace ‘even the darker shades of life as part of some incredibly rich and profound tapestry; crafted by invisible hands of love’. What does God say and do to effect such a transformation?

It is here that Young is extremely creative in how he manages to conjure up a marvellous sense of Christian hope. This life, and all its suffering and pain, is not all there is. Mack weeps for joy not because he has intellectually grasped the free will argument (of which more below) but because of the vision given to him of Missy, alive and well with Jesus. God had never abandoned her, even in her suffering and death. Mack is transformed by this eschatological hope, that there is life beyond what Paul calls our ‘light and momentary troubles’. Young is spot on here. The gospel is such good news that it meets our deepest longings for life beyond death. The ‘really real’ world lies beyond this one – a healed new heavens and earth, of beauty, worship, justice, peace and joy. The Shack gives us a glimpse of how this powerful Christian vision of the future can transform lives in the here and now and is all the better for it.

The problem of pain

A central theme of the story is how can a good and omnipotent God can allow such evil as the kidnap and murder of a young girl? This is deep theological water that many of the greatest Christian thinkers over the centuries have tried to navigate. There are no easy answers, and The Shack is essentially is a re-statement of the ‘free-will defence’ – for our choices to be real, God allows us genuine freedom, but such freedom entails the possibility of great evil. As Papa explains to Mack; “All evil flows from independence and independence is your choice … This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil. Evil is the chaos of this age that you brought to me … all things must unfold, even though it puts all those I love in the midst of a world of horrible tragedies” (p.190-1).

What Young does exceptionally well is to hold onto a number of crucial truths about God and suffering:

i. God will overcome evil (“it will not have the final say … I purpose to work life out of death, to bring freedom out of brokenness and turn darkness into light (p.191)).

ii. He allows our broken world to exist but he is not the author of evil – in fact Mack’s real problem is disbelieving God is good (“Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes.” (p.185)).

iii. He is not distant from suffering. In fact, in Jesus he has self-sacrificially walked into the maelstrom of this world’s violence and injustice in order to overcome it.

iv. From our finite perspective, we cannot know the deeper purposes that God is working through suffering. During Mack’s encounter with Sophia (God’s wisdom personified), she invites him to sit in the judgement seat of God. His refusal is reminiscent of Job’s realisation that who is he to judge God? Overall, it is this capacity to ask questions many of us struggle with and answer them with depth and integrity that makes The Shack thought-provoking and helpful reading on the problem of pain.

The transforming power of forgiveness

Forgiveness is another deeply emotive issue that surfaces during the story. This is complex territory but I think Young strikes a compelling note of grace that resonates with the good news of the gospel. I have read some criticisms that Mack’s forgiveness of his daughter’s killer is not ‘biblical forgiveness’ because the murderer does not first repent. I could not disagree more! If we demand that the offender says sorry before offering forgiveness, then forgiveness is not of grace at all! Yes, full reconciliation is not possible without repentance, but this is a second step dependent on the response of the offender that the Christian cannot control. Christians are called to take the risky first step in forgiveness. Mack has been so transformed by God’s grace he is able to offer undeserved mercy (that is what grace is) to the killer without knowing the response in advance. Nothing describes the astonishing grace of God in Christ better. Such forgiveness is courageous, attractive and powerful – and is, I think, the most inspiring aspect of the book.

Truth in story

The final reason for the book’s popularity is, I suggest, the obvious fact that it is a compelling story. Young is not the best writer you’ll ever read, but he has created an honest, deeply human main character with whom readers can readily empathise. We are made with imaginations and emotions as well as minds. Does Jesus himself, the greatest storyteller, not remind us that truths about God, suffering, forgiveness and heaven need to be grasped at all these levels if they are to be truly known? As Lewis and Tolkien brilliantly demonstrated, Christian fiction has a unique capacity to engage the whole person with questions of faith. The Shack may not be up to their standard, but it does successfully invite the reader to become part of the story themselves, grapple with profound questions of life, death, forgiveness and redemption in an accessible way, and reflect on the wonder of a personal loving triune God in the process. Not too many systematic theology textbooks manage that!

Patrick Mitchel

Next Part 2: Cracks in the woodwork

C. S. Lewis on love and grief

The love sonnets in the previous post were written by the American Joy Davidman to C. S. Lewis.

A series of 45 Sonnets were only discovered in 2010 by Douglas Gresham (the younger of Davidman’s two sons) and have been published in 2015. Don W. King, The Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and other Poems by Joy Davidman.

davidman-lewisDavidman and Lewis’s relationship has been well told of course – not least by the 1993 film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

They started corresponding in 1950, she first met him in 1952. She was divorced in 1954 from a long troubled marriage to William Gresham. Davidman and Lewis were  married in a civil ceremony in 1956, apparently on his side more to help her stay in the UK when her visa ran out. It was only really when she fell fatally ill with cancer that Lewis finally realised he had fallen in love for the first time in his life.

His subsequent and deeply moving book  A Grief Observed, (in which he called her H) recounts his own honest cries of the heart following her death in 1960 (Lewis himself would only live until 1963).  While that work has been in the public domain since 1961, Joy Davidman’s poems remained hidden away, undiscovered, in an attic.

What’s fascinating is the question of just how much his wife’s passionate honesty and uninhibited love changed Lewis. The sonnets show how infuriatingly passionless she found the confirmed bachelor academic!

In utter contrast to the platonic friend that she wished would shoot her dead rather than kill her with his kindness is his own description of marriage in A Grief Observed. How Joy Davidman’s love eventually broke through his English reserve!

For those few years H. and I feasted on love; every mode of it — solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied.

And this on the physical embodiment of love:

There is one place where her absence comes locally home to me, and it is a place I can’t avoid. I mean my own body. It had such a different importance while it was the body of H’s lover. Now it’s like an empty house.

And this desperately sad passage revealing how she had shaken him out of his old life and opened him up to a life that perhaps he had not even suspected existed :

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant — in a word, real. Is all that work to be undone? Is what I shall still call H. to sink back horribly into being not much more than one of my old bachelor pipe-dreams? Oh my dear, my dear, come back for one moment and drive that miserable phantom away. Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back — to be sucked back — into it?

I guess King and many other Lewis scholars will be reassessing how his wife’s many previously unknown poems, which he almost certainly read, may have shaped his own writing in A Grief Observed and elsewhere.

One thing is sure, her love profoundly changed his understanding of love – for love cannot be understood in theory, but only in the experience of loving others and being loved.

Yet all love has an end. Lewis wrote about the end of his unexpected, dazzling and yet all too brief love affair in typically compelling prose:

And then one or other dies. And we think of this as love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid career or a flower with its head unluckily snapped off — something truncated and therefore, lacking its due shape. I wonder. If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings), then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.

And this to close.

Does H. now see exactly how much froth or tinsel there was in what she called, and I call, my love? So be it. Look your hardest, dear. I wouldn’t hide if I could. We didn’t idealize each other. We tried to keep no secrets. You knew most of the rotten places in me already. If you now see anything worse, I can take it. So can you. Rebuke, explain, mock, forgive. For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives — to both, but perhaps especially to the woman — a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.

To see, in some measure, like God. His love and His knowledge are not distinct from one another, nor from Him. We could almost say He sees because He loves, and therefore loves although He sees.

Comments, as ever, welcome.