A quick survey, please if you have a few minutes to spare. These first questions will merely require a yes or no answer. Thank you.
Did you buy any books of a spiritual nature this year? For example, books with God as the central character or with a theological theme or premise? Did you buy any Christian books? Did you buy any Catholic books? Is there a Christian bookstore in your town? A Catholic one? Are all Christian books equal? Does it matter to you, in your purchases of such books, if the author of the book is Catholic or not?
Second survey, please. These questions will require a response based on a scale of 1-10. If you agree completely then think 10. If you disagree completely think 1. If you are undecided think 5. Thank you.
Do you think the type of books a Catholic reads is important? Do you think it is legitimate for Catholics to read any book at all? Concerning Christian books, written about faith issues or topics but not by a Catholic author, should Catholics read those? Should they be concerned about the content if the book is written by a Christian and/or sold in a Christian store? Do you think the Catholic Church should bring back the “List of Forbidden Books”?
Why the questions? The Shack by William P. Young, a Christian book, is #1 on the NY Times Fiction Paperback Bestsellers list. As a result there are a good number of copies out there. We can safely assume, therefore, that a portion of these books were sold to Catholics. Unquestionably, even more Catholics have read it through their libraries, as a loaner from friends or in their neighborhood book clubs. Count this Catholic as one of those.
I heard it talked about on morning TV and picked it up from my library when I saw a copy available. The story introduces you to Mackenzie “Mack” Allen Phillips, who endures an awful tragedy that shakes his faith in God. He and his family are forever altered by this event, which reaches a critical point when he is invited by God to revisit the shack where the tragedy occurred. I don’t want to be a complete plot spoiler but there he meets God who appears as a large black woman whom Mack calls “Papa” and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman referred to as Sarayu. And Jesus? Well, Jesus is, respectfully, allowed to remain a carpenter of Middle Eastern descent.
After spending a few days at the Shack, I was left with some of the questions I posed at the beginning along with some quirky images and theories about God. Mr. Young wrote a book with the intention of getting you to reevaluate everything you think you know about God, the Trinity, your relationship with Him, Church — everything. While this may sound fascinating, throughout my reading the book I was shaking my head in both confusion and amazement. In his attempt to stretch every preconceived notion, Mr. Young often takes the point so far that I could only chuckle in amusement. Is he serious? Yes, he is. And sure enough, at the end you may find yourself reevaluating everything you thought you knew.
Not that I seriously did, as my faith is stronger than the Shack, but I couldn’t help but wonder about others who make the trip to the Shack, others who may not be well-formed in any faith, much less the Catholic faith, and are then left with some interesting viewpoints, but with much confusion.
By way of example, one of the comments made by Papa includes a discussion where Mack says, “Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?” Papa replies, “Yes. In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful.” While a conversation with Jesus includes this stunner, “Seriously, my life was not meant to be an example to copy.” Huh?
Conversations with the Holy Spirit figure are at times confusing with an overabundant use of the word “relationship.” There is also a character referred to as “Sophia,” who acts in the manner of a judge. I don’t know where she fits into the Trinity but she is a pivotal part of the plot. Her appearance emphasizes the point that three of the four spiritual characters are women, which seems to be an overt and unnecessarily critical attitude towards the traditional male references for God.
In the end, what I read was a book that appears to be Christian, but is decidedly not Catholic and works very hard to let us know that we have done everything wrong when it comes to knowing and understanding God.
Now, the fans of the book might say that all of my problems come from my Catholic upbringing and I am not being open enough. My parochial school background permanently stunted my spiritual growth. Some may even say that Mr. Young is stating what is actually Catholic thought in a new manner. I don’t know; he has written it in such an obtuse manner I couldn’t tell. Which brings me back to the survey. Does it matter?
Then there would be those who might say “Hurray! A Christian book is #1,” as if it doesn’t matter what the content or message is, as long as it mentions Jesus. In addition, many people who have not given God any regard are finding Him at The Shack. Others who have fallen from the faith due to their own faith crises are returning. It is to those people the book is directed. In an interview with Mr. Young I read, he mentions such people directly. He hopes people who have no contact with God or relationship with Him will begin one as a result of spending time in the Shack.
However, who are they meeting there? Is it a faithful depiction (even if fictional) of God or a completely fictional one? What about Catholics or other denominations for whom the God of The Shack doesn’t seem to resemble their God at all — gender and race issues aside? Does it matter?
For me, it should. I should have not read the book because I know myself well enough to realize that I have, as a good priest told me once in confession, a pretty strong hard drive. His comment had nothing to do with my computer skills, which are amateur at best, but rather my personality which seems to cling to words and images for a very long time.
By way of explanation, I have a checkered past when it comes to being a faithful Catholic. I am embarrassed to admit that I had a few years when my behavior was obviously sinful and only by God’s grace was I spared from completely ruining my life. Mercifully, I was able to find my way back to God and the Church but there are images and memories that still linger. Satan likes to trot these out once in awhile in a miserable attempt to ridicule me and tempt me to doubt or despair over God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. During this rather painful confession, the wonderful priest warned me about this aspect of my nature and recommended I memorize Philippians 4:8 — “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things” and put it into daily practice.
As a result, knowing that my hard drive tends to keep hold of things longer than necessary or healthy, I have learned to be careful what I watch and read, especially popular literature, magazines, movies and TV. Many would say all of us should avoid such things but that is not for me to say. I just know I should.
I also know I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to matters of theology and Church teaching. As such, I have found that I need to pay particular attention to books about Who God is, His nature in dealing with us, His plan for us and other theological instruction, if they are not Catholic. I am not perceptive enough to know if a book written by someone who is not Catholic will give me an interpretation or opinion in agreement with Catholic teaching. As such, I read those books only if recommended by someone I trust; someone who knows about these things better than I. Many folks would say this is how all Catholics ought to act. Again, I don’t know.
So, what about those of us who already know and love God? Will spending time at the Shack help us grow in that love and knowledge of God? Was it true and honorable? For me, not so much. Though I will admit shedding the idea of God (the Father — am I allowed to even think that any more?) as a black woman was pretty easy to do, a number of questionable views about our relationship (I am really beginning to hate that word) remain. I plan on rereading something by Fulton Sheen or maybe even The Story of a Soul by Saint Thérèse to bring me back to reality. With those as a help, I’m sure I will leave any lingering doubts in the Shack. What I really regret is wasting my precious reading time, despite it being only a few nights, with this book. I don’t get much free time in my busy life and I feel my time with Mack was poorly spent.
This then brings me back to my real question about books such as The Shack or those by Christian phenoms Joel Osteen or Rick Warren. These books are being bought and read by any number of Catholics. Why? It isn’t as if we don’t have an abundance of good Catholic books and authors. We have proven winners from centuries past such as St. Francis de Sales as well as recent treasures from St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and our current pope, Benedict XVI. We even have lay writers, such as CE’s own Mark Shea, who can provide us with good food for thought.
Is it the packaging, the hype, the extra resources such as planners, tote bags, calendars, and greeting cards that come with the more popular titles that make them so appealing? Or, is it that they are just easier? Easier to acquire? Easier to read? I will admit it would be wonderful to think that I don’t need to try to imitate Jesus as he tells us at the Shack but I can’t help forget the rallying cry from 1 Peter 1:16. Remember, Scripture says, “Be holy, for I am holy,” quoting Leviticus 19:2. Granted, good Catholic reading materials might not be heavily promoted and you may not find the imagery as detailed as in Mr. Young’s book but you won’t be left wondering if what you are reading agrees with what our Church teaches.
This thought about the ease of reading material that may be harmful to our faith brings me to St. Paul who scolds the followers in Corinth that he could not speak to them as spiritual men but needed to feed them on milk as they were still infants in Christ. In the end, that is how I feel about The Shack. It may very well be milk to some people’s lives, offering them relief and solace in a difficult world. As Catholics, however, we’ve been fed on the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Shouldn’t that grace make us manly enough (yes, even us women) to be able to bypass The Shack and visit some place more challenging? While we may not want to venture to The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, we should be willing to check out Catholic books before risking our hard drives with questionable input.
My critics will now say that I am calling for a return to the “List of Forbidden Books” which I am not. I readily admit there are many people who can handle reading just about anything without any lingering effects. But, in solidarity with others like myself, I want to remind them that the discretion and prudence we exercise in making our choices needs to extend to materials that come from Christian sources (and some seemingly ‘Catholic’ ones) perhaps even more than from secular sources.
If the authors of these books cannot agree with us on the big stuff such as the Eucharist and Jesus’ own mother’s importance should we trust them with our time and our souls about the small stuff?
Is there really any small stuff when it comes to the nature of God and our relationship with Him?