Somehow, this podcast came up in my Facebook feed. I read “The Shack” a while ago and thought the interview might be interesting. The length of it was a bit intimidating, but, I know where the “off” button is. It takes about 7 minutes before the interview starts, but it was fascinating from the get go. Paul Young, the author of “The Shack” moved to New Guinea when he was 1 year old. His father had gone from lumberjack to missionary in a few short years. Paul learned the native language as his first language and became an invaluable asset for translators.
The details of his life are full of interesting facts like that. His life journey is also quite a trip. His fundamentalist upbringing was as rocky as any, including abuse and bullying, and then add the strange cultural identities of an aboriginal lifestyle crossed with Christian missionary. By time he was in his twenties, he was leading a double life. He came clean to his wife and spent the next 11 years working it out while he wrote “The Shack”. The child in the book who is kidnapped and killed represents his lost innocence and the shack is a symbol of the things he kept hidden for so long.
Then they start talking theology. It is an unusually respectful conversation, with each side making standard arguments, with a few modern twists, and each allowing the other to speak and acknowledging their points. Cass, the interviewer, takes the time to point out the creativity of Paul’s writing, despite their ideological differences. If you want to skip to those parts, go to the 50 minute mark or so.
The two of them have a similar but distinct take on the idea of arriving at theism via atheism. Paul quotes Brian McClaren, “Every movement towards an authentic relationship with God has to go through atheism.” Cass sees the cry from Jesus, “God, why have you forsaken me”, as a moment of atheism. He says, if there is a god out there, he is begging the world to ignore him. Whenever we try to define the ineffable, we fail. We come to seeing how the help comes from each other. God does not favor nations, and we should stop appeasing the celestial dictator. We should turn our energies to one another. If we did that, he thinks God would applaud those efforts and say “Well done good and faithful servants.”
The interview ends around 1 hour and 15 minutes, and with no introduction, Cass brings in his friend Tony Woodall to discuss it. Tony is a Christian turned atheist, turned theist again. He is currently a working preacher, very willing to question his beliefs, but also committed to them. Cass attended seminary after he quit believing in God, so the two are able to quote scripture easily as well as bring in their own narratives.
Cass asks for Tony’s opinion on something Paul Young said. Paul said that the evolutionary explanation of humanity and morality is “too easy”. He said, “There is a god that created us, knowing we’d make a mess, then climbed in it with us in order to begin to reveal the truth of our humanity and the centrality of relationship.” He says that is something we need to get to know, and the idea that there is no source of meaning is too easy. Cass tried to counter that in the interview, then follows up with Tony, saying that creating a narrative from the imagination, that is, a story of God, is easy. Facing a meaningless universe and trying to find purpose in our lives, that’s hard.
Tony’s response is to not try to sort that out at all. He says, “It was a good first conversation. The two of you have not yet spent enough time together to get to know each others' opinions.” Cass is tickled by this response. And what a great observation it was. How much better would such encounters with two people from differing worldviews go if they thought of it as getting to know each other instead of as a chance to sell their ideas and change the others mind?
The discussion continues to be lively, with Cass building on the symbolism of dying. In movies or books, and especially in spiritual writing, death or near death symbolizes change. Cass talks about how too often, people don’t seek change. They stay only around and with people that are like them and agree with them. He includes himself in this, and says if we do it, we are not going to grow. It’s saying, “I’m here, waiting for others to catch up”. When we get that way, when we think we’re right and are waiting for others to come in line with who we are, we want to build a wall. I think it was Tony who added, when we decide that the others' agreement is required for us to walk with them in community, the wall is already there.
Cass provides a possible way to break down those walls. When we die to the thinking that things are going to start working, that we have ideas that can fix the world, these ideas of religion and politics that we've argued about for thousands of years and have had only rather modest success, when we just let go of that and accept that others will remain others and things are going to break and it’s just going to be like this for as long as we live, when we say say “yes” to the moment, what happens is, someone drops by, something funny or interesting passes by on whatever media is playing, we encounter something we didn't plan for. When we stop looking for and expecting happiness, we are surprised that it comes anyway. It will likely come from things that we don't expect and wane from the things that made us happy before. If we cling to those new things, try to recreate those new experiences, we will put ourselves right back into the old pattern. So the answer is not firing our politicians or closing our churches. We don't even need to agree on everything. We just need to do the thing that humans have done for 200,000 years, care for each other.
That's what I got from this podcast anyway.