Revisiting The Shack (6): Chapter 8 – “A Breakfast of Champions”
Mack awakes from sleep to find himself still at the shack with the characters claiming to be God. The nightmare about Missy assaulted him in his sleep. The Great Sadness is still with him. The question, his question, our question, terrorizes him: “. . . if God was really here, why hadn’t he taken his nightmares away?” (117).
The smell of food cooking draws him to the kitchen and Papa.
Who is God, Again!
Mack hears Bruce Cockburn playing in the Kitchen. He asks if Cockburn is one of Papa’s favorites. She replies, “Mackenzie, I have no favorites; I am just especially fond of him” (118). Does she have any non-favorites, Mack asks. “Nope. I haven’t been able to find any. Guess that’s just the way I is.”
This sparks the question of divine judgment and wrath for Mack. Don’t you get mad, he asks Papa.
“Sho ‘nuff!” she replies, “What parent doesn’t? There is a lot to be mad about in the mess my kids have made and the mess they’re in. I don’t like a lot of choices they make, but that anger – especially for me – is an expression of love all the same. I love the ones I’m angry with just as much as those I’m not” (119).
Parental love is the only model that seems to do justice to God’s anger. No less than any parent, Papa is angry at some of the choices his children make and the mess we make of things. But more even than the best parent, her anger expresses itself in love, tough love. But love all the same.
But what about the angry, vengeful, wrathful deity Papa is supposed by many (including Mack) to be?
Papa answers by raising the matter of preconceived notions again. She does not reply directly to Mack’s charge but asks him instead to keep an open mind in processing what he experiences through the weekend (119).
Mack next wonders if she enjoys the punishment she metes out. “I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it” (119-120).
This view of punishment and wrath is echoed by biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. He writes:
“The “wrath of God” (orge tou theou) is not a psychological category but a symbol (widely used in Torah) for the retribution that comes to humans as a result of their willfill turning away from God; indeed, it is a concept that derives precisely from the prophetic warnings against idolatry (see Isa 51:7; Jer 6:11; 25:25; Hos 13:11; Zeph 1:15).
“Although it plays a thematic role in Romans (2:5, 8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19), it is used elsewhere by Paul as well for the eschatological (“final”) threat that looms over those who oppose God.
“God’s wrath is therefore the symbol for the destruction that humans bring on themselves by rebelling against the truth. For those alienated from the ground of their own being, even God’s mercy appears as “anger.” It is a retribution that results, not at the whim of an angry despot but as the necessary consequences of a self-distorted existence.” (http://production.aws.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2014/11/is-the-wrath-of-god-wrath/)
Hierarchy and Authority
Jesus and Sarayu join Papa and Mack for breakfast. Mack again is struck by the graciousness, gentleness, intimacy, and joy in the relationship between the three. This leads him to ask which of the three are “in charge” (122).
Sarayu explains to him why this question does not apply to the Trinity.
“Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being’ as your ancestors termed it. What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours” (122).
Humans are so damaged, she continues, that we cannot even imagine not having someone is charge. This is why we find relationships difficult. Power relations destroy rather than enhance them. “When you choose independence over relationship, you become a danger to each other. Others become objects to be manipulated or managed for your own happiness. Authority, as you usually think of it, is merely the excuse the strong use to make others conform to what they want” (123).
Sarayu allows that authority and hierarchy sometimes limit problems among humans, more often it causes hurt and pain. And that’s not the way God works. Mack can’t believe that God doesn’t use authority and hierarchy to limit problems here.
Papa joins in at this point. “We carefully respect your choices, so we work within your systems even while we seek to free you from them.” He says that as fallen human beings, we live a terribly distorted existence. Our systems and institutions normally value their survival over that of individuals, sacrificing them to that survival when necessary. This has become so much the rule for life that we accept it as normal. This pattern, Papa says is “the matrix, a diabolical scheme in which you are hopelessly trapped even while completely unaware of it existence” (124).
There are some versions of the trinity in which God the Father is primary while the Son and the Spirit are subordinate to him. Young obviously disavows this view. And his view that power (at least as we experience in a fallen world) is destructive to relationships is difficult to deny. Yet there is a power too in relationships too that bonds us to the other and their well-being. It’s hierarchical power in the world and in God that Young really wants to challenge, and he is right to do so. But it might be that power for God is something very different than we can know or imagine – the power of love that impels him to seek and save his creatures and creation from whatever hell they have found their way into. This seems worth considering to me.
Power is essentially about getting things done. And in this sense God is the fullness of power. How one gets things done seems to be the issue. Because hierarchical power in a fallen world “lords it over” others, Jesus rejects it. But he promotes love as he experienced it in his life with his Father and the Spirit as a power that gets things done as God desires.
Further, two other matters are hinted at in this section that are worthy of note. First, when Papa declares that his aim is to free us from our systems of destructions (124) we hear a note of Christus Victor atonement. We are enslaved (by our own doing) to powers that are more powerful than we are. Our need to be freed from these powers is the aim of God’s love for us. Freed to be restored to a life-giving relationship with Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu. This takes the primary thrust of God’s redeeming work out of the forensic realm where it has been imprisoned for so long in the West and placed in a relational framework where it belongs.
The other matter is cognate with this Christus Victor atonement. The powers that hold us in thrall may well be an allusion to what Paul calls “principalities and powers.” These powers (probably not angels but it’s okay to think of them like that) were created good and tasked by God to establish and maintain the conditions for human existence and well-being (education, economy, government, politics, etc.). But they rebelled against God and sought to be masters of their own domain competing with the others for total sovereignty. Humanity was caught up by its own rebellion against God in the machinations of these powers. Life was twisted and distorted far away from its divine design and without even being aware of it we were trapped in this “matrix,” this “diabolical scheme” (124). Thus God has to do battle with the fallen powers to free us for himself.
Mack does not hear this exposition of the human problem as being enmeshed in hierarchical power struggles and thus robbed of the relational network which succors life as good news. “But how could we ever change that?” he exclaims. “People will just use us.” Papa agrees but that he’s not asking Mack to do it with others. He asking him to do with him, Jesus, and Sarayu. “We created you, the human, to be in face-to-face relationship with us, to join our circle of love. As difficult as it will be for you to understand, everything that has taken place is occurring exactly according to this purpose, without violating choice or will” (124-25).
Back to Mack’s “Problem”
Papa is right. Mack cannot wrap his head or heart around this claim which rubs the open wound of his Great Sadness. How can that be with all the evil and pain in the world? he asks. More to the point, how can the death of my daughter serve such a purpose or any purpose at all? Even if you don’t cause them, Papa, you don’t stop them!
Papa’s response is worthy hearing in full:
“Mackenzie . . . there are millions of reasons to allow pain and hurt and suffering rather than to eradicate them, but most of those reasons can only be understood within each person’s story. I am not evil. You are the ones who embrace fear and pain and power and rights so readily in your relationships. But your choices are not stronger than my purposes, and I will use every choice you make for ultimate good and the most loving outcome (125).”
Sarayu adds: “If you could only see how all of this ends and what we will achieve without the violation of one human will – then you would understand. One day you will” (125).
Again Mackenzie cannot accept this claim. It just can’t be worth the cost, he responds. Then Papa gets down to it. “The real underlying flaw in your life, Mackenzie, is that you don’t think that I am good. If you knew I was good and that everything – the means, the ends, and all the processes of individual lives – is all covered by my goodness, then while you might not always understand what I am doing, you would trust me. But you don’t” (126).
Thus, because Mack does not God is love, he cannot trust him.
Finally Mack is able to respond to this truth about himself: “I don’t know how to change that” (126).
It’s all about relationship, relationship with him, Papa replies. That’s the only way trust grows. It doesn’t happen through “guilt or condemnation or coercion” but only a love-trust relationship with God.
Sarayu invites Mack to come with her to the garden to work on a special project. He accepts but has one parting shot for Papa. “I just can’t imagine any final outcome that would justify all this?”
Papa hugs him. “We’re not justifying it. We are redeeming it” (127).
Next we find Mack in a garden like no other making special preparations for a big event.
Theodicy, justifying the ways of God, is a perennial struggle for the church. In fact, I would say the Bible as a whole is an effort to justify the ways of God in a world go horribly wrong. And Mack’s inability to trust Papa afflicts all of us to one degree or another. I by and large concur with Young’s depiction of Papa’s way of dealing with this matter here.
1. There’s no explanation for evil, there’s only combatting it (127).
2. To trust God in the midst of life in an evil-drenched world is a struggle for all of us (whether we admit it or not).
3. Especially relevant today is the reminder that we operate with a very partial understanding of God and what God is doing in the world. We are in a position to question and even rage against God for what is happening but not in a position to judge him finally untrustworthy or unfaithful. Such a judgment can only be made when we see God’s completed work of creation redeemed and fulfilled (126).
4. Knowing God as love, and therefore trustworthy, only happens in relationship to him and following him in discipleship (124,126).
Several times in this chapter we hear Papa denying that God’s action in the world ever violates human agency and choice. This reflects the Bible’s own insistence on both God’s sovereign control over all and the reality and importance of human action and responsibility. Thus we must understand this as a revealed “mystery.” That is, God tells us this is the truth of things, something we would never have grasped by ourselves and by our own intellectual prowess, but we must accept and live by if we want to be faithful to him. However we finally articulate the relation between divine and human freedom we can never allow one side to diminish or cancel out the other side. We have to think of them as an asymmetrical differential relationship. Both are real and true, yet divine freedom grounds and guides human freedom without contradicting it. It is perhaps similar to the understanding of light in quantum physics (at least the last time I read seriously in it which has been a decade or so!). It is both a wave and particle at the same time, yet the wave function appears to set the conditions under which light can be seen as a particle.
With all this going on in this chapter, it is easy to understand Young’s title for it: “A Breakfast of Champions”!