Friday, March 26, 2010

God Stuff: Part I

The Shack was one of those flash-in-the-pan novels that caught my attention when it first hit the New York Times bestseller list in 2007. However, I never got a hold of the novel, and after a while I forgot about it. A few weeks ago, however, when I was back in Pittsburgh, my friend E___ handed me the book and told me to take it back to New York. She warned me that it was a bit hokey, but she thought it was worthwhile and wanted to know my thoughts when I was done.

I enjoy discussing books, and I only read books that are either personally recommended to me or catch my interest when I browse through Publisher’s Weekly, so I happily took the book back with me.

I finished it about a week ago. Yes, the writing was terrible. (I would like to personally strangle Young's editor, actually, for not forcing him to cut every other word in that book. The overuse of modifiers even within the first five pages puts even JK Rowling to shame.) But I have not read such a unique, well-stated, anti "religion" religious book in a very long time. And it got me to think.

In the meantime, I had unwittingly ordered Angry Conversations with God from the library. I had noticed this book in Publisher's Weekly, and since I'm always on the lookout for interesting memoirs, I had listed it in my To-Read section on For whatever reason, it came in to the library just as I was finishing The Shack, so I started it right then.

The timing could not have been more perfect. Isaacs does exactly what I've always wanted to (but never realized I wanted to) do: she speaks directly to God in a fictionalized medium and, through her own imagination, forces him to speak back. In this way, she creates her own conceptualization of who God is.

Between reading Isaacs' account of "couples counseling" with God and Young's fictionalized characterization of the Holy Trinity (a big black woman, a middle Eastern man, and an ethereal Asian woman, if you were wondering), I am compelled to consider my own conceptions of God. I was taught to believe in a triune God, or the Holy Trinity, so I'll address him in three: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In simpler terms (and the ones I tend to use), these would be God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I'll start with God.

God is definitely the most confusing one of the three, probably because I've been given impressions of him by three very different religious groups of people: Presbyterians, Catholics, and Jews.

From the Presbyterians, I was taught that God gracious and loving. He's just sitting there waiting to forgive you. You screw up, but then you say sorry and everything's okay again--kind of like the perfect parent. He's also an ideal listener, and even though he doesn't always give you what you want the way you want it, he knows what's best, and you just have to suck it up when you don't get things your way, because again, like the perfect parent, he's going to be right in the end. But you can talk to him whenever, wherever, and he’s always interested and available. Because, of course, he’s God.

From the Catholics, I was taught that God is one big finger-pointer. This time, I guess, he’s is the parent who's always yelling at you for things you didn't even do. Adam might have been the one who was banished from the Garden of Eden, but it's your fault! You're imperfect, so you had better feel guilty all the time. And not only guilty, but inadequate. As a sinful human, you are so imperfect that you're not even allowed to speak directly to God—you have to tell you dirty ugly sins to a priest, who apparently has at least one up on you. He then whispers all the awful things you did to the Big Guy, who then doles out the punishments, which the priest then relays back to you. Unfortunately, by the time you get through all of your ritualistic Hail Marys and Our Fathers (also known as penance), you'll probably have sinned again. So basically, we humans are constantly pissing God off. And we’d better be afraid, because if he gets cranky, God can just flood us off the face of the planet or send us to burn in hell for eternity. Sounds like a nice guy.

So Presbyterians gave me the Nice Dad God who listens and forgives. Catholics gave me the guilt-inflicting, punishment-doling God. Jews gave me the God of Rules. Catholics might have a lot of rituals, but Jews have the monopoly on rules. Just start with the Ten Commandments: who can possibly follow those without screwing up? Then move on to everything from keeping kosher to keeping the Sabbath . . . . Jews showed me a God of nitty gritty details, a God who knows and keeps track of every little thing you say, do, think, or feel. God might have a universe to manage, but if he can micromanage my eating habits down to what dish I use to serve my food, then he clearly knows me inside and out. Jews gave me God the Helicopter Parent.

So to summarize, I have this weird conglomeration of God ideas all mixed together: the gracious, generous, friendly, ever-present God; the guilt-inflicting, you're-never-good-enough God; and the you-cannot-escape-from-my scrutiny, rule-writing God.

As confusing as this conglomeration is, I still find God the Father the most comfortable figure of the three Holy Trinity identities. Maybe that's because everyone wants to believe a comforting father/friend figure is out there listening to our every gripe. We all wish we had a dad who could swoop in and fix every problem we encounter. And when we experience inexplicable joy, we need someone to thank.

If I had to pick one overarching identity for God, I’d say God is a listener. He doesn’t necessarily act in response to everything we tell him (maybe because it’s not his “will” or whatever), but I think it comforts everyone to pray. It makes us feel less alone—and loneliness is a perpetual human condition that everyone fights.

Coming Next: That cross-bearing, now-you-see-me-now-you-don't guy Jesus, in God Stuff: Part II.


Eric said...

i would check out blue like jazz and searching for God knows what...both by donald miller. 2 of my favorite books on some christian/spirtuality/God books. interesting thoughts though on the shack. It was given to me as a gift and I burned through it as it's a very simplistic read, not like the ayn rand i'm usually reading ha! While I think the writing stylistically was definitely poor it had some interesting ideas on dealing with loss and tragedy. talk to you later!

Kim said...

ha! I'm in complete agreement with...oh wait--my brother :) Come on. It's the only Eric who would have also read The Shack and strongly recommend Donald Miller (as he's also recommended them to me).

Anyway, you nail my sentiments exactly on The Shack. I was super skeptical about the book to begin with and immediately noted the rather heavy-handed writing, but I found the plot innovative, creative, and compelling enough to finish the text. And I'm glad I did because if nothing else...he does a nice job of getting outside the box.

And by the way, I'm loving The Virgin Blue thus far. In fact, I'm reading it at bed time when I probably should be reading this memoir that's due by Friday (among other readings).

In terms of other authors you may want to look at that may give different perspective outside of the stereotypical are Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Emily said...

Funny that you say the Father is the most confusing of the trinity for you...the Holy Spirit has always been the most confusing for me, probably because there's not human counterpart for me to compare. But really, the whole concept of the Trinity is confusing yet wonderful. If we fully understood God, than he wouldn't be God right? Plus there's the whole triune God being based on love instead of power thing...Did you get a chance to listen to that sermon?
Oh, your catholic portrayal of God the Father is so sad, yet true for many people.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Merton & Bonhoeffer are musts. I've not read Nouwen.