In this episode, Pete & Jared talk to William Paul Young, author of the NY Times bestselling book and feature film, “The Shack.” Young describes his thought process behind his controversial portrayal of God the Father as an African-American woman and reminds us that we all bring some level of interpretation to the biblical text.
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Pete Enns: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the Internet. Serious talk about the Sacred Book. I’m Pete Enns…
Jared Byas: …and I’m Jared Byas. Welcome everyone to this episode of the Bible for Normal People. We are talking today about reimagining the God of the Bible and we are talking with William Paul Young, the author of “The Shack” and he has some other works going on–projects including some films, actually. So, reimagining the God of the Bible.
Pete Enns: Right. And he’s done a fair bit of that himself right with “The Shack,” where he reimagines the Trinity in ways that was pretty controversial for a number of people, but also just a breath of fresh air for others. And reimagining God…I mean if that word doesn’t help, use another one. How we think about God. That really changes for people at different times, and different places, different circumstances. And even within the Bible, right Jared we talked a little bit about how even the Bible itself is thinking about God in ways that makes sense culturally.
Jared Byas: Yeah. And I like the language of reimagining because it’s images of God and we are sort of re-imaging God in every culture. And even just metaphorically. And Paul will talk about that in the conversation of, you know, where God is a rock and a shield and a mother hen and…So you know, we talk often about how we feel like there’s this static Bible that doesn’t do these dynamic things and we are sort of putting our own spin on things. But when we look at the Bible, the Bible itself is reimagining the God of the Bible.
Pete Enns: Yeah the Bible is putting a spin on God, so to speak, and using different images to describe God. And I guess the big question that many of us who are trying to be faithful followers of Jesus and taking the Bible seriously is, is it then our responsibility also to continue that process? Let’s say of reimagining God where we are, even if it may not be exactly…I mean this to me is a fascinating question. Even if it may not be where the Bible is thinking about God, right. Because it’s so diverse. I think most of us don’t think of God as a warrior who just can’t wait to make people bleed. You know, you have that image in the Old Testament and it’s not the only one, but you have it there. So you know, it may just be that we all have to reimagine God and when Paul, when he wrote “The Shack,” he did a fair amount of that. And where God the Father is an African-American woman, which really freaked people out. Because well God’s not like that. Well what is God like? Well, first of all he’s a he and he’s white. Right?
Jared Byas: And he has a beard, for sure.
Pete Enns: That’s also a reimagining God in ways that make sense to us.
Jared Byas: And that goes back to, you know, when we talked–I forget which episode it was, but I did a little after thing for our Patreon community–of talking about the idea that sometimes we privilege our own kind of theology as though that’s just theology plain and then other cultures when they do theology. Right? So we think when we reimagine God we’re reimagining God as African-American woman, but when we talk about God as an old white man that’s not reimagining God that just God plain. And just, you know, it almost sounds ridiculous even saying it that way. But I think that’s a lot of our default to take our culture or the way we grew up understanding God and sort of concretize it or make it sort of dogma. And anyone else who thinks of it differently, they’re doing something. There’s some funny business going on there.
Pete Enns: Well, here’s a thought. Reimagining God is not an act of spiritual rebellion. It’s actually an act of humility, because you’re recognizing that how you imagine God may not be the be all and end all. Maybe that’s what we learn from all this.
Jared Byas: Yeah.
Pete Enns: Well let’s get to the interview, shall we?
Jared Byas: Sounds good.
Pete Enns: Let’s do this.
Religion & Relationship (3:56)
William Paul Young: God has never been religious. There’s never been a time where the Spirit is saying, “So who’s in charge of the service this weekend, you know, and where are we going to have it?” God is just not a religious being, which means that God is about relationship. And religion and relationship are oftentimes antagonistic. Not completely, but oftentimes antagonistic. And what that means is that all religious ideology is something that we have brought to the table.
Pete Enns: Welcome everybody to the podcast and welcome to William Paul Young, our guest today. Paul, how are you?
William Paul Young: I am very well. I’m off a long road trip and I’m glad to be home.
Pete Enns: Oh, where was the road trip?
William Paul Young: Um. East Coast and then Switzerland and Germany.
Pete Enns: Oh, okay.
Pete Enns: Oh my goodness gracious, that’s fantastic. Okay. Well listen, the topic for today is reimagining the God of the Bible and you’ve done a little bit of that. You wrote “The Shack,” is that right? You are the same guy, right?
William Paul Young: I am. I did do that, yes.
Pete Enns: Okay. That’s a relief, because we have the wrong William Paul Young on, that’s a huge embarrassment .
William Paul Young: You could have the wrong Paul Young on. That could be a British rock star, you know.
Pete Enns: I know, yea. So in this book, you imagine God as an African-American woman.
William Paul Young: Correct. God the Father, specifically.
Pete Enns: Yes. So when did you stop being a Christian?
Pete Enns: Ha! I’m only a Christian when it’s to my benefit.
Jared Byas: So you’re American?
William Paul Young: Yea, and I’m Canadian. So, I mean think about this. Paul was only a Roman when it was an advantage. Right? And I think that we ought to be…because we belong to a kingdom that’s not of this world. So we ought to be American or Canadian when it’s to our advantage. But I think that’s true about being a Christian too, because Christian has become a religious category rather than an actual expression of the person of Jesus. So I mean, there are times when it’s to our advantage to be Christian, but there are some times when it’s absolutely not. And it’s divisive and destructive to human relationships. And I think we ought to be free about those kinds of categorizations or use of language.
Pete Enns: That’s a big hill for people to climb.
William Paul Young: It is, but you know it’s got to come back to Jesus or we’re just all just chiming up whatever tree we find. So it’s like, “Well, when did you stop becoming a Christian?” Well, I am a Christian. That’s my tradition. And when it’s to my advantage, I absolutely embrace it. And I’m inside the Christian traditional framework a lot. And those are my people. In fact, not just Christian, but evangelical fundamentalist holiness movement Christian and Missionary Alliance, missionary kid, preacher’s kid, having gone to bible school and seminary. I mean, I’m entrenched in that history and that tradition in the same way that Paul would say I’m a Jew of the Jews and I’m, you know, all that. And then he turns around and calls it, what? The nice English word is “dung” or “nothing” but the Greek word is “skubula,” which was a street word for fecal material or shit, as we would say. But what he’s doing, he’s annihilating the categories so that Jesus can emerge as the greatest revelation that we are expressions of, rather than a religious background or framework.
A Multicultural Childhood and How It Lead to “The Shack” (7:19)
Jared Byas: I’d be interested in a little more of your story. You know, you talk about coming from missionary kid, evangelical fundamentalist. And then, you know, writing a novel that depicts God the Father as an African American woman. And what was the the journey that you took where you felt like that was maybe you were inspired to do that or that was appropriate and felt really right for that, for that depiction? What was that journey for you?
William Paul Young: Keep in mind that I wrote it when I was 50 years old. So, it’s not like I was doing this as a young evangelical. That was too far of a hill to climb at the time. But I had issues even as a teenager with what we did inside of my religious tradition with gender and hierarchy and structure. And there are so many things that just felt wrong, but we weren’t allowed to even ask the questions about it. So growing up, I had the advantage of growing up in a multicultural world, which I think has a lot to do with it. I was a year old when we moved into the highlands of the interior part of Netherlands New Guinea, which is now West Papua among a Stone Age tribal spirit worshipping people that practice ritualistic cannibalism. And I was a year old. These were my people. And this is my world. And the dialect was the first dreaming language that I had and then I was sent away to boarding school when I was six and kind of everything crashed. Well it had crashed a little bit before that for some of the great sadness reasons. You know, my relationship with my dad which was very difficult. Sexual abuse both in the tribal culture and then in boarding school when I was sent away and that just dismantled my world , as well as finding out that I was white, which was a huge disappointment because I just didn’t identify with the ghost people. You know, they had a word for it. “Moon Gots” is what they…It’s a ghost person. It’s a person without substance. And I didn’t identify that way at all. So here I am now missionary kid. We moved back to Canada. My father is an itinerant pastor. I go to 13 schools before I graduate high school. I go from high school to Bible college. Studied theology. Went from there, finished an undergraduate degree in religious theology and then went to seminary for, I don’t know, about a year and a half worth, because I ran out of money. That was my background. But at the same time, I’m struggling deeply with questions about who God is and, you know, our view of the Bible, which was of course Father, Son, and Holy Bible kind of trinity. Because we were cessationists in a large sense, which means that, you know, we thought the Holy Spirit kind of stopped doing stuff after the Bible was put together as a canon. Or, you know, somebody in the first century died, I think it was John the Beloved. And then after that you had the Bible, so who needs…
Pete Enns: After that, nothing, zip. End. Done. Final.
William Paul Young: Who needs the Holy Spirit? And you know what? Here’s a crazy thing. I have friends, my people, evangelical fundamentalists, and I say, “Look, if you were lost on a deserted island, would you rather have the Bible or the Holy Spirit?” And it’s a hard question for them. And it should be the easiest question in the universe. You know, it should be instantly, “Well, the Holy Spirit, of course.” But for those of us who are addicted to certainty, and you know about that, we just…we would rather have something that we can control–an ideology or a doctrine than a person that we have to trust. And man our addiction is really deep. So, it’s a hard journey for a lot of us and the process of deconstruction that has to take place is not just arduous, it is devastating in parts. And a lot of us have experienced that process.
Why William Paul Young Made God An African-American Woman (11:08)
Pete Enns: Okay now let’s let’s get to….that’s very helpful and I think some pieces fall into place for me in terms of your thinking in “The Shack” by hearing a little bit of your biography. I did not know any of that. But, okay, so we’re at “The Shack” and God the Father is an African-American woman. You’ve answered this question a thousand times. But answer it one more time. Why did you do that?
William Paul Young: Well, for one, I didn’t write this for the world. I wrote it for my kids. And our youngest was almost 13 at the time. We have six children. So I wrote it as a Christmas present. Not having any idea or thought to ever publish this. It was never on the radar. It was a Christmas present. And so my goal was to do something that Kim, my wife, had asked me to do. And that was, some day as a gift for our children, would you just write something that puts in one place how you think, because you think outside the box? And I don’t want my kids growing up with Gandalf with a bad attitude God that I did. You know , that white distant omni-being behind, you know, the darkness behind Jesus. The God of the different nature who is the one that needs appeasing and sacrifice. Because Jesus doesn’t. In fact, Jesus as God becomes the sacrifice for that darkness, the bigger God behind Jesus. And so I had a Jesus who came to save me from God the Father. And God the Father was always presented in a very concrete form. That is masculine, bearded, elderly, distant, watching from the infinite distance of a disapproving heart God. And then Jesus came to protect me from that God. So it was like, well, not only does that God really know that I’m a piece of crap. Jesus comes to cover me with his good righteousness so that God the father doesn’t really know I’m a piece of crap and I can get into heaven as long as Jesus stays between me and God the Father. So when I am working on issues of the Trinity and, frankly, which is a part of a different discussion, but my entry into that conversation about the centrality of this relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was because of gender issues. Because most of the damage in my life comes from men. And I look around the world and most of the damage in the world comes from men and the scriptures are clear that it was through one man that sin entered the world, not through the woman. In fact, through the woman comes the salvation apart from the will and the flesh of a male. And it’s like, okay, so something is really messed up here. And the more I looked at the imagery that is used for God in scripture, you begin to see this entire spectrum that is both masculine and feminine, is animal, is inanimate object, because you know God is a rock, and a shield, and a strong power, a burning bush, a mother hen, or a nursing woman in Isaiah, a woman who loses a coin, a shepherd, a king, a mother bear in Habakkuk, a lioness, an eagle. And then you start realizing that in the Hebrew Scriptures, almost all the references to God as names are masculine, but almost almost all the verbs are feminine. And then you go a little deeper and you find out that, guess what? God is not more male than female. All of maleness and femaleness, all of masculinity and femininity originate in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. And this is because everything is centered in relationship. So, now we begin to see humanity as a spectrum rather than as a polarity. And what I wanted to do for my kids is just say, I want to tell you about the God who actually showed up and healed my heart. Not the God I grew up with. Because the God I grew up with was narcissistic, double-minded,abusive, distant, was incredibly beautiful in one swing, but on the other swing at the end of the day would judge me anyway. And so my existence to that God was a performance existence.
God’s Nature & Human Religious Ideology (15:18)
Pete Enns: Now, Paul, that God, okay, that you’re reacting to, which I don’t blame you, I’d have written “The Shack” too, you know, if I could write like that. But, you know, that God that you’re saying is not the God you believe in, that God is presented at least in portions of scripture.
William Paul Young: Yes. Which is a problem right?
Pete Enns: Right, that is a problem. So, get us out of it.
William Paul Young: Okay.
Pete Enns: In two minutes.
William Paul Young: Oh, thank you.
Pete Enns: In a tweet.
William Paul Young: Some of our Eastern brothers, Orthodox brothers, have got a great perspective on this. They they like to say that not only is scripture, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, not only is it a revelation–an unfolding revelation of the nature and character of God. It is a revelation of the depths of the lostness of humanity. So you’ve got both those things going on at the same time.You’ve got a God who is revealing the very nature and character of that which is good and beautiful and right and just inside submitting to human beings who are lost in their religious ideology.And I think one of the most helpful things that I can say that people could spend some time and just think about is that God has never been a religious being at all. God has never been religious there’s never been a time where like, you know, the Spirit is saying like, “So, who’s in charge of the service this weekend, you know, and where are we going to have it?”I mean, God is just not a religious being, which means that God is about relationship. And religion and relationship are oftentimes antagonistic. Not completely but oftentimes antagonistic.And what that means is that all religious ideology is something that we have brought to the table and you can see God do this inside the Hebrew Scriptures. An unfolding like, “No, that’s not who I am. I am not who you think I am. Let me tell you who I am. Let me give you a new name for who I am.” So, you know, for using a quick illustration. There is the story of Abraham and Isaac, which is the classic story for missionary kids that if Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son, you as a missionary parent ought to be willing to sacrifice your children on the altar of God’s purpose and mission. And frankly, a lot of us were slaughtered in the name of that story.
Pete Enns: Yuck.
What God Revealed Through Sacrifice (17:47)
William Paul Young: And so what’s the real story then? Well, remember that on a scale of spiritual awareness, Abraham’s got to be at A with a foot in B. He doesn’t know anything. He comes from Ur of the Chaldees. All he knows is his religious heritage, which is Moon Goddess and god-worshipping, but he’s not like the regular church goer Ur of the Chaldees. He can hear voices and they’re strong enough to get him to go out of town. So, he’s got a foot in A and a foot in B. And what I’ve come to understand in my personal relationship with God is that God is a very good communicator and that when God comes into the darkness of our worlds , in the limitations of our language, he doesn’t speak in a way that we cannot hear. That is not what love would do. Love always looks for a way that we can hear and God is a good communicator. But a respectful one. So, God comes to Abraham. What does Abraham believe? He believes what every religious system on the planet at his time believed. And that is that if you sacrifice to the god, that if you do it right and do it perfectly with the right words in the right magic, then you can twist that god’s arm to do what you need him to do. Give you the crops, give you the success, give you the hunt, give you whatever. And every religion, whether you went to the South American tribal religions or Middle Eastern or African. They all believed in sacrificial systems. So what does God do? Climbs into our sacrificial system. Into Abraham’s mindset and says, okay, sacrifice your son. Which is the highest, you know, the religious experience is to take a child and sacrifice a child. And that’s happening today in quote unquote civilized ways and quote unquote pagan uncivilized ways. I mean for 80 bucks US, you can go to Uganda and buy a child for 80 bucks US. And the witch doctor will sacrifice the child and put the body parts into the corners of buildings and new businesses in order to keep the evil spirits away.
Pete Enns: Really?
William Paul Young: Oh yeah.
Pete Enns: I didn’t know that. Alright.
William Paul Young: It’s horrible. But we’re too civilized to do that. What we do have is industrial military complexes that we have hymns to and have services to. And we have the right magic words in the incantations and we don’t even begin to address the conversation about how…what does it mean now that I’m part of a kingdom that’s not of the nationalistic patriotism of this world’s system, right?
Pete Enns: That can manipulate God and control God to get a desired result, right? Yea.
William Paul Young: Exactly. Right. Right, through bloodshed, of course, you know and sacrifice. We’ll sacrifice our kids. We’ll sacrifice your kids, you know. And we’ll write hymns to it. And I’m all for supporting human beings no matter what they’re involved with in terms of military or all that kind of stuff. I get that. These are, in fact, some of them are some of my best friends. And I’ve got a son who’s a cop, so it’s not like I’m outside the conversation. But again, what you have is God climb into Abraham’s religious thinking. And he says, “Alright, so you do something that is legit–that you think is legit.” And you read it and you’re going like, “Abraham, what? How could you do this? How can a father turn around and kill their son?” And Hebrew says he does it because he thinks that either God’s going to raise Isaac from the dead or he’s going to give him a new boy. And God lets him go all the way to the point where the knife’s coming down and he stops him and then says, “Abraham, no, you don’t know anything about me. I’m going to tell you a new name. And my new name is Jehova Gyra.” First time it’s used in Hebrew Scriptures. And he says this is when Abraham learned that God was the one who would provide. That is, “Abraham I don’t need a sacrifice. And later we’re going to find out from the prophets that that’s exactly right. God doesn’t need to sacrifice. But you do. So, if you need one, I will provide myself. Let me tell you one thing to make this perfectly clear Abraham, I do not require child sacrifice. I will provide myself. And I know you’re still locked in all of your religious thinking. So, instead of a lamb here’s a ram. But one day I will provide myself as a lamb and I will take all this religious ideology and put an end to it by submitting to it.”.
Pete Enns: Well, okay, see I agree with that. And Jared, jump in here too. I agree with what you’re saying. I think that’s an important point to make that, let’s say to use a theological language, God accommodates to cultural expectations or structures, but then..
William Paul Young: To use a relational language, God submits to us.
Diversity in Biblical Interpretation (22:42)
Pete Enns: God submit to us and allows us to sort of describe God in ways that make sense to us. But then is also, at the same time, leading people beyond those cultural limitations to something that maybe transcends those categories–something bigger and better. I guess, I mean this gets into sort of the dicey stuff in the Bible, but you know, you have whole books that seem to support the very let’s say system that you’re saying the Abraham story sort of argues against like priesthood and the need to sacrifice and the commands to sacrifice. I mean that’s a big part of the biblical story. I’m not saying that you’re wrong about Abraham . I’m just wondering, you know, what do we do with this? Why is the Bible so diverse on this issue?
William Paul Young: Because even the writers of Scripture were in conflict with each other. The editors were in conflict with each other. Even you know for example, I don’t know if it’s Samuel or Kings or…they have the story about David numbering the Israelites and how this catastrophe happens as a result. In one version, one of the books it says that Satan went and killed everybody and the other one says God went and killed everybody. You have this tension within the writers themselves. Because what do we have here? We have an unfolding story that is going to put us in a position where some of us can recognize Jesus as the incarnation of God when Jesus shows up. And Jesus is going to change everything. And after that, you’ve got to look through Jesus to look at any of these scriptures. And I know I come from the tribe where–I’m not talking about my Dani tribe, I’m talking about my religious tribe–that, you know, we love the inerrant infallible word of God language. And I believe in the inherent infallible word of God and His name is Jesus. That’s the difference, right? I have a real struggle with codifying what we have done in terms of inerrancy and infallibility. In fact, I don’t know if you know T.F. Torrance. He’s a Trinitarian theologian. He and his brother were. But T.F. said, you know, inerrancy is a doctrine that Christians produced when they needed a mediator other than Jesus, right? He saw it as a low view of Scripture and I see it as a low view of Scripture. So, you have this conflict. You have a God who it is reported that orders the killing of children and parents and livestock and all this stuff. And then you have something like Second Samuel 14:14. And in here, it says we will all surely die and we’re like water spilled on the ground which can’t be gathered up yet. God does not take away life but plans ways so that the banished ones will not be cast out from him. So, you’ve got definitely a problem within the narrative itself. And then you have people in the New Testament, including Jesus, who will quote a piece from the Old Testament but do it in such a way that it reinterprets it. There is this little rule in interpreting scripture that says that repetition without redundancy equals interpretation. That means that if I repeat something, but not exactly the same, I’m actually interpreting. And one of the greatest examples in the New Testament is Paul when, you got to read him. Paul the Apostle, right? He is no slouch about his Jewish roots. He is a Jew of the Jew. He is probably the greatest mind after Gamaliel, who was his mentor and he knows his scriptures. And yet he quotes probably one of the dominant themes of the Old Testament, but not exactly. And when you do that you’re interpreting. It’s in Galatians 3-12…13…13, I think. And it’s when there is this phrase becomes this thing in Deuteronomy where, “Cursed by God is every man who hangs upon the tree,” and Paul quotes that, but he doesn’t quote it exactly right. He says, “Cursed is every man and upon the tree.” He leaves the “by God” part off. He is saying that, yes, he’s cursed but not by God. He’s agreeing with Isaiah. We esteem Jesus stricken by God, but we were wrong. And Paul’s saying, “Yeah they thought that every man who hangs upon them on a tree is cursed by God, but he’s not. He’s cursed by us. We do that. God doesn’t do that. A cross is not something that God originated. We did that.” And again you have this tension now between the writer of a New Testament referring to an Old Testament passage, but reframing it inside of Jesus and saying like, “Okay, we got that wrong.” And that’s hard for some of us who love the certainty of doctrine and scripture, you know.
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Interpreting the Bible Through A Reliable Lens (28:54)
Jared Byas: I’d be interested in a little more about that within the context of, so you know, my tradition would would say something. . .I mean as an evangelical growing up pretty fundamentalist as well, that you know the reason that we hang onto that terminology of the infallibility or the inerrancy of the Scripture is precisely because of Jesus. We want to use Jesus as this filter or lens. But how can we know what Jesus said and did? How is that an accurate or reliable lens through which to interpret the rest of Scripture unless we can trust the way that Jesus presented in the Bible, which kind of is a circular argument back to inerrancy. So, how do you talk about being able to use Jesus as this reliable lens through which we interpret the rest of scriptures now without reverting back to those categories?
William Paul Young: You know if this was all easy, we’d all agree, you know? And if you want to go into a theological library, you’ll find a thousand different books on one single verse of Romans–all with different points of view. So let’s begin by saying, okay, the idea of inerrancy, which is fairly modern, is based on manuscripts that don’t exist. And it seems like God went out of the way to make sure they didn’t exist or we’d surely end up worshipping them. We’ve done it ideologically anyway. But here we’ve got inerrancy as this way that we look through rather than trusting relationship. And let’s be honest that people say, “Paul how could you put words in God’s mouth?” You know, that’s one of my accusations from my people. Besides, “How dare you make Jesus a Middle Easterner?” Yea, that’s another one I get, which is kind of funny. They say, “How can you put words in God’s mouth?” I said, “What you’ve never been to church? You know? You’ve never heard anybody talk about Scripture? Because we’re all putting words in God’s mouth. We’re all looking at the same text and even those who translated into English have filtered it through their perspective.” So what does that mean? Well, that means that, yes, we have a high view of Scripture. That is, it’s uniquely put together. It’s even the process of the canon, whether you allow for the Catholic extra books or you don’t, or whatever. It’s pretty amazing. And the consistency of the story and all this, especially the New Testament writers. Yes. But what does it mean? You have an anointing that dwells in you and will lead you into abiding in him. That’s the Holy Spirit. And, you know, this is an act of relationship that you can actually trust. And, yeah, the text is going to be a problem at times. Both the New Testament stuff and the Old Testament stuff. But if it doesn’t affect your ability to love, then put it to the side until at some point that you can work it out. You’re not going to work it all out. There’s not going to be all answers to all these questions. And we’ve got to learn to live with that uncertainty and that ambiguity. And what we want in inerrancy is we want a doctrine that we can agree with, but that’s still is not a helpful one because it doesn’t tell you what the text means.All of us interpret and every scholar interprets and we all bring our baggage to the table.It really is ultimately not about the text because even in the text itself, you don’t know what tone of voice was. If I say to you, “He didn’t say he stole the money.” You can parse that. You can break it down and you can tell me what the Greek words are you can you can do all of that. What does it mean? Well, HE didn’t say stole the money, he DIDN’T say he stole the money, he didn’t SAY he stole the money, he didn’t say HE stole the money, he didn’t say stole THE money, he didn’t say he stole the MONEY. You know, seven words, seven interpretations. So, we’re dealing with ambiguity and we’re dealing with a God who is someone we can trust. And that should open up a big space to say, you know what, let’s talk about this because the Holy Spirit is trustworthy in this conversation about Scripture–in this conversation about the character and nature of God. And if this conversation doesn’t increase my capacity to love and be an expresser of the goodness and the kindness and the grace of God, then we’re dealing in some mind game here, which we in the West are especially good at.
Understanding God (33:22)
Pete Enns: [00:33:22]Yea, we certainly are. I guess, let me let me ask a question this way. It seems like it’s always been part of the human drama, including within the Bible to, I guess, imagine God in certain ways. I know that sounds a little bit scary for some people. Well, the Bible reveals things about God. But in a way too, people have looked at God in ways that make sense in their culture. And, you know, if I hear you correctly Paul, we’re moving into the New Testament and there is some reimagining going on where, you know, Paul agrees with Isaiah about whether to what extent God is involved in the wrath and the sacrifice of Jesus and what’s behind all that. Let me say, I think you’re going to agree with this, but I want to hear your riff a little bit on…isn’t it part of the human predicament to have to think about God differently at different times and places and under different sets of experiences?
William Paul Young: We should anticipate never being able to fully apprehend or comprehend the character and nature of God.
Pete Enns: That’s disappointing because I’ve got all sorts of systematic theology books that say the opposite.
William Paul Young: Haha. This is why the early church would have never written a systematic theology. Right? They started with the relationship. And I don’t know about you, but you enter a relationship and you enter a mystery and you lose control. Yeah. Ask any, well you’re married, you know. And it’s not only static universe. This relationship, that person, continues to expand and you begin to see them grow right before your very eyes. So, if you want to get to a place where you fully know your spouse, for example, or that person or that child or that grandchild, it’s not going to happen. They’re going to continue to grow and surprise you. And this is a God who is incomprehensible in that sense, but wants to be known and known truly and authentically. And so you’re back to, do I know my wife absolutely? But not absolutely, right? So yeah, I know her better than I’ve ever known her because of the ongoing disclosures, but she continues to grow and change and there are depths to her that I know that not only have I not plummeted but she has not either. And those still await us. So, you compile that onto this relationship with a God who is so beautiful, too beautiful for words, and yet wants to be fully known. And it’s in that knowing that the work takes. That is the know… That is the work. Right? That is eternal life. To know.
Why Bother Without Certainty? (36:04)
Jared Byas: And sometimes I think there’s a trap there that in order to save things like inerrancy or knowing with certainty who God is and how God works, kind of the trap is it’s not really worth the effort. Like, why not give up on the Bible? Or why not give up on God if we can’t attain this level? So, I really appreciate your relationship language because we would never say that about a spouse or about someone else. Well, if I can’t know them with absolute certainty, why bother knowing them at all? I think that kind of points to that and it also reminds me of, you know, the philosopher Jacques Derrida when he talks about things like justice. Where he says like every act of justice always has a little twinge of injustice to it. Like we can never get to that kind of perfect capital J just moment. We wouldn’t be able to as humans, but we should still strive for it. And because there’s always something a partly true about it and we want to hold on to that. So I appreciate that bringing the relationship angle to it because I think that undermines that idea of like, well, what good is it if we can’t get to the perfection or the perfect or the certainty? And in a relationship, we would just never use that language.
William Paul Young: No. And Jesus tried to interrupt that kind of thinking in the Pharisees and the Jewish leadership when he says, look, you’re looking at scriptures as if they contain eternal life. They don’t write. They speak about me. I am the life. Right? I’m right here right in front of you. This is about relationship. And you want to go back to scripture? You want to go back to scripture when I’m right here? And that’s hard for some of us who, you know, the God we grew up with was not a relational being. He was a retributive punitive being. You know, you can’t trust someone that you don’t believe is good all the time. And so that now begins to say, okay, let’s have a conversation about who is this God. And that takes me back to Jesus, who is the expression of this God who disrupts the empire, disrupts religion, but he does it through submission, through kindness,, through goodness through grace, through touch, through hugs, through smile, through laughter, through confrontation, through fury against all that which hurts the ones he loves. And now we’re talking relational language. If you can’t describe God in terms of your relationship with your children or grandchildren, then your view of God is incorrect. You know, if you say, “Well I can’t wait for God to use me, you know, I just want to be a tool.” You would never say that about your children or grandchildren. You wouldn’t say to your grandchild, “Look, I can’t wait for you to grow up so you can be a tool I can use.” And yet we’re so glib about the way that we’ll use that language and we think that we’ve gotten that language from Scripture. It’s a non-relational. It’s utilitarian. And it just doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny of love and relationship and the beauty of the great dance. It just doesn’t do justice to it at all.
Pete Enns: [00:39:02]I guess you can get too stuck in expecting the Bible to solve those complexities for us of what it means to think about what is God for us right here and right now. Yes. It’s easier to rely on a script that is and you mentioned before, Paul, a script that is frustratingly unaccommodating to how some people use it. Right? That this settles the issue. All parts agree and it settles the issue of what God is like and yet we see, I mean literally throughout history even to today, people thinking about God in ways that makes sense to them. And, you know, again think back to your book. You know, you got some pushback for how you imagined God, but don’t we all do that. I mean, when we think of God as into earth care and recycling and even, you know, equality for the sexes or for different races, you can find plenty of parts of the Bible where that doesn’t seem to be true. But yet, especially earth care and recycling, we don’t really have that. I believe that all those things are true but I don’t think I believe in them because I find them in the Bible somewhere. But it’s more, you know, like you said the Spirit active in the life of the church and of people and, you know, God is not dead and the Bible is not the third person of the trinity and that sort of stuff.
William Paul Young: Right. And yet here we have this unbelievably beautiful compilation of human experiences and interactions with God. That’s poetic and grandiose and apocalyptic in all these different genres compiled together in a beautiful landscape. I love the scriptures and I think what we’ve done to it is an injustice to what it was intended to be, which is an unfolding story of God’s continuing pursuit of us. And we’re locked inside of the narrowness of our paradigms because, frankly, we want certainty. We don’t want trust. And trust is the big journey.We’re so stuck in our heads, especially as a Western enlightenment offshoots, or offspring, that we turn belief into, you know, the home that we’ve built inside of our own minds that have become prisons to us. And it’s all this intellectual rationality rather than the mystery and the ambiguity of actual trust in the relationship. And, yeah. So it’s not that simple. But our paradigms are being challenged and they’re being challenged by the imagery, you know, that is beyond…that is bigger than our’s. And,frankly, imagery was never intended to define God. It was intended to be just a window through which we could apprehend or comprehend some facet of the character and nature. And once we concretize it, God is male and white and distant, now we’re much closer to idolatry than we were when we were inside the fluid motion of all kinds of different imagery.
Dealing with Response to the Idea of Reimagining God (42:17)
Pete Enns: Well, okay, well but we’re moving…we’re actually getting really close to the end of our time. I wanted to ask you one last question if maybe you can give me an elevator pitch response to this because it involves again “The Shack” and people’s strong reaction. I actually…I’m not kidding. When the book came out, I read it. I really loved it because it made me think differently about God and what God is like. And, you know, we need that every now and then. I sort of judge people by how they respond to the book. Like, are you ready for certain kinds of conversations or not? But maybe just a brief word on what you think is something of the psychology of the responses you got to how you reimagine God in that book. What do you think accounts for it?
William Paul Young: People bring what they have. And they only bring what they have. And I know my people. I know our addiction to certainty. And when people have had a visceral reaction to it, at least they’re engaged. I mean an angry person is an engaged person. And an ambivalent person is not. And I know in that moment that that person is bringing to me what they have. They’re telling me in the only language they know how about what matters to them and what they care about. If I think that they’re in this conversation to tell me about me, we’re going to have a war. But I’m old enough to know better than that. They don’t know me. I know me, so I’m not at risk here. And part of the psychology of this is that we’ve had such a mental systematic theology “relationship with God” that we’re terrified of anything that can shake it. And a lot of the response is a fear response. It’s not intellectual. It’s actually affective. People are afraid. They’re afraid that somehow you’re going to take Jesus away from me and Jesus is the one who showed up and healed me, changed my life, turned me in a different direction. And, you know, because we’ve put theology and doctrine on such a high pedestal rather than Jesus, that theology then becomes our way to Jesus. And that’s I think what Torrence was saying. That we’ve used inerrancy as a doctrine when Jesus wasn’t a good enough mediator. And so you know, I think the psychology is largely…we’re stuck in our paradigms. And it scares us to…
Pete Enns: The comfort they give us and the fear of losing them.
William Paul Young: Absolutely.
Pete Enns: Yea, that’s the human predicament. I think we all have that on some level, but being self-aware is important. So , listen, Paul, thank you. We need to bring this to a close, but thank you so much for being with us. This was a thrill and we just had a great time speaking with you. I imagine people sort of know who you are because you wrote this book and you did this movie.
William Paul Young: Yea, kinda.
Pete Enns: But you are on Twitter.
William Paul Young: I am. And all that kind of stuff, yea.
Pete Enns: People can find you there if they want to connect and follow you and stuff like that.
The Power of Paradigms (45:21)
William Paul Young: Yea. Let me tell you one last little story about the power of paradigms. And this is kind of where we’re stuck.We don’t understand how powerful a paradigm is that controls the way that we then see the universe, which includes our understanding of God and who we are as human beings.I met a gal who’s a friend and she came up, after I spoke about paradigms actually, and she said to me..she had her head down and you know how some people carry in their bodies the brokenness of their histories and their eyes are driven to the ground, because that’s where shame always puts your eyes. And then she said, “You know, Paul when I was growing up, I prayed to God as a child every night that God would change the color of my eyes to blue for years. And the reason was my dad was an alcoholic, and not just any alcohol. He was a mean drunk. And when he got drunk, which was almost every night, he would start to tell me, even as a four-year-old and a 5 year old and a 6 year old, that I was so ugly. And one of the ways that ugliness manifested was that my eyes were the color of cat shit. He says, ‘You know what, your eyes are just the color of cat shit.’ So I prayed every night. Dear God, would you please change the color of my eyes to blue.” And she said, “I did that for years because I thought if God would just change the color of my eyes to blue, my dad would love me. He wouldn’t think I was ugly.” She looks up at me and she says, “So, Paul what are the color of my eyes?” And I’m looking into two of the most beautiful blue eyes you’ve ever seen. And I’m thinking . .What? God changed the color of her eyes? And she goes, “They were always this color, but I didn’t know it until I was in my thirties.” Right? That’s the power of a paradigm. That’s how we get locked into our ways of thinking and anything that begins to not agree with our assumptions can get pretty scary to us. The invitation is: no, look and look up and see face to face. You’re okay. This will workout. You don’t have to have all the answers. It’s all right.
Pete Enns: Yea, what if God likes us?
William Paul Young: Wouldn’t that be a big surprise, right?
Pete Enns: Yea, he isn’t against us. Well listen, Paul again. Thanks so much for being with us and we appreciate it. And blessings to you.
William Paul Young: Blessings to you. I’m honored to be on this. Thanks, Pete, for all you’ve done and Jared for the help of putting this together. Much appreciated.
Pete Enns: You bet. As always, thank you for listening to the Bible for Normal People podcast. Thank you for supporting us by downloading. Jared and I have a lot of fun doing this.
Jared Byas: And, you know, one of the things we talked about was creating spaces and that was our vision for Patreon, our community online, as well as the website, thebiblefornormalpeople.com or peteenns.com, where we have these conversations a lot and hopefully we are creating safe places. So, if you want to check more into those, you can go to thebiblefornormalpeople.com or patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople. Thanks. We’ll see you next time.
Pete Enns: See ya!