Subtle (and not so subtle) inroads into the integrity of our faith
By Roy Adams
The Ave Maria, one of the oldest and most popular Christian prayers, has been an element of Catholic liturgy since the fifteenth century, recited as part of the Rosary. Set to music, it comes in many forms, the compositions by Franz Schubert and Charles Gounod being listed among the most popular. If you’ve ever heard it sung by Luciano Pavarotti (or even more movingly—pardon the irreverence—by Aaron Neville), then you understand what a haunting piece it is. It captivates me every time I hear it.
But notwithstanding the song’s valid scriptural elements (based on Luke 1), what we have here is essentially a prayer to Mary, disguised to most of us because of its Latin rendition. Would I be as moved by the piece if its words were simultaneously translated as its beautiful melody sounds in my ears? The lyrics end, as follows:
“Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
If I allow my love for the music to blind me to the inappropriateness of its lyrics, then that would be sheer emotionalism on my part. Praying to the dead is improper and unbiblical.
From its very inception, Seventh-day Adventism has placed a high premium on theology and doctrine. Though we’ve been mocked for it, and though some Adventists by their excesses unwittingly have made doctrine and theology repugnant, it would be a terrible blunder to abandon this historic stance. And no doctrine we espouse has met with stiffer resistance than the one relating to what happens to people when they die.
A Book Making Waves
A professor at one of our universities contacted me in early 2009, asking whether I’d heard about “the phenomenal Christian best seller … The Shack.”1 Their Collegiate Sabbath school class, he said, had used it as a quarterly the previous semester, and he’d heard that other Adventist churches had “introduced it for Sabbath school discussion or other uses as well.” Since then, I’ve heard reports about personnel at other Adventist educational institutions recommending the book to students, even (in one case) distributing copies to dormitory residents, and inviting the author for celebrity-type, on-campus interviews and interactions with faculty and students.
The novel has received rave reviews in some quarters. In a blurb on the book’s Web site, Eugene Peterson describes The Shack as having “the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.”2
So what is it about?
A summary of the plot appears on the book’s back cover: “Mackenzie Allen Philips’s youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she must have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later, in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever.”
One thing we should never do is underestimate the power of fiction. And what we have here is fiction with an agenda—a theological agenda. In the isolated shack Mack encounters the three members of the Deity, and discovers that God is all about “relationships”—a popular word in Christian circles today. (As it happened, I was into the book of Jeremiah while reading the novel, and I couldn’t help noticing the huge contrast between the God of The Shack and the God of Jeremiah. Incidentally, it’s a convivial God we find here—one who needs his morning coffee, goes after alcoholic beverages, and downs the beacon.)
Dead Daughters Coming Back
The key thing that happens at the shack is that Mack eventually is put in touch with (you guessed it) Missy, who is now safely (you guessed it again) in heaven. She brings him comfort, provides clues to the murderer, and assures him her death was not his fault. The whole narrative is a dream wrapped up in a coma inside a work of fiction. Everything is fluid, esoteric, misty. But the clear take-away is that the dead can communicate with us.
It’s a genre saturating contemporary culture, as noted by Los Angeles Times movie critic, Bob Mondello, in a recent report on National Public Radio.3 In movie after recent movie, Mondello noticed, “dead daughters come back as ghosts to help their fathers.” In The Lovely Bones “the ghost of Susie Salmon … watches over her father, guiding his footsteps toward her murderer.” In The Edge of Darkness “Daddy’s little girl, trying to get out of harm’s way, instead gets killed on his doorstep—and then starts talking to him from beyond the grave.” And in the historical drama Creation, “Charles Darwin’s recently deceased daughter [Annie] … haunts his study and encourages him to finish his landmark book On the Origin of Species.”4
Ghost Whisperers, a CBS Television series that premiered September 2005, is just one of a slew of others in the same vein. The show follows the life of Melinda Gordon (Jennifer Love Hewitt), who is able to “communicate with earthbound spirits or ghosts who cling to the living because they have unfinished business in our world.”5
The most controversial issue Adventist evangelists tackle is not the Sabbath, but the state of the dead. People want to believe that their departed loved ones have gone to heaven, are “looking down” on them, and are able to send back signals and messages. Any contrary teaching faces stiff resistance.
Preeminent New Testament scholar, the late Oscar Cullmann, said that some of the nastiest letters he received in his entire career came in reaction to a short essay in which he argued the biblical case for the resurrection of the dead over against the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul. One French woman wrote him: “The French people, dying for lack of the Bread of Life, have been offered instead of bread, stones, if not serpents.”6 At a celebrity-studded memorial service at Washington National Cathedral shortly after 9/11, Billy Graham, in an otherwise excellent message, assured his audience that “many of those people who died this past week are in heaven right now.”7
Whether through fictional or (supposedly) real-life narratives (as in a religious program I recently heard on the radio in which people gather, séance-like, to invoke the apparition of Mary), there’s a lot of “soft-sell” going on out there—a subtle approach to the mind every advertiser understands. It’s important that we not overreact to every incident that occurs in society, but confusion about what happens when we die is not an inconsequential issue. It can serve as a springboard to spiritualism, a perilous development predicted to play a critical role in the final crisis. Looking down the centuries to our times, John saw “three unclean spirits like frogs coming out of the mouth of the dragon … the beast, and … the false prophet.” They are, he said, “spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty” (Rev. 16:13, 14).
As Adventists, we have a special mission. And sometimes out of naiveté, sometimes from an inferiority complex, we can sabotage our own “brand.” I think I will always be captivated by the music of Ave Maria, but to recommend and endorse the piece to others would be wrong. I may be impressed by the literary brilliance of The Shack, identify emotionally with the tragedy that led William Young to write it, and even assign the book to my class for academic reading. But to use it as a substitute for the Bible Study guide or endorse it to Adventist students would be to cross a line. Given the biblical issues involved and the uncanny power of fiction, it would be as irresponsible as introducing them to Ouija Boards and tarot cards.
For many on the edge, this work, however well-intentioned, could well serve as a segue into the occult.
1 Wm. Paul Young, The Shack (Newbury Park, Calif.: Windblown Media, 2007).
3 “Daughters, daughters everywhere … ,” NPR, Jan. 29, 2010. www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123122932&sc=emaf.
6 Oscar Cullmann in Krister Stendahl, ed., Immortality and Resurrection (New York: Macmillan Co., 1965), p. 47.
Roy Adams is an associate editor of Adventist World.