In recent days, and I expect there will be more to come, social media has begun to blow up with commentary about the new film The Shack. Based on Paul Young’s (in collaboration with Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings} book of the same name, published in 2007. For those who are unfamiliar with the book, it is a fictional narrative documenting one man’s encounter with God after his young daughter was abducted and murdered. As a result, Mack, the main character, has lost his faith in God, or Papa as his wife refers to Him. The story deals with a wide range of emotions and problems but has recently come under significant fire due to concerns about heresy. It is understandable, I suppose, that a book like this would get flak from the religious community—after all, we do have external standards to maintain for the sake of appearances, and the seemingly heretical nature of this book threatens the spiritual life of people of all ages—or at least that is what opponents would have you believe. While I cannot say The Shack may or may not be the pinnacle of perfect theology, I find the rants of the religious to be tired, bored, and worn out. Thus, we have the problem of The Shack.
I don’t actually care whether you read the book or watch the movie, nor whether you like it or not. I am not the author, nor do I own a movie theater—I don’t get paid regardless of what you do related to the subject. What I would like us all to avoid, however, is hysteria. This book is probably no more nor less accurate than any other book one might write. I say a lot about God and things spiritual in my books, but at the end of the day, He is really the only one who knows how true any of it is. The only thing we can all agree on is that no two people, even of the same denomination, believe the same about everything. We need to learn what to let slide and what to make a big issue over, so let us take a look. The major concerns about this book, summed up as best as I can, fall into a few major categories: The problem of sin, the nature of God, and eternal judgment versus Universalism.
Sin is a subject held very near and dear to most Christians—after all, sin is the measurement we use to keep track of how righteous and godly we are. The Shack challenges our views of sin—not because it actually challenges a single thing about sin itself, but about how God views and deals with it. The book says things like “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside” (120). People seem to freak out about this sort of thing, but it’s actually true. Romans 6:23a says, “The wages of sin is death. . . .” It literally IS its own punishment—The Bible says it kills you! How much more of a punishment do you need? God’s job has never NEVER been about punishing us for sin, but delivering us from it. Romans 5:7-9 says, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” Get this—God isn’t worried about our sins because He, God the Father, demonstrated His love through Christ dying for us. Even more scandalous is when we read that along with 2 Corinthians 5:19 which says, “That God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” And while verses like Isaiah 59:2 say that our sins separate us from God, that is very different than the idea that God is the one doing the separating. When we sin we pull ourselves away from God, which is why He had to send Jesus to fix the problem and reunite us with Him once and for all. This heretical book which so cavalierly treats sin basically tells us what the Bible says—that God isn’t counting our sins against us, and that He has come to rescue us from them, and from ourselves. Huh—who would have thought it was so . . . scriptural.
Next comes God’s nature. How can we attack that as displayed in the book? That portraying God as three different people sets up some sort of weird cultish ideas that God is other than He really is. But on p.101 the Father says, “We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father, and worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one.” The concept of the Trinity is confusing enough, but the book seems to do it justice. And to those who are then going to argue that the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible, neither is “internet”—but that isn’t stopping it from existing, nor from you using it right now. Next, the attack comes against the hierarchy of God—with people getting upset that the book acts like the Father, Son, and Spirit are all equal. Well, I have to say that there are only a bajillion verses where it says Jesus and God are one and alike and the same—and Holy Spirit is no different. While yes, Holy Spirit reveals Jesus and Jesus points to the Father, the Father delights in His Son and in exalting the Son—so it kind of all works out in a big mess of God revealing Himself in many ways without some sort of hierarchy—after all, they are all the same being. Do you have a pecking order inside your brain, or are you just you?
It gets better. Opponents of The Shack complain that the author even goes so far as to limit the power of the God of the Universe, having the Father-God-character saying, “Mack, for you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him” (224). The funny thing is that Jesus said something similar to this when He walked here on the earth. In John 20:23 Jesus says the following to his disciples, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” While certainly there is more to the story, in that mankind is redeemable (and already has been redeemed) outside of our ability to forgive one another, it doesn’t change the fact that when we do not forgive, there is something it changes in the realm of the spirit that holds and counts sins against others—and that matters whether we like it or not. We really have no right to withhold forgiveness from others in light of what Jesus has forgiven us, but God still lets us make that choice. If you call that limiting God, then so be it—but God limited Himself when He came to earth as a man. God limited Himself of His own choice when He gave us free will. So yes, scripturally, God has limitations—albeit ones He set up to begin with. But please note—it IS scriptural, not heretical.
The next major argument about this book is that it undermines the notion of eternal judgment, and as such is Universalist in nature. Universalism basically ignores the idea of hell and/or eternal torment, saying that everyone gets to go to Heaven, because “Why would a good God sentence people to everlasting judgment?” Well, it doesn’t actually say that at all, nor does it imply that, and unless you already have failed to understand what Jesus did on the cross to begin with, it should be abundantly clear. To illustrate this point, let us look at what the book says about it, via part of a conversation Mack and Jesus have.
“They arrived at the door of the workshop. Again Jesus stopped. ‘Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”
“’Does that mean,” asked Mack, “that all roads will lead to you?”
“Not at all,” smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you” (182).
Opponents have used the above passage to say that because Jesus says that he doesn’t care whether people are Buddhist or Muslim or whatever that it is Universalist because all roads lead to God and anything we do is fine. This section doesn’t say anything of the sort, which an intelligent read would easily show, considering the very last thing Jesus says clarifies the entire rest of the conversation. Jesus, both in the book and in reality, is interested in conforming us into His image—transforming us to be like Him. He isn’t concerned about titles, religions, or anything else because He transcends all of that. I have a friend who meets occasionally with a woman who is in the New Age. She has a spirit guide whose name is Jesus. He has told her, on His own, that His name is also Living Water. She told my friend this about Jesus—but has never read the Bible. She doesn’t know that Jesus has revealed Himself in scriptures the same way. Incidentally, Jesus doesn’t tell her to leave the New Age, but He is discipling her and drawing her closer to Him. She has fallen deeply in love with Jesus, and He hasn’t tried to make her a Christian yet. He is, however, turning her into His beloved bride as part of the church regardless of what label she applies to herself. And yes, in scripture Holy Spirit is revealed as the Guide (John 14:26) —hence, to some He reveals himself as their Spirit Guide because, as Jesus says in The Shack, he meets them on their journey.
The final, and possibly the most lame complaint of them all, is that the book is irreverent. I have to remind everyone at the end of the day this story is a work of fiction, a spiritual allegory right up there with The Chronicles of Narnia, Pilgrim’s Progress, and others. The book expresses spiritual truths, but there are still fictitious elements contained therein—elements we would do well to simply ignore for the sake of theological purposes. Is Holy Spirit a woman? Is Father God a black woman? Is Jesus an Arab? Does it really even matter? No, it doesn’t—and those made-up details aren’t meant to create theological beliefs. Rather, they are literary devices the author uses to make his point.. I’m pretty sure most people are smart enough to figure out the difference between fiction elements and truth, and if they cannot then they probably won’t do a great job of memorizing your theology either. These characters are simple personifications of the matchless God of the Universe who transcends all forms, yet can take any form He chooses. He decided to come to us as a man, and as a lion, and as a lamb. He breaks boxes of limitations and undermines our sense of what is “proper” which, incidentally, was sort of a goal of The Shack. The entire book was written in such a way as to purposefully push against our mental preconceptions to get us to think in new ways. Jesus constantly went against the grain, so having the Godhead portrayed as book characters that do the same is really unsurprising, and actually keeps with His nature as revealed in Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 gives us a guideline of what to do with this book: “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good . . . .” We need to do with this subject what we ought to do with everything—eat the meat and spit out the bones.
We need to learn to be slow to speak in judgment as with the same measure we use it will be measured to us (Matthew 7:2)—and do we really want that? Do we want the kind of treatment people are giving this matter when it comes our turn to have some big event or project? Would we like it if people picked apart every detail of something we wrote or produced with an unforgiving eye and lacking even a modicum of grace? It really is a shame. I think people often don’t understand what goes into writing a book like this. An author has to not only deeply grasp understand spiritual concepts, but we then have to put them in the mouths of characters who will share them, but at the same time make an effort to make the conversation sound natural and not cheesy or forced. Then we have to have relevant plot points to make the book move forward, else we just have a big long conversation that no one really wants to read. Somewhere in there artistic license comes into play, and we really need to start having more grace for that than I have seen some express thus far. Besides—if you want a really good perspective about judgments, read pages 158-163 of the book—you might learn something.
I originally tried to make this post funny when I started writing, but there comes a point to which trying to make religious ranting funny is just impossible. It’s sad that people freak out so badly about things that I really wonder how they even enjoy life. Do they enjoy it? I remember back when the movie The Golden Compass came out, my mom called me, very concerned about both the film and for those who would watch it.
“They kill God in that movie!” she said.
“They tried that once.” I replied. “It only lasted about three days.”
We really need to take a deep breath and relax a little. It is God’s job to keep us out of error thinking, not our job to police one another with fanatical fervor. Yes, we would be wise to watch out for one another, but we need to take it down a few thousand notches and let people have a little more process and a little less control freak. God is not threatened by our failures, nor is He put off by them. He walks through them with us, helping and guiding us. Dead Religion, of any denomination or spiritual belief, lays rules and regulations upon us that no one can possibly meet up with. Jesus railed against it when he walked the earth, and unfortunately it seems not much has changed in that regard since. The more we make rules and regulations trying to act as the Spirit of God for other people, the more we place them under the very bondage Jesus came to deliver us from. It is for the sake of enjoying that freedom itself that Jesus set us free.
While reading back through the book to write this post, I was reminded of just how absolutely revelatory this book is—and how far ahead of its time it is for many. If you cannot see it clearly, let me explain. Right now in the Earth our Heavenly Father is working a Goodness Revolution. We have badly misunderstood His nature partly due to scriptural translation—where verses get translated one way that says God does bad things when they could just as easily and accurately be meant another way. Our Heavenly Father is trying to break through our wrong understandings and re-reveal Himself as the God of Love in the midst of our broken theology. Thus, He uses books like The Shack to reveal His love to us. If you actually let this book speak to you, somewhere between pages 100 and 230 you will find God sharing something of the depths of His nature, and you will learn and grow because of it. This book is far more about revealing the absolute love of God in the midst of brokenness and painful circumstances than it is about anything else, but if you let it speak to you then God will be able to even more than that.
The problem with The Shack is not so much the content of the product itself; rather the problem with The Shack is that it serves as a mirror to reveal what is in our hearts in this hour—and unfortunately for some people what gets revealed is anger, judgment, and oppression. Don’t let those people stop you. If nothing else, this book and movie are a test—one that each of us have the opportunity to pass. Will you let yourself get offended by something that has the potential to touch countless lives, encourage the hurting, and draw people closer to God (and has already been doing for ten years)? Or will you trust God to be big enough, knowing that He alone is the Counselor and Guide—the one who is responsible for transforming us into His likeness?
For those interested in reading the book, you can find it here: