Several years ago, a controversial book was written entitled The Shack by Paul Young. The book tells the story of a man who suffered great loss and, as a result, questions his faith and the goodness of God. But through some unique experiences, the hurting man comes to encounter the Lord. In a cabin in the middle of nowhere, the main character meets the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and finds healing and hope.
A couple of key elements in the book made it controversial. First, the author chooses unique, nontraditional characters to represent the Trinity. For example, God the Father is first revealed as an African-American woman, and the Holy Spirit is Asian. As you can imagine, this leaves many people uncomfortable, even if they don’t want to admit it. Others, however, are more outspoken, calling these representations “dangerous.” These critics then feel led to pick apart the dialogue with theological precision. A simple Google search will reveal several negative critiques of The Shack based on theological assumptions, and to be fair, some of these critiques have some merit.
A second criticism that has been leveled against The Shack is that it is very representative of the spirit of our age—namely that, over the past several decades, the church has moved from an extreme emphasis upon the transcendence of God to an overemphasis upon the Lord's immanence, or nearness to us, to the point that many believe we have watered down the very nature of God and made the Lord “too human.” In other words, we’ve come to see God as just a better version of us. Once again, there is some merit to this criticism, and some truth here to be wrestled with.
Yet acknowledging these critiques, I plan to watch the movie for the following reasons…
1) Much like C.S. Lewis used witches, a lion, and other magical creatures to tell us about God in The Chronicles of Narnia, which, by the way, many people rejected and criticized when it was originally published, Paul Young uses story to tell us about God in the midst of our suffering. By no means am I saying The Shack carries the same theological punch of Pilgrim’s Progress or The Chronicles of Narnia; I'm simply making a point that story and analogy are often imperfect and, as a result, can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Nonetheless, they are also very powerful.
Even Jesus communicated symbolically through parables—stories that were often open-ended and left for individual interpretation. In some cases the disciples wrestled with what Jesus said and asked for interpretations. Sometimes the crowds of people walked away scratching their heads and wondering what Jesus was communicating, and other times they clearly got the message. The point is that Jesus did not feel the need to always communicate literally and exactly. He often told stories. And even when the stories were not fully understood or the meaning was not crystal-clear, Jesus was okay with that. Therefore, I think story can be a powerful vehicle to communicate and to cause us to think.
I do believe that story needs to be balanced with good exegesis and a full understanding of Scripture and that story in a vacuum can be dangerous. Yet the overall big picture of The Shack is powerful and helps people who are wrestling with God and suffering in their lives. That is a good thing in my opinion.
2) A second reason I plan to watch the movie is a very personal one. Recently when I was in Washington DC, I had an opportunity to spend time with the author, Paul Young. As we sat in my hotel room for over an hour, we were able to discuss the story behind the story. Paul Young told me how he was raised on the mission field and in a very fundamentalist home. He told me stories of abuse and his warped sense of God due to a legalistic upbringing and a fear-based theology. As an adult he came to see the trueness of the Gospel and the compassion of Jesus, realizing that many of the narratives he had been raised with of a vengeful, legalistic, and impersonal God were not consistent with the Gospel Jesus shared.
Paul Young wrote The Shack to reflect his spiritual journey in coming to understand the goodness and grace of God, and when he wrote the story, he did not write it to make money. It was written to be a gift to his children and his family to help them see his spiritual journey and to help shape their understanding of the goodness of God in contrast to the legalism he was raised with. Part of the reason Paul Young used nontraditional characters to represent God is because he was trying to break some of the stereotypes and preconceived notions we have about the Lord, specifically those notions often held by people who come from rigid spiritual backgrounds. In other words, these analogies were intentional, and that intentionality was driven out of his own spiritual journey with warped and dangerous theology.
While I am not at liberty to tell you about Paul's past and about the freedom he found through the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, he is. Here is a link to an interview with him that includes some of his testimony. It is powerful, and it makes perfect sense why he used such nontraditional elements to communicate the nature of God in his book. After writing the story and giving it to his family as a Christmas gift, a couple of his friends read the manuscript. They were blown away. They told Paul he needed to have it published and they would help him do so. The manuscript was rejected by over two dozen publishers. It was then that Paul's friends decided to help him self-publish the book. It was out of these humble origins that the book came to be read by millions of people and is now being made into a Hollywood movie.
By no means do I think The Shack is inerrant or without potential problems. I understand many of the critiques and feel that some of the concerns are merited, especially questions about whether the author is advocating universalism and whether the story diminishes God’s “otherness.” But on the other hand, as a pastor, I know numerous people who have been deeply touched and drawn to the Gospel as a result of this book. One of the deepest and hardest questions people wrestle with is that of suffering. This book gives hope and points people to the goodness of God, even in the harshest of times. And I think that is a good thing.
So I plan to watch the movie, and I hope you do as well. And when you do, don’t be afraid to question, pray, and discuss what you have seen. Don’t take it all as gospel truth but allow it to point you to the Gospel—the good news. That was Paul’s original intent, and I think it is a valid one.