Note from CM: Boy oh boy, did Michael Spencer ever get in trouble with the Reformed blogosphere back in 2008 when he recommended The Shack, the novel by William P. Young.
Well, last week it was released as a movie, and the doctrinaire sorts are having anxiety attacks once more. Tim Challies (who opined about its heresies the first time around) said that “watching and reviewing The Shack would be an unwise and even sinful spiritual decision.” Here’s his rationale:
My foremost concern with The Shack—the one that will keep me from seeing it even for purposes of review—is its visual representation of God. To watch The Shack is to watch human actors play the roles of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I take this to be a clear, serious violation of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6). I will not see the film, even to review it, because I will not and cannot watch humans pretend to be God.
Never mind that that the biblical writers anthropomorphized God regularly, and Jesus in his ministry consistently portrayed God as a human being in his parables and illustrations. The imaginative bankruptcy of the neo-puritan mindset is once more laid bare.
Al Mohler seemed to miss the point as well, when he wrote in his critique:
The theorized submission of the Trinity to a human being — or to all human beings — is a theological innovation of the most extreme and dangerous sort. The essence of idolatry is self-worship, and this notion of the Trinity submitted (in any sense) to humanity is inescapably idolatrous.
Mohler goes so far as to sound an alarm: “The Shack is a wake-up call for evangelical Christianity,” he cries out. This little book and movie is such an egregious example of the lack of evangelical discernment, in his view, that it marks a crisis moment that must be faced.
Now, by all accounts I’ve read, The Shack is not a very good movie. The reviews pan it for being another Christianese attempt at cinema — Hallmark Channel quality at best. But that’s not really the point here. Nor, for that matter, was the book very well written. But that’s not really the point either. This is about the place — I would say the essential place — of imagination and art in Christian expression.
Today, I have reproduced two of Michael’s posts about The Shack. One is his original review of the book, and the second is a follow-up that responds to the “doctrinal police,” of whom he wrote, “Sometimes I think some of the doctrinal police are about a foot away from saying any book that doesn’t just copy large swaths of scripture verbatim has no reason for existence.”
I know that posting two essays together (plus this introduction) makes for long reading. I think it’s worth it in this case. The thought-police must not go unchallenged in their attempt to banish imagination from the life of faith, when, indeed, it lies at the very heart of the matter.
• • •
Well, well, well….it’s the little book that could. With about $300 of big-time promotion, William P. Young’s little novel, The Shack, is a multi-hundred thousand selling publishing phenomenon, with no sign of losing its momentum as it heads for the rare air of a million sales.
And along the way, Young’s imaginative, playfully serious account of one man’s weekend with the Trinity has apparently made a lot of “doctrine police” sit up and pay attention. Attention, as in, “heresy alert.”
According to its various critics, The Shack promotes the New Age movement, worshiping God as a woman, various major and minor heresies, and outright denial of the Gospel. Especially irritating to the critics is Eugene Peterson’s comparison of The Shack to Pilgrim’s Progress, a comparison that’s unavoidable to any literate reader, no matter what their theology. The rights to comparison of anything to Pilgrim’s Progress apparently have been misplaced.
I’ve been wondering recently why the doctrinal conformity enforcement contingent is so interested in the emerging church. One answer has intrigued me: It appears that many of those identifying with some aspect of the Calvinistic resurgence in evangelicalism are also tuned in, with at least one sympathetic ear, to the emerging conversation.
How many people listen to and read John Piper, but also think Blue Like Jazz is a helpful and useful book?
How many people listen to Mark Driscoll because they believe he is both reformed AND emerging?
How many bloggers have a sidebar that’s full of the reformed, but also visit the Tall Skinny Kiwi, Scot McKnight and various emergers?
How many people who treasure the classic Christian doctrine of the Trinity were captivated and drawn in by Young’s portrayal of a Trinitarian God in The Shack? Some of us were more invigorated in our Trinitarianism by Young’s book than by a shelf of theological explanations. When Mack opens the door to the shack and sees the Father, I wept. It may be cheesy and off base, but it was a marvelous moment where all kinds of things came together. It didn’t make me new age or a worshiper of a feminine deity. It made me a better Trinitarian Christian.
How many of us find the insistence that emerging voices are heretical and dangerous an exaggerated claim that goes too far?
How many Christians who have a reformation Gospel believe there is a lot of value in the emerging church conversation, even if it is flawed- deeply- in places?
In my review of The Shack, I made it clear that this is not a systematic theology, and that those looking for errors could easily find them. But it’s important to remember that Young was writing a theological parable of sorts, for his children, not for a seminary faculty. This was never the last word in theology, and it was, from the outset, an experiment in literary playfulness. If the folks who applaud the removal of Peter Enns want to go after The Shack, I’m sure it will be a short meeting.
Listening to Young in interviews, such as his two Drew Marshall interviews, the recent Tal Prince Live interview or his God Journey podcasts, it’s easy to see that this is not an emerging version of Phil Johnson. Young is about as agenda-less as anyone I’ve ever heard. He’s not trying to start anything or rescue evangelicalism. He’s reporting on the God he’s come to know and love. Like most people who dream of writing a novel, it’s full of his own journey to understand life’s most important realities. In his case, that takes us back to the shack for a journey of forgiveness and rediscovering God.
The critics are right to notice that this isn’t a polemical, contentious book at all. It is a book written to say that if we could see life from God’s perspective, life’s tragedies would not erase God’s love and reconciliation. Itâ€™s a book that says God is good, even if inscrutable. It’s a book that magnifies the wonder of Father, Son and Spirit.
The critics are correct that this isn’t a book about God’s wrath towards sinners, and if it errs, it does err in ignoring some of God’s character and going too far toward universalism. But if we are going to err, better to err on the side of grace. Young believes God is good, gracious and confidently, endlessly loving.
I’m sure the critics would strongly disagree with such a one-sided presentation.
When critics say that the book promotes worshiping God as a woman, they’ve completely missed the point. They might be a tad overenthusiastic. Young’s choice of imagery isn’t teaching theology or inviting worship. It’s trying to prod us, even shock us a bit, out of thinking of God as a set of handouts and into seeing God in surprisingly personal terms. Young isn’™t trying to start a church. He’s wanting you to rediscover the God who loves you. He HAS left out some of the points and subpoints of systematic theology. Tweak your setting accordingly.
And that leads to a final point. Young is a writer of fiction; a story-teller. The prodigal’s father, the unjust judge, the owner of the vineyard, the mother hen, the Rock, the lamb……all of these are literary explorations of God in the context of story, not pure theology. None of them can be taken beyond the boundaries of legitimate literary use. Pressed too far, they become– hang on — heretical. And they are all in scripture.
I’m not saying that we should excuse William Young of literary or theological error. I am saying that when theologians critique The Shack, they are likely working one genre against another and the results may be of limited help.
If you believe Young wants to tell you that you can walk on water, then it’s heresy. If you want to enter into an experience with Jesus that reminds us of his identity and power in a creative way, then it’s legitimate. If you think it’s corny, that’s fine.
Similarly, if you believe Young wants you to worship the Holy Spirit in the form of a small Asian woman, then he’s a heretic. If he wants you to think of the Holy Spirit in a way that emphasizes, on another level, what we all believe scripture teaches about the Holy Spirit, then he’s on legitimate ground.
You may find Young’s theology of the resolution of good and evil to be unconvincing. That’s fair, but it’s also fair that Young gets to play the game we’re all playing on that issue. It’s not like there’s a simple answer and no one is still trying to articulate something that speaks to us where we are.
Sometimes I think some of the doctrinal police are about a foot away from saying any book that doesn’t just copy large swaths of scripture verbatim has no reason for existence. The mixture of art and theological truth must be nerve wracking to those whose view of inerrancy and authority makes literary explorations of theology almost automatically heretical.
Sometimes it seems that rewording scripture into a few almost-identical-to-scripture lyrics is about all some Christians can take in the literary arts. Past that and they are talking heresy.
Frankly, tha’s ridiculous. Whether it’s literary, visual or musical, the arts should be evaluated artistically, not just theologically. I know this may hurt someone’s head, but there’s more going on than just fidelity to scripture. And if you judge everything by some standards of understanding scripture, then we’re going to have the same artistic culture as Calvin’s Geneva. In other words, get out the whitewash.
I will never praise The Shack in the terms some are using. I see many flaws at the level of writing and story-telling, as well as theology. But a disciple of Jesus who wants to write a novel for his children with the goal of opening their eyes to a possible life-altering relationship with the Trinitarian God of the Bible gets the green light from me. We should see the book for what it is and that’s all.
If certain conservative Christians are annoyed that someone out there is reading a book they don’t like, then here’s a suggestion: Write a better book. Starting a parade to tell us all we shouldn’t read this one is probably a good reason it’s going to pass a million copies soon. If you haven’t noticed, readers don’t like to be told what they should and shouldn’t read, but they have surprising affection and loyalty to authors who deliver a compelling and involving story.
• • •
I just finished doing another interview about my writing on The Shack. My posts on The Shack have attracted a lot of readers, which is good, because if nothing else, The Shack is a phenomenon that needs to be discussed and better understood.
It seems that a willingness to denounce The Shack has become the latest indicator of orthodoxy among those evangelicals who are keeping an eye on the rest of us. It’s a lot less trouble than checking out someone’s views on limited atonement, that’s for sure.
Hear me loud and clear: it’s every pastor and Christian’s duty to speak up if they feel The Shack is spirtually harmful. I’d only add one point: it’s equally the right of those who find The Shack helpful to say so.
Obviously, The Shack isn’t for everyone. Like a lot of Christian fiction, it has a certain amount of gawky awkwardness. No one will ever call William Young a skilled wordsmith. I wouldn’t teach The Shack in a theology class, even though I find Young’s willingness to explore the Tritnity commendable and personally helpful.
(Oh….I probably would use The Shack to discuss whether the Trinity is a hierarchy, a belief that critics of The Shack seem to hold as essential.)
It’s the presentation of God in The Shack that creates the controversy with the critics and the buzz with the fans, but the longer I’ve talked about this story with other Christians, I have to wonder if all the focus on Young’s “Trinity” isn’t missing the larger point of the book- a point that many theological watchblogs don’t seem to see at all.
The Shack is a pilgrimage. It’s an allegorical account of one person’s history with God; a history deeply affected by the theme of “The Great Sadness.” It’s a journey, and overlooking what’s going on in Mack’s journey is a certain prescription of seeing The Shack as a failed critique of Knowing God.
I’ve come to believe that the most significant reason for The Shack’s early success- certainly the reason I picked it up- is the endorsement from Eugene Peterson on the cover, an endorsement where Peterson refers to Young’s book as another “Pilgrim’s Progress.” That’s not a random compliment.
The Knights of Reformed Orthodoxy like to talk about Pilgrim’s Progress as if it is Calvin’s Institutes made into a movie. In reality, Bunyan’s Book is a personal pilgrimage, one that illustrated his version of Christian experience and retold his own experiences.
Even Spurgeon realized that Bunyan’s theology wasn’t completely dependable. The loss of the “burden” comes after a long search for relief, a storyline that reflected Bunyan’s own struggles with assurance and obsessive subjectivity. Few pastors today would endorse a version of the Gospel that left people wandering in advanced states of conviction, unable to find any way to receive forgiveness. Bunyan’s particular personality has too much influence on his presentation of belief and assurance.
But what Bunyan does illustrate is valuable in a manner much different than a theological outline. He tells the story of a journey from guilt to forgiveness, the confrontation with worldly powers, spiritual conflict, imperfect fellow believers and the inertia and resistence within ourselves. We can measure Bunyan’s book by measurements of correct theology, but I believe most of us know that this isn’t the proper measurement for Pilgrim’s Progress. We should measure it as a presentation of one Christian’s life.
It’ a story of a journey.
The same could be said of many other books. Take C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. It’s the journey of grieving the death of a spouse. Along the way, God’s appearances are all over the map because the “pilgrim” is moving in his journey through “the Great Sadness.”
Be clear: I agree with Ben Witherington III that Young’s book could use a theological revision, but I believe his adventurous exploration of God’s character is set against “the Great Sadness,” not “the Great Theological Examination.” When someone analyzes The Shack and finds 13 major heresies, I’d suggest you look very closely at the list. Some are legitimate concerns. Some are brutal victims of context and some are not heresies at all, but the critic’s discomfort with the medium.
Young is talking about a God who draws you out of your hiding place. If I understand Young’s own journey, this is the primary image in the book: A God who invites you and meets in the the very place where “the Great Sadness” entered your experience in a way that you understand the love that comes to you from the Trinity.
This journey is what should capture the reader. In one sense, The Shack is a bit of Rorschach test, and if you put it in front of someone and what they see is “emerging church heresy!” and “God is a black woman,” then you’ve learned what that person was most looking for in the book: a familiar and historically orthodox affirmation of God and a similar affirmation of who are the good guys.
But what about those who look at the book and see Mack’s journey? The Great Sadness? The God who draws you out and meets you in the place of your greatest loss? What if that reader sees the theological awkwardness and occasional imprecision, but sees those problems in balance alongside Mack’s journey to self-forgiveness, resolution and renewed intimacy with God? Maybe that’s why so many people who know good theology STILL like The Shack?
There is enough in The Shack to give all of us plenty to blog about, so don’t expect posts to end anytime soon. But I’m wondering if anyone is understanding that The Shack isn’t selling because there’s such a hunger for theological junk food. No, there’s a hunger for someone to compellingly narrate the central mystery of God, the Trinity. There’s a hunger for a God who is reconciling toward those who have believed and then turned away because they can no longer understand a God who allowed “The Great Sadness.” There is a hunger for a God who comes into our life story and walks with us to the places that are the most hurtful.
In other words, the theological fact checkers are probably missing what is so appealing to readers of The Shack, even as they see some crimes in progress. It is a contemporary Pilgrim’s Progress, but the pilgrim is a not a 17th century puritan, but a 21st century evangelical. The burden isn’t sin, but the hurtful events of the past. The journey is not the way to heaven, but the way back to believing in a God of goodness, kindness and love.
If Paul Young writes a book of theology, it should be better than The Shack. But if he writes his story, it is The Shack. I don’t buy it all, and most people I’ve talked to don’t either. But that’s not the point. It’s Young’s journey that he’s recounting and we’re reading, and that’s how we’re reading it: a story.
Note to writers: When it comes to fiction, don’t listen to the critics who want to take you down for your theology. Tell the story that’s in you, whether it passes the orthodoxy test or not. This isn’t Puritan Massachusetts yet. WRITE THE STORY. The people who read stories as theology lectures are NEVER going to approve.