The Shack: To Burn Or Not To Burn?

by Phillip on March 8, 2017

Few books have been fraught with as much controversy yet sold as many copies as The Shack. With the release of the movie has come a fresh wave of conversation around its themes as well as rekindled its debate. The reviews have been extreme from testifying to a “life-changing encounter with God” to dire warnings of its contents that could very well “send you to hell forever.”

What exactly is the nature of and cause behind the polarization of its reviewers? And what is behind its global success? (25 million copies in 41 languages).

Since the book’s release in 2007 many have expressed how they felt its ideas have been an attack on their traditional beliefs. Consequently it has created much division in the Church. We are empathetic to how threatening and scary it can feel to have your theology challenged or tweaked. We’ve been taught that salvation is by OUR faith in what WE believe so “we had better get it right.” But is this what Paul the apostle had in mind when he said “the life I live, I live by the faith OF the Son of God”? (Galatians 2:20) Consider that He is called “the Author and Finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:2) and that we are saved by a faith “that is not of ourselves but it is a gift of God” (Eph 2:9). This is one thing the Calvinists get right: It is the faith of Christ that is the reference for and content of our faith!

God understands that we humans are often “frail” and that we “see through a glass dimly” while on this earth (Psa 103:14; 1 Cor 13). Therefore we mustn’t take ourselves more seriously than God does. As we sling our comments about how we are “just believing the Bible” we need to admit that our interpretation is simply one within a subset of 40,000 contradictory and often competing denominations! It might be more accurate to begin to understand and accept what God believes about us before we can determine what we believe about Him! “We love because HE FIRST LOVED US”!

It is evident, based on our reputation as evangelicals, that we do not yet accurately believe what God believes. How do we know this? Because if we believed what God believed about us we would display an intensity of love for God and others that strives to match His love demonstrated for us on the cross! (1 John). Presently we do not witness that kind of impact on the world.

In the book Burning Down The Shack by Dr. James B. De Young, William Paul Young is accused of creating “another gospel.” But how affective has been the version we have been offering? Could we be missing something? Dr. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Church of New York City, makes a candid observation:

“Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church.

That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.” (bold added)

It is clear that what we have been proclaiming has been less than good and not actually news but simply a message of potential good and potential news. Perhaps this fundamental lack in our message is what The Shack is exposing and revealing.

“Burning Down The Shack”?

Undoubtedly you know or will meet folks who agree The Shack is worthy of “burning down.” Consider the following points to build a foundation based upon Scripture and reason rather than upon an emotional reaction based on fear:

First, The Shack was meant to represent one man’s journey through unspeakable tragedy in the midst of his growing and living theology of what is called “Trinity.” Tragically, the doctrine of the Trinity has not been historically a transformative doctrine but rather just a tenet — in fact most believers don’t know why it is an essential and life-giving truth of the Christian faith. In The Shack William Paul Young demonstrated how the doctrine of the Father, Son and Spirit finally reached beyond his intellect and transformed his life. It was not meant to be the first nor the last word on “the doctrine of the Trinity” but rather simply a perspective added to the conversation by one transformed sojourner and saint. Contrary to the accusations, Paul Young was not attempting to “rewrite the doctrine of the Trinity” but to share the implications of just what can happen when we engage with and experientially enter into the relationship that HE IS…as Father, Son and Spirit!!

Second, God being portrayed and expressed as a human person and as a woman are not extra-biblical. While God cannot be contained in any one image or definition we create, we have many examples of God referring to Himself using various poetic metaphors. He has compared Himself with a nursing mother, a mother hen, a woman searching for lost coins, a shepherd looking for lost sheep and an undignified father running to meet a prodigal son where he loses all sense of propriety! (Isa 49:15; Matt 23:37; Luke 15) Further, the idea of God possessing both male and female traits comes from the very first chapter of Genesis where God pronounces the image of God to be reflected in the male and female gender expressions: “In His image He created them male and female” (Gen 1:26).

Ultimately we have Jesus Himself as the revelation of the Father, in human form. This we are told was God’s intention all along! (John 14:7-11; Hebrews 1:3) Human flesh is and has always been His favorite form from “before the foundation of the world,” not a plan B rescue mission.

Finally, accusations abound that the story teaches “universalism” but few agree on what that means. There are many interpretations and they are often contradictory. There is a monumental difference between believing that Christ’s death was a universal and finished redemption of the world (Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 2:1) and that of pluralism (“all roads lead to God”). The latter is what many assume universalism to mean and therefore what Paul Young teaches. But The Shack in no way promotes any form of pluralism. In fact The Shack offers a beautiful way to describe God’s Shepherd heart for the lost in a manner that would be in full agreement with the early Church Fathers, Christian history and the historical Creeds:

“Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslim, Democrats, Republicans, and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some were bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraquis, Jews and Palistinians. 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.”

If you interpret universal salvation or what some call “Universal Reconciliation” to mean that it doesn’t matter what you believe or what you do then you could not be further from the truth of its message. The foundational premise of The Shack is that it matters immensely what we believe. Most crucial and life-altering is what we believe about the nature and character of God. In fact:

“Your image of God creates you.”  Richard Rohr

What you believe about God determines what you believe about yourself and every person you meet. As a reflective being it is infinitely important to behold yourself in the correct mirror of your Maker: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).”

You become what you choose to gaze upon.

Finding Transformation in The Shack

Mack, the main character in The Shack, had developed erroneous ideas about God that kept him in a prison of accusation, guilt, hatred and revenge. A sense of distance and retribution developed through the lens of his abusive authoritarian father and shaped his view of God and kept his faith a formality at best. Within lurked hatred and unforgiveness while holding “God in the Dock” for the evil in his life. But that all changed when he dared answer the invitation to meet with “Papa.”

Encountering a vision of a God who’s eternal nature is a relationship of unconditional covenant love broke through his unbelief and fear inviting him to trust for the first time. Seeing God as a union of mutual love, joy and peace built a firm foundation for his faith to grow. It was a vision that did not allow him to remain neutral but laid before him the choice of “life and death.” Finally Mack plunged himself into the healing flow of the authentic and original love and forgiveness found in the union of the Godhead. He experienced how only divine unconditional love has the power to heal.

Pastor Steve Brown of Key Life Ministries uncovers this transformation with keen insight:

“The only people who get better are those who believe they are loved and accepted even if they don’t get better.”

This is a vision that resonates with every heart who has ever had a taste of family and relationship and belonging. It resonates precisely because  “…since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what is so that they are without excuse” (Rom 1:20). What is — is what transforms us!

Still, the question that might be burning in your heart is “How can I encounter this God of relationship in my daily life without a mystical dream and experience like Mack had?” Well, thankfully the dream was simply a metaphor and behind the metaphor stands a real person acquainted with suffering, loss, tragedy and disillusionment in his faith. Paul Young’s new divine perspective was formed in the crucible of the harsh realities of his life. Our God is a God who truly wastes nothing. Paul’s mind and life were transformed through the substance of the journey. This transformation was represented in the vision you see on the screen: God is a relationship of Father, Son and Spirit in which you and I belong forever and where “Nothing can separate us from His love.” You are His favorite…He is “especially fond of you.”

Can you receive the Gospel, the Good News, that God is better than you thought? Can you begin to trust in “Him who is able to do infinitely more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us”? (Eph 3:20)

God really is that good!

The Father actually delights in being your Papa!

The Spirit truly is your advocate and counselor and

Jesus is your constant companion and true elder brother!

There is indeed a “Shack” to burn down…it is where we “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” about ourselves, others and our Creator. It is where we lost connection with the relationship that has always been “holding all things together” and “in whom we live and move and have our being” ( Col 1; Acts 17).

…Let’s just not let a religious mindest burn down the wrong one.

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Note: If you find yourself reacting to the message of The Shack like Jonah who resented God’s compassion, or the Vineyard workers who cried “your generosity is not fair!” or the Elder Brother who despised his father’s mercy or the Jews who railed against Paul’s inclusive gospel then you might want to consider the Biblical precedence for and implications of such a mindset. The Shack is not the first time that a radical inclusive message of grace and the finished work of Christ created an uproar among the religious elite and hierarchy.

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For Further Study on the topic of historical Trinitarian theology and its relation to The Shack:

For a Biblical and historical defense of the theology of The Shack check out Dr C. Baxter Kruger’s brilliant book: The Shack Revisited

 

 

Basem March 9, 2017 at 12:10 pm

I am eager to read it! Suffering remains a difficult concept for all, including Christians to reconcile with a loving God. The bible gives us many glimpses of what suffering means to God but also gives us more than mere explanations. If gives us a real, living, breathing, and historic person; our Lord Jesus Christ. No writings put it as profound as the words of the prophet Isaiah “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:3-5). In Christ, suffering has a meaning and a purpose. When the faithful endure suffering their faith “These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold–though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world” (1 Peter 1:7). Thank you for sharing and God Bless you!

David Bradshaw March 13, 2017 at 2:57 pm

Thanks Philip!
I found your site after reading a critical review of The Shack … attacking ‘universalism’ … and then searching it and Nicene Creed … which I also found to leave the question of hell open for discussion.
Although not a catholic, I am a fan of Richard Rohr’s books, which, like The Shack endorse an inclusive view of God which resonates with me and many others more so than the exclusivity seen in so much of the church. Blessings to you … I also write a review after reading important books … here are two links which may be of interest reviewing The Shack and The Divine Dance: http://myideafactory.net/introletter.html and http://primelifers.org/reviews2.php
David

Phillip March 13, 2017 at 9:22 pm

Thank you for those powerful words through Isaiah Basem! Yes, the identification with us in the incarnation is what reduces and eventually removes all the sting of death and suffering!

Phillip March 13, 2017 at 9:32 pm

Hello David, Thanks for dropping by and sharing the links to your reviews! I look forward to reading.

I agree that for God to be consistent with the names He has chosen for Himself He must be successfully inclusive as in both willing AND able to save!

Phillip March 14, 2017 at 11:56 am

David, I noticed too that you like Andrew Murray. I especially appreciated his book on humility where he highlights the humility of Christ, an astounding reality. There’s a missing chapter from one of his books where he presents his hope in the ultimate restoration of all. You might be interested to read it. Here’s the link.

Jon March 15, 2017 at 4:49 pm

This concise “review” of The Shack by Pastor Michael Newnham exposes the real underlying issues of the debate:

Reformed blogger “Tim Challies has turned his considerable guns on Paul Young and “The Shack”…again.

I will not quibble with his theological whacking of Young, as I think it’s irrelevant to the people to actually read or watch the story. The attraction of the story isn’t theological, it’s emotional. Why this is so hard to understand is frankly, beyond me.

I’ve known many folks who have read the book and now, watched the movie. The message they almost universally (excuse the theological pun) come away with is about the incredible love of God, not what constitutes the orthodox understanding of the Trinity.

My question is this… why is a “heretic” seemingly more able to communicate the love of God than the orthodox church?

If it were true that we were “known for our love” would that make “The Shack” unnecessary and redundant?

Why have we seemingly not communicated the love of God as well as a book we want to burn?

I would rather answer that question and remedy the problem than endlessly criticize a work of fiction and a movie…though one is much more difficult a task than the other…”

I would say that the “emotional attraction” is a very human one that does not automatically condemn a thing as unbiblical. Jesus became a human and identified with all that we are including emotion. I appeal to Keller’s observation above that we must ask ourselves if there might be something awry with our understanding of the “good news” since so few find our message relevant… or its adherents either loving or convincing. I liked the way the pastor above would rather start with conversation than with condemnation. He’s right, it’s a lot harder to do and few are willing to take the time and effort to make use of this God-given gift.

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