The Shack and My Claustrophobia

The Shack is giving me claustrophobia.

Seriously, I feel like the walls are closing in: between my trying to nuance my opinions and be charitable towards all, my duty as a teacher and elder to warn wherever I see biblical truth misrepresented or distorted, my public trust as host of a popular morning show that wants to be engaging and entertaining, and the evaluating, reviewing, and labeling by other Christian leaders, I feel like someone needs to open a window! I don’t know if what I have to say will help anyone breathe a little, or even if anyone else feels trapped in this room (Do shacks have dungeons?), but I need to try to break out. So, I’m just going to give my real, unvarnished opinion of what I think is going on with The Shack and why I think it is an interesting place to visit but a dangerous–yes, dangerous place to try to learn about or experience God.

Walls and Clutter

First, I need to talk about The Shack‘s walls and what’s inside. The Shack is an emotionally powerful, potentially healing story!  Some friends, counselors, and theologians I know and/or whose work I respect recommended the book when it first came out. Those who have suffered abuse or have an overly-authoritarian view of God seem most naturally affected by the story. At best, the story knocks down a Western idol, a picture of God as the stern, oppressive, grey-bearded white man in the sky. I gladly receive that iconoclasm. But here is the need for nuance! Along the way, while the story unfolds in what I consider a bad series of “idiot lectures,” we find The Shack decorated with theological kitsch, not solid, biblical theology. I don’t want to join those who simply use the label, heresy because that’s a lazy excuse not to think; however, the amount of bad “Shack Theology” the reader is exposed to inside The Shack clutters the room.

Contrary to Shack Theology, the unity of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is not merely relational, but actual; the Trinity’s economic subordination does not threaten “mutual submission” within the godhead; mutual submission does NOT apply to the relationship between God and God’s covenant partners (us); free will does not entail a kind of process theology in which we “partner” with God to create the future; God’s sovereignty is not negated by the fact of evil; The Sovereign God DOES allow evil for a good purpose; that purpose will not be satisfactorily explained to us biblically, emotionally, or mystically, through a vision or experience like Mack gets in the shack. Ironically, the thing The Shack seeks to demystify– the experience of evil–is left in the category of mystery in much better theodicies, like Job, for example.

More kitsch and clutter: the biblical Jesus, unlike the God of The Shack, is not utterly befuddled by the idea of judgment; the biblical Jesus will judge the world and separate sheep from goats; forgiveness is DEPENDENT upon God’s justice, which requires judgment; salvation, therefore, is only in Christ, who suffered for sinners; God’s mercy is NOT dependent upon his being “especially fond” of everyone without distinction (sorry, Mr. Hitler, Mr. Stalin, and Saul of Tarsus before repentance); sin is not just a “beautiful mess,” it is also destructive, ugly, and treasonous against God and the good, and Lady Wisdom in Proverbs actually teaches NOT a humanistic approach to decision-making, but that we need to fear God (not flight-or-fight fear, but humble awe), or we will never see our path, know God, or understand the world.

The Price of Clutter

When I first looked into The Shack, I saw ALL of this clutter and more!  It stressed me out, but I felt I had to be so careful because I don’t want to rob anyone of their epiphany that God is not an angry white abusive father.

But even that lesson comes at a price. The organizing principle around which The Shack‘s contents are piled is the discovery of God’s goodness (which is the point of Mack’s experience). To get there, God has to be re-defined on a basis other than the authority of Scripture. The view of Scripture in The Shack is portrayed perfectly in a scene in the movie: the old Gideon Bible is hidden in a side table drawer. Mack tries to find God in it, but he falls asleep somewhere around Leviticus. You can’t find God in the Bible, after all. He isn’t into theology, but (human-centered) relationship!

My view is that ironically Shack Theology is no less theological. It’s just bad theology! It is another instance of post-evangelical pontificating, the kind we find not only in recently-penned fictions but also in numerous memoirs and edgy self-help spirituality books and blogs that are “empowering” young people who tweet about how liberating it is to throw off the shackles of biblical orthodoxy. But more: it’s not just that Shack Theology is bad. (And this is where my friends may want to get off the bus.) From the first time I read it, I believed the book and story–given the popularity it has achieved–are introducing an entire generation of Christians to an alternate gospel, much like the Gnostic myth formed an “alternate Christianity” in the 2nd through 4th centuries. Gnosticism had to be opposed vigorously because it was deceiving people and drawing them away from the real Jesus, the Jesus whom the Apostles preached and knew, who came as the God-man, Servant-King, and substitute sacrifice, crucified and resurrected bodily and historically to save sinners. It’s not that Shack Theology ignores these facets of the Jesus story; it just revises so much of the scaffolding that the Jesus of The Shack distorts the biblical portrait.

And here’s a strange parallel. Christian Gnosticism originated as an attempt to make sense of the goodness of God in the face of evil.

Antiques Aren’t Cool

I thought this when watching the movie. That Jesus was so cool! That Jesus was a good hang for Mack! But I could hardly see that Jesus emphasizing both the revealing and concealing purpose of parables or warning people about HIS eternal judgment.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe I’m just missing the whole point of the “parable” of The Shack, missing the forest for the trees, proving Paul Young’s parabolic point, that theological precision clouds the goodness of God. I’m always willing to learn, grow, be corrected and convinced that my view needs adjusting. God is bigger than my puny intellectual ability to understand him, of course. But there are certain things, proven things, antique things that should furnish our thoughts about God because they come from a reliable source–the enduring Scriptures. These furnishings have been on display for a LONG time in emblems like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds, summaries of faith that clarify and collect the Father-authorized, Jesus-shaped, Spirit-inspired teachings of the Apostles. Those historical confessions complement Scripture, they do not supplant it. Scripture has to be our final source and authority of the knowledge of God. 

Not in The Shack, where the Bible is gathering dust in that side-table drawer.

Lies We Believe

Speaking of dust, I was willing to brush it off and say to myself and others, “See, there’s the Bible, right there in the shack! Surely Paul Young didn’t mean to create a fictional world for Christians that saves the goodness of God at the expense of the biblical teaching on the sinfulness of humans, the sovereignty of God, and the salvation of only those who actively put their faith in Christ. . .did he?” Enter the just-released NON-FICTION book by Wm Paul Young, Lies We Believe About God. Tim Challies, a reviewer I trust (though I don’t always agree with him), thoughtfully lays out the main points of Young’s theology, the ideas that informed his construction of the fictional world of The Shack. And I don’t mean to be harsh here, but it’s bad. So bad, that I’m afraid it blows the roof off The Shack. I’m getting out before the dust settles.

Lots of bad theology, error, and heresy has been written over the centuries in the name of trying to make God better, hipper, more understandable, less holy or more relatable than the Bible seems to make him. I believe The Shack was constructed along those lines and therefore rests on a flimsy architecture and a faulty foundation. So what? My opinion doesn’t really count, does it? Not really, but if you find yourself choking on the dust of Shack Theology or stifling in the closed-in walls of post-evangelical theological revision, then I simply want to open a window to orthodox, biblical, Christ-centered faith, the faith that moved into the neighborhood when Jesus bore God’s wrath and brought God’s love into not just a broken world, but into our rebellious, me-centered, fatherless, sin-loving hearts and transformed us into his Temple, the real place where God dwells, a place of life and light.










“The Bible” and Jesus(es)

DISCLAIMER: Normally, you read “what’s out there” before posting an opinion, in the interest of being more informed (or appearing so). This is an entirely personal reflection with only the sparsest research. Image

Watching The Bible, Episode 4: Mission last night with my sons engendered discussion much as the other three episodes have: “Dad, did Jesus pass out in the desert?. . .Was Pilate really mean?. . .Do you think Jesus was that calm when he cleansed the temple?” Of course, I don’t have informed answers to all their reading-between-the-lines questions. Nobody does. As with previous episodes, I found Mission delightfully insightful, provocative and, at points, pretty loose on the Bible’s particular narrative details.

One scene I really didn’t like was Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against resurrection. It was a powerful scene, and it worked dramatically. But omitting the details of Jesus deliberately stalling after he found out Lazarus was sick (John 11:6), telling Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” before he reached the tomb, then calling the dead man to rise publicly, for the sake of the crowd, changed the theological significance of the raising of Lazarus. I’m confident that tampering with theology was not the intent, but it was the consequence nonetheless

That brings me to the question of the portrayal of Jesus, a formidable challenge for any actor, I’d think.  Hollywood Jesuses come off as either spacey and aloof (he is divine, after all) or down-home comfy in their everybody-rides humanity. Diogo Morgado does an admirable job as Jesus in this miniseries, though he tends towards the latter extreme. I guess every actor has to answer the question for himself that Morgado’s Jesus asked his disciples, echoing Matthew 16: “Who do you say that I am?” (In the biblical account there were a few guesses before Peter “surprised” Jesus with the right answer.) Getting the answer right is the key not only to the persona of Jesus, but to the character of the most important person in the history of the world.

The Jesus of Scripture barely fit the values and status of his own culture, much less ours. He healed the sick with genuine compassion, yet his rebukes of the Pharisees were as comfortless as Old Testament prophets’ devastating judgements. He was clearly the friend of sinners, but he cleansed sin out of the temple more than once, as if he owned the place. The biblical Jesus is full of such paradox.

And rightly so. Because the Jesus of Scripture is both human and divine, fully so, simultaneously. Two natures; one person. No confusing the two. He who wept over his friend Lazarus (another omission in Mission) took absolute authority over death and brought a stinking-dead human being back, to live out the rest of his natural life. Death didn’t even have a chance, because the Author of life, the human-making, soul-breather-into-dust God of eternity was standing outside the tomb, effortlessly flicking death away like a pesky gnat. Who-the-freak is this guy?

The Jesus of Scripture is God the Son, pre-existing in eternal community with the Father and the Spirit, one God in three persons. Before the world was, He is. When he uttered those words to the officials who came to arrest him, John 18 says, “they drew back and fell to the ground.” Were he not fully God and fully man, Jesus could not have taken the penalty for the debt we owed and paid for it eternally by laying down his human life. His role as our substitute, the lamb of God sacrificed for you and me for all-time, motivated God himself to provide by taking on human flesh and suffer so we could be saved by his one act of righteousness, undoing the one act that plunged the whole race into guilt and sin.

How do you portray that multi-dimensionality in a two-dimensional world of movies or television? You try to come close, and you leave it to aware or curious viewers to make up for deficiencies. That is exactly what Mission’s Jesus did, with admirable results. Some (I’ve heard) have worried about the implicit Christology of The Bible miniseries. I can understand why. The question, “Who do you say that I am” is the most important of all. But I don’t fault the imperfect portrayal of the perfect God-man for our failing to get the right answer. The purpose of The Bible, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey told us, is to raise questions that will drive viewers to the real Bible.

So, who do you say he is? To benefit from the sacrifice he made objectively, historically, one must invest a personal, subjective faith. I do think the miniseries does a good job of emphasizing trust in God as a major theme (though at times it appears nationalism or religious lawkeeping substituted for faith, which neither ever did.) Eternal salvation is offered as a free gift to whoever will believe, trust, subjectively receive the objective Jesus as the way, truth, life and only way to restoring a favorable relationship with God, His father and ours. When he is Lord, not only objectively (which he is) but of your life, you become connected with the eternal, triune God, eternally.

That change in eternal life is the consequence of getting the “Who am I” question right. Granting a charitable verdict to The Bible’s Jesus, we will all be judged by what we do with the Scriptural, historical Jesus. Martha’s confession outside the tomb of Lazarus gives us the only correct answer: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.” It was enough to superintend the miracle of resurrection that day. And it is still the efficient cause of resurrection for everyone who utters it in genuine faith today.

Global Faith Dying?

Regional Distribution of Christians

If you asked most people whether Christianity is growing or dying around the world, I’ll bet they’d choose the latter. At least in the U.S., Christianity is taking some really big hits from the New Atheists, from secular media and from the academy, where one can hardly admit to being a person of faith without being (fallaciously) considered a bigot, backwards and brainwashed. Much like the misinformation and disinformation of Christianity’s first centuries, dispelled by capable apologists like Justin Martyr and Athenagoras, reports of Christianity’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

As the above chart from shows, Christianity has experienced significant growth–just not here in the West.  While the West has turned to devour itself from the roots up, the East has discovered a new source of hope, liberty, meaning and a moral compass. At least that’s my opinion having experienced that same personal transformation and compared notes with many others in my three trips to India.

And do I as a modern, Western Christian lament the fact that Christianity may become an “Eastern Religion” in a few generations? Well, of course, but I lament the West, not the Faith. Christianity  HAS NEVER been a “Western Religion” in the sense that the West is the genesis of Christian faith! Indeed, just the opposite is true. We in the West have messed the legacy of Christ and the Apostles up in many ways, institutionalizing it, domesticating it, using it to justify occasional atrocities (even one is inexcusable). But that’s been OUR fault. Not the faith that arose from the fertile soil of the Ancient Near East. May it take root there and beyond once again, and grow to shade and nourish millions from the fallen condition of the world and the missed-mark of human religious institutions.

To read the excellent, balanced article, click the link below.

To understand the core of the Christian faith (the gospel), click this link:

The Christ of Christmas

Like Ricky Bobby, many people prefer the Jesus of Christmas to other, more mature versions of the incarnate Son of God revealed in the Scriptures. But the “8 pound, 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus” of Christmas grew up. So, when we think of Christmas, we should remember the Jesus who:

  • LIVED a sinless life, a life that was free of not only impurity, but also false piety and Phariseeism;
  • DIED at the hands of a corrupt government and religious institution, willingly, for us, as our substitute;
  • ROSE from death on the third day, reversing the fall and its curse, granting us eternal life with him;
  • REIGNS over heaven and earth, establishing his kingdom both now and in the consummate future.

This Jesus, now resurrected, reigning and returning to finally redeem and judge the world, is the Christ of Christmas. Please don’t separate the person of Christ from the work of Christ, either in your thinking or your worship. The point of the incarnation is death and resurrection, and the point of resurrection is redemption for a lost and sinful world, for all who follow him as Lord by faith.

Hebrews 7:26 – He is the kind of high priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin.
 Matthew 16:6 – “Watch out!” Jesus warned them. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
John 10:18 – No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily.
Romans 5:6 – When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.
2 Corinthians 5:21 – For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.
Romans 8:11 – Just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies
1 Corinthians 15:45 – The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit.
Colossians 1:13 – For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son
2 Timothy 4:1 – Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he appears to set up his Kingdom