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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Bible (Almost), Series Premiere


If you know someone over forty, ask them if they remember books like The Illustrated Bible  sitting on end tables in the dentist’s waiting room. Everyone used to display these, and I remember looking through their colorful renderings of

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important Bible persons and events. By the way, does the picture of two elderly pale European men in a tiny boat with (obviously) cropbearded Jesus strike you as an accurate rendering of the episode in Luke 5:1-11? If you think the cover is a stretch, click the link and take a look at Leonardo’s Annunciation on page three of the preview! Is that your idea of the angel Gabriel? Was Mary really that “mature,” and where did she get the marble table? (Thank you, Verrocchio!)

We taught our kids from the classic Egermeier’s Bible Story Book, because we heard of its legendary accuracy from the (very serious!) homeschool crowd. Published in the 1920s, it has survived the test of time and proven itself a classic. Yet it has been criticized on grounds of inaccuracy. One reviewer wrote “there are facts presented that are flat-out false,” while another notes that it, “softens or skips the less age-appropriate elements like incest and promiscuity” (see Amazon reviews). Our kids, and thousands of others, have quite profitably been taught Bible stories from this factually deficient book!

The point is that we can, and we do look past a lot of factual errors and “reading between the lines” in art and stories based on the Bible, appreciating their value and utility despite their fallibility and inevitably-culture-bound aesthetic. Viewers of The Bible miniseries on History will have to grant the same latitude if they want to enjoy its unique paraphrasing of the Biblical story.

I watched the series premier as something of a skeptic, expecting revisionist history, political correctness and more stale Jesus Seminar rhetoric about how we really can’t take the biblical canon as a historically reliable sacred text. To my delight, I noticed in the opening scene where Noah rehearses the prologue of (what would later be) Genesis to his family, there was no attempt to qualify, distance, or deconstruct. The Noah character took the creation story as authoritative revelation, passed on orally from generation to generation. As the docudrama unfolded, it stayed true to the aim of rendering a familiar body of stories and themes to an audience for whom they might be unfamiliar.

That last assertion is my reason for giving the series premier a tentative three stars out of five. Let me enumerate some the star-earning points:

  1. It didn’t assume revisionist history, but took the stories as they are given in the Bible and tried to render them for a contemporary audience.
  2. Like Walter Wangerin’s widely-read The Book of God, this dramatization of the biblical story invites us into the Scriptures themselves, bringing narratives to life and whetting our appetite to go deeper and learn more.
  3. The screenplay made mostly intelligent, limited choices of episodes and characters in an attempt to get the flow of biblical history and important themes, including covenant and faith. For me, these themes are clear, if deficient. I’ll explain why below.
  4. Like Medieval morality plays, The Bible miniseries can and will increase awareness of biblical content to the biblical-illiterate! This one is huge, because:
  5. Established Christians must accept the fact that bible illiteracy is the norm for American popular culture today.

For these reasons, and probably a few more, I feel fairly positive about watching the rest of the series as it unfolds over the next several weeks. However, I have to acknowledge some limitations and concerns:

  1. Some of your and my favorite stuff is going to be missing. Just like the books I mentioned above, screenwriters have to select from a mountain of material and put together a coherent story for a target audience. I was most disappointed that Joseph (a key figure in Genesis and a type of Christ) was entirely omitted.
  2. Theological presuppositions are going to color the story; for example, the themes of covenant and faith were presented in a very man-centered way. As a Facebook friend pointed out (Thanks, Al!), the Moses character talked about the Abrahamic covenant in a way that distorted its conditions, as if it were entirely conditional! (It isn’t. Here’s a concise discussion of that.)
  3. There is some buzz that the Christology is going to be messed up. If it is, my stars will drop off and my skepticism will have been confirmed. Let’s wait and see, please?

I do think we need to be discerning and informed whenever we teach, tell, act, sing, or allude to the inspired, infallible, inerrant text of Scripture. Especially those who teach. The Bible is not designed as a teaching series–though there are lots of revenue-generating support materials for teachers on the website–but, like Wangerin’s The Book of God, it admits (in the prologue) it is not a substitute for the Bible itself.

As for how adequate this docudrama proves to be at entertaining and informing audiences to help them become more interested in the greatest story ever written, that story remains to be told.