–Daniel S. Ferguson
This Friday, the best-selling novel The Shack by William P. Young will be released as (likely) a not-so-best-selling movie.
If you’ve not read The Shack, I don’t really recommend it. But for different reasons than seemingly the whole Christian intelligentsia. You see, I just think it’s poorly written and hackneyed. Not even three chapters in, I concluded that it was white noise. It had some clever moments, but nothing truly earth-shattering. I frankly couldn’t understand how it had found a publisher, except perhaps in the same way that the truly dreadful Dan Brown did (marketing by controversy). After finishing the novel, I still had the same opinion.
That was my approach to the text: a literary criticism of a literary text. This was an approach not seemingly undergone by other Christians.
Pastor Joe Schimmel says the book “lends itself to a dangerous and false image of God and idolatry.” Pastor Tim Challies says that even depicting God in a literary text, much less on film, “would be an unwise and even sinful spiritual decision,” believing that all depictions of God are idolatrous and unBiblical. (See? Sharia Law did invade America. The Tea Party was right! Oh…wait.)
Theologian Albert Mohler chimed in by calling the book’s very premise “sub-biblical and dangerous” and describes the text using that most dreaded worded in Christendom: “universalistic.”
Western Seminary professor James De Young was somewhat less evenhanded. He had several theological problems with the book (indeed he wrote a book attacking The Shack), but objects more strongly to the movie, saying, “It’s one thing to draw a picture of the Trinity for the reader’s mind, which may be somewhat obscure, unclear, imprecise and differing in shape from person to person. But once Young determined to bring his characters to film where they take on a precise, clear form, he has crossed the line!”
And those are just the famous people who have commented on it. I’m seeing post after post after post on this from pastors, not to mention the organized boycotts and protests of the film.
So what gives? To ask my own question again, why all the hullabaloo?
It’s because Christian theologians, generally speaking, hate to see their God depicted in fiction. They love to see retellings of Biblical stories of God, even ones that add fictional flourishes (for the most part), but seeing God depicted in an unusual or fictional way really drives the Christian thinktankers nuts.
So they cry foul. They find a theological reason to object and, in my opinion, hide behind that instead of face the real problem they have. In this case, they point to heresy about the Trinity (modalism, in this instance) and universalism as reasons to hate this book, but really I think they, like me and so many others, simply struggle with what a relationship with God looks like.
By and large, a massive percentage of the population has never had a supernatural experience with the divine. The reports are even less frequent in more conservative and traditional churches, especially among white Christians. We have coped with that by drawing an image of God with which we can relate, that of the Bible.
Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of spiritual revelations happen from that text. It’s holy for a reason. God uses it all the time in such a fashion. But that’s not how I was raised to treat the Bible, and it’s not how the Bible is treated by many.
We may think we’re getting closer to God, but really we’re just getting closer to the lens of a telescope that looks at Heaven from Earth. (It’s a really good telescope, though.) Even our laymen are trained to think of God in almost purely academic terms. They’ve had forty years of Sunday School lessons in hermeneutics, systematic theology, and Biblical history.
At 5 years old, I could tell you every author of every book of the Bible, but I couldn’t tell you one word about what Jesus felt like in real life. The same thing was true at 15 and 25. It was only when I learned to look with my own eyes’ lenses instead of the telescope’s that I truly saw God.
This does not make the telescope irrelevant. But there comes a time when you realize that the telescope is only meant to show you things that are far away. And God is not far away. God’s Spirit lives inside us.
This is an uncomfortable reality. It was for me, and I suspect it is for those who are objecting to The Shack. I don’t think it has anything to do with modalism or universalism. (It’s a novel, not a theological treatise. Let the man have some artistic license.) I think it’s that an author dared to represent the divine relationship as manifest, real, visceral, and deeply personal rather than distant and academic. The character sees God through his own eyes instead of through the telescope.
And that stirs up the real emotion: jealousy. I know that’s how I felt. Jealousy toward a fictional character that he got a supernaturally manifest experience with the divine. I started coming up with objections, too. Theological, personal, literary critical. Really, I wanted just to discredit the whole notion of the book rather than deal with the emotion of jealousy. So I turned it off by going through a series of mental exercises. In my case, I landed on a literary criticism. Others, it seems, landed on a theological criticism.
But I suspect the emotion is the same. Just the anger with which they describe the book, the vitriol. I can’t help but think that’s a cover for a deeper sadness, a desperate attempt to deny the uncomfortable, even sinful, emotion of envy.
That being said, I won’t exactly be standing in line this weekend to see this movie. But I might Redbox it at some point. It’s worth a buck fifty.