By Todd Brady
Vice President for University Ministries, Union University
Based on the wildly popular best-selling book, The Shack, the movie by the same title hits theaters March 3. While all that glitters is not gold, The Shack proves that all that is spiritual is not trustworthy.
Pastor Eugene Peterson outrageously claimed that the book “has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.” Wynonna Judd said that the “story has blown the door wide open to my soul.”
The Shack is a story about Mackenzie (Mack) Allen Phillips, who having grown up with an abusive father, now experiences a family tragedy. The focus of the novel is Mack’s weekend encounter with God who appears to him in three persons. The purpose of this rendezvous with the Godhead seems to be to help Mack make sense of his life experiences—and particularly to make sense of his “Great Sadness.” God the Father is presented as an African American woman named “Papa.” Jesus appears as a Middle Eastern man “dressed like a laborer, complete with tool belt and gloves,” and The Holy Spirit is a “small, distinctively Asian woman” who goes by “Sarayu.”
The Shack is subtitled, “Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity,” and the book is laden with layers of human authenticity and otherworldly spirituality. These two factors seem to have contributed to what has been the book’s popularity among so many. Author William P. Young certainly has scratched the proverbial itch of modern humanity’s proclivity for authenticity and spirituality.
Although I have not screened the movie, I offer the following reflections in light of its release and in anticipation that many will uncritically accept its message.
It is only natural that we are interested in spiritual things.
As humans, we have been created in the image of God. Unlike the rest of creation, we are able to know God, and we are able to know that we know God. Indeed, the Scriptures attest that each of us is aware of the reality of God. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). The writer of Ecclesiastes speaks of humanity’s knowledge of the divine when he says that God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
Many have said that there are no atheists in foxholes. How many immediately and instinctively cry out “O God” when tragedy strikes? Americans flocked to houses of worship following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Among many things that can be said about our society, we are undoubtedly a spiritual people.
Spirituality has always been “in.” Yesterday it might have been called Gnosticism. Today it might be called New Age. Whether we’re talking about the cave man sitting around the fire or the cellular phone-toting teenager with iPOD-plugged ears, people are the same. We all hunger for the divine.
The Shack is yet another evidence of humanity’s appetite for spirituality.
The Church is the Body of Christ.
Threaded throughout the story of The Shack is the common refrain of Mack Mackenzie’s less-than-satisfying experiences with church. Whether the word is “burned,” “disenchanted,” frustrated,” or “disappointed,” Mack’s skeptical perception of organized religion is obvious. His opinions concerning church pave the way for some interesting ecclesiastical conversations with the Godhead.
At one point, God corrects Mack’s thinking about the church by telling him that he is “only seeing the institution, a man-made system. That is not what I came to build. What I see are people and their lives, a living breathing community of all people who love me, not buildings and programs.” Then God goes on to say, “It’s simple, Mack. It’s all about relationships and simply sharing life.”
On the surface this sounds good. “It’s all about relationships and simply sharing life.” What? Is that indeed what church is ALL about? What about God? What about the gospel? What about worship? What about the Word of God? What about the Lord’s Supper? What about going, and baptizing and teaching?
In another conversation, God speaks to Mack about church and says “These institutions, these structures and ideologies, are all vain efforts to create some sense of certainty and security where there isn’t any.” Needless to say, God’s attestation that certainty and security do not exist is less than inspiring. I immediately thought about the song we often sing in church “I Know Whom I Have Believed.” Without certainty and security, I imagine that we might sing something along the lines of “I think I might have some sort of opinion that I am somewhat hopeful about Him Whom I have possibly supposed.”
Granted, no church is perfect, but the dialogue about the church between God and Mack seems to me to be an exercise in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
God is unique and sovereign regardless of our feelings.
Mack’s thoughts of God seem to be guided and confirmed solely by his personal life experiences. At times, the conversations between God and Mack cause one to think that God’s ultimate goal is to cooperate with humanity. The way the narrative reads, God sometimes appears to be very much like Mack—and some might say even dependent on Mack.
Mack is admittedly surprised when God tells him, “My love is a lot bigger than your stupidity” and that men are “such idiots sometimes.” But Mack seems to warm up to God as he begins to think that God might be a little more like him than he realized. Mack is energized by hearing God say that Mack is “incredible,” “wonderful beyond imagination,” “the pinnacle of my Creation and the center of my affection.”
The Bible tells us that humanity has indeed been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). However, we must be quick to acknowledge that while we are made in God’s image, God is not like us (Numbers 23:19). In Isaiah 55:8-9 we read “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God is God, whether we feel like it or not, and our experiences do not change Who He is.
My experiences should not shape my understanding of God. Rather my understanding of God should shape my perception of my experiences.
God speaks to us in His own terms.
Speaking of the riskiness of faith, God at one point tells Mack that “Faith does not grow in the house of certainty.” Granted. However, Young seems to communicate that nothing concerning God or faith is able to be known or experienced with certainty.
At another point in the story, Mack is assured of Sarayu’s (The Holy Spirit) presence. Acknowledging Sarayu’s presence, he asks how he will be able to hear God’s voice. Sarayu responds to Mack by saying “You will learn to hear my thoughts in yours.”
God does not speak to us primarily in our thoughts. God speaks through His Word—the Bible which he has already spoken. It is when our thinking is shaped according to God’s Word that we find ourselves being conformed into his likeness. Hearing God is not a matter of listening to our thoughts. Hearing God is a matter of listening to his Word.
If you go see The Shack, do not check your mind at the lobby. Realize that the movie’s message is as slippery as the butter on your popcorn. Go discerningly, and go understanding that while some may feel that such a movie makes them feel more spiritual, there is often a dangerous difference between vague spirituality and solid Christianity.