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Is The Shack Heresy? PDF Print E-mail

By Wayne Jacobsen, collaborator on The Shack

We knew it would happen eventually. Frankly we thought it would happen far sooner and in far greater quantity than we have seen to date.  But we knew The Shack was edgy enough to prompt some significant backlash, which is why so many publishing companies didn’t want to take it on at the beginning. 

I never thought everyone was going to love this book.  Art is incredibly subjective as to whether a story and style are appealing. I have no problem with a spirited discussion of some of the theological issues raised in The Shack.  The books I love most are the ones that challenge my theological constructs and invite a robust discussion among friends, whether I agree with everything in them or not in the end,.  That is especially true of a work of fiction where people will bring their own interpretations of the same events or conversations.  I never view a book as all good or all bad.  It’s like eating chicken.  Enjoy the meat and toss the bones. 

What is surprising, however, is the hostile tone of false accusation and the conspiracy theories that some are willing to put on this book.  Some have even warned others not to read it or they will be led into deception.  It saddens me that people want to use a book like this to polarize God’s family, whether it’s overenthusiastic reader thrusting it in someone’s face telling them they ‘must read’ this book, or when people read their own theological agendas into a work, then denounce it as heresy. 

If you’re interested, read it for yourself.  Don’t let someone else do your thinking for you.  If it helps convey the reality of Jesus to you, great!  If all you can see is sinister motives and false teaching in it, then put it aside.  I don’t have time to give a point-by-point rebuttal to the reviews I’ve read, but I would like to make some comments on some of the issues that have come up since I’m getting way too many emails asking me what I think of some of the questions they raise. I’ll also admit at the outset, that I’m biased.  Admittedly, I’m biased. I was part of a team with the author of working on this manuscript for over a year and am part of the company formed to print and distribute this book.  But I’m also well acquainted with the purpose and passions of this book.

What do I think?  I tire of the self-appointed doctrine police, especially when they toss around false accusations like ‘new age conspiracy’, ‘counterfeit Jesus’ or ‘heresy’ to promote fear in people as a way of advancing their own agenda.  What many of them don’t realize is that research actually shows that more people will buy a book after reading a negative review than they do after reading a positive one.  It piques their curiosity as to why someone would take so much time to denounce someone else’s book. 

But such reviews also confuse people who are afraid of being seduced into error and for those I think the false accusations demand a response.  Let me assure any of you reading this that all three of us who worked on this book are deeply committed followers of Jesus Christ who have a passion for the Truth of the Scriptures and who have studied and taught the life of Jesus over the vast majority of our lifetimes.  But none of us would begin to pretend that we have a complete picture of all that God is or that our theology is flawless.  We are all still growing in our appreciation for him and our desire to be like him, and we hope this book encourages you to that process as well.  In the end, this says the best stuff we know about God at this point in our journeys.  Is it a complete picture of him?  Of course not!  Who could put all that he is into a little story like this one?  But if it is a catalyst to get thousands of people to talk about theology—who God is and how he makes himself known in the world—we would be blessed.

This is a story of one believer’s brokenness and how God reached into that pain and pulled him out and as such is a compelling story of God’s redemption.  The pain and healing come straight from a life that was broken by guilt and shame at an incredibly deep level and he compresses into a weekend the lessons that helped him walk out of that pain and find life in Jesus again. 

That said, the content of this book does take a harsh look at how many of our religious institutions and practices have blinded people to the simple Gospel and replaced it with a religion of rules and rituals that have long ceased to reflect the Lord of Glory.  Some will disagree with that assessment and the solutions this book offers, and the reviews that do so honestly merit discussion.  But those who confuse the issues by making up their own back-story for the book, or ascribing motives to its publication without ever finding out the truth, only prove our point. 

Here are some brief comments on the major issues that have been raised about The Shack:

Does the book promote universalism?

Some people can find a universalist under every bush.  This book flatly states that all roads do not lead to Jesus, while it affirms that Jesus can find his followers wherever they may have wandered into sin or false beliefs.  Just because he can find followers in the most unlikely places, does not validate those places. I don’t know how we could have been clearer, but people will quote portions out of that context and draw a false conclusion. 

Does it devalue Scripture?

Just because we didn’t put Scriptural addresses with their numbers and colons at every allusion in the story, does not mean that the Bible isn’t the key source in virtually every conversation Mack has with God.  Scriptural teachings and references appear on almost every page. They are reworded in ways to be relevant to those reading the story, but at every point we sought to be true to the way God has revealed himself in the Bible except for the literary characterizations that move the story forward.  At its core the book is one long Bible study as Mack seeks to resolve his anger at God.

Is this God too nice? 

Others have claimed that the God of The Shack is simply too nice, or having him in humorous human situations trivializes him.  Really?  Who wants to be on that side of the argument?  For those who think this God is too easy, please tell me in what way does he let Mack off on anything?  He holds his feet to the fire about every lie in his mind and every broken place in his heart.  I guess what people these critics cannot see is confrontation and healing inside a relationship of love and compassion.  This is not the angry and tyrannical God that religion has been using for 2000 years to beat people into conformity and we are not surprised that this threatens the self-proclaimed doctrine police.   

One reviewer even thought this passage from The Shack was a mockery of the true God:  "I'm not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation...."   That wasn’t mocking God but a view of God that sees him as a demanding, self-centered tyrant. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ revealed himself as the God who would lay down his life for us to redeem us to himself. 

The words, “I don’t want slaves to do my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me,” are simply a reflection of John 15:15.  Unfortunately those who tend toward legalism among us have no idea how much more completely Jesus transforms us out of a relationship of love, than we could ever muster in our gritted-teeth obedience.  This is at the heart of the new covenant—that love will fulfill the law, where human effort cannot.

Does it distort or demean the Trinity?

One of the concerns expressed about The Shack is that it presents the Trinity outside of a hierarchy.  In fact many religious traditions think they find their basis for hierarchical organizations in what they’ve assumed about the Trinity.  To look at the Trinity as a relationship without the need for command and control is one of the intriguing parts of this story.  If they walk in complete unity, why would a hierarchy be needed?  They live in love and honor each other.  While in the flesh Jesus did walk in obedience to the Father as our example, elsewhere Scripture speaks of their complete unity, love and glory in relating to each other.  Different functions need not imply a different status.   

This extends in other ways to look at how healed people can relate to each other inside their relationship with God that defines authority and submission in ways most are not used to, but that are far more consistent with what we see in the early believers and in the teaching of Scripture.  It is also true of many believers around the world who are learning to experience the life of Father’s family without all the hierarchical maintenance and drama that has plagued followers of Christ since the third century. 

People may see this differently and find this challenging, if only because it represents some thought they have not been exposed to before.  Here we might be better off having a discussion instead of dragging out the ‘heretic’ label when it is unwarranted.

Does it leave out discussions about church, salvation and other important aspects of Christianity? 

This is some of the most curious complaints I’ve ever read. This is the story about God making himself available to one of his followers who is being swallowed up by tragedy and his crisis of faith in God’s goodness over it.  This is not a treatise on every element of theological study.  Perhaps we should have paused in the story to have an altar call, or perhaps we should have drug a pipe organ into the woods and enlisted a choir to hold a service, but that was not the point. 

Is this a Feminist God?

The book uses some characterizations of God to mess with the religious stereotypes only to get people to consider God as he really is, not how we have reconstituted him as a white, male autocrat bent on religious conformity.  There are important reasons in the story why God takes the expressions he does for Mack, which underlines his nature to meet us where we are, to lead us to where he is.  While Jesus was incarnated as man, God as a spirit has no gender, even though we fully embrace that he has taken on the imagery of the Father to express his heart and mind to us. We also recognize Scripture uses traditional female imagery to help us understand other aspects of God’s person, as when Jesus compares himself to a hen gathering chicks, or David likens himself to a weaned child in his mother’s arms. 

Has it touched people too deeply?

Some reviewers point to Amazon.com reviews and people who have claimed it had a transforming effect on their spiritual lives as proof of its demonic origin.  Please!  How absurd is that? Do we prefer books that leave people untouched?  This book touches lives because it deals with God in the midst of pain in an honest, straightforward way and because for many this is the first time they have seen the power of theology worked out inside a relationship with God himself. 

Does The Shack promote Ultimate Reconciliation (UR)?

It does not. While some of that was in earlier versions because of the author’s partiality at the time to some aspects of what people call UR, I made it clear at the outset that I didn’t embrace UR as sound teaching and didn’t want to be involved in a project that promoted it.  In my view UR is an extrapolation of Scripture to humanistic conclusions about our Father’s love that has to be forced on the biblical text.  

Since I don’t believe in UR and wholeheartedly embrace the finished product, I think those who see UR here, either positively or negatively are reading into the text.  To me that was the beauty of the collaboration. Three hearts weighed in on the theology to make it as true as we could muster.  The process also helped shape our theologies in honest, protracted discussions. I think the author would say that some of that dialog significantly affected his views.  This book represents growth in that area for all of us.  Holding him to the conclusions he may have embraced years earlier would be unfair to the ongoing process of God in his life and theology.

That said, however, I’m not afraid to have that discussion with people I regard as brothers and sisters since many have held that view in the course of theological history.  Also keep in mind that the heretic hunters lump many absurd notions into what they call UR, but when I actually talk to those people partial to some view of ultimate reconciliation they do not endorse all the absurdities ascribed to them.  This is a heavily nuanced discussion with UR meaning a lot of different things to different people.  For myself, I am convinced that Jesus is someone we have to accept through repentance and belief in this age to participate in his life.  

Throughout The Shack Mack’s choices are in play, determining what he will let God do in his life through their encounter.  He is no victim of God’s process.  He is a willing participant at every juncture.  And even though Papa says ‘He is reconciled to all men” he also notes that, “not all men are reconciled to me.”  

Is the author promoting the emergent movement?

 This guilt-by-association tactic is completely contrived.  Neither the author, nor Brad and I at Windblown have ever been part of the emergent conversation.  Some of their bloggers have written about the book, but we have not had any significant contact with the leaders of that movement and they have not been the core audience that has embraced this book.

That said I have met many people in the emergent conversation that have proved to be brothers and sisters in the faith.  While I’m not nuts about all they do, a lot of the statements made about them by critics are as false as what some say about The Shack. They do deeply embrace the Scriptures.  As I see it they are not trying to re-invent Christianity, but trying to communicate it in ways that captures a new generation.  While I don’t agree with many of the conclusions they’re sorting through at the moment, they are not raving humanists. I have found them passionate seekers of the Lord Jesus Christ, who are asking some wonderful questions about God and how he makes himself known in us.

Does The Shack promote new age philosophy or Hinduism?

Amazingly some people have made assumptions about some of the names to think there is some eastern mysticism here, but when you hear how Paul selected the names he did it wasn’t to make veiled references to Hinduism, black Madonnas, or anything else.  It was to uncover facets of God’s character that are clear in the Scriptures. 

It’s amazing how much people will make up to indulge their fantasies and falsely label something to fit their own conclusions. Some have even insisted that Mack flying in his dreams was veiled instructions in astral travel.  Absolutely absurd!  Has this man never read fiction, or had a dream?  Just because someone screams there is a demon under that bush, doesn’t mean there is.  

* * * * *

We realize this would be a challenging read for those who see no difference between the religious conditioning that underlies Christianity as it is often presented in the 21st Century and the simple, powerful life in Christ that Jesus offered to his followers.  Our hope was to help people see how the Loving Creator can penetrate our defenses and lead us to healing.  Our prayer is that through this book people will see the God of the Bible as Jesus presented him to be—an endearing reality who wants to love us out of our sin and bondage and into his life.  This is a message of grace and healing that does not condone or excuse sin, but shows God destroying it through the dynamic relationship he wants with each of his children. 

We realize folks will disagree.  We planned on it.  We appreciate the interaction of those who have honest concerns and questions. Those who have been captured by this story are encouraged to search the Scriptures to see if these things are so and not trust us or the ravings of those who misinterpret this book, either threatened by its success, or those who want to ride on it to push their own fear-based agenda.

 

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