The cat is out of the bag—and it is a big cat. I just got home from a two week tour of Australia with Paul Young, author, as most of you know, of the international best selling book, The Shack. It was my great joy and privilege to introduce him to brothers and sisters and seekers in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. It felt like we were watching Luther nail his ninety-five theses on the door of Wittenberg, except the door here is the whole world. To date well over four million copies of The Shack have been sold, and it is now being translated into 40 languages. The wild popularity of Paul’s book shouts to us that people across the world are seriously thirsting for something beyond the Western god. Hallelujah.
As Paul says, ‘the shack’ is a metaphor of the wounded soul, the inner world where we bury our hurts, traumas, and the terrible pain of our personal tragedies. In contrast to religion—which is our endless attempts to try to heal ourselves—the book is about encountering Jesus, his Father, and the Holy Spirit in our shame and darkness and fear, and finding real healing. One of my favorite scenes in the book involves the Holy Spirit and Mackenzie digging together in a garden, which is both a wild mess and beautiful at the same time. Mack comments,“ I feel strangely at home and comfortable here.” Then comes some rather stunning words from the Spirit—and this is the heart of the uprising.
And well you should, Mackenzie, because this garden is your soul. This mess is you! Together, you and I, we have been working with a purpose in your heart. And it is wild and beautiful and perfectly in process. To you it seems like a mess, but to me, I see a perfect pattern emerging and growing and alive—a living fractal (p. 138).
Note carefully that the Holy Spirit is inside Mack’s brokenness. When is the last time you heard a sermon on the freedom of the Holy Spirit to meet you and to love you in your shame? And then Papa (God, the Father) comes walking down a path in the garden with a sack lunch. Herein lies the glorious crisis The Shack creates across the world. Is God this good? Is God this accepting, this comfortable with us in our brokenness? It is a question of the character of God. Could it be that Jesus’ Father is free to love us as we are, free to accept us in our disasters and pain? Could it be that Papa has embraced us—the real us— forever?
As I listened to Paul tell the story of his own great sadness, which is the story behind the story, and as I watched the tears flow, it struck me that in desperation for real solutions to his own pain he discovered the trinitarian God of the early Church. The healing vision of love that fires The Shack, contrary to some reports, is not new, but ancient. And, blessedly for us, Paul has found a way—in the genius of the Holy Spirit—to pierce the veil of our legal darkness, and help us see the truth all over again. The Shack is a fundamental book. In ways almost inexpressible, it shares the beauty and goodness of God with us, and in doing so it quickens our hearts with hope. But it also exposes our ingrained beliefs, leaving us with a way too personal question, which God? Is it the unapproachable and unaccepting god of Greece, or Jesus’ Papa cooking breakfast for us in our shame? It is that simple, and that huge. Which God?
C. S. Lewis said that as he read George MacDonald’s, Phantastes his imagination was baptized. He went on to say that it took 18 years or so for his baptized imagination to reach his head. I suspect that such a baptism is what happens to most people who read The Shack. The Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirits that it is true, that Papa is this good, and that we are truly loved and embraced forever. This divine witness gives us permission—surely fleeting at first, but nevertheless real—to question the largely philosophical, legal god we have inherited. And even though we have a plethora of underlined bible verses to prove the truth of this god, the baptism of our imaginations—the witness of the Spirit—haunts us with the notion that we may well have misread the book.
For my money, we have been intellectually trapped by a vision of God that owes as much, if not more, to Greece and Rome than it does to Jesus. Thus, without knowing it, we have had to live in fear, ashamed of ourselves and our brokenness. We have had no real choice but to pretend that our religion actually works, while our souls remain riddled with fear and pain. The questions posed by Paul Young are this, ‘Is God ashamed of us? Is he aloof, watching us from the infinite distance of a disapproving heart? Is law more important to God than real relationship with us? Are we left to ourselves to find healing? Is heaven a place we go to avoid hell?’ His answer and mine is a simple, yet resounding, ‘No!’
The good news is that Jesus has moved in and set up house inside our darkness, and he brought his Father and the Holy Spirit with him. Christianity is about getting over our vision of god and letting Jesus teach us about his Father. In the midst of our shame the blessed Trinity has come to dwell, to love us, and to heal us from the inside out. Heaven is not so much a place as it is the sheer free-flowing life that emerges in us when we meet Jesus’ Papa inside our shacks. Can you believe in this God? Why not? Who told you about God?
In the belly of the Western, deistic and legalistic beast, the baptism of our imaginations is happening again. The fleeting hints of permission are being rumored in the dark places of our souls. We dare to hope. With the hints come freedom to question our inherited vision of god, to risk believing in Jesus’ Papa and his goodness. For Lewis it took 18 years for the Spirit’s witness to convert his mind. No one knows how long it will take for us, but the baptism is very real and it is not going away. The vision of The Shack stuns us with Papa’s love. Could it be?
Permission granted. It is okay to believe in the overflowing goodness of the blessed Trinity.
When we meet the Father, Son and Spirit face to face I would lay odds that our response will not be, ‘forgive me, I overestimated your goodness.’
For more on Jesus inside our darkness, see my book Across All Worlds, and my free essay, “Bearing Our Scorn: Jesus and the Way of Trinitarian Love.” Both are available at our web site www.perichoresis.org.