Since Christmas I have been working around the clock on a book on The Shack. For the next stretch I will be posting some of the material I am working on. By now, The Shack has probably become the best selling book in history, apart from the Bible, or at least it is close to it. Well over 11 million copies have been sold in about 30 languages. At least ten more translations are in the works. The wild, global popularity of The Shack in itself tells me that there is serious spiritual hunger in people’s hearts. I hope and pray it is a sign of the passing of the Augustinian captivity of the Church. Perhaps I am too critical of Augustine, but he is the Father of Western Christianity, and that version has handed down the deadly quagmire of deism, legalism and rationalism—the unholy trinity of the Latin West.
A quick search of the internet reveals that The Shack has liberated untold numbers of people, and, not surprisingly, stirred up the proverbial hornet’s nest. Some folks are not pleased at all, slinging the ‘h’ word around like they are the appointed guardians of orthodoxy. Whatever people are trying to say is wrong with the book when they call it heretical, I think Athanasius would be quite pleased with The Shack, not to mention the Father, Son and Spirit. I would go the other way and say that insofar as one thinks the theology of The Shack is heretical, that is the distance they themselves have fallen from the early Church’s vision. If the doctrine of God set forward in The Shack appears problematic, then have a read of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word of God. The faulty assumption in much of the criticism of The Shack is that ‘modern’ evangelicalism is indeed the definition of orthodox Christianity. That is a dangerous assumption.
The issue is the goodness of God. Apparently some folks don’t think that Jesus’ Father is in fact as good as the ‘Papa’ of The Shack. Are we really worried that someone might get into heaven who is not supposed to be there? Are we actually concerned that a broken man or woman or child might illegitimately believe in the sheer goodness of God and find healing and hope, only to be bitterly disappointed when they finally meet Jesus’ Father?
Perhaps behind the criticisms of The Shack is the sting of another question that is way more personal, and scary, and in some ways more profound. It is simple and straightforward. ‘Could I be this wrong?’ ‘Could we be this wrong? Paul Young is the apostle of the broken heart, holding out to hurting people a vision of the Triune God that actually brings healing to the soul, but as such he is also necessarily the apostle of Western crisis. Somewhere inside, I suspect, we all know that he is right, that Jesus’ Father is this good, that we are this loved and accepted, that the Holy Spirit in person has embraced us all in Jesus, but my, my does this ever fly in the face of many of our cherished notions.
The mythology of the fallen mind found its most sublime expression in Greek philosophy, which through Augustine and others then warped Western theology at large. That is not to say, of course, that all is wrong, for the Holy Spirit is blessedly at work in us all. There have been many protest, and many breakthroughs, not least in the great Reformation, and in the work of Karl Barth and others, but the god of the philosophers still reigns in the West. And that is the problem. The Western mind is riddled with two entirely different gods. The one being the Father, Son and Spirit, and the other what the Greeks called the ‘Unmade’ or ‘Unoriginate,’ whose ambiguous nature has steadily been filled with legalistic indifference, distance and sterility. Such a god leaves humanity hesitant, fearful, insecure. The Shack brings the problem to the surface. The love, indeed the tenderness, the sheer approachability and humanity of the Triune God portrayed in The Shack touches the raw nerves of our despairing hearts, and it does so with unimaginable hope. If God is like Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, then my life can be different. I can live loved in peace and hope. But how can this hope become real to us, truly liberating and healing, when the god of the philosophers fills our heads? We are torn between the news of being loved, cared for and accepted, which is given to us in the witness of the Holy Spirit, and the alien concepts that rule our minds from Greece, which tell us that God is not so kind and cannot be trusted. The god of the philosophers with all its theological tentacles must be slain. But that is scary business. For some of those tentacles might be favored notions upon which careers and indeed entire denominations have been built. So, while The Shack is a great story of one man’s healing, it is also a prophetic Word crashing the lifeless party of Western deism, legalism and rationalism. Thank you, Holy Spirit, we will have more please. Kill the beast.
A final word from Athanasius. “The pagans, who are altogether strangers to the Son, were the authors of the word, ‘unmade;’ whereas our Lord Himself commonly spoke of God as His Father, and has taught us in like manner to use and apply the same…. Nowhere in Holy Scripture does the Son call the Father the ‘unmade.’ And when he teaches us to pray, He does not say, ‘When you pray, say, O God unmade,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which are in heaven.” (Against the Arians, I.34)