I didn’t read The Shack until ten years after it was originally published. I figured that a book depicting God as an older black woman was either heretical or just too weird for me to digest. But then, I watched an interview with the author. He was gentle, humble, and he pointed me toward God. After listening to him tell his story, I was compelled to read.
Paul Young chose the daunting task of writing a letter in an attempt to explain his life’s story. That letter became a novel. After reading it, his family believed that it held incredible value for others. His book, The Shack, became a cultural phenomenon that resulted in both criticism and craze. To date, The Shack has sold more than 20 million copies, and on March 3rd, it became a major motion picture.
Curiously, the criticisms of the book have resurfaced in regards to its movie counterpart. Many Christians are polarized in their response to this allegorical tale—some love it while others condemn it. Those who love it talk about its uncharacteristic depiction of God and the rawness of tragedy, pain, and hope. They speak of how the book helped them cope with tragedy and see box outside of the confines of religion. Those who condemn it focus on its lack of theology and Biblical assertiveness. They say how it humanizes God and puts words in His mouth. One side has picked truth and one side has picked love and they’re standing across from each other slinging mud.
I recently stumbled upon an article pointing out the theological faults the book presents. But with every word I read, my heart grew frustrated and angry. I was reading a Christian brother pick apart the work of another Christian brother all in the name of theology. The more I read, the more God burdened my heart with a question.
How much good are we doing for the kingdom of God by arguing theology and doctrine?
It seems as if our desire to explain God has become stronger than our desire to actually seek Him. And because of that, the church has become a mudslinging pit where we’re more concerned about being right than being Jesus.
As I wrestled with these thoughts, I was burdened to write this article, not to prove a point or provide an answer, but to encourage unity among believers. More importantly, to speak of the goodness of God. Our culture desperately needs the hope of the gospel, so let us become more concerned with building up than tearing down.
The Shack of Legalism
When I was a sophomore in college, I led a Bible study through Campus Crusade for Christ. Cru is a fantastic evangelical organization, but what I experienced is something I wrestled with for years.
After I volunteered, they gave me a book called Systematic Theology—a three-inch thick, thirteen-hundred-page dissertation on the things of God. Then, they placed me in an accountability group. Each week I was forced to confess things like drinking, hooking up with my girlfriend, and looking at pornography. I gladly followed along.
For more than two years, I lived with that mindset. I even argued theology as a way to prove my righteousness. That felt comfortable and under my control. It was my own little shack of legalism where loving God and being a good Christian were predicated on my effort. In turn, I began to neglect His grace. Not only in my life, but in the life of others as well. Beneath the well-found intentions, I felt isolated and confused.
By my senior year, Christian culture had left a bitter taste in my mouth. Instead of a gathering place where all were welcome, it felt more like a comfortable little bubble where everyone lived. They understood theology, they followed the rules, they dressed appropriately, and they opposed anyone who didn’t.
I wanted more than this cold, exclusive version of Christianity. I wanted to see the power of God at work in the world, not just belong to a comfortable, rule-following club. As I prayed, God began to speak to me. Deep down, I felt that the pathway to God was not through rigid obedience and better theology.
The Shack of My Own Understanding
I left college and set out with the desire to have one foot in heaven and one foot in the world. The problem was, I relied on my own strength instead of God’s. Within a couple of years, I found myself in a cycle of self-gratification. I gladly accepted His grace, but knowingly rejected His truth. Let’s say I believed in God, I just didn’t live like I believed what He said.
I call this the shack of my own understanding. It was as comfortable and cozy as the shack of legalism. That is until my own strength failed. Over and over and over again. Circumstances left me naked and dejected, with nothing to stand on. I found myself out isolated and alone.
I had built my shacks in the power of my own strength and understanding. Both crumbled. Rigid obedience and my own wisdom had failed me. But God hadn’t. He was still there. With my own ambitions and efforts trampled, I finally sat at His feet like a hungry, eager child.
I wasn’t seeking anyone’s approval or trying to prove myself, but I wasn’t relying on my own strength and understanding either. This was the moment when I finally surrendered to God. I let go of my prejudices and succumbed to the truth that God was a heck of a lot smarter than I was and infinitely more gracious.
I was free. The weight of rules and circumstances faded away like the sun burns off the morning dew. I felt a sense of freshness in my lungs as if I were breathing pure, energized air. For the first time in my life, God wasn’t someone I needed to defend and He wasn’t a far-off fairytale. He was my Father, and He was my friend.
Dismantling the Shack
When it comes to following Jesus, there are two commands which resonate more than any other. In fact, Jesus Himself declared them as the greatest. Love God. Love your neighbor. But what we often overlook about Jesus is that He was offensive. Especially to those who were unwilling to see their own flaws. But, Jesus also engaged with grace that showed the power of God at work.
Too often we polarize the faith journey into a cartoon of obedience or a mystical version of love. With each flawed view, our own strength or our own understanding subtly becomes our god. We’re desperately trying to confine a limitless God to a one-size-fits-all process. But God doesn’t build shacks, He dismantles them.
The bottom line is, the Word of God is our primary resource and ultimate authority. Narratives and allegory like The Shack add different dynamics that should only enhance our view of God through His Word. The point is, we must develop our faith instead of dismantle the faith of others. If we pursue an encounter with God as fervently as we pursue dismantling The Shack, maybe we’ll gain perspective that we would have otherwise overlooked. For those who are curious and enjoyed the book, don’t stop. Keep going.
To me, The Shack was about going to the places in our heart that we have walled off from God—the decorative facades we have built for ourselves. We can comfortably hide in our own rickety shacks or we can tear them down for something more.
I guess what I’m saying is that God doesn’t concern Himself with shacks, we do. But He loves us enough to meet us there and tear down the walls. Then, we’re free.