When Paul Young wrote The Shack he did not intend a large-scale challenge of Western Christianity. He intended to help his children see through the disastrous vision of God that he himself had been taught and to help them see in a story that God is Love, real love, all the time, forever, meeting us all in the pit of our self-destruction. But as the book traveled far and wide it stirred up a crisis for many, even as it liberated millions who experienced, in reading, the same encounter with the Father as Paul in real life and Mack in the story. Some were enraged at Paul’s daring presentation of the gospel, accusing him of heresy, universalism, even modalism, among other things. When I read The Shack I thought of the early church and of St. Athanasius, who wrote in the fourth century, “The God of all is Good, and supremely noble by nature, therefore He is the lover of the human race.”
The momentous scene of Papa’s embrace and then the equally powerful one of Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) meeting Mackenzie in the garden, (which turns out to be his soul and the sinful mess Mack had made of himself), give all broken people staggering hope. It also raised red flags for others. For me, these scenes force into the open two irreconcilable visions of God that inhabit the Western mind. The one is the faceless, nameless, unapproachable omni-being who watches us like a hawk from the infinite distance of a disapproving heart. This God is angry, eager to find fault, uncommitted, arbitrary, and incapable of love. This is Mackenzie’s God, the God of our fallen imaginations, and for many of us is the God we were taught from Scripture. Yet, who wants to be hugged by this God? Truly, does anyone want to go to this God’s heaven, or hear him shout her or his name? The other vision is expressed in Paul Young’s Papa, exceptionally played in the movie by Octavia Spencer. This Papa/Father loves Mack and us all with the same love that she loves Jesus and Sarayu, always good all the time, gracious, quick to forgive, eager to bless, and fiercely opposed to everything that keeps us from being alive. The is the ancient church’s vision of the blessed Trinity.
In both visions, no one will get away with anything, but for completely different reasons. The first God is bent on punishing every sin in the universe, whether anyone survives or not. The other is determined that everyone be delivered from all hints of evil and shame. Paul’s point to his children is that the brooding, disgusted God is neither real nor capable of helping in our darkness. To experience healing, Mackenzie has to face the fact that his vision of God was wrong, and let it go.
The genius of The Shack is that Papa’s embrace and Mackenzie’s experience of her love, stirs our longing to find ‘home’ right there in that circle, and this longing speaks on different levels at the same time. First, it stares our religious inheritance in the face asking why you have not led us to this life? It is a simple question, but one that is loaded with passion. Whatever else we have in our religious systems, most of us have not found what Mackenzie does, or Paul. If the God that Young discovered in his sin and self-loathing is real— the God embodied in Papa’s astonishing love and healing affection—then, like Mackenzie, our vision has misled us, perhaps profoundly so. Who is willing to face this fact and get down to the serious work of reformation? It seems to me that the larger, spiritual question of our times has shifted from who can put forward the best theological argument with the most proof texts, to who can lead us to experience the abounding life that Jesus promised. Mackenzie’s journey, and behind him Paul’s own life speak directly to this shift. The Shack addresses the human heart in its perplexing pain and longing with news that our lives can be very different. Does not our longing, touched by Mackenzie’s healing demand an understanding of the truth that leads us into the experience of authentic and indeed abounding life?
Second, our longing asks us all a deeply personal question. Are we prepared to risk opening ourselves to relationship? A return to the theological vision of the early Church will surely help our way of seeing, but not if our hearts are closed. The God of The Shack is not going to wave a magical wand and make everything better. This God loves relentlessly, meets us in our trauma, and summons us to participate in our healing. This is real relationship. Are we willing to allow ourselves to be known and loved in the embrace of Papa’s bewildering affection? Mackenzie not only had to change his fundamental notions of God, he also had to trust the God who met him in his pain.
With the continued spread of the book, and now the advent of the movie, which is largely faithful to the story, the religious and personal challenges are not going away. Thank God. As Luther unwittingly started a revolution when he nailed his theses to the Wittenberg door, Paul Young may well have done the same when he wrote a little story for his kids. We will see.
—C. Baxter Kruger, Ph.D., author of the international best seller, The Shack Revisited, and Patmos