It took me over a year to pick up The Shack just to read it. My wife told me I had to read it. Her girlfriends told me I had to read it. And nurses in the Recovery Room told me I had to read it. I finally gave up and read it. Then I started telling people it was the best book around on systematic theology. And that’s after I had taken a class in systematic theology in seminary.
Then I saw theologians picking at bits here and there that they thought were heresy. Somehow Paul Young was promoting universalism and everyone is going to be saved. Others thought that the picture of the Trinity was completely unscriptural. The Father as a large black woman?!?! The Holy Spirit as a physical person?!?! You get the picture.
The Shack opened in theaters several days ago. Its audience is growing. If it’s such heresy, why are people being released from personal guilt through it? (Listen to Hugh Hewitt’s interview with Paul Young and the story of Senior Pastor Kevelyn Jones of Bountiful Love Ministries in Flint, Michigan.) How can the Holy Spirit work through heresy?
In the book, Jesus tells Mack that while people never fully understand who God is or how He works, He loves to take the twisted threads of the tapestry of their lives and weave them into something beautiful. In other words, it doesn’t matter how badly we screw up, God can turn our screwups toward something good. So, even though the early church councils wrestled (badly in my opinion) with what the Trinity is, they still produced something that God has used for His glory.
So what are we to make of lines in the story that can be twisted into formal statements of theology? Perhaps the Indian story of the Blind Men and the Elephant can help us see. Blind men touching different parts of an elephant describe it as a pillar, a rope, a tree branch, a hand fan and so on. All are correct, and all are incorrect. No one “sees” the whole picture.
When we look at the Atonement, the same problem arises. Abelard called it “moral influence.” Augustine focused on “Ransom” and “Christus Victor.” Anselm identified “satisfaction” of a debt. Calvin saw “penal substitution.” I could go on. There are at least six fully scriptural views of the Cross, and if we compare them in detail, they conflict with each other. Let me say that again. If we try to make the bare words of scripture all agree, we are doomed to fail. And as Hamlet says, “Aye, there’s the rub.”
The problem is literalism. The Shack is a parable. It is an extended metaphor. A metaphor is an expression taken from one arena that is used in another to show a central meaning. In Hamlet’s soliloquy, “the rub” is an expression from the game of bowls (lawn bowling). If the bowl strikes an imperfection in the bowling ground, it will be “rubbed” into a direction different from its intended path. But Hamlet uses it to describe the unpredictable path his mind will follow if he dreams. And “path” is another metaphor, since your mind isn’t on a literal “path.”
We use metaphor constantly as we speak. It is never designed to be exact. It is always intended to be an illustration. Jesus taught in parables, which are extended metaphors. Are we supposed to believe that the Kingdom is literally a pearl (Matt 13:45-46)? No! That parable illustrates the value of the kingdom.
In The Shack we find, “Papa is as much submitted to me as I am to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.” Albert Mohler strenuously objects to this as a perversion of the relationship of God to man. But that’s not what Young or the Bible are saying. God has submitted Himself to the task of bringing us back into relationship with Him. And that’s what both books show. God will do anything possible to restore us to His family. Isn’t that what the Cross and the Atonement are really about?
The Shack is a parable. That’s why it’s so powerful. As Jonathan Haidt PhD points out, our minds are not logic processors, they are story processors. There is a central truth to The Shack. God loves us. We can be forgiven and rejoin His family. He will do whatever He can to make that possible.