The Shack: Theological Precision and Narrative Imagination [SMcK: if you want to read a truly great book about early Christian orthodoxy, it’s by Lewis Ayres: Nicaea and its Legacy.]
Anyone who knows me knows that as a Christian I proudly stand in the Nicene-Chalcedonian tradition. Every time I confess the Nicene Creed in worship, I do so with deep conviction. I am unapologetically trinitarian and I resist any attempts at modern modalist reconfigurations of the essential Christian doctrine of God. I firmly believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and I strongly object to any attempt to have a resurrected Jesus without his actual earthly body.
I love theology and I love the necessary precision of theological language. But I also love the imaginative narrative that displays theology in ways that speak to the head and to the heart, which is why I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Shack several years ago and found myself rather baffled then, and somewhat mystified now with the advent of the movie, at so many of the very negative appraisals of the book (and now the movie) on theological grounds from other Christians. (FYI: I have not yet seen the movie.) Casting aside the aspersions of the book as juvenile and sophomoric literature, what I loved about the book was that in a wonderfully imaginative way it dealt with doctrine, relating it to the always deeply relevant and timely philosophical and theological matters that relate to the problem of evil, forgiveness, the nature of God, and God’s work in this world by God’s very presence. To be sure, there were times when I didn’t agree with a particular narrative move the author, Paul Young, made in a portrayal, but then again, I have yet to always agree with every scholarly and not-so-scholarly constructive theological treatment I have read.
Without precise theological language, the great doctrines of our faith have no boundaries that give them their distinctive character. Without narrative imagination our doctrines will appear to many to be somehow beside the point of life. Theologians may prefer to read something more substantive like Karl Barth, and I love Barth; but they need to know that the folks in the pews (and outside the pews as well) are not reading the great Swiss-German theologian– they are reading Paul Young and now they are going to see the movie. (As much as I love Barth’s Church Dogmatics, I doubt there is a movie about it in the offing.)
I heard Paul Young speak several years ago. If you ever get an opportunity to hear him you must make the effort. As I listened to Paul, I remember becoming rather angry at the charge of heresy that had been leveled against him by those, who may know their theology, but know little about the nature of true heresy, as well as having no idea how to express theological truth in a way that makes a difference in people’s lives. (See my post on the use and misuse of heresy.) C.S. Lewis often complained that the biggest problem with theologians was that they lacked imagination in their theological explications. If Lewis were still alive he would know that little has changed.
There are times when I have wondered if Jesus was accused of “heresy” when he compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed. On occasion I have considered the possibility that Jesus was charged with a less than orthodox doctrine of God when he, in story form, compared God to the father who gladly threw aside his dignity and self-respect to welcome home a wayward son. There have been times when I thought that perhaps Jesus was ridiculed by the trained theologians for his portrayal of God as an unjust judge.
I love reading theology. I enjoy parsing terminology and honing the sharp edges of doctrine into something finely tuned and precise. But I also enjoy reading the imaginative narratives that help me think theologically about life and faith in ways I had never considered.
I am an unapologetic Nicene-Chalcedonian trinitarian theologian; and I applaud Paul Young for his portrayal of the Trinity and his narrative display of some of our most significant beliefs and convictions in The Shack.