Burn It or Find God in It? (by John Frye) SMcK: John’s review is not so much a review of Paul Young’s theology, which waffles in more than one place. In fact, a number of solid theologians — including Roger Olson and John Mark Hicks — find redemptive elements, not least in depicting a God who “moves into the neighborhood in order to express divine love to us.” Critique of Young’s theology is appropriate, but one should not dismiss the redemptive elements.
Do you hear the swords rattling? What are we to do with the movie The Shack? Do we burn it down or do we find God in it? [SMcK: if you want to read a truly great book about early Christian orthodoxy, it’s by Lewis Ayres: Nicaea and its Legacy.]
One “burn-it-down” voice is James De Young, New Testament language and literature professor at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. De Young believes “The Shack” is promoting what he calls “idolatry.” His book, “Burning Down The Shack” exposes what he contends are theological flaws in book (and movie), which he frets will be accepted and promoted by naive viewers through the newly released film. De Young asks, “Is one of the most successful ‘Christian’ books in history actually promoting anti-Christian beliefs? Don’t be fooled. Find out the terrible true story behind “The Shack” and uncover heretical doctrines being promoted. Your soul could be at stake.”
One “find-God-in-it” voice is Randal Rauser, associate professor of historical theology, teaching in the areas of theology, apologetics, worldview and church history, at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Canada. Rauser suggests, “There is nothing so profound as the concept of God, and few things as shocking as the notion that the creator of all things would stoop to our level and reveal himself to us in a most personal and intimate way. … The Shack will not answer all our questions, nor does it aspire to. But we can be thankful that it has started a great conversation.” Rauser wrote Finding God in the Shack. Roger E. Olson is another “find-God-in-it” voice. The Amazon promotion of Finding God in the Shack: Seeking Truth in a Story of Evil and Redemption, states, “Olson also views The Shack with a theologian’s eye and finds much sound truth. He delves into many of the significant issues raised by the book such as forgiving those who have done us great evil, how God acts in the world, how God is three persons in one and what difference this makes to us. While he offers his own criticisms of the book, he largely finds the truth about God in The Shack.”
My conclusion is this: Christian viewers will see what they want to see in the film. If you think the film promotes idolatry because the Persons of the Trinity are depicted as visible people and thus violates the second commandment, you’ll see that. You may freak out that the Spirit’s name in the film is a Hindu word for “wind” and conclude the film is promoting all religions as ways to God. When “Papa” (God) shows the nail print in her wrist and says, “Love always leaves a mark,” you’ll shout that the heresy of patripassianism is born again. The Godhead presented as three different ethnic groups will stick in the throats of some because we all know the Father and Spirit are invisible and Jesus was a blue-eyed, blond guy who spoke British English. I think the film artistry suggests the Source of all the beautiful ethnicities in this world.
Because I knew that the sword rattling over the film would be intense, I watched the film with my will behind my eyes and ears. Here are a few observations as a “find-God-in-it” voice. First, the movie is an art form. Say it out loud, “Art form.” Neither the book nor the film is a theology textbook about God and the Trinity. I liked the scene of the Father, Son, and Spirit sitting at the meal table. It reminded me of the icon depicting perichoresis. The marvel of redemption is that we get to sit at the table, too. Avoid racist comments like “God is presented as Aunt Jemima” or “a New Age Oprah Winfrey.” Let the film push your stereotypical thoughts about God.
Second, I did not pick up in the movie a clear sense of universalism (which is thrown about by the “burn it down” crowd). There was no “all religions lead to God” teaching though it is not unknown that Young himself tips in the universalism direction. I did not see sin and evil taken lightly with no judgment to fear.
Third, I did not see nor hear the Bible being belittled or set aside. Though there is a little poke at those who think the living God is trapped within the pages of a Book.
Fourth, I was impressed by the depiction of devastating human pain and the Jesus’ command to love and, yes, forgive. How can a good, loving God plan or allow evil? That question is raised and dealt with satisfactorily (yet, perhaps, not to the satisfaction of all). The movie does away with Christian versions of flippant, superficial forgiveness. Seeing that the resolution to human pain is found in the deeply loving Trinitarian God who suffered with and bore our pain prompted tears throughout the theater.
I imagine there will be many genuine converts to the Christian faith because of this film. I’m content, then, to wait to the final judgment to see if the “burn-it-down” voices are reflecting the truth.
People who have a hard time with The Shack probably have a hard time with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, too. But I could be wrong.