Thinking Out Loud

March 12, 2017

“…The arts should be evaluated artistically, not just theologically.”

Filed under: books, Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:13 am

On Friday, Internet Monk ran two articles back-to-back by the site’s founder, the late Michael Spencer. The subject was The Shack, both the movie and the book, though Spencer did not live to see the movie. I have reproduced the second of the two articles here because it deals with some general principles, but for added context, I encourage you to read both, which you may do so at this link: Fridays with Michael Spencer…On “The Shack” but for those who choose not to click, here is the second part.

Difficult Concept Workshop: Repeat After Me…”The Shack Is A Story”

by Michael Spencer

I just finished doing another interview about my writing on The Shack. My posts on The Shack have attracted a lot of readers, which is good, because if nothing else, The Shack is a phenomenon that needs to be discussed and better understood.

It seems that a willingness to denounce The Shack has become the latest indicator of orthodoxy among those evangelicals who are keeping an eye on the rest of us. It’s a lot less trouble than checking out someone’s views on limited atonement, that’s for sure.

Hear me loud and clear: it’s every pastor and Christian’s duty to speak up if they feel The Shack is spiritually harmful. I’d only add one point: it’s equally the right of those who find The Shack helpful to say so.

Obviously, The Shack isn’t for everyone. Like a lot of Christian fiction, it has a certain amount of gawky awkwardness. No one will ever call William Young a skilled wordsmith. I wouldn’t teach The Shack in a theology class, even though I find Young’s willingness to explore the Trinity commendable and personally helpful.

(Oh… I probably would use The Shack to discuss whether the Trinity is a hierarchy, a belief that critics of The Shack seem to hold as essential.)

It’s the presentation of God in The Shack that creates the controversy with the critics and the buzz with the fans, but the longer I’ve talked about this story with other Christians, I have to wonder if all the focus on Young’s “Trinity” isn’t missing the larger point of the book- a point that many theological watchblogs don’t seem to see at all.

The Shack is a pilgrimage. It’s an allegorical account of one person’s history with God; a history deeply affected by the theme of “The Great Sadness.” It’s a journey, and overlooking what’s going on in Mack’s journey is a certain prescription of seeing The Shack as a failed critique of Knowing God.

I’ve come to believe that the most significant reason for The Shack’s early success- certainly the reason I picked it up- is the endorsement from Eugene Peterson on the cover, an endorsement where Peterson refers to Young’s book as another “Pilgrim’s Progress.” That’s not a random compliment.

The Knights of Reformed Orthodoxy like to talk about Pilgrim’s Progress as if it is Calvin’s Institutes made into a movie. In reality, Bunyan’s Book is a personal pilgrimage, one that illustrated his version of Christian experience and retold his own experiences.

Even Spurgeon realized that Bunyan’s theology wasn’t completely dependable. The loss of the “burden” comes after a long search for relief, a storyline that reflected Bunyan’s own struggles with assurance and obsessive subjectivity. Few pastors today would endorse a version of the Gospel that left people wandering in advanced states of conviction, unable to find any way to receive forgiveness. Bunyan’s particular personality has too much influence on his presentation of belief and assurance.

But what Bunyan does illustrate is valuable in a manner much different than a theological outline. He tells the story of a journey from guilt to forgiveness, the confrontation with worldly powers, spiritual conflict, imperfect fellow believers and the inertia and resistance within ourselves. We can measure Bunyan’s book by measurements of correct theology, but I believe most of us know that this isn’t the proper measurement for Pilgrim’s Progress. We should measure it as a presentation of one Christian’s life.

It’s a story of a journey.

The same could be said of many other books. Take C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. It’s the journey of grieving the death of a spouse. Along the way, God’s appearances are all over the map because the “pilgrim” is moving in his journey through “the Great Sadness.”

Be clear: I agree with Ben Witherington III that Young’s book could use a theological revision, but I believe his adventurous exploration of God’s character is set against “the Great Sadness,” not “the Great Theological Examination.” When someone analyzes The Shack and finds 13 major heresies, I’d suggest you look very closely at the list. Some are legitimate concerns. Some are brutal victims of context and some are not heresies at all, but the critic’s discomfort with the medium.

Young is talking about a God who draws you out of your hiding place. If I understand Young’s own journey, this is the primary image in the book: A God who invites you and meets in the the very place where “the Great Sadness” entered your experience in a way that you understand the love that comes to you from the Trinity.

This journey is what should capture the reader. In one sense, The Shack is a bit of Rorschach test, and if you put it in front of someone and what they see is “emerging church heresy!” and “God is a black woman,” then you’ve learned what that person was most looking for in the book: a familiar and historically orthodox affirmation of God and a similar affirmation of who are the good guys.

But what about those who look at the book and see Mack’s journey? The Great Sadness? The God who draws you out and meets you in the place of your greatest loss? What if that reader sees the theological awkwardness and occasional imprecision, but sees those problems in balance alongside Mack’s journey to self-forgiveness, resolution and renewed intimacy with God? Maybe that’s why so many people who know good theology STILL like The Shack?

There is enough in The Shack to give all of us plenty to blog about, so don’t expect posts to end anytime soon. But I’m wondering if anyone is understanding that The Shack isn’t selling because there’s such a hunger for theological junk food. No, there’s a hunger for someone to compellingly narrate the central mystery of God, the Trinity. There’s a hunger for a God who is reconciling toward those who have believed and then turned away because they can no longer understand a God who allowed “The Great Sadness.” There is a hunger for a God who comes into our life story and walks with us to the places that are the most hurtful.

In other words, the theological fact checkers are probably missing what is so appealing to readers of The Shack, even as they see some crimes in progress. It is a contemporary Pilgrim’s Progress, but the pilgrim is a not a 17th century puritan, but a 21st century evangelical. The burden isn’t sin, but the hurtful events of the past. The journey is not the way to heaven, but the way back to believing in a God of goodness, kindness and love.

If Paul Young writes a book of theology, it should be better than The Shack. But if he writes his story, it is The Shack. I don’t buy it all, and most people I’ve talked to don’t either. But that’s not the point. It’s Young’s journey that he’s recounting and we’re reading, and that’s how we’re reading it: a story.

Note to writers: When it comes to fiction, don’t listen to the critics who want to take you down for your theology. Tell the story that’s in you, whether it passes the orthodoxy test or not. This isn’t Puritan Massachusetts yet. WRITE THE STORY. The people who read stories as theology lectures are NEVER going to approve.  -M.S.


Something we rarely do here is close comments; but if you have one, it is better posted at the original source.

The post title here is a quote from the first part of what ran Friday. I would have like to have run both, but it’s a best practice to send them the internet traffic.

November 13, 2012

The Shack’s Paul Young Returns with Cross Roads

The original distribution target for The Shack was about 15 copies. So it’s not surprising that million-copy-selling author Paul Young refers to Cross Roads as the first novel he intentionally wrote.

While The Shack took Paul Young into some places that other Christian novels would never reach and started all manner of conversations, the fact remains that the response from some Evangelicals and the Reformed community in particular was less than enthusiastic. I would like to say that Cross Roads clears up all the misconceptions and establishes that Young is definitely not a heretic in their eyes, but much of the doctrinal language of The Shack continues in Cross Roads, though I phrase it that way because this is often a war of words, not theology.

The critics are waiting in the wings for enough information about the book to leak out so they might launch their attack without actually buying a copy, particulars I’m not going to oblige them with here. Frankly, I’m drawn to Young’s picture of a loving God — regardless of the size, shape, age or gender in which he prefers to clothe any member of The Trinity — and would have no problem approving him to teach Sunday School at my church, a proposition that no doubt causes his detractors to shudder.

At the end of the day Cross Roads is a work of fiction, with a very contrived premise or two, but no more extreme than James Rubart’s Soul’s Gate which we reviewed here a few days back. It is well-written, technically accurate, and resolves plot loose ends.  It’s a book about life, and how some people live it, and what is left when life suddenly ends. It contains various aspects of the gospel, and isn’t afraid to wade into doctrinal issues that concern us as ‘church people.’

Nonetheless, I would say about this book what I said about Shack, and that is its greatest value is in giving the book to spiritual outsiders for the purpose of starting conversations; it’s not the last word on systematic theology.

The medical element of the book does not weigh it down; in fact the book is very lighthearted in a couple of places, including one scene that can only be described as comedic. The lead character is delineated vividly in the opening chapters; you cannot help but have opinions about Anthony Spencer. The author isn’t afraid to introduce new subplots or complications in the last quarter. Some Biblical passages are alluded to, at other points you get chapter and verse. The work validates that Young is a good writer and certainly deserving of the success which changed his life so dramatically a few years ago.

If you’re one of the eighteen million people who purchased The Shack you don’t need to think twice about also getting a copy of Cross Roads.

Cross Roads is in release worldwide in hardcover ($24.99 US) on the FaithWords imprint of Hachette Book Group. A copy was provided to Thinking Out Loud through Speakeasy, an awesome social media book promotion agency. The term “Sunday School” used above isn’t literal — we don’t have one — I’m referring to leading a Children’s ministry small group.

Learn more: The author discusses the book in this YouTube video.

June 16, 2010

Wednesday Link List

Seems like only about seven days since we did the last Wednesday Link List.   Funny that…   But just think, if you read all these linked items you will be as wise as I…


  • Lots of family-related stuff this week, like this one:  Jason Salamun contrasts the American Dream with what could be called the Missional Dream in a piece titled, Don’t Focus on Your Family.  (Great Donald Miller story at the end, too.)
  • Krista Bremer gives her 10-year daughter a choice between the Western clothing she grew up with, and the Islamic costume that is part of her husband’s culture.   The girl chooses to wear a headscarf.  This is a long article, but one I think parents — especially moms — will want to read; as well as anyone in a ‘mixed’ marriage who has or is planning to have children.
  • Jason Wert can’t watch World Cup Soccer without thinking of hundreds of women being raped.   Yes you read that right.   But his short article also shows this isn’t just something happening half a world away; it’s true of the Superbowl as well.   Check this out.
  • If you’re a parent, you might also want to check out this 5-minute video about the commercialization of our kids over at Vitamin Z.
  • But if you want to take the spirit of that video and really get into this topic in depth, you need to check out an article from the June issue of Catholic World Report, 10 Ways the Media Has Failed to Protect Kids.
  • The 17-year old daughter of Naked Pastor David Hayward is going to have a different take on church, right?   Check out this excellent guest post by Casile.
  • One more parenting link, which you’ll relate to if your kids are worriers; a short article at Canada’s Christian Week.
  • Michael Spencer’s widow, Denise, gets brutally honest about her own suffering and pain in dealing with Michael’s physical decay and death at Internet Monk.
  • Here’s something you might relate to — the blogger at Upwrite encounters some people doing coffee shop evangelism, and realizes that perhaps God sometimes sends these people to minister to the saved as well as the unsaved.
  • If your taste in Christian music is toward the heavier sounding bands, you might want to get the free 15-song “Summer Soundtrack” from Tooth and Nail Records, which includes Children 18:3, The Almost, The Letter Black, Sent By Ravens, Write This Down, and more.
  • Speaking of music, here’s an indie artist from Canada:  To Tell (aka Zach Havens in the tradition of Owl City, though I think Zach was there first!)  Give a listen to the song “The Problem” from his new album at this MySpace page.
  • Thomas Nelson, the (somewhat) Christian publisher, has done a book about beer.   Seriously.    Tim Challies reviews the brew book so you don’t have to read it.   Better him than me.
  • USAToday Religion doesn’t think this is a very good job market for pastors.
  • Meanwhile, Thom Rainer writes a First Person piece about seven mistakes he made in ministry.  (Number four is about failing to “love the community where I live.”   I know some pastors who see their present assignment as a short stop on the way to somewhere else.)
  • On my other blog, Christianity 201, I pay a second visit to an online church service — that’s a different animal from a podcast or sermon download — at North Point.
  • In case you missed it, David Quinn at Passion Australia has that “trinity diagram” that does the best job of wrapping up a tough concept into a small space.   Click on the image to see it full size, and then save and send it to your friends.
  • Staying with the church theme, David Fitch at Reclaiming the Mission has embedded a video with Fr. Robert Barron on the state of empty churches in Europe and beyond.
  • If you live in the Northeast and have done the drive to Florida down I-75, you’ve seen the giant King of Kings statue at Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio; between Dayton and Cincinnati.   Well, this week the statue was struck by lightning and it’s no longer there.  (The statue, had just received a makeover back in March.)
  • Pete Wilson guests at Michael Hyatt’s leadership blog with Four Leadership Lessons he learned from Nashville’s “1,000 Year Flood.”
  • Note to other bloggers:  If you get a comment that begins, “If I had a penny…” or ends “you’ve done it again.  Incredible article;” don’t bother approving it.   The comments all link back to a number of Blogspot blogs containing only one post — always March, 2010 — with a rather rambling article.
  • Our upper cartoon is from ASBO Jesus by Jon Birch in England, where this sort of road sign warns of hazards up ahead.   Jon’s place was recently burglarized and he lost all his cartoons, animations and music.  Thanks to cloud computing, at least the blog survives, but it sounds like that was a very small part of the whole.
  • Our lower cartoon is from Preacher’s Kid by David Ayers at Baptist Press.

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