Shackled

Several years ago my wife and I got involved in an evangelistic outreach program centered on The Jesus Film. We went door-to-door in some cookie-cutter neighborhood and invited people to accept a free VHS copy of the movie about Jesus and then take a short postcard survey that they could send in postage paid. It was no-nonsense, no-pressure evangelism that met a tiny part of my obligation as a Christian to go into all the world and spread the gospel message. And who the heck turns down a free movie?!

Several years later, Mel Gibson unleashed The Passion of the Christ and the church responded by unleashing yet another worldwide evangelistic campaign centered on a media event. The movie was shown in churches, multiplexes were rented out and free screenings were offered, and altar calls often followed where people could respond to the gospel and give their lives to Jesus.

At that time I was systematically removing myself from all things church or evangelism related. The marketing of the gospel was always something that rubbed me the wrong way, and I simply couldn’t stand to be a foot soldier any longer. As a Christian, I found myself more willing and able to spread the message of Jesus through the life I lived and the conversations I had with people I took the time to befriend and hang out with. The crowd mentality never suited me much. I did, however, go see the movie on opening night with a friend. Although the constant slo-mo was a bit much, the story was told with an eye for cinematic flair, and it was moving in a sentimental sort of way. Without any concrete figures at my fingertips, I can probably claim with some accuracy that many people responded to the message of the film and committed their lives to Jesus.

These types of media events have been spawning successful evangelistic outreaches for many years and I’m sure they will continue to do so, for there’s nothing quite as stirring as a well-made piece of entertainment that is something more than entertainment, if you catch my drift. And jumping on these sorts of bandwagons is easy to do; the work has been done, the project completed, and all that is left is for the church to put its stamp of approval on it and get the word out so that the masses will come and be exposed and changed, all through the power of God moving through the medium.

The latest event isn’t a movie but rather a book (though it will soon be a movie, I’m sure). It’s called The Shack and I first heard about it over at Kathy’s blog. The book is apparently all the rage among those in the Emergent church movement (“conversation” for the purists) and sports the endorsement of Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message, and highly-respected Christian recording artist Michael W. Smith. And, like the media events that preceded it, The Shack is being heavily marketed; through The Missy Project, Christians are being encouraged to spread the word.

The story is about a man named Mack, seminary-trained though a bit lukewarm in the faith department, whose daughter Missy is kidnapped (by serial kid-snatcher dubbed the “Little Ladykiller”) and murdered in a dilapidated shack buried in the heart of mountainous Oregon. Naturally, Mack’s world is turned upside down; there’s guilt, shame, anger and resentment in heavy doses, all burying themselves deep in Mack’s mind and collectively labeled The Great Sadness. Then, one fateful, icy day, Mack gets a note in his mailbox from “Papa” (his wife’s term of affection for God) inviting him to return to the cabin, for he’s been missed. He decides to go, and throughout the rest of the book comes literally face to face-face-face with a trinity unlike any you’ve ever thought existed.

The book isn’t a literary masterpiece, but then it’s probably not meant to be; it reads like an overly simplistic, hold-your-hand-every-step-of-the-way instruction manual meant to appeal to readers at nearly every level. The discussions between Mack and the various versions of God he meets are deeply philosophical at times, sometimes are extremely convoluted, too simple-minded and full of “golly! gosh!” empty moments at others, and might be a bit much to swallow for the average reader. There are a couple of discussions about fractals that seem to be ill-placed and needlessly complicated, and a scene late in the book where Mack partakes in a “festival of friends” reaches a level of fantasy that, while interesting and beautifully described, goes further and deeper than the book generally dares to go and feels clunky.

But I imagine that meeting God, all three of them, in the flesh for the first time would be anything but a routine experience. Nor would every encounter or conversation be exactly like the last. And the reader gets a feel of that in The Shack. Overall, this is no better than most of the tripe you can see ad nauseum on the Lifetime or Hallmark channels. It’s simple, over-explained, and a tear-jerker. Compared to your average fiction novel, it’s not great.

But there’s so much more here, for we are dealing with God, at the book is an earnest attempt to get people to see God in a new, more acceptable light. For many, this book is more than fiction; it’s truth – with a capital T – and requires more from the reader than simply an emotional response. One is expected to wrestle with the God presented and determine how the author’s vision of God and the gospel message meshes with one’s own. And, of course, this type of narrative leads to controversy. The author, William Paul Young, has been labeled a Universalist at best, a heretic at worst, but has dealt with the accusations in a conversational and unique way on his blog that will give you a glimpse into the nature of The Shack and the impact it is making.

Kathy includes some quotes from the book on her blog, but I wanted to share a couple that got me thinking. In one scene, Mack is talking with Sarayu, The Shack‘s personification of the Holy Spirit, about the general nature of love, and his love for his children specifically:

“But what about when they do not behave, or they make choices other than those you would want them to make, or they are just belligerent and rude? What about when they embarrass you in front of others? How does that affect your love for them?”

Mack responded slowly and deliberately. “It doesn’t, really.” He knew that what he was saying was true, even if Katie [Mack’s daughter who is distant since the death of her sister] didn’t believe it sometimes. “I admit that it does affect me and sometimes I get embarrassed or angry, but even when they act badly, they are still my son or my daughter, they are still Josh or Kate, and they will be forever. What they do might affect my pride, but not my love for them.”

She sat back, beaming. “You are wise in the ways of real love, Mackenzie. So many people believe that it is love that grows, but it is the knowing that grows and love simply expands to contain it. Love is just the skin of knowing . . .”

Love is just the skin of knowing. That’s a powerful image, indeed.

Another scene, oddly enough involving the Holy Spirit, paints an interesting picture of how God communicates to his believers:

“Will I always be able to see you or hear you like I do now, even if I’m back home?”

Sarayu smiled. “Mackenzie, you can always talk to me and I will always be with you, whether you sense my presence or not.”

“I know that now, but how will I hear you?”

“You will learn to hear my thoughts in yours, Mackenzie,” she reassured him.

“Will it be clear? What if I confuse you with another voice? What if I make a mistake?”

Sarayu laughed, the sound like tumbling water, only set to music. “Of course you will make mistakes; everybody makes mistakes, but you will begin to better recognize my voice as we continue to grow in our relationship.”

This is something that has never made sense to me. Even as I was living the life of a committed Christian, I never felt that I had any kind of two-way communication with God. There was plenty of one-way radio chatter, but my spotter never seemed to be paying any attention. (Sorry. I’m watching NASCAR as I write and the analogy presented itself quite spontaneously. Hey! Maybe that was the Spirit?!)

And here is where the book becomes more than just another book about Christian spirituality. There’s not much in here that hasn’t been said before, and in ways that are more intellectually challenging, but this book is an experiential read and meant to incite a thoughtful response. I want so bad for the story to be true. For God to be exactly like Papa and Jesus and Sarayu and for the grace to win out and for the madness of the world to somehow make sense in the long run. But there are things that are hard to swallow even when dunked in sugar and honey. The Shack is a nice snack, but not the meat I was expecting.

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10 thoughts on “Shackled

  1. These evangelical media promotions seem to have a great way of backfiring, like the racist overkill of “Passion of the Christ” or that exercise in emotional abuse “Jesus Camp.”

  2. Tysdaddy,

    I myself have given up reading “Christian” books. I prefer to let my imagination and questioning run rampant when readying through the Bible.

    I too have participated in “Evangelical” outreaches and for the first couple of years I did them enthusiastically. Until I graduated school @ 35 and get a job (I use to be on welfare, two kids—you know the stereotype) so I could not participate in the A.M. street gatherings held all over New York City. So I decided to do follow up calls from the cards people filled out after I arrived home from work. What an eye-opener. 95% of the people who filled out the cards were from a half-way house run by a ministry participating in the outreach. They filled out the cards so the “people who were ministering in the streets wouldn’t feel bad.” The other three percent only filled out the cards so they would be left alone while they ate their lunch outside. The remaining were false names and telephone numbers made up on the spot.

    When I called my then church’s office and told them something was very wrong, the response was like, “pass the butter, please.” After thinking about that incident for a couple of years, I realized that my “witness was how I lived my life.” That was proven true to me when one day on the Subway, a gentlemen who I had come to see daily because we left at the same time everyday, asked me, “Tell me how does Jesus help you live your life.” I was stunned because I didn’t have my bible out or any “religious” material on my lap. He then proceeded to tell me, “I know you believe in Jesus because you look different from other people. “ Now I thought, “This is the worse pick-up line I’ve heard in a looonnngggg time. There have been other incidents like that.

    If a person is looking for Truth, then no matter what he may stumble upon on his/her journey, he will not settle for anything less. In the King James Version the word, Truth, is translated from the Aramaic, 27 times, True, 20 times. We always find what we are looking for. If it’s ugliness then even in the midst of beauty we will focus on ugly.

    I saw the Passion of the Christ, about five/six times in the theater and I took two different people to see that moving, thinking it was the right thing to do to “save their souls.” Wrong!! What it did was give them a feast of gore that they cringed at. They weren’t ready for it. Manipulation does not work. Jesus didn’t use tricks to get people to follow Him. That’s why the same folks that called out Hosanna in the Highest upon His arrival in Jerusalem cried out Crucify Him the next day, and those folks are “Us”.

    In Jesus’ own words when He told the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus,

    “Then the rich man said, ‘Please, Father Abraham, at least send him to my father’s home. For I have five brothers, and I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment.’ “But Abraham said, ‘Moses and the prophets have warned them. Your brothers can read what they wrote.’ “The rich man replied, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent of their sins and turn to God.’ “But Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even if someone rises from the dead.'”
    (Luke 16:27-31 NLT)

    Since Jesus, Himself, came back from the dead folks are not going to believe Him or His disciples/representatives on earth no matter how many movies, books, evangelical meetings, folks walking on water, etc. etc.

    The lifestyles of Believers are what people will read, not our pamphlets, books and movies.

    Something I heard years ago, “Your actions are so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

    All the Best

    Prityinbrown

  3. Oops! In my response I wrote, “In the King James Version the word, Truth, is translated from the Aramaic, 27 times, True, 20 times. ”

    There is something VERY BIG missing, Yikes!! It should read: In the Gosopel of John, the King James Version, the word, Truth, is translated from the Aramic, 27 times …”

    Sorry ’bout that

  4. You’ve been busy since I was gone!

    This was my life, for so long. We were always being shown Rapture movies, designed, I think, to scare us into always choosing the narrow path, because who wants to get left behind? I realize that isn’t the thrust of this book. I am skeptical, still, I think, of people who can speak for god or as god or the holy spirit or whomever. I have a lot of opinions about these issues, few of them uncontroversial.

    I will skip the book, but I enjoyed your take on it.

  5. Not my cup of tea so I won’t read it. Not sure I’d see the movie, either. I have never seen Passion of Christ. I own the DVD but it sits on the shelf, still shrink wrapped. One day I’ll watch it, on my terms.

  6. This book was a VERY GREAT read, if u open your mind up to it and think about the real life struggles that we too face. I couldn’t put the book down. It has truly changed my outlook on how the trinty plays a role in everything that IS!!!!

  7. I am always learning something new about you, my friend.

    I read The Shack and had an interesting discussion with a perfect stranger about it at the coffee shop. Though it is, as you say, simplistic, I enjoyed thinking of the Holy Trinity as so tangible, loving, and approachable. Though it didn’t ultimately change my life, it gave me an interesting diversion for a time.

    I may read it again at some point, when life is handing me more than I deserve.

    Peace – D

    (Happy New Year)

  8. I just finished listening to “The Shack” yesterday. I did a quick search in Google Reader to see if any of those I follow had commented on it in the past. I was excited to see you had.

    I needed this book. I specifically needed the simplicity of it. The place I have been lately was not going to entertain some heavy theological read. I would not have had ears to hear.

    I learned more about love and relationship in this story than I have in a years worth of Sunday teachings. Not because the teachings didn’t contain such lessons and truth but because I have been too wrapped up to hear them.

    I don’t know. I think occasionally that a cut of porterhouse might just be disguised underneath all that syrup. – Best to you.

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