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.