Pastor friends and church leaders, I know many of you, just like me, hate pop culture Christian movies. One of the reasons I have such distaste for them is it makes me feel like I’m at work. If I wanted to be emotionally attached to a person in a spiritual crisis, then I would have stayed at the office for an extra hour or two. Some of the other reasons that fuel my bane for these subpar movies is they’re: mindlessly predictable, laden with marketing, lacking imagination, perpetuating cliche Christianity, unthought provoking, provide an answer to every question, generally unartistic, without mystery, shot on a shoe string budget and look like it too. There’s no need for me to go on, I know you cringe just like I do when one of your members walks into your office; places the DVD on your desk and says, “I think we need to have a move night at church ….” You get my point. I feel your pain.
However, I THINK, there could be an exception to the rule. If the movie,The Shack is as good as the book, then I believe it will be a hit. Now before you shout me down with anathema’s and cries of heresy I want you to hear me out.
A Few Concessions
I concede it can be interpreted that, William Paul Young, may have unintentionally ventured off into tritheism. Yet botching it on the the Trinity is not an unforgivable mistake. He’s in good company with most of our Sunday school teachers and volunteer youth pastors. What pastor hasn’t had a children’s pastor botch it on the Trinity or even water baptism? I’m not excusing any of this, but lets be honest. The Trinity is difficult.
The Trinity usually ends up being explained by what it’s not. It’s not modalism, arianism, docetism, partialism, tritheism etc. If you’re anything like me, when you try to explain the Trinity, then you end up backpedalling on some of your statements. “Sorry man; scratch that! What I just said was heresy. Well, it’s more like this… No, no, that’s not quite right either.”
If you believe that Young got it wrong on the Trinity I believe you should cut him some slack. At the end of the day it’s difficult to accurately articulate the Trinity in English. I think this puts Young at a huge liability. Am I the only one that gets my homoousios-es, hypostases-es, consubstantial-es, and perichoresis-es mixed up? I know that double “o” in homoousios is important for some reason. Maybe you can remind me in the comments below?
The Trinity is the most difficult Christian doctrine to explain second to none. Which, in my opinion, is awesome because a God that is everywhere-present, all-knowing, and all-powerful doesn’t need to be easily explained. I’m not saying we need to be lax in orthodoxy, but can we give a little grace to the seminary-drop-out janitor that’s attempting to explain the Trinity to his kids?
As absolute truth-loving evangelicals I believe it’s high time for us to start increasing the complexity of our thought processes. We need more than knee-jerk reactions from leaders that cover their ears and shout heresy. This at best is clumsy and at worst destructive. Let’s turn off the hate and look for opportunities. Let’s be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. The other option is getting stuck with lame Christian movies and works of art forever. So in light of this nightmare, come on, lets reason together about a few things…
- Every work that talks about God and Jesus is not a theological treatise. Every Christian writer isn’t writing to reorient and re-anchor the mind to Christian rhetoric, logic and doctrine. Everything is not meant to be a statement of dogma. Young is not looking to undermine any statement of faith. He’s attempting to express how he relates to that statement of faith. He is attempting to put to words his experience with truth. Every agreed upon truth must be given some measure of leniency in interpretation. This interpretation doesn’t have to be solely mental. It can be emotional, even speculative. God has not called us to smother all forms of expression. Demanding that all art toe the line of uniformity, not only destroys artistic expression, but it cuts off all lines of communication with people who think and process differently than us. If we maintain such ridged lines of thought that govern not theology, but art, then the great chasm that exists between evangelicals and the art community will only grow wider. A rhetoric that seeks to answer every question destroys wonder, mystery and awe. Yet this is the very rhetoric that evangelicals demand. This filling of all mental gaps leaves the artist disappointed because their call is not to answer every question, but to lead people to a place that ponders the hugeness and complexity of God. I guess some would says its too risky to ponder the lines of orthodoxy, but a truth that cannot be evaluated or speculated upon is not worthy of the claim of unshakable truth. If we, like Paul, believe that, “For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.”. If we believe this statement, if we believe God’s Word, then why not let’s see where awe and pondering can take us? If the love-struck artist steps into error, then why not meet him with loving correction, rather than cries of anathema’s and heresy. Let save those cries for liberal theologians.
- We must also understand that it’s not fitting to evaluate one genre of literature with another. There’s no need to look any further than the Bible itself. The truth of the Psalms is that God’s a big enough God to handle our soulful expression and our emotional reactions to truth. We don’t take King David’s, “Why have your forsaken me’s” and his “I’m gonna smash their teeth with rocks” statements and form doctrines out of them. Certainly todays rigid thinking evangelicals would not allow these statements in the Bible. If these statements were written today. David would be another common heretic. These so called blasphemy’s would be ascribed to the all wicked emotions! Thankfully God is not so unaccommodating. Genre is important. If theologian Jurgen Moltmann wants to attack the orthodox view of the Trinity, then excoriate him with line upon line and precept upon precept, and may the conversation be fierce and weighty. If an artist seeks to express and imagine, through allegory, how the Trinity can help a person process grief and heal the heart, then it’s not fair to attack the artist with the same vigor and method as the theologian. It’s like the old adage, “Your comparing apples to oranges.” Not only is this process unfitting, but it is also ineffective. Generally, when art is wrong philosophically, then the best practice is not attacking art with precept. Our non congruent criticisms makes us look petty. Heretical art, if that is what you consider The Shack, can only be defeated by more powerful expressions of art that are more closely rooted in truth. When we use this form of intellectual dishonesty, we look irrelevant, small minded and petty. How much longer do we need to loose in the market place of ideas before we change our strategy?
- We also must understand that every Christian work is not a commentary on the full counsel of God. There was one blog I was reading that gave a litany of criticisms against the Shack, but there were two that stuck out to me. One, it doesn’t take sin and repentance seriously. Two, there was not a full portrayal and explanation of judgement. For crying out loud, the novel’s about grief and suffering. Pastors think about our critics in the pew. Every time I preach on love, someone reminds me, “What about judgement, pastor?” If I preach on judgement, then I’m questioned on, “Where’s the love?” If we preach on grace, then “Where’s the law?” If we preach on law, then, “Where’s the grace?” We must keep in mind that the human intellect only has the capacity to think conceptually about one thing at a time. (The only exception would be when arguing with your wife. At that point her IQ jumps 100 points and all bets are off.) We must understand that at any moment when we focus on one issue or topic, it’s at the neglect of another. Only God is able to see and think about a whole matrix of ideas, processing them in balance and keeping them in perfect symmetry. In light of this one must operate under the assumption that there’s always a counter balance to the writers ideas. If Randy Alcorn writes about heaven, then it can’t be assumed that he doesn’t believe in hell. On the contrary it must be assumed that if he believes there is a heaven, then he also believes there’s a hell, unless we hear otherwise. It’s not intellectually honest to declare a work is unbiblical by referring to the counter balance of the ideas that are not represented in the book especially if the author claims to be writing fiction. I learned from hermeneutics that one can’t make an argument from silence. I would argue this holds true while attempting to form a theology from a fiction novel. We should not take a passage out of its intended context. If a passage is not used in context, then that passage doesn’t prove anything. I think this is also a fair standard to hold Young and The Shack to as well.
- We must stop assuming the worst and filling in the gaps with the negative. Many articles and blogs assume Young believes in universalism just because he doesn’t explicitly say that he doesn’t believe in universalism. This assumes the worse. Anywhere there’s a gap, there’s a heresy projected in that gap. If you want to know what a person believes, then check out their other words and works. For example, Young was interviewed by Christianity Today by Mark Galli in March 4, 2013, and he was asked directly about this. Listen to his response.
“One question I get, of course, is, “Are you a universalist?” I’m not, because I don’t think you can make that step doctrinally. I don’t think Scripture is that obvious. There is this respect for the human creation’s ability to say no. God will not force love. And we still have to choose to be reconciled. But Colossians says that’s what we are to be praying for, that everything gets reconciled back to him.”
I’m just saying that a direct statement about what he believes about doctrine is a better source for his beliefs than an assumption formed from a non-statement in a novel about a different topic. When one makes a projection like this and then spreads the rumor that Young is a heretic, then that person is guilty of the sin of slander. If a person has read the book, then it’s obvious that he is giving an artistic interpretation of his experience with this doctrine. It’s not his intention or objective to redefine this or any other doctrine. Even if you don’t agree with his method, if you know it’s not his intention to spread the false doctrine, then maybe we can reason together about some opportunities this movie will give us to advance the gospel if we act shrewdly. I like how one writer put it, “Get Your Theology From the Bible and Enjoy ‘The Shack’.”
In the next few blogs I’m going to look at the virtues of The Shack and Do’s and Don’ts for Church Leaders in how we respond to it, and how we can optimize the opportunities that this movie will provide for us.
1. Matthew 10:16
2. 2 Corinthians 13:8