The Shack has done it again. William Paul Young’s story about a man who spends a weekend with three personages of God has raised the cry of heresy anew, this time for the film adaptation of his 2007 novel. My friends and I, as any good Christian millennials should, have discussed the issues of heretical content at length. Some tossed about the terms “allegory,” “metaphor” and, my personal favorite, “didactic fiction.” My English teacher brain immediately perked up to these terms. After much contemplation, close reading and review of what these terms actually mean in the context of fictional works, I’ve come to a few conclusions.
Much of what is called heresy in The Shack is contingent on the assumption that the author holds a belief that God is an African American woman, the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman and that Jesus’ death on the cross and defeat of sin absolves every sinner outright. The most important point to make at the outset is that this is not, nor does it pretend to be, a teaching text on the idea of theodicy. This is a work of fiction born from the imagination of one individual. Perhaps the problem lies with the tendency to read fiction as sacred text. Another concerning notion brought up here is the very dangerous act of assigning motive or agenda to the author of a work of fiction.
One of the most famous works of Christian allegorical fiction is C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis very obviously creates a story that parallels our own: a perfect world created by a powerful and loving creator destroyed by the ones who inhabited it and in desperate need of a savior to bring redemption. Allegory is a beautiful way to reach a deeper understanding of difficult concepts. The Shack presents this in a way that is unconventional, but just like Lewis and his narrative, doesn’t call it doctrine. It’s fiction. There are representations of familiar characters, and that is just what they are: representations. When we begin to read fiction as inerrant truth, we begin to cloud our own ideas of what creativity is.
By definition, metaphor is an expression of a person or object by referring to something that is considered to possess similar characteristics. A metaphor is a comparison between two or more things by using descriptive language and imagery. The eponymous shack is the big metaphor in Young’s novel. The shack is a place that Mack, the protagonist, is asked to visit. The shack isn’t a place Mack wants to go. The shack is where death, regret, violence, anger and pain live. But when he arrives, he is greeted by the presence of God, and things look a little different. I don’t know about you, but this sounds a whole lot like some of my experiences with the emotional places God invites me to visit in order to have a real and raw encounter with Him.
This one is dangerous. I’ve seen at least one article floating around my Christian circle that labels Young’s work thusly. Didactic fiction comes full of motive, agenda and bias. The didactic text is a teaching text. It’s loaded with lessons and applications. Think Aesop’s Fables and Pilgrim’s Progress. John Bunyan famously created his work to be a teaching text that could be consumed by every man. At the beginning of his book, Bunyan includes an “apology” to explain his actions and motives. This letter to the reader ends with a plea to read with “heart and head together.” It shows the desire on Bunyan’s part for his reader to learn. Clear intention is introduced before the fiction even starts. We can assign motive to Bunyan because Bunyan was transparent with his motive for writing such a piece. Young never did this.
The argument I’ve heard most often about Young’s work is that he is a universalist trying to make universalism look like real theology. Universalism is the belief that when Christ went to the cross, the need for judgment and eternal punishment went out the window. Since Christ died, everyone is reconciled, and no one goes on to be eternally separated from God. According to Young’s friend Wade Burleson, in a post published on Young’s own website, Young’s universalism is much more of a “hopeful” one: “Paul Young is ‘hopeful’ that the fire of God’s love will eventually and effectually persuade every sinner of God’s love in Christ.” That doesn’t sound like radical universalism to me. If all who profess belief in Jesus as savior don’t hope that the fire of God’s love will persuade every sinner to know Him, then we have no business calling ourselves followers. We have no business evangelizing. In fact, if we aren’t certain that the fire of God’s love is an incomparable, transformative force, then we have no business crediting it with changing our own hearts.
Finding God in Text
I like to ask my students a simple question after we finish a text in class: “Where is God?” I believe that every piece of art, no matter the walk of the artist, displays evidence of God. Humanity as a whole has traces of Eden that can’t be erased. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are always yearning for the days before we were cast out, and truly, that yearning is expressed in the words of a writer or the brushstrokes of a painter. If we aren’t asking ourselves this question about all works of literature, we’re missing really beautiful pictures of our kind Father. The Shack, for me, is all about the presence of God and what it does to make things new.
The shack was the place where a little girl spent her last terrifying hours on earth. Her father crossed the threshold of this place of woe and found redemption. The presence of God in that place transformed it. The physical state of the place, the structural integrity and the aesthetic features themselves changed before the all-consuming presence of the Creator of Worlds. The very floorboards, nails and studs reflected His presence.
What a picture of the transformative power of our God. The places God invites us to wrestle with Him are like this. They are places where shame is kept, where anger is kept, where secrets and regret are kept. The doors of these places are locked and unwelcoming. But these are the places where He meets us and shows us immense grace. The shack is my own heart.
If we change our habits in consuming fiction, searching for God instead of searching for the faults of the sinful writer, how much more might we encounter God in places of darkness? We were created to search for Him. We were created to crave Him. He can be found. He desires to be found.
Brittany Odom is a high school English teacher at a Christian school in South Carolina. She is a lover of Jesus, coffee, books, and conversations with friends involving those subjects. She blogs at brittanywriteswords.wordpress.