It’s hard to think of a book as significant for religious publishing in recent times as The Shack. I believe a good portion of its success comes from the spiritual hunger that the public face of Christianity has forced so many believers to accept and endure. Many people believe the true cause of Christ and his love has been relegated to the background. Others—including some strong Christians—don’t always see that. But in The Shack, the love and acceptance of God comes back to bear on our human failings, answering not only our personal shortcomings, but our corporate ones as well, as part of this fractured and frustrated movement created in his name.
What most people love about it is what some people hate: it’s a deceptive little nut of a book. One of the things you notice in reading The Shack is that it’s open to interpretation. Much like the Bible. You can read it and interpret it differently by your own emphases and background. That was apparently intentional. Part of the revision process was removing any overt messages that might have taken over the story and made it into a theological argument rather than an engaging experience. The power of this book is certainly due in part to this intentional commitment. Fiction is by nature relational, not propositional, and just as grace is not a theological argument when it’s experienced in relationship, coming to The Shack as a story is intended to be incarnational truth, beyond arguments and words on a page. And however you feel about the writing itself, a lot of people are getting it.
To me, what’s most significant about The Shack is that it is meeting this great hunger for an authentic experience of God’s love, sans Christian “answers.” Many Christians believe they have all the answers and end up building pens around themselves and others, focusing on doctrine and orthodoxy instead of the real point. How many people have been looking for a book to say what they’ve been thinking for so long? How many feel vindicated by a book that points out the failure of church programs to replace personal relationship, that shows the inadequacy of “hating the sin, but loving the sinner,” and that portrays the real, humble love of God that’s bigger than any orthodoxy, right or wrong, or doctrinal superiority. How many have been waiting to hear the truth of God’s love in a way that doesn’t condemn them for it?
Some famous Christian detractors have said that The Shack is not serious enough about how we think of and worship God, one even going so far as to say that we should be “overcome with despair at our own unworthiness before God.” Overcome with despair? Really? And fretting over the too-familiar portrayal of the Trinity in the book, it is not appropriately high enough for The Godhead. Interestingly, the argument takes the same issue those who defend The Shack take: both believe the other side misses the truth of who God is, making real relationship impossible.
As an editor, what I struggle with is the fact that we live in an incredibly diverse world full of different audiences for the almost 400,000 books produced every year. Would those who encountered the truth of God’s love for the first time in The Shack ever have done so without it? I believe that unless you live in an isolated, primarily-Christian environment, you can’t make statements that relegate The Shack to “unnecessary.” In one sense, of course it’s unnecessary. God doesn’t need a fictional story to get his message across. The better question is, Is it of God? Is God using it? And if so, am I in danger of opposing God by speaking out against it? Setting the record straight about differences in theological interpretation is one thing. But to dismiss the book because you quibble with a few points of interpretation? That’s treading dangerously close to the sin of the Pharisees. And I won’t even start with those who condemn it without even having read it.
I’m not trying to defend The Shack. Or maybe, not only The Shack. All creative fiction about God is subject to the possibilities of story. No question, God is not who our creative imaginations make him to be. And yet, it’s only through imagination that some people can even begin to conceive of a God who loves so recklessly, so inappropriately, so unGodlike. At what cost do we hold to our interpretations of creative works? Is it our job to ensure that everyone interprets it “correctly?” Or do we trust love to overrule our limitations and indeed all restrictions on it but the one of our own acceptance? In this light, The Shack poses the ultimate question: Can we accept this inconceivable love or must we build barriers and intellectualizations around it? Any of that is ultimately our own choice to bring to the art, or leave off. As a story, the Bible requires interpretation. Does God’s love transcend the mistakes we make on the way to deeper understanding? And can we ignore the lessons of history when it comes to Christians demanding exclusionary control on orthodox beliefs and the damage that has caused?
I think of the kindergartener in the familiar illustration. He’s coloring and his teacher points out that he can’t really draw God because “No one knows what God looks like.” And the boy goes on drawing. “They will in a minute.”
The boy, the artist, can draw anything. He believes, reaching beyond his limitations. And God will accept him, suffering the little children to come, where his fathers saw only planks and stones.