A POSITIVE VIEW
According to the Calvinist Ryan Couch:
Michael Newnham [ also a Calvinist and host] of the Phoenix Preacher recently interviewed Tom Stipe, a Calvary Chapel Pastor with whom I deeply respect. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tom at the NWPC and what a privilege that was. Tom is intelligent, funny, and humble. Three things that pastors typically aren’t…wait I’m a pastor. Tom is a great man and a voice that I wish more men in our movement would tune in to…I’ve included [the interview hosted by Michael Newnham of the Phoenix Preacher (PP) [about The Shack] below…
Although many Calvinists are as opposed to and critical of The Shack as I am, in the interest of full disclosure I felt it best to identify both Couch and Newnham as Calvinists. I seriously doubt that Tom Stipe is a Calvinist and it is his views of The Shack that will be contrasted with my views. In his interview-introduction, Michael Newnham said:
Tom Stipe is the pastor of Crossroads Church in Denver CO. He has an incredible resume, having been a vital part of the birth of both the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard movements. He and his wife Maryellen have been used of God for over thirty years to minister the saving, healing grace of Jesus Christ all over the world. We in the PP family are honored to call them friends in the truest sense of the word. I asked Tom for a few minutes to talk about “The Shack” and why he invited Paul Young to speak at his church. You will hear the heart of a true pastor in his answers…
PP: Why Paul Young and why now?
TS: I initially read The Shack after my friend Bill Ritchie recommended it to me. I have always been interested in ways that the arts, music and literature can be used to present the truths of the Gospel, so I was intrigued to read the novel that my friend was enthused about. I was not disappointed; in fact I was also captivated by the writer’s easy style and profound content and found the book hard to put down. As a singer and songwriter for years I had found that story songs were the most effective way for me to communicate my faith when performing in public. So, it was not surprising that The Shack held a special appeal for me. It captured my attention because I immediately recognized its value as a modern day parable.
If someone were to ask me to draw a picture of the Trinity I would not know where to begin. Yet, Paul Young in The Shack presented through words an open door to me that allowed me to think about what it might be like to be behind the proverbial veil where God can be approached and interacted with. The idea of having a weekend retreat with the Trinity with all my own questions, doubts, frustrations and fears was frightening, intriguing and entertaining all at the same time. I enjoyed what I experienced as I was challenged and encouraged by the content of The Shack. I wanted the people of my church to have a chance to share the experience and as Bill had done to me, I suggested that many of them read the novel.
The idea of having William Paul Young as a speaker to our congregation came as I heard over and over again how the book was being used as a catalyst for deep personal ministry in many individual’s lives. One day after hearing of yet another person who was ministered to by the book I decided to pick up the phone and find out a little more about Mr. Young. Paul Young was unexpectedly accessible and it did not take long to become better acquainted with the man behind the book. I was amazed to hear the background and context of The Shack, the story behind the story was an equally edifying account of the work of God. As I was blessed by knowing Young I wanted more people to hear the story behind the story in this extraordinary man’s life. From years of experience I know the value behind a well-chosen personal testimony in church life and so I invited Paul Young to come and share his at our church.
PP: What was the response in your church?
TS: First I want to clarify that I asked Paul Young to come and talk about his book and give his testimony, which he did. I did not ask him to bring a bible study or a lecture. I was reminded of the Jesus Movement days when we would have people tell their stories during the worship service and people would be deeply moved by personal testimonies. After Paul shared his vivid story in our church it triggered a unique and profound time of ministry of the Holy Spirit accompanied by prayer. As the service was drawing to a close we invited anyone who desired to receive more ministry to stay a little longer and be prayed for. When the service was dismissed a few people filed out but a majority of the people chose to stay and it took only minutes before God began working in our midst. Without any prompting on our part—everywhere in the room members of our congregation gathered in clusters and began to pray. People confessed their sins to God and then one another, parents and children began reconciliation before our very eyes and individuals were asking forgiveness of one another as ministry erupted throughout the sanctuary.
The prayers of these small groups of participants were spontaneous and unstoppable and the gentle weeping that hit more than a few was like a cleansing flood for lamenting souls. The type and degree of ministry of the Holy Spirit that we experienced after that service does not come around very often–quite frankly–if that wasn’t church, it’ll do ‘til church comes along. In the days that have followed Paul’s testimony there has continued to be a good response from the people of our church. Our counseling center at Crossroads has been swamped as people have continued to come to release their pain, bitterness and unforgiveness and renew their trust in Jesus. The spiritual fruit of that Sunday service has been phenomenal and ongoing.
PP: Why is this book so popular? What nerve is Young hitting?
TS: I think that there are probably at least a couple of reasons why Paul’s book has been so successful. First, I think The Shack presents intimacy with God in a relatable fashion and the average “Joe or Jane” is hungry for God. It is just my opinion, but I think modern day Evangelicalism has had limited success in presenting– God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit—“as real and approachable” in terms of personal relationship. Paul Young’s story of Mack who gets to know God up close and personal renews the faith of many who have always hoped that closeness with God would actually be possible.
Second, I also think we have failed in many ways to adequately answer some of the tough and often repeated hard questions people have. Questions such as, “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” That oft asked question is a major theme of The Shack. Those of us who are in the ministry have probably all given over simplistic answers to this question and all too often we have given them to people who were in true anguish and personal pain. We have been guilty in many cases of failing to point out that; Romans 8:28 is a process and not a quick fix and The Shack patiently and emphatically points that out.
Evangelicals and Charismatics alike in the Body of Christ tend to be quick to heap guilt upon the grief-stricken. The list of benefits that come from suffering come profusely and routinely from our lips without understanding, explaining or allowing for the comfort that can come from pouring out one’s heart in lament before God. We imply to hurting individuals that if they really trusted God they wouldn’t be sad in the midst of some personal tragedy. We provide the head knowledge of should’s and ought’s that fuel the guilt residing in people who are unable to reach God’s standards by themselves.
The Shack is popular because the “everyman” in our society knows that their only chance at heaven is through a God that loves them, a lot, and is willing to hear their pain. The Shack strikes a nerve for anyone who has ever been angry at God, angry at themselves or hopelessly angry at a perpetrator and incapable of finding their way out of the maze of unforgiveness. Paul Young, through this short novel that reeks of genuine love–while not flinching at depravity–sheds light on the path to true forgiveness through Jesus Christ and that is something this world longs for.
PP: Have you had opposition, if so why?
TS: Yes, we have received a few negative emails in response to our recommendation of The Shack. In our case they have been for the most part, sent from people who can’t get past the image of God as a large black woman. We are patiently answering each one of these individually.
In response to this criticism, we explain the use of metaphor and symbolism in the Bible to illustrate the vast character of God. God appeared to Moses as a burning bush but is not, in actuality, a plant. Jesus Himself uses the image of chicks under the protection of His wings but God is not a mother hen. Jesus is not a lion from a town named Judah but the title and symbolism is often used among Christians.
Along another vein, none of us will ever meet the “Good Samaritan” in heaven because he is not real, he was a character invented by Jesus. He was part of a parable, that is, a story that contains truth but in and of itself may never have happened. Anyway, you get the idea. The opposition is just part of the healthy dialogue that has exploded in our church as people learn more about their Bible and its imagery and the closeness of God. People in the aftermath of such conversation are better equipped as they seek a more intimate and real relationship with God through Jesus Christ. There has been no evidence of pagan idolatry in our church and most of the people who have read The Shack now know and understand what a Christian fiction novel is.
PP: Why are we so afraid?
TS: As Christians we do not form our corporate identity in a void. We come mostly from a group, movement, denomination, sect, Para church organization or alma mater. It is how vigorously that group defines itself or how uniquely distinctive it sees itself from others in the body of Christ that creates the parameters where fear is found. When the theological, philosophical and historic tenants of a group or movement are strictly outlined and reinforced, fear of the “outsider” becomes more prevalent and drawn attention to. Some then are afraid when God blesses others outside their perceived boundaries. We are naturally afraid of diversity and are downright paranoid if said outsider is successful. The problem with all of that is that Paul the Apostle said that there would be diversities of ministries and Jesus said they will know us by our love for one another not how distinct we are from each another.
PP: What are a couple things you feel are most important to pass on to the men you are mentoring as pastors?
TS: One important message to the men I’m in dialogue with is, ‘Just say no!’ to self-righteousness. Jesus introduces the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector with these words, “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” Luke 18:9. The subtlety of the mindset that says “Thank you God I’m not like other men” is dangerous and life altering. When someone can expound about how glad they are –not to be like that sinner over there, or that extortioner, or that unjust one, or that Purpose Driven Pastor or whatever–they are on dangerous ground. Humility is still the coin of the realm when it comes to ministry.
A CRITICAL VIEW
I got around to reading Paul Young’s mega bestseller The Shack a couple of years ago. Like a lot of other people, I initially read a lot of what other people wrote about The Shack. Michael W. Smith represented many who liked the book. He described it as a “most absorbing work of fiction”. To me it was a “most disturbing work of fiction”. One thing is certain; folks either seemed to love or hate the book. I have not met anyone who told me that they read the book and remained neutral in their opinion of the Paul Young’s The Shack. That could also be said about the books I have written.
After postponing the reading of this book as long as I could, when I did get around to reading The Shack I found myself a little baffled. The opening section was (for me) trite, tedious and boring. However, when the book tells of the kidnapping and probable murder of a young child, it was both moving and gripping. Overall, the book seemed very convoluted to me. I have been told that my lack of appreciation for The Shack can be attributed to the fact that I am not an Artist or even artistic. to illustrate how unartisit I am, I once I asked a guard at the Louvre in Paris; how much it would cost me if I wanted to buy the Mona Lisa? My wifw who is artistic, did not seem to appreciate my attept at humor..
Still, to me, The Shack came across as a hopeless mix and mesh of absurdity, silliness, and even blasphemy. If I understand the point of The Shack, it is that God is little to nothing like what we thought (based on what the Bible says) He is like. If you have not as of yet read The Shack I would say that you have not missed anything of value. If you manage to get through life without ever reading it, I do not think you will be spiritually, theologically or intellectually the poorer as a result.
If you plan on reading the book I would encourage you to read it with caution and not as some told me they did- with the heart and not the head. I was told that a book like the shack should read devotionally and not doctrinallysadly that seems to be the way some Christians read there bibles I do not think The Shack is one of those Your God Is Too Small books. There is a need for books that remind us about how great and gracious God is. I do not believe The Shack was not written to help you expand or enhance your understanding of the God who reveals Himself in Scripture. Rather, in my view, The Shack was written to challenge and even undermine what the Bible says about God. If I were to take it seriously (which would be hard for me to do) I would have to say that it is not merely unorthodox or even heretical. That would be bad enough. It is at best, however unwittingly, a rejection of the Bible and the God of the Bible in the process.
Those who rave about The Shack will no doubt say that I do not understand the point of The Shack. In some ways they may be right. One plausible theory is that there is no point (or at least no single, main or coherent point) made in The Shack. If a Christian (i.e., a Bible believer) thinks that God the Father is or can be like “a big black woman”, then why can’t He or She, Them or It be whatever the storyteller desires, Him, Her, It or Them to be. Why can’t God (or the gods) be whatever the reader of the story wants, Him, Her, It, or Them to be?
It simply escapes me that so many otherwise thoughtful people think of God the Father (even metaphorically) as “a big black women” or that such thinking should be considered spiritually profound or theologically deep. When I suggested to an acquaintance that it is absurd and blasphemous to even think of God as “a big black woman”, I was warned to be cautious because it sounds sexist and racist to deny that God could be even speaking “a big black woman”. I told my acquaintance that if it would make him feel better (in a politically correct way) I am willing to go on record and say that it would be just as absurd and blasphemous to think of God the Father as a little white man, even metaphorically speaking. To be sure God from all eternity to all eternity became a man in time and for all eternity (Jn. 1: 1-14). The incarnation not only tells us that God became one among us for 33 plus years but that in the person of Jesus Christ He became one of us for time and eternity.
However, nothing in The Shack corresponds to what we know about the person of God the Father, the person of God the Son or the person of God the Holy Spirit. The incarnation of God in the person of the Son of God as revealed in the Gospel of John and elsewhere in Scripture, is not even remotely close to what is promoted in The Shack. The writer of The Shack obviously wants you to be a little more open-minded and theologically flexible than what is and can be known about God from Scripture. Bottom line, the author of The Shack wanted more than God “in a book”. In The Shack he believes he introduces the reader to a God who is more than a God in a book. Unfortunately, the author of The Shack introduces the reader to a God that is not more than the God of the Bible. He, She, It, Them is/are altogether different and other than the God of the Bible. This may sound harsh, but to actually believe in, embrace, or worship the God or gods introduced in The Shack is to be guilty of idolatry.
In the Bible we discover God creating man and woman in His image. In The Shack we discover Paul Young using his artistic license to create or imagine God (i.e., the holy trinity) as a big black woman, a not as big Asian woman, and an smaller Jewish man. I am not making this up. These are his words. This is not artistic or literary license but New Age nonsense on steroids. I think Lewis and Tozer would find it very disconcerting to think that what they said analogously about God would be used to make what is said in The Shack a little more “Christian sounding”.
Khalil Gibran might actually applaud the message of The Shack but no serious and scripturally literate believer should be duped into believing that The Shack is Christian literature of any kind. It is not spiritually deep but seriously and scripturally off the deep end. The travesty of The Shack is that the enemy has sentimentally and emotionally (whether consciously or not I do not know) tried to turn Christians against the Bible (and the triune God of the Bible). Evidently, many believers are not even aware of how adversely this may be affecting their thinking and theology about God and a host of other terribly important matters in the process.
Again, in The Shack, God the Father is introduced as “a large, beaming African-American woman…The large black woman…The big black woman…A big black woman with a questionable sense of humor…
I would not even be able to make this up if I wanted to. I admit I probably have an impoverished imagination. I would never have crossed my mind to think about God in these terms. Is there something wrong with me? Don’t answer that! To Mack (the main human fictional character of The Shack) the big black woman (who is supposed to be the one the Bible calls God the Father) says:
My, my, my, how do I love you’ and with that She wrapped herself around him again. Mack was speechless. In a few seconds this woman had breached pretty much every social propriety behind which he so safely entranced himself. But something in the way she looked at him…equally delighted him to see her too, even though he did not have a clue as to who she was.
Yikes! Someone help me please! Speaking of herself, the Asian woman (i.e., the Spirit of God in this offensive fictional story) and the Jewish man (i.e., the Son of God in the story), the big black woman says:
…We is all that you get, and believe me, we’re more than enough.
Talk about your racial stereotype! While God is not white or black, did The Shack need him (I mean her) to speak with bad English? As for the “distinctively Asian woman”, The Shack says:
…She was hugging [Max] without hugging him…
What is that supposed to mean? Is this another case of “one hand clapping”? If I understand anything in the message of The Shack it is that you should disregard much of what the Bible teaches, especially but not exclusively about God Himself. If you are going to do that, why not go all the way and discard the Bible altogether? The popularity of The Shack even among some Evangelicals is evidence that we need to do a lot more teaching and pay a lot better attention to what the Bible says about the God of the Bible. That probably means that we should also pay a lot more attention to what the Bible says about everything else, which means we need to read and heed the whole Bible. I understand why The Shack sells so well in New Age bookstores. I am very saddened and disappointed that it sells so well in Christian bookstores. Consider this one sentence:
Well, Mackenzie, don’t just stand there gawkin’ with your mouth open like your pants are full”, said the big black women.
Really! Remember, this is supposedly God the Father talking? Sorry Stossel but someone please give me a break! Mackenzie, the imaginary hero of our fictional story asks a good question when asks:
Am I supposed to believe that God is a big black woman, with a questionable sense of humor?
That is, of course exactly what He is supposed to believe and in the story does end up believing. That is also what the author of The Shack wants readers to believe he believes and what he wants his readers to believe as well. Why else in a post script would he write:
I pray you [the reader of The Shack] find the same grace there [at your‘own Shack’] that I did, and the abiding presence of Papa [the big black woman], Jesus [the small Jewish man] and Sarayu [the smaller Asian woman] will fill up your inside emptiness with joy unspeakable and full of glory.
This prayer is not a part of the fictional story but a prayer prayed by Paul Young for the reader of the story after they have finished with the story. If that does not represent idolatry and blasphemy what would? As much as the next guy, I like a good metaphor, a good analogy, good illustrations, parables, symbolic language and good fiction. However, The Shack is written to put some very bad ideas about God into the minds of believers and unbelievers alike. At least for some, it seems to have worked. In Christ, George L. Bryson