In The Shack, God is described in the same way that theologian Paul Tillich termed the “ground of all being” – a God who is in all, through all, and uniquely real. Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu take great pains to teach Mack that religion must include love. Religion that is based on hierarchy and rules is a misinterpretation of grace, which Mack learns “cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse.” Papa explains that the Bible isn’t a rulebook but a “picture of Jesus,” and that ritual is dead if it exists merely for its own sake. The three-in-one do not want Mack to be a rule follower; they want to permeate every nook and cranny of his soul.
This, in turn, reminds me of Paul and his distinction between faith and law: “We have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law . . . for through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God . . . it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:16, 19, 20). In the same letter, Paul goes on to list the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22–23). These are characteristics that are manifested in an individual, not because that person is seeking God, but because God has found that person. I think this is the key to understanding some controversial parts of The Shack.
In the novel, Jesus himself comes across as spiritual but not religious. “I’m not too big on religion,” he tells Mack with a bit of an edge to his voice. He did not come to earth to build an institution, he says, but a kingdom; the church is not intended to be a hierarchy as it is created to be a community in relationship. Jesus says he wants Mack to live in him as he lives in the Father. Now, this is biblical. Before being handed over the authorities, Jesus prays on behalf of his disciples and us, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (John 17:21). Moments earlier, Jesus had instructed his disciples by way of a metaphor, exhorting them to abide in him like branches of the vine (John 15). While attacked in some circles for overly critiquing the church, The Shack, then, is on good biblical footing, which is something that other authors have recognized as well.
My colleague, Carol Howard Merritt, has written a lovely book, Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation. In her process of reframing, Merritt believes that this new movement comprised of spiritual seekers can actually strengthen the church community, rather than work against it. The key is relationships, which Reframing Hope refers to as a collegial model, rather than an expert model. The pastor is not a solo captain, steering our church wherever he or she wants; the members of the crew have direct input.
To return to our novel, I’ve discovered that most people who have a problem with Jesus saying he’s spiritual and not religious are exactly the people who have a great investment in the institution of the church. There is a book called Burning Down the Shack. Is it really surprising that the author holds a chair of New Testament at a seminary?
A key part of Merritt’s reframing hope for the church is redistributing authority. Her point is that such redistribution is a larger cultural shift: we used to gather and have Walter Cronkite tell us what when on in the world; today, journalists of the New York Times and the Washington Post have live chats on the internet. They are not the “experts” and have to answer questions.
At the same time, theological information that was once limited to the ivory tower is now available to anyone online. Among other things, the result has been that new voices are heard . . . voices like William P. Young. Just a generation ago, could a first time author write a best-selling work on God? I don’t think so; and, as Burning Down the Shack readily attests, some people in the academy are threatened. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “Test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”
What’s interesting, then, is that, as our culture tests everything, authority is redistributed and communities are formed. Merritt notes the effect of social networking technologies: she regularly communicates with people all over the world. As a result, individual spirituality (or the quest for truth) comes to look a lot like a religion: a community bound together for support and challenge. In certain ways, I think that The Shack makes the same point; rather than attacking the church, Young advocates spirituality and religion.