Friday, March 31, 2017

The Movie THE SHACK: Guest Blogger Rev. Karen Heyburn: "Shacking Up With God!"

Christal Cooper

Guest Blogger 
Rev. Karen Heyburn
Shacking up with God

“Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is this god’s name?” Then what shall I tell them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.” Exodus 3.13-14

       The film, “The Shack” ( been released. It is based on the book by the same name written by Wm. Paul Young.  There was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth about the book in some Christian circles.

Now there is more of the same about the film. Pastors are telling parishioners not to see it and admonishing staff and volunteers not to arrange movie nights for their various small groups. Although the film had not even been released for public viewing, the bells of all Christendom began a cacophony of clangs and bangs. This should really come as no surprise. Do we Christians agree on much of anything these days, except that each of us is right and the rest of us are wrong?

This book, and the film that follows it, is an allegory. Allegory is a story that contains a moral or political virtue that must be revealed through the thinking of the reader.

It is also analogy. Analogy is an example comparing some event or situation with another in some significant respects. It is a way to understand something that is otherwise a challenge to understand.

The best example of an Analogy is the understanding of God. Who or what is God? How do we understand the Eternal, the Divine? I don’t want to get into the philosophical exercise. Christians believe that God is One. There is one God. We believe that God is evident as Three in One, “Father, Son, Holy Spirit”. We call this the “Trinity”.

At any time, we may encounter God in any of these three ways, and in those encounters we meet all three. Are you still with me? Good, because theologians throughout the history of the Church have wrestled with this idea and even they don’t all agree. Entire forests have surrendered their lives for the books written specifically about the “Trinity”.

       Imagine explaining this complex concept to children! Many have tried. Years ago, someone came up with the idea of an apple. The apple has three parts: the skin, the meat, and the seed. All three of these are still the apple, even though they are different, they are the same. Except they aren’t. The skin of the apple is just that. The skin of an apple. Bite into it and all you will experience is the skin. The seed is an unrealized apple, yet no matter how hard you may try you can’t eat it and taste an apple nor does it impact you as an apple does. The meat of the apple? Well, an apple with parts missing! No matter what analogy, allegory, metaphor, or example we use to explain “Trinity”, they all fall short eventually. “Trinity” is a mystery of faith.

Some theologians and Bible scholars root this mystery in Scripture, citing as example Matthew 28.18-20, the “Great Commission”.

Others cite Mark 16.15-16 as evidence that the Three in One concept is not Biblical at all. Truthfully, every aspect you might want to embrace may well be supported by proof-texting Scripture, finding verses that seem to say you are right!

Young explores several moral dilemmas in the book, chief of them may well be why bad things happen to God’s people. He takes us into a world that might help to explain how we hold onto faith when the world is falling apart around us. These are powerful issues, and Christians struggle with them each day.

Young isn’t trying to write a theological treatise here. He is exploring creation and our place in it. He is asking us how we might faithfully endure and comprehend grief, guilt, loss, pain, joy, suffering. How do we make sense of the patterns and anomalies within creation?  He is attempting to simplify a complex concept and perhaps make it more accessible to Christians and non-Christians alike.

It is a story. It is an engaging way to explore the issues of faith. Reading the book presents the reader with questions and invites that reader to think about the possibilities for answers. The best books do provoke thought and conversation for those who read them. I suspect the film will do the same.

Does Young present God as three separate “persons”? Yes. And, no. Young invites us to move away from a male-focused concept of God and into a mystery the Church is reluctant to explore. Does God have a gender? The introduction God gives to Moses for the Israelites would seem to say “no”. God decides who or what God is. We can have images, we can have metaphors, yet the fact remains that God is greater than any term or concept we can produce.

In the John gospel, Chapter 14, Jesus prays that we might all be one. He claimed to be returning to his “Father” and that the “Father” would send the Holy Spirit as a “replacement” for Jesus among humanity. That seems to indicate separate yet equal expressions of God.

Although Young presents us with God in three different ways, as a means for exploring what and who God is in relationship with us, it is clear that God is present and interacting with the lead character through each of those different ways. Keep in mind that we have already suspended reality in accepting that the character has received a letter from God and has entered a place wherein God can be encountered without Mack needing to turn his face away as Moses was warned to do.

This is a story. A narrative that intends to evoke conversation and thoughtfulness. I know that there are pastors and Christian educators who will not want to discuss this story, and discourage their flocks from seeing the film. That is regrettable.

It is a perfect vehicle for a roundtable small group discussion. Allowing folks to share what they have experienced in reading or watching, and then listening to their stories of encountering God, is perfect food for discipleship. Theologians and Bible scholars argue and debate doctrine and dogma. The rest of us find ways to support folks on their faith and life journeys. Those debates and arguments help to inform our approach but should never be the goal of our approach. Many of us truly love the debates.

Folks in our care just need to know that they are loved. They are loved by God and that love is manifested through the rest of us. They want to know that their struggles for answers are not theirs alone. They need to know that we are one in the body of Christ and that they are free to explore and debate historic doctrines and Church dogma. They are also free to shrug their shoulders and go on loving God and one another.

That’s what matters. Loving God and loving one another. The book, and no doubt the film, focus on that love.  Surely, we can agree to that, can’t we?         


Karen is a retired pastor, Christian Educator, and church musician. She has a BA in Humanities from the University of Akron, and an Mdiv from Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
She loves her children, their spouses, her grandchildren, family pets, and her spouse, who keeps her slightly crazy.
     Karen loves to learn, to cook, and be an encourager for others. She takes delight in helping people reach their goals. She struggles with a need to be perfect, even while not expecting perfection in others. She's an incurable dreamer, who sees "the big picture" and often gets lost in the details. Her obituary will say of her, "She had an idea."

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