It's likely that you have heard of The Shack, as it has just been released as a major motion picture. Initially self-published, by the time I read it in April 2009, it had already reached a best-seller status. It tells the story of Mack, a dad going through an incredibly difficult season following the abduction and murder of his young daughter. Over the course of one weekend, Mack has an incredible encounter with God in the shack where his daughter was killed, and that encounter changes his perception of God and helps him to see God's love and trustworthiness in a new way. The book is filled with theological conversations between Mack and different members of the Trinity, conversations that challenge Mack (and the reader) to reconsider how he has understood God in the past. It is heavy on grace, love, and relationship.
At the moment I received The Shack from a hospital chaplain, I was at a deep and dark place spiritually. My daughter's death during my eighteenth week of pregnancy had ripped the rug of faith out from under me and landed me flat on my back. I could not reconcile God's love for me with the fact that he had allowed this awful, undoable thing to happen to me. Although the circumstances were different, Mack's search for questions and self-imposed distance from God resonated with me, and I found the images presented in the book to be disturbingly comforting.
They were comforting, because I was hungry and thirsty for reassurance that the God I had grown up loving and believing in was not an unfeeling monster. I found that in the book's pages. But that comfort was disturbing, also, because even in my grief, I could see that the book contained some ideas that were very different from what the Bible says about God and suffering. I am not talking about how God is represented (God the Father, for example, is shown through most of the book as an African American woman, and the Holy Spirit is represented by an Asian woman). Honestly, that part did not bother me so much, as I saw it as an artistic tool - maybe not the one I would have chosen, but I could see how it "worked" for the sake of the story.
However, as most of the book is not action as much as it is conversation specifically about how Mack's understanding of God has been wrong for most of his life, statements made about God's character, about sin, and about salvation are a pretty important part of the story - and many of those did not line up with the Scriptures as I understood them. I am not going to go into detail about that, but for an idea of some of the issues, I suggest reading Tim Challies' comments on the film (including a link to his lengthy analysis of the book) and a general response to many concerns by Wayne Jacobson, one of the original collaborators with author William Young.
In the end, I came away from The Shack refreshed, but uncomfortable. It was difficult to discern if I was finding comfort in the truth or the error in the book. Some may ask why that matters, for if God is comforting you, just accept it! But it mattered to me. People find comfort in other religious systems, outside of the teaching of the Bible, all the time. It is how and why cults gain popularity, but comfort from falsehood will, ultimately, disappoint, and we should not turn a blind eye to that. I am not saying the content of The Shack is akin to cultic teachings, but Jesus taught that it is the truth that sets us free (John 8:32), and to not know if I was being set free by truth or bound in ways I could not see by error was disturbing. I remember saying to my husband that I would never recommend the book to someone who was not firmly rooted in the Scriptures so as not to be confused by the theology presented in the book.
I don't remember at all how I came upon the other book, Safely Home, by Randy Alcorn. I do not even have a physical copy of it, just a digital one in my Kindle app. It is a lesser known work of fiction about the persecuted church in China. It is the story of Ben, a wealthy and successful American businessman, and his old college roommate Li Quan, who is a Chinese Christian and member of an illegal house church. Reviews of the book talk about its impact on readers by making them more aware of the persecution of Christians around the globe and more appreciative of the religious freedom we enjoy in our country.
I was drawn to Safely Home because I have had an interest in China since college, when I spent a summer studying there, followed by several other trips over the next ten years to either teach English or study Chinese. The book is well-written and well-researched, and the images of the streets and crowds of China brought back many memories. But beyond that, in my grief journey, I found it surprisingly comforting.
It was surprising because the book is not about grief. It is about living for Christ in difficult circumstances, mostly in a different country entirely. But God used that to lift my eyes from my circumstances to remember the bigger picture, of the suffering going on in other places, and of the worldwide body of Christ that I am a part of. In 1 Corinthians 12:26, Paul says, "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it", and reading this story reminded me that as I suffered from the loss of our child, and as persecuted believers suffered, we did so together - and that comforted me.
The thing that comforted me the most, though, was the vision of Heaven and eternity that Randy Alcorn weaves throughout the book. Although most of the book takes place on Earth, a significant portion includes the view of Earth from Heaven, where both angels and past martyrs see the suffering of God's people and cheer them on, much as Hebrews 12:1 suggests. In the wake of losing my daughter, I had begun scouring the Bible anew for anything I could find about Heaven, reasoning that if my daughter was there, I wanted to learn all I could about it. What I read in Safely Home lined up with what I was finding in my own study time, and when I encountered a new idea in the book and went looking for it in the Scriptures, I found nothing that contradicted the Bible. It was not until several years later that I read Alcorn's nonfiction book, Heaven, and realized the years of Biblical study that informed that portion of Safely Home, but I benefited from that intense study all the same. God used it to show me the reality of Heaven, the intensity of His love for His children, and the fact that He is sovereign over all that happens to us on Earth, even when we don't understand the "why" behind those events.
I'm sharing all of this now because I have been reading many, many reviews or articles about The Shack movie, with Christians taking sides for or against the movie. I have heard arguments for and against seeing it, and read some articles accusing the book and movie of heresy while others hailed it as a picture of God's love and grace.
I am not ready to take a firm stand against the film and book, in terms of whether or not believers should avoid it. I have friends whom I respect in both camps, and I believe God could lead people differently in this. I do have many concerns with some of the theology communicated in the book, and what especially concerns me is when I see people writing about the positive emotional impact of the movie or book while ignoring or glossing over the theological difficulties. As believers in Christ, this is something we should be taking about - respectfully, without personal attacks on those with whom we disagree. In that light, the main two recommendations I have are these:
Prepare. Read the critiques, and the defenses, with an open mind and a willingness to listen and to learn. Study the Scriptures, in the spirit of the Bereans, who "examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11). Even one of the original collaborators admitted that their theology is not perfect. Check it out and see what the Bible says. That is what I did when I read The Shack eight years ago, and what I did when I read Safely Home. Truth matters!
Pray. If nothing else, the anticipation of this movie and the popularity of the book should prompt us to pray. Pray for God to work through (or in spite of, depending on your perspective) this work. Pray for the spiritual hunger and need that is causing people in our communities to resonate with the story, as I did in my time of deep grief. Pray for Biblical literacy to increase, that people will learn what the Bible itself teaches about the nature of God. And pray for open doors to talk about God's grace and love with people who don't know Him yet.