The Shack, Ultimate Reality, and joining the dance of the divine
The other day I was having a miniature faith crisis (you know, just another Tuesday), so I met up with my mentor and asked him my burning question, “What is Ultimate Reality?” He thought about my question, then confidently said, “It is the dance between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Ultimate Reality is joining the Trinitarian Dance.” To which I responded, “What the hell, man?” And so began another journey… Theologically, what I love about the idea of Trinity is that it breaks down our preconceived notions about the divine and some of the absolutes we have elevated. The fact that the word “Trinity” is not even used in the Bible is telling and is perhaps a reflection of where all good theology begins: acknowledging that what we are trying to describe is beyond words, and yet all we have is words to describe our metaphors. Similarly, I’ve heard it said that if you see the Buddha on the side of the road to kill it—because if you can see the Buddha, then it cannot possibly be the Buddha. We must constantly kill our projections of the divine or else we will turn our projections into conceptual idols. Even the word “Trinity” falls far short of the mystery that it is. And yet it seems that the Christian West needs Trinity—where mystery abounds and our well-packaged theological concepts fall by the wayside—more than ever.
In his profound book The Divine Dance, Richard Rohr writes: “Why does the Christian West, by far, produce the highest number of atheists? What I believe, and have dedicated my life to reversing, is that we have not moved doctrine and dogma to the level of inner experience.” I cannot think of anything that exemplifies this tension more than the seemingly endless culture war surrounding Paul Young’s bestselling 2007 novel, The Shack, the fictional story about a man named Mack who answers a mysterious invitation to a remote cabin where he sifts through his trauma and pain with three persons who represent the Holy Trinity. Though The Shack is fictional, a number of conservative Christian leaders have labeled Young a heretic and his book to be dangerous or deceptive. With the movie depiction of The Shack being released on March 3—starring Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, and Tim McGraw—these criticisms have once again risen to the surface. James B. DeYoung, a Western Seminary professor who actually wrote a book in 2010 titled Burning Down ‘The Shack’ critiquing Young’s book, recently told the Christian News Network: "If the film is a faithful portrayal of the events and the theology of the book, then every Christian should be gravely alarmed at the further advance of beliefs that smear the evangelical understanding of the truth of the Bible.” President R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recently told the Baptist Press: "We need to be clear. This depiction of God, of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, of the Gospel is profoundly unbiblical. The Bible warns against any false depiction of God and calls it idolatry. Making that into a compelling story just compounds the theological danger, and when all of this is added to the creative storytelling power of Hollywood, it also becomes very seductive.” These quotes, I believe, are reflective of the crux of the problem in the Christian West that Rohr was talking about: being unable to move from doctrine and dogma to inner experience. And it is exactly why those who fear the theology in The Shack can benefit from it the most, just as I read it in 2009 when I was knee-deep in evangelicalism and thought I had all the answers to my theological questions. But The Shack was one of the first books I read that opened up the theological gates of mystery within me, which I’ve come to believe is the foundation for a healthy theology. After all, though DeYoung and Mohler are quick to label something as “unbiblical,” it’s important to note that people’s understanding of God in the Bible was constantly evolving. As author and scientist Mike McHargue says in his book Finding God In The Waves, “From a bush to a pillar, to an ark, to a temple tied to soil, to a man free to roam, to a Holy Spirit who dwells in the hearts of all God’s followers. That’s God at the close of the Bible story, but God continued to change. God became a Trinity to the early church: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost…mysticism tells me that these are all metaphors, all symbols, pointing to a single God who is beyond anything I will ever be able to imagine.” God’s love is still expanding. Our understanding and metaphor for God seems to constantly be evolving. What I love most about Young’s theology in The Shack is that the story he tells is reflective of, what I believe, to be the most important tenants of a healthy Godview: 1) That God is mystery, beyond comprehension; 2) That God loves us, beyond what we can imagine; and 3) That God is with us, closer than what we can fathom, especially in our suffering. All of these ideas seem to be epitomized in the life of Christ. And these cornerstones can inspire the Christian imagination and help us to lead lives that are inwardly marked my transformation and outwardly marked my love, moved by inner experience. Rohr continues in The Divine Dance, in which Young wrote the foreword: “God as Trinity makes competitive religious thinking largely a waste of time. But only mystics seem to know that the only possible language by which we can talk about God is metaphorical…Remember, mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand—it is something that you can endlessly understand.” And it is for this reason that I will be watching The Shack at a nearby movie theater on Friday. It is a story that pulls me into the mystery of Trinity, something that I can endlessly understand and endlessly be transformed by. It is a story that inspires me to listen more deeply to the music and join the ongoing dance. To plunge deeper into Ultimate Reality. To erect a house from my pain with Three of my friends.
By Stephen Copeland
This story was first published on copelandwrites.com.