“Before you are tempted to burn us at the stake, will you at least do me the favor of allowing me to stand in front of the firing squad and answer any questions that they might have.” That’s what I said to one of the head executives of Lifeway Christian Bookstores when he called to say that “he” might be in need of a job. In short order, we had become wonderful friends, but in the latest brouhaha, his head was on the chopping block as well.
Over a month or so prior, he called one afternoon to introduce himself and congratulate us on our success with The Shack. Sales had begun to snowball, and it seemed like over night, everyone was talking about The Shack. Our little book that had been turned down by 26 different publishers had become quite the phenomenon. So much so, “they” were calling us.
After the brief exchange of pleasantries, here came the opportunity: “We’d like to make The Shack our Lifeway presents ‘Book of the Month’.” Sounded great to me, so I said: “Fantastic, you go right ahead.” That’s when I was informed, “That’s not exactly how this works…” Supposedly this honor is something that publishers normally pay thousands of dollars to enjoy as the bookstore chain mounts a big, front of store, promotional campaign to drive sales. I said, “That’s great, but you called me. If that’s something Lifeway would like to do, I’m happy to sell you some books.” That wasn’t the kind of response they were used to. (But hey, when you don’t know what the rules are, it’s not like you can be guilty of intentionally trying to break them. Just seemed goofy that if it was their idea, why did I have to pay for it. Right?)
After a couple more calls, and I wouldn’t budge—I guess they liked the book enough on its own, to go through with their desire. They made The Shack their celebrated “Lifeway Presents ‘Book of the Month’.” How cool is that! It was UNTIL…
Lifeway proudly championed The Shack throughout their bookstore chain. Sales continued to soar, but as with all things that garner a measure of success, it soon attracts its own set of detractors as well. Little did we suspect that we would become the center of a raging controversy taken before the Southern Baptist National Convention.
Accusations of “heresy” surfaced; suspicions of deception and error were being whispered abroad. When such things were voiced by one of their respected seminary presidents and complaints made by other prominent pastors, orders were handed down and The Shack was pulled from their shelves. Though it was by Lifeway’s own initiative to make us their “Book of the Month,” the promotional campaign was abruptly ended. The charges of potential heresy would be discussed and ruled upon at the national convention.
It didn’t take long for the rumor mill to kick into full gear, and my phone lit up. At first, I couldn’t believe any of it could possibly be true. But, when I got a call from the Lifeway — sure enough, it was for real! It came as a total shock to him as well, along with the very unsettling realization that he could well be out of a job. Afterall, this was all his idea—to put such contraband on full display at the front of the store, nationwide! I thought he was kidding—he wasn’t.
Really? This is a work of fiction. It’s a novel for goodness sake. Yes, it’s about God, about how God can meet us in the middle of the most horrible tragedy, and love us to a place of healing—able to bring forth good even out of the most despicable evil.
For two weeks, they met, discussed, debated, scrutinized. The one request that I voiced was that before they concluded their deliberations that I be allowed to speak on our behalf, to answer any questions or accusations they might have, and have a chance to explain and/or defend, if necessary, what we had written.
I knew The Shack was edgy and provocative—that was on purpose. But we were profoundly careful about what was said and what words, be it dialogue or questions, were put in whose mouth. As a fully trained seminarian, a passionate junior theologian in my own right, I was well aware how close to edge on some subjects we were traveling. But as a committed, Bible-believing Christian who absolutely cares about the nature and character of God—I also know exactly what we were trying to reveal and why. Asking provocative questions that we know would cause people to think and force them to go search out the answers for themselves, we knew would go much farther than would our doctrinal treatises or sermonizing at them.
For nearly sixteen months, undergoing four major rewrites, we chiseled and hammered on this boulder of a story, and fashioned with God’s incredible help, what we thought was an endearing story whose primary mission was to unveil God’s incredible heart of love—the heart of the One, each one of us had come to know in our darkest moments of pain and adversity, the God who will never abandon us.
But, this wasn’t a “PR” effort. None of us had the patience for a religious sales pitch. We wanted to wrestle with real pain, the real conundrums of life for which there are no easy answers. And having all suffered the trite, ridiculous, albeit perhaps well-intentioned empty platitudes others trafficked in, we longed to steer clear of seeking to tie the messy parts of life off with a fake, perfect, little bow. That’s not the world we live in.
There are no easy answers to deep pain and suffering. There is no magic wand or some miraculous “formula” to employ. Life takes a bit of time and a lot of relationship. And if you are going to love deeply, you are going to be hurt badly – but it’s worth it! That’s the kind of story we could crawl inside and feel at home within. Something honest. Something messy. But real, and yearning for truth.
Do we have all the answers? Nope – not even close! Do we know pain and hurt? Yep! – who doesn’t? Have we met God … in spite of all that? In the midst of all that? Yep, and that’s where we each found the strength and the desire to get back up, flap our wings, and give it another shot at learning how to live as someone deeply loved by an incredible God! It isn’t so much our trying to trust, as it is our being won to a place of trust by learning just how much God loves us. Trust is the fruit of a relationship wherein you know that you are loved. Something most people don’t know very well.
In a world steeped in pain and hurt, that so often feels rejected and abandoned, knowing that it doesn’t measure up very well to the impossible standards of perfection that only Pharisees strive to master—we figured it might be helpful to dethrone the notions of that “mean ol’ Angry God” that so many people have been pickled in. That seems to be the only character of God so many have known—the awful terrifying Judge ready to hurl lightning bolts at them.
God is a Righteous Judge! There are not “many” ways to heaven—only one, and that’s found in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. But when all the world can see, looking through the knothole of their pain, is a very disfigured charicature of God, how might we help clear away some of the dirt from off the lens, and enable people to catch a glimpse of the God who really is? — A God, “the” God, who is knowable, but not fully able to be grasped by any of us. Could we pose the “possibility”—not impose the demand or the agenda to believe—just pose the possibility: “what if there was a God who really does love you?” What if … ?
Could we wrap all that up in an engaging story, a mystery, thriller of sorts, that asks the questions of life that we all struggle with and wonder about? And offer that as a gift for others to enjoy? Wrap it up in a story that they could keep at a distance if they needed to, or be able to crawl into as close as they might want, if they dared—one that might just allow them to feel something before they were asked to “believe it.” Could we give people a “taste and see” approach to the things of God, and sidestep the often contentious argued about things of dogma or doctrine, that seem to be best left to the so-called expert swordsmen of religion? And yet, could we wade into the deeply spiritual issues of life, just do it like normal people, with everyday language that anyone could understand? Or do we need to quote chapter and verse, and provide proof texts for everything we say.
If we sought to write the definitive systematic theology, a doctrinal treatise or some religious textbook, then I could understand being taken in front of the expert tribunal and being utterly put to the test, but this is a story, a very messy human drama – a fictional one at that. And for the sake of a compelling story, we did not have the time, nor the inclination, to slow it all down and utterly explain each and every part, as if to leave no room for the reader’s own interpretation of what is more a work of art than it is some factual, historical documentary. Stories aren’t meant to tell the reader what they are supposed to think. Stories, good stories, are meant to make you think. And great stories, much like secure people, let you decide for yourself what you think. That’s part of the gift.
Does truth matter? Absolutely! – especially when one dares to venture into the realm of theology and God, so we did not take our task lightly. But did we think we were in-scripturating gospel? No – at best we were providing an incomplete analogy, crafting a metaphor, playing in the realm of allegory. We are telling a story. Not a “true” story in the sense of events that really happened, but it is a story that engages Truth. But the “Truth” we were trying to reveal is a Person! It is a daring attempt to make the God of the universe, perhaps a little more accessible and a little more knowable to those who might be curious enough to pick up book and find Him in pages of a novel, made a little more real in the conversations between characters that you can relate to.
The Shack is our attempt at that—you can be the judge of whether or not what we wrote is helpful, enjoyable, moving, impactful, and/or illuminating or … not. Do what the Scriptures admonish us to do: test everything and hold fast to that which is good.
Do I believe what we wrote and sought to reveal about God, the God of the Bible, is true and accurate? I think so – it is to the best of our present ability, to grasp those things and put them into intelligible, relatable words. Are they free from error? I doubt it. I’m not sure I can name many things of whom that is ever the case.
No analogy I know of holds true of all things in all ways of what it is trying to reveal. If it did, it wouldn’t be called an analogy—that is the realm of approximating things, likening aspects of things, drawing comparisons and parallels in attempt to provide better understanding. That’s what telling stories are about – it involves the imagination. It’s not the same thing as math or science, or the realm of apologetics and debate. It’s creativity. It’s art. It’s drama.
I do however takes some solace in our efforts that someone like Eugene Peterson, the Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology of Regent College, Vancouver, B.C., would comment: “When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good.”
How does that get you burned at the stake, accused as a band of heretics bent at deceiving the masses, dragging them into damnable error?! I don’t know.
So what was the outcome of those two weeks of discussion and theological debate at the Southern Baptist National Convention?
Happily I can report that their conclusion was: ‘There is nothing within the pages of The Shack that is inconsistent or in violation of orthodox, Biblical Christianity. It is provocative and challenging—but perhaps it is exactly what we as Southern Baptists need to wrestle with.” And they ordered The Shack back on the shelves, allowing the promotional campaign to be resumed. (How cool is that!)
Did all the Lifeway bookstores embrace those findings? Well… not exactly. Some did. Some chose not to put it back at the front of the store. Others kept them in the back, and only sold them upon request. I was told that a few even discreetly put them in brown paper bags, presumably to guard against exactly what, I’m not sure. ( I don’t remember there being any pictures of naked ladies on the cover—but hey, to each his own, huh?)
What I found so wonderfully hilarious in all this is now if you want to draw up charges of heresy against The Shack, we can refer you to the esteemed theological panel of the Southern Baptist National Convention and invite you to take up your argument with them. They gave us a clean bill of health, consistent with orthodox Biblical Christianity. (Others still think we are a bunch of hindu, New age worshippers peddling a feminist religion of universalism – who knew? ? )
As for me and my house: we passionately love Jesus, believe and enjoy the Bible everyday, and are continuing to learn and grow and experience Papa’s incredible love. We love, because He first loved us.
May you know just how “Especially Fond of you” Papa truly is.
Producer, Publisher, Co-Author The Shack
P.S. That’s me with Papa! (Octavia Spencer) — she was absolutely amazing. You will be blown away by her – she gets it!!
STAY TUNED for the next installment , a “Part 2” of “Is The Shack heresy?” that shares very insightful article full of practical wisdom and perspective written by Wayne Jacobsen, one of the other co-authors, that addresses more specifically some of comments and major issues of concern raised by critics and various detractors.