Does the Shack work?
The strange thing was not just that the Rose Theatre at Edge Hill was full but that I knew almost everyone there by name. It was Wednesday evening’s showing of The Shack. Many of you will have read this New York Times bestseller. At church we sold nearly 100 copies of this imaginative novel from Canadian author William P. Young. Well, now it has been made into a film, a difficult enterprise to say the least. Essentially the book deals with the one event in life we all fear – our young daughter being abducted and murdered. Where is God in all this? We discover this as the father is invited by a mysterious note in his mailbox to return to the remote shack where his daughter’s bloodied clothing was found. For there he encounters God. What makes this novel so unusual is that Young depicts God as three persons. - Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu. And to begin with Papa is represented by a warm and welcoming African-American woman called Elouisia. As the embittered father, Mack, relates to each character so he begins to see the tragedy from a new perspective and his healing begins. He even glimpses his resurrected daughter fully restored. It’s a strange, daring book. Young informs us that the title is a metaphor for "the house you build out of your own pain” And certainly he knew pain as a child. He writes on his website that “sexual abuse was a frequent part of my childhood. In fact I don’t remember life as a little boy without it being the one constant.” Tragically his missionary parents were unaware of the torment he was experiencing.” The film goes further in that the main character, Mack, suffers physical abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father. He seeks God’s help but as a 13-year-old boy takes matters into his own hands and seeks to poison his father with strychnine. But otherwise, as far as I can remember, the film stays close to the book – except that in the film the serial killer is not brought to justice. As a film it was okay. “Not a dry eye in the house,” someone observed. It does captures the sheer terror of the discovery that your lovely daughter has been seized by a serial killer. A little-bit over the top at the conclusion where everyone lives happy-ever-after. Moreover I appreciated the film version of Elousia, again a warm and welcoming character who makes great breakfasts. Count me in. However, the later depiction of God the Father by a native American elder didn’t register for me. In fact, I would hesitate to buy a second-hand car from him. Jesus the middle-Eastern carpenter seemed friendly enough. He enjoys going for runs (on water), which I appreciated, though probably too fast for me now. While Sarayu the Holy Spirit was a little bit too ethereal. The film works, like the book, in giving us a context for unexplained suffering. We see through a glass darkly. However, God welcomes us into a loving, caring relationship with him for he is love. He delights in us and is pained as we suffer. Clearly for Young, the writer, the book – which he never intended for publication – was part of his own healing process. He writes: “It took fifty years to find that little child hidden in a closet deep in the basement recesses of a broken structure. It is me that God loves, with all my losses and hiding and devastating choices. And it is you that God loves. You and me, we are the ones that Jesus, along with his Father and the Holy Spirit, left the ninety-nine to go find. This love is relentless, and we are not powerful enough to change it.” However, the very heart of the Shack, both book and film, is seriously flawed. There is no need for Jesus to be crucified. Yes, Jesus shows Mack his wounds – but that’s as far as it goes. Certainly the cross is not integral to Young’s plot. As Young’s fellow American, Billy Graham, teaches: “God proved His love on the Cross. When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, 'I love you.” And that is where we begin. Fundamentally the cross of Jesus, how it works, is a mystery. We can use analogies and metaphors but they can only go so far. At its basic level the cross is beyond our understanding but by no means beyond our experience. “Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free!” (Ephesians 1:7 Message translation). Such is his compassion God comes to us in our pain to share our pain. And he calls us to do likewise, to go in his name and share the pain and abandonment of others A story for Armistice Day tomorrow. In the trenches army chaplain Studdert Kennedy (aka Woodbine Willie) hears of a small party of solders marooned in no-man’s land trying to save a colleague. On hearing his cries of pain they had gone out to comfort him but now they too are trapped and under heavy fire. They too cried out in pain and distress. So Kennedy crawls out, under fire, just to be with them. As he made contact the astonished soldiers ask “Who are you?” “The Church,” he replied. “What on earth are you doing here? asked the soldier. “My job,” replied Kennedy. Our job too in Jesus’ name.