It had just enough time to spread by word of mouth and become such a viral sensation that a copy wound up in my aunt and uncle’s living room.
This is the uncle and aunt who’re active and involved in their local church, with the heart for missions and ministry, and a tremendous generosity and love for other people. This uncle and aunt really love Jesus–they aren’t unique in the family in that way, but their commitment to Christ and the Gospel is unquestioned, which I feel needs to be underscored because of all the negative things being said about The Shack and the people who read and enjoy it.
The book was just lying there on an end table or a hassock, waiting for someone to read it…
So I picked it up and started reading.
The story drew me in. I connected emotionally with this character who is grieving deeply the heartrending loss of his child, and the loss of the joy at the heart of his marriage and his faith.
I was going through a pretty bad time right then as well, so I really connected.
The story spoke to me. I was deeply moved by the characters and their pain and suffering, and I felt encouraged by the ending.
But here’s the deal: I never thought of taking my theology from this book. Why? Because it’s a work of fiction.
Apparently, though, there are a lot of Christians who want to read theological implications into works of fiction instead of understanding a very fundamental truth:
A work of fiction is a story that isn’t true. It’s FICTION.
That means that everything in the story can be made up: the characters, their history, the setting, what happens to them in the story, what they say, what they do, WHAT THEY BELIEVE, everything. Fiction doesn’t accurately reflect real life.
You can’t take your theology from a work of fiction.
You may want the only fiction that you read to reflect and embody your preferred brand of theological purity, but here’s another truth for you:
Not everyone in Christianity shares your exacting theological beliefs!
And that’s okay: they can disagree with you theologically and still be good Christians! They can even be great writers of fiction.
You can enjoy the stories they tell and appreciate how their writing speaks to you and makes you think, and makes you re-examine why you believe what you believe–without them somehow sucking you over to the dark side and mystically morphing you into a radioactive version of the anti-Christ!
It’s the difference between Jesus Christ telling parables and Paul’s discussion of the theological implications of salvation in the Book of Romans.
A parable is a story that uses fiction as a literary device to illustrate a spiritual truth. At some point, the illustration begins to break down–and that’s okay–because it’s a story. You don’t expect more from it than it has to give you.
Paul’s theological discussion of salvation in Romans, however, is very straightforward. Every statement is exacting, the theology is clearly defined. There are no parallels to be drawn, no poetic language that exaggerates. And it’s the gold standard of what we believe about our salvation and how we are to live as Christians.
People have always enjoyed and connected emotionally with stories. That’s why there are so many recorded in the Bible, and why Jesus told parables.
Sound theology is vitally important to our faith, but people who are just learning about Christianity, who are being drawn to the faith, and new Christians are less likely to understand or truly appreciate theological treatises, and they are more likely to lack the patience or the perseverance to study theology and understand or apply it properly. But everyone loves a good story.
And that’s okay.
If you want a work of sound theology that adheres to your specific set of beliefs, then I encourage you to buy books on theology (properly vetted, of course).
But if you want great fiction from a Christian perspective that speaks to your heart, then… The Shack is definitely that.
In my own writing (you may have noticed that I also write fiction), my characters have an ambivalent relationship with an established church that may look an awful lot like the Catholic (or Orthodox) church to you. Not everyone of faith in my stories belongs to that church. Some people are evangelical. Some people are of other religious persuasions altogether, or even agnostic or atheist.
This makes for great conversations about spiritual matters as well as opportunities for internal and external conflict that help drive my stories forward.
Where there is discussion of spiritual matters, I try to reflect biblical precepts. But I probably won’t be able to satisfy anyone’s need for hearing only their narrow point of view on theological and spiritual matters either–because that isn’t what telling a good story is about.
That doesn’t mean that sound theology doesn’t matter to me as a Christian. It very much does!
But as a teller of stories where life gets messy and nobody’s all that perfect, theology becomes secondary to faith lived out through the highs and lows, and the rough spots my characters find themselves in.
I like that it’s so, and I make no apology for it.
And I’m sure that the author of Shack wouldn’t either.