The following is a guest post from Orthodox theologian and author Brad Jersak (PhD).
Paul Young’s bestseller finally hits the big screen on March 3. That’s news—great news—as I’ll explain shortly.
What’s not news is how the so-called ‘discernment ministries’ (a euphemism for heresy-hunters) have begun yelping. They’re recycling ‘ye olde’ objections but, typically, barking up the wrong tree.
The charge of ‘heresy’ is serious, so it ought to be taken seriously, especially by those wielding it. But as an Orthodox theologian, I confess that its sloppy use as a pejorative, grates on my doctrinal nerves.
For example, the outcry against Young’s creative portrayal of God’s ‘Threeness’ or his imaging the invisible God as a black woman betrays a crass literalism that the author obviously never intended.
Rublev’s Trinity and Modern Misogyny
Russian painter Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity would seem to break the same rules as The Shack where Abram and Sarai’s three angelic guests were eventually identified with Father, Son and Holy Spirit—one God depicted as three persons. Yet in Eastern iconography, the Father is elsewhere depicted because the visible image of God is reserved for Jesus Christ alone.
So how is it, I ask, that Rublev’s icon isn’t tossed onto the book-burning stacks along with The Shack. No doubt it would have been if Orthodox believers were incapable of using limited human expressions (words or pictures) for the divine mysteries.
Those who miss a point so obvious should recuse themselves from the doctrinal judgement seat and perhaps read John of Damascus’ Exact Exposition of Orthodox Doctrine before rendering further verdicts.
But isn’t it odd that we should have no such eruption when God is rendered in art or literature as a towering white King? Or a great roaring lion? Or a lowly shepherd? Yes, these are biblical metaphors (only) … as is Jesus’ parabolic description of God the woman, urgently scouring her home for the lost coin.
I’m obligated to ask the question: is the actual shock of The Shack not rooted in racism and misogyny?
The Father can be a lion, a lamb, a shepherd or a king, but not a black woman or a native American man? The Spirit can be a dove, a fire or a gust of wind, but not an ethereal Asian woman (the Hebrew pronouns for ‘Spirit’ notwithstanding)?
Unveiling the ‘Violent God’ Heresy
But if we must speak of heresy, The Shack ‘goes there.’ It addresses and debunks the actual heresy that depicts God as an angry, wrathful and violent deity. We might consult the great Church Fathers for their verdict. After all, they gave us the doctrines of the Trinity, the full deity of Jesus Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit. They composed the ancient creeds and penned an abundance of still-in-print works Against Heresy. What do they say?
We have space for one example.
St. John Cassian, in Institutes 8.4, concedes that speaking of God using anthropomorphisms (attributing human traits to God) is because of our limited perspective and language. But he warns us not to literalize anthropomorphisms or we create an idol. Specifically, speaking of God as if he here actually ‘angry,’ Cassian says,
“… these things cannot without horrible sacrilege be literally understood of him who is declared by the authority of Holy Scripture to be invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, inestimable, simple, and uncomposite, <strong>the disturbance of anger (not to mention wrath) cannot be attributed to that immutable nature without monstrous blasphemy.”
So, says Cassian, St. John the Damascene, St. Antony the Great, Athanasius and the great company of Christianity’s founding theologians. And yes, Paul Young as well.
It’s true: Scripture uses the language of ‘wrath,’ but where do we get the idea that God actually reacts in violence and vengeance? Cassian explains that God’s anger is in the eye of the beholder: “With whatever mildness and gentleness of spirit it [God’s corrective judgement] may be carried out, this is nonetheless considered high wrath and the cruelest anger by those who are to be deservedly punished” (Inst. 8.4.3).
In other words, when humanity rebels, punishes us, corrects us, but the fearful and guilty project their fears onto God as ‘wrath’ and retribution. He can’t lift a finger without being labeled as a punisher.
This is why, even today, a Christianity of repressed moralism identifies with an angry God but find The Shack’s Papa unfamiliar and offensive.
The Shack as anti-venom for religious poisoned viewers
And this is the front line of the spiritual battle ensuing in a theatre near you on March 3. The Shack wades headlong into the fray, exposing the heresy and idolatry of god the retributive punisher with the one true God who speaks and acts exactly like Christ! The God of The Shack fails to live down to our militaristic, violent, vengeful, patriarchal expectations and theological presumptions.
Well, that kind of behaviour got Jesus crucified, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it gets Young’s movie a few haters.
And this is precisely why The Shack is so important right now. It unveils toxic representations of God as an emperor with no clothes. And it displaces them with the cruciform God of the Gospels—the self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering God of love revealed in Christ.
In a year when the Sanhedrin in America were guilty of campaigning for a crueler, condemning and more exclusive deity, The Shack movie will be a welcome anti-venom for religion-poisoned viewers who come to behold the face of Love and say, “If God were like that, I’d give him one more chance.”