If I write about the creation, I come under attack from some quarters. If I talk about the sacredness of marriage and family in the context of today’s confusing societal signals, I get some flack. If the subject is the Sabbath, someone is sure to take offense. And the list goes on.
I knew all that. Yet I had the temerity to write about The Shack,* of all things; and a small tempest descended on my head.
Well, no, it was not all negative; and I probably should begin with that. When I went to church the week after the article came out, Ministry magazine editor Nik Satelmajer pulled me aside. “That was a classic!” he said. One of the sharp-eared pastors, overhearing his remarks from inside the vestry, emerged to add her plaudits. She’d recently been picking up some buzz about the book from a nearby Adventist educational institution, and was glad to see someone take on the subject.
Others wrote in their support—among them, Edwin Reynolds of Ooltewah, Tennessee, who expressed his amazement at “the number of Adventists who acclaim The Shack and see nothing wrong with it.” Carla Baker of Laurel, Maryland, wrote in to thank me “for having the courage to speak out against practices in some of our churches that strike at the very core of Adventist beliefs.” And Karri Walde from Walla Walla, Washington, offered me her compliments for taking a “stand against the current evil of compromise that is creeping … into our churches.” Yet she found it “absolutely appalling!!!” (sic)that I could turn around and suggest that teachers might assign the book for outside reading in their classes. “When instructors and those in positions of authority assign something, the assumption is ‘they must think it is OK,’” she said. (Actually, there is, ipso facto, no such assumption. What’s critical here is the supervision provided. We build strong students, not by sheltering them from every unorthodox exposure, but by providing informed, spiritual guidance as they encounter contrarian ideas and influences.)
Nevertheless, Walde’s concern was by way of wishing I’d have been stronger in my position, a far cry from other letters I received. Three samples:
1. Reader A: “As an SDA hospice chaplain sensitive to issues around death, I have a few serious concerns regarding Roy Adams article…. I feel that sometimes my fellow SDA brothers and sisters have no idea [of] the great spiritual pain, and the possible feelings of repulsion, that can take place from an indiscriminate defense of our state of the dead doctrine. I am surprise[d] that Adams and Cullmann don’t appreciate people’s deep-seated emotional antipathy to the implications of this doctrine…. To a person who has lost … a beloved child, spouse, or family member, the truth of what we are saying is that their loved one no longer exists! What a hopeless thought…. When you love someone, you desire only their good, and to hear that your friend the SDA believes that there is no soul that God cares for, no place of happiness that they can envision their loved one in can be hurtful and offensive.”
2. Reader B: “Mr. Adams begins his article by criticizing the beautiful music of Ave Maria…. [I did no such thing!] I am a “fourth-generation Seventh-day Adventist—and a descendent of a union conference president. It troubles me to see the narrow-mindedness displayed in Roy Adams’ article…. I believe the Bible teaches that the soul is immortal” [italics supplied]. (I couldn’t believe what I was reading here about the soul, coming from a self-described “fourth generation Adventist”! No wonder I come across as narrow-minded!)
3. Reader C: “I find it highly disappointing that Mr. Adams was not able to see past a relatively minor theological difference in order to see the beautiful message in the book…. Having read it, I completely agree with Eugene Patterson’s [sic] thoughts that ‘this book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.’ And contrary to Roy’s impression, there is no theological agenda other than painting a picture of God that is more approachable and relatable than the typical dry religions tend to make Him out to be….
“Roy gets the entire basis of his argument regarding what The Shack is about in a very short scene in which Mack, the main character, sees and holds his dead daughter in a scenario orchestrated by God…. According to the Bible, Moses died and was buried, yet he appeared at the Transfiguration, did he not? According to the Adventist ideology about the state of the dead, how is that explained? …
“[Roy’s] comment about God being about ‘relationships,’ and then comparing the God of The Shack to the God of Jeremiah … heck, compare the God of the Old Testament to the God of the New Testament (discounting Revelation) and you have a stark contrast in the very Word of God, so that argument is null and void…. I’m very disappointed, discouraged, and downright angry that this article was printed, as it really does more damage to the Adventist “brand,” to borrow Roy’s word.”
(Incidentally, one wonders: Does this reader really not know why Adventists have no trouble with Moses appearing at the Transfiguration? Strange! And he suggests a contrast between “the God of the Old Testament” and “the God of the New Testament (discounting Revelation).” Well, leave out the book of Revelation, if you wish; but then, how about Matthew 7:21-23; 18:5, 6; 23:13-36? 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10? Hebrews 10:26-31; 12:18-29? 2 Peter 3:3-13? Jude 3-32? The New Testament is full of these “inconvenient” passages. It’s what Billy Graham once perceptively called “the bad news of the gospel.”)
Three Things I Found in the Letters
1. Anger. It was as if I’d violated something utterly sacred to these writers. My article left Reader C “disappointed, discouraged, and downright angry.” And in that knee-jerk mood, these respondents never noticed that the purpose of my article was not, as such, to condemn The Shack, but to question its endorsement in front of our students and youth.
2. Something bordering on embarrassment vis-à-vis our belief about the state of the dead. Just look at Reader A’s letter again. As early as college, theology students are taught not to foist our belief about the state of the dead upon a grieving non-Adventist family or congregation. It’s so elementary that I shook my head to hear the lecture about it. That aside, I was surprised by the extreme reticence being recommended here—because the biblical teaching on the subject could be “hurtful and offensive.” Wow! The last funeral service I did, my text was John 10:27-30. Read it and tell me where you can find a more hope-filled message. The preaching of the resurrection should leave mourners yearning for a better world.
3. A simplistic naïveté. Perhaps Eugene Peterson would himself chuckle to hear his words—promotional hyperbole on a book jacket—swallowed so enthusiastically by Reader C. Can any literary critic or theologian make a credible case that The Shack comes anywhere cloes to the theological and philosophical depth of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? In the article I described The Shack as “a dream wrapped up in a coma inside a work of fiction,” with everything “fluid, esoteric, misty.” Yet these respondents see the work as a superb source from which postmodern skeptics can receive clarity about what kind of God we have—the Bible perhaps being too dull? But after we’ve led postmoderns to the amiable God of The Shack, then what? Are we then ready to have them meet the God of the whole Bible?
Scripture reveals a God infinitely more merciful and gracious than The Shack could ever portray; but also a God who is exceedingly more complex; a God who cannot be reduced to one simple attribute or characteristic. If we’re after making solid Christians, we’d better be completely honest with our audience and not sugarcoat the evidence. To raise The Shack, de facto, to the level of sacred text is silly and naive. Imaginative fiction, however well-meaning, can never trump the Word of God.
*William Paul Young, The Shack (Newbury Park, Calif.: Windblown Media, 2007). See Adventist World, May 2010, pp. 30, 31, NAD edition.
Roy Adams is an associate editor of Adventist World.