Recently, on the International House of Prayer’s website, an article was posted about the new movie The Shack, based on the book of the same name. It was written by Jono Hall, COO of IHOP-KC, and is entitled Is the Film, The Shack Heresy? I’ll be quoting the article in full, albeit in chunks, but feel free to click on the link provided and read it in one go before continuing here. For the sake of visual organization, any part quoted from the article will be typed in purple.
Before we begin the article proper, I want to, in the immortal words of Prince Humperdinck, “skip to the end,” and address a section added at the end of the article:
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the International House of Prayer.
Whoa, wait a minute, IHOP-KC! This isn’t a guest-post you permitted someone from another organization to put up; this was posted on your website, shared by your Twitter account, and was written not only by one of your staff members, but your Chief-Operations-Officer – in other words, someone in high-ranking leadership. That’s not to mention that, according to his biography, he is “an instructor at IHOPU in subjects such as church history, basic christian beliefs, and media production,” and his wife is “Director of Forerunner Media Institute at IHOPU.” My point is, don’t post something by one of your top and most influential leaders, go out and advertise it, then try, at the same time, to distance yourself from it, or leave some wiggle room to escape if this backfires. This is your baby, IHOP-KC – own it.
As we dig deeper into the article, the discerning reader will see just why IHOP-KC might want some wiggle room.
Across the country this week, church pastors and teachers will stand before congregations, open their Bible, and talk about God. They will try, as they are able, to convey something about who God is, His divine nature, His attributes, His ways, and His emotions. My guess is that few will get it exactly right, unless all they do is read the Bible. Some will seriously misrepresent God. Teaching about God is a heavy responsibility and that is why James said, “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). My question is, how wrong do these people have to be to be considered “heretics” by other brothers?
The reason I bring this up is because of the hubbub around a movie that will be released today (March 3) called The Shack. I’m sure you have heard of the book; it has, after all, sold over 22 million copies. It has ministered healing to the many millions who have read it, but, on the other side of the coin, has provoked a firestorm of criticism from those who call it heresy and false teaching and say it should be avoided in the same way as pornography.
Immediately we have a classic ploy used by many to soften the blow of heresy by in essence appealing to divergent viewpoints. Mr. Hall basically tells us, “Thousands will preach the Bible on Sunday, but only few will get it exactly right, will they not?” This leads into the question, “how wrong do these people have to be to be considered ‘heretics’ by other brothers?”
One would think from this that we were discussing topics like who you think wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, or whether you’re a Postmillennial that believes the thousand years are literal or a Postmillennial that holds it’s figurative. I wish this were the case, since one could rightfully say that we should be gracious about divergent views; unfortunately, this isn’t at all what we are talking about. We’re talking about a story which portrays God the Father bearing crucifixion scars, which talks about theological issues but never once quotes the Bible, and which portrays judgment in light of personal reconciliation sans any justice of God.
What Mr. Hall is doing here is equivocating lighter differences with larger ones, as if we should treat one like the other. While that may not seem terribly obvious here, it will become more clear as we continue.
Before I examine some of the controversy, I do want to say that we were visited last week by Brad Cummings who is both co-writer of the novel and co-producer of the film. As Brad served as a pastor at the Malibu Vineyard Fellowship during the 1990’s, we found we had mutual friends and we shared some stories before I listened to some of Brad’s personal, and at times painful, journey in the making of The Shack. We spent an enjoyable time together talking about some of the challenges that people have had with the novel before we saw a preview of the movie.
To give a little background to the storyline of The Shack, it follows a man named Mack who, after the murder of one of his children, is invited to spend time in a mountain shack with three individuals who turn out to be the three persons of the Trinity. The ensuing conversations and interactions with “God” lead to much healing in Mack’s life.
I must say I really enjoyed the movie. It was a well-told story of forgiveness and healing. I always have grace for movie directors who are trying to reduce a cherished book into a much-shortened movie format. Meddling with people’s imaginations is always going to be a challenge. However, I think that the storm of criticism surrounding The Shack is found in another area entirely!
That the story is about a man meeting God representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit inside a shack should have immediately sent up red flags for Mr. Hall. As I pointed out in my own review of the book, this is in essence a really bad metaphor of the Trinity put into novel form, now film. It’s on par with comparing the Trinity to water being liquid, ice, or steam (which is Modalism), or comparing the Trinity to a man who’s a grandfather, a father, and an uncle (again, Modalism).
At this point in the article, Mr. Hall begins writing on the representation of God in the movie.
The fact that, for most of the story, the three persons of the Trinity are conveyed as Papa, a black female played by Octavia Spencer; the Spirit, called Sarayu, and played by Sumire Matsubara; and Jesus, played by Aviv Alush, the first Israeli Jew to play Jesus, has been a big challenge for many. While I’m not blogging here to defend The Shack, this fictional representation is understandable in the context of the story—a black female from Mack’s childhood represented healing, safety, and wisdom to Mack.
Note what Mr. Hall says at the end there: this “fictional representation” is “understandable” because “a black female” personally represents “healing, safety, and wisdom” to the main character. In other words, because a black female is something that the main character responds to personally, it is justifiable. This is similar to some liberals who argue that women who suffered abuse from their birth fathers should be permitted to call God “mother.”
I hope the discerning reader will not have to hear an explanation on why this is such a fallacious rationale. I have heard some white supremacists say that they reject Christianity because they could never worship a dark-skinned Jew on a cross – would Mr. Hall suggest that, in such a situation, presenting a blue-eyed, blond-haired Jesus before them would be far better? What if someone wrote such a story, in which a white supremacist encounters Jesus, who appears to him as someone who could pass for a Swedish bodybuilder? Would Mr. Hall be alright with this, since it’s “understandable in the context of the story”?
What this mindset does is filter our orthodox understanding of God through our personal emotions and needs. The fact is, there are certain realities about God that we cannot deny based upon our personal feelings and emotions. What we know from scripture is that Christ Himself refers to God the Father as “father” (Lk 23:46) and encourages believers to do likewise (Mt 6:9). The Holy Spirit is referred to by masculine pronouns in the original Greek of the New Testament (cf. Jn 14:26). The reality of God and His existence simply is – and it’s not too concerned with someone’s personal feelings or needs.
The Shack is a work of fiction, and therefore what the authors have done is to present something of who God is in much the same way that C.S. Lewis tried to present Aslan the Lion as a type of Christ. I think we can always have the conversation of whether this is covered by the prohibition on making graven images in Exodus 20, but I would submit if we are going to apply this consistently, we must then be careful about illustrations for God in children’s Bibles and also how we describe God in the pulpit. I think what is clear is that these are not graven idols that people are physically worshipping. If we are shocked because Papa is portrayed as a black female and not a Caucasian male, then we might have some other issues!
The appeal to Aslan is problematic for a reason found within Mr. Hall’s own wording; that is, he himself admits that Aslan is “a type of Christ.” Aslan was meant to represent Christ in metaphor, not in reality. Throughout the history of literature and film, there have been many characters who were meant to represent a Christ-like figure, but we’re not talking about that here – the Jesus of The Shack is supposed to be literally Christ Himself. To compare the two is completely erroneous. This confusion was seen even earlier in the article, when Mr. Hall wrote on Mack’s “ensuing conversations and interactions with ‘God,'” with “God” in quotations as if it’s not really God in the Shack. The fact is, William Paul Young’s book is about the literal God, and the three characters in the Shack are supposed to be the actual Trinitarian God of the Bible.
The appeal to “children’s Bibles” and other artistic portrayals of God is a common one being made by some supporters of The Shack, but is likewise problematic. For one, it’s an ad hominem tu quoque fallacy: that there exist other poor visual representations of God, even socially acceptable ones, does not deny that the visual representations in The Shack are unacceptable. For another, there are plenty of criticisms, and discussions, out there regarding portrayals of God (especially God the Father) in art and film. Regardless, whatever erroneous portrayals of God the Father or God the Holy Spirit as men may exist, portraying them as females only adds error upon error. As pointed out before, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are referred to in scripture, even by Christ, with masculine pronouns. In fact, one has to wonder why there even needs to be any discussion on gender and the Trinity in the first place.
As for the notion that people aren’t worshiping these characters as graven idols, I would contend there are other ways to worship idols which we may not be aware of. Many who have read The Shack, or will see the movie, see the portrayal of God as who God really is, and what God really believes, when all of it is simply untrue. They will think what Jesus teaches and espouses in The Shack is what Christ really intends people to believe about him. In this sense, even if they realize God is not a black woman named Papa, they will be worshiping an idol of William Young’s creation.
Perhaps of greater concern to us, however, is the subject of universal reconciliation, the belief that in the end everyone will be saved. It was unclear in the novel what the belief of the author was. Brad was very clear, as co-author, that he did not believe universal reconciliation was a teaching found in the Bible and did not want the movie to be as open-ended as the book in relation to this subject. (He did say that the lead author, Wm Paul Young, had a different theological background.) The movie, however, did not open this door. The movie did provide some initial thoughts around the subject of the wrath of God with which I would respectfully have to disagree, but here I think is the ultimate challenge of portraying both the kindness and severity of God (Romans 11:22)—both His Father heart and His Holy transcendence. I thought they did the former well, but perhaps not the latter.
It’s amazing that Mr. Hall presents so much vagueness around the original novel’s interpretation of judgment: he says that it’s “unclear” and “open-ended” what William Paul Young’s beliefs are, only knowing that Young has “a different theological background.” I think anyone who read the original book would see that, while it might have been vague enough to give wiggle room for denying “universal reconciliation,” it certainly wasn’t orthodox or biblical. Young’s portrayal of “judgment” is far closer to the ancient heresy of apocatastasis, which was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 553 AD. Gregory of Nyssa, talking about the belief, is quoted as saying:
The punishment by fire is not, therefore, an end in itself, but is ameliorative; the very reason of its infliction is to separate the good from the evil in the soul. The process, moreover, is a painful one; the sharpness and duration of the pain are in proportion to the evil of which each soul is guilty; the flame lasts so long as there is any evil left to destroy. A time, then, will come, when all evil shall cease to be since it has no existence of its own apart from the free will, in which it inheres; when every free will shall be turned to God, shall be in God, and evil shall have no more wherein to exist. [source]
Compare this with the notion of “judgment” found in the original Shack novel. Mack finds his father, who had abused him, struggling and suffering with the guilt of his past, and it is only after Mack forgives his father that they both find some reconciliation. Mack is then told by Sophia (the personification of Wisdom from Proverbs) that “judgment is not about destruction, but about setting things right.” While it would be wrong to say these two beliefs are identical, my point in bringing this up is to illustrate how William Paul Young’s view of judgment fits far closer to historical heresies than it does anything that can be considered orthodox. It makes judgment a more personal, horizontal action within human society, rather than a crime against the almighty God. It makes senseless entire sections of the prophetic books and Revelation, and renders pointless the words of scripture that “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (He 10:31).
I would certainly agree with Mr. Hall that those speaking on the judgment of God face “the ultimate challenge of portraying both the kindness and severity of God”; it is a dangerous trap to fall into where a person might emphasize one without minimizing the other. However, to shrug off error found in The Shack with, “Well, William Paul Young is kinda vague about it, and he’s from a different theological background,” is to play fast and loose with what the reader is presented. William Young did not simply portray the severity of God’s judgment poorly – he didn’t portray it at all.
As we watched the movie, while I personally might have done things differently, I found it very enjoyable, certainly very emotional and healing in character, much as the novel before had been. As I watched, I kept looking over at a security guard to my left—she had tears in her eyes. The next morning, Brad posted on social media, “So the security guard from last night’s screening in Kansas City pulls me aside while we are finishing up—a wonderful black lady—and she says: ‘I see an awful lot of movies, and hands down this is the best one I have seen—EVER!’—and gives me a huge hug and holds on. I just squeezed back, having no real idea the depth of what was transacting in her, but loving whatever it was. When we let go and stepped back, her eyes were beaming but with tears full to the brim.”
Once again, there is an appeal to personal emotion. The argument presented here is basically, “Someone who watched The Shack was moved to tears and said it was the best movie ever – surely it has to be good!” By such logic, those who wept when Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election must be justified in their reaction, and Hillary Clinton – a woman most hostile to the Christian worldview – should have become president.
Sadly, that such a mindset is coming from IHOP-KC does not surprise me. When speaking to members in the past, and attempting to show the errors of Mike Bickle’s teachings, the most common response I get is, “I feel personally fulfilled, that’s how I know it’s right.” When you listen to the testimonies of those who have joined IHOP-KC, one common theme is that they were personally moved by what was going on, and that was why they joined. This is simply the logical conclusion of the Charismatic doctrine of solus adfectus, or “emotions alone,” over and against sola scriptura. If someone is moved to tears, and it involves God, then it doesn’t matter what else we know about it – it has to be real. When we adopt such a mindset, we shouldn’t be shocked if unbiblical portrayals of God seem alright to us, based mostly on the notion that someone is emotionally “healed” by it.
Indeed, the continual mantra that The Shack has “ministered healing” to its readers or viewers shows just why William Young’s work is so seductive in its nature: because it attacks a person’s soul at its worst. Many people I’ve encountered who liked the book read it when they were struggling with depression or some deep sadness in their life, and felt that the book assisted them. However, just as one might be tempted to harm their physical bodies by turning to alcohol or drugs to combat depression, so too can the devil tempt one with spiritual harm by leading a suffering person into false doctrine. Being personally satisfied is not a mark of being healed, but rather complete, perfect healing found in the comfort of the true God, and the true Gospel – and one will find neither in The Shack.
The final part of the article:
I am sure this movie will bring healing to many and, no, I don’t believe it is heresy!
Thank you, Brad.
Recall that earlier Mr. Hall stated, “I’m not blogging here to defend The Shack.” In the process of “not defending” The Shack, Mr. Hall has…
- Claimed the book “ministered healing to the many millions who have read it.”
- Defended the intentions of the novel’s co-writer and the film’s co-producer.
- Said he considered the movie a “well-told story of forgiveness and healing.”
- Defended the visual representations of God the Father, calling them “understandable,” and even comparing it to Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia.
- Played apologist for the film’s depiction of judgment.
- Said he found the film “very enjoyable, certainly very emotional and healing in character, much as the novel before had been,” adding that he is “sure this movie will bring healing to many.”
- Cited a person being moved to tears and called it the best film they had ever seen.
- Thanked the co-writer and co-producer for his work involved with The Shack.
- Deemed that The Shack wasn’t heresy.
I can only wish more people would not-defend me in this way!
Let me remind the reader that Jono Hall is an instructor at IHOPU for church history and “basic christian beliefs,” and yet he seems unable, during the course of his examination of The Shack, to identify historical heresies and fundamental problems found within. Gross doctrinal errors found in William Paul Young’s writing, noticeable to discernment ministries and laymen alike, were gleaned over or minimized. At best, Mr. Hall said in this article that there were some points or teachings which he would “respectfully have to disagree” with, while on Twitter he said he had “far fewer” issues with the movie than the book. (A book which, if you remember, he said “ministered healing to the many millions.”)
IHOP-KC can add all the disclaimers they want, and Mr. Hall can swear up and down he’s not defending anything, but that won’t change things. The fact remains that someone at the leadership of IHOP-KC, on IHOP-KC’s website, just gave what is considered the poster boy for heretical fiction a passing grade. The COO of IHOP-KC has come out and said that he believes The Shack is not heresy.
You can’t get around that.
More surprising to me is that the language used in the article is similar to that found in Emergent and progressive circles: the objections people make to The Shack are not criticisms of unbiblical doctrines, but are merely “challenges” they have with the story; erroneous portrayals of God are perfectly fine so long as someone gets some personal fulfillment from the story. I wonder if any supposed contradictions between scripture and The Shack would be shrugged off as “tensions” that we can permit to exist?
In the past, I’ve extensively covered the strange doctrines coming out of IHOP-KC, not only in regards to the end time prophecies, but their teachings on prayer, God’s power, and Christ’s humanity. In all those moments, they had maintained some level of an orthodox facade, certainly in regards to topics such as the judgment of God or the importance of gleaning from the Bible. Here, on the other hand, we have someone from IHOP-KC’s leadership calling heresy orthodoxy and defending it with someone crying at a movie. Is this a sign of where IHOP-KC is going? Are they becoming more Emergent in their theology? Or are they simply growing more liberal in some areas? Is this part of the trend that many have noticed, which is that IHOP-KC is attempting to mainstream itself more?
If this is the case, I honestly would not be surprised if Doug Pagitt or Jory Micah spoke at a future OneThing conference – and I don’t write that in jest. Either way, I may very well have to continue monitoring what is coming out of Kansas City.