C. Baxter Kruger, The Theology of Paul Young's Book The Shack
C. Baxter Kruger earned his PhD in 1989 from Kings College, University of Aberdeen, studying under James B. Torrance. He is president of Perichoresis, a non-profit ministry.
William Young’s book The Shack illustrates the triune God’s love for all humanity.
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JMF: Since you’ve been here last, you’ve been doing some traveling (among many other things) with Paul Young, author of The Shack, and giving some seminars with him. Could you tell us what’s going on?
CBK: The first time we met was in Virginia two and a half years ago, and we became friends and we started talking. The way we met was through Tim Brassell emailing Paul, and telling Paul that I had written the theology that goes with The Shack.
JMF: Tim, being one of our pastors.
CBK: One of your pastors in Portsmouth, Virginia. Then Paul picked up that phone and calls me. I’m like, “I can’t believe you’re calling me, I mean everybody in the world wants to talk to you.” But we talked and we became soulmates quickly as we realized we were on the same page. Then we started doing some seminars and things like that together, and we did a tour of Australia through our network – Perichoresis network down there, and we’ve done several seminars together. Recently, I’ve been asked to do more lectures on the “Theology of The Shack” or things like that. It just sort of evolved and happened, and it’s been beautiful. He’s a fantastic man. I love to spend time with him.
JMF: We’ve had Paul on our program and talked about The Shack and some of the concepts of God that are so earth-shaking for many people who read it. People either love it, or they hate it. How do you account for that?
CBK: I think the scene where Papa comes out and embraces Mackenzie Allen Phillips and the way it’s set up, I think that right across the Western world, we all have two different gods. One is the god of our constructs in our mind, and the other is the God that we know in the depths of our soul. This God here [in the heart] is the Father, Son, and Spirit, and love and grace and goodness. And this God here [in the heart] that we know loves us more than we love our own kids.
But that does not fit the theological constructs that we’ve been hearing – the doctrine of Atonement fights against this view, this knowing of God. When that scene happens in The Shack… Actually, Mackenzie Allen Phillips goes to the shack three times. The first time was to find the remains of his daughter. The second time he goes to meet Papa, but the Western God is what he is thinking was going to happen, and that God never shows up. He ends up shaking his fist in that scene and says, “I hate you and that’s it, done, not doing that.” That’s the whole Western legalistic ogre God who watches us from a distance, more interested in whether we keep rules and relationship, and then he leaves and he rejects that God. “I don’t want anything else to do with that.”
He walks back to the Jeep and the whole world changes. He goes back and again he raises his fist. It’s to knock on the door and he doesn’t even get to knock – the door flies open and there’s Papa and lifts him off the ground. That scene speaks right here [the heart] to everybody on the planet. They know somewhere in here, that’s the truth about God.
But it just goes “bzzzztt!!” to all of our constructs. It creates a crisis. Right there in the opening scene, everybody wants to be there, but people who have a lot invested in this God [in the head] are seriously threatened by the awareness that people have here that this is good, this is beautiful. Who doesn’t want to be embraced? The news is – that’s the truth, we’re all embraced like that. That’s the gospel.
JMF: This concept of God being the far-away judge, we’re uncertain of how he feels about us, where does that come from?
CBK: It’s the construct of the fallen mind. It’s Adam and Eve in the bushes, guilty, ashamed, afraid… and they project that fear and that guilt and that shame onto the Lord’s face. They tar the Father’s face with the brush of their own anxiety, and they create a mythological deity.
JMF: Isn’t that pretty much the way all of the … if you go back all through ancient history, that’s the idea of religion and the gods, and the gods who are in the elements and the gods in the sky – there’s always this sense of… you don’t know what they are going to do next. They’re like us, they’re unpredictable, you’ve got to urge them or get …
CBK: You’ve got to twist their arms somehow because they’re not for you. That’s the projection of the fallen mind onto God creating the image… Someone in Australia (I can’t remember who it was) said, “God created us in his image and we’ve been returning the favor ever since.” That’s the tarring of the Father’s face with the brush of our own pain and struggle and anxiety and guilt. The perfect philosophical expression of that is in Greek philosophy, and as it emerges in neoplatonic philosophy, where you have God as the one that’s removed – infinitely removed – from the earth, because this is matter, and matter is broken and sinful. This God is removed and isolated, so pure and self-contained and non-relational that this God is beyond being known and can’t even feel anything that happens here.
That’s the origin of the Western mindset on God. Then you throw into that: legalism, so this distant, removed God is, in his innermost essence, holy in a legally defined way – moral rectitude, purity in that way as opposed to “holy” as a Trinitarian concept, which is about the singularity, beauty and goodness of the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit. You’ve got two Gods.
JMF: That gives us this idea, this huge gulf between God and us. Then in the evangelism training you are taught, you have to explain to people there’s a huge gulf between them and God. [CBK: Yeah, because Jesus hasn’t come.] Now you can get him to become this bridge for you “if you say the sinner’s prayer with me right now.” He will be the bridge and you can get across to God.
CBK: To me that’s just like pure neoplatonic philosophy coming in, because it denies, in the first instance, it’s as if the Incarnation hasn’t even happened. One of the ways around that for me is I like to put it this way: The gospel is not the news that you can receive Jesus into your life. The gospel is the news that the Father’s Son himself, who’s face to face with the Father, who’s anointed in the Holy Spirit, became a human being and he has received us into his life.
One is the Greek philosophical construct of separation and somehow, Jesus has done something and there’s a bridge and we can get back across because this God is too pure to even look at us.
Whereas the Trinitarian model is the Father, Son, and Spirit share life, and they’re passionate about our inclusion and Jesus has come, as the early church teaches – Irenaeus is a great example: “Our beloved Lord Jesus Christ became what we are in order to bring us to be what he is.” Athanasius: “The Son of God became the Son of Man to make us sons of God...” because the point is to share that Trinitarian life with us.
In the Greek model, this is bad, Incarnation may be real but not really. In this model of the gospel, the Trinitarian gospel: Jesus becomes not only human, which is unthinkable on that other model – he becomes flesh, he becomes what we are and enters into our brokenness and darkness in order that the life that he shares with his Father and the Holy Spirit, could become as much as ours by way of experience as it is his own.
JMF: Isn’t that exactly what he says in John when he talks about, “I and the Father are one” and he says, “we are one with each other in him, we’re one with him, he’s one with the Father, therefore we’re one with the Father in him.” It’s been there all along.
CBK: But it doesn’t fit the great construct because there’s separation, there’s distance and un-approachability, and this god is so pure that in no way could he get entangled with humanity and matter – because that’s all so broken and so fallen. So even though we hear Incarnation, it just kind of moves out, we don’t pay much attention to it. We don’t underline those passages. What in the universe could be more shocking and stunning and beautiful than the fact that the Father’s Son himself – the one who is face-to-face with the Father, who dwells in his bosom, the one who is anointed with the Holy Spirit himself, becomes a human being to be with us? Is there any news more fantastic than that in the universe?
Why have we not seen it to be the point of emphasis? It’s because of the influence of the Greek model. That’s beginning to die down, it’s beginning to come in conflict… and books like The Shack, without doing any theology, without making any theological statement – that scene, you got two Gods, and that creates a crisis in us, because we know both Gods. Once you see the scene, you think, this has got to be resolved. That’s going to be difficult, and that’s where the crisis is in the book.
People love it here, but it, “Oh, no, that means… what about all this that I’ve been taught? What about all this that I thought was ‘gospel’ – it doesn’t fit.” I’m not talking about some sort of intuition here, I’m talking about a revelation of the Holy Spirit to us that this is the truth, this is who God is. It’s who you are. That’s the crisis in the book that it creates in the very beginning. It’s a beautiful crisis, liberating crisis.
JMF: It also raises the issue of justice and fairness and all this sort of thing, in the sense that this God of the academics that we have – the God on paper that we… with the gulf and all that, and who we have to become atoned for by behaving better after we make our decision and all that. There’s a sense that the bad guys need to be punished and cut off from God. But in The Shack, we are talking about a God who is presented in the Gospels who has already forgiven everyone in Christ. It raises this issue of: “How can it be that all the bad people, like in the book, the murderer of Mackenzie’s daughter, how can that person be loved by God and be embraced…?”
CBK: He and Mackenzie, too, because we don’t know exactly what he did to his dad, but it was not good.
JMF: Yeah, and so there’s a chapter on judgment where there’s a seat, and the Holy Spirit comes to talk about that topic with Mackenzie. That gets into this issue and resolves it, and many find that tremendously liberating because it speaks right to the gospel. But there are those… you can go to websites that take great exception, and find that horribly wrong and contrary to anything godly and righteous, because the bad guys seem to be getting away with something.
CBK: The first thing I would want to say there, my professor of theology J.B. Torrance, used to say all the time: “Forgiveness is logically prior to repentance and faith.” In the modern West, we’ve packaged it like: forgiveness is possible if these things line up, if you receive, if you pray… To me, forgiveness was instantaneous – Father, Son, and Spirit forgave Adam and Eve and forgave us. It’s not a question of their forgiveness, it’s a question of how are they going to reach us so that we know we are forgiven and we can begin to have real relationship with them?
The Bible is about how God does the impossible – how the Father, Son, and Spirit reaches us in our blindness, our projections and our darkness. And how far are they willing to go in order to meet us ALL – not just the broken folks. In Jesus, they’ve come (the Father, Son, and Spirit have come) to meet us. This is what I’ve been working on a good bit in the last couple of years since we’ve last talked – in seeing the reconciling work of the Father, Son, and Spirit is the deliberate, willful, submission of Jesus Christ to our bone-headed, wrong-headed religious judgmental darkness. He could obliterate us, he could call the angels, but he doesn’t. What he does is he bows to suffer – not from God’s wrath, not from his Father’s wrath, and not from the Holy Spirit’s abandonment. He bows to suffer from our curse, our wrath, our rage and our venting. We made him a scapegoat and we damned him and we did it to him publicly in the most humiliating way possible. And he said, “Okay.”
In accepting us as we really are – in our brokenness and in that wrath, he has established a relationship with the human race – all of us, at our very worst. And he brought Papa and the Holy Spirit with him. So it’s not a question to me, “Is this person forgiven? Is that person forgiven? What about bad people…?”
What has happened is the entire human race, in its blind rage, has been met by Jesus and Papa and the Holy Spirit, and it’s inside and it’s seeking to come out. That’s forgiveness – he’s found a way to reach us. Now, the question is: where are we in our journey – because we’re still blind, all of us. We’re still broken.
That’s part of what Paul is getting at, is helping people, in that moment realizing, “If you put yourself in the seat of judgment, then you got to make decision about who’s going to be forgiven, who’s going to be included, who’s going to hell, who’s going to heaven.” When he puts you in that seat, you think we’re not… he confronts you in the book with the fact that we love our children better than our theology allows us to let God love us.
A sweeping panoramic from the other side sees the Father, Son, and Spirit coming to build a relationship with us in the midst of our darkness and sin and pain, and they set up shop right there and then seek to help us come to know that. That’s what is one of the things that’s underneath all the way through the book. People are unprepared for that because they’ve got a construct – separation, Greek philosophical deity, with Bible verses to “prove” that it’s right, separation – Jesus is the bridge, only those people who’ve walked across that bridge are included and loved and forgiven. If you’ve got that kind of construct, then what we’re talking about here makes no sense. It’s like, how can that be, how can God be this good? You can’t just say, “God forgives us.” No, but you can say to your daughter, “I forgive you, without payment.” Do you love your daughter better than the Father loves us?
Are you participating in love in the Father, Son, and Spirit? J.B. used to say that all the time, “God commands us to forgive sin seven times seven times. Are we supposed to be better than the Lord? Or is he not telling us the way he is?”
JMF: Colossians points out that “once you were alienated in your minds.” Not alienated from God’s side, but alienated in your minds. He just got finished in that passage talking about what he’s done… reconciling everybody, all things whether things on heaven or things on earth and all that. And then once you’re alienated… not alienated, but alienated in your minds.
CBK: That’s right. And some translations use the word “separation” there, like in Ephesians 4:17 it says: “Don’t be like the pagans, don’t walk around in the dark, now you know who God is and who you are, walk in that.” Jesus is saying, “I’ll meet you in your pain, I’ll meet you in your brokenness, I’ll meet you in your sin. Walk with me. Just walk with me, trust me a little bit and let’s walk together. Let me share my life with you.” And you can begin to let go of some things.
I thought Paul [Young] did a great job in that conversation by backing Mackenzie up and said, “Wait a minute, if we cut off this guy, the murderer, then we have to go back – probably cut off his dad, go back, cut off… and then you start cutting people off and squashing them before they are… and there are millions of people here that are never even born.
It puts you in that quandary where you think, wait a minute, God deals with us in our darkness. That’s the only group he has got to deal with. He meets us in our pain and he’s saying, “Walk with me.” He’s saying that to the Christian community, too. “Come on, walk with me.” The one who walks with me, he says, “I am the light of the entire cosmos. It’s who I am, it’s who you are in me. Walk with me, and the one who walks with me, this one will never, ever walk in the darkness but shall have the light of life.”
These ones don’t come to know what this whole thing is about. That’s the distinction between the Christian community and the world – or the believing and unbelieving. The Christian community say, “I want to walk with Jesus, I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to continue in your Word. You’ve got to disciple me. But I know that you’ve got something here that I want to participate in.”
The other part of the world is saying, “No, it’s not there.” That’s where they are in their experience, and the Holy Spirit keeps walking with us. “I’m going to find a way to reveal” – and this I love – the Holy Spirit is determined to find a way to reveal Jesus, not simply to the world, not simply to a person, but to reveal Jesus in them. So they’d encounter Jesus in their own pain and darkness and struggle. And from there, healing and life begins to work its way out.
JMF: How do you find the reaction, response… People who come to the seminars that you’ve held are coming because they’re excited about the book, but how do they respond personally when you talk to them?
CBK: One of the most beautiful things to watch is when Paul Young tells the story behind the story – which is, to me, way more fascinating and beautiful than the book. People weep and people cry and people feel loved, they feel accepted, they feel moved. There may be a handful of people somewhere in the room who are angry. But by and large, they’re being saved from their darkness and confusion and it’s like an evangelistic meeting as he shares his life and story.
There’s conflict, but what I’ve experienced is overwhelming love and excitement. People saying, “Yes, yes, yes. This is what I know. Tell me more. Don’t stop, don’t leave, let’s keep talking.” Their tears are flowing because they’ve heard him express the fact that they’ve been through this horrible sadness, they too have, and they haven’t been allowed to talk about this. But this guy is talking about it. He’s talking about a God who knows about it.
One of my favorite scenes in the book that I think speaks directly to what you’re saying, both in terms of Christ, is saying in terms of response, is the scene where Mackenzie is in the garden with Sarayu, the Holy Spirit, and they’re digging stuff up. The garden is Mackenzie’s soul and his brokenness. So without theological argument, Paul has set up a scene where the Holy Spirit is now inside Mackenzie’s brokenness and darkness because he came with Jesus and Papa. The Holy Spirit is not bothered, not put off, not “I can’t look at this,” but is able to embrace in freedom Mackenzie at his very worse. And then Papa comes walking the down the path with the sack lunch. It just screams acceptance, and that is something that people feel, and it opens their soul. So much stuff gets to come out and they love it.
When I had the chance to be with him, to see him speak and see him unfold his life’s story, it’s like an evangelistic meeting. People are being liberated from their darkness and being able to accept themselves and accept others … “This is fantastic, this is the truth, this is the way God really is.” Paul Young tells a story which you know the story, your listeners know it from other interviews with him. That sense of acceptance is like whoo, man, tears… Most of the time that I’ve been able to teach and do seminars and things alongside with that or with that, people are so excited they can hardly sit still. “Just tell me more, tell me more.” They’ve never heard this thing about the Trinity. “Nobody’s ever told me about that doctrine. Where did this come from, where is that in the Bible? I believe you, but where is it? Let’s look.” It’s like, you’ve got to be kidding, that is so unbelievable. You could speak for three days and never move.
JMF: Once people get their minds around that, then that’s all you see in the Scriptures anymore. Verses and passages that you’ve read your whole life, all of a sudden you see them in a new light. You see what they’re actually saying to you, and it changes everything.
CBK: Funny how the Bible changes like that, isn’t it? You underline all the wrong verses. You think, “Why did I underline that? I missed this whole section here.”
JMF: Yeah, that [verse] tells me what that one was saying.
CBK: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was face-to-face with God. And the Word became flesh, meeting us in our crap and darkness, and we saw it and we got to experience its fullness in our darkness. That’s the gospel. Right there in the first part of John. Once you see that, it’s everywhere in the New Testament.
JMF: You’re working on a book on the topic of theology of The Shack in which you go into a lot of these things, is that something that we can look forward to fairly soon?
CBK: Probably not in a matter of weeks or months, because I’m working on another book, and three-quarters of the way through – this is a novel and it’s pretty interesting, pretty racy. I’ve done lectures on the theology of The Shack. I’m getting the recordings from two different places and I’m going to get someone to transcribe that. Then I’ll sit down and take the time and work through and add and develop and edit that. But the basic research and ideas of the theology of The Shack that I’ve been wanting to do are all in place, and I’ve already sort of done a test drive on it. It’s been lecture format and interaction.
I will get all that put together and then hole up somewhere and write it, and of course (just because of my friendship with Paul) I would never want to produce anything that he was not pleased with on one level. Although there are places in the book where he and I disagree about things, they’re not major issues. I’m still a theologian, after all. There are some places I want to quibble with him a little bit. But by and large I absolutely love every single thing in the book. I don’t like the first four chapters. I mean it’s kind of brutal, because you’d smell what’s coming and nobody wants to read that scene. But from Papa on, it’s just off the charts.
So I want to help people see what’s going on, and I also want to help them understand that what’s being said here about God – may be new to us, but it’s actually the early church’s. It’s what launched the early church. If it’s new to us, we’ve been lost over here in Augustinian captivity. I read The Shack as Athanasius in the early church shouting across the centuries saying, “Come on back home, boys and girls. This is the way God really is, and you know it!” But be willing to repent, have your mind reconstructed to allow the truth of what’s being said here, and the truth of what was said in the early church, come together.