William Paul Young and C. Baxter Kruger, The Shack Revisited
William Paul Young is the author of the best-selling novel The Shack; C. Baxter Kruger earned a Ph.D. in theology at the University of Aberdeen. Together, they discuss Dr. Kruger’s book, The Shack Revisited, which examines the theology embedded in Young’s book.
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Dr. C. Baxter Kruger, theologian and author, and [William] Paul Young talk with us about Dr. Kruger’s book, The Shack Revisited, and the theology embedded in Young’s original narrative.
JMF: We want to talk about your book this time: The Shack Revisited. This is an endeavor that you guys have been working on in tandem. Paul’s got the foreword here, and Baxter’s been doing theology that supports The Shack. Can you tell us how you got into this, what happened, how it came to be, and where you are with it?
CBK: The short version is that Paul and I had become great friends over the last several years and went to several conferences and things like that together, and then I started getting ready to do things like “Theology of The Shack” at conferences. We bumped into each other in Toronto at a conference and ended up having an afternoon to spend together, so I showed him some scribbled notes that I had, and he said, “Maybe you would write that into a book, and we’ll see.” So I went basically off the grid for eight months.
I wanted to show how the core vision of The Shack, which is done in drama in a very right-brained way, is the early church and is the main line coming all the way through. There’s a number of reasons for that. One is that when I read The Shack, I’m thinking I’m reading Athanasius, I’m reading J.B. Torrance, I’m reading George McDonald. This is so beautiful, and it’s in a form that people can understand.
But I felt that there were many people who said, “Okay, somebody grab me by the hand and help me go to the next step. Help me see this. Is this biblical, is this work historically accurate? What is going on here?” So I’m trying to unpack all the nuances that are embedded into the narrative of The Shack.
WPY: For some people, their heart just leaped, and they were touched deeply by The Shack. Baxter comes along and says, “I want to encourage and affirm that this is not new theology. This is something that is actually traditional.” And then for those whose paradigms were tampered by The Shack, who were a little upset, this is to come along and say, “You need to think about these questions, because this is why you’re bothered.” Those are some of the implications of doing a book like this. I’m very excited. Baxter writes in a very accessible way. It’s not a high-brow theological treatise, but it’s very supported, for those who like that sort of thing, and yet it’s very much a story itself, very accessible.
JMF: Let’s talk about some of the things you said in here, and let’s get into it a little bit. Let me read this…and then a section from The Shack, and then if I could get both of you to comment:
This is one of the many reasons that the Trinity is so critical. For if God were alone and solitary from eternity, then there is nothing for God to love until he creates. So the solitary God can only become a lover, for he is not one by nature. And this love can only be a love that grows out of his alone-ness and self-interest. And it’s more than possible that whatever it was that caused the single-person God to create and become a lover could change, and the solitary God could then go back to his essential non-loving nature. The love of this God is caused by something outside of his being, and is this not what we all fear? That something outside of the being of God causes him to love us? That his love is conditioned by something other than his nature, and thus that we’re the ones who must get it right, trip the love wire, make God’s love happen, and keep it happening? No wonder we’re so exhausted and unhappy.
And then the quotation from The Shack. Mackenzie is talking to Jesus:
“Why do you love us humans? I suppose I…” As he spoke he realized he hadn’t formed his question very well. “I guess what I want to ask is why do you love me when I have nothing to offer you?’ “If you think about it, Mac,” Jesus answered, “it should be very freeing to know that you can offer us nothing. At least not anything that can add or take away from who we are. That should alleviate any pressure to perform.” (From page 202)
Let’s talk about that. It’s very common to think of God (I still do it…) as a solitary figure sitting up in heaven somewhere on a throne. He’s probably got a white beard, and he’s very wise and kind and loving most of the time… I hope he is, and I hope he listens when I’m begging him to help me get a home run or something like that.
WPY: Like Gandolf with an attitude.
JMF: Yeah, there we are.
WPY: That’s why I went such a different direction in the story. That’s why Papa is about as far away from Gandolf with an attitude as…
JMF: Or Santa Claus.
WPY: Or Santa Claus who’s got a list and is checking it twice…and look out, because he’s coming to town.
JMF: Right. A very unfortunate song that does great disservice to Santa Claus…
WPY: Part of this, as you were reading it, struck me again that if perfect love casts out fear and if God is perfect love, what kind of image of God do we have… [JMF: Why are we afraid?] where we have fear and love co-mingled in the relationship? If perfect love casts out fear, and I look to the God that I fear (in that negative phobia kind of sense where I’m afraid in the worst kind of way, judgment and even worse than that, disappointment. I’m afraid that I’m a disappointment. The things that I would fear most in my relationship with my own father, for example.)
If that’s supposed to be the source of my freedom and the source of where I have to go to get away from that fear, and yet it is the source of that fear, I’m stuck. I have a major problem here, and I don’t know where to go. Where do I turn to in terms of trying to deal with that?
JMF: Fear God and keep his commandments. That’s what we hear preached.
CBK: Well, revere and…
CBK: Reverence and awe. You can be awed by God’s beauty and goodness and glory.
JMF: So “fear” is an unfortunate translation.
CBK: It is a translation. This paragraph that you read puts its finger on what I would reckon (I think Paul would agree) is the number one human and pastoral issue we have. It’s that Does God really love me? If God is not eternally Father, Son, and Spirit…if there is a G-O-D, a single person behind that, that when one day he decided we were going to have community, then the God behind the Father, Son, and Spirit is the will of God. A single-person God is not other-centered, not approachable, not interested in fellowship, it does not love out of its nature.
JMF: And it doesn’t need.
CBK: It does not create out of other-centeredness. This is one of the reasons the Trinity is so critical, because the Father, Son, and Spirit, as Athanasius said, “The Holy Trinity is no created thing. God has always been Father, Son, and Spirit.” The only way they know to be is as Father, Son, and Spirit. That’s who they are, that’s who God is in that communion of love. That’s the way they relate to everything in their creation.
The reason God loves us is not because his blood sugar happened to be up one day and he decided to create the universe. The reason he loves us is because that’s what the Father, Son, and Spirit do. I can count on that. That doesn’t mean I can go do anything I want, and there are consequences for that. But one thing I know is that no matter what happens in life, I am loved forever. Loved forever means that he, the Father, Son, and Spirit, are loving me constantly to set me free to live in that love.
That’s something you can hold onto, because what I hear being preached all the time is this model where God is essentially your Judge, and can become your Father if you repent and believe. It’s the windshield wiper thing to me.
I remember the first time I was consciously aware of repenting and believing. Two years later, I had another experience. Three years later, I had another experience. So how much did I really repent and believe, and who in the equation of the Christian church can really raise their hand and say, “I have never graduated from ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief.’” That means that God’s being is sitting there flipping back and forth between being our judge and being our father.
What the early church understood was that fatherhood is first and eternal, and out of that relationship we are created and we love. That’s what we believe, that’s what we count on, that’s what we struggle to understand. And that’s his nature. God’s love for me is not depending upon me getting something right. I can’t change it! I’m not so powerful as to tamper with the being of the Father, Son, and Spirit. They love. That’s good news. Now let’s walk together in that.
WPY: That’s great news. Another piece of this is that to the degree that fear exists in my life (because if perfect love casts out fear, and the one who fears is not perfected in love – that’s not a value statement, it’s just an observation) …if that’s true, then the degree that there’s fear in my life, to that degree I don’t understand the love of God for me. Because you either have one or the other. That helps me, because then I can recognize I’ve got something wrong in my paradigm about the character and nature of God.
We live in an uncertain world, as everybody knows. There’s a lot of things that we just can’t count on. Where are we going to plant our feet? It’s got to be in the certainty of the character of God. But if we’re caught in betwixt two temperaments (where love is a temperament and justice is a temperament or judging is a temperament and it’s based on my performance), I’m sorry, I’m too broken and my history is too shattered to compete in the environment of performance. It’s not going to happen.
CBK: Even if you weren’t broken, even if you were good, you still couldn’t trust it, because you’ve got this whole dimension of judgment that’s not integrated… Of course the Father’s going to judge us. Because he loves us, he will judge us to the roots of our souls, and separate all darkness from us so we get to live in the place where there’s only light. Of course he will judge. He’s not going to let any of us off the hook with anything, because he loves us, because it’s his character to love us. That’s just the most liberating and freeing thing to me. I’m glad you pointed that out. That’s the very center of the book…
JMF: Aren’t we afraid not to be afraid? We don’t want to be afraid… You can read The Shack, you can read a book like this that gets into the theology that is behind and under and through The Shack about who God is for us, but you’re afraid to not be afraid.
WPY: We think intimacy is devalued if we’re not afraid, which is crazy. In our relationships, in a healthy relationship between a mother and a daughter and a mother and a son or a father and a daughter, intimacy creates a great degree of respect. And we have a paradigm that says intimacy is an eradication of respect.
CBK: Familiarity breeds contempt.
WPY: Right. My point, and I think Baxter would agree, is that intimacy creates a higher degree of respect, because you get to know the person deeper and deeper, and you have an expanded view of what that is, and love surrounds that.
JMF: You’re not taking sin seriously, or you’re just kidding yourself.
CBK: What you’re actually taking seriously is the beauty of the love of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The question is: is there anything in this universe better, more beautiful, more life-giving, more blessed, than the love of the Father, Son, and Spirit? Is there anything? From where we’re sitting, this seems like a lot of options. But from where the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are sitting, that’s the best thing ever.
How long is it going to take us to work through all the things that we think we’ve got to do before we come to see that [the love of the Father, Son and Spirit] is what I want, I want to be in the middle of that? The Christian community is trying to find a way to keep these people on these paths by using fear, and they’re not able to move. They’re just living in fear, they’re not getting to know that they’re loved.
The Father, Son, and Spirit are prepared and have run a huge risk in creating human beings and giving us freedom. But they know something. They know that they’re not going to find anything in the cosmos that is anywhere close to the love and the life that they share together that we’re included in. How long is it going to take us [to realize that]?
Is the point here that the Christian church is to have everybody so afraid we just do right all the time? That’s like having a child that you’re raising and you want them to be free, but at ten years old they get frozen into doing right so they never get to grow up and they never get to experience love in the house. Is that what the Father, Son, and Spirit…is that what this creation is about?
They want us to come to the place where we look at them and say, “I’m in, my whole heart. I want to be a part of this. This is the best thing.” That’s what Jesus said to Peter, and Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, what are we going to do? We’ve got the best thing there is.” [cf. John 6:68]
WPY: What is it about us that is so twisted up that we need an angry, vengeful, vindictive God?
JMF: We want people we don’t like…
WPY: To suffer the consequences.
CBK: Somebody’s going to have to pay.
WPY: In The Shack, Papa doesn’t let Mackenzie off on anything. But Papa doesn’t walk around with a big stick with a nail on it to prove a point. It’s love that pushes Mackenzie into dealing with these things. The kindness of God leads us to repentance, right? And we think it’s the anger, the fury, or whatever.
It’s not that God is not angry or furious against everything that is damaging his creation, including the things that are damaging me, his child. We’re for that. The more we see of the goodness of God, the more we’re for him burning out of my life everything that keeps me from being free and causes me to damage relationships and my family and on and on. That just goes. We want to be judged in that sense, because we trust his goodness in that judgment, not in some behind-the-scenes vindictiveness where behind the love of God there is really another agenda, or the Father has a different agenda.
People say silly things, like the intimacy that exists between Papa and Mackenzie, as if that’s an affront to the character of God. That’s what they got mad at Jesus for – his intimacy with the Father. What we don’t understand is, we got included into that intimacy. That’s the whole point – everything is by, for, through, and in Jesus, and we exist in that relationship with the Father because we’re carried in him. We’re created in him.
Then Jesus is talking about God as Abba when the entire Old Testament never even conceived of the idea of intimacy, and yet here’s Jesus talking in the most familial, deepest kind of senses that we understand as human beings in relationship to our kids, but we couldn’t understand that in relationship to God. Jesus models that right smack in front of us, and it is such an affront that he ends up getting killed for it.
JMF: If you go on Youtube and look for “God loves everyone,” there are a number of voices that absolutely are furious about the idea of anyone saying such a thing. [They say] What a damnable lie that is.
CBK: That God loves everyone.
JMF: They go to the passage that says, “Esau I hated, Jacob I loved.” If God hates Esau, then he hates someone, then he doesn’t love everyone, and so therefore you better straighten up and live right because God does not love everybody, it’s a damnable lie that he loves everyone.
CBK: Are they afraid that someone is going to show up at the gates of heaven and be accepted in who’s not supposed to be there?
JMF: Certainly not Esau.
WPY: People who bring up that story obviously don’t understand their scripture very well, because you go back to the Old Testament story, and there was a blessing on both those boys from the beginning. Yes, Esau and Jacob, there was a distinction in terms of the redemptive plan, and that’s what that term [hate] is. It’s not a psychological hate that’s here – it’s a separation saying the plan includes this boy, but not this boy. Read this story: there is total reconciliation between Jacob and Esau inside the love of the father in that story. There’s a lot more going on with that story than we see at first glance.
That’s part of the question. Mackenzie faces it in the judgment scene, where he is sitting in the seat of judgment, where he is to judge God and the entire human race. He realizes that is exactly what he’s done. He’s billed the character and nature of God that is not love, and therefore not trustworthy and not good, and then everything else flows from that. If we believe in a God who is that over-distant Omni-being, then we will read the Jacob-Esau section of Romans (or wherever) through that lens. It’s a paradigm. You’re going to hear the kind of God that you believe in. The sad thing is that people…
JMF: And you’re going to pull that verse right out of its context in order to prove your point.
WPY: And people become “there you go”…people become like the God they believe in.
CBK: [after putting on odd eyeglasses] You look very different to me right now, Mike.
JMF: So do you.
CBK: Yeah? Now [he takes them off]…
JMF: Now you look like Baxter.
WPY: We see through the lens of our own paradigms and we become like the God that we worship.
CBK: Athanasius says that “the God of all is good and supremely noble by nature, therefore he is the love of the human race.” That’s what the early church came to see. I don’t think we can overestimate the goodness of God and the love of God.
Some people hear me say that and say I’m just saying everybody can do whatever they want to do. I’m saying that he is so good and he loves us so much he is going to bring us to the place to where we want to participate in this life with all our hearts, and that we’re not going to need barbed wire in heaven, because we will hate everything that is dark and is hurtful to us and to others. We only want to be sharing in that life. That’s a very different thing than “we’re going to go to heaven because we don’t want to go to hell,” and we’re actually hoping that we can be in heaven, but not ever have to run into the God that we fear.
JMF: And also the people that we don’t like.
WPY: A lot of times when people bring up the issue of “you’re being soft on sin,” they often have an attraction to sin that they’re trying to avoid. We don’t want that attraction in our lives at all. We’re not being soft on sin at all. We’re not saying, “I’m just going to do anything because it doesn’t matter.” It all matters. We’re saying, “It matters because these things are devastating in our lives.”
CBK: Here’s the dynamic. We are included in this circle of other-centered life and love. That’s who we are, that’s our nature. We’re free to do whatever we want, but when we violate that way of being, it hurts like hell. There’s no escape from it. You’re free to go live in any darkness you want, but it hurts like hell, because this is who we are. There’s an education process so we can come to see that.
JMF: It’s a journey, isn’t it?
CBK: It is a journey.
JMF: You’re on a journey toward Christ…
CBK: An incremental process.
JMF:…and that journey can have some pretty bad places in it if you want to make some bad choices. There are consequences.
WPY: And sometimes not choices you make for yourself.
JMF: Often you cause things on other people that they didn’t make for themselves.
WPY: That’s part of why we’re so opposed to the darkness and we’re opposed to the sin, because we’ve seen what it’s done to the people we cared for and we loved. The darkness that I hold onto, I don’t just keep to myself.
CBK: That’s a great point. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, we share it with others.
JMF: One other portion of the book I wanted to get to before we finished is “The Wonderful Exchange.” It’s a quote from the apostle Paul at the beginning, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, yet though he was rich, but for your sake he became poor that you, through his poverty, might become rich.” You go on to expound on this concept of the wonderful exchange that Mackenzie learns about.
CBK: In that chapter, what I’m trying to show is that one of the themes in The Shack is that what Mackenzie is getting in this relationship is not simply forgiveness. He’s getting to share in all that the Father, Son, and Spirit have together. That’s the ancient gospel. I quoted Paul first, and Irenaeus there: “Our Lord who became what we are to bring us to be what he is.”
We’re so locked in the West to the guilt-and-sin thing that we don’t see much more than forgiveness going on in Jesus and the cross. Irenaeus, the ancient father, said, “Our Lord Jesus became what we are in order to bring us to be what he is” in his relation with the Father… Calvin, the same way, I quote Calvin on that, he’s beautiful. And then J.B. Torrance, he says, “The Incarnation, the prime purpose of the coming of Jesus in the love of God is to bring us to be included in this communion that we may participate in the Trinitarian life of God.”
What is given to us in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is not simply forgiveness. Jesus reaches in and takes our darkness and our hell and takes it into himself so that he can pitch his tent, as it were, in the midst of our darkness and pain, so everything that he is in his experience with the Father and the Holy Spirit and as Lord of Creation then becomes ours. That’s the point: we’re going to be brought to participate in Jesus’ relation with his Father, and in his anointing in the Holy Spirit, and in his relationship with everything in the entire cosmos.
WPY: Because he remains the creator.
CBK: That’s because of who he is, and he’s bringing us to do that.
JMF: And he remains one of us.
WPY: Yeah. Part of this exchange is that not only have we been included into this life (Whether we know it or not, or even want it or not at this point, we’ve been included. That was the plan and purpose of adoption from before the foundation of the world.) …not only has that happened, but in exchange, also Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 14, 15, 16, 17) come and climb inside of our shacks, the places of our darkness, and meet us, regardless of whether we’ve yet repented or not. There is a process in which God is working in the heart of every human being to restore them to the desire that he has for them, which is everything that they were intended to be.
CBK: There’s a whole atonement theory of theology wound up in The Shack, and this is part of what I’m talking about with “The Wonderful Exchange” is the way that Papa and Jesus and Sarayu get inside of Mackenzie’s shack, which is his soul, which in particular is the brokenness. They’re there before he even knows them or who they are. The Father, Son, and Spirit have pitched their tent inside human darkness, and sin, and treachery, and betrayal. And they got there by Jesus submitting himself to suffer from us.
Jesus says, “I’m going to let you make me the scapegoat, and you’re going to pour your wrath out on me.” It’s not the Father’s wrath being poured out on Jesus – it’s our wrath. It’s our rage, it’s our curse. We damned him, we beat him, we crucified him, and we mocked him. And he said, “I’m going to take this, because as you do this to me and as I accept this, I am entering into a relationship with you in the very pit of our darkness and confusion and brokenness. I’m bringing my Father, and I’m bringing the Holy Spirit with me. We’re not going away, because you can’t kill me again.”
WPY: This idea of this distant God, it’s not a new thing. Isaiah writes about the atonement: “We (human beings) esteemed him (Jesus) stricken by God.” That’s how we looked at it. We think of God in such a light that we esteemed Jesus stricken by God.
CBK: “Consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself.” [Heb. 12:3] Focus on what he endured in order to meet us. So he who is rich becomes poor, that he may meet us in our poverty with his wealth. The redeeming genius of the Father, Son, and Spirit is they’re going to establish the new covenant with Israel and with the human race, and here’s how. They’re going to establish it by taking our worst treachery, by allowing us to betray them and murder them. They’re going to pitch the tent of the new covenant relationship in the tent of our betrayal. If that’s not genius… That’s the secret, that’s the mystery, that’s been done, that’s real, we’re all included, we’re already in the journey of understanding, and we’ve got a long way to go yet.
JMF: In The Shack, Jesus says to Mackenzie, “We want you to join us in our circle of fellowship. I don’t want slaves to do my will, I want brothers and sisters who want to share life with me.”
CBK: Yeah. They don’t want Christian robots who are doing everything right but have no heart. Jesus wants Mackenzie on the dock, but Mackenzie’s crying to him, “Jesus, I feel lost.” That’s what he really feels. “I feel lost.” Jesus holds his hand and says, “I know how you feel, Mackenzie, but I’m with you, and I’m not lost. I’m sorry you feel that way, but hear me, you’re not lost, because I have a hold of you.”
When Mackenzie begins to hear that in his pain, he’s beginning to discover who had met him in his hell. That’s a relationship of acceptance and love that can rekindle a man’s dignity and life and give him some hope that he’s a part of something way bigger than just him or just his religious obedience.
WPY: It’s a beautiful thing.
JMF: Thanks for coming.
CBK: What a great day.
JMF: And great conversations.
WPY: I’m again honored. Thank you.