July 23, 2009

Nuts & Bolts -- Discussing 'The Shack': Good for You, Good for Your Church

Last night we had the second Wednesday-evening discussion in as many weeks on "The Shack." It went as well last night -- that is to say, very well -- as it did the week before, and on this second time there were even more people present. I left with the distinct impression that if we wanted to keep going, we could definitely do so, in other venues, with other crowds.

Now that it's done, it strikes me that it would really not be so hard to do something like this in many churches. In that spirit, here are a few observations that may prove helpful.

How This Got Started

The idea to have a theological roundtable based on "The Shack" was born of three simple facts. One, everywhere I went over the past year or so, people asked me if I'd read "The Shack," so again the energy was already there to be tapped. Two, once I had the chance to read the book, I realized there was no substantial difference between portions of it and my seminary notes and texts, and I have personally longed for palatable ways to share those rich resources. And three, it seems prudent for a minister new to a congregation to be seen "playing well with others."

Armed with those convictions, I approached two other pastors (mainstreamers like me) and the idea for 'Shack' Attack was born: three armchair theologians, two different church locations, two separate Wednesday nights, and an open invitation to the community at-large to come and discuss. (I'm sure we would have been happy to go to the third pastor's church as well, but he was on sabbatical and was emerging from it to do these conversations as a favor to us.) So we were (arguably) sufficiently broad in our thinking: Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans.

What It Was

I assume you're familiar with this book if you're reading this and so won't bother with rehearsing the details for you, except to say that there is some obvious passion and energy around this particular piece of fiction. The book is an off-the-charts publishing sensation -- initially an "underground" read -- and is being sold (in fact was actually written) with an eye toward adapting it into a feature film. With so much going for it, it's not going away any time soon. If there are things about it that spur you on and create a sense of reconciliation / progression / forgiveness / restoration, then so much the better. On the other hand, if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and be up and doing otherwise. The one thing you don't want to do, though, is ignore it just because it's popular.

The intent of these gatherings, then, was to have a brief, charitable, and intense theological conversation amongst the three of us, then to open it up to others for their thoughts.

How Each Evening Was Constructed

Here's a simple breakdown:
  1. The pastor of the "host" congregation introduced himself and his colleagues and explained the order of business.
  2. The host pastor then talked about why we wanted to have this conversation about this book at this time. Included were some facts that helped everyone understand that "The Shack" is obviously resonating with people. (At the same time, as it is an outside-the-canon text, folks might not feel they could share their insights about the book with others without a container such as this event.)
  3. Each pastor took 7-8 minutes to speak to some aspect of the book he felt was important. One of us talked about the theology of the Trinity in the book; another talked about the role of suffering; still another spoke to the role that Missy, a central character, plays.
  4. When each of the panelists was finished speaking in his turn, there was general conversation of about 15 minutes occurring around the table -- one person bouncing ideas off another. We tried to make it as congenial as possible, with a little good-natured teasing thrown in. The purpose of this conversation was not to be showy, but to simply play off each other, keep developing ideas in concert with one another, and let people see what pastors talk about when they get together (in their best moments).
  5. Then it was time to involve everyone who'd come. There was no need for heavy-handed questions prepared beforehand for the crowd; lots of folks had plenty of their own questions to ask or points to make. The panel of pastors didn't "own" this time, but did finesse, highlight, interact, clarify, and so on. Just as with the previous conversation between the pastors, our conversation with the larger group was simply one of honoring a diverse set of viewpoints stemming from a potentially polarizing book.
  6. After about 75-90 minutes, the conversation was brought to a close and goodies were offered, along with the potential of further conversation with the pastors or anyone else.


It was agreed to create venues for these discussions that would attract the widest possible groups, and I am certain that some good networking and evangelism occurred because of them. We printed up spiffy flyers and got a church youth group to post them in local coffee shops, libraries, and houses of worship. We went down to the radio station and recorded a spot for our event; given that we were able to classify it as a PSA, it received free air play and even wider coverage than if we were paying for air time.

Some On-the-Ground Considerations Regarding Content

Time and circumstance are the only reliable predictors of what might come up at your own version of 'Shack' Attack. On the other hand, some of what follows might be worth considering before you host an event and speak about this book.
  1. One major grievance some folks have about "The Shack" is that it dares to play around with traditional images of what you might call God-as-Gandalf. God the Father is a black woman, Jesus is ugly, and the Holy Spirit is a fluttery, translucent Asian female. This was merely alluded to in the first week's discussion, but in last night's it easily took up 51% of the conversation. Is Young's book on the banned list at some churches because it violates the second commandment, or is it simply helpful analogical language that skirts old problems? (Pseudo-Dionysius, anyone?) Isn't all religious language finally analogical and approximate?
  2. Don't be surprised to hear phrases such as "It's just a book," or "It's only a work of fiction" as you're unpacking some of what the book has to offer. This is true enough in its own right, but it's not the only way to see it. Human beings are wired to search for signification, to look into a work of fiction and to see there the truth of their own human experience mirrored. We all actively participate in symbol-systems all the time.
  3. If you liked the book and found it helpful, you still don't have to feel compelled to hold it up as great fiction, because it isn't. It isn't the best writing, and it certainly isn't the best editing. It trucks in heavy-handed emotional opportunism. Its setup is never-ending, and the ending potentially obviates everything that comes between. It ain't perfect, and we all know it.
  4. You might spend a little time thinking about how Young would unpack or define these terms vis-a-vis the book, because they all came up at one or both meetings: revelation, image, incarnation, relationship, perichoresis, heresy/heretical/heretic, healing, salvation.
  5. It's worth pointing out the Afterward of the book, which explains the origins of the book and hints at the substance of Young's own "Great Sadness."

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