Idolatry & The Shack

*This is written primarily to my church family at Westwood, but I would welcome interaction from those outside that family, as well.*

We have been considering the first of the Ten Commandments around Westwood for several weeks as we have progressed through the book of Isaiah together.
 
[Exodus 20:3 ESV] 3 “You shall have no other gods before me.”
 
We have spoken quite extensively about idolatry of the heart.  We have discussed potential idols that pop up in our own lives in our Life Groups.  Although this has been a challenging time for many of us, we all have a pretty good sense of what idolatry is all about in the first commandment sense.  We understand, at least on a basic level, what idolatry of the heart looks like.  We understand what it means to put things before God.  We understand the concept of false worship and trusting in things other than God.  But do we have as good an understanding of the second commandment?
 
[Exodus 20:4 ESV] 4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (emphasis mine).
 
Erin and I have had some good conversations over the past couple of days about the similarities of these two commandments.  We have discussed how we can delineate between the two.  How are they different?  How do they look in our day?  This has been an interesting topic of discussion, to say the least.
 
One of the ways I believe I can draw a distinction between these two commandments is by differentiating between what takes place in the heart and what takes place in the mind.  The heart is the place of devotion.  When we violate the first commandment, we are guilty of worshiping some thing more than God.  We have given greater devotion to some thing other than God, whether we recognize that other thing as a god or not.  With the second commandment, it’s not that we are placing something before God in regard to devotion or worship; but, rather we are misrepresenting the one we view as the true God with our minds, either conceptually or physically.  One can certainly lead to the other, and certainly those two are still very similar and deal with idolatry at the root.
 
It is true that we don’t really struggle today with the temptation to carve an idol out of wood or fashion one out of precious metal.  So what are we to make of the commandment to not make for ourselves a physical, or graven, likeness of God?
 
I shared with Erin that evangelist Ray Comfort has been very helpful in helping me understand one proper present-day application.  He cautions that we can all too often create such a graven image, or likeness, in our minds when we seek to define God in our own image, or in the image of our desire, rather than what is revealed in the Scriptures.  He warns that this can be exposed when we begin to speak of God with the words, “To me…”  “To me, God would never…”  “To me, God is a God who…”  Certainly we see this a lot in our culture today.  Many people have ideas about God that are completely foreign to what he actually reveals about himself through his Word.  Others seek to elevate certain attributes of God above others in order to portray God in a more palatable or acceptable form.  I agree with Comfort that this is a direct violation of the second commandment.  When we do this, we are indeed forming a likeness of God that misrepresents his true person and character.
 
We must be careful to allow God to reveal himself.  He has chosen to do that through his Word.  So we must be carefully tied to the Word when we speak of the person and character of God.
 
What about the creation of physical representations of God, though?  Is it ever appropriate to do that?  This is a great question to ask as we are about to see the rise of yet another “Christian” movie to the forefront of our culture.  I am referring to the movie The Shack, based on the very popular book by the same name, by author William Young.  I place Christian in quotes simply because of the extreme caution offered based on the theological and doctrinal problems with the book that have been well-documented since the book’s release.  I believe this movie offers an illustration of what it looks like to violate the second commandment in the physical sense.
 
If you have not read these words of caution, I would beg you to do so, and consider the warnings.  Here are a few that would be well worth your time.  The first is by a very wise brother with whom I attended college.  He offers a very fair and balanced review in this blog post from early 2010: http://www.travisagnew.org/2010/02/21/book-of-the-week-the-shack/.  Here is another from a more well-known source, Dr. Al Mohler, who writes not only about the problems with this book, but also about the need for greater discernment among followers of Christ: http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/01/27/the-shack-the-missing-art-of-evangelical-discernment/.
 
Beyond these words of warning, though, perhaps the greatest charge levied against The Shack is that it exists as a direct violation of the second commandment.  If you are not aware of the basic storyline of this book, or the subsequent movie, a large portion of the story includes a lengthy interaction between the main character and the members of the Trinity.  The members of the Trinity are all represented in human form.  In addition, the persons of the Father and the Holy Spirit are represented by women characters, which offers further problems.
 
Why is this such a big deal?  Why should we exercise extreme caution, as evangelical leaders have urged?  The Scriptures teach us that God is Spirit (John 4:24).  He is not made of any matter.  This is what it means that God is transcendent.  He is completely other than that which is material.  Although, as Gerald stated a few weeks ago, we sometimes use anthropomorphism (ascribing physical characteristics to an invisible God) so that we can have some way to describe him, the second commandment stops us from actually creating physical or conceptual representations of him.  Theologian Wayne Grudem writes, “To think of his being in terms of anything else in the created universe would be a misrepresentation, for he is more excellent than any other kind of existence.”  Therefore, after Jesus teaches us that God is Spirit, he admonishes us that we are to worship him in spirit and truth (John 4:24).
 
To create a physical representation of the invisible God is to seek to render understandable that which is too great for our understanding.  And when we do this, we inevitably diminish God.  Always.  And we do this in our own image, in our own likeness, in an attempt to portray God in the way we wish for others to see him.  This is a serious violation of the person of God.  Indeed, as many have written about the book The Shack, much can be said about the way that God is misrepresented.
 
Author Tim Challies views this as such a direct violation of the second commandment that he refuses to even watch the movie in order to write a review. He then goes on to make his case for his decision.  Here are a few excerpts from his article that I believe we should consider: 

In regard to the actress portraying God the Father: 

“She will be a visual representation of the God who has existed from all eternity, the God who planned and purposed the creation of the universe, the God who foreknew and predestined his people to salvation, the God who was the subject of human rebellion, the God who set into motion a great plan of redemption, the God who poured out his holy wrath on his Son, the God who will declare that the time has come for the great Day of Judgment. Those who watch the movie will see her take on the role of a God who is ‘a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.’”

In regard to the actress portraying God the Spirit:

“Those who watch the film will see her take on the role of a God who is equally ‘a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth…’ Everyone who watches the film will see a human actor portraying the divine Holy Spirit and in that way have their understanding of the Spirit diminished. To portray the Spirit is to vastly misrepresent the Spirit; to portray the Spirit is to blaspheme the Spirit. The same is true, of course, of the Father.

(You can read his complete article here: http://www.challies.com/articles/why-i-wont-be-seeing-or-reviewing-the-shack?utm_content=buffer0ed5a&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer.)

Challies explains, “God is so other that any visual representation harms instead of helps our understanding. Even as The Shack uses human beings in an attempt to lead people closer to God, it will actually lead them farther away.”  He concludes, “In its visual portrayal of God it diminishes, it obfuscates, it blasphemes, it lies.

 
I would suggest that you do not need to view this movie in order to have informed conversations with others about it.  Plenty has been written on the topic.  And, if you desire at least some first-hand knowledge of the actual story/work, take the time or read the book.
 
I will humbly admit that thinking about this movie in regard to the second commandment has resulted in a great inner-struggle for me.  A good struggle.  I have to admit that I’m not quite sure where that line should be drawn.  But I’m doing a lot of thinking, a lot of praying, and a lot of seeking wisdom from others.  I’m thankful that I get to do that with a church family that I love so much.  I would urge you to consider Challie’s words and perhaps embrace that struggle as well, and I welcome further discussion about this as we pursue truth together!
 
Above all, be cautioned.  The Shack is not just a matter of differing legitimate theological opinions and stances.  It is a great danger that has already led many astray from the true teachings of the Scriptures.  It has caused many to build a false theology upon something other than God’s revelation about himself.  It has turned many away from the eternal Word to seek comfort, knowledge, and ideas in their fleeting emotions and experiences.   As my friend Travis states in his acrticle (linked above), “The Shack’s message of hope in times of suffering does not hold a candle to the hope presented in another book — the Bible.” 
 
Strive to be people of the Word above all.  Be very careful that your theology be built upon the truths of God’s revelation, revealed in the Scriptures and the person of Jesus, and not the result of a self-contrived, culturally shaped likeness, or graven image.

I Married my bride, Erin, in 2003. We have 3 children: Emma, Elijah, and Lydia. I have served full-time on staff at Westwood Baptist Church, in Roxboro, NC, since summer of 2006 as Pastor of Students & Discipleship. I am currently enrolled at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, pursuing my Doctorate of Education.

4 thoughts on “Idolatry & The Shack

  1. I see your point but I beg to differ. All denominations read the Bible differently in their interpretation of it. They all swear that their way is the ONLY way. I have read the book before and am currently rereading now. I think that what this book and I assume the movie will do is give a fairly good explanation of how the Trinity is meant to be. I feel that you are saying it is blasphemous but I don’t think it is. I see it as a tool to try and help people now, that are only coming to God now, get a understanding that will lead them to the truth in the Word. I respect your right to see it your way and try to force your flock to follow, but leave it there.

    • Hey Phil. I appreciate you taking the time to respond. You write, “I think that what this book and I assume the movie will do is give a fairly good explanation of how the Trinity is meant to be.” I ask you, based on what? What is your basis for making that statement and assumption? The author (and movie) gives a fairly good explanation based on what?

      I ask this, not because of some type of denominationally-driven difference of Bible interpretation. Sure, there are certain matters in the Scriptures that are up for debate. Different denominations, and even some within the same denomination, debate these matters and that is perfectly fine. But those matters are *minor* matters, or *peripheral* matters. Not central matters. I would certainly place the matters of the person and character of God and the nature of salvation not as these types of matters, but as central matters. This book, and I assume the movie, chooses to portray God in ways that are directly contradictory to how God has chosen to reveal himself through the Scriptures. That’s not a matter of interpretation. They are blatant contradictions. The book states ideas about the person and character of God that are either absent in the Scriptures or, as exposed in the links I include in my article, directly contradictory to what is stated in the Scriptures. The author chooses to present salvation as a universal reality, which is a direct contradiction to how the Scriptures present it. If we should just leave these matters up to different people’s opinions and interpretation, and if everyone’s own interpretation and opinion has equal validity, then Paul certainly didn’t get that memo when he dealt with the Galatians (see Galatians 1:6-10 & 3:1-3). Jude certainly is in violation of your standard of interpretive relativity as he spends most of his short epistle speaking harshly toward false teachers and false teaching.

      I’m not offering myself as the standard, nor am I offering my opinion as supreme. God has given us his Word as the standard by which all truth claims should be measured. When using that standard with this book and this movie, they simply do not measure up. In fact, it seems to desire to use a different system of measurement altogether. When that is the case, we must stick to the Scriptures and denounce that which does not measure up. And as a pastor I will warn those entrusted to my care when this is the case, just as Paul instructed Timothy to do (2 Timothy 3:14-4:4). That is out of love, not some sort of strong-armed coercion.

      So, my question stands. They give a fairly good explanation of how the Trinity is “meant to be” based on what? Who has the authority to mean it to be? The truth is, most people find in this book and movie a god that they wish existed, instead of the true, living God. Instead of submitting to the true God, they would rather get to define him. Instead of making the commitment to know God through the way he has revealed himself (the Scriptures), they would rather experience a god in a way that strokes their emotional desires and resonates with their feelings. That’s called idolatry.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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