The Shack (2) Critique

A conversation with a dear friend this week about the release next Friday of The Shack in the USA, reminded me of a two part review that I wrote back in 2008.

So without any comment on or knowledge about what the film will be like, here is Part 2, unchanged.

PS: If you don’t want to know the story, stop reading now

Part 2: The Shack: a review article

Cracks in the woodwork

The sheer success of The Shack, combined with the controversy it has provoked, has meant that the book has been dissected, deconstructed, defended and derided by a phalanx of bloggers and commentators. One of the publishers (Wayne Jacobson) who had an active role in shaping the final script has issued a response to some of the main criticisms; presumably with the agreement of the author.[1]

So what is all the fuss about? First, a couple of alleyways we won’t venture down. Given that all art is subjective, to discuss whether the story works well as literature won’t get us very far. Some find the ending where the body is found and the killer caught far too neat by half. Others detest the book for being manipulative in terms of exploiting the deepest fears of parents of losing a child to a serial killer. Whether these reactions are fair or not, is ultimately a reader’s judgement. And since a fictional story of one man’s experience of God cannot be read like a theological textbook, I find criticisms that the book is not explicit enough on salvation, or the role of Scripture in the life of a believer, rather miss the point.

What is fair, and Jacobson welcomes, is a robust discussion of some of the theological ideas that are presented in the book. ‘Presented’ is the right word here. There is a definite agenda to communicate a corrective vision of an authentic relationship with God over against what the author perceives as the legalism, hierarchialism and institutionalism of much North American Christianity. This is where the story gets ‘edgy’ – it has a campaigning, anti-status-quo feel. In my opinion, the core theme of the book is that God desires people freely to choose to be in relationship with him. This is at once a source of some of its strengths (see Part 1) and its weaknesses. It’s the latter we’re going to look at now.

A reduced vision of God?

Young’s vision of a freely chosen liberating relationship with God has two sides. First, as Papa tells Mack, “True love never forces” (p.190). God’s love simply invites a response. Papa says “I don’t want slaves to do my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me” (p.146). At one point Mack asks Jesus “So now what I am supposed to do?” and Jesus replies “You are not supposed to do anything. You’re free to do anything you like” (p.89 emphasis original). In talking about the cross Papa says, “Reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done may part, totally, completely, finally. It is not in the nature of love to force a relationship but it is in the nature of love to open the way” (p.192).

Second, this inviting love of God is the antithesis of duty, law and obligation. This is what Mack struggles to grasp and has to be set free from for healing to occur. Repeatedly Mack is told things like “I’m not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation, or coercion, only through a relationship of love” (p.126). Sarayu tells him “I give you an ability to respond and your response is to be free to love and serve in every situation” (p.205). To be genuine, this response must be completely free from the pressure to perform to earn God’s approval. Papa says to Mack, ‘Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else … because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me.”

What should we make of this? The trouble is that it is at once absolutely right yet, at the same time, a damaging distortion. It is gloriously true that the heart of the gospel is about believers being set free in Christ from law and slavery (Gal. 5:1) and that the ‘only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Gal. 5:6) since love fulfils the law (Gal. 5:14). Since this relationship is based on grace, it cannot be earned, but is lived out day by day in thankfulness and joy. However, the repeated emphasis on our total freedom to choose this relationship by responding to God’s invitation leads to at least two problems.

First, God becomes dependent on human decision making. Jesus at one point is described as almost pleading with Mack. It is almost as if God is ‘waiting on the end of the phone’ for us to call and take up his offer of forgiveness and relationship. Young (and Jacobson) are obviously sincere and passionate about loving God. But I think that on this point they are more conditioned by the Western myth of the totally free individual making authentic choices than they realize.

Second, by focusing on only one aspect of God’s love, Young reduces God to having no expectations of Mack or anyone else. The real Jesus isn’t so undemanding!: “Take up your cross and follow me”; “If you love me, you will obey what I command”; “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Similarly, one of Paul’s favourite exhortations is “Live a life worthy of the gospel”. Despite the book’s claim that the word ‘responsibility’ is not found in the Scriptures, they are full of commands for God’s people to fulfil their responsibility of being in covenant relationship with a holy God. It is an over-reaction to equate works with law – we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph.2:10).

Church as optional extra?

It is also in the context of the absolute necessity of human freedom that the book’s controversial comments about the Church belong. On the one hand, Jesus tells Mack that he loves his bride, the Church, which is full of individuals in whom he delights. Yet, on the other hand, Young has Jesus say at one point “who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian” (p.182) and “I don’t create institutions, never have, never will” (p.179). This is obviously a deliberately provocative way to put it; the point being that, as Young’s Jesus puts it, the Church is a man-made system and “that’s not what I came to build” (p.178). Mack realises that his friends do love Jesus, it is just that they are at the same time “sold out to religious activity and patriotism.” (p.181). This sums up Mack’s negative church experience – and you get a strong sense the author is writing autobiographically here.

Of course what Young suggests here is not unique. Many have made similar criticisms of evangelicalism and undoubtedly there is truth to the charges. However, Young offers an overly negative way to interpret the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘Church’. He also buys into a popular – and mistaken – evangelical dualism about the Church as a body of genuine believers in opposition to being an organization. This sort of dichotomy would not only be foreign to the Reformers’ high view of the church, but it fosters a view of church as an optional add-on to personal faith – an attitude that would be baffling to Paul and pretty much all of church history. But, more seriously, this (very modern) sort of individualistic faith effectively detaches trust in God from the biblical narrative. For instance, apart from Jesus making a joke about his big nose, it appears virtually irrelevant for knowing God that a Jewish Messiah stands at the heart of God’s unfolding redemptive purposes for Israel and the world.

Is the God of The Shack too nice?

In response to criticism that God in The Shack is ‘too nice’, Jacobson points out that Mack is held to account for “every lie in his mind and every broken place in his heart.” This may be the case but it does not really address more important questions about the nature of God. Jacobson argues that God is “not the angry and tyrannical God that religion has been using for 2000 years to beat people into conformity”. Similarly, at one point in the story Mack asks God “Honestly, don’t you enjoy punishing those who disappoint you?” (p.119) Papa replies “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it” (p.120). Now, yes, sin is deeply self-destructive and there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. However, this is at best a partial view of God and sin. Is punishment really absent in God’s response to sin? Do we simply judge ourselves through our own bad choices? This cannot be squared with Scripture where God is the judge and it is unfortunate that both Young and Jacobson resort to presenting a caricature of a vindictive God who enjoys judging in order to reject the concept of his punishing sin. What then does God forgive us for if he only needs to cure our habit of making bad choices? It is the wonder of the cross that it is there that God’s wrath and God’s mercy meet. God’s judgement falls, not on us, but on the one who willingly gives his life, takes our place and dies our death. The problem with The Shack here is it ends up setting God’s love against God’s holiness – a nice loving God overcoming a nasty judgemental God. This will not do. God’s judgement is an act of love that establishes justice and gives hope. Without it, God is not God at all.

Universalism?

The Shack’s downplaying of God’s judgement inevitably means that there are strands within it tending towards universalism. The author’s attraction to Universal Reconciliation (UR) has been documented.[2] Jacobson candidly acknowledges that early drafts of the book leaned in this direction and the finished edition has corrected this error. Certainly there is a passage that explicitly rejects universalism. Jesus is asked by Mack do “all roads lead to you?” Jesus’ replies “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere [but] I will travel any road to find you” (p.182).

However, there are still strong traces of universalism within the fabric of the story. One is found in Mack’s meeting with his abusive, alcoholic father. The scene is a vision given to Mack by Sarayu of how God sees reality. Jesus is gloriously revealed as king of the universe, surrounded by his worshipping people. One of these is Mack’s father, with whom Mack is then reconciled. What is not explained, and needs to be, is what had happened to transform Mack’s father. The unspoken inference is of universal reconciliation with God. This implication surfaces again in Mack’s dialogue with Sophia when she shocks him by asking him to choose which of his children to send to hell. Mack cannot make such an awful decision and desperately offers to go instead. Sophia reassures him that his reaction is like God’s – a perfect self-giving love for all his children that costs everything. The message is clear: it is inconceivable that a God of such love could send any of his children to hell and that Jesus’ giving of his own life means that everyone is rescued from such a fate.

Trinity, Hierarchy and Women

Few issues are more significant, or hotly debated today, than the nature of relationships within the trinity. In Part 1, I argued that Young successfully helps us imagine the fellowship of mutual love between Father, Son and Spirit. Despite this, a couple of significant criticisms remain about other aspects of the book’s trinitarianism.

One revolves around the scene where Papa shows Mack the scars on her wrists remarking that at the cross “We were there together” (p.96 emphasis original). In one sense this is right; the Father does not abandon the Son to his fate. It is crucial to understand the cross as a triune work of salvation – otherwise you end up the gross caricature of a reluctant Son being punished by an angry Father. However, Young’s image is very misleading in that it blurs the distinction between Father and Son. It was NOT the Father who became the incarnate Word who was crucified at Calvary. This is a heresy called Patripassionism (the ‘passion’ [death] of the ‘patros’ [Father]). To be fair, I don’t think Young intends to say this. It looks like a case of pushing an idea (the unity of God’s saving action at the cross) too far.

The second idea, for which Young has been much more strongly attacked, is his insistence that the trinity is completely egalitarian, without any sense of hierarchy. Indeed, hierarchy is utterly foreign to God’s nature; it is a symptom of a human lust for power, control and independence:

“we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command … We don’t need power over the other … Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours … You actually rarely experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you … You humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that relationship could exist apart from hierarchy. So you think God must relate inside a hierarchy like you do. But we do not.” (p.122-4)

This flat denial of hierarchy within God is closely connected to Young’s simultaneous rejection of any notion of hierarchy between the sexes. Men and women, Mack is told by Papa, are also created for “a circle of relationship, like our own” in order to be “counterparts, face-to-face equals, each unique and different, distinct in gender but complementary” (p.148 my emphasis).

Now this is, of course, controversial territory. On gender, debates rage between ‘complementarians’ (affirming hierarchy between the sexes, the subordination of women to men, and leadership roles in marriage and church being restricted to men) and ‘egalitarians’ (who, like Young, reject all of those positions – although it must be said Young expresses a pretty extreme form of egalitarianism).[3] These discussions are closely connected to parallel ongoing conversations about whether the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. Christian orthodoxy as outlined in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds insists that Father, Son and Spirit are co-equal and co-eternal. This is not in dispute, but the question is can hierarchy co-exist with full equality? (as people like Wayne Grudem proposes in his influential Systematic Theology). Or is hierarchy within the trinity intrinsically incompatible with equality and may actually open the door to the old Arian heresy that the Son is lesser than the Father? (as Kevin Giles argues).[4]

Without getting deeper into what are complex discussions, the relevant point here is that these are very much ‘live’ questions without obvious ‘orthodox’ solutions. In lots of reviews of The Shack it is surprising to encounter the consistent assumption that what Young says here is obviously heretical. It is not! Many broadly agree with him here (me included) and it is historically and theologically wrong to dismiss his egalitarian views as unbiblical.

Conclusion

This has been a longer two part article than I imagined starting out, probably due to my verbosity! But it is, I think, also an indication of how remarkably, in a short narrative, the author manages to open up debates about a whole range of important theological questions. In my view, the biggest challenge the book poses is how can the thrilling reality of the triune God and the astonishing good news of the gospel be communicated in accessible, compelling ways to an Irish culture that appears inoculated against Christianity?  Yes, the book is deeply flawed, and certainly unorthodox regarding a number of core Christian beliefs. It needs to be read discerningly as a result. But it can also be taken as an invitation to think afresh about the God we worship. Certainly it is provocative – but if it provokes readers to go back to Scripture and wrestle with what it says about the trinity, human freedom, gender roles, the cross, judgement, and what it means to love God and be loved by God – then it is well worth spending some time in The Shack, cracks and all.

Patrick Mitchel

[1] Wayne Jacobson ‘Is The Shack Heresy?’ http://windblownmedia.com/shackresponse.html

[2] James B De Young, ‘At the Back of The Shack: A Torrent of Universalism’. May 2008. http://theshackreview.com/content/ReviewofTheShack.pdf. De Young lists 12 tenets of UR more than a few of which surface in The Shack. Basically it teaches that God has already effected reconciliation at the cross and this reconciliation will be applied to everyone, either in this life or after death.

[3] For a good explanation of both sides, see Craig Blomberg and others, Two Views of Women in Ministry (revised edition). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

[4] Kevin Giles, Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

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