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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The Shack (1) What the Shack gets right

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 1, unchanged. Part 2 to follow.

if you have read the book, what was your take on it? How do you think the film will be received?

 

The Shack: a review article

Part 1: What The Shack Gets Right

Warning: if you don’t want to know the story, don’t read on …!

What sort of God do you really believe in? How do you relate to God emotionally? Do you ever consider how the three persons of the triune God interact with each other? How do you square God being an all-powerful being of infinite love with the reality of unimaginable continuous suffering and injustice in this broken world? Why does the church so often seem very unlike Jesus? How will God treat all those people who are not Christians? How can I forgive those who have done great evil to me and my family?

If these sound like questions in the syllabus of a theology course, you begin to get the picture that The Shack by William P Young is no ordinary story of fiction. Given the subject matter and that it is virtually a self-published book, it is all the more remarkable that is has become a publishing phenomenon. As I write, it is no. 6 in the Amazon bestseller list and no.1 in the New York Times Bestsellers of paperback fiction for the 24th straight week. The Shack website announces that over 4 million copies are in print and a movie is on the way. While being a very North American story, its popularity in Ireland is widespread. As I talk to students and visit churches, significant numbers of people have read it, most love it and some churches are using as the basis of discussion groups.

It is also a book that provokes strong reactions. A few minutes of ‘Googling’ will reveal an apparently endless maze of critiques, reviews, comments, debates, warnings and ardent recommendations. (This article, I guess, will add one more link to that maze). Some issue cautionary advice never to open its pages; some offer balanced assessment of its pros and cons; while comments on the book’s cover say things like ‘The Shack will leave you craving for the presence of God’ or ‘this story has blown the door wide open to my soul’ or it’s as good as Pilgrim’s Progress (Eugene Peterson).  Wow.

The Story

The story is simple and is structured to facilitate one man’s encounter with God. For four years Mack has been living in his ‘great sadness’ following the kidnap and murder of his young daughter, Missy, whose body has never been found. His seminary training and former church experience have proved unable to provide answers to his anguished questioning of God. His faith has been mothballed, his life grey and without hope. In the midst of his depression he receives a mysterious invitation from God to journey back to the shack in the wilderness where Missy probably died. What follows is Mack’s life-changing meeting with God, who is astonishingly unlike anything Mack had imagined.

The attractive power of The Shack

Now The Shack is a novel, but it is novel packed with specific theological views, most expressed directly by God. So it would be fair enough at this point to begin a point by point theological assessment of the picture Young paints of God. While there are real weaknesses with what he says in places (and I’ll look at some of the reasons why the book is so controversial in part 2), a more constructive question to ask first is ‘What is it about The Shack that has so captured peoples’ hearts and minds?’ I think there are at least six things Young does remarkably well:

A personal God

In an increasingly post-Christendom and materialistic West, there is a widespread longing for ‘something more’, something spiritual. In Ireland we’ve had plenty of bad religion. Authoritarian leaders, self-interested church institutions, power games, frequent fusion of faith and politics (whether Protestant or Catholic), abuse of the weak, and lots and lots of conformity where faith in Jesus gets somehow reduced to the (often boring) routine of ‘going to church’. Mack too has struggled with an experience of Christianity that seems hollow. His meeting with God blows such religious staleness out the door because he meets a God who is ‘Good News’. Young captures something important here – something that recalls Jesus’ encounters with the religion of his day. The God of The Shack echoes the father figure in the parable of the Good Samaritan; shockingly forgiving, loving and joyful. Rightly, Young wants to remind us that the heart of the Christian faith revolves around a personal God who delights to be in relationship with those he has made in his own image.

God as a triune ‘dance’

One of the most discussed aspects of the book is Young’s depiction of God as a trinity of ‘Papa’ (a large cheerful African-American woman), Jesus (an ordinary looking guy of Jewish looks) and Sarayu (an Asian woman with a mysterious shimmering presence). Any attempt to depict the trinity is doomed to fail in some respect. However, before dismissing his attempt, he should be given real credit for taking the triune nature of God seriously. Yes, some of the dialogue and scenes between Father, Son and Spirit are cringe-worthy – but Young is on to something. He describes God as being in himself a united community of mutual perfect self-giving love. Papa tells Mack, “we want to share with you the love and joy and freedom and light that we already know within ourself. We created you … to join our circle of love” (p.124). The old Greek word for this is perichoresis – a ‘dance’ of love between the three members of the godhead – and it is into this community that Christians are welcomed by grace. Indeed, it is because God is in himself a fellowship of love that we, made in his image, are destined for love and relationship. Papa puts it this way; “If I were simply One God and only One Person … you would find yourself without something wonderful … all love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within me” (p.95). This sounds very like how Jonathan Edwards put it in The Mind, “in a being that is absolutely without any plurality, there cannot be excellence, for there can be no consent or agreement.” I suspect this is not how many Christians think of God. Young succeeds in making the reader think afresh about the remarkable wonder of God being one yet also a co-equal and co-eternal fellowship of three persons.

Hope beyond suffering

During the story, Mack undergoes a profoundly emotional journey through desperate grief. Any parent could identify with his numbing loss. I admit I cried! On meeting God, Mack is finally able to ask the deep questions that have so wracked his soul. The answers he receives are not the ones he had been conditioned to expect. He emerges changed forever. The ‘great sadness’ has been lifted and he can now live most days with a sense of profound joy, able to embrace ‘even the darker shades of life as part of some incredibly rich and profound tapestry; crafted by invisible hands of love’. What does God say and do to effect such a transformation?

It is here that Young is extremely creative in how he manages to conjure up a marvellous sense of Christian hope. This life, and all its suffering and pain, is not all there is. Mack weeps for joy not because he has intellectually grasped the free will argument (of which more below) but because of the vision given to him of Missy, alive and well with Jesus. God had never abandoned her, even in her suffering and death. Mack is transformed by this eschatological hope, that there is life beyond what Paul calls our ‘light and momentary troubles’. Young is spot on here. The gospel is such good news that it meets our deepest longings for life beyond death. The ‘really real’ world lies beyond this one – a healed new heavens and earth, of beauty, worship, justice, peace and joy. The Shack gives us a glimpse of how this powerful Christian vision of the future can transform lives in the here and now and is all the better for it.

The problem of pain

A central theme of the story is how can a good and omnipotent God can allow such evil as the kidnap and murder of a young girl? This is deep theological water that many of the greatest Christian thinkers over the centuries have tried to navigate. There are no easy answers, and The Shack is essentially is a re-statement of the ‘free-will defence’ – for our choices to be real, God allows us genuine freedom, but such freedom entails the possibility of great evil. As Papa explains to Mack; “All evil flows from independence and independence is your choice … This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil. Evil is the chaos of this age that you brought to me … all things must unfold, even though it puts all those I love in the midst of a world of horrible tragedies” (p.190-1).

What Young does exceptionally well is to hold onto a number of crucial truths about God and suffering:

i. God will overcome evil (“it will not have the final say … I purpose to work life out of death, to bring freedom out of brokenness and turn darkness into light (p.191)).

ii. He allows our broken world to exist but he is not the author of evil – in fact Mack’s real problem is disbelieving God is good (“Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes.” (p.185)).

iii. He is not distant from suffering. In fact, in Jesus he has self-sacrificially walked into the maelstrom of this world’s violence and injustice in order to overcome it.

iv. From our finite perspective, we cannot know the deeper purposes that God is working through suffering. During Mack’s encounter with Sophia (God’s wisdom personified), she invites him to sit in the judgement seat of God. His refusal is reminiscent of Job’s realisation that who is he to judge God? Overall, it is this capacity to ask questions many of us struggle with and answer them with depth and integrity that makes The Shack thought-provoking and helpful reading on the problem of pain.

The transforming power of forgiveness

Forgiveness is another deeply emotive issue that surfaces during the story. This is complex territory but I think Young strikes a compelling note of grace that resonates with the good news of the gospel. I have read some criticisms that Mack’s forgiveness of his daughter’s killer is not ‘biblical forgiveness’ because the murderer does not first repent. I could not disagree more! If we demand that the offender says sorry before offering forgiveness, then forgiveness is not of grace at all! Yes, full reconciliation is not possible without repentance, but this is a second step dependent on the response of the offender that the Christian cannot control. Christians are called to take the risky first step in forgiveness. Mack has been so transformed by God’s grace he is able to offer undeserved mercy (that is what grace is) to the killer without knowing the response in advance. Nothing describes the astonishing grace of God in Christ better. Such forgiveness is courageous, attractive and powerful – and is, I think, the most inspiring aspect of the book.

Truth in story

The final reason for the book’s popularity is, I suggest, the obvious fact that it is a compelling story. Young is not the best writer you’ll ever read, but he has created an honest, deeply human main character with whom readers can readily empathise. We are made with imaginations and emotions as well as minds. Does Jesus himself, the greatest storyteller, not remind us that truths about God, suffering, forgiveness and heaven need to be grasped at all these levels if they are to be truly known? As Lewis and Tolkien brilliantly demonstrated, Christian fiction has a unique capacity to engage the whole person with questions of faith. The Shack may not be up to their standard, but it does successfully invite the reader to become part of the story themselves, grapple with profound questions of life, death, forgiveness and redemption in an accessible way, and reflect on the wonder of a personal loving triune God in the process. Not too many systematic theology textbooks manage that!

Patrick Mitchel

Next Part 2: Cracks in the woodwork