Monday, March 6, 2017

The Shack book review

This is not a hit piece on The Shack. The book is outstanding in many respects and ingeniously depicts a different way of looking at God for many people. Author William P. Young offers many profound insights into the nature of God, His relationship with us, and our understanding of tragedy. We will examine a few of the key doctrinal and theological issues to see how they comport with the Bible. But, wait a minute – can’t we just read a book for the entertainment value without getting heavy into theology? Sure, we can read a fantasy novel purely for enjoyment, realizing it has no basis in reality. The Shack does wade into deep theological waters and so we need to compare this book, as any other, with the truth found in the Bible.

Destruction of Institutions
Young sets the stage on the first page with a boy who grows up carrying a distorted, negative perception of religion, specifically Christianity, the Bible, and by extension, God: “Although externally religious, his overly strict church-elder father was a closet drinker”.[1] The boy was “tied to the big oak at the back of the house, he was beaten with a belt and Bible verses”.[2] During the course of the story, the main character, Mack, encounters a God who is very different from what he had previously believed. Later in The Shack, “Jesus” states: “I don’t create institutions”[3]. Then, “Jesus” goes on to ask a few pages later, “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian.”[4]

In the Bible, Jesus did speak disapprovingly of the institutions established by man[5] and spoke much more of a relationship with Him and the Father. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with being a Christian. The term is not necessarily related to religious institutions, but simply means a follower and imitator of Christ. In fact, in the Bible, Peter extols the virtue of the term: “if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” (1 Peter 4:16). And, Luke mentions where and when the first use of this term was made: “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). Understanding this, Young’s point is valid: Relationship, not religion or ritual, is our aim.

What is God like?
Young’s obvious non-stereotypical portrayal of God the Father as a large African-American woman and the Spirit as an ethereal Asian woman are probably effective in not “reinforcing your religious stereotypes”[6] God has been recently portrayed in non-stereotypical terms, such as a kindly older gentleman by Morgan Freeman, in the Bible He speaks from a burning bush[7], while Jesus appears as a lion[8] and a lamb[9]. Later in The Shack, God is depicted by a male character for a different purpose.  Did Young go too far in portraying “Papa” in this manner?

The Bible is very clear in numerous passages that God (Yahweh) is a male father figure. Jesus specifically refers to God as “the Father” at least 65 times in the gospels[10], with many more references to Him elsewhere in the Bible, as well as parables of Jesus mentioning God the Father. He is never depicted in the Bible as female or a mother. As a side note, it is interesting that Young has “wounds on Papa too” from the crucifixion, a notion that tends toward patripassianism[11], though he always keeps the three entities of the Godhead separate. The point is effectively made that the punishment for sin was very difficult for the Father also.

Chain of Command?
The trinity is vividly portrayed in The Shack in anthropomorphic detail and with no authority structure amongst the Godhead. “We have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command”[12] states one of the triune God. And, Mack is informed, “Authority, as you usually think of it, is merely the excuse the strong use to make others conform to what they want.”[13]

The Bible does indicate that all three persons of the trinity possess the essence and authority as God. And, the Bible seems to corroborate the notion of agreement among the trinity.[14] However, the Bible also indicates there is a final authority in the trinity, with the Son and the Spirit always submitting to the will of the Father:
·         Jesus said, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done”   (Luke 22:42).
·         Jesus also stated, “[T]he Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
·         Jesus spoke of the Spirit: “when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak” (John 16:13). From whom will the Spirit hear?
·         And, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name” (John 14:26).
So, the Son obeys the Father’s will and the Father directs the Spirit. While there is unity and agreement, the Father is the final authority.

According to The Shack:  “judgment is not about destruction, but about setting things right.”[15] In a similar vein, heaven is described not so much as “pearly gates and streets of gold. Instead it’s a new cleansing of this universe”.[16] Also, the book states “Your world is severely broken … Nothing is as it should be … and as it will be one day.”[17] This is not in disagreement with the Bible, which states that God will make all things new (Revelation 21:5) and there will be a “period of restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21).

On the other hand, the Bible states there will be judgment since “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10) and there will also be destruction in the sense that “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:8-9).

God’s children?
As the Judge in the book cedes judicial responsibilities to Mack, we gain a first person viewpoint of having responsibility for judgment. Is it as difficult for God to sentence some of His children to hell as it would be for those of us who are parents? The question we need to ask though, is whether all people are God’s children. The Bible states that all are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and we are called “offspring” or “children” of God in Acts 17:28-29. But, in other places, the Bible indicates that not all are God’s children:
By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” (1 John 3:10)
And, only those who believe in Jesus are God’s children:
as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).
So all are not children of God, and those who choose to reject God face hell as punishment for sin and banishment from His presence.

Understanding tragedy
Young does an excellent job of showing that we are not to blame God, but to gain a different perspective on tragedy. As we wonder where God is when trouble comes, The Shack explains,
“Your world is severely broken. You demanded your independence, and now you are angry with the one who loved you enough to give it to you.”[18]
Rather than being uncaring, unable to stop tragedy, or even sinister, we see that God did not wish for evil to occur and still desires to have a relationship with us, but meanwhile allowing for human freedom. This is in agreement with the Bible, which states that since Adam (and, by extension, all humans) chose to not obey God, a curse is on the earth, in which death and sin have spread to all of us.[19] Jesus informs us that “Satan is the ruler of this world” (John 12:31) at the present time, because humans have chosen to live apart from God.

Do all roads lead to God?
In the book, Jesus tells Mack:
“Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims … I have no desire to make them Christian”.[20]
This seems to be counter to the Biblical Jesus, who states, “No one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). However, Young does indicate that we “were” in those categories before coming to God. And, he goes on to explain:
“I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters”.
This matches with the Bible, which states we can be sons of God[21] and siblings of Jesus.[22]

What does God want from us?
The Shack depicts God as one whose primary purpose is to draw us into relationship with Him. Is the God of the Bible different from that? Is His highest purpose for humans to follow all the commandments? We certainly need to obey Him, but rules are not designed to be the goal in our lives. “Rules cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse”[23] states God in The Shack. God’s word states in the Bible, “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20) and “I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (Galatians 2:19). Jesus says in The Shack:  “My purpose from the beginning was to live in you and you in me.”[24] This sounds similar to what Jesus stated in the Bible: 
“The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity.”
(John 17:22-23)

One of the most common difficulties for people today is understanding God accurately when tragedies occur. William Young very effectively depicts a different way of conceiving of God and, most importantly, realizing His great purpose is to bring us into relationship with Him. If readers achieve a greater understanding of the true God and enter into a better relationship with Him, based in truth and love, The Shack will serve a very worthwhile purpose.

(Biblical references are from the NASB version.)

[1] Young, William P., The Shack, (Los Angeles, CA:  Windblown Media, 2007), p. 7.
[2] p. 8.
[3] p. 179
[4] p. 182
[5] Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger’” (Matthew 23:1-4).
[6]p. 93
[7] Exodus 3
[8] Revelation 5:5
[9] Revelation 22:1
[10] Matthew 11:27, 24:36, 28:19, Mark 13:32, John 6:65, 8:16, and numerous others.
[11] Patripassianism is derived from the Latin roots pater father + passus to suffer; a form of modalism in which the Father suffered on the cross as the Son.
[12] p. 122
[13] p. 123
[14] “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26)
“After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17).
[15] p. 169
[16] p. 177
[17] p. 164
[18] p. 164
[19] “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned … death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned” (Romans 5:12,14).
[20] p. 182
[21] Romans 3:19, Galatians 3:26, and others
[22] “whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother" (Matthew 12:50)
[23] p. 203
[24] p. 112

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