The Shack, by William P. Young, 2007, Los Angeles, Windblown Media, 248pp.; finished 6/2/8; rated 2
This book has made the rounds, and I’m impressed by that. In its 7th printing, it can be found in airport bookstores, Sams and Walmart, and practically anywhere books are sold. People keep asking me, “Have you read The Shack.” Well, I have now. I read it over two days of flying from North Carolina to Dallas to Portland to San Diego to Dallas.
Two things up front: (1) I didn’t like the book; having said that, (2) I get what the author was communicating, and agree with him: relationship is what God really wants with us, and the author has a good grasp on grace.
I didn’t like the book for a bunch of reasons, I’ll give just a few in this review. First, the author chooses to use the imagery of two women and a man as representations of the Holy Trinity. All through the book, God the Father is portrayed as an old black woman – an Aunt Jemima type. Now, I love old black women, but I have trouble with God being portrayed as such. “But it’s just a story,” someone will say, or someone else will tell me, “It’s a literary device to get across the point that we can’t put God in a box.” I know, I know. I get it. But I also get that God himself (if you take the Bible to be His work, which I do), never used such a literary device, and in fact, for the whole of Christian history (until the recent liberal and bizarre and heretical antics of the Episcopal Church) God is portrayed in the masculine. If we are faithful to Scripture and to history, we don’t have permission to monkey with this image, and to do so invites danger. “But it’s only imagery”, someone might reply. So it is. But imagery is important (because ALL communication is imagery – symbol) and bad imagery is bad (because it communicates the wrong idea). Does God contain masculinity and femininity? Of course. But he reveals himself in the masculine, and if anything, his creation is imaged as the feminine (including his particular creation, the Church), and to confuse the two is to bring confusion between the two – hence nature worship and goddess worship go hand in hand.
Second, the author doesn’t understand the Trinity (not that anyone does, but this author really doesn’t). He presents the Holy Trinity as God-the-Three-Individuals-Who-Share-One-Mind. Young’s portrayal of the Trinity is closer to the Star Trek collective society, the Borg, than to the biblically revealed Trinity, in whom the Father is unseen and unknowable and is seen and known only through the Son. To be more biblically faithful, Young would have written this book with only one “seen” member of the Trinity – the Son. To further complicate things, on page 145 the Father is submitted to the Son, and on 122 the Spirit tells Mack, “we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity,” contra St. Paul in 1 Co. 15.24-28.
Third, the author steps dangerously close to (and probably over) the line of patripassionism – the early heresy that God the Father died in the crucifixion. On page 103 he has Mack saying to the Father, “I’m so sorry that you, that Jesus, had to die”. The Father (who is a woman, remember), doesn’t correct him, but simply tells him that she isn’t sorry, it was worth it.
Fourth, on page 179 and the few pages following, the author portrays Jesus as being anti-religious, making it that organized or institutional religion isn’t God’s idea at all, and simply something that he has to deal with due to the frailty of humanity. Oddly, at the same time, he embraces the authority of the Bible, which comes to us through that very institution he tends to reject. Then, going a step further, while he has Jesus dismissing organized religion in general (and saying, “I don’t create institutions, never have, never will”), he also has him saying that he has followers who are Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, and “I have no desire to make them Christians…” (p. 182). So much for Matthew 28.18 and the Great Commission.
Fifth, and finally, the book can be pretty sappy. For example, on page 107 God the Father, that is, Papa, who is, remember, an old black woman, suggests they all pause for devotions. While Mack is expecting Jesus to pull out a Bible, “Instead, Jesus reached across the table and took Papa’s hands in his, scars now clearly visible on his wrists. Mack sat transfixed as he watched Jesus kiss his father’s hands and then look deep into his father’s eyes and finally say, ‘Papa, I loved watching you today, as you made yourself fully available to take Mack’s pain into yourself, and then giving him space to choose his own timing. You honored him, and you honored me. To listen to you whisper love and calm into his heart was truly incredible. What a joy to watch! I love being your son.’”
While there are witty moments (like God cooking dinner “from scratch” and Mack not being exactly sure what that meant), and while I get that the author is trying to draw people into an experiential relationship with God and not just a formal religious life devoid of true spirituality, I found the negatives far outweighing the positives in this book. Trying to portray the Trinity in a work of fiction is nigh on impossible, and should be attempted, if ever, only by someone who has a very solid grasp on the historical doctrine itself. Otherwise, it paints the wrong picture, and wrong pictures can create wrong concepts and beliefs.