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The Shack

William P Young (HodderFaith.com)

Well, another row breaks out among those who elect themselves as the defenders of truth. Trouble is, seems to me, they’ve misjudged their target slightly.

What we have here is a novel, a fantasy novel with a twist in the tale that makes me wonder if it’s ever intended to be taken with the intense degree of scholarly gravitas which has been employed.

            

Summary

Mack is a father of four whose daughter goes missing in horrible circumstances. It’s assumed she has been killed, and a depression settles on Mack. Some time later, he is invited, by means of a note that appears to have come from God, to return to the scene of the incident (the Shack of the title). He makes the trip and discovers that God is waiting to discuss a number of issues, including love, freedom, the nature of the trinity, forgiveness, the identity of Christ, the root of bitterness and hope.

            

So far, so fictional and acceptable – except that, as one reviewer gleefully pointed out, Mack goes back to the shack, which is careless and should have been revised by a sub-editor.

Messing with our expectations

But while the Jesus character is what one might anticipate – a middle-eastern Jew – God the Father (known throughout as Papa) is portrayed as a large African-American woman, and the Holy Spirit, called Sarayu is a ghostly, Asian female. Now hang on a minute, you’ll be thinking. Can you do that?

My feeling is that while it’s a strange way to write a systematic theology from an evangelical perspective, that’s not what we’re reading here. The author’s intent, surely, is to shock us into wondering what God is like. How does the trinity work? Who’s in charge? Is it like flatsharing? Who’s going to volunteer to do the washing up? Will the phone bill and the ‘pay for your calls here’ box tally up or will there be a vast shortfall? Can an eternal spirit-being behave in every way like a father should and yet have the appearance of an alto in a Gospel choir? Isn’t our human method of defining people by their appearance somewhat finite for dealing with the creator of the universe? NB is the Holy Spirit really a pigeon? No he’s not; that’s purely symbolic.

Novels, surely, can set their own agendas, and are by definition made-up. There is work for the author to do, and work for the reader to do, and neither of them is expecting to pass an exam, preach a sermon or survive a blistering attack by the flavour-of-the-month trendy pastor to the emerging generation.

Dodgy Theology

Nevertheless, since this book wrestles endlessly (and rather tediously, in places) with weighty theology, it’s only fair and reasonable that some of it should be examined to see if it ties up with scripture or the way evangelicals interpret scripture.

Firstly, then is the issue of the gender-bending God the Father.

Obviously, for the purpose of this discussion, we do need to forget the appearance issue, as this is about character, nature, virtues. Beware, for scripture delares that God is a rock and yet we don't feel this distracts from his personality; indeed, it emphasises his unshakeability, his long-lastingness, his qualities of being a good place on which to build. Scripture also tells us that 'God is not a man.' We understand that this implies he is won't lie or cheat or decieve or fail or die or be unfaithful or grow old or weary.

Father

The Papa character is gentle, funny, friendly, perfectly loving, forgiving, nurturing, comforting, and not judgemental, old or bearded. The character (which is, when all’s said and done, what really matters) is a faithful portrait of what the Father is like. Papa’s outward form is very nearly immaterial. God the Father’s outward form is subject to the ‘graven image’ commandment, as we don’t know what he looks like and we should not make efforts to describe his appearance. However, the Bible regularly makes references to God’s face, arm, hand, back, foot, ear, heart, eyes, smile; the scripture describes him as like a father and like a mother; the Bible shows God searching, dancing, laughing, burning with anger and loving. There is, to a degree, a slight hint of description in all this, and anthropomorphising can be a danger, can it not?

Turn wth me, if you will, to Genesis 1, where we find a mixture of images. In verse 26 we see God saying 'Let us make man in our own image,' emphasising his plurality (of which more later). Then there's verse 27 'So God created man in his own image,' emphasising masculinity, apparently. And then 'in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.' If both male and female are made in the image of God, then that surely implies that God placed within the nature and character of both men and women elements which reflect his nature and character.None of this makes God a woman. But by the same token, we are told many times that 'God is not a man' either.

I suppose one of the problems is that we are not experienced in imagining spirits (indeed, we see them as ethereal, insubstantial spooks, rather than the way God wants us to consider him), so isn’t there a little room for at least some of what Young has attempted?

Mark Driscoll (check out his well-meaning but somewhat heavy-handed assessment of the book on youtube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=pK65Jfny70Y) over states the situation when he aggressively accuses the writer of making a graven image. He’s certainly rude and overbearing when he describes the book as encouraging goddess worship. My own view is that Young takes the shock-factor too far, and should have at least maintained the male-father figure.

Trinity

Then there’s the relationship within the Godhead, which is smoothed over repeatedly as being all about relationship and not an hierarchy. My view is that this misses the point about the distinctions between the persons of the trinity – to simply declare them equal is a true 50%, but seriously only half of the truth.

Pp95-96 discloses Young’s view of penal substitution, and he’s found wanting, to a degree. God the Father didn’t die on the cross; God the Son asked ‘why have you forsaken me?' And the answer has to be ‘because you have been made sin, and I cannot have fellowship with you’. Young’s kindly Papa, going through the suffering with Jesus, even bearing the same scars, leaves us with sentimental hogwash, and dangerous, too. If the wrath of an holy God has not been satisfied, then we're all in deep trouble, folks.

Jesus is portrayed as fully human, yet also fully God, and the Sarayu (Holy Spirit) character has virtues consistent with being a guide and a comforter. But it seems slightly sledgehammery to cast him as an Asian woman.

Response...

I have to say that the book makes me consider what I believe about God, which cannot be a bad thing, can it? Is there room in all the fiction in the world for a book that asks questions about God while not necessarily claiming to answer those questions.

I refer the gentleman to the answer I gave when reviewing What Dreams May Come (check it out here), a non-Biblical view of heaven, hell, redemption, love and the afterlife – and yet stimulating and thought-provoking. Must we dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s before we present truth to the unsaved? I'd say yes, if we’re preaching or teaching seminary or writing a theological treatise. But perhaps we can be slightly more relaxed in this kind of context, when we're provoking questions.

It seems that Young is given to modalism (denying the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead) and tends towards universalism (everyone will be saved). So we approach the narrative of this story with appropriate caution. But for crying out loud let’s not declare to our congregations ‘if you haven’t read it, don’t!’ After all, we would take issue with some of the theology of the sermons at the funeral of Princess Diana or the Easter message from the Pope. But we can bring discernment to the party, can’t we? If we don’t, then we have no business reading any fiction, watching any soap operas, movies and we should be jolly careful with some of the racier stories in the Bible itself, Desmond. If you have no discernment, then you might not recognise which are examples to follow (eg David's abandoned worship towards God) and which are best learned from (David's abandoned behaviour with the wife of Uriah the murdered Hittite - certainly a case of coveting your neighbour's wife).

Maybe that’s what is upsetting some of the critics, who feel the novel is so much more winsome than the way they have presented their catechism…

Context matters in this case

Knowing what you’re reading can help a lot with comprehension and interpretation.

On which page of the newspaper, for example, might you read about a ball? The sports page? Or the Court & Social page? Or even in a medical report about a ball-and-socket joint? Or in a weather report about ball-lightning? Or more or less anywhere in phrases such as ‘keep (or start) the ball rolling’ or being ‘on the ball’ or ‘belle of the ball’ or simply ‘having a ball’.

It gets even worse with the word ‘set’, as there are literally (literally, ‘literally’) dozens of ways of using that word: fixing the position; insert a jewel in a ring; lay a table; arrange the hair; solidifying jelly; the course of the sun; the time or place of a fiction; to provide a good example; establish a record; appoint a leader; cause bones to knit; provide a tune for lyrics; arrange type; to begin; a group of things or persons; a tv or radio; a section of a tennis match; in a Venn diagram… to name just a few. (Phew!) Once we understand what we are reading, then we can interpret the words therein more in accordance with the intention of the writer, isn’t it?

But I digress, as is my wont.

Wayne, Louis, Bruce or John he ain't; neither is he Eugene

This book isn’t set up as competition to heavyweight theologians Louis Berkhof or Bruce Milne or Wayne Grudem (it’s a jolly sight easier to read than any of those!). It’s a story with characters that may or may not be ones that other characters meet. It’s a book about Mack, for crying out loud, and the changes that he goes through as a result of his experience. Please don’t let’s make silly comments like the one credited on the front cover to Eugene Peterson (who has done a great work in giving us The Message): 'This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!’ That’s just not true, Eugene (careful with that axe).

I would say that this book has the potential to make secular readers wonder what God is like, and we need to be quick off the mark to explain more accurately his love, approachability and forgiving fatherhood, rather than going public with hot, assertive accusations of heresy.

Harumph.