Young: The Shack
A Bit to Read
The Shack: a Window
In my travels through the congregation I’ve bumped into a few copies of William Young’s novel, The Shack. I’ve asked around a bit through the Valley, and learned that the book has found its way into the homes of several brothers and sisters in the churches. That in turn provides opportunity for the book to be the subject of conversation, and perhaps incentive (for our children) to read it too. Then we’d better know what it’s about.
There’s a second reason why I’m writing about this book. The Shack turns out to be incredibly popular amongst North American readers; it’s among Amazon’s top ten sellers. That begs the question: what is there in this book that makes our fellow North Americans devour it? Does the fact that this book is so popular help us to understand our culture? I think the answer is Yes.
Mackenzie Phillips (Mack for short) lost his young daughter during a camping trip; it turns out she was abducted and killed. Police eventually found her dress and blood stains in a remote shack, but could find no trace of the body or the killer. A Great Sadness settled on Mack’s life as he sought to deal with this tragedy.
In the midst of his grief, Mack received one day a note in his mailbox from God, inviting him to a meeting with Him in the very shack where Missy’s body was found. Mack eventually took up the invitation and travelled to the shack. There he meets the Triune God – the Father (“Papa”) as an African-American woman who loves baking, the Son a Middle Eastern man, “wearing jeans covered in wood dust and a plaid shirt with sleeves rolled just above the elbows, revealing well muscled forearms” who loves to tinker in his shop, and the Holy Spirit an Asian woman named Sarayu who loved gardening. Later in the book when Mack needs a father figure in the godhead, Papa appears as a man with silver-white hair pulled back into a ponytail. In the course of the story Mack has lengthy conversations with all three Persons of the Trinity, and in the process Young covers numerous aspects of Christian doctrine, including the free will of man, the power of God, the death of Jesus Christ, the place of faith and good works, the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, and so much more. All of these aspects of doctrine are discussed in the light of the Great Sadness that presses upon Mack as a result of Missy’s death. As a result, the book has life in it, a realism that touches any heart battling with its own Great Sadness – as every heart in fact does in some way.
By the end of the book the Great Sadness has been lifted from Mack’s shoulders, he’s reconciled to the God he was angry with for letting this murder happen, forgives his daughter’s murderer and sees his family (once cracking under the pain of the Great Sadness) joyfully together again.
Eugene Peterson of Regent College in Vancouver writes on the cover that “this book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress did for his. It’s that good!” I emphatically disagree. The book is simply blasphemy. Though it’s easy to fault the book on its presentation of various points of doctrine, the one area of doctrine that jumps out is its understanding of who God is. God, according to Scripture, is indeed three Persons, but nowhere does the Lord reveal Himself as a woman, let alone an African-American woman, or even one who loves nothing better than baking the most delicious meal. God appeared to Moses in Midian not as a woman or even as a man, but as a fire-that-did-not-consume. As Moses approached the strange sight, God did not embrace him as the woman Papa in Young’s book does, but rather told him “take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). When God appeared to Israel at Mt Sinai, the whole mountain quaked and trembled at the presence of this God, and when God spoke to Israel the people were overcome with fear (Exodus 19,20). After the episode of the golden calf, Moses wanted to see God’s glory, but God denied him the opportunity on grounds that “no one may see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). The God of the Bible is so holy that He cannot look on evil (Habakkuk 1:13) – which is why the Great Darkness settled over the land while the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus while He hung on the cross. Even today the angels of heaven never cease crying, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Revelation 4:8). Yet in Young’s book it doesn’t matter what Mack says to Papa; she’s never offended even when he snaps at God, never calls him to account for sin or blasphemy. The Papa of The Shack is simply not the God of the Bible before whom angels hide their faces, but is a figment of human imagination. Here is sin against the second commandment: an image is made of God in the form of a creature.
The same is true in relation to the second Person of the Trinity. Holy Scripture portrays Jesus as risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, enthroned at God’s right hand as Lord of lords. The angels of heaven, numbering thousands upon thousands, sing without end: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise” (Revelation 5:12). That’s a radically different understanding of Jesus Christ than a man wearing jeans covered in wood dust who tinkers in his wood shop. His majesty has disappeared. The same sort of objection can be levelled against Young’s presentation of the Holy Spirit.
It’s not, however, simply the personification of the three persons of the Holy Trinity that offends the God-fearing reader. Young attempts to depict the chemistry between the three Persons as one of love and laughter, and one too of mutual submission. Not only is this presentation all too human; it is simply contrary to God’s own revelation. Mutual submission? The Bible uses a different range of words: the Father sent the Son, the Son poured out the Spirit, the Son obeyed the Father. In fact, there is no human mind capable of understanding how the three Persons are One, how their chemistry in fact works. More, the reality of the Trinity points up how much greater God is than any mind can fathom – and yet that’s precisely what Young wants to do; he seeks to understand God in the midst of life’s pain. So he misses altogether the God who revealed Himself in Scripture. Since he misses the Bible’s instruction about Who God is, Young’s doctrine of sin is also wanting, as is his understanding of man’s free will, of who died on the cross, of what the Bible is, of how the Holy Spirit works, of why church is important, and so much more.
Why, one wonders, has this book sold so well? What’s in this book that echoes with the soul of North America’s Christian population? Undoubtedly, the fact that Young speaks about the Great Sadness buried within the souls of so many is itself a strong attraction to this book. But there is more. It’s his presentation of who God is that strikes a chord with countless thousands. For God in this book is harmless. So sin has lost its evilness, and sin’s power to bite us in the tail is gone also. Instead of being holy and demanding justice when we transgress against Him, God has become our size, one we can easily love without having to repent, one we can serve without having to change our habits, one who will love us even when we shake a fist at Him. It’s all part of “Christless Christianity”.
That’s why this book cannot be read for entertainment. There is too much offensive in this book to read it as a form of relaxation. At the same time, it is very revealing of what the soul of today’s Christianity looks like.
February 11, 2009