Thursday, May 7, 2009

Getting Inside The Shack

Getting Inside The Shack

A brief review of The Shack by William P. Young
By Jason Poquette

Indisputably popular, The Shack has been hailed a modern masterpiece of Christian fiction, a moving and gripping story that describes a man’s surprising encounter with the Triune God he never heard about in Sunday school, sermons or seminary. The Shack, however, is more than a story. Any attentive reader will acknowledge that Mr. Young believes he has a message for our generation, a burden on his heart to correct, as he perceives it, misrepresentations of God which have arisen from within certain circles of Christianity. The problem of an all-good all-powerful God and an evil world is no new challenge facing the church, and The Shack presents Young’s attempt at a creative theological response to a deeply personal and often emotional issue. This article is an attempt at a fair-minded and balanced review of Young’s perspective on man’s problem, his portrayal of God, and his answer to the problem of evil.

I feel obliged to say a few things before I begin. First, let it be said that I have actually read The Shack. It would be unfair and disingenuous to offer any perspective without having taken the time to read it myself. Second, I deliberately refrained from reading any reviews of this book until after I had read it myself and formed my own opinions. Third, having finished the book and read a few reviews, I have been a little disappointed with some critics who seem to exaggerate the faults and failures of Young’s work beyond measure. But also, there is an equal disappointment with others who seem to applaud it with a sort of blind appreciation that refuses to even consider a closer look at the theological concepts and doctrines it contains. I want to be kind, but also careful; fair, but also faithful. I have no doubt that what I say will not be mean enough for some folks…nor kind enough for others…c’est la vie! Finally, let me acknowledge that many far more qualified than myself have argued both for and against the message of The Shack. I encourage the curious reader to search out other insights and consider carefully the thoughts of those whose education, experience and insight make them far more qualified than myself to evaluate this book.

I will start with some honest appreciation and sincere compliments. I found this story gripping. Rarely in my adult life have I come across a book I was truly reluctant to put down. Granted, my reading tastes tend toward genres that typically are not written to arrest the emotions and engage the reader’s imagination upon a journey in the way that The Shack was designed to do. Some books are more like digging than driving. This book was a drive, and I found myself increasingly curious about what was around the next corner as the story unfolded. There were spots in this story that brought tears to my eyes. Maybe it is because I’m a father, or maybe I’m just a sap, but I cannot imagine a more devastating tragedy than that experienced by Mack, and which some have had to face in bitter grim reality.

I also feel compelled to credit the author with what is, I believe, a courageous book. It is far less difficult to wrestle with evil when the problem is simply presented in the form of physical illness, common disappointments, financial failures, or civil injustice. It is an easy thing to justify God from an ivory tower. But it takes a special boldness to plunge into a theological explanation for an evil as horrific and hateful as Mr. Young presents in The Shack. Not that a brutal murder of an otherwise innocent child is the greatest imaginable evil, but almost anyone will acknowledge that it admits no easy answer, even for the ablest of apologists.

Finally, I would like to offer a word of thanks to Mr. Young for writing a conspicuously clean book that does not pander to baser lusts to promote sales and allure readers. In a world that offers increasingly fewer forms of wholesome entertainment, this is a book that is utterly innocent of any suggestive or seedy sentiments. Even the details of the murder itself was handled with measured and modest discretion which is such a stark contrast to the modern media milieu which boasts in brutality and glories in all that is gruesome.

These things being said, I would like to respectfully draw some attention to areas of concern. I do this, I hope, with no ill-will toward the author or his appreciative readership. I hope to bear in mind the words of one whose works I admire, the Rev. John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace” who said on the issue of controversy “What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?” Any fool can make a career of finding faults in others. I can say with sincerity I have no real heart for that occupation. Yet I feel compelled by the popularity of this book, and potential confusion it may create, to offer a few comments to those who may have questions.

Before any particular points are presented, one must really raise a more general question in such a review, which is this: Does it matter who God really is and if I know Him? I ask this question in earnest and with the deepest sincerity. When life is done, when our last breath has been taken, when this brief existence of several dozen years comes to a close and eternity stands open before us, will it matter who God is and if I have known Him? I dare say that any sober soul reading these words will have to agree that there is truly no matter of greater moment than the nature and character of the God whom we shall all one day have to face. Who can offer any priority of greater importance than that of really knowing God? Will it matter if you die the richest man or woman on earth…if you never knew God? Will it matter if you die the most loving parent, faithful friend, or sacrificial server…if you never knew God? One man put it this way “The final goal of the blessed life, moreover, rests in the knowledge of God.”[1] The Bible itself holds out the knowledge of the true God as the one great thing we should aspire for. David’s dying words to his son Solomon began this way “And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father (1 Chronicles 28:29). ” The Lord said through the mouth of His servant Jeremiah “But let him who glories, glory in this, that he understands and knows Me (Jeremiah 9:24).” Yes, and it was Jesus Christ Himself who said “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent (John 17:3).” To quote another author “What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we set ourselves in life? To know God….What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight, and contentment, than anything else? Knowledge of God.”[2] Dear reader…do you believe this? Do you understand that God, the living and true God, desires for you to know Him MORE than anything else? That is precisely what He says “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6).”

How then are we to know Him? By what means and method are we to acquire this precious understanding of God? Here, sadly, many have gone astray. Let me ask you a question: Has anyone ever misrepresented you? Have you ever had your ways or words falsely described or misconstrued so as to detract from your character and integrity? This, dear reader, happens to the Lord all the time. We create a god suitable to our comforts and agreeable with our desires. The Bible calls this idolatry, and it is very serious. Here the words of Deuteronomy “They have provoked Me to jealousy by what is not God; they have moved Me to anger by their foolish idols…for a fire is kindled in my anger, and shall burn to the lowest hell (Deut. 32:21ff).” And this idolatry is not limited to stone images or golden calves. We can create idols in our minds with our words. A man by the name of Elihu misrepresented God to Job and the Lord said to him “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right…(Job 42:7).” The true God has made Himself known, and we may know Him. He shows Himself in Creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1).” He has revealed Himself more clearly still through His Word, the Bible. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).” And finally, and most gloriously, God reveals Himself through His son. “He is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15).” In the words of one of the church Fathers “We must learn from God what we should think of Him[3] When we seek to know God in some other way than this, by some other means or representation, we have invited an idol into our heart. To quote the previous author again “all man-made images of God, whether molton or mental, are really borrowings from the stock-in-trade of a sinful and ungodly world, and are bound therefore to be out of accord with God’s own holy Word. To make an image of God is to take one’s thoughts of Him from a human source, rather than from God Himself…”[4].

Having introduced this review thus, I now must turn to humbly and sincerely ask another important question: Is the God of The Shack the God of the Bible? I know that some will not like this question. They will say it is harsh, unkind, critical and mean-spirited to ask such things of a fictional book in this way. They will say that if I have any concerns I would do best to keep them to myself. They may say “Who are you to ask such things, what rights have you to question?” They may say that any evaluation of the work in this way arises from nothing but self-righteousness and sinful pride. Let me state simply that I know there is enough evil in my own heart to be guilty of all those things, and much more besides. Allow me to put it this way. What if one should come to your home to sell you precious stones and jewels? He tells you they will afford you a rich retirement, as their value will increase a hundred fold in years to come. Spend a mere $10,000 dollars now and reap a million upon which to take your rest in days to come! Should you account me an enemy if I tell you that what he declares are diamonds are really nothing more than glass…although they shimmer and shine? Would he not be a faithful friend who points out an imposter to your eyes? And so I ask again: Is the God of The Shack actually the God of the Bible? I do not ask if He is the God of your tradition. Our traditions may be wrong. I do not ask if He is the God of your imagination. Our preconceived notions, ideas and thoughts of God can nothing more than foolish fancies, as says the Scriptures “…the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Genesis 8:21).” I ask only if He is the God of the Bible. And so I beg your patience to allow me to draw your attention to several tendencies that appear in the God of The Shack which raise questions in my mind whether this is truly the God of the Bible. I will speak of “tendencies” rather than “teaching” for the book is a work of fiction. But the fact that it is fiction does not free the book from promoting a particular perspective on God, and it is that perspective that we must evaluate in the light of the Word.

Tendency #1: A diminished emphasis on God’s Holiness, Glory and Majesty.
In Scripture, when mortal men (even the most ‘righteous’ of men) find themselves in God’s presence the sense of awe and fear of God’s holiness and majesty is always evident.

Consider Isaiah’s vision: “In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” This is what Isaiah saw: a glimpse at God, a moment in His presence. And listen to Isaiah’s response: “Woe is me, for I am undone…for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts (Isaiah 6:1ff).”

This response of Isaiah is the repeated experience of those who come into God’s presence in Scripture. Moses had to be hid in the cleft of the rock as the Lord passed by, presumably unable to bear the full measure of the Lord’s exposed Majesty on that mountain. When John, exiled on the isle of Patmos, saw in a vision the unveiled glory of Christ, we read “when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead (Rev. 1:17).” It appears even fallen angels have the sense to shudder: “You believe there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble! (James 2:19)”

God’s majesty, glory and holiness saturate seemingly every page of sacred Scripture. But listen to what Professor David Wells has said about the modern abandonment of God’s holiness. “It is this God, majestic and holy in his being, this God whose love knows no bounds because his holiness knows no limits, who has disappeared from the modern evangelical world. He has been replaced in many quarters by a God who is slick and slack, whose moral purposes turn out to be avuncular [as from a friendly uncle] advice that we can disregard or negotiate as we see fit…”[5]

The holiness and majesty of the Lord is both Biblical and vital to our conception of God. “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power and the glory, the victory and the majesty (1 Chronicles 29:11).” Though God invites us into His presence through Christ, having made a way by the cross, yet that presence into which we go is always and ever a holy presence. The Puritan John Owen put it this way: “It is a throne of grace that God in Christ is represented to us upon; but yet it is a throne still whereon majesty and glory do reside, and God is always to be considered by us as on a throne.

Dear reader, is it your honest experience that the God of The Shack is such a God as thus represented in the Bible: Holy, Majestic and Glorious? Was the overwhelming impression one that tended toward a reverent fear and awe of God? Or were you left with a sense that this God of The Shack is strangely quite like you and I…wiser…but frankly quite familiar. I am reminded of some recent words by Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary. His comments were related to the problems of modern worship, but this particular thought is relevant here as well: “…what is expressed through the idioms of particular cultural manifestations of the church should be awe, reverence, and, above all seriousness - not a colourless and cold miserable seriousness but a fitting amazement at the greatness of God and his grace.”[6]

Tendency #2: Dissatisfaction with God’s own disclosure of the Trinity in Scripture

Undoubtedly one of the most shocking elements of The Shack for many Christians is the author’s decision to present both the Father and Spirit in human forms, not to mention that both persons are additionally represented by the female gender. The author, through “Papa”, does offer some justification for this feminine presentation. It was said that Mack, the main character, was not ready for the presence of a male “Father” given his paternally abusive childhood. Also, there was a stated purpose to dismantle the “stereotypes” that Mack was apparently burdened with, presumably put there by the church or from his seminary education.

I do not wish to engage in debate over the legitimacy of these justifications. I would remind every reader that abusive and inadequate fathers are nothing new or unique to the 21st century. Why “Our Father” has been sufficient for 2000 years, but was somehow unsuitable for Mack is at least a fair question to ask. I would also point out, just for your own reflection, that one must weigh the benefit of replacing one inadequate stereotype or image (whatever that may be) with another equally inadequate stereotype or image. I cannot appreciate the inherit benefit of shaking up our conceptions of God by simply inserting another flawed and feeble representation that would, presumably, also need to be shaken up in time. If we wrongly conceive of God as an old man with flowing white beard…I see not how that tendency is destroyed by replacing such an image with a black woman.

The question I want to focus on, and the question that is central to this review, is this: would the God of the Bible do this? Another way to approach this question is this: would some physical incarnation of the Father and the Spirit actually help mankind to know God better? This question has been raised before. In fact, Jesus Himself was once received this very request from His disciple Philip. “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us (John 14:8).” Here was an earnest and sincere request by one very close to our Lord. It would seem a rather simple supplication for One who had previously walked on water, dueled with the Devil, and even raised the dead. How hard could one quick glimpse of the Father made flesh really be? But Jesus makes clear that such a disclosure, in His presence, is unnecessary. With all tenderness our Savior addresses Philip and says “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father (John 14:9).” There is the answer. Any disclosure of God the Father in any form could in no way enhance their apprehension of Him, because in Christ “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Colossians 2:9).” In reality, any such attempted manifestation would be an insult to the Son. Jesus is God the Son, one Person in the Holy Trinity. Yet He is nevertheless, by God’s design, the FULLEST disclosure possible of God to man.

The image of God the Father & Holy Spirit, not only suggests some measure of inadequacy in the Son, but in presenting them in the feminine form suggests to some degree a dissatisfaction with God’s own choice of disclosure. God is not male, He is not female, He is spirit. But for reasons best left to the depths of His wisdom He has chosen from the very beginning of time to disclose His being to mankind in the masculine gender. Centuries of Scripture consistently adhere to such language. Brilliant authors like Bunyan and Lewis have, with creative genius, been content to maintain that distinction. But in The Shack the author has seen fit to tear down that wall which it seems God Himself has built. One cannot help but sense that this transition was greatly influenced by modern liberal theology. I offer to the honest reader this definition of “Christian feminism” from Wikipedia “Christian feminists believe that gender equality within the church cannot be achieved without rethinking the portrayal of God as a masculine being.[7]

Tendency #3: Skepticism about the Church

One cannot read through The Shack without noticing the author’s skeptical and sometimes cynical attitude toward organized religion. Jesus Himself is portrayed as no fan of religion. Christ’s church, according to The Shack, has more to do with relationships than with structure; it is about personal fellowship not an organized institution. Mack, even after his supposedly face-to-face encounter with God, is still not much fond of actually going to church.

Now, one must admit that no small amount of mischief and madness has gone on in the name of religion and throughout the history of the organized church. Christians and Christian churches have plenty to be ashamed of. Many individuals can relate stories of monstrous injustice, deception, abuse and hypocrisy for which the visible church here on earth ought to be ashamed. Nevertheless it would appear that Mack, and potentially many readers of The Shack, need to be reminded that the organized church was God’s idea! No one walking the earth ever endured more injustice at the hands of religious leaders and the organized church than Jesus Christ Himself! But He loved the church and was regularly found teaching in the synagogue of His day. “And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day (Luke 4:16).” It was Christ Himself who instituted the sacraments of the church: baptism and the Lord’s supper. “…Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it (Ephesians 5:25).” Think of Saul, that angry Pharisee who hated the Christian church and persecuted it until that day he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. From that point on he served the church of Christ night and day with tears, enduring all manner of opposition for the sake of the church that he now loved, saying even “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you (Colossians 1:24).” In 2 Corinthians 8:24 the organized church is called “the glory of Christ.” The Holy Spirit who inspired the entire Bible so orchestrated it that most of the New Testament is arranged as letters to…you guessed it…organized churches! We could add to this the countless biographies of servants of Christ throughout the past 2000 years who suffered as missionaries to see Christ’s church extend into new frontiers, pastors who preached and taught and wrote selflessly, Christians who risked their lives to meet together in organized churches under threat of persecution, and on and on. They loved the church! With all her imperfections, flaws, and yes…sadly…even blatant hypocrisy and deception at times, believers have always loved the church of Jesus Christ. It is His church, and His Word is preached, and His praises sung, and His body is gathered to worship Him! The church, from our limited perspective, often appears like a rundown dilapidated shack in the woods…but our Heavenly Papa sees the blood-bought body of His Son.

Dear reader, this fact alone convinces me that our dear friend Mack from The Shack did not meet God that weekend in the woods. I’m not sure who he met. I don’t know who he was talking to. But I do know this: those who meet with God love His church.

Dear reader, there are other tendencies that also concern me and convince me that the God of the Shack is not, in fact, the God of the Bible. Mr. Young is, I believe, a talented author with a gift that I hope he continues to use. I don’t suspect this review will ever encounter his eyes, but if it did, I would want to encourage him to keep writing, keep reading the Word, keep praying, keep himself in the love of God, and keep going to church. I would love to buy you a cup of coffee (or is it tea you prefer?) and discuss your books and writing some more. Dear reader, do you really want to meet God? Do you want to see Jesus Christ? Have you endured great sufferings and pain and sorrow? Listen to these words of Peter as I close: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith – the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:6-9).”

[1] Calvin’s Institutes, Book 1 chapter 5, section 1 (p. 51)
[2] Knowing God, J.I. Packer (p. 29)
[3] Hilary of Poitiers, Day by Day with the Early Church Fathers (p. 19)
[4] Knowing God, J.I. Packer (p. 44)
[5] David Wells, No Place for Truth



Bev said...

I have not read 'The Shack', but you have most certainly piqued my curiosity, and I shall put it on my summer reading list.
And, thanks for such a thorough and scholarly report on the book.

Jason Poquette said...

Thanks Bev! Always appreciate your kind words. And now you have reminded me it is high time to start planning my summer reading also!

Adam Pastor said...

Greetings Jason Poquette

On the subject of the Trinity,
I recommend this video:
The Human Jesus

Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you to reconsider "The Trinity"

Yours In Messiah
Adam Pastor

Jason Poquette said...

Mr. Pastor,

Sincere thanks for reading the post and for sharing your link and concern. The Trinity is a great mystery, but it remains the best expression I know of to account for God's own disclosure of Himself in Scripture.

Gratefully yours,