Recently I discovered a new pariah in the Evangelical world. His name is William Young and he authored the recent book called “The Shack”. After reading or in my case listening to the audio version of the book it is pretty clear that the problem with Young is found in things he has said elsewhere and those are seen as implied in the things read in the book. But I will get more into that in the second part of this review.
The book takes the form of a story of someone who suffered a tragedy and who then receives an invitation by God to meet at the shack. I won’t tell you the tragedy as to protect some of the literary integrity of the book but you will find it relayed in some of the reviews that I link to below. The Shack is used as the symbol for the life changing tragedy. Thus the book is a novel; a work of fiction which he hopes will reveal truth. Something that no doubt most novelists want from their books, though this book is certainly more overt in the process and as a story teller much less proficient. In some ways the book has a lot in common with the Celestine Prophecy, not so much as a New Age religious tome as Redfield’s book, but as something which so often presents an other worldly view in which light and color play as major emphasis and clarity is often unworldly brilliant. That of course is only a small part of the book but I wanted to point out that while the Celestine Prophecy is basically a primer on New Age thought it is written in a very engaging style which carries on through the book.
The Shack begins by telling of the main character “Mack” setting up his life and his relationship with his abusive and religious father and Mack’s experience which leads to the life changing tragedy which makes him question his religion. This only takes a couple of chapters and then the book turns into something of a conversation with God. A conversation with God is always a difficult task as each person who believes in God is likely going to have a different perspective on what God is like. To counter this problem the author mixes up the ways that God appears in the conversation. God appears as an older Black lady who enjoys cooking and who is referred to as Papa which is Mack’s wife’s term for God. Jesus appears pretty much as simply a Middle Eastern carpenter in contemporary clothes and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman (Sarayu) who is not quite in focus, or constantly in motion. Over all it works pretty well imparting to God both male and female cultural characteristics and demonstrating as well as can be expected the standard Trinitarian concept of God (that is 3 distinct persons). These three deeply loving each other and all three are in a deep relationship. The author’s technique does incorporate the idea of Jesus as a son in more then just the physical incarnation concept however. But the book does not go into that part with the conversations: staying mainly within the framework of unity of all three. That unity being based upon a loving relationship.
The real meat of the book is found in the conversations which are the main focus of the book; the story is about getting to the conversation, between a hurting man and a loving God. How to make the man see things the way God see’s things. As a novel the book is not written very engagingly in other words it is not a story you read to take you into the life of a character and explore his or her feeling and adventures. The story is the preface to the conversation where the author can reveal his ideas about God. That is the reason to read this book. In fact I think the book would be useful in church small discussion groups. The conversations are packed with a lot of ideas. Some showing some real thought and provoking thought in people who might not otherwise think about these things. Others ideas which should be viewed as questionable of traditional Christianities views of God and the authors own questionable views about God.
From my perspective the theology is not quite right and still has some major flaws but it is much better than the theology we find in most Christian authors. It is not the giant leap but a first small step. That small step is focusing upon relationships. The relationship between God and man which spurs better relationships between humans. The author’s views would fit well within most Evangelicals views of God. Most people reading the book would likely not see many problems at all with his theology. Which is why several Christian watchdog types have attempted to discredit William Young, perhaps even making the book more interesting in the process. Their two chosen avenues are that Young does not accept the Penal/Substitutionary Atonement and that he believes in universal reconciliation (salvation). But these are not really concepts that can be found in the book. They may be mildly hinted at but if the reader did not know otherwise they would likely not notice them. In some ways it is an interesting phenomenon that these Evangelical watchdogs get so upset over such things even though they are not found in the book. It is not like most anyone agrees with Martin Luther or John Calvin or Charles Spurgeon on every theological idea. But that should not relegate their books to the trash heap of Evangelicalism.
As I move into part two about other reviews of the book it seems only fair that I lay out my pet criticism of the book. One of the annoying errors in the book is speaking of Jesus God says :
“Jesus is fully human although he is fully God he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything he has only lived out of his relationship with me. Living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being. He is just the first to do it to the uttermost the first to absolutely trust my life within him, the first to believe in my love and my goodness without regard for appearance or consequence. “So when he healed the blind” he did so as a dependent limited human being trusting in my life and power to be at work within him and through him. Jesus as a human being had no power within himself to heal anyone.”
A little later this view of Jesus is countered when God says: I am one God and I am three persons and each of the three is fully and entirely one. Obviously the author has some internal confusion about God. However this idea that Jesus relied on God as an external force is all too prevalent in Christianity and especially in Adventism. As if God acting as God is somehow different if it is God acting as a human depending on God. This kind of ideas does nothing but make Christians and their God look silly. I touched upon this topic in my previous article. I don’t understand how the concept of God with us (Immanuel) is so easily discounted by some Christians. So Jesus depending on God for power is somehow different than God depending on God for His Power. If there is only One God than there is no need to keep separating God from God. It seems those who do this want to subordinate their members of the One God into different orders of God. In fact many Trinitarians are more tri-theists then Trinitarians and many Trinitarians are very much believers in Subordinationism.
This section is mainly dealing with the criticisms of the book because they really seem to reflect a difference between Emergent Christianity and Traditional Christianity. By way of reading the reviews you see which style of Christianity people feel is most appropriate. Some of the statements made by these so called discernment ministries are outright lies. But I won’t deal with some of the worst to save time. Anyone who actually reads the book will be able to see. (actually I lost the quote I typed in that showed how much one reviewer lied and I am not about to go and find the spot again and type it in.)
Update 4/25/09: It bothered me so much to see this particular falsehood in a review that I took the time to transcribe it from the audio. It is from a book review done by David Dunlap
The third Person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit, is depicted as “...a small, distinctively Asian woman ’...I am Sarayu...keeper of the gardens among other things...’ ” (pp. 82-87). Young teaches that the Holy Spirit was a created being. Mack says, “Sarayu, I know your are the Creator...” Sarayu replies, ”A created being can only take what already exists and from it fashion something different” (p. 131). Evangelical theologians have always insisted that the Holy Spirit as a Person of the Godhead was not a created being. (Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that the Holy Spirit was a created being.) At another point in Young’s book, Mack queries, “Speaking of Sarayu, is she the Holy Spirit?” “Yes.” Replies Jesus, “She is Creativity; she is Action; she is the Breathing of Life; she is much more. She is my Spirit.” (p. 110).
In fact Young in no way teaches that the Holy Spirit was a created being and it is pretty near impossible to derive that from the book quote in context. When you have people like this lying for the sake of their gospel it is a pretty sure sign their gospel is corrupt. Here is the quote from the book:
Mack says, “Sarayu, I know your are the Creator but did you make the poisonous plants, stinging nettles and mosquitoes too? Sarayu seem to move in tandem with the breezes. Mackenzie, a created being can only take what already exists and from it fashion something different. So are you saying that you ”created everything that actually exists including what you consider the bad stuff. But when I created it, it was only good. Because that is just the way I am"…
One of the big problems some feel with the book is as the character who portrays God says: “mixed metaphors to help you from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning…reinforcing religious stereotypes.” In other words don’t question your traditions. As one review says:
The Shack contains subtle and not so subtle heresies. The Shack also contains what many Bible scholars would call “aberrant” teaching. Former Professor of Theology at Denver Seminary Dr. Gordon Lewis wrote me in a private e-mail that “heresy is a conscious and deliberate rejection of orthodox teaching and the acceptance of contradictory views on the biblically revealed essentials of the Christian faith” (Lewis). In the category of aberration, Dr. Lewis writes, “unorthodox doctrine leads to aberrant behavior that wanders from the path of right action (ortho-practice) on biblically revealed moral and spiritual essentials of Christian living. Beliefs have consequence” (Lewis).
What is kind of funny about the above statement is that that is the method of argument the Roman Catholic Church used against Protestantism. Orthodoxy has never really been about what is right as about who has the power to say that they are right. Dr. Lewis is correct that beliefs have consequences but that in the case of this book is generally only acknowledged as beliefs that are different from traditional beliefs have the consequence of exposing traditional beliefs as inadequate, not dealing at all with the quality of the life as a consequence of the different beliefs.
Christian, what about this assertion by the Jesus of The Shack? “I am the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu.” (This is a false Jesus. The Jesus Christ of the Bible does not say that He is the best way, He says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” John 14:6. He is not the best way – He is the only way.)
The shack quote actually continues:
“I am the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu.” to see me is to see them. The love you sense from me is no different from how they love you.
This is all in response to Mack saying that he can relate to Jesus more easily then to the other two. The Shack Attack article however displays the proof text illogical techniques that I found in many of the reviews. If these people would only stop to think they have the whole Old Testament with not a mention of Jesus does that mean that they had no way to God? What these people act like is that if they can insert a Bible verse some place they have answered the question or solved the problem. That however is not true and is pretty clearly not the method the writers of the Bible wanted to convey. In context the statement in no way makes the Jesus referred to in the Shack as a false Jesus.
From Shack Attack:
Jesus: “God, who is the ground of all being, dwells in, around, and through all things . . .”
(Isn’t this Pantheism – God in all things?)
The quote from the book continues:
“Ultimately emerging as the real and any appearances that mask that reality will fall away.”
This is in the context of Jesus explaining that when Mack knows Jesus better appearance will not be as important. Clearly the review does not even know what Pantheism actually is but you see the pattern of taking a snippet out of context and inserting something that would sound horrible to most Christians. Another quick example is:
Papa to Mack: “We [the Trinity] have limited ourselves out of respect for you.” (Isn’t this Open Theism – God choosing to limit Himself?)
Again that review does not know what Open Theism is or the concept of literary license or the simple Biblical examples of God revealing Himself as an angel or a burning bush or as Moses saw when he requested to see God the back of God so that Moses would not die. And of course the ultimate example of Jesus Christ the incarnation of God in form of a man a little lower than the angels. That these people think they are discerning is truly amazing to me. I will only deal with one more example from the Shack Attack review because it is very representative of many traditionalists views.
Papa: “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It is not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” (Certainly there are consequences of our sin which we realize in this life and which impact other people. And certainly God has provided the cure for sin. That “cure” is the penal
substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross. Most certainly there is punishment for sin. Christ suffered the punishment for us. However, the implication of Papa’s statement is that the only punishment for sin is sin’s own punishment in a person’s life. The Bible is clear that punishment for the unredeemed, those who refuse Christ’s atonement, is the sting of spiritual death and eternal separation from God. The Shack makes light work of
The quote from the Shack:
“But if you are God aren’t you the one spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire. Mack could feel his deep anger emerging again. Pushing out the questions in front a little chagrined at his own lack of self control, but he asked anyway. Honestly don’t you enjoy punishing those who disappoint you. At that Papa stopped her preparations and turned toward Mack he could see a deep sadness in her eyes. I am not who you think I am Mackenzie I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It is not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it…”
This is what I think is the heart of the traditionalists dislike for the book. God is not the kind of person most Christians think He is. To them God must punish someone in order to forgive. In fact they have a perverted view of the atonement and to question their atonement theory is nearly the greatest crime a Christian can commit.
The Shack offers only hints as to the importance of the cross and to its function within the faith. “Honey,” says Papa, “you asked me what Jesus accomplished on the cross; so now listen to me carefully: through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world.” “The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?” “The whole world, Mack. All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way.” What then is the nature of this reconciliation? Young never tells us in any clear way. What is clear, though, is that the God of The Shack is not a God who could have punished His Son for the sins of others. After all, Papa says, “Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him” (96). He is not a a [sic] relationship with God? “Those who love me come from every stream that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions” (182). Mack asks for clarification. “Does that mean...that all roads will lead to you?” “'Not at all,' smiled Jesus...'Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you'” (182). While these words cannot rightly be said to actually teach universalism, the view that all men will go to heaven, neither do they clearly deny it. Is Jesus the only way to be reconciled to God? The book is less than clear on this point. Jesus says to Mack, “I am the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu.” Jesus does not say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” as he does in John 14:6, but merely states that He is the best way.
What is interesting is that the review does not even realize that love is the means to reconciliation. Because to the traditionalist God is loving in that He sent His Son to pay the penalty for our sin…because God had to punish someone. Young on the other hand see love as making the first move…God toward man offering man salvation. Healing as opposed to punishment. Reconciliation to the traditionalist is only based upon a legal fiction where the innocent pays the penalty demanded of the guilty. But how can it be demanded of the guilty if it can be substituted with the penalty paid by the innocent? What it comes down to is that the Penal/Substitutionary theory of the atonement has so colored modern Christians that the majority can’t see anything past it. It is historically not the main atonement theory and was a later development that seems to have been set in stone by the Reformation. Emergent Christianity is chipping away at that time encrusted idea and traditionalists are extremely unhappy about that. And that makes the Shack a very interesting book.
For more on the idea of Universal Reconciliation found in the book see The Shack A Friendly Critique