Since July of 2008 or earlier, one book has held the coveted top place on the New York Times Bestseller list for trade paperback fiction (see http://www.nytimes.com/pages/books/bestseller/).
The Shack, written by William P. Young, tells the story of Mack, and how he suffered under a father who was an abusive alcoholic growing up. If his background weren’t bad enough to drive a man towards rock bottom, Mack suffers even more from a recent loss, when his daughter went missing.
One day, years after the tragic events, Mack slips and hits his head, then receives an invitation from God to go back to the shack where his kidnapped daughter Missy’s trail left off, and meet God there.
Mack does meet God, or Papa, as she is called. Yes, she. The old, wooden, run down shack is transformed into the most pleasant cabin by a river Mack could imagine, with sunny days, a beautiful garden, fish waiting to be caught and eaten, Papa continuously cooking in the kitchen and serving him, and the entire Holy Trinity is there as well. The purpose of the visit is because Mack needs healing, not just from the pain of his missing daughter, but also the unresolved pain of his childhood.
Papa is portrayed as an African-American woman, first to defy the stereotype of a Caucasian/Anglo God who has an old white beard, kind of like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings; second, because Mack is not ready to see God as Father because of Mack’s horrible experience with his own father. God contextualizes his messages all throughout the Bible and today in different cultures, and this is therapeutic for Mack in the book, but God never appeared other than a male in Scripture.
Jesus is the most accurately portrayed member of the Holy Trinity in this book. Jesus even looks Jewish. Surayu, the Holy Spirit (a name from another language) is a woman/spirit. Young paints the Spirit as the most difficult member of the Trinity to put in a box. She is full of color, phases in and out of focus, and travels as a spirit would, as opposed to the other members of the Trinity who are human beings to Mack.
What do I think of The Shack? I have recommended it as a good read for those who need healing from a significant loss, as a starting point. If you read this book alone, you will have an incomplete understanding of the biblical view of the Trinity, at best. The patient compassion of God in dealing with our hurt is well represented here, as is the reminder that God felt deep pain when God the Son died for the sin of the world (not just sins, but sin itself). There is no doubt, this book will help heal all who have been wounded and are limping because of it.
On the theology of the book, I emphasize to the reader that The Shack should not be considered as a tool for studying sound biblical theology; neither do I think Young had that in mind. It is a tool for healing deep pain and loss. Whenever we read an author’s work and he has God explaining theology, and whenever that theology sounds logical or rational, we are tempted to take it at face value. But mature Christians must always compare it to Scripture and the complete biblical and systematic theology of the Bible. In light of this, I must point out some pages that contain theology to watch out for:
First, on page 99, Papa explains that Jesus never used His deity while on earth, but always acted out of His humanity. He could have used his powers as God the Son, but He didn’t. He performed miracles because he fully lived out his relationship of love with the Father as God wants every human to do. Implied is that any human can do anything Jesus did while on earth, if he only has a close enough relationship with God. Mack asks about healing the blind, and Papa replies that Jesus depended on God and trusted God’s life and power to work in Him and through Him. Then he states, “Jesus, as a human being, had no power within himself to heal anyone.” What is the problem with this? Young states, “That came as a shock to Mack’s religious system.” That’s a good thing, and it should come as a shock to our own religious system. Jesus is fully God and fully human, and we can’t have one half Jesus and not the other. Events such as the transfiguration, forgiving the lame man’s sins (something the religious leaders commented that only God could do) were not meant to demonstrate how a human can be used by God. They were meant to show that God had become human. He did not use His powers at times, but He could have called 10,000 angels and they would have come to their Lord’s aid on the cross.
There are some parts of the book where Young takes creative license, such as the discussion on p. 106, where God states He limits His knowledge when communicating with people on purpose in order to see it from their perspective. This can be harmless speculation, but be careful of drawing God’s boundaries. The discussion on p. 122 is inconsistent with the creeds of Christianity, because we do hold that the Son proceeds from the Father eternally, and the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son.
However, p. 145 hits the essence of Christian community. Jesus explains that while He is Lord, He has never forced His will upon any of His subjects. He exemplifies reciprocal submission. On p. 149, Jesus tells Mack that submission is something that a person can do only through Jesus being in him or her. That is very accurate.
On p. 182, Jesus tells Mack that He has followers from every religious background and every political or racial background, and then, “I have no desire to make them Christian.” Young is trying to again separate having relationship and community from established religious systems that are there for the sake of religious systems. However, the goal of Jesus was and is to make Christ followers, which is what a Christian means. Jesus says in the preceding paragraph that He isn’t a Christian, and that would make sense, but His genuine followers are.
On p. 206, God tells Mack that He has no expectations of Mack, and therefore Mack can never disappoint Him. God goes on to explain that priorities and hierarchy are dangerous because they can lead to God having only a portion of our lives. This clashes with Jesus’ teachings in the Bible of clear hierarchy (i.e., “if you want to be the greatest in God’s kingdom, be the servant of all,” and the first and second greatest commandments).
This book has a unique theology in many ways because the author spares no tangent to explain community in the Trinity, community between God and humanity, and finally community between humanity and humanity as it should be (i.e., forgiveness). Everyone has pain, and everyone’s pain is real, and it hurts. As you read this book, read it for that purpose, not so much for the theology. This book is therapeutic and emotionally helpful, but don’t use it for sound theology. I would even wager that Young did not intend it for that purpose. Hopefully The Shack will continue to help many people begin a journey of healing towards their loving God.