I’ve been off the radar for a few days. Corrie and I were in San Diego between Christmas and New Year’s, and on the way back I caught a nasty cold that I’m still trying to shake. I was on my back most of Sunday and Monday, and fortunately I’m off of work today.
A week away was nice because it gave me the chance to catch up on some reading. I finished off four books and several articles on the plane and in our down time. It’s a strange feeling when you travel three time zones to the west, because you wake up at 5am and feel refreshed and ready to go, but everyone else is still asleep–so you just read. But I digest…
One of the books I finished was The Shack. I’d been meaning to read it and comment on it for quite some time, but school and other priorities kept bumping it down the list. Honestly, it was difficult to come at it with a pink slate, given everything that’s been said and written about the book in the last couple of years. But I was determined to read it both critically and empathetically.
For those of you who don’t know the premise of the book… Mack’s life has been dominated by “The Great Sadness,” a spiritual and emotional darkness, ever since his youngest daughter was abducted and (presumably) killed. He is invited to spend a weekend with God at the shack where his daughter was tortured. The book is largely composed of dialogues between Mack and the members of the Trinity.
Let me offer some remarks to preface my comments on the book. The sharpest criticism of The Shack centers around its portrayal of the Trinity. Now, I am not a theologian (nor the son of a theologian), but I’ve taken my share of theology classes in college and seminary. I know the trinitarian and incarnational heresies and their history in their early church. Anyone who studies the history of these doctrines knows that the process was one of trial and error. For example, someone would say in the interest of protecting Jesus’ deity, “Well, Jesus was fully God, but he only seemed to be a human being.” Then someone would say, “Eh, no, that doesn’t work–Jesus had to be the true son of Adam in order to redeem Adam’s race.” Thus, docetism (from dokeō, “I seem”) falls by the wayside. Similarly, in the interest of protecting God’s unity, some argued that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply different phases or modes of God’s existence. This, however, does not account for the occasions in Scripture in which the members of the Trinity interact–down goes modalism (Sabellianism).
The point is, the process was more negative than positive: the church had to define the outer limits of orthodoxy, but it could not come up with appropriate orthodox analogies for the Trinity. Therefore, any artistic portrayal of the Trinity is bound to fall short and err in some way. We shouldn’t be too hard on Paul Young for what I thought was an admirable attempt to challenge the popular conception of God in our culture.
First, I thought that, overall, the God of The Shack corresponded to and illumined the triune God of the Bible. Some take issue with the portrayal of the Father as a grandmotherly black woman, and with the Holy Spirit as a wispy, ethereal Asian woman. But Young is careful to state the orthodox position that God is not gendered. Papa (the Father) says, “Mackenzie, I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning” (p. 93). Elsewhere, Papa appears as a man: “This morning you’re going to need a father” (p. 219). This seems no different from the biblical portrayals of God as a great father, a mother bird, a warrior, a mountain–all are ways of speaking about the unspeakable.
But while his portrayals of the Father and Spirit are metaphorical, Young is careful to distinguish Jesus as a human being. He writes a hilarious scene in chapter seven (pp. 104-05) in which Jesus drops a bowl of batter on the floor, and Papa and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) light-heartedly tease him for being a clumsy human. Mack experiences Jesus as a fellow human being, and as God.
The Persons of Young’s Trinity express love and admiration for each other that is consistent with biblical teaching. Indeed, I found them to be a narrative expression of Jonathan Edwards’ teaching on the eternal joy and mutual satisfaction within the Trinity. At times I felt like St. Gregory, who famously said, “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One.” Young’s book felt just right–just when I felt the Persons were too distinct, he reminded me of their unity, and just when when I felt the unity was overemphasized, he reminded me of the Trinity.
Beyond the trinitarian theology of The Shack, the book is a profound theodicy. Chapter 11, “Here Come Da Judge,” is particularly moving in this regard. Like the protagonist of the great Old Testament theodicy, Job, Mack presumes to judge God for the death of his child. Once Mack is confronted with God’s love and the lengths to which He went to save His children, Mack begins to trust God again–even more deeply than before.
The theology of The Shack is not perfect–there are statements that I felt fell too far into emphasizing God’s unity or plurality. I have heard that Paul Young is a universalist. I do not know if this is true, but some statements could possibly be construed as universalistic. As someone who has received a very blessed and constructive seminary education, I find seminary-bashing (there is a little) trite and tiresome.
Overall, though, I think this book is worth reading. It left me with a greater sense of God’s mystery and transcendence, but also with a deeper understanding of his loving presence. I recommend it as an artistic aid to faith and understanding, not as a replacement for biblical teaching or theological reflection.