Well, The Shack continues to sell like hotcakes, and already people are asking me what I think about it. So, I thought I would give it a read to see what all the hype was about. Going into the read, I had heard two reviews from people close to me. The first said it was the best book he had ever read, the second said he threw the book across the room halfway through it because it was “garbage.” Sounds like a good book to me.
The Shack is a novel about a man named Mack whose daughter is kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer. The body is never found, but evidence of her brutal murder is discovered in a shack in the wilderness of Oregon. Mack is overwhelmed with depression in the following years, until he receives a mysterious note from “Papa” to return to the shack and have a talk. “Papa” is the name by which Mack’s pious wife Nan refers to God, so Mack concludes that this might be an invitation from God himself. Mack returns to the shack where, indeed, he encounters the Trinitarian God.
The power of the message behind The Shack is undeniable. The themes of evil, suffering, forgiveness, reconciliation, and God’s justice permeate the novel, and at times the reader will be moved to tears by the shear force of the drama. However, many are up in arms about the theology of The Shack, most notably the way in which the trinity is portrayed in the novel. When Mack meets “God,” he meets three people—Elousia (who goes by Papa), a middle-aged African American woman who represents the Father; Jesus, a Jewish carpenter who represents the Son; and Sarayu, an Asian woman who represents the Holy Spirit. In their conversations, Papa, Jesus and Sarayu describe their function within the Godhead and correct some of Mack’s misunderstandings of God and life. It is in this dialogue that God makes some comments about Himself that some find heretical.
What do I think about The Shack? Well, I don’t want to pronounce judgment on the book. Instead I will offer up some thoughts to keep in mind as one reads the book for oneself. (Note: As with everything on this blog, these opinions do not necessarily represent the opinions of Believers Fellowship. They are my opinions.)
First, The Shack is a (fictional) novel. You have to keep the genre of the work in mind as you read it. This is not a systematic theology, and the writer has taken some creative liberties in characterization, especially of God. I have read some bloggers compare the work to The Chronicles of Narnia and the portrayal of God as a lion. In some ways, William Young does this in The Shack. He is not advocating goddess worship as some (the cussing pastor in Seattle) claim. Further, at the end the author allows for the idea that the whole story was a hallucination.
Second, the primary intent of The Shack is theodicy, reconciling the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving God with the presence of evil. The purpose of The Shack is not “to describe what the trinity looks like;” it is “to demonstrate how God responds to evil and suffering.” To this end, I found The Shack very satisfying. I have never been too keen on any of the traditional theodocies. I always resort to “God sees our suffering and hurts with us. Further, we can be confident that one day God will eliminate evil and suffering.” This is the approach to the problem that Young takes and he does so very well.
Third, the trinity is an essential doctrine of the faith, and misrepresenting it is heresy. I think defenders of The Shack are off-base when they claim that the critics are being nit-picky. I am pretty “generous” in my orthodoxy, but even I say that misrepresenting the trinity is heresy. If unorthodox trinitarianism can still be called Christian, what is not Christian? My expertise is not in systematic theology—I avoid the subject whenever I can (for this reason). We need to be careful about the language we use to describe God—it’s important. If William Young’s views of the trinity are deemed unorthodox, then they should be condemned—strongly. That being said, I think Young hints at some heretical ideas, but he never comes out and says “the Father was crucified,” or “the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in essence,” or “the Father, Son, and Spirit do not exist at the same time.” Until someone convinces me otherwise, I want to give Young the benefit of the doubt. (Young advocates charismaticism, egalitarianism, and spiritual ideas that may be likened to the “new age.” Although I disagree with his flavor of Christianity, these ideas don’t bother me. But I am sure they will put others into a frenzy. However, Young also hints at universalism, which is more troubling to me, even if I might not call it heresy.)
Fourth, all truth is God’s truth, and much truth can be gleaned from works that are in other ways errant, even if they are grossly errant. You cannot deny the emotional power of this book—especially to people who have seen great tragedy. To condemn the work outright would be equally tragic. Young gets to the heart of the problem of evil. It is not a logical problem, it is an emotional one. People don’t disbelieve in God because of hypothetical evil that happens to animals in the forest, they disbelieve in God because their parents abuse them or because their children suffer. The Shack is powerful as theodicy, and as such, it has value.
It’s a shame to me that Young had to try to illustrate the trinity to make his point. It’s almost inevitable to slip into heresy when illustrating the trinity, and his message would not be condemned so much if he had left it alone.