A Conversation about The Shack
March 9, 2009
Okay, so I'm a little slow. Paul Young came out with The Shack in 2007. I finished reading it in December 2008 after some three million copies had been sold. My wife and daughter read it a year before me. They found it intriguing, but they weren't sure whether it was "good" theology.
I have heard a lot of various reactions, some good and some negative. Now that I too have read it I might as well wade in with some brief thoughts.
I found the book to be a refreshing exploration on a difficult subject, the abduction and murder of a little girl, Missy, on a family camping trip and the part God plays in the whole terrible mess. It is a retelling of Job in a way with a lot more reflection on and from the Trinity. Mackenzie (Mack) Allen Philips is angry and upset with God. His four year pain impacts his friends and his family until God invites him to the very place where the child was taken and abused, the focal point of the nightmare. Over the weekend he dialogues with the persons of the Godhead. In the end he finds healing.
People who struggle with The Shack probably do so for two reasons. First, the answers Mack finds in his weekend do not provide simple resolutions. They do free him to experience grace in a redemptive way, understanding how even terrible things can be faced through a constant love relationship with a loving God.
In a way Mac learns more answers than Job because more questions are asked and discussed in a different way than the epic. But in Job, when God speaks twice in monologue his primary answer is a non-answer. God says the answers to the most difficult questions lie in his mind. "Where were you when I created the sea monster . . ." Indeed, Job does not answer because he was not there. Sometimes we do not have all the answers. Job (the book) ends with Job in relationship with God. That relationship allows him to move on.
Terrible things do not always have easy answers. I applaud Young for not simply slipping some in.
The second reason I think some have reacted negatively to the book rests in the portrayals of the persons of the Trinity. God the Father is a large and motherly African woman called Papa. Jesus is a Middle Eastern Jew from first century Israel (probably no problem there). And the Holy Spirit is a small Asian woman that is rather ethereal in appearance. In a theological sense language describing God will always be metaphorical. Biblical metaphors are different than these ones, but the portraits drawn of their character are right on target. God does not have gender. We, both men and women, are made in his image (Gen 1:27).
I especially liked the scene when Jesus invites Mack to walk across the lake on the surface like he and Peter had done on Galilee. Mack does so. When he is part way across, he looks back and sees Jesus following except he has his pant legs rolled up. The bottoms of Mack's pants are wet. Jesus observes that clothing styles require some changes to the walk.
The only problem in a theological sense that I found surfaced in conversation over the decision that Jesus made to become fully human. By doing so he "grounded" himself (p. 99). His decision is true for his time on earth. The illustrations help: a bird remains a bird even if the bird remains on the ground all the time. However, the limitation does not take into account that Jesus raised from the dead. I believe he overcame the grounded state when that took place. He is still fully God and fully man, but he is the "first fruit" of the resurrection. That fact changes his limitations. He once more is at the right hand of God.
I believe the book gives us a fresh look at things that we constantly need to take fresh looks at in the Christian life. Mack becomes very mission driven, striving to serve others in love. Heaven and afterlife receive some new looks. That's okay, because I don't think any of us is able to visualize it all. Our images are aided by fresh ones.
My hope is you will find some wonderful grist for the mill by reading the book. It is one person's view and a refreshing one. We can grow through it.