Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thoughts on The Shack

I know I’m years behind on this post, but I put off reading The Shack
by William Paul Young until recently. It didn’t look like the kind of book I would enjoy, and I’m always a bit skeptical of something that is too popular (does it ever live up to the hype?), but the recommendations I received from friends finally reached critical mass, so I picked it up. I posted these comments on Facebook in the hopes of starting a discussion with some friends who have read it, and I thought I might as well post them here, too:

As a novel, The Shack is slightly better than I expected, but still mediocre, at least in the beginning – the writing style is more tell than show, which leaves the characters seeming shallow and the motivations weak. (For example, the law enforcement officers would not normally share so much with the parent of a crime victim – what about the situation caused them to break protocol?) The part of the book where Mack is meeting with God is definitely stronger, though the plot still doesn’t follow naturally from the characters’ actions; the content – a conversation with God – seems better suited for a nonfiction book than a novel.

I do, however, understand why the author chose a novel as the vehicle for his ideas – I doubt that many of the book’s readers would have picked up a nonfiction book with a lot of Scripture references in parentheses. I also believe the fiction format brings a fresh perspective to the gospel, and it has brought understanding to many people who couldn’t relate to old-fashioned ways of telling the story of redemption or who missed some crucial points in their Sunday school classes. In fact, I am surprised by the variety of friends and acquaintances who have commented on this book – among them are people from a range of denominational backgrounds, an ordained minister, and one person I was surprised to learn had enough interest in Christianity to read this book.

I didn’t find much I considered blatantly unscriptural in the theology of The Shack. The way “seeing as God does” involved seeing people’s auras was more Shirley MacLaine than the Apostle Paul, and the suggestion that God can only redeem someone once the human victims of that person’s sins offer forgiveness was so inconsistent with the rest of the book that I wonder if I misread it both times it appeared. (If God has to wait for us to forgive first, whom could He ever forgive?) I also disagree with the author on a few more (mostly minor) points, such as the ideas that evil does not exist except as the absence of good and the Holy Spirit is inspiration and creativity. What bothered me most, however, was not an undertone of false doctrine but the absence or underemphasis of a few key theological ideas:

First, the holiness of God – correct me if I’m wrong, but in the Bible, when people see God (with the exception of the incarnated Jesus), they only see a glimpse of Him or a symbolic representation of Him. He is too holy for us to see Him face to face and live (Exodus 33:19-20). While Christ enables us to approach God as a loving parent, I believe that the initial response to seeing Him would still be overwhelming awe and fear, mixed with a sense of one’s own unholiness – not Mack’s response of confusion at the visible form He takes. I believe God can show Himself to individuals, but I don’t believe He would show Himself so casually. The ending, which plants doubt as to whether Mack actually saw God in the flesh, may have intended to address this problem, but it does so inadequately.

Also in relation to that sense of holiness, I am bothered by the fact that the author made God such a tangible character in the book. It seems presumptive to put words in God’s mouth, even if those words are consistent with what He has already said in the Bible. Putting words in God’s mouth demonstrates an overconfidence that your own particular theology is absolutely correct, and while I believe that we can be certain of some of our beliefs – the basic orthodox doctrines that Christians throughout the ages have believed – I suspect that all of us are wrong about at least a few of our beliefs on minor points of doctrine.

Second, the authority of Scripture – the Bible plays a very small role in The Shack. In fact, the presence of a Gideon Bible in Mack’s nightstand is almost a joke. He is, after all, visiting with God – why does He need a Bible? Yet, the Bible is God’s inspired Word, and I believe it is the primary way He communicates with us today. Yes, God does still speak to us and direct us individually as the Holy Spirit resides in us, but any time we hear from God, we still need to turn to the Bible to make sure it’s really Him we hear speaking.

Third, the need for confession and repentance –Yes, I know this book is about the problem of pain and the value of a relationship with God, but a basic tenet of the gospel is that our own sins create a barrier such a relationship. Mack could not have had intimate conversations with God until he addressed his own specific sins, such as the sin of poisoning his father. (He does, late in the book, apologize to his father, but he never asks God to forgive this murder.) In The Shack, repentance is seen as the result of a relationship with God, not the cause of it. Conviction and repentance are ongoing in a believer’s life, as the book portrays well, but they also need to take place to some degree when we start a relationship with God.

So, I’d love to hear from you – What did you all like or dislike about The Shack? How has it affected your life?

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