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Posts Tagged ‘The Shack’

Tim Keller on The Shack

I encourage you to read this brief, but insightful, look at The Shack written by Tim Keller.  Here’s a taste:

Many have gotten involved in debates about Young’s theological beliefs, and I have my own strong concerns. But here is my main problem with the book. Anyone who is strongly influenced by the imaginative world of The Shack will be totally unprepared for the far more multi-dimensional and complex God that you actually meet when you read the Bible.

Check out the whole thing.

You can also check out Brian’s thoughts on The Shack here: Part 1 and Part 2.

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As promised in Part I, I hope to take a closer look at the theology of William P. Young’s The Shack.  As an opening remark, I do not believe Young set out to write a systematic theology, and he should not be chided for failing to do so.  Young is bringing to bear characteristics of God as they are experienced by one who is in need of emotional healing and a restored relationship to God.  As such, the focal points of God’s character are His love and His desire for relationship with us.  An emphasis on these traits is no real problem; indeed, emphases are all over the Bible.  We hardly decry the fact that there are four gospels, after all.  Each contributes in its own way to fill in the picture of Christ’s life.

 

This is one intrinsic problem with The Shack:  It has no companion(s) to balance it, and give us a more rounded picture.  As such, we must remember that overemphasis on The Shack (or any other book) to the peril of regular and thoughtful Bible study, is dangerously unwise, since we’re not getting the whole story.  (This applies to you, too, Narnians.)  If the highest heavens cannot contain God (2 Chr.2:6), we certainly should not expect The Shack to do so either. 

 

I write the above in Young’s defense.  We should expect, by the inherent nature of his project, that Young’s depiction of God will fall miles and miles short of that found in Scripture.  If that were the end of it, I could stop the review here.  Unfortunately, Young takes a project already predisposed to imbalance and heaps more stones on the heavy side of the scale.  These errors we cannot pardon as “the nature of the beast,”  especially when they go against the authorative grain of Scripture.  Let us then focus on the primary question of Part I:  Is Young’s god really God?

 

As for the Trinity, the god of The Shack is indeed triune: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  These are presented to the main character (Mack) as “Papa,” Jesus, and “Saroyu” respectively.  Upon meeting the three in the shack, Mack asks which of them is God.  They reply in unison, “I am” (p. 87).

 

Young’s treatment of the Trinity, however, strays from the Biblical path.  His denouncement of a Trinitarian hierarchy is one example.  While Young is right to assert that each person of the Trinity is equal with the other, he makes a great fuss about there being no hierarchy among them (p. 122), and that they all submit to one another (p. 145).  This is not taught in the Bible.  Rather, there is clear functional submission within the Trinity.  The Son submits to the Father in Gethsemane (Lk. 22:42), the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son (Jn. 14:6-7; 16:7).  The Son can do only what He sees The Father do (Jn. 5:19).  Never do we see The Father submitting to the Son, nor the Son to the Spirit, nor the Spirit sending the Father.

 

Young seems to base much of his anti-hierarchy polemic on the unsubstantiated claim that hierarchy is antithetical to true love and relationship, because it demands rules (pp.122-3).  If Young is right, then my relationship with my son Henry is doomed, and I can also write off my relationship with my earthly father as less than authentic.  Obedience to commands is no detriment to love, either.  As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commands” (Jn. 14:15).  Neither is the giving of commands less than loving.  When I got my driver’s license, my father was plenty loving and relational by frequently issuing the command, “Drive safely.”

 

Young twists submission even further by suggesting that God submits to Mack per the requirements of a genuine “circle of relationship” (p. 145).  Again, this enjoys no Biblical basis.  It could be argued that Jesus submitted to the ruling authorities in His day (e.g., by paying taxes as in Mt. 17:27), but we never see God the Father or Holy Spirit in submission to any human.

 

Young blurs the distinctiveness of the Trinity by also stating that all persons suffered when Christ was killed on the cross.  Indeed, even Papa has scars on his wrists (pp. 99, 164).  The lines continue to blur as Young describes the Incarnation: “When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.  We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed.” (p. 98 ).

 

In Young’s god, then, we have an anti-hierarchical portrayal of the Trinity, with each person in a circle of submission to the other, and all of them being “one,” all of them experiencing what the other experiences; indeed, all of them became human in Christ.  This is actually an ancient heresy known as Sabellianism (or modalism, or patripassionism; a flavor of monarchianism, for those who want the words I had to lookup in my church history notes).  The error of this heresy is that it loses the distinction of the persons in the Trinity.  Only Jesus suffered and died on the cross.  Only Jesus became man, not the Father.  Jesus is indeed fully God, but He is not God the Father or Holy Spirit.  Only the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles in Acts 2.  The Holy Spirit is indeed fully God, but He is not God the Son or Father.

 

Of course, it is fair to ask if this really matters.  After all, who among us thought (or will think) “Sabellianism!” when reading The Shack?  It took me a second reading; I even had to look up the terms.  So why make a fuss about a theological nuance?  Is Young’s error tantamount to saying that Jesus is a now-deceased moral teacher?  Of course not.  However, making a claim about God that contradicts Scripture is no small matter, and I hesitate to draw some arbitrary line of severity to determine what constitutes a “big” problem and a “small” problem.  For now, I posit that no error should remain unchecked, no matter the “size.”  Any misconception about a matter of infinite import (i.e., God) has the potential to grow, especially when combined with other misconceptions, into something far more troubling, often with unanticipated consequences.  I will for now defer a deeper discussion to another post.

 

The Shack also has some awkward Trinitarian moments, like Jesus giving Papa a foot massage, Saroyu collecting Mack’s tears, and a spilled bowl in the kitchen caused by Jesus’ slippery fingers.  Corny?  Cheesy?  Syrupy?  The proper food-based adjective eludes me.  These episodes are more awkward than anything else, and we can give Young some grace here, as I believe he’s just trying to show the intimacy and loving relationship among the persons of the Trinity.  We could just as well forgive me for my cynical reaction to his efforts.

 

Papa’s portrayal as a large African-American woman will no doubt ruffle feathers.  Aside from eye-rolling (okay, we get it, you’re trying to break paradigms), I found Young’s choice more ironic than anything else, since he’s just swapping stereotypes: the stereotypical sassy African-American woman is chosen over the stereotypical “Gandalf” depiction of God.  So in an effort to avoid pig’s meat, Young chooses bacon instead of ham.   In so doing, we could even argue that Young breaks the second commandment, and creates an idol.

 

Papa explains his (her?) appearance to Mack saying, “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 woman, it’s because I love you” (p. 93).  The ostensible reason for Papa’s choosing a woman is because Mack still has issues with his earthly father.

 

Young’s assertion that “both genders are derived from [God’s] nature” is valid, since man and woman are both created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27).  I am skeptical of the premise of an embodied Father, however.  God the Father never appears vis-à-vis with anyone in Scripture, although Moses comes close (e.g., Ex. 33).  The reason is because “No one can see [God’s] face and live” (Ex. 33:20).  Furthermore, Jesus reminds us that “no one has seen the Father,” (Jn. 6:46).  Indeed, every appearance of the Father (fancy word: theophany) is marked by stormy language, and terrifying fear on the part of the observer (e.g., Sinai, Mt. 17:5-6).

 

Really what we have in Young’s trinity is just three copies of Jesus: three versions of God incarnate.  We could play the “God can do anything” card in Young’s defense, and claim that it is within God’s power to appear however He wants to whomever He wants.  Indeed, God can do anything, but only that which is consistent with His nature and character.  (So to answer the childhood riddle, no, God cannot create a rock that he cannot lift anymore than a circle can be a square).  Given the testimony of Scripture, it does not appear to be in God’s nature or character to reveal Himself as three incarnate persons, let alone two women (Papa and Sarayu) and one man (Jesus).

 

The Shack also tends to diminish God’s justice, especially in the area of punishment for sins.  Papa states that he does not delight in the punishment of the wicked, which is fair enough, but Young goes on to say that God does not punish sin, since sin is punishment enough (p. 120).  For sure, sin is punishment in itself; it is not the best for us, nor were we created for sin.  But the Bible clearly teaches that God punishes sinners for their sin.  From the third chapter of Genesis onward, we read of a God who, while he may not delight in punishment, punishes sinners none the less. 

 

Young shows great concern for preserving human free will, (indeed, it is the crux of his theodicy). Young’s god “submits” to human choices, even when they are harmful, so as not to violate our will (pp. 145-6). Also, Young’s god uses our choices to work into his purposes (p. 192). In isolation, statements like these don’t give me great alarm, but they contribute to an overall flavor of Young’s god that tends to soften God’s activity in history. God is portrayed more as a healer, one who fixes the messes, rather than one who is proactive in bringing about his will.  The Bible testifies that God comes on the scene, often without our permission or consent, and makes things happen.

 

So, is Young’s god really God?  There is much we can take away from Young’s god, and much I appreciate about the way Young creatively explores his character.  He is indeed more loving than we can imagine, and wishes to be in loving relationship with us so much that He sent His Son to die to bring about our reconciliation.  I doubt we’ll ever comprehend “how deep and how wide” runs the river of God’s love.

 

On the other hand, Young’s god is not God as He is revealed in the Bible.  What I struggle to record here, is an overarching feeling throughout The Shack of a watered-down god.  All that I mention above combines with an unrelenting emphasis on love and relationship.  This is all couched in a narrative where the main character chums around with the God of the universe.  Scripture might allow chumming around with Jesus, but not the Father or Holy Spirit.  The net result is a god much diminished from that of Scripture.  Yes, “God is love,” (1 Jn. 4:8,16; c.f., p. 101), but God is also a consuming fire (Dt. 4:24).  As He is loving, He is also holy, just, righteous, fearful, awesome, compassionate, mighty, majestic and merciful.  He is personal, but that doesn’t mean we would ever be able to curse in his presence (p. 224), or snap at him in anger (p. 96).  Just ask Job.

 

I have just been able to scratch the surface in this theological review.  There are other issues in The Shack.  Time and space limit me to highlighting a few problems that are exemplar of the kinds of subtle distortions Young makes, however well-intentioned.  Similar warnings could be made about Young’s take on salvation, the Church, Scripture, sin, and evil.  As such, below are some other reviews of The Shack that might fill in some of the gaps I’ve missed, and provide some more food for thought.

 

Ben Witherington’s review:

http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2008/07/shacking-up-with-godwilliam-p-youngs.html

 

Tim Challies’ review:

http://www.challies.com/media/The_Shack.pdf

 

James B. DeYoung shines a harsh light on The Shack (long):

http://theshackreview.com/content/ReviewofTheShack.pdf

 

A shorter version of DeYoung’s review:

http://theshackreview.com/content/TheShackReview2Page.pdf

 

A collection of links to several different reviews; scroll down to catch them all:

http://www.andyrowell.net/andy_rowell/2008/05/four-church-lea.html

   

Wayne Elliot’s review:

http://hereiblog.com/2008/08/08/the-shack-review/

 

Wayne Jacobsen (the publisher of The Shack) responds to various criticisms:

http://www.windblownmedia.com/shackresponse.html

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In his preface to the 1961 edition of the The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis laments that his book is unbalanced.  Screwtape tells the one-sided tale of two demons seeking to keep an individual from God.  He wishes there could have also been written an account of angelic responses to the lies of the demons, but notes that no man could write such answers: “Even if a man – and he would have to be a far better man that I – could scale the spiritual heights required, what ‘answerable style’ would he use?…Every sentence would have to smell of Heaven.”

51p-xoe2ajl_sl160_While Lewis was disinclined to imagine angelic responses, William P. Young boldly envisions the words and manner of God Himself in his spiritual juggernaut, The Shack.  The result is an emotionally charged novel with millions of copies in print, multiple translations, and all of the controversy one might expect from a novel wherein the main character eats dinner with the Trinity.

The story is simple:  Mack, the victim of unspeakable tragedy, is invited to the very scene of the tragic event (a shack in the woods) by none other than God Himself.  So begins a weekend-long journey of healing as Mack encounters the Trinity firsthand, complete with hugs, lively conversation, hiking trips, and all the camaraderie one might expect from a weekend in the woods with three close friends.  Readers looking for numerous characters, intense action, or plot twists will be disappointed.  The heart of the book lies in the exchanges between Mack and God.  The story is just substantial enough to create a backdrop for the dialogue, and little else.

We must therefore realize upfront that although Young’s book is indeed a work of fiction, its purpose is to teach about God.  If the text itself were not obvious enough, the advertisements that follow the author’s acknowledgements are a dead giveaway.  Here, readers are encouraged to share The Shack with others.  In this way, they may get “a magnificent glimpse into the nature of God.”

It is therefore entirely fair to ask if Young’s depiction of God is true.  After all, I have no more interest in knowing a god of fancy than I do in knowing Frodo Baggins; both are a fiction.  I wish to know the God who is.  This issue I hope to address more thoroughly in part II, when I consider the theology of The Shack.  For now, I wish to make some preliminary comments to motivate and frame such a venture.

As to Young’s method, I tend to find the dialogical approach to teaching overly contrived, and The Shack is a perfect example of why.  The veil (dialogue) that conceals the author’s intent (exposition of God’s character) can wear thin.  The puzzled interlocutor (Mack) lobs up meatball questions as the teacher (God) winds up to spike the answer.  This can make the story facile, or even trite.

My own preferences aside, however, the real difficulty in Young’s method of teaching is that it is difficult to check (per 1 Ths. 5:21; 1 Jn. 4:1).  As a Christian, I believe Scripture holds the place of absolute authority for truth when it comes to the character of God.  Everything should be weighed against Scripture.  Since The Shack is a piece of fiction, Young doesn’t cite Scripture references to back up his theology.  This makes it difficult to weigh what is being said, because you do not always know its basis.  The reader is left to wonder if a statement is either based on or inferred from Scripture, or simply Young’s artistic imagination.

This is especially problematic because Young does not give us much insight into his view of Scripture.  The glimpses that we do get tend to be pejorative, or at best, focus only on the abuses of Scripture rather than its proper use (see pp.65-66).  Much greater emphasis is given to knowing God through experience (e.g., pp.195, 198).  Indeed, the very premise of the book is about a man coming to know God through experience!  This is not intrinsically wrong, but it is dangerous to let experience hold the highest position of authority in a Christian’s life.

Therefore, given the book’s purpose, it is advisable to read it with a critical eye.  While I take no issue with suspending a critical reading to allow the emotive force of the book have its effect, the content oughtn’t be taken for “Bible Truth” at face value.  It is worthy of a critical reading as well, perhaps even more-so since the emotional weight of the book could easily suspend our better judgment.  As good as Young’s god might feel, we must test him and ask, is he really God?  I believe the answer is a mixed bag, but we shall make a better go at this in Part II.

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