A Reliable Portrayal of God?
'The Shack' (2007) remains a popular read among many Christians despite serious theological problems. Below is a review by Paul Hartwig.'
William P. Young (the writer) has presented his view of God in the form of a story. His theology is worked out in the midst of traumatic circumstances, tough questions and raw emotion. The ‘Missy’ story provides the perfect setting for the question: “Where is God when bad things happen… why doesn't He intervene?” We feel the need for this answer in the face of serious illness, accidents and broken relationships but the urgency and raw pain of the question reaches new heights when an innocent child is abducted and murdered. The author has thus chosen an engaging story-frame for setting forth his own journey toward explanation.
Mackenzie (Mack) Allen Phillips’ youngest daughter, Missy, is abducted during a family camping trip. The subsequent evidence supports a verdict of murder by a serial murderer whose victims’ bodies are never found. He identifies himself by leaving a Ladybug pin at the scene of the abduction. Four years later Missy’s family remain in a state of brokenness. Kate the older daughter is emotionless and withdrawn as she believes it’s all her fault. Mackenzie wears his sadness like a heavy coat that dulls his eyes and stoops his shoulders. Due to his own painful childhood experiences he has never enjoyed a close relationship to God... definitely not anything like his wife’s spiritual intimacy which has her calling God “Papa”. Mack cannot relate the love and trust inherent in this name to the God he thinks he knows. Then on a snowy afternoon when the postman didn't come (due to weather) Mackenzie finds a note in the post-box inviting him back to the Shack for a weekend… the note is signed “Papa”. Against his better judgement Mack arrives at the Shack on a wintry afternoon and relives his worst nightmare… This is where Missy’s red dress that she was wearing on the day of her abduction was found. The telling blood stain is still visible on the floor.
Back in the Shack, Mack shouts out his grief, anger and frustration to a seemingly absent God… In Mack’s estimation, God isn't any more present now than he was on the day of the Great Sadness. Emotionally drained Mack rises from the floor of the Shack to slowly walk back to his vehicle. The cold of the day is numbing when suddenly a warm wind blows from behind. Mack turns to find the world of the Shack transformed into a pristine scene of spring glory! The Shack is now a beautiful log cabin with smoke lazily twisting out of the chimney. Appetizing aromas waft from the kitchen. This marks the beginning of Mack’s encounter with a God, presented to him in the form of a fat, motherly, Afro-American lady, a 30-ish Middle Eastern man, and a mystical Asian woman (Papa, Jesus and Sarayu) – the author’s humanized representation of the holy Trinity. Mack ultimately receives answered questions, emotional healing and a restored God-ward relationship.
William P. Young presents his theology through the medium of Mack’s personal encounter with God. The author’s presentation of God certainly breaks through our religiosity and unconscious stereotypes but we have to ask the question: is his portrayal God-honouring and true to God’s self-revelation in Scripture?
The book effectively shows that we all try to make sense of the world and our experiences from within a very narrow and personalized perspective. Our definition of good and evil is often very subjective and ignores the fact that God has a different, broader picture. The book challenges our ability to accurately interpret our circumstances and judge the reality of God’s love and trustworthiness. The book emphasizes the importance of seeing God as good and loving if we are to really trust him.
The book also highlights the truth that God’s unconditional love is not performance based – it cannot be earned.
Mack’s dialogue with Papa (God the Father), Jesus and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit – Hindi for wind) brings out our tendency to live either regretting the past or worrying about the future. Our attention and energy is seldom fully employed in the NOW. We were made for the present and yet too often miss it in the midst of our preoccupations.
Mack meets a fully humanized trinity. God is clothed in the human flesh of an African American woman who epitomizes motherly warmth, nurture and love and goes by the name Papa. Jesus is a man of obvious Middle-Eastern decent with a distinctly Jewish nose, and the Holy Spirit takes the form of an Asian woman is the only person to retain the divine aspect being more than human. This presentation of God in the form of a woman (rather than a man) is explained as God adapting himself to Mack’s inability to relate to a father figure - his earthly father having been a violent drunkard. This suggests that psychology is the main hindrance in our relationship with God – not sin. This leads to a distortion of the biblical diagnosis of our human problem.
The god of the Shack rejects Mack’s belief that god would express wrath or anger toward sin. god would never send anyone to hell. god declares “I do not need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you inside. Its not my purpose to punish. Its my joy to cure it.” (p120)
The general message is that everyone has emotional and circumstantial trauma influencing their evil deeds and bad choices... god wants to heal these hindrances and restore relationship and wholeness. So the Papa figure in the story provides us with a haven of homely comfort as she nurses our hurt and pain. On the contrary, the Bible tells us God is angry with sin; that His wrath is righteous; that there is punishment apart from sin’s natural consequences; that the way to restored relationship is by repentance and faith in Jesus’ death on the cross; and that Jesus bore our sins on the cross so that forgiveness does not compromise God’s holiness. This full Gospel message is sadly missing in the Shack dialogue. The only mention of the cross in the book refers to Jesus cry of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me”. This cry is explained as merely a sense of abandonment, that also identifies with our sense of God’s absence in the midst of difficult circumstances. This reduces the Cross to subjective feelings rather than upholding the truth that Jesus bore our sins and took the punishment that brought us peace with God. (Isaiah 53:5)
Why does God call Himself Father?
The Biblical revelation portrays God as Father not as a gender distinction but to represent His authority - a concept the author very definitely rejects. The god of the shack has no desire to be authoritative, which he sees as completely incompatible with true relationship. Authority is depicted as a system imposed and propagated by the Fall. The godhead of the Shack dismisses the idea of any inter-trinity authority, amidst giggles of disbelief. The author’s idea that true relationship does not exist where one party has authority over the other is simply not Biblical. His idea that relationship is circular and never vertical is not true in terms of the Godhead, God and man relations, and man/woman relationships. Scripture continually supports an internal authority in the Godhead and appropriate God-ordained authority and submission in human relationships too. (1 Cor 11:3 “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband and the head of Christ is God.) Here the authors ideas may be culturally palatable, yet the Biblical pattern is clearly otherwise and remains offensive.
During dialogue with Mack the god of the Shack states “I am not a selfish little deity seeking my own glory.” However the God of Biblical revelation declares “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, …. My glory I will not give to another.” (Isaiah 48:11). This Old Testament reference is carried forward in the various New Testament doxologies and particularly in Ephesians where we are told that Christ’s sacrificial death effected our forgiveness from sin and was done for the display of God’s glory. (Eph 1 & 2) This truth is not strange to those who have a deep confidence that God’s glory is our path to true joy and meaning. The author prefers the idea that we are the pinnacle of God’s purposes - he can only believe in God’s goodness and love if God’s reason for being is us. Getting ones mind and heart around the fact that God’s passion for His glory (i.e. holiness, justice, righteousness….) is essential to our security and happiness is almost impossible in our self-absorbed culture. The Shack presents a culturally compatible god, a Papa in the kitchen rather than a holy God seated on a throne in heaven. The book shows a serious loss of the concept of Majesty.
Along with this lamentable absence of majesty, God’s sovereignty is also downplayed in an attempt to uphold authentic human freedom. The god of the Shack says, “We respect your choices and work within your systems.” He does not hold ultimate control and lacks power and initiative as he honours our choices while somehow working them into his purposes. The Bible presents God as the all-powerful initiator and executor, declaring “I am God and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish my good pleasure’.” (Isaiah 46: 9-10) Mack’s god presents an impoverished view that does not hold true to Biblical revelation which contains the tension between God’s sovereign power and human freedom. Denying God’s control may seek to vindicate his non-intervention in horrific circumstances but this neglects the writers good point that our perspective and solutions regarding evil are insufficient. The Cross is the only solution that confronts man’s sin, deals with it justly and grants forgiveness where there is repentance.
What God says about sin in the Bible does not fit the authors picture of a god who has nothing to say about moral accountability. Nowhere in this theological dialogue is Mack asked to repent and ask Papa for forgiveness for sin (remembering that Mack murdered his father). The main purpose of the book’s incredible dialogue with god is the uncovering of Mack’s lack of trust in god’s goodness. Mack’s extraordinary experience ultimately changes his views about god and helps him learn to live loved. This is a gospel of emotional healing where we find a heavenly mom who can offer no more than a withered and dry bosom.
The author downplays the role of the church and he dismisses any seminary training; Mack went to Bible College but learnt nothing about God. In the seminaries they may not put God in a box but they do keep Him in the book. I would agree that knowing God is not confined to facts contained in a book, for God is real and active. However, I fear the author dismisses God’s self-revelation contained in the Bible as he contradicts or ignores what God has said about Himself in this book. If reading books and studying about God is ineffective, why does the author himself write a book about God?
Finally, the author has Jesus saying that he will travel any path (religious, political, ethnic etc) to find God’s children and that it is not his purpose to make people ‘Christians’ but to join them in their transformation into children of Papa. It is hard to decided whether this is actually a form of religious pluralism (‘many roads lead to god’) or a form of universalism (‘all will be saved in the end’)? The authors studied ambiguity allows much to be desired and imagined.
The use of ‘Papa’ in addressing God is also highly questionable, if not disrespectful of our Majestic God. Although it has been popular to say that ‘Abba’ is an Aramaic word similar to our ‘Daddy’, the language of Jesus’ day was more respectful than familiar. ‘Dear Father’ a better modern equivalent than the sentimental ‘daddy’.
The Shack is typical of our casual culture. God is no longer found in the Church or prayer room but in the kitchen and out hiking; not worshiped with reverence and awe as transcendent. Instead, we ‘hang out’ together enjoying coffee and cookies, whilst god listens to mp3 music that is definitely not ‘Christian music’. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not the all-too humanised ‘papa’ of William Young.