Meeting God at the Shack

I finally got around this week to reading The Shack, by William P. Young. The book was published in 2007 and spent much of 2008 on the best seller lists despite a marketing budget of about $300. Young wrote the story to explain his faith to his children, and it grew from there first into a screenplay (I hope they do make the movie!) and then into the novel. Much of the book is a theological conversation between Mack, the main character, and God. Their conversation is hung on what happens earlier in the novel.

Four years earlier, Mack (short for Mackenzie) takes his children on a camping trip at the end of which his youngest, Missy, disappears. A frantic search fails, and it is discovered that Missy was abducted by a pedophile serial killer known as “The Little Ladykiller” who had abducted other little girls at various parks. None of the bodies were ever found, but at each abduction scene, the killer leaves a ladybug pin, adding a dot to the ladybug to represent the next girl. Missy was the fifth dot, and her bloody dress was found inside an old “shack” (hence "The Shack") found deep inside the park. Mack is devastated by his loss and grief, and his life is dominated by what he calls “The Great Sadness.”

Mack mysteriously received a note inviting him back to the shack for a weekend, a note signed by “Papa,” his wife’s pet name for God. After internal debate and borrowing a pistol from a friend (the note could be from the killer), he goes to the shack. The killer isn’t there— but God is. God appears in the novel as Papa, a rotund, jolly African-American woman. Jesus is a young Jewish man with a big nose and dressed as a carpenter. Finally there is Sarayu, an Asian woman shimmering in light and wind that represents the Holy Spirit. Most of the rest of the book are conversations between Mack and the Trinity and the Trinity and Itself.

God as a black woman? (If it bothers you that God is not white, that can be a whole other blog). Mack’s father was a abusive man church deacon drank excessively and beat his wife and family relentlessly. Mack couldn’t relate to God as father until we worked through this anger with his earthly father. At the end of the book, God does show up as an old white man with a flowing beard to that represent Mack’s healing and readiness to accept God as heavenly Father. So Mack spends much of the book feeling a bit distant from Papa but is instantly drawn to Jesus.

Are there theological problems with the book? Well, duh! Much of the book revolves around the relationship of the Trinity with Itself as a model for human relationships. Trying to explain Trinity is impossible; trying to embody it characters in a story is not any easier! The other underlying issue of the book is explaining the so-called “Problem of Evil,” not exactly an easy nut to crack. The book does flitter on the edge of universal salvation and there is no real handling of God’s righteousness and judgment of sin (sin is seen as its own punishment). The book is built on an “Open Theism” where God limits His foreknowledge so that he can enter in relationship with us in the now. (See the review by Greg Boyd). Many of the negative reviews I’ve read are from Calvinists, and I can understand why they don't like it. The God in “The Shack” is not a God who determines all events beforehand and who has the sheep and goats predestined before creation. Papa is a God who created human free will and who seeks relationship with us despite our often wrong-headed free-will choices... and He works through those choices. If you want some deeper theological insights on the Shack, read this blog and this blog by my old camp buddy John Mark Hicks.

OK, as Roger would point out, I really didn’t READ the book; I listened to it as an audiobook, mostly while painting our utility room. I was up until almost 1:00 a.m. Tuesday night, not because U was ionto the painting, but because I simply didn’t want to stop listening to the book. The story went straight to my heart, and I must confess several points of putting down my brush, sitting on the ladder and laughing and crying all at the same time (OK, my eyes teared-up; I don’t really cry). The story grabbed my heart with a fist of grace. It reminded me (and I can forget) of a God who says, “I am especially fond of you.” Church folks like me can sometimes lose God amid the rules, liturgy, doctrines, services, sermons, committee meetings and the like that is church. Sometimes we need to be subtly reminded of what faith is all about. And this book was about as subtle as a 2x4 upside the head.

At one point, Mack asks Jesus at one point if all roads lead to Him (again skittering on the edge of universalism). Jesus responds, “Most roads don't lead to anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” Wow! Jesus really did that, didn’t He? In explaining why so many evil things happen in the world despite Divine power and presence, Papa (God) says,

Mack, just because I work incredible good out unspeakable tragedies doesn't mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don't ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn't depend on suffering to exist.

I said something like that in a sermon last month... just not as well. Evil is the result of man’s evil free choices, choices that God does not overrule because He loves us so much he respects our choice.

Are there problems with Young’s view of God? Sure. The book is ultimately metaphor, and any metaphor falls apart when it’s pushed too far. I’m preaching through Amos right now, and the God of Amos is not the jolly Papa but a hungry Lion ready to tear His rebellious and wicked people to pieces. Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure in C.S. Lewis's Narnia, has teeth. When you are dealing with God, it is best not to forget the teeth!

The reviews I’ve read of the book are of two types—those who absolutely loved it were drawn to God by it AND those who hated it and saw in it false theology and religious error. Put me squarely in the first camp (with an skinted eye on the second). Put it this way, I’ve ordered 3 more copies—one for each of my girls and another to just to have around to loan out. To borrow a line from Jim McGuiggen, “Everyone should be forced to read The Shack… if they want to.”