When a book has been the talk of the town for over two years and on several best seller lists, it’s hard to say anything in your review that hasn’t been said already. Since William P. Young’s book The Shack debuted, I have heard several friends and family members discuss it. Opinions were diverse; some thought it spiritually helpful, others thought it gross heresy. It’s a little bit late in the game, but I’ve finally read it cover to cover, and I’m ready to weigh in with my belated thoughts.
The Shack’s opening storyline–a young girl being abducted by a serial killer–builds a compelling plot and makes the character of Mack, the girl’s father, easy to sympathize with. In an age where shows like CSI top the viewer ratings, it is easy to see why this plot would attract readers. Three and a half years after his daughter’s murder, a bitter and grieving Mack receives a mysterious note in the mail–ostensibly from God–asking him to return to the shack where her torn and bloody dress was found. Bewildered, Mack makes the journey back to that painful place and there encounters the three persons of the Trinity in a miraculous way that brings healing to his life.
Many objections have been voiced about William P. Young’s portrayal of the Trinity in the story. After all, the images of the Father as a big black woman, the Son as a goofy Jewish carpenter, and the Spirit as an Asian fairy seem hardly orthodox. Looked at in the light of a fable, however, I think there is room for a little artistic latitude in this area. And although the relationship between the members of the Trinity is theologically suspect (are you saying that the Father died on the cross as well as the Son?), I don’t think that this aspect of the story presents as big of a stumbling block as other aspects more central to the author’s goals.
In all the philosophical conversations that inundate the book, the author’s primary goals are to vindicate God in the age-old “problem of evil,” and to establish the boundlessness of God’s love for us. These goals are both very worthy. Unfortunately, the author in carrying out these goals, pays little attention to what the Bible says on the matter.
The problem of evil, simply stated, is this: how can God be good when evil things happen in the world? There are only a few answers to this question, and only one of them Biblical. William P. Young adopts the position that God allows evil to occur (in order to allow man to have free will) but does not desire or will for it to happen. In the words of the African American Papa: “Mack, just because I work incredible good out of 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.” Problem solved. William P. Young has salvaged the goodness of God and allowed Mack to trust in Him once more.
But looked at in another way, Young’s solution to the problem of evil also destroys our ability to trust in God. If God is always desiring our good, and yet is forced to allow evil to happen to us whenever another human being’s free will determines to harm us, then God is ineffectual. We can no longer trust that He will work out all things for our good because another human being’s free will might counteract His plan. At that point, all God can do is pick up the pieces and try to patch things together. Although Young thinks he is vindicating God of being a bully, he has in the process reduced Him to being a weakling. His solution also ignores key passages of Scripture such as Isaiah 45:7 (“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.”)
The second admirable goal of the book is to demonstrate the infinite love of God for mankind. As the members of the Trinity try to explain this to Mack, they continually use the analogy of his love for his five children. Does he love any of them more than the others? No, he asserts. Does he love any of them less when they misbehave or act wrongfully toward him? Not at all, he says. Well, God is the same way. He loves all of His children equally and never stops loving them no matter what they do.
Whether most parents would give the same answers to those questions as Mack did is debatable. But, putting that contention aside, let us look at the practical outworking of this kind of love. In the story, we find that God loves Missy, the little six-year-old who was murdered. We also find that God loves the serial killer who did the horrendous deed. Mack is told that he must forgive the murderer and that God will deal with him in His own way. But if God loves all of His children equally and never stops loving them no matter what they do, in what way is God going to deal with the serial killer? God has already said: “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” So, if the murderer of his own free will repents and turns to God, well and good. If he doesn’t, then Mack’s only hope for justice is that the killer’s conscience will prick him. There certainly won’t be any eternal punishment–God is too loving for that. In his attempts to assert the love of God, William P. Young has destroyed the justice of God. And if God loves an unrepentant serial killer too much to do justice for Missy’s murder, then does He really love little Missy?
As I showed in the previous paragraph, William P. Young’s God does not punish for sin, and throughout the book, it is a little bit ambiguous what sin really is. In his conversations with them, Mack keeps asking members of the Trinity what he’s supposed to do. What are their expectations of him? Invariably, there answer is that they don’t expect anything from him. He is under no obligation. When he brings up the Bible, God says, “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. It is a picture of Jesus.”
“But,” argued Mack, “if you didn’t have expectations and responsibilities, wouldn’t everything just fall apart?”
“Only if you are of the world, apart from me and under the law. Responsibilities and expectations are the basis of guilt and shame and judgment, and they provide the essential framework that promotes performance as the basis for identity and value. You know well what it is like not to live up to someone’s expectations…. Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else.”
‘So much for, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” Mack finds that it is through relationship with God, not a dusty old book, that he will learn to know what God desires (not expects!) him to do. Sarayu, the Holy Spirit character, tells him, “You will learn to hear my thoughts in yours, Mackenzie.”
Mack is worried–understandably–about the subjectivity of this kind of revelation. “What if I confuse you with another voice? What if I make mistakes?”
“Sarayu laughed, the sound like tumbling water, only set to music. ‘Of course you will make mistakes; everybody makes mistakes, but you will begin to better recognize my voice as we continue to grow in our relationship.'”
This emphasis on relationship with God as the vehicle of love and revelation is contrasted with the idea of “religion.” Mack speaks disparagingly of church and Sunday worship, claiming that he never feels connected with God through that sort of thing. The Jesus figure in the book is entirely sympathetic. He explains that the true church isn’t an institution. “It’s all about relationships and simply sharing life. What we are doing right now–just doing this–and being open and available to others around us. My church is all about people and life is all about relationships…. So no, I’m not too big on religion.”
The author several times goes out of his way to emphasize that God has a distaste for ritual (funny, I never noticed that in the book of Leviticus). Whenever Mack asks one of the members of the Trinity if they are going to do an action they have already performed, they spontaneously do something else, something new. God’s not big on religion, and He’s not big on ritual. Later on, Jesus even admits that he’s not too big on Christianity either. “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Momons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions.”
The Shack was an interesting insight into modern evangelical Christianity. In many ways, there was no novelty in the doctrinal errors of William P. Young’s story. God cannot control evil, God loves everyone no matter what, the revelation of the Spirit is distinct from the revelation of the Word, God values relationship and hates religion and ritual–these are the current doctrinal errors that beset the majority of Christians in America. No wonder this book is a best seller.