The Shack - William P. Young

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A friend loaned me a book that is a bestseller amongst Christian bookstores. I am no stranger to books, as it happens. But I’ve been spoiled in recent memory by audio books, which I typically check out of the library on a “whatever is there” basis. It turns out that all those books I did reports on in High School (but never read) were pretty good! It happens that I really enjoy reading, I just don’t like making time for it. So, I average perhaps 2-3 books per year, typically fiction or occasionally biography.

Over the years, I’ve read a number of Christian books. I’m sure something good came from most, but when it comes to spiritual instruction, I much prefer recorded (audio) works. So, this was unusual, but timely in a way to redirect my thinking towards things that matter. Admittedly, I spend too much time thinking about things that don’t. Amused to life, right?

The book in question is titled, “The Shack,” by William P. Young. In short, it
 tells the story of a man who has suffered a great hurt in his life, which as a result interferes with his relationship with his family and God.

This can loosely be translated to one of the main objections to those who do not believe in a god, or specifically the Christian God: Why would a loving God allow evil and suffering in the world?

Fair enough question. The book gives some thought provoking material. Certainly, a success is that it answers the posed question pretty well, within what most would define as clear biblical teaching. There are likely other books that answer the question better, or within a fuller explanation of Christian doctrine.

But this is a story, not an academic thesis. Jesus taught in parables, so who am I to argue?

Well, not everyone is Jesus. In 1992, I was out of town on a business trip over multiple nights, and I wanted something to read. A major display case had a book that I picked up out of curiosity, expecting to quickly read the back cover and put down before moving on to the fiction section. Instead, I bought the book.

It was called “Embraced by the Light,” by Betty Eadie. It told her personal story of an “after death” experience that gave a very clear picture of things to come after one, well, you know, dies. Light at the end of the tunnel kind of thing. It was a fascinating read, one that respawned “thoughts” towards the eternal and a certain measure of hope. It also was replete with feel good moments that became, ironically, irritating because they just didn’t sound “right.” That was unsuspected as I grew up in church but rarely listened.

The Christian Research Journal and other sources provided information that contradicted the book, and, if one is to be a Christian (and I wasn’t one yet), one must choose. Which is more trustworthy? The Bible? Or a story from someone who died but didn’t? I know there are other possible choices, but there really weren’t for me. That book, as flawed as it was, started a process of serious inquisition as to the Bible and its trustworthiness as a revelation from God. It took a year before I could make a decision. The point is that most ideas are worth a listen, as long as one has the energy and desire for an honest, open inquiry before accepting, amending, or rejecting them.

Skip forward.

"The Shack" has a number of things that were worth contemplation. One interesting line of “Father” God to the protagonist, Mack, is “Freedom is trust and obedience within a relationship of love.” I still have to think about what that means in terms of man's autonomy or free will, but a side thought is that I’d prefer substituting “security” for “freedom.” Post 9/11, those two words seem to have developed an affinity for each other that previously were more understood than appreciated.

The major emphasis of the three God characters is a message of “living life loved.” The characters share that love, purportedly perfectly. It’s another good thought upon which to dwell, understanding the difference it makes in one’s life knowing that he or she is loved.

There are others: "He (Jesus) came to show people who I (the Father) am, and most people only believe that about him. They still play us like good cop/bad cop most of the time, especially the religious folk. When they want people to do what they think is right, they need a stern God. When they need forgiveness, they run to Jesus.”

My understanding of theology says that’s not true, but, in my experience I recognize it as being so. Another interesting passage, God speaking to Mack:“Just because you make horrendous and destructive choices does not mean you deserve less respect for what you inherently are - the pinnacle of my Creation and the center of my affection.”

In essence, this speaks to the person who either feels unworthy of God’s love or beats themselves up from guilt. It lifts one up a bit from the muck that we seem to prefer.  It's also a reminder to refrain from judging and be gracious wherever possible.

It can get a bit heady at times: "Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions. Most emotions are responses to perception - what you think is true about a given situation. If your perception is false, then your emotional response to it will be false too. So check your perceptions, and beyond that check the truthfulness of your paradigms - what you believe. Just because you believe something firmly doesn't make it true.”

The last sentence makes a lot of sense, but you have to track the logic backwards through the paragraph to get a better understanding. 

And, finally (again, God speaking): "Mack, you and I are friends, there is an expectancy that exists within that relationship. When we see each other or are apart, there is expectancy of being together, of laughing and talking. That expectancy has no concrete definition; it is alive and dynamic and everything that emerges from our being together is a unique gift shared by no one else. But what happens when I change that 'expectancy' to an 'expectation' - spoken or unspoken? Suddenly, law has entered into our relationship. You are now expected to perform in a way that meets my expectations. Our living friendship rapidly deteriorates into a dead thing with rules and requirements." That one has much to dwell upon, in that the Law could never be perfectly met, believers invariably fall short of expectations. In relationships with anyone, failed expectations typically pose barriers to communication. Translated: When we goof up and hurt those we love, even God, we tend to run away. We shouldn’t.

Well, that pretty well sums up what I found worthwhile about “The Shack.” Otherwise, the writing style is average at best, and there are many flaws in the theology presented in context of what is considered orthodox Christianity.

Four of what I consider major flaws include:

1. The Trinity. After all these years, there are some things I still don’t fully comprehend. The Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) is one of them. I haven’t figured out how the three can be One, and also communicate with each other. I don't think we have an example in earthly terms to point towards for comparison. At the same time, it's clear that scripture reveals that this is so. I'm pretty clear on what the Trinity is not. One God, three persons does not equal three Gods. The author of “The Shack” splits God into three fairly plain-spoken Gods to make The Trinity more understandable in how we relate to each (I'm being charitable). Or, in my view, he espouses that there really are three Gods who are very closely related. Dangerous ground to tread, even with artistic license.

2. An all-but-stated understanding that all roads lead to heaven. People tend to make fun of “Jesus Saves.” But it’s what he came to do, and the question must be asked, from what? No, I’m not Baptist. But H.E. double-hockeysticks is clearly indicated in scripture regardless of denominational bias. Did he save all? No. Jesus was very clear salvation was for “those who believe.”

3. The marginalization of the attributes of God. Yes, the “God is Love” characterizations are very easily digestible to a public who just want that aspect. And God is love. But one cannot ignore his righteousness, justice, holiness, and other attributes. These didn’t suddenly become irrelevant at the close of the Old Testament. Expecting to encounter God cooking breakfast for you, as depicted in the story, strips all reverence from the One to whom it is due.

4. Truth or fiction? Much could be forgiven if the story were presented within a proper context. A quote from a Christian singer on the back cover indicates this is great fiction. But from the introduction on, the author does nothing to suggest that this is anything other than an enhanced version of the truthful experience of a close friend. That introduction matters when one reads the book. Go to the author’s website FAQs, and, oh, yes, it’s fiction. That is not exactly the best method for disclosure, and the author’s introduction to the book would rank Mack’s experience as a special instrument of revelation worthy of becoming the 67th book of the Bible. Not.

Sadly, despite some thoughtful content and even considering the desirability of explaining difficult concepts in plainer terms, “The Shack” is a book to be avoided, by Christians and particularly non-believers. It ultimately settles as being just another attempt to protect the good name of “God” by marginalizing the fullness of biblical revelation in favor of the God as the author would like Him to be.

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