Windblown Media, 2007. (Available in Australia from Koorong Books)
I have offered my general (and positive) assessments of The Shack in part one of this review. Here I wish to address a few areas of concern I had with the book. They should not deter potential readers of this book, and they are not meant to detract from the overall value of the book. But they must be stated.
Obviously no one is perfect, and we are all fallen and finite. Thus we must be careful here, especially when we dare to write about such huge topics as God and the problem of suffering. None of us have all the truth, and our knowledge is partial. We see through a glass darkly, as Paul informs us. So humility and care is needed whenever we seek to talk about such matters.
Thus William Young has taken a stab at some of the harder topics to cover, and he deserves credit for trying. Yet we must all acknowledge that he will not get everything right, and there will of course be areas in which fellow believers may wish to disagree with him. These then are some of the concerns I noted as I read through the book.
One might ask whether a work of fiction can even do justice to such topics. But God has often used fiction in the past to help convey biblical, theological and spiritual truths. I already mentioned The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. It has served believers well for centuries, and still blesses many. More recently The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis have also been mightily used of God to teach biblical themes. So without question there is a place for fiction in dealing with such theological and apologetic tasks.
Let me first deal with Young’s depiction of God. Although a work of fiction, Young is seeking here to represent actual biblical and theological truths about God. Much of this book in fact is Young’s attempt to try to portray God aright, and to deal with misunderstandings and distorted views of the Biblical picture of God.
I must say I initially found myself thinking that Young’s depiction of God the Father is much like the way he is represented in the two recent films, Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty. That is, God is a joke-telling Black American with a great sense of humour. Indeed, the Father is presented in this book as a large, jovial Black American woman. The Spirit is presented as a wispy Asian female, and Jesus is presented as a male of Middle Eastern appearance.
Now this need not necessarily cause problems. True, God in Scripture is primarily represented as male, but of course ultimately God is spirit, and is above sex or gender. Yet he has created us – male and female – in his image. While some feminine images are used of God in the Bible, overwhelmingly God is presented in male terms, imagery and language.
Later in the book the Father does appear as a male to Mack. It is because Mack had a horribly abusive father when he was a child, so he needed a maternal presentation of God at first. So no real damage is done here. Again it is a work of fiction. And in reality God can appear to us in any form that he chooses to.
Another possible area of concern is that by so stressing the love of God, there is always the tendency to get the Biblical portrait of God out of kilter. That is, God is love to be sure, but he is also holy, just, righteous, and so on. Often these other attributes get lost or minimised in a strong emphasis on the love of God.
And Young at times seems to move in this direction. Fortunately, he will balance things out on most occasions, thus preventing any real concerns about heresy (which already some are expressing about this book). For example, an unbalanced emphasis on the love of God, to the exclusion of his hatred of sin, or judgment on ungodliness, has led some believers into embracing a type of universalism, the idea that in the end everyone will be saved.
It is true that God through Christ has made a way for all of us to be accepted in the beloved. But we still must take the steps to realise that invitation. And that involves repentance and turning from ourselves, and submitting to God. Fortunately Young seems to include this, when it looks like he is just about to go over the theological edge.
For example, at one place (p. 182) Jesus is talking of all sorts of people coming to Him, and he says “I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa”. To which Mack rightly asks, “Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?” But then Jesus replies, “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere”.
Or consider another episode where the Father tells Mack that because of the work of Jesus, “I am now fully reconciled to the whole world”. This could be understood as a case of universalism, but fortunately the statement is then qualified by God saying that “reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part”. The inference is that sinners then have to do their part (repentance and faith, eg), which presents the balanced Biblical picture. And on pages 225-226 we finally hear such talk of the need for repentance and trust. So a potentially unbiblical position is here at least brought back into some kind of balance.
A related concern is that this important emphasis on love and relationships as being the heart of what Christianity is all about can lead to antinomianism and an unbalanced view of the workings between law and grace. For example, God tells Mack to not worry about following rules: “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. It is a picture of Jesus. . . . Don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship – a way of coming to be with us” (pp. 197-198).
Of course one wants to take the spirit of this, and see the importance of a love relationship over against legalism and so on. But a fine line needs to be trod here, and it is unhelpful to set law against grace. Both are given by God, and both are used in his purposes. Young’s idea here seems almost to be that we must choose one or the other, that they are polar opposites.
But Scripture has a very high view of law. Sure, law cannot save us, but law is from God, and reflects who he is. To argue that we not concern ourselves with any rules means that we not only dismiss the 613 laws and commands given in the Old Testament, but that the many commands given in the New Testament are also to be treated as irrelevant and something to not worry about.
No one is saved by keeping rules, but once saved, and out of gratitude, we do seek to keep the rules that Christ and the apostles have laid down for us. By so emphasising love relationships (which admittedly, many evangelicals need to hear again, and hear in clear and forceful terms), Young seems to throw the baby out with the bath water. Yes loving relationships are at the heart of what God wants for us, but it is not at the expense of holy living, and/or seeking to please God in all that he asks of us.
Other potential concerns crop up. Three times in the book Mack tells us of the paucity and general unhelpfulness of his earlier theological training in seminary. Compared with his encounter with the living God, it fades in comparison, which would be expected. But it seems that Young is taking a bit of a dig at seminaries and theological training here. Hopefully he is not, but it seems to come out that way, both here and elsewhere in the book.
But of course there should be no dichotomy between knowledge of God (which is what theology seeks to do) and experiencing the presence of God. The two should reinforce each other. Both are important. Right living (orthopraxy) and right belief (orthodoxy) go together, and the one feeds off the other. Paul warns us to watch our lives and our teaching carefully. It is not one or the other, but both.
And while theology seems to be mildly scoffed at in this book, the book in fact is one big exercise in theology, albeit in fictional form. Young is seeking to present a theology of God, with an apologetic spin. That is the same sort of thing all good evangelical seminaries seek to do. So this may have been an unnecessary slight to theological education and seminary learning.
Another area which will bother some (at least those with some theological background) is the way the Trinity is presented in the book. The idea of any sort of hierarchy in the Trinity is slammed here. “Hierarchy would make no sense among us” the Father tells Mack, for example (p. 122).
Now that happens to be a position that some good evangelicals hold to. Most however would probably argue that there is some sort of hierarchy in the Trinity – certainly not a hierarchy of essence or nature, but of role or function.
Theologically conservative Christians tend to argue that just as there is a hierarchy of roles or functions in the Godhead, so too God has ordained such a hierarchy in human relationships, for example with the husband being the head of the wife and family, as Scripture suggests. Young would evidently reject both types of hierarchy.
All this is being debated in evangelical circles, as I mentioned. So Young is simply taking one side on this debate here, and not all evangelicals will be happy with his position. Young is insisting that his view is the way it is, but other believers might beg to differ.
Other related issues arise. Since Young is so against hierarchy and power, and sees them as antithetical to love and relationship, he seems to again go too far in one direction. Thus he says all human institutions – be they government, economies, marriage or family – are built on hierarchy and power, and therefore are all counter to his ways and purposes.
But it would seem that God in fact created many of these institutions, so we should not be so quick to dismiss them or rubbish them. God has ordained the institutions of the state, and of the family, for example. Clearly there is hierarchy in the state, and the use of power is God-ordained. So not all cases of human hierarchy and power are wrong. Again, believers can debate whether there should be any hierarchy in the home (as between husband and wife) but surely some hierarchy should exist between parent and child.
Other points of concern could be mentioned. On page 120 we find the Father telling Mack, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment…” Well, yes and no. Sin brings bad consequences on us, and this seems to be Paul’s train of thought in Romans 1 when he speaks of homosexuality as being both sinful, and in a sense, its own punishment.
But we also have many clear texts telling us that there is a separate punishment for sin (which Jesus of course took upon himself) and future punishment, which unbelievers will experience eternally in the form of hell. So Young seems to be unnecessarily downplaying some clear biblical truths here, in the interests of stressing the love and relationship side of things.
Defenders of the book – and perhaps Young himself – might argue that sometimes a push to extremes is needed to correct long-held wrong understandings and theologies that evangelicals have held to. Thus the emphasis on love and relationship may tend to go too far, at the expense of other biblical truths, but these defenders might argue that this is necessary, as we need to wake believers out of their slumber, and get them to realise once again the wonder of a deep, intimate love relationship with God.
I agree with the aim, but I am not sure if I am happy with the means. Yes church history tends to be a pendulum swing, of one extreme being matched by another extreme, and so on, in the hopes of finding the biblically balanced middle ground. While sympathetic to what Young is trying to do here, as one who feels we must pay attention to the whole counsel of God (as Paul exhorts us), and as a theologian and one who wants to let Scripture speak in all its fullness, I cringe at times at some of the lack of balance presented here.
But having said all that, I think that on the whole this book may achieve a lot of good for the Body of Christ. As I said at the end of Part One, this book may well help many. I hope it does. As with all things, let the reader beware. The reader needs to read with critical eyes, testing everything that is being said according to the word of God. We all need to be like the Bereans who searched the Scriptures daily to see if what was being told them was true (Acts 17:11).
But get the book if you are interested, and give it a read, being open to what God may seek to achieve in you in the process. I invite readers of this book to share their thoughts here with us in the comments’ section. Let the discussion begin.
Part One is here: