Friday, May 25, 2012

On The Shack

Well, I have finally read this book that apparently made quite a few waves in the Christian subculture in the past  few years: The Shack. I was interested in it because I'd heard many things about it, both good and bad--a scathing critique I can barely remember but made it sound a step above The God Delusion, and plenty of gushing praise for it. How could I resist?

If you haven't read The Shack, the basic plot is that a man has suffered a terrible tragedy and consequently is slipping in his relationship with God. At the request of a strange note, he returns to the shack that is the center of his trauma and there meets God face to face. Over most of the rest of the book, which reminds me of Greek philosophers in its extensive use of dialogues to teach, he comes to grips with the pain and resentment he's been carrying and experiences God's radical love for him even in the midst of great sadness. I'm not so much going to review this book as I am going to critique what is false in it and then say what I did learn from it.

The thing that has so many people up in arms about The Shack is the meeting God face-to-face part, which is a bit more literal than what you see in the Bible--God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are portrayed as an African-American woman, a Middle-Eastern man, and an Asian woman, respectively. I would totally agree with the cries of heresy at the theological issues this raises, except that (spoilers!) it's all a dream. The portrayal of Jesus is of course about as accurate as a 21st-century author can know how to make it, and remember that God the Father is not male in the same way men are, but in His relationship to the rest of the Trinity and to creation. Portraying "Papa" as a jolly African-American woman is just as inaccurate as any other human portrayal would be. (He lampshades the traditional imagery of the bearded old man) The same with "Sarayu", the Holy Spirit--I'm willing to forgive the human portrayal in the name of artistic license and the fact that it's a dream. Having Mack spend a weekend talking to Jesus and two intangible spirits would rather change the story; satisfying the critics who say it's a skewed portrayal of the Trinity by portraying God slightly more accurately as a three-headed person would change it quite a bit more.

That said, The Shack has its share of problems not in what happens, but in what is taught. And this book can get fairly heavy-handed at times, especially as it convinces you to set aside your judgment with its extreme appeal to emotion; the story behind Mack's "great sadness" is one of the saddest things I have ever read. Young often seems to be using the rather high platform offered by portraying the Trinity as human as a kind of super-soapbox to get stuff of his chest.

Relationships are never about power.--p. 106
This line and the ensuing conversation struck a chord with me after my studies of James Hunter. Later on pages 124-125, Young makes clear that he thinks interpersonal power and hierarchy have no place in the church, or in the Trinity. He views the existence of any kind of asymmetrical relationship in the Trinity as a "chain of command" (122). I would call it more a "chain of loving submission". It is the differences in how the Father, Son, and Spirit relate to each other that gives them distinct identities rather than being three identical persons of God. Of course Christians should avoid the use of coercion in their relationships, but Young seems to consider power/authority and coercion to be equivalent. This view gives Christians who do have power (i.e. all Christians) no help as to how to wisely use it to glorify God.

I don't create institutions--never have, never will.--p. 179
On a similar note, Young again takes the neo-Anabaptist view here, trying to separate the church as some kind of non-institutional, other-worldly enclave. Jesus goes on to say that He is "not too big on religion, and not very fond of politics or economics either." That's quite a social agenda Jesus has! And my posts on Hunter have hopefully covered the dangers of connecting revelation with a social agenda. Young's beefs with the church become pretty obvious on the previous page: "'My church is all about people...' Not a bunch of exhausting work and a long list of demands, and not the sitting in endless meetings staring at the backs of peoples' heads, people he really didn't even know.

Remember that people expected the real Jesus to be a political revolutionary who would overthrow the established Roman order to restore Israel's former glory, and He pointedly defied these expectations. This anti-institutional bent is not seen anywhere in the gospels, and indeed the church was, from its inception, an institution with multiple levels of leadership (Peter, Paul, the other apostles, Timothy, Titus, and countless others), discipline (1 Corinthians 5), and many commands and rules. Young takes what he's seen of abuses of the true identity of the church and draws a radical and false conclusion from them.

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.--p. 120
Uh... "It is mine to avenge; I will repay."--Deuteronomy 32:35 If God doesn't punish people for sin, then either there is no justice in the universe or the responsibility falls to us, and then the most hateful, judgmental Christians like Westboro Baptist aren't going far enough. Thank God for His perfect justice! Young seems to view God as being virtually all love while downplaying His other attributes (God's wisdom is, interestingly, portrayed as a separate, non-God person), a misconception that is distressingly popular these days.

Seriously, my life was not meant to be an example to copy.--p. 149
That's Jesus saying that, as a response to "What would Jesus do?" His subsequent explanation of this is rather opaque, to say the least. I see this part and raise it Ephesians 4:15: "Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." Again in Philippians 2:5: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus." If we aren't supposed to be like Christ, then what was the purpose of His life leading up to the crucifixion? (For He was teaching from His own nature)

I could go on. The Wikipedia page on the book links to several conservative critiques of it. But I personally hate critiques like this one that just dissect something line by line and explain what is wrong with it. If this were all I had to say about the book, I wouldn't have written this post. But reading The Shack was a great exercise in discerning truth from lies, and there was plenty about it that I enjoyed. The joyful, affectionate interactions and, at times, banter between the members of the Trinity, while not at all an accurate definition of perichoresis, nonetheless helped me understand more of how God is love and the nature of the loving relationships between the members of the Trinity (inscrutable though they are). Also a shoutout to a line from when Mack is helping Sarayu tend a fractal-designed garden: "I love fractals, so I put them everywhere." I certainly like to think God finds fractals pretty cool. they're like the ultimate Easter eggs of the universe.

But most of all, this book and its central purpose of attempting to reconcile God's loving, all-powerful nature with personal tragedy (the tagline is "Where tragedy confronts eternity") have helped to expand my picture of how God's will and ours work together, and make it a bit less contradictory. Specifically, on page 165, "Papa has never needed evil to accomplish his good purposes. It is you humans who have embraced evil and Papa has responded with goodness." It was around here that I realized a bit more of how our free will can coexist with God's sovereignty. God's wisdom and insight are such that He is able to perfectly accomplish all He wills while leaving us free to choose in every circumstance. God's will envelops and surpasses ours like a river does the stones it flows over.

And so, I am glad I read The Shack. I don't know that I'd recommend it, especially to the less analytically-minded, and if you do read it keep your Heresy Firewall up at all times. But if you read it with a discerning and open mind, it's a nice look at the spiritual climate of a pretty big movement in Christianity (the emergent church) as it is today. (Or rather, five years ago)

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