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Book Review

A second look at The Shack

I read this famous book soon after it came out. I was disappointed—because I’d been led to believe it was a ‘Christian novel’ and no more. I’ve since realised it is really about theology, built around a novel-like story, so I recently read it again with that in mind—and enjoyed it much more. I’m talking about The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity by William P. Young (Hodder & Stoughton, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-340-97949-5).

Briefly, Mack is on a weekend’s camp with his children. His daughter Missy goes missing, abducted by a man who abuses and kills her. The authorities find—and Mack visits, for identification purposes—the remote shack where the murder took place. Some time later, Mack gets a letter inviting him back to the shack for a weekend. It is signed ‘Papa’, the name for God used by Mack’s wife Nan.

Mack goes and has an astonishing encounter with God as Trinity: Papa (God the Father) is a large African-American woman, Jesus is a jeans-wearing carpenter, and the Holy Spirit is a floaty female called Sarayu. Mack returns from the weekend with his hurts healed and his concept of God turned upside-down—or, the author would no doubt maintain, turned the right way up.

The book reflects horrific events that took place in the author’s own life, so it is much more than mere theorising; it is the fruit of much sharp-minded wrestling with God in the midst of deep pain and sorrow. The healing that happened in the book over a weekend took many years in reality

The book’s theology comes over in the conversations and interaction between Mack and the members of the Trinity. It portrays them as totally loving and forgiving, and in complete harmony with one another. Nothing new in that, you might think. But the way it comes over carries quite an impact, and many have testified to how it has radically altered the way they think about God and, in consequence, the way they regard both other people and the created order in general.

I then went on to read a book that examines this theology in more detail. But first, some quotations from the original book…

[Papa]  We could talk about the nature of freedom itself. Does freedom mean that you’re allowed to do whatever you want to do? Or we could talk about all the limiting influences in your life that actively work against your freedom. Your family genetic heritage, your specific DNA, your metabolic uniqueness, the quantum stuff that is going on at a subatomic level where only I am the always-present observer. Or the intrusion of your soul’s sickness that inhibits and binds you, or the social influences around you, or the habits that have created synaptic bonds and pathways in your brain. And then there’s advertising, propaganda, and paradigms. Inside that confluence of multifaceted inhibitors, what is freedom really? (p94)

[Papa]  I am what some would say ‘holy, and wholly other than you.’ The problem is that many folks try to grasp some sense of who I am by taking the best version of themselves, projecting that to the nth degree, factoring in all the goodness they ca perceive, which often isn’t much, and then call that God. And while it may seem like a noble effort, the truth is that it falls pitifully short of who I really am. I’m not merely the best version of you that you can think of. I am far more than that, above and beyond all that you can ask or think. (p98)

[Sarayu]  ‘Mackenzie, you don’t play a game or color a picture with a child to show your superiority. Rather, you choose to limit yourself so as to facilitate and honor that relationship. You will even lose a competition to accomplish love. It is not about winning and losing, but about love and respect.’
     ‘So when I am telling you about my children?’
     ‘We have limited ourselves out of respect for you. We are not bringing to mind, as it were, our knowledge of your children. As we are listening to you, it is as if this is the first time we have known about them, and we take great delight in seeing them through your eyes.’  (p106)

[Mack addressing Papa]  ‘Honestly, don’t you enjoy punishing those who disappoint you?’
     At that, Papa stopped her preparations and turned toward Mack. He could see a deep sadness in her eyes. ‘I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. 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.’ (p120)

‘I mean,’ Mack hurried on, ‘I have always thought of God the Father as sort of being the boss and Jesus as the one following orders, you know, being obedient. I’m not sure how the Holy Spirit fits in exactly. He…I mean, she…uh…’ Mack tried not to look at Sarayu as he stumbled for words. ‘…Whatever—the Spirit always seemed kind of a…uh…’
     ‘A free Spirit?’ offered Papa.
     ‘Exactly—a free Spirit, but still under the direction of the Father. Does that make sense?’
     Jesus looked over at Papa, obviously trying with some difficulty to maintain the perception of a very serious exterior. ‘Does that make sense to you, Abba? Frankly, I haven’t a clue what this man is talking about.’ (p121)

[Papa]  We carefully respect your choices, so we work within your systems even while we seek to free you from them. Creation has been taken down a very different path than we desired. In your world the value of the individual is constantly weighed against the survival of the system, whether political, economic, social, or religious—any system actually. First one person, and then a few, and finally even many are easily sacrificed for the good and ongoing existence of that system. In one form or another this lies behind every struggle for power, every prejudice, every war, and every abuse of relationship. The ‘will to power and independence’ has become so ubiquitous that it is now considered normal. (p124)

[Papa]  There are millions of reasons to allow pain and hurt and suffering rather than to eradicate them, but most of those reasons can only be understood within each person’s story. I am not evil. You are the ones who embrace fear and pain and power and rights so readily in your relationships. But your choices are also not stronger than my purposes, and I will use every choice you make for the ultimate good and the most loving outcome. (p125)

[Sarayu]  Humans have a great capacity for declaring something good or evil, without truly knowing. (p133)

[Jesus]  Without wisdom, imagination is a cruel taskmaster. (p141)

[Jesus]  ‘To force my will on you,’ Jesus replied, ‘is exactly what love does not do. Genuine relationships are marked by submission even when your choices are not helpful or healthy. That’s the beauty you see in my relationship with Abba and Sarayu. We are indeed submitted to one another and have always been so and always will be. Papa is as much submitted to me as I to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.’ (p145)

[Jesus]  Women, in general, will find it difficult to turn from a man and stop demanding that he meets their needs, provides security, and protects their identity, and return to me. Men, in general, find it very hard to turn from the works of their hands, their own quests for power and security and significance, and return to me. (p147)

[Sophia (wisdom)]  Return from your independence, Mackenzie. Give up being Papa’s judge and know him for who he is. Then you will be able to embrace his love in the midst of your pain, instead of pushing him away with your self-centred perception of how you think the universe should be. (p165)

[Jesus]  Our final destiny is not the picture of Heaven that you have stuck in your head—you know, the image of pearly gates and streets of gold. Instead it’s a new cleansing of this universe, so it will indeed look a lot like here. (p177)

[Jesus]  ‘Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. 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, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.’
     ‘Does that mean,’ asked Mack, ‘that all roads will lead to you?’
     ‘Not at all,’ smiled Jesus… ‘Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.’ (p182)

[Papa]  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. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors. (p185)

[Papa]  You demand your independence, but then complain that I actually love you enough to give it to you. (p191)

[Papa]  ‘You asked me what Jesus accomplished on the cross; so now listen to me carefully: through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world.’
     ‘The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?’
     ‘The whole world, Mack. All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way.’ (p192)

[Sarayu]  Those who are afraid of freedom are those who cannot trust us to live in them. Trying to keep the law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control. (p203)

[Jesus]  ‘Mack, I don’t want to be first among a list of values; I want to be at the center of everything. When I live in you, then together we can live through everything that happens to you. Rather than a pyramid, I want to be the center of a mobile, where everything in your life—your friends, family, occupation, thoughts, activities—is connected to me but moves with the wind, in and out and back and forth, in an incredible dance of being.’
     ‘And I,’ concluded Sarayu, ‘I am the wind.’ She smiled hugely and bowed. (p207)

[Papa]  Forgiveness does not establish relationship. In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship. (p225)

[Sarayu]  If anything matters then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes; with every kindness and service, seen or unseen, my purposes are accomplished and nothing will ever be the same again. (P235)

I went on to read a book by a different author that examines the theology of The Shack in some detail. It is The Shack Revisited by C. Baxter Kruger (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-444-74583-2).

It carries William Young’s approval and, indeed, he provides the Foreword, where he says, ‘This book sets the framework and boundaries; it is an attempt to paint a “bigger picture,” elucidating a pre-Enlightenment, pre-Reformation, indeed an early Church vision of the beautiful life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and their dream for the human race. Here Plato and dualism have no voice.’

That’s enough to get my juices flowing! How refreshing to find someone with both an overall grasp of Christian history and a solid understanding of the panorama of Scripture, who can see where Christian doctrine and practice started to drift off-course and can lead us back to the main path. He takes us back to the Trinitarian God who tugs at our heart-strings, whose name is Love and whose message is ‘good news’ indeed.

If you’re getting a bit fed up with some aspects of traditional evangelicalism, here you will likely find the tonic you need to reinvigorate your faith. Here are a few quotes.

[The numbers here are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

“Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” That’s it: he receives sinners, and eats with them! There is obvious disdain in their accusation; they don’t even have the courtesy to speak his name, calling Jesus “this man” or “this fellow.” The problem is that to receive someone and share a meal with them in this culture is a sign of real solidarity. This is how you treat family. So Jesus is acting like he is family with the tax collectors and sinners.  (457)

I suspect that the fingerprints of C. S. Lewis are all over The Shack.  (524)

What will happen when the great dance of trinitarian life and love and freedom, when that beauty and goodness and righteousness of the Father, Son, and Spirit—already within us—gets loose, so to speak, to run rampant in our lives and relationships, in our work and play?  (706)

We know that God is good, else we would not care a whit about problems in life. They wouldn’t be problems really, they would just be life: the way it is. But we know that it is not supposed to be this way…  It all translates into a question of serious importance. Is God really for us?  (730)

The God of Athanasius is all heart, intent on the single-minded purpose of blessing us beyond our wildest dreams. It’s as though we are the reason for the whole creation—the apple of his eye. He has stunning dreams for us, and he won’t let them go. This Father doesn’t have to have his arm twisted by Jesus to love us, or to forgive us. He is not distant, aloof, uncaring. He is thrilled with his creation, and loves us all. For Athanasius, Jesus is the proof.  (769)

From all eternity, God is not alone and solitary, but lives as Father, Son, and Spirit in a rich and glorious fellowship of utter oneness. There is no emptiness in this circle, no depression or fear or insecurity. The trinitarian life is a great dance of unchained communion and intimacy, fired by passionate, self-giving, other-centered love and mutual delight.  (829)

The New Testament fits into Israel’s history like a newfound scroll that recasts the whole story in a new light.  (873)

From the beginning, the Bible is about the Lord’s desire—not as need, but as love’s expression—for real relationship with us, his mere creatures. We matter.  (1121)

To the Jewish mind, “one God” meant a single, individual, or solitary divine Person. For the Greek, “one God” meant indivisible, simple essence, not subject to partition or liable to change. For the Christian mind, “one God” came to mean three Persons utterly together. This is the point of capital importance. “One” undergoes a dramatic shift from an individual thing to relational togetherness or union.  (1465)

When Christianity says God, it says Father, Son, and Spirit, existing in a beautiful, intimate relationship of other-centered love expressing itself in boundless fellowship and unutterable oneness. It does not speak of a being that is isolated or unapproachable, detached or indifferent. It does not speak of a legalist, or a self-centered potentate, or an unmoved mover. God, for the Christian Church—at its best, anyway—is a relational being: three Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, sharing life and all things in other-centered love and incomparable togetherness.  (1507)

The Father, Son, and Spirit love us for our benefit, not for increasing their membership rolls, or for making themselves look good, or for anything they can get from us. There is no need in the blessed Trinity. It is an overflowing fountain of other-centered love.  (1570)

[Describing a conversation the author had]  “So,” I asked, “what is God’s relationship to people before they believe in Jesus?”
     “He is their Judge,” he replied. “He becomes their Father when they repent and believe.”
     “So you are saying that people’s faith has the power to alter the
being of God?”
     “No, of course I am not saying that.”
     “Well, it seems that way to me. You are saying that if someone believes, then God
becomes their Father, but if they don’t, he remains their Judge. Apart from the startling fact that you assume God as Judge is more fundamental than God as Father, what happens to God if they cry out, ‘I do believe; help my unbelief’? Is Jesus’ Father like a windshield wiper, moving back and forth between being a Father and a Judge?”  (1601)

Wrath is the love of the triune God in passionate action, saying “No!” It is love’s fiery opposition to our destruction. Likewise, the judgment of God is not the divine “dark side” finally having its say. To judge is to discern, to see into a matter and understand what is wrong in order to make it right and whole.  (1678)

In the mix and flow of Western history, a legal understanding of holiness slipped behind the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit and became the fundamental truth about God—at least in our minds. This holiness is not relational, not trinitarian, not the expression of love.  (1695)

The Incarnation, as Trevor Hart points out, was not “a temporary episode in the life of God.” The Son’s becoming human was not a quick visit to a friend’s house. The Incarnation will never end. It is an abiding reality now and forever.  (1738)

I fear that we in the West have been so preoccupied with guilt and sin as to have missed the astonishing fact that the Father’s Son himself, the Anointed One and the Creator, has crossed all worlds to be with us and to include us in his life…  The gospel is not the news that we can receive Jesus into our lives. The gospel is the news that Jesus has received us into his.  (1836)

Jesus is not “Plan B,” which the Father, Son, and Spirit quickly thought up and implemented after the failure of “Plan A” in Adam. Jesus is “Plan A,” the first, the original, and only plan.  (1996)

I love what Jesus says after he feeds the multitude with a few loaves of bread and two fish. “Gather up the leftover fragments so that nothing will be lost.” This is the love of the Father, Son, and Spirit for all creation, and a beautiful expression of the trinitarian determination to bless and to include.  (2035)

Adam projected his own brokenness onto God’s face. He tarred the Father’s face with the brush of his own angst. He took a paintbrush, dipped it into the cesspool of his own double-mindedness and guilt and shame, and painted an entirely new picture of a god with it. And it was this god, created by his own darkened imagination—not the Lord—that he feared, and from whom he hid.  (2093)

The very presence of the Lord in love and grace will be translated through the fallen mind and perceived as the presence of “the demanding taskmaster”, the great critic, the Judge quick to condemn, whose judgmental, watching spirit haunts every room in the universe.  (2108)

as an act of sheer grace, of keen awareness of Adam’s fear and identification with him in his pain, and as an act of determination to meet and relate to him in his fallen state, the Lord accepted Adam in his shame and related to him as he was. He clothed him. Such an act was not about God or a divine need to be appeased. This was an act of love, of acceptance and real relationship, flowing out of his determination to bring the purpose of adoption to fruition.  (2130)

In our pain we, like Adam, have condemned ourselves, created a god in the image of our shame and handcrafted religions to go with it, all of which we project onto the Father and defend with a vengeance.  (2171)

The inherent legalism of the Western Church trains our eyes to see Jesus’ suffering as the judgment of God upon our sin, and virtually blinds us to the more obvious point that Jesus suffered from the wickedness of humanity. It was the human race, not the Father, who rejected his beloved Son and killed him. The wrath poured out on Calvary’s hill did not originate in the Father’s heart, but in ours.  (2316)

The gospel is not the news that we can accept an absent Jesus into our lives. The gospel is the news that the Father’s Son has received us into his. In Jesus the alien world of our darkness and pain, of our obstinate pride and anger, was drawn within the life of the blessed Trinity, and the trinitarian life of God set up shop inside our hell forever.  (2444)

The Father, Son, and Spirit have found a way to give us a real place in their shared trinitarian life without losing us in the process. We are included, but not absorbed; united, but not so merged that we cease to be real. We share in the trinitarian life, but always as distinct persons with our own unique personalities. The blessed Trinity will have it no other way.  (2741)

Through Jesus the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh, as prophesied by Joel. The Spirit’s passion is to educate every human being—to make subjectively, personally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually real to us in our darkness that which is already real in Jesus Christ: that we are loved, accepted, and embraced forever, included in the trinitarian life itself.  (2872)

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