William P. Young–WPY–has apparently been watching too many episodes of Touched by an Angel.
His novel, The Shack–a fictional account of a man (Mack), struggling through a life of tragedy that incuded an alcoholic and abusive father and the brutal murder of his daughter Missy–has created a firestorm of criticism (in particular from Tom Neven and Ted Slater of Boundless) as well as an outpouring of praise.
Both the criticisms and the praise are valid.
First, I’ll discuss what WPY got wrong. Some of it is obvious; some of it is subtle. It is serious enough to merit red flags that the Christian reader ought to be prepared to explicate in a discussion of the book.
(1) While WPY seems to support the Trinity, he represents two members as women. His reasoning was apparently to emphasize the theme that God often encounters us outside our perceived mindsets–and this is a valid point–on the other hand, against a modern backdrop of feminist theology, that was a very poor choice on his part. Many orthodox Christians are understandably critical of that element.
(2) While WPY rightfully focuses on relationship aspect of the Faith, he is dismissive of admonitions to believers. Paul provided many of them to churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, Colossae, and Rome. Some of those carried stern warnings, some of which were eternal in nature. Church discipline is not absent in the NT, unpleasant as it may be.
(3) WPY glosses over coverage of killing and suffering in the Old Testament. On one hand, to his credit he appears to support Creation and the Fall and its effects on humanity. On the other hand, he appears to downplay the justice of God.
(4) While WPY appears to support the Atonement, He appears to emphasize the death of Christ as merely an act of love and not justice as well. Ted Slater of Boundless captures my sentiments well, as WPY dismisses the premise that God actually forsook Jesus on the cross.
(5) WPY ignores God’s justice. Consider p. 120:
“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.”
Sin is not a disease in need of cure; it is a condition that has rendered us dead. Because justice is a key aspect of God’s character, punishment for sin is necessary. Jesus bore that punishment on the cross.
(6) WPY is dismissive of authority. As unpleasant as the subject is, there is no getting around the issue of authority if one seeks to be truly honest with Scripture. This is the case in the garden; this is the case in the wilderness; this is the case during the time of judges, of kings, of exile, post-exile, the time of Christ on earth, and in the Early Church. While my libertarian streak wishes WPY’s treatment of this to be correct, I can’t endorse it.
Still, one must consider that there are lots of Christian groups–church and parachurch–that dysfunctionally exercise authority, at the expense of relationships. To that end, I empathize with “Papa”.
(7) WPY’s portrayal of God was far too cuddly than the presentation of Scripture. God was often very stern and tough, even smacking down Job. Jesus was brutal with the Pharisees, even as He loved them. While He was generous with women in a way that challenged societal paradigms, He was still blunt even by our Westernized standards.
On the other hand, I can see where readers would be attracted to the book.
(1) The presentation of forgiveness was very good. That alone is a very important theme of the book.
(2) The presentation of the problem of evil with respect to God’s character, human condition, and human freedom–while not perfect–was balanced. A little Arminian for the Reform folks, but not shabby.
(3) He does a masterful of presenting the issue of living life independently–without God–versus dependently (on God). That is perhaps the part he nailed the best. Americans–the most prosperous people in world history–pride themselves in independence. Heck, it is part of the title of our founding document.
But to be in Christ and to be independent are incompatible.
(4) He does a nice job of presenting the inadequacy of Man to fulfill God’s commandments, which any learned Christian understands is a key theme of the Old Testament as well as the Sermon on the Mount.
(5) He gets it on the relationship theme.While he drops the ball on admonitions for believers, WPY does emphasize that the walk of the believer is a relational one, not merely a set of DOs and DONT’s. The Christian life is not about a bunch of Confucian proverbs about good living; it is about knowing God.
While Tom Neven of Boundless is right to call Young to account on many theological points, we must not forget that The Shack–like the Chronicles of Narnia (where God is an animal, and the Trinity is not represented much at all) or The Lord of the Rings (Gandalf is farther from the Biblical model than Sarayu or Papa in The Shack) or the Space Trilogy (where the Holy Spirit is nonexistent in Out of the Silent Planet)–is a work of fiction, and that it is not to be confused with the Scriptures.The latter are authoritative; the former are not.
Overall, I cannot give the book a blanket condemnation; nor can I give it a ringing endorsement. When Young is right, he’s in the bullseye; when he’s wrong, he’s off by a mile.
The reader who has had tragic experiences–abuse, the death of a loved one, profound suffering–will easily identify with MacKenzie.
Unfortunately, Young’s feminized renderings for the Father and Holy Spirit will cost him 4 stars. I see what he was trying to do, but against our cultural backdrop he has stepped in it.
Ergo, an 8 star book will get only 4 out of 10.
CORRECTION: Jesus was brutal with the Disciples, even as He loved them. I mistakenly said Pharisees. Not enough coffee last night.