I wasn’t going to read The Shack, there’s lots of other books further up my reading list and I don’t get enough time to read them. However, I said “if the book raises it’s head locally I’ll read it” and within a month someone asked me “have you read The Shack? What do you think of the way it portrays God?” So, now I’ve read it, I enjoyed it and like thousands of other readers, I have a few things to say about it.
I’m a sucker for father-child stories where there is pain caused by separation. One of my favourite films is Life is Beautiful. So the story of a father’s pain caused by the cruel murder of his youngest child kept me reading.
The Shack is primarily about making sense of suffering in a world made by God. The author, Wm Paul Young, reads lots of C.S. Lewis and The Problem of Pain is laced into the story and so Young gives a fairly good apologetic on suffering:
1. God is one and yet exists as three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who did not need to create the world because within the Trinity is perfect love and satisfaction.
2. God is sovereign. God knows what is happening in the world and allows it to continue in the way it does as the direct cost to him and us for our rebellion against him or, as Wm Paul Young calls it, our desire for “independence” or “autonomy”.
3. Time does not heal but knowledge of God does and knowledge of God takes time to grow.
4. Jesus suffered for us and the whole Trinity was involved in the pain (though the physical way the pain is represented in the book is very unhelpful – the Father has stigmata!!!).
5. Jesus is the truth and knowing the truth sets you free.
6. New Creation is real and more wonderful than any human eye has seen or heart conceived.
The back of the book has a really short biography of the author which includes the line “He suffered great loss as a child and as a young adult”. The narrative clearly includes something of Young’s personal story of how he arrived at an understanding of God which healed the “wound that had grown inside” (p92).
The book also contains a few soap box moments which annoyed me. Young is evidently down on a number of things: bible college (p91), human fathers (the main character, Mack, has a father who was a violent, drunken religious nut. God explains why he revealed himself as “God the Father” by saying that “an emphasis on fathering is necessary because of the enormity of its absence”), the bible (p66 – “Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book.”). He’s also down on the wrath of God (p119), subordination within the Trinity (p122) and the law of God (p198-203).
Young is down on the bible yet the Trinitarian God and theology of suffering is derived from Young’s own reading of scripture. Either he is saying, all you need is my book, which is arrogant, or he is depriving others of finding the same healing he did from learning about God over time from the bible.
The law also gets a hammering:
“Why did you give us those ten commandments?” Asked Mack.
“Actually, we wanted you to give up trying to be righteous on your own. It was a mirror to reveal just how filthy your face gets when you live independently…can you clean your face with the same mirror that shows you how dirty you are? There’s no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake. That’s why Jesus fulfilled all of it for you – so that it no longer has jurisdiction over you. And the Law that once contained impossible demands – Thou Shall Not…-actually becomes a promise we fulfill in you…But keep in mind that if you live your life alone and independently, the promise is empty. Jesus laid the demand of the law to rest; it no longer has any power to accuse or command. Jesus is both the promise and its fulfilment. ” (p202-203)
The analogy of the mirror, the freedom from accusation through the fulfilment of the law in Christ and faith in him are all good and right. But, if we are free from the command of the law then why is the murder of little Missy shocking? The pain caused to her and her father is precisely caused by the murder breaking God’s law. Keeping God’s law is how we love (Romans 13:10).
Young goes onto argue that rules have gone because God’s “very essence is a verb.”
“I am more attuned to verbs than nouns. Verbs such as confessing, repenting, living, loving, responding, growing, reaping, changing, sowing, running, dancing, singing and on and on. Humans, on the other hand, have a knack for taking a verb that is alive and full of grace and turning it into a dead noun or principle that reeks of rules.”
If Young could defend his idea of verbs not nouns being the essence of God then surely “obeying” would fit very well into the list of verbs.
The abolition of the law leaves the reader wondering what happens to the murderer. If there’s no law then there can be no justice. The murderer can’t be brought to justice if he hasn’t broken any laws. So, what will God do when the murderer finally meets him face to face? Will he be judged, did he repent, did he love and trust Jesus? The reader is left in the dark, a loose end which I liked with respect to the character but which frustrated me with respect to the question of justice for Missy. Young gives a hint that God remains angry with the murderer and Young approved of that. Yet, the anger of God was no more than an emotion within God, something he had to live with. Was there any ultimate justice? Is God just? Young didn’t but should have answered that.
The book is a novel which teaches practical theology through conversation. The portrayal of God’s character is imbalanced, as it is distorted by Young’s own damaged perspective on life (whose theology is not distorted by perspective?) Young’s theology is clear, he gives glimpses of the wonder of God but the true nature and, therefore, wonder of God is obscured. It’s worth reading for the story and as an exercise in careful but critical theological thought.