I confess. I’ve never seen one episode of Seinfeld, the Simpson’s, or Desperate Housewives, nor have I watched a horror movie or sci-fi movie for almost 30 years. Moreover, I hardly read novels. For better or worse, I decided long ago that getting inside another’s imaginary world is, quite frankly, a waste of time when reality offers plenty of intrigue. My reading has been so academic for so long that I find it almost impossible to appreciate the world of fiction. (This is not to my credit, I have to admit.) Nevertheless, Young’s novel The Shack got my attention, as it has countless others, and I would like to say a few things about it.
- Christianity, above all other world religions, offers the possibility of a real relationship with a real Triune God who is intra-social and relational in se. The Shack admirably focuses on this aspect of our faith and I’m grateful to Young for bringing out this vital truth in new and unique ways. After the spirit of Augustine, God is the Lover (Father), the Loved (Son), and Love (Holy Spirit). I wonder if we can know the real nature of love without a relational God?
- The goodness of God and his loving and wise control over all the painful details of life are authentically engaged at every turn. While not everyone would agree with Young’s (Augustinian) theodicy, he does present one Christian view on how a good God could permit such heinous evil. Without question, we all long to know that suffering is not without purpose; that it all is going somewhere. Young offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how God might be working. I could not help but recall the story of Job while reading The Shack. It’s certainly worth pondering. (see further my series, “God Has a Story, Too: Reflections on Suffering & Evil“)
- Every experience of God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit must be governed, guided, and guarded by God’s Word (this insight is my wife’s). Conversely, every experience of God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit that is objectively contrary to God’s Word is necessarily false. While Young goes into left field in his depiction of God’s Triune personae, the story could have been equally intriguing and had a wider readership had he stuck with the traditional, biblical representations of God’s being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I could say much more but I especially encourage you to read Ben Witherington’s review.
- If it’s true that “God is not a man” (Numbers 23:19, ESV), it’s equally true that God is not a woman. Instead “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Nevertheless, if God is to take on human form, then there are only two possibilities for gender and God had to chose one over the other. So too did Young have to pick one gender to represent God in human form. Incidentally, we must remember that God’s image exists equally in both male and female (see Gen. 1:27; see also here). The text does not say that the male and female image are in God!). That God chose to be male in Christ likely has much to do with him being made after Adam (see, e.g., Rom. 5:14; 1 Cor. 15:22), as well as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (see Daniel 7:13-14; Matt. 22:42). It may not be theologically or ontologically necessary that God be a male human; it was, however, historically necessary as the Bible’s storyline plays out.
- We must be content to rest in God’s revelation of himself in Scripture, in His Son Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit’s presence in and among us. Any unrest/uneasiness we may have about the God of the Bible must be confronted with prayer and honesty. I think Young helped me accomplish this in some measure. (This is not to say that God’s Word is the only media through which reveals himself. See J.P. Moreland’s important paper “How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What can be Done about It”.)
- Finally, we should not lose sight of what Young is and is not accomplishing in his book. As others have repeatedly said The Shack is not a systematic theology; it’s a parable (in Young’s own terms). Ergo, we should read it as such and imagine what God may be like in light of its storyline, our experience, and knowledge of Scripture. To miss important ways God may be speaking to us in relationship is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Let me illustrate my point. No one can doubt that C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity has made an enormous impact on the world and continues to change countless lives because of his ability to condense the heart of Chrisitian faith into profound, timeless truths. Although Lewis states in his book that he believes in Purgatory — a doctrine most Protestant Evangelicals would readily dismiss as unbiblical — this has hardly impacted the book’s influence for all these years in print. Not to read Lewis because of a disagreement with this one point would be to miss out on one of the most important voices of Christianity in the twentieth century! While The Shack is clearly not the literary and intellectual masterpiece that Lewis’ Mere Christianity is, Young’s book deserves a careful and fair reading.
Thanks for the review and comments Paul. Appreciate you having taken time to read the book and trust you will be edified and encouraged by the Lord as He so chooses.
Having not read the book, but having gained exposure to the thoughts and views of others about the book, I am again affirmed in my thinking that the Body of Christ is hungering for something more real in its relation with its Head, God Himself, than what our American culture based Christianity has provided us. Perhaps The Shack, it seems, is merely bringing to the surface a biblical hermeneutic that has never disappeared but has been through culture and sin clouded—relationship. The bible itself reveals to us that God is relational. He has not failed in communicating this fact. I’m amazed, even in reviewing my own grace journey, how messed up such a foundational truth can become in not only one’s particular life but in the Church’s life too. Everyone is relational. The Church is relational. What pertains to life and godliness is the nature of relationships (which includes truth). Matthew 5-7, if viewed from a hermeneutic of “relationship” will justify this. John 17:3 is as valid for the Christian experience today as when written.
May God lovingly move us away from ourselves to the point where we walk through life understanding and perceiving His momentary movements of grace in our hearts and may we accompany to those moments obedience to move with Him in directions which distance us from sin, the world and ourselves, so that we may experience more fully life with Him and true life with others.
God’s providential care and blessing to you.
Thanks, Carl. Good insights. A hermeneutic of “relationship”! Hum….has potential but sounds postmodern. Can you unpack this a bit?
Relational Hermeneutic. All “hermeneutic approaches” entail relationship in and of themselves. Anytime there is a study, one finds (at least) one subject, one object and one subject-object relationship (a trinity if you will). Living a relational hermeneutic one understands this fact and comes at the study of things, Scripture, God, my Self, others, my coffee, inner world imaginations, etc, as self-ly aware that “I” am relating to whatever. One could thus argue that a relation hermeneutic is “pre-modern” and certainly before any contemporary postmodernistic robbery on such a subject.
In the earlier reference to Matthew 5-7, I was implying that the dominant subject of that text is the nature of and quality of one’s relationships overall. Central to that text are the factors of Who one relates to, What one relates to, How and Why one relates to “whatever” [God, the world, self, teachers, statements offered as truth, etc]. This reading entails a relational hermeneutic or lens to the text. This approach is grounded in the fact that I and God are relational beings and the bible address God in His person and His relation to all creation via relations between God and the parts, the parts with the parts, or God with Himself. Try reading that text and read it exclusively with the nature and quality of relationships in mind. (Then move to the bible as a whole in like fashion.)
Not being an expert on postmodern thought, I’m leaving any contrast and comments alone, except one. I’ll make the point that postmodern thought has difficulty with the notion of truth. Seems this is the crux of contention. If one reads the Matthew section, for example, one will notice that Jesus doesn’t seem to have any difficulty stating that some relationships and the nature of them are worth pursuing and living while others are worth avoiding. All relationships possible are livable. But, not all relationships possible tend to God or godliness. One’s relationships matter. This conclusion is neither postmodern nor anything else than biblical. Perhaps some movement has noticed or felt a gap in contemporary Christian expression and what’s being highlighted is “Hey, I’m in a relationship with God!” So be it. Perhaps that is good somehow for the whole. In no way does it entail the validity of the movement itself, though. And if any movement concern itself not with its own validity, then we should note such a group and walk away briskly.
God bless my brother.
“postmodern thought has difficulty with the notion of truth”
That’s true (every pun intended)! Of course, if the the postmodern affirms the claim “there is no truth in postmodernism,” then they would be assuming their claim to be true, which would be cutting off their intellectual nose to spite their postmodern face!
Agree with you that any hermeneutic assumes some kind of I-Thou-It relationship (to quote Martin Buber). And, when we interpret Scripture, there is a triad of relationships at play. Thanks…for fleshing this out for us!