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.