Monday, March 6, 2017

"The Shack" - Redux

I have not yet seen the new film version of "The Shack," although I plan to. This post is a revision of a review I wrote of the book seven years ago. I felt the need to revisit it because my views on one point have changed somewhat.

Let me start by saying that I definitely recommend reading the book because it’s a great conversation piece. But my overall review would have to be mixed. I think I’ve discerned five major points in The Shack that Young wants to make about God. Three of those points are very good, and two are seriously flawed.

I’ll start with the positives, which in my mind outweigh the negatives. The primary purpose of The Shack is to discuss how relationships within the Holy Trinity should model our personal relationships, and it succeeds in doing so. Young’s hero, Mack, responds to a personal invitation from God the Father, who goes by “Pappa,” to spend the weekend with him at the shack where Mack’s young daughter was murdered. Mack spends the weekend having long talks with Pappa, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus, naturally, appears as a young Jewish man. The other two appear in various other human and quasi-human forms, while making clear that only Jesus is truly human. Mack learns a lot about himself, but also about the Triune God and the nature of sacred trust.

I have read a number of evangelical reviews of The Shack that take strong exception to Young’s view of the Trinity, calling it heresy. To put it bluntly, most of these critiques betray a shocking and pathetic ignorance of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Nicene Creed, and the New Testament. Don’t get me wrong… Young’s imaginative portrayal is not perfect. I’ve never seen or read one that is. Nor would I attempt to write a better one. I could not.

Most Christians simply don’t think enough about the Trinity. Evangelicals tend to focus exclusively on Christ, charismatics on the Spirit, and liberals on a loosely understood “parent-God.” However, the Bible makes it clear that when Jesus prays, he’s not talking to himself like a lunatic. Jesus and the Father are having a true conversation, and yet both are God. Then, the Holy Spirit is poured out, which is also God. Taking this Triune God seriously is not Tritheism, as the critics claim.

The second point Young makes is on the nature of evil and how it works in with God’s plan. Young’s understanding of evil matches mine very closely. Since I’ve preached on this several times, I’ll try to be brief here. God neither causes nor wills neither sin nor evil. However, by giving us freedom to love or not love, God has self-imposed limits on the degree to which he can stay our hands. The Miracle of redemption is God’s power to use our sins to fulfill his purposes.

This leads to Young’s final good point: Our sin is the result of our fierce independence, which is a form of self-idolatry. We each want to be our own god, yet we blame God when this leads to chaos.

Thus far, this is all very good stuff. But Young also makes two serious errors. First, Young makes the argument that religion is about rules, and rules are bad. Christianity, on the other hand, is about the relationships people have with each other and with God. Relationships are good. But rules hurt relationships. Therefore Christianity is not a religion. It’s something else… something better.

I believe that Young has taken this position for two reasons. One is that Young has clearly misunderstood both Jesus and Paul. The other is that Young has been wounded by people with religious authority who use rules as weapons. But religion, and Christianity is a religion, is full of rules. Those rules were given to us by God. In Matthew, while discussing divorce, Jesus seems to admit that at least some of these rules are a necessary evil. "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning." In other words, God gave us rules because people don't love each other the way they should. In the absence of selfless love, we need rules to guide our behavior. Hebrews 10:1 seems to say that, in the Kingdom of God, when all things are made right, these rules will no longer be necessary: "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves." But that's not where we live. In this broken reality, people who love imperfectly need rules to follow to keep them from hurting each other.

The only problem Jesus and Paul had with the Law, if you could call it a problem, is that people were viewing it as an end itself rather than a means to an end. The Law, in and of itself, does not hold the power of salvation. Following the list of “don’ts” will not save us from evil. Rules are a part of our faith, but they are not the entirety of our faith. The Law of God prevents us from doing harm so that loving relationships can be possible.

Finally, Young claims that the Church is just another human institution and, therefore, just as broken as any other human institution. He even goes so far as to say that the Church is a human invention. To make that claim, you have to ignore parts of Matthew, the whole book of Acts, and most of the Epistles. As broken as the Church is, Jesus did indeed invent it and charge it with acting on his behalf.

Young’s disillusionment with the institutional church is not just a sideline in the book… it’s a theme that runs throughout. The hero, Mack, is a seminary graduate. Yet Mack repeatedly makes the claim that everything he learns in the shack is a shocking revelation that never would have been discussed in Sunday School. Really? Hmm. I remember talking for hours about these very questions in both seminary and Sunday School... even as a youth.

While Young’s images are creative and the plot is original, there is absolutely nothing new about the ideas he puts forward. It would be tempting to say that Young is simply ignorant of what seminarians actually study. However, Young holds a degree from a Bible College, so I can’t say that. Unless…

Young is writing from the perspective of a former fundamentalist in the independent church tradition. His Biblical education was done in that setting. Based on the comments the book makes on churches, combined with the theologically na├»ve but vitriolic public response by some independent pastors, I have to wonder: What on earth is going on in these independent churches? I think it’s very telling that, after The Shack was published, William P. Young stopped attending church altogether. (He may have since returned... I don't know.) He says that churches don’t know how to handle wounded people. That’s sad. I thought that was why we were here.

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