Nov 21, 2008

John Gram on The Shack

John Gram wrote the following review of William Young's The Shack. Do you agree with his assessment? Why or why not?

Some friends asked me to write a review of The Shack, so here it is:

Like most of you, I had heard of The Shack long before I actually picked up a copy to read. There are certain books that I read not because of personal interest, but because as a minister I want to know what my congregation is being exposed to, as well as the Church at large. Given the popularity – and controversy – surrounding The Shack, I figured that this was one of those books I probably needed to read for myself.

For those of you who don’t know the basic story line, the book revolves around a man named Mackenzie, or Mack, for short. Mack grew up with a “religious,” yet horribly abusive father. Mack finally leaves home at 13 and leads a hard life, but eventually things fall into place. He marries a wonderful Christian woman, and he has five great kids. But then an unspeakable tragedy – “The Great Sadness,” as the book calls it – shakes Mack to his core. On a camping trip, his youngest daughter, Missy, is kidnapped and brutally murdered. The guilt, pain, and anger slowly consume Mack, until one day he receives a note from God inviting him to the same shack where Missy was murdered. Mack spends a weekend with God, during which time He comes to understand the nature and purposes of God more clearly, and ultimately comes to peace with what happened to Missy.

The Shack is not a great literary work. The writing style kept the book in my bathroom to be read in segments, as opposed to on my bedside table at night when I do my pleasure reading. The plot and dialogue do little more than carry the reader awkwardly to Young’s next lecture point.

MACK: “Wow, Jesus, it’s as hot as Hell out here on the lake.”

JESUS: “Well, speaking of Hell, Mack, let me spend the next few pages telling you all about how I see it and how the Christian Church has it all wrong.”

Okay, so it’s not quite that bad, but it gets close at times. That said, the book did not have to be written brilliantly to accomplish its purpose. The storyline and the characters are really just a vehicle through which the author can express His views on God, suffering, justice, etc. There is actually something quite appealing and engaging in choosing to write this book as a novel, as opposed to a theological treatise, which is really what it is at its heart. Very few believers – rightly or wrongly – would pick up a book called, The Problem of the Nature of God and the Presence of Suffering, but the book’s form as a novel has made it quite successful. And because of its packaging as a novel, many more believers are engaging with the difficult and important questions which Young raises.

What I do appreciate about The Shack is its apparent commitment to Trinitarianism. I say apparent because I know that others have accused it of failing at this point. Personally, I don’t think you could read The Shack as a member of a non-Christian religion or as a modalist (one who believes that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are different “modes” which God assumes at different times, rather than three co-existent persons) and agree with Young’s portrayal of God. Some have accused him of modalism, and perhaps they have a point; there certainly are some parts of His description of the Trinity and God’s interpersonal relationships that leave me uncomfortable. However, these came across to me as temporary “slips” in discussing a very difficult subject, rather than evidence that Young is not committed to an orthodox Trinitarian view. Of course, I’ve never met the man, so I can’t say for sure. The Trinity is one of those great mysteries of the Christian faith that we can more easily define by what it is not, than what it is. Regardless, it is certainly Young’s working out of his Trinitarian views that causes most of the controversy in his work.

In The Shack, God the Father reveals Himself as a black woman for most of the story. Part of the author’s purpose in this is to challenge the image of God as a white grandfather that we all struggle against because of cultural and historical pressures on Christianity. In addition, Young uses Mack’s own childhood experiences to explore the difficulties that many men do have in calling God, “Father.” Revealing God as a black woman helps work through some of these, as well. I really don’t have a problem with Young doing this. He acknowledges that God has revealed Himself as Father and I think he does a good job of upholding the importance of God’s choice in self-revelation. However, it is important for us to remember that God the Father is spirit – neither male, nor female – and I think Young does this tastefully, not with an attitude of “Nyah! Nyah! I’m going to break your stereotypes!”

I’m not really sure how to comment on His portrayal of the Holy Spirit. He does better than most Christians in treating the Holy Spirit as a being with personality, as opposed to an impersonal force. Young decides to portray the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman, probably for similar reasons that God the Father is an African-American woman. I suppose he does a fairly good job at staying faithful to the very limited portrayal of the Spirit which we receive in Scripture.

Most of the problems I have with The Shack on theological grounds are probably accounted for by Young’s view of Christ. After all, most of our understanding of God as a whole is rooted firmly in how we perceive Jesus, God come in the flesh. Young explicitly defends the dual nature of Christ – fully God and fully man – though how he flushes this out causes me some serious concerns. However my greatest concerns come with Christ’s portrayal as a humble, gentle handyman. This is probably my biggest bone to pick with the emergent movement in general: their understanding of Jesus Christ doesn’t seem to be informed by any of the New Testament past the gospels. The resurrected, glorified, “Son of God in power,” does not appear in this work. There is one scene in The Shack where Jesus appears as a King, but it’s an aberration in the novel as a whole. I appreciate what the emergents are reacting against – the image of an aloof, transcendent God who, at worst, could crush you with His little finger (and by the way, is probably looking for an excuse to do so, anyway) and at best, is a far cry from the “Daddy” of Jesus’ prayer. But we must maintain God’s holiness and fearfulness even in His familiarity, and we must maintain his might, wrath, and power, even in His intimacy. In justifiably reacting against one extreme, I think that Young swings too far towards the other. In the end, his portrayal of God is not comforting for me; it is too small and too single-faceted.

Young’s very negative views on authority and institutions, as well as his issues with words like “religion” and “Christian” and various “nouns”– which never really rise above the level of anal semantic objections that simply point out the structure and limitations of language rather than offer any real insight – probably stem from this miopic and anemic view of God in The Shack. While his Trintiarianism is not fatal to the book as a whole (he certainly makes some points worth considering) it does lead to some unorthodox – and a times, dangerous – conclusions, such as his suggestion that the Godhead submits to humans even as humans submit to God in our relationship with Him. This is the sort of “God is a gentlemen” and “Love never imposes” theology that has become quite popular lately, but fails to account for the entire revelation of Scripture.

Honestly, I don’t think that a well-read Christian will find anything new in The Shack. Young offers the standard modern church answers to the problem of suffering, such as God can’t end suffering without limiting human freedom, God doesn’t cause suffering, but allows it for good, etc, etc. He’s changed the packaging, but not really the message. And in the end, Mack receives no real answers, but learns to rest in the goodness of God and his inability to understand the answers, anyway. Perhaps the best way to describe The Shack is a kinder, gentler version of the book of Job.

I suppose these are the sorts of issues that one runs into when one decides to put 250 pages worth of words into God’s mouth. That may seem a little harsh. After all, Young isn’t standing on the rooftops, screaming, “Thus saith the Lord!” And yet, I don’t think this is all that unfair of an analogy. If you are going to put words in God’s mouth, you shouldn’t be held to a lesser standard because you do it in a novel. And The Shack is much more polemical than prophetic. Some folks will probably be uncomfortable with The Shack because it doesn’t share the same assumptions about God, life, death, etc as their own system of theology (Indeed a systematic emergent theology sounds a bit like an oxymoron!). These disagreements are fine. At other times The Shack seems unfaithful to the revelation of Scripture. Would I call it heresy? No. I’ve learned from a good friend to reserve the word “heresy” for damnable beliefs. In other words, if you believe this is true about God, then you do not have saving knowledge of Him. (After all, as uncomfortable as it makes us, Scripture offers right beliefs as just as important a test of salvation as ethical behavior or love.) I do not believe that the portrayal of God in The Shack or the theology of The Shack is heretical in this sense. And in the end, there is some real good to be gleaned from reading it.

Thus, I have no problem with Christians reading and discussing The Shack. It raises some very important and difficult questions with which the Church needs to wrestle. There is too much cotton candy preaching and too much sugary-sweet music and literature that is more likely to give a person diabetes than true inspiration. We need books like The Shack to see where the Church is not measuring up, as well as to evaluate the sort of thinking and thinkers that the Christian community is producing. The Shack should be read with discernment, but so should every other Christian author. It just might need a few more grains of salt than usual.


matthew said...

I actually loved The Shack. It didn't sit by my toilet - in fact, I read it in a day. I think the writing could be better, but it wasn't as horrible as he portrays it. I found the thought behind the book engrossing. He raises very good questions and doesn't duck or sneak by tough issues like most do. I think it is excellent to engage and discuss.

There are issues of his theology that I find controvertible, to be sure; however, much of this is a progression to universalism that is honestly heavily influenced upon him by C.S. Lewis (whom he credits as an influence and is obviously a man heralded by the Church). As for God submitting to man, this is an irritant to me or anyone else who strongly affirms the sovereignty of God, but I think it (statements such as love doesn't impose) is fitting within the assumptive theology of the book. I'm not at all saying that it's right, to be clear - I'm merely saying (and I think Gram would agree), that once you identify the influences and assumptions behind the overall theology, you won't be surprised by what you read - it's pretty logically tight, which is refreshing to a degree from the standpoint of a writer's intellectual honesty, but it is not where I necessarily affirm my theological position. There was, however, a chapter that made my eyes roll pretty bad (I believe it was the one where it was stated in some form that all roads lead to salvation), but stuff like this would easily be filtered by a reasonable mature least, I would hope.

It's an excellent read to ponder some really good questions, and it is very encouraging on the ideas of love and forgiveness.

As for Christ - I think it is difficult to accurately portray the fullness of God in any of His persons. Writers have always struggled with this. Heck, people have problems with Biblical authors on this. Thus, I won't go too hard on him for an incomplete portrayal of Christ. Actually, I thought it was very good for the perspective of how he was patiently loving yet instructing with his disciples.

I heartily recommend The Shack.

Danno - have you read it? What did you think?

The Blossers said...

Matt, thank you for your insightful comments.

Yes, I did read the book, but it's been several weeks ago now. I wanted to write a review, but the copy I had was borrowed and had to be returned before I could sit down to document my thoughts.

So, my comments here, unfortunately, will be generalities.

The book is fascinating on a lot of different levels. I think the fact that it was rejected by both the Christian and secular publishers only to sell a million copies after self-publishing is remarkable (but not surprising). There is a huge audience of readers with whom this book is resonating. He's touched a nerve by dealing honestly at a gut level with the problem of pain. A problem that much of the American church is guilty of sugar-coating for far too long as we sing our songs about how happy we are in Jesus while we remain virtual strangers privately dealing with intense pain.

I agree with you, John Gram, and the reviewer from Christianity Today who thinks this is a good launching pad for discussion and is definitely NOT something that should be torched.

Here we have someone brave enough to show us that Trinitarianism really matters when it comes to finding meaningful answers to some of life's most difficult theological problems. Frankly, it's refreshing to find someone showing how these problems are, at the root, essentially theological problems. The relationships of mutual love that he paints in his novel have echos of ancient doctrines, especially emphasized by the Eastern Branch of Christianity.

However, I do not agree with the reviewer from CT who claims that since this book is more about someone's personal story than an academic theological treatise then it should not be critiqued with the same level of scrutiny that we level at said theological treatises. The dichotomy is false. And any writer who attempts to write about God should be fair game to send through Biblical filters (irenically, of course).

But first, a word about its literary qualities (or lack thereof). I think the writing could be A LOT better. I found myself cringing in several places not because of any theological problems, but because of really canned dialogue. As someone who is a bit embarrassed by the lack of artistic quality put out on the market by my brothers and sisters, I had hoped for better sentences. But I will try to keep in mind that this is the freshman project from someone who was not a professional writer, but who claims to have written the book on a whim with many grateful nods to his editors-- and cut him some slack. You said it well that the thought, the idea, the questions and issues are what makes the book resonate and even engrossing.

Theologically, I've never read such a mixed bag. In the same work, I found myself saying, "Yessss" out loud and then shaking my head with a contorted scowl just a few lines later. The frustrating thing is that the book is fairly nuanced to the point of carefully using capital and lowercase letters to make a subtle point. But will later be so intolerably sloppy that you just want to tear the page out (here's where I wish I had some nice examples to document what I mean).

I agree that it's fairly tight if you allow the theological framework. (Though I did find him contradicting himself in a number of places. For example, he spends a lot of time deconstructing hierarchy only to talk about the importance of obedience in the following chapter.) Gram's beef is your own (and mine)--the disagreement comes with our theological positions. Young's god comes off as too small, and is, in my view, ultimately more scary than one who has more control.

I didn't cringe so much with his portrayal of Christ. Gram's point is well made, but your insight as to the contextual situation is also helpful. Biblically, some places Christ is terrifying and in other places very gentle, and a lot of it depends on the situation. I think for victims of abuse, "Fear not" are important words.

I was cringing more in his Trinitarian muddiness when talking about the Atonement. He went to great lengths to buck the "penal substitution" model that has been dominant in the West since Anselm. He argues that the Father cares about suffering by putting scars on Papa's wrists and talking about how the Godhead became man and died on the cross. Here, Young is out of line. I'm fine with saying the Father suffered something. I'm not fine with saying he took on humanity or died.

I was annoyed in other places, some of which are more minor, and probably not worth mentioning here. Your discernment of progression toward universalism (or at least inclusivism) is worth mentioning.

Overall, I'm fairly happy to read it, to talk about it, to recommend it as a talking point. I don't love it. But I do love the idea of it. We need to do a better job of articulating Trinitarian theology to suffering people in compelling and accessible ways.

matthew said...

Very good thoughts. I forgot about the scares on God the Father's wrists. This is difficult to reconcile a seemingly modalist application with the clearly Trinitarian assumption of the book. I need to review the parts on hierarchy and obedience. I think I took it as mutual submission for the Godhead but I do not remember seeing that carried through between God and Man. Here's what I really find interesting and valuable on a whole other level (especially from the perspective of ministering and interacting with other Christians...and non):

I really think this book demonstrates what many, if not most, church-goers really believe. If you take a poll (and we've all seen the ones being done), I think there's massive confusion with the applications of the Trinity:

Do you pray to God the Father, Son, or Spirit? Is the Spirit really inside me? Does Christ really live in a valve inside my heart? Did I just eat and drink the body of Christ? Wait, did God really die on the cross? So did we kill God or part of God? (Then, secondary questions such as did we even kill God or did he choose to release His spirit...and futher implications of this). How did Jesus pray to God...isn't he God? If the Spirit in me, am I Divine? If God is One, then don't the consequences done to one directly effect the other?

Such questions about and thoughts are entirely muddied. How many times have we heard them or seen the assumptions applied... I think the scares on the Father is based on an assumption commonly held but with the beholder probably unable to explain why.

On hierarchy, obedience, free-will, and sovereignty, I think I don't even need to go into what we see of issue in the church on this. The confusion of these issues demonstrates itself in Theology Proper and Soteriology for sure but also in newer issues such as gender roles.

Concerning the trend to inclusivism (as you rightly corrected me), this is what I think polls demonstrate most church-goers believe, if not Christians (I count the two groups as separate).

These three areas of thought (and there are others) in the book stand to give the mature Christian an opportunity to see what the majority of religious think...or at least carry a level of assumption. This is invaluable in out interaction with and basic understanding of those we talk to, both inside and outside the Body.

Mike Netzer said...

To everyone except Matt, my name is Mike Netzer. I am a friend of Matt's. I don't have a lot to contribute to the higher level theological discussion here. You all have thoroughly dissected the theology of The Shack and it's implications. I haven't even read the Shack yet, but I have few thoughts on the nature of the book, based solely off of your comments.

I like to think of everything as a picture or graph, so consider the following. Let's say on a scale of 1 to 100, where 1 represents absolute ignorance about who God is and 100 is a complete, Biblically accurate view of God. Based on your guys' comments, The Shack's view of God is somewhere between around an 80. For a mature Christian (see previous comments), i.e. someone with a well-developed, Biblically-based view of God (90-100 on aforementioned scale), it's easy to discern which parts of The Shack's view of God need to be discarded. Matt has attributed value to The Shack, both in his posts and in discussions I had with him, in that it can take someone who is a 30-40 on the scale and move them up. On this point, I agree with Matt. This book can be a great tool to engage people who wouldn't otherwise consider reading "The Problem of the Nature of God and the Presence of Suffering".

The problem,I think, is what happens to the thousands (maybe millions) of other people who read this book (and others like it), and form their entire view of God based on this material in the absence of some spiritually mature guidance? If these people, by God's grace, get connected into a community of faith, that community is going to have to work very hard to stretch this person's view of God from a 85 to a Biblical 100. I guess what I'm saying is, do books like The Shack sacrifice long term, potentially salvific gains in unbelievers for immediate gratification of seeing someone move from 30 to 40 on the scale? I think it's a real risk. As Christians, we need to vehemently defend anything that can take away from God, Christ, the Bible, the Gospel message, etc. I agree with The Blossers, in that if you enter the spiritual arena, you're subject to Biblically-based scrutiny. There's a reason James says "not many of you should presume to be teachers, because we know that we will be judged more strictly (3:1)." Even if the book isn't marketed specifically as a teaching book, the author is responsible, ultimately, to God for leading people towards or away from God.

The Blossers said...

Matt, you're absolutely right about "mass confusion" related to the Trinity. And the confusing questions you raised are right on (I think I'll steal them and use them as intro questions whenever I get a chance to teach Trinitarianism again).

I personally grew up in a great church and attended a private Christian school for undergrad (and got a Bible minor) and still didn't get properly discipled related to these things until I went to seminary.

I think The Shack is probably more nuanced than your average church attender. Perhaps I'm a bit jaded, but I think most church goers are functional modalists--evidenced most clearly when they consistently thank the Father for dying on the cross.

Mike, your comments are superb. Thanks for contributing. We handle this book differently depending on the person to whom we are recommending it. At bottom, if it doesn't stimulate a follow-up discerning conversation, then it's probably not that helpful in the long run. I'd love to use it in a small group context right after we've spent some time going through basic Trinitarianism as a homework lessen in discernment. I'd also use it with someone who's been burned by Christianity as long as they promise that we can discuss it over coffee.

somehownotsingle said...

Matt, Mike, and Dan: great thoughts, each of you! But more importantly, I wanted to really thank you for the tone of the conversation. I can't tell you how many online conversations I've seen between Christians that have been completely lacking in Christian love and gentleness. It's so encouraging to watch Christians discuss and even disagree while still remaining Christ-like. So, anyway, thanks, brothers! You all were such a blessing to me!

John Gram