Relishing the Trinitarian Dynamic – passing time in THE SHACK
How on earth do you articulate what it is like to know God? I’m not just referring to knowledge about God – but knowledge of God. And I mean, really articulate it? Preachers are quick to remind us it’s all about relationship not religion, and rightly so. But what does that actually mean? We all know what we think it means, but what about in practice, in reality, in everyday life?
One problem is that God is God. That sounds dumb, but it’s one of the great Godness things about God that he is beyond us, beyond the finite. But because we are not, everything we say about him is going to be limited to some degree by our human limitations – we are finite creatures whose very language is confined by our existence, not his. We simply do not have the words to encompass an infinite God, let alone describe the experience of knowing him. But that does not mean our words are pointless or empty. They can still paint pictures and evoke reality.
Of course, our predicament is transformed when God himself gives us the vocabulary. He alone can bridge the chasm between the infinite and finite. And that is what the Bible essentially is. He speaks in words that are both intelligible to us and that articulate divine reality; and the glory of the Incarnation is that God does this to perfection. By accommodating himself to our level, Christ made the invisible visible, the remote tangible and the infinite finite. So when we relate to human friends, we have intimations of our relationship with our divine friend.
And that I think is partly what’s going on in William Young’s THE SHACK. This book brings this divine relationship into breathtakingly vivid reality by bringing God the Trinity right down to earth in human relationships. That’s a pretty daring thing to do; some would say it’s even dangerous. For while that is precisely what the Incarnation of the 2nd person does, it’s quite another thing to do this for the Trinity as a whole. So it’s fair to say that I’ve never read anything quite like this book. And despite some personal quibbles and John Crace’s cynical and bolshie precis in The Guardian, I still think it’s hugely helpful and lendable.
Eating with God?
Without giving too much away (though inevitably there’s the odd small plot spoilers), a man called Mack (beset still by his ‘Great Sadness’) encounters the Trinitarian God in a disused shack in the Oregon wilderness. 4 years before in that very shack, Mack’s 5-year old daughter Missy had been abducted and probably killed. As the result of a weird letter, Mack returns and spends an extraordinary weekend with God. There they are, all 4 of them, chatting, laughing and eating round the kitchen table! Mack + Father, Son & Holy Spirit. It is utterly captivating. Mack, the flawed, agonized and uncomprehending man, is drawn into the wonderful dynamic of divine love. And where better to do this than over a meal.
This has clear biblical precedent. Some of the disciples’ most life-changing encounters with Jesus happened over food (eg Jesus’ anointing by the ‘sinful woman’, Zacchaeus, the Last Supper, the post-Resurrection beach BBQ). And heaven is frequently alluded to as a (wedding) feast (Isaiah 55, Matt 22, Rev 19). And The Shack’s kitchen scenes powerfully evoked in my mind an extraordinary painting.
Andrei Rublev was probably the greatest ever icon painter. Very little is known about his life in a 15th Century Moscow monastery, but some of his images have become, well, iconic. Perhaps the most famous is this one here. It’s a depiction of Abraham’s 3 angelic visitors at Mamre in Genesis 18 – Abraham shares a meal with these mysterious guests – and throughout Christian history, this has been taken by some to be an illustration / metaphor / pointer to the relationship we have with the Trinitarian God. Notice how in the picture, each figure sits humbly bowed towards another, and how there is a gap at the front, space enough for the viewer to join the table.
Whether or not this is primarily or precisely what Gen 18 is on about, Rublev points us to truth. And so does The Shack.
Why The Shack Sticks in the Mind
But of course this is extremely risky ground. Words are placed in the mouths of each member of the Trinity, and each person is given some sort of form. Nothing in the narrative fits exactly with what one would expect. Which is where its power lies. For every chapter makes you THINK – about what you really believe and why, about what is actually biblical as opposed to what is culturally assumed.
Heresy hunters will assume this book offers them a field-day (and the fact that it reached the New York Times bestseller list will only confirm their worst fears). And there are certainly questions about the book (to which i’ll return) and it doesn’t always avoid elements of American schmaltz. But this is fictional narrative, don’t forget, and i did feel it was right more often than it was wrong. It confronts, without trite or easy answers, the biggest theological problem for the contemporary mind: divine goodness and human suffering.
Mack’s suffering is every parent’s nightmare, particularly close to the bone after the media-frenzied horror of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. But as Mack is drawn back to God by the most sparkling intimacy and joy, so are we. This book is truly a tonic for a tired, cynical and faithless believer (which describes me more often than I’d like). In the course of its affecting narrative, biblical realities come across strongly:
- The Persons of the Trinity are in constant, dynamic relationship, which is one of profound mutual love and commitment. It is a love that draws in and never excludes. And as Mack is drawn in, so are we.
- But most importantly, God’s Sovereignty is fundamental throughout the book – even in the face of terrible circumstances. And strikingly, the love of God is what underpins this sovereignty. This is a truth that seems in short supply in too many believers’ theology matrix.
- Mack’s reaction to his daughter’s disappearance is not so much to reject God’s sovereignty but his goodness. He finds it impossible to trust him. This is a book about having that trust renewed – and it is fascinating how the book shows Jesus being the one that Mack most easily relates to initially, because of his shared humanity. But because of that, he is drawn to the others. It is all about knowing him – not about being religious.
- At times, the book might appear universalist (not least because of how the Holy Spirit is initially described) and hardly seems to mention the atonement – but these fears are eventually allayed. While not spelled out, the wonder of what Jesus is and has done underpins everything.
But there are still some Eyebrow-raisers
- The Father is initially encountered as an African American woman – John Crace’s precis bitingly assumes that this is because it is written by an American liberal (but at least’s she’s American, he states). At first all one’s theological hackles are raised by this theological outrage (!)- but as the book goes on, it seems to me to be fully justified and explained, if one would just give it the initial benefit of the doubt. If she reminded me of anyone, it was the Oracle in the Matrix movies.
- A bit more worrying are the marks of the cross (stigmata) on the Father’s body. Is this verging uncomfortably close to the old heresy of Patripassionism which states that the Father himself suffers on the cross. If the point is simply that the Father is fully committed to the Son’s mission to make atonement on the cross (in defence against the charge of Chalke et al of cosmic child abuse – see my previous article on the Atonement) then fair enough, I suppose.
- Where does the church fit? Religion and institutions are in the book’s firing line, and rightly so, because in themselves, they always fail to help a person in the face of pain. But the book could have done more to show how God’s intention is to build a community through which he can work and dwell on earth.
- But my biggest concern in all this is the almost total omission of the doctrine of God’s holiness. It seems to fall into the classic error of assuming that divine love/forgiveness and divine holiness are mutually exclusive – and of course, we all know which one we’d prefer. This is to miss the fundamental coherence between the two brought about by the cross. And from an apologetic point of view in a suffering world, divine holiness is essential.
But why it’s worth reading
The bottom line, though, is that this book makes us want to know God better and deeper – or to be more precise, to know the Trinitarian God revealed through Christ, and as a result, to trust him in the face of whatever life flings at us. How many other best-selling novels do that? And I think that this is probably what lies behind Eugene Peterson’s rather over-blown endorsement:
When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!
Well, it’s nothing like the biblical, allegorical genius of Bunyan – but it IS a book to deepen faith that is getting a much wider airing than most Christian books. So read it and make your own mind up.