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August 28, 2008

15

Relishing the Trinitarian Dynamic – passing time in THE SHACK

by quaesitor

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.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Aug 29 2008

    Yeah, the biggest reason that the Trinity is so down to earth is that Young believes that Jesus has never used his deity ever since the time of His birth in the stable in Bethlehem. You can read his comments at
    http://theshackbook.com/discuss/index.php?topic=25.msg93#msg93

    In case he takes it down soon though, here is the quote in full.

    “Hi guys,

    I believe the crux of this question has two elements: First, Jesus came to live a truly and fully human life. The book of Hebrews describes him as the first one to do this to the utmost, fully and completely. The human life was created to be dependent upon a union with God, and a life of faith. Jesus constantly said things like, “…I don’t do anything unless I see the Father doing it…I don’t say anything unless I hear the Father say it…I do nothing of my own initiative.” The second element is this: if Jesus drew occasionally upon his ‘God’ capabilities, then how could he qualify as my representative and substitute, let alone model a dependent human life – I can’t do that? He would have ceased being a truly human sacrifice.

    Again, I believe the temptations in the wilderness were in part a temptation to move from dependence upon “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” to independent power, from the uncertainty of trust to the seeming certainty of control.

    So when Jesus talks about ‘…the works that I do’, it is spoken within the context and understanding of his absolute dependent life on the indwelling Father/Spirit, and that now we are invited into that same union in the same helpless dependence. (Read John 14-16 and watch for who is dwelling in whom).

    I am personally convinced that Jesus was born, lived, died, was raised and now reigns as a fully human being, and has not drawn upon his deity ever in that process.

    Hope that helps,
    ‘Willie'”

    Reply
  2. Aug 29 2008

    It sounds like pretty good book. I’ll add it to my to read list.

    Reply
  3. David Lock
    Aug 29 2008

    Hi Mark
    Thanks for your review of the Shack. It is not perfect, but I was deeply moved by it when I read it. It was as if I felt I was in the presence of God and found myself wanting to be more Godly. I don’t know if that is complete subjectivism but it was a good place for me to be. I found the marks on Papa very interesting. It made me think about what Jesus on the cross meant for the Father–it must have broken his heart.

    Reply
  4. Aug 29 2008

    Hmmmm… not sure whether I’m convinced! I know the only way to tell will be reading for myself. A couple of people (Challies, for example) have absolutely panned the book. Have you seen their reviews?

    In the meantime, if anyone’s interested in Trinitarian theology, check out Mike Reeves’ four introductory talks on this subject on Theology Network: http://theologynetwork.org/christian-beliefs/doctrine-of-god

    Cheers,
    Dan

    Reply
  5. Aug 29 2008

    How interesting, I presumed you’d pan it, and now I’m intrigued enough to bother to read it.

    Reply
  6. Aug 29 2008

    Hi all
    Thanks for speedy comments.

    Thanks to WatcherOnTheWall – i’d not seen that quote from the author – and have to say that I find those comments bizarre if not decidedly unhelpful – though they do go some way to explaining one or two smaller motifs in the book.

    I suppose i knew that many would find the book inaccurate from a systematic theological perspective. But I think this is why it is key to remember that it is fiction.

    Perhaps we should see it as an extended sermon illustration – all sermon illustrations have their flaws, especially when seeking to point us to God (again see my cross article mentioned above). But if we rejected EVERY illustration with a flaw we would never use them. And as long as we are clear and explicit about their limitations, they have a place. I hope i’ve at least pointed to both this book’s place and its clear limitations.

    My hope though is that people have a generosity of spirit when they read it – and look for what is helpful as much as they look for what is not. For i was certainly encouraged and challenged greatly by reading it.

    But perhaps it is all because i’m getting middle aged and have more battles and hang-ups than I can count!

    Reply
  7. Aug 30 2008

    I haven’t read the Shack, but for recently published Christian fiction that deals with God’s sovereignty and goodness in a world of suffering, the meaning of grace, the effects of Christ’s death and the dangers of subtle evil, try “The Infinite Day” by Chris Walley (published by Tyndale House), the third part of an excellent trilogy. From the bits of the Shack I’ve read through, this trilogy seems better written and without the problems the Shack has, even though it’s still fiction! I’ve learnt much from these books!

    I will however be like a good journalist and admit my bias – the author is my uncle. Everyone I’ve recommended it to has loved it though.

    Reply
  8. skyescatterbrain
    Aug 30 2008

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for these helpful comments. I have recently enjoyed The Shack too and although not capable of the level of theological analysis you so helpfully give, I agree with your bottom-line of it being ‘more helpful than unhelpful’. I just listened to an interview with the author on http://www.772.org in which he says that he’s been told of Christians who have been given the book by unbelieving friends excited to get them to read it! Lots to discuss and weigh up but surely better it’s out there and stirring up that kind of discussion…?

    Reply
  9. skyescatterbrain
    Aug 30 2008

    Oops, that’s meant to be 722.org, sorry!

    Reply
  10. Sep 1 2008

    You might want to check how your matrix image displays…

    Reply
  11. Jeremy
    Sep 3 2008

    Thanks Mark for the review, and thanks for not “panning” as I’m sure I would have been tempted to do. Made me think.

    Of course, nothing is perfect so we should distill everything we take in, secular or not.

    I have not read the book, I’ll admit that, and maybe I should. My concern is that, fiction or no, there are some serious issues about the nature of God raised in this book.

    When I read that God the Father is a “she” and that Christ was not “fully God” (see above) and that the father and the son were not separated on the cross, alarm bells start ringing.

    The question is, when there are defects such as these, to what extent should we encourage people to read it when clearly some levels of discernment are needed to distill what is true from what is blatantly not.

    Like I say I have not read it, so am limited in what I can say, but the minute I see God portrayed as a “she” i personally feel that I’ve got better things to read.

    Must we not exercise discernment over what we even attempt to read? When Driscoll was asked “should I read this book?” His answer was simple. “Dont”.

    Reply
  12. SpOOky
    Dec 24 2010

    Thanks Mark for your review. 
    I read the book sometime ago, at the time I was a very young Christian (though not young in years) I found the book very helpful in helping me understand how God can allow suffering and yet still be a God of love, I also found it helpful in relating to Three persons Yet One God.
    I read the book without any hang ups or prejudice and I found it very enjoyable & even helpful; I can say that God the father being represented as a black women was not a problem for me I felt it showed Gods willingness to come to us were we are at, to bring us into relationship with him, I thought that Macs encounter with God as a woman showed a kindness to Mac .. I just figured that what Mac needed at that time was a motherly love, God was reaching out to help Mac through something very difficult& painful and that needed a motherly figure.
    Even though the way God appears to Mac in this book is female, the name always reminds us that God is a Father.
    Certainly I didn’t come away from the book thinking God was a Woman or that we could just package God any way we choose, I was always aware that I was reading a Story book not the bible.
    Anyway personally I found it very helpful at the time I read it and in some way I felt that like Mac: I to had spent some time with God, and It warmed my heart.
    Overall I think this book are much more about relationship and is meant to be read with a focus on Mac and his suffering & his broken relationship with God and How God deals with Macs pain.
    if you choose to focus on how the Trinity are presented then certainly you will find problems-and you may well miss out on what this book can offer – Insight into the Warmth & Love of God.

    Just my humble opinion, I’m still quite a young Christian so please forgive my ignorance but I do believe that it is Gods spirit that reveals truth to us, and so we don’t need to be so afraid of fictional writings such as The Shack.

    Reply
  13. Ron Wilson
    Sep 12 2014

    So you have read The Shack by Paul Young. Have you read the follow-up The Shack Revisited by theologian C. Baxter Kruger, a friend of Paul Young? I enjoyed both books. Kruger helps us explore and understand the deeper meaning of the Trinity; the intricate concept of God in three persons and our relationship to him.

    I finished The Shack Revisited with a tremendous desire to crawl into the loving relationship within the Trinity and stay there forever. That would be heaven for me, although I fully expect to equally enjoy “the age to come;” the new heaven and earth promised in the Scriptures.

    Reply

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