By William Paul Young
Where do I start with this book? Its front cover hails it as a new Pilgrim’s Progress, and the back tells us that it is ‘the most heart-warming, inspirational… the most absorbing work of fiction’.
It’s been number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and is being handed out free in a good number of churches; a film is also in the pipeline. So should we be thrilled that a ‘Christian book’ is reaching such a massive audience? Or should we shake our heads because to receive such plaudits the author must surely be compromised?
The Shack tells the story of Mack’s loss of his daughter Missy, his subsequent ‘great sadness’, and return to the shack where she was murdered. There God deals with Mack’s pain, helps him to forgive, heals his past and restores Mack’s relationship with himself. So far so good, you might think. But The Shack is not just a story about a Christian’s experience of God’s grace; the main bulk of this book is a series of conversations, perhaps we might even call them revelations, in which God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, all in human form, speak directly to Mack. That direct representation of the Lord is where the biggest problem lies.
Of course this book is fiction, but that doesn’t negate the fact that W.P. Young has deliberately written a book which puts words into God’s mouth, extraordinary words at that. When researching this article my breath was taken away by this paragraph on Young’s blog, a response to a rather gushing post in the form of a prayer: ‘As We watched and heard and saw the oozing out on paper of Our love and joy and laughter; Our power and delight, Our mercy and grace and Our overall creativity, We were delighted with the substance of the text. …. Knowing Me is the goal. Paul [Young] knows Me. Better still, I know Paul, and I have trusted him enough to reveal a little of Myself to him.’
So Young has got not just Eugene Peterson or J. John to give a testimonial, but God himself, and clearly Young is his amanuensis. This is significantly different from misinterpreting Scripture in a commentary or describing dubious experiences in an autobiography or using an allegory to explain some rather wonky theology. To represent God in the way that Young has done is a form of idolatry; it is a recreation of God.
It is a relief to me that this book is not well written. The story, affecting though it is, is so clearly a vehicle for the theological arguments that the characters are unconvincing and the dialogue very stilted. Even the depictions of the Trinity I felt were stereotypical. God the Father is, at the outset, a laughing African-American woman who is very keen on baking (a stereotype of caring competence?), while the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman who seems to hover above the ground (a pretty common idea of someone ‘spiritual’?). The weakness of the writing is a relief because I hope fewer people will find it appealing, though I have been surprised by the uptake among some shrewd friends of mine. It seems that the emotive subject can lead some to remove their discernment as they begin to identify with the characters.
Is suffering unanswerable?
And this, I think, is intentional. This is a book for our Western age, one in which suffering seems to be the trump card; our friends ask, ‘How can God allow suffering?’ and we stutter.
So the book seeks to give us and our friends palatable half-truths to answer the unanswerable, which, of course, accounts for its great popularity. There are some wonderful doctrines clearly explained here: the relational nature of the Trinity, the nature of Heaven, and the satisfaction of God, for example. However, these can cause the reader to overlook the blatant untruths. Young’s God is about relationship, not judgment. His God is in control enough to have a plan for your life, but not in control enough ever to plan suffering for your good. The cross is about reconciliation, but not punishment. Young’s God brings freedom, but not service. This God is known only through Jesus, but Jesus communicates through all religions.
Caring but undemanding
Now some I know will say that the half-truths are bearable because at least the readers, Christian or non-Christian, are being forced to think about and question their prejudices. A friend of mine has given copies of this book to all the backslidden members of her old youth group. I’m challenged by her commitment to them, and, yes, they are probably more likely to read The Shack than the Bible, but I think her enthusiasm is misguided. The Shack may well confirm their comfortable beliefs about a God who is caring but undemanding. They may be moved to tears, but are unlikely to be convicted of sin.
John’s Gospel is far more powerful, relevant and moving than this book. If we take our friends and our hearts to God’s word and let it strike and challenge us, if we lay ourselves bare in prayer before the Lord, then he can challenge our friends and mature us in ways this book cannot hope to do.