Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Shack and the Transcedence of God

I recently read William Young’s The Shack. For a book with an initial marketing budget of only $300, its success has been nothing short of remarkable. It’s currently number one on the New York Times best seller’s list, and has gained a wide readership in the evangelical community. It’s endorsed by Michael W. Smith, and Eugene Peterson, among others.

The story opens with the abduction and brutal murder of “Mac’s” seven year old daughter. Four years later, Mac is invited by God to join him at the shack where his daughter’s murder was discovered. Mac accepts the invitation, and the remainder of the book is Mac’s experience with God at the shack. The book is essentially Young’s theodicy wrapped in a narrative. Young (consciously or not) follows Dostoevsky in tackling perhaps one of the greatest questions in theodicy—the suffering of children.

Young’s book has not been without controversy. Perhaps most immediately jarring is his portrayal of God the Father as a large African American woman, and the Holy Spirit as an ethereal and diminutive Asian woman. (Jesus, mercifully, remains a Jewish handyman.) I’ve already made comments elsewhere about gender and the nature of God, so I need not belabor that point here.

Young’s decision to portray God in mostly feminine categories has relevance to a wider “anti-power” motif woven throughout the book. Young, in casting God in female terms, distances God from a sense of tyranny and dominance—a sense more often associated with males than females. Young’s agenda is not unique. Those toward the theological left tend to be suspicious of power, viewing it as oppressive and brutalizing. The emergence of egalitarianism within the church and home, and the movement toward decentralized church leadership structures are symptomatic of this shift. Hierarchy, we are often told, leads to oppression. At one point, Mac asks God which of the three members of the Trinity is in charge of the others. The three are aghast at the thought. “What you are seeing here,” the Holy Spirit informs him, “is a relationship without any overlay of power….Authority, as you usually think of it, is merely the excuse the strong uses to make others conform to what they want.” Power, Young argues at various points, is inherently corrupting and oppressive.

The net result is a God who rejects—indeed is repulsed by—the use of power. (In one scene God picks up a gun between two fingers, holding it at arms lengths as though it were a dead mouse). Young’s God never coerces, never forces; He believes the best in everyone, is enduringly patient, and invincibly good-natured. For Young, love cannot be love if it is not freely offered and freely received. Power equals dominance, and if God dominates us he cannot love us, nor can we freely love him.

There are two fundamental difficulties I have with Young’s “anti-power” motif. First, Young’s portrayal of God is out of step with much of the way God is portrayed in Scripture. It’s difficult to square Young’s pacifistic Trinitarian portrayal with the God of Genesis 6, the Christ of Revelation 19, and the Holy Spirit of Acts 5. And it’s at this point that Young’s theodicy falls short. The Scripture doesn’t allow us to distance God from violence and coercion. The deeper question of theodicy is not simply how a good God can allow death and destruction, but how a good God can cause death and destruction. Young’s book assumes the happiness of humanity is the highest good. The Bible does not affirm this. Simply put, God is not “for” everyone to the same degree, or in the same way. (Aquinas called this the “principle of predilection—the idea that “no created being would be better than another unless it were loved more by God.”) Those committed to the biblical narrative must wrestle with the (unsettling) reality of a God who does not love everyone equally, and who has personally brought about the death of women and children. On this question, Young’s book is silent.

Secondly, Young’s conflation of power and abuse is not accurate. The former does not automatically equate to the latter. The answer to the abuse of power is not the elimination of power, but rather the proper use of power. God is unquestionably a God of power. Young would agree with this, I’m sure, but Young seems to chafe against any idea that God would actually use his power to bring about his ends. But God does, and often. Further, the love of God is only as meaningful as the power that animates it. A God neutered of power is a God who lacks the capacity to love. Or again, the warmth of God’s imminence is only as meaningful as the height of his transcendence. Young’s portrayal of God, unlike the God of the whirlwind, lacks any sense of transcendence.

Young comes closest to a biblical theodicy toward the end of the book. In a scene reminiscent of Job, Mac is offered the chance to sit as judge over both God and the world. With appropriate terror, Mac realizes just how little qualified he is to take God’s place as sovereign judge. This is perhaps the strongest part of Young’s book, but unfortunately, it remains largely out of step with much that is written elsewhere. The difference between the theodicy of Job and the theodicy found in Young is typical of the Calvinist/Arminian divide. Job comes to peace in the midst of his pain when he finally submits to God’s sovereign right to act as God in whatever way he deems, even if that means the destruction of Job’s livelihood and family. Conversely, Mac comes to peace when he realizes that God really is a nice guy after all, and that all that stuff about him being angry and wrathful was a gross mischaracterization. The latter is perhaps the quickest and most palatable pathway to peace; but in the end, it sugarcoats the harder issues and lacks a true biblical foundation.

So how should we as pastors respond to this book? It’s obvious Young’s book has struck a chord with the culture at large, and the evangelical culture not least. It’s clear the people in our churches crave an immanent God—one who understands our needs, our weaknesses, and who is able to identify with us in our fragile human existence. And indeed the Word Incarnate is the Father’s way of whispering tenderly in our ear. In Christ, the transcendent God draws near to us in flesh and bone. He walks our paths and feels our pain. The desire for a God of compassion and tenderness is legitimate, and we do well to ask why such a deficit might exist in our churches. Have we failed to communicate properly the deep love that God has for his children? Perhaps. But if we have, Young’s book is not the best corrective. Young, in an attempt to wipe the blood off of God’s hands, ends up diminishing the transcendence and power of God. The best way to correct an unbalanced view of God is not by introducing an opposing unbalanced view of God.

Yet at the same time, we need to be sensitive to the ways in which God is working in the lives of those who have profited by reading Young’s book. I spoke with a man at my church whose view of God was positively corrected by reading The Shack. Prior to reading the book, the man had viewed God as a stern and uncompromising task-master—a God impossible to please, a God who told you he loved you with a scowl on his face. For this man, Young’s over-compensated portrayal of God’s imminence brought a necessary corrective, allowing him to believe in a God who cared about the needs of his children, and whose love was genuine. God, in his sovereign mercy, often chooses to use less than ideal means (such as myself!) to communicate his truth. So there’s wisdom in being sensitive and tactful in our criticism when talking to those who have read the book with profit. God may have used the unbalanced portrayal found in Young’s book to bring about a balanced portrayal in the life of those who read it. The net effect is a balanced view of God that does not truly reflect Young’s unbalanced portrayal. If we are not tactful in our criticism, we can be misunderstood as critiquing this new-found view of God, rather than critiquing Young’s unbalanced portrayal. Without endorsing the book, perhaps it is best in such instances to simply affirm the positive ways in which God has used it, while gently pointing out its deficits.

At the end of the day, this is not a book I will recommend. For those who need a theodicy wrapped in a narrative, a work such as Lewis’ Till We Have Faces is the better, even if more difficult, way forward.


George said...

Well, sir, I am happy you reviewed the book, and happy that you have done so now. I am reading the book and find it both entertaining and useful.

Is it perfect? No, it isn't. But then, what is? As I read along, I thought the author is in some ways like a pastor, showing us another picture of God. Does any pastor preach a perfectly accurate sermon? Probably not. Does that doom the message? Certainly not.

Of course some issues pop up in The Shack. Despite God's discomfort with handling the gun, Jesus has no problem with hooking trout. OK, that's seemingly inconsistent but reconcilable, I suppose. But really, does it matter? So God is portrayed as a woman: the author explained why, and that explanation is consistent with why Jesus incarnated as a man. Is gender all that important to your theology?

I do agree that the matter of God's wrath prior to incarnation and the matter of end-times judgment was not addressed. Every matter was not covered. But what it did address, it addressed pretty well.

If we expected every teaching to be perfect, what church would you attend?

Bradley said...


I love your balanced review. I'm very glad you said some positive things about the book. Not many are, and I think this is a mistake.

I am going to link your review on my blog.