Saturday, March 14, 2009

“The Shack”: My Comments

If you’ve not heard of “The Shack”, a book by William P. Young, I’d simply like to invite you to do so. But quite possibly, you've not only heard about it but have probably read it as well. If you haven’t, I hope you will.

Let me just say at the outset that I read this book mostly on the recommendation of many in my parish, and being the kind of pastor that wants to be in touch with is people I did so. And let me add that I enjoyed it. It is a fiction, folks! Much in the same way the Chronicles of Narnia or the “Space Trilogy” of C. S. Lewis are fiction, but deal with theological issues. I thought Young did a very good job, with one or two reservations.

Let me also say that if you’ve not read the book and intend to, the following is not meant to be a “spoiler” for you (if it is my apologies) but rather incentive to read it for yourself.

What the book is about:
More than anything else this book is about (“Mack”) one man’s experience with God in dealing with the tragic loss of his daughter (“Missy”) and how he allows God to deal with his inner pain. The book makes the following points: God loves you, God cares for you, God is with you at all times, and that God deals gently but firmly with us to grow us into deeper relationship with Him. (If that spoils the book for you, again my apologies!)

Some problems some may have…
Some may have some problems that I didn’t have – and that is in dealing with a “feminine” side of God. God the Father is initially portrayed as a large, African-American woman, which reminded me of an old joke about a man who returns from death. A friend asks, “Did you see God?” “Yes, I did,” he replies. “Well, what did He look like?” “Well,” he began, “first of all, She’s black…” When dealing with the Trinity, Jesus is male (of course) and the Holy Spirit is a “wispy” sort of female. All of this feminine stuff may strike those of “traditional understanding” a bit hard to take – but not me. This is not a “chick-book” by any means. Young does a very good job of arguing that God is BOTH male and female in nature AS the Creator of both genders(which is absolutely true!); and that God appears to “Mack” in the way best that he would relate at the moment. That the Holy Spirit is “feminine” comes from the reality that the Hebrew word for “spirit” or “wind” (ruach) is a feminine noun. So…okay; it was a choice. For those bothered by that, read the book. God the Father does indeed show up as a male “Father” but you’ll get to that part. And while referring to the Holy Spirit as “She” is a somewhat “trendy” thing, it is really NOT an issue as the story unfolds. For those worried about that, there is NO “Mother Goddess” stuff to be found or encouraged – and that’s the main reason I didn’t have a problem with it.

Some moments I really liked in The Shack:
The Garden:
At one point the Holy Spirit takes Mack to a “garden” where he is to assist the Holy Spirit in some pruning, weeding, and planting. Mack takes a look at it and is surprised. “It’s a mess!” he says, to which the HS is enormously – and surprisingly – pleased (you’ll find out why later). But what I got immediately was when the HS describes “her” love of gardens and Creation as “fractals.” Now, I’m an Engineer by college degree and have a certain love of Mathematics. Fractals are mathematical BUT I’m not sure everybody understood that imagery. If that blew by you too, go here ( ) and you will see the kind of beauty that the HS is talking about.

The Cave of Judgment:
Here Mack meets God’s Wisdom personified as “Sophia” and I have to say this is one of the best and most accurate descriptions of Sophia that I’ve read recently. And here is where those of us with “traditional Christian understandings” will be most gratified. Sophia is NOT the “mother goddess” so prevalent in feminist theology – and she very clearly says so! What happens very powerfully is that Mack is offered the opportunity to “judge” God! And clearly he has “issues” with that – especially after what he’s gone through with the violent loss of his daughter. Mack moves from seeing things “his way” to “God’s way.” A very helpful thing for all of us. Here is also where he truly finds out that his dead daughter is really and actually OK and in the presence of Jesus!

The Demonstration of the Trinity:
I was actually very impressed with how Young dealt with each “Person” of the Trinity and how well that fit together. As a theologian, I was somewhat concerned at the beginning that he was digressing into what is referred to as “Modalism” (an heretical belief that the Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son and Holy Spirit are different modes or aspects of one God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three distinct persons in God Himself – see also here: But Young navigates through that very well as the distinct “personalities” of God show through each of the Persons of the Trinity. This was possibly his hardest task to deal with to make this book acceptable to Christians and not delve into Mormon theology of “three distinct and separate gods.” (A very good thing) Young seems to draw upon C. S. Lewis’ perspectives that the Trinity is all about a relationship of love (See Mere Christianity by Lewis) and of anything else is more “circular” rather than hierarchical. All in all a good rendition.

The “Celebration”:
At one point Mack is gifted to “see” Creation and Heaven as “God sees.” Again tying to Lewis, this is very similar to how he describes the “real world” as opposed to the “shadow world” in The Last Battle. And, one can see also the influence of the “myriads of myriads” who worship God from every nation and language found in the Revelation to John. So, it is very biblical and it works well.

The image of “Paradise”:
Actually what the book describes is Mack’s own experience of Paradise rather than Heaven. Mack is clearly NOT in Heaven but his daughter Missy is! The two are separated. This might create a problem for those who hold to Calvinistic theology which says that when you die – if you are a true believer – you go straight to heaven. If not, well… you know. The idea of a “Paradise” (promised to the repentant thief on the cross) has become in Anglican Theology (although rarely really talked about) what is known in Roman Catholic Theology the idea of “Purgatory.” Paradise is where we are in the presence of God to be prepared for entrance into heaven; that is, in other words, a place in God’s presence where we can be healed of our own hurts and conditions, to forgive those we need to, and to come into a right relationship with God and others. What we read in The Shack is the process Mack goes through – in this life – to prepare him for the next. I think the general consensus from those who have read the book would say they would love to have this kind of experience with God. In reality, this is what Anglican’s really believe will happen – perhaps not in this life but in the next. Just because we die in the Lord doesn’t mean that we don’t have “healing” that only God can do before we are ready to enter heaven. Lewis put it this way (and I wish I could remember where he said this): He said something like, the idea of a “purgatory” (no matter how blissful) is still something we demand. Imagine you've been playing outside in the yard when the “Master” comes and says, “The Feast is ready! Come to the table!” And we say, “Yes indeed, but may I wash up first?” You see, we all have that “stuff” that needs to be dealt with first – and God does that in Paradise.

Some problems I had theologically with The Shack:
Okay, there are a few problems I had but they are not insurmountable.

First, I would say that (in the book) “God” is a bit too critical of the “institutional church.” Without doubt there is MUCH to be critical of!!! The Church, as an “institution” is full of flawed people who bring their flaws into the mix. And therefore, just like many do, Young finds “the Church” as an easy target. Thankfully, Young doesn’t attack the Church the way Dan Brown does in both The DaVinci Code or in Angels and Demons (soon to be released in the theatres). In The Shack Jesus is clearly in love with “his Bride” : the Church and dreams wistfully of the day when “the Church” will be presented. But in other places, God (the “Father”) includes the Church and its “rules” as man’s need to create systems of “control.” Well, I must say, yes and no. Certainly one can see there are those who see the Church through those eyes, but I don’t agree with that take completely. Remember it is through the Church that we ought to be about establishing right relationships with God and each other. That’s what happens in the best of cases through the Church. (And I’m not lifting one denomination above another.)

Second, I’m not convinced that Young deals with the concept of Justice as well as he could have. He is very clear about indicating that we MUST forgive even the most horrendous of sins against us. (Remember that the most dangerous word in the Lord’s prayer is the word “as”! “forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”) But the Bible, especially the Psalms and OT are FULL of the cries for “Justice” and that God will indeed punish the wicked. Young avoids the error of supporting Universalism when at least at one point God says the choice to live in a right relationship with Him rests solely with us.

Third, Young didn’t deal with the existence of Satan and his influences at all. With the personification of Wisdom as Sophia, clearly there was room for Young to describe the reality that Evil also has a “personality.” He didn’t need to go into a sort of, “The Devil made me do it,” approach; but Young could have strengthened the whole Cave of Judgment experience by identifying Satan as “the Accuser.” (Which he is.)

Fourth, Young makes the point that the “sin of Adam” was in seeking his own “independence” from God. While this is true – in fact very true – sin is more than that for us! The purpose of the Ten Commandments is – as Young presents – a “mirror” to reflect how we do not live in relationship with God. How these ideas square the murder of a little girl didn’t fully work for me. But you should judge for yourself. I did very much appreciate that while not very strong on the concept of “sin” Young was very strong and powerful when he shares in the story about Jesus’ act of Atonement on the Cross! This was well done!

Well, there are some of my thoughts. The Shack is indeed well worth the time to read and is accessible for almost any level of reader. As I said above, I don’t think the “problems” I had with the book are any reason not to read it. More than anything else, I hope this book will open up conversations among the faithful and non-believers alike.

Blessings and Peace in Jesus Christ to all!

John Riebe+

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sad But True...

The US has discovered a new weapon that destroys people but saves the buildings...
... It's called, "The Episcopal Church."

How sad... but true.