A brief review by Rick Booye
The theological novel, The Shack, by William (Paul) Young, is still making the rounds and causing sometimes heated discussion for a simple reason—it imagines God’s personal identity in a way nobody would guess by studying the Bible. This means that despite disclaimers, Paul Young is saying something theological to his readers. A novel in which people talk to God, who is personified in the plot as an actual player in the story, is saying something about who God is. That is theology and it carries an implicit claim to authority, a challenge if you will, whether the author admits it or not. In other words, it’s not just a story.
In The Shack, Young essentially “incarnates” the Father and the Spirit, not to mention the mysterious “Sophia” figure (all as women, interestingly) as they interact with a grieving man (Mack). The God/gender thing bothers people. It is true that God has no gender in the human sense of that term. In order to have gender one must have a human body, whereas God is pure spirit. So both feminine and masculine traits are present in God. He created male and female both in His image and together they represent his life. On the other hand, we need to be careful to represent him in the way he represents himself in Scripture or we run the risk of violating something very important—the second commandment—which forbids us to create anything physical to visually represent him. In Scripture the Lord uses masculine imagery and pronouns to describe himself and we should, too. But he specifically tells us not to imagine or make any image of him. The reason is that God was intending to become human in one man—Christ—who would be the one and only “image” of God that we should focus on (John 1:1-18; 14:6-11; Heb.1:1-3). So, when we “imagine” God, we should do so by thinking of Jesus Christ. By portraying the Father (‘Papa’ he/she is called in The Shack) as a great, jolly black Mom and the Holy Spirit as a diminutive Asian woman, Young deliberately tweaks the biblical revelation of who God is. The “tweaking” is not simply about gender, however. It is about the “incarnational” issue.
The problem is not that we should not imagine God as a woman; it is that we should not imagine him as a human. In our efforts to think of the Lord in “more” personal terms we need to stop “re-imagining” God the Father and the Holy Spirit as humans. The same problem presents when Morgan Freeman appears as God in the movie Bruce Almighty, (Universal Pictures, 2003) or George Burns portrays the cigar smoking deity in Oh God! (Warner Brothers Pictures 1977). Even Michelangelo’s imagery on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel makes God look like an old man (albeit a pretty buff old man). Yes, these stories and images try to get us to relate to God personally, but they are completely wrongheaded (not least because many of them have nothing to do with the gospel or Christ). God is a Person with a Name and has become a human in Christ. These fictional portrayals of God imply that people can relate to him without Jesus Christ, which is the opposite of the gospel. (None of the “God” movies include Jesus as the incarnation of God, the only way to relate to God on a personal level; and even in The Shack Mack meets Christ only after he meets “Papa.”)
Something else that bothers me about The Shack is the fact that the gospel is not highlighted (it is sort of footnoted) and Jesus isn’t the main figure, the cosmic, sacrificial, world-changing hero, as the New Testament presents him. In the Bible the gospel is the astounding good news that God became human in Jesus Christ, who is the real star of the show. He is the divine/human Lord of the universe, the one and only material image of God, who died and rose and will return, and who right now rules the entire cosmos, offering in His name the forgiveness of sins and membership in His Kingdom. He is also the coming Judge of humanity who will renovate the universe and rule it personally and graciously forever (a theme conspicuous by its absence in The Shack, but very obvious in the New Testament). In the gospel the Lord Jesus introduces us to God the Father, not the other way around. In The Shack these things are blurry and seem almost inverted, which means that the gospel in The Shack is at best obscure, and at worst absent. After reading The Shack, a person might have a warm feeling about God in general and even a sense of the “three-ness” of God, but one would not exclaim with Thomas, about Jesus, “My Lord and My God.” (John 20:27-29). One would not be awestruck with who Christ is, what He did to bring us into his eternal love, and how we didn’t deserve it. In fact, one might not want to become “a Christian” at all according to Jesus himself in the story (speaking of hypocritical Christianity I guess, but that is not evident in the dialogue). Many people who like this book treat it as a form of good news (gospel) about God, yet the gospel itself (the one presented in four long documents and many smaller letters in the New Testament) is only faintly present.
On a positive note, though, one of the main aspects of the gospel of Christ is highlighted in The Shack. This is the story’s strongest point. It shows God personally overriding human evil and pain in this world in a very graphic way, while gently and compassionately rebuking Mack for not grasping how loving and powerful the Lord is. I think this aspect of the book is challenging, comforting and insightful. Among scholars this is called theodicy, defending God’s love and power in light of the agonizing sorrow in this age, explaining how evil can temporarily exist in his world and how the Lord can and will turn it around for eternal good. The Shack is a theodicy of sorts. Young dramatizes how God could use even terribly violent and sorrowful things to bring long-term blessing to his people (which is precisely what the Bible says he does through the gospel, the cross/resurrection itself being the main paradigm). Along the way, Young emphasizes the love, joy, wisdom, compassion, personality, and active involvement that God offers to us. This is good, too. Folks who find comfort in The Shack usually find it here, and I do not intend to deny that comfort for a minute. Young is right to remind us poignantly how sovereign, providential, good and loving the Lord is in spite of how evil our age is.
Remember, The Shack is “theological fiction,” a genre that, when you think about it, seems odd in itself. So, eat the meat and spit out the bones. For a more serious look at how God reveals himself to broken humanity, defeating death and redeeming even the worst of human evil at the cross, read the four actual gospels starting with John.