The Shack by William P. Young is a surprise NY Times bestseller, launching postmodern Christianity into the public eye. For all the good points of the book, and there are a few (there are some good insights regarding the place of evil and pain in the world, for instance), it is the influence of postmodernism on Christianity that makes this book so culturally appealing, but so spiritually dangerous. Just as modernist thought produced Theological Liberalism, which is so distinct from Biblical Christianity as to be its own religion (cf. G Machen, Christianity & Liberalism), postmodern Christianity is set to be a new but equally troublesome hybrid.
My discussion of The Shack’s problems will, God-willing, take the following form:
● Gender & Trinity
● God’s Speech & Scripture
● Power & Hierarchy
● Open Theism
● God’s Wrath & Judgement
● God in Man’s Image
So, to begin with, the first points of controversy have typically been issues of gender and the presentation of the Trinity.
Papa, the name for God the Father in the book, is presented as an African-American woman. This fact is hard for many conservative readers to stomach, but seeing as Mack, the troubled main character, had an abusive alcoholic father, God as ‘mother’ was a divine tactic to side-step Mack’s misapprehensions about God’s fatherhood.
In terms of the scriptural presentation of God consistently as ‘he’, Young provides the following explanation. He says that God historically revealed Himself as a Father, because in a broken world,
“true fathering would be much more lacking than mothering… an emphasis on fathering is necessary because of the enormity of its absence” (Pg 94).
But if this is the case, one wonders why, when Papa actually does reveal Himself to someone who lacked a true father, he sees it necessary to reveal Himself as a woman? Young seems to be using the same explanation (bad fathering) to justify scripture’s picture of God as Father and Papa’s choice of the motherly figure.
I think that the actual reason for the God of the Bible as ‘male’ (even the Spirit is ‘he’) is that it represents God’s headship over creation. However, this admits hierarchy, which is a postmodern taboo, and so Young rejects it. But more on power and hierarchy in due course.
The doctrine of Trinity is notoriously difficult, and has been vigorously debated throughout Church History. It also consistently fails to be accurately represented by metaphor (whether by triangles, clover-leaves, the triple-point of water, or whatever). Yet this is precisely what Young has attempted by representing the Trinity in three separate beings, and so his image of God necessarily falls short. The creeds urge us to hold God’s oneness and threeness in tension, neither dividing their divine substance (that is, their unity), nor confusing the persons Young has admirably attempted to preserve the distinctness of the persons while always confronting the reader with God’s oneness. Yet there are a few concerns on this matter that are worth noting.
Firstly, on page 31, he tells a legend about Multnomah Falls. It is a Native American story of a princess who kills herself to appease the Great Spirit in order to turn aside a plague. This story is held up as being an echo of the story of the death of Christ, and with this I must heartily disagree. Of course, while there are similarities, the differences are for more important. In the story, the ‘Great Spirit’ demands appeasement and it is only by the death of an innocent victim that God is pacified. If this is supposed to picture the Christian atonement, it represents a grave misunderstanding of the Trinity. Jesus is not like pagan human sacrifices precisely because he and the God who is to be propitiated are one. Jesus is not a victim, not even a willing victim. Jesus is both God and the mediator between God and man.
To Young’s credit, this misunderstanding is not present elsewhere, but on the other hand, neither is the doctrine of the atonement.
The second Trinity problem occurs on page 96. According to Young, God died on the cross with Jesus, and did not actually leave him. Papa has crucifixion scars too. But ‘Papa’ is not incarnate as Jesus was (and is), and was certainly not bodily present on the cross. Why would God – a spirit – be scarred in His ‘body’? The obvious answer is that Young wishes to illustrate that God the Father and the Son were united in their love for mankind and the lengths to which He’d go to demonstrate that love. However, it is a mistake (and a feature of one of the classical Trinitarian heresies called modalism) to consider the persons of the Trinity interchangeable. It also demonstrates that Young believes that the cross is no more than an illustration of God’s love for people, but not an event in which God pours out His wrath against sin. As we shall see, postmodern Christianity shares with Liberalism a distaste for concepts of wrath and sin altogether.
Finally, on page 99, Papa says,
“When we three spoke ourselves into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.” This may well be no more than an attempt to assert the unity of the Godhead at a point where the three persons appear most distinct (the incarnation). The incarnation is mystifying, because how can a God who is One assume humanity into one of the persons? And how would God actually speak about the incarnation in terms of His unity? I’m fairly sure that we don’t have the answers to these questions. I am equally sure that the solution is not to think of God’s three persons as all being incarnate, which is what this quote seems to me to be saying.
What concerns me further is that this might not be simply an attempt at asserting God’s unity. Young regularly attempts to have a ‘fully human’ God, suggesting that He has willingly humbled Himself to our level in order to relate to us on equal footing, without a hierarchical power relationship. This idea will be discussed further under the topic of Open Theism in The Shack.