Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Shack

I read THE SHACK by WIlliam P. ("Paul") Young last Saturday. What an experience! It's a must read for everyone. It will lift you to the heights, drive you to your knees, thrill you, chill you, make you cry and burst out in praise (sometimes at the same time!) as it ushers you into the presence of a genuinely "gospel" view (and experience) of God.

Responses to THE SHACK have ranged from glowing (as mine) to its being a "trojan horse" through which heresy is being smuggled into the faith (a vast number of responses are posted at the book's website theshack.com, I believe). The more negative responses tend to lift up the theology in the book (of which there is plenty) and subject it to the usual process of theological review and critique. Yet I suspect this is not the most helpful (of fair) way to treat a piece of fiction. You can be being "right" but miss the whole point of the story!

Any piece of literature ought to be first held to the standard it sets for itself. And in the case of THE SHACK, the repeated leitmotiv of the author is that we do not trust GOd because we do not really know who God (the biblical God) is. Young's intent is to tell in fictional form how he discovered and has been transformed by coming to know the biblical God. As a paastor I frequently (far too frequently) watch and hear people describe God in unbiblical ways and suffer tremendously for so doing. Young frames his story in such compelling and winsome ways that the reader receives the gift of experiencing a fresh vision of God, the triune God, as the deity the scripture proclaims him to be - "God is love" (I John 4:8) - unconditional love, no qualifiers, exceptions or small print loopholes.

Now, in a world like ours and people like us, it is hard enough to believe in and follow such a God of love. Imagine then the impossibility of believing in and following a deity whom we are NOT sure loves us that way. And that's precisely the God much traditional Christianity has given to disciples and to the world at large. A God who is power-hungry, obsessed with our obedience/performance, enjoys meting out punishment, is responsible for the tragedy and turmoil in life because "all things unfold according to his will" (so we are told), and is divided within himself - the demanding Father who compels our fear and the loving Son to whom we cling hoping against hope that he has and will continue to placate his "mad Dad." If you think I exagerrate, you should sit in any pastor's study or counselor's office and you will be astonished at how pervasive and debilitating this view of God is! THis is the "god" Philip Pullman "kills off" in his DARK MATERIALS trilogy - a god to whom we should say "good ridddance," but. alas and unfortunately, one to whose defense too many Christians rallied in opposing Pullmann's work.

As a disciple and a pastor I cannot live or do my work without the kind of God found in the Bible and reflected in Young's story. That's why I am so exceedingly grateful for his work. And it saddens me to see it picked at by theologians who seem to forget what Yound's stated aim in the story was in the first place - you can't trust a God whom you don't kow truly and fully loves you, is delighted in you, seeks your compant, and has done everything possible to let you know that!

By the criteria of this, his own stated aim, Young is a rip-roaring success!! You cannot with any sympathy at all read his story without finishing it with a new or renewed sense of God's love for you, God's understanding of who you are, what you have gone through, and where you are now spiritually, God's delight in you, God's deep passion for relationship with you, and . . . Some however have apparently read with so little sympathy for the subject matter or the genre of the book that they have launched theological critiques that, in my judgment, ending up reflecting more on them than on THE SHACK itslef.

A few examples I am aware of:

-some complain that Young failed to adequately balance the one and the three of the trinity, highliting the three at the expense of God's unity. Come on - who doesn't fail on this score in talking about the trinity. Heck, the church itself is divided east and west on where the emphasis should lie - and they're both right! All this critique says is that Young's view of God is more in the eastern tradition of Christianity than the western (to which presumably his critics belong)!

-others have complained that Young's showing of "Papa" (God the Father) bearing the same scars on his wrists that Jesus bears is inappropriate - smacks of patripassianism. After all, only Jesus the Son suffered and died (so they say). While this might be theologically correct (if Young had written a theological treatise), there is no more powerful way I can think of that Young could show the shared love of the Father and the Son for humankind and creation than by this literary device. And such assurance is what many/most of us need to hear and such assurance was what Young set himself to deliver. The theologians are right, perhaps, if you lift the incident out of the story-line but terribly wrong about its appropriateness and power within the story.

-another complaint is that Young is dismissive of the value of institutions - church, government, economics, etc. and fails to reflect a balanced theological assessment of the possibilities and pitfalls of such. Right, again, theologians; and wrong! As an issue for theological discussion, they may be right (though I'm not sure about this myself). But the reality to which Young writes is that churches by and large alienate not only the world but even many within its number from a real relationship with God, and few experience other corporate entities as supportive, trustworthy, believeable, or nurturing places. As a pastor of one of those churches, I have little or no problem affirming Young's portrayl within the context in which he writes.

Well, enough! I've gone too long already. I simply want to encourage peole to read this book for what it is - a wonderful testimony to the gracious, transforming love of God that resonates with the realism of the lead character's struggle, the depth of his pain, the psychological and emotional knots into which he is tied along with an equally realistic (theological and otherwise) portrayal or the relational and tranformative reality of the kind of relationship to which the biblical God calls each and all of us. Such gifts come along all to rarely. I hate to us squander this one by burying it in theological (mis)analysis like the above. Any such reflection, I would suggest, follows only after a deep, prayerful, and appreciative pondering of what Young (and God!) are doing in and through THE SHACK.