Many have asked me to comment on the self-published best-selling novel called The Shack by William P. Young. So here is my review!
A disclaimer: Before reading too far, you need to know that The Shack is not the kind of book that naturally appeals to me and I likely wouldn’t have read it if so many hadn’t asked me my opinion. That’s obviously not a judgment on the book at all–I’m sure there’s lots of books that are good even though they do not appeal to me! But to be fair, I wanted you to know that I read the book more out of compulsion to know what everyone is talking about than because of an innate interest. And now that I’m done reading it, my initial feel for it is about the same: I found the book only marginally interesting and probably would have never finished it if I didn’t feel like it was a “task” that I wanted to complete. But enough pre-qualifications! Here’s my take on the book under three headings: 1) Things I like; 2) Things I think are problematic; 3) An assessment of the book as theological literature.
1) Things I liked
- Anything that gets so many people thinking about what it means to have a triune God has to be at least partially commended. I’m writing a book on trinitarian theology right now and I’m glad to see that maybe the “renaissance” of trinitarian theology is starting to filter beyond the scholars and theologians and bit more into the popular mind. If the book pushes people to learn more about this central aspect of Christian belief about God, great! More power to it!
- It’s true–Young has a knack of making you think outside the box about things you might otherwise take for granted. Though several examples could suffice here, I thought that chapter 14 entited, “Verbs and other Freedoms” was very thoughtful and actually fits theologically well with much of the “actualistic” interpretations coming out of the Barthian theological stream of trinitarian interpretation. As Jungel puts it, “God’s being is in his becoming,” or in more everyday language, “God is what he does.” In this regard, I think the following line spoken from Sarayu’s (a.ka. the Holy Spirit) mouth is really insightful:
…My very essence is a verb . . . I am more attuned to verbs than nouns. Verbs such as confessing, repenting, living, loving, responding, growing, reaping, changing, sowing, running, dancing, singing, and on and on. Humans, on the other hand, have a knack for taking a verb that is alive and full of grace and turning it into a dead noun or principle that reeks of rules: something growing and alive dies. Nouns exists because there is a created universe and physical reality, but if the universe is only a mass of nouns, it is dead. Unless ‘I am,’ there are no verbs, and verbs are what makes the universe alive. (206-7)
2) Things I think are problematic
- I realize that Young intends this story to be an extended parable. But as a parable–which is usually understood to be an everyday story intended to illustrate a profound truth–the story-line is simply too unbelievable and fantastic. Unbelievability could be fine if the genre demanded it (e.g., fantasy). But if The Shack is supposed to be a parable that relates something of the truth of God to us, then the very way in which the triune God is brought into the narrative actually violates the integrity of the story as parable. Rather than illustrating the truth indirectly, the book ends up with God telling us directly and from his own mouth in an unusual, isolated experience. Unfortunately, that’s not how most of us experience God in our day to day lives, not to mention in the midst of unspeakable tragedy.
To illustrate what I mean, consider the biblical parable of the prodigal son. This story succeeds as a parable precisely because it does not bring God directly into the story as an actor or character. Imagine how the prodigal son parable would break down if in its telling, the son came into direct contact with the Triune God who converses with him and through which the son finally comes to his senses. The conclusion of the story (reconciliation with the father) might be the same, but what otherwise could have been a believable, everday scenario that virtually anyone personally identify, suddenly becomes unbelievable and fantastic because, well, how many can claim to have had such vivid “experiences” (or even dreams, if that is what it was) of the triune God as Mack did in the novel?But the parable of the prodigal son succeeds precisely because it is so believable–that a son could squander what he has and still come to his senses and return to his father, and that the father would welcome him upon his return. That is something we can all potentially relate to, and which illustrates indirectly, parabolically and profoundly the love that the Father has for his creatures.
- As insightful as many of the conversations that Mack has with the Trinity, and even though Young is trying to picture God in ways “outside the box,” the portrayal of the Trinity is, at least for me, quite distracting, mainly because it flirts with theological error in order to make it “work” in the story. And no, I’m not even talking about Young’s portrayal of God the Father (“Papa”) as a female. Indeed, as far as errors go, portraying the Father as a female is no more problematic than portraying the Father as a male, especially since it is only Jesus Christ who has taken on a human gender. But even that distracting detail aside, I think portraying the Trinity as three human persons will actually serve to confuse people even more than they already are when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity. Whatever Young intends to portray, the Trinity in The Shack finally ends up leaning dangerously close to tritheism. And that is the problem with any attempt to try to “picture” the Trinity: the analogy always breaks down simply because, in Karl Barth’s way of putting it, there is no analogy for the Trinity but the Trinity itself. Now, I have no doubt that God is able to manifest himself even today in miraculous ways and I do believe he has the perogative to do this at times. But if and when he does, there is virtually no evidence biblically that he would appear as three individual human forms of mixed genders. Jesus is the only one who has taken on (male) flesh, and yet ironically he appears to play only a limited role in The Shack. (I could say lots more here about how little of Christ’s atoning work seems to come into play here, but I will reserve comment here realizing that not everything of theological significance can be mentioned…but this element does seem to be an aspect oddly neglected!). Of course, one would necessarily have to portray all three trinitarian persons in human form in order to make it work in a fictional novel. But that is a theo-fictional license that I think actually detracts from the potential of the story. Had Young told a story about Mack stumbling across a group of three human persons living in a form of genuine Christian community with one another, despite their brokenness and sin, the parabolic insight into the perfection of the triune relationships might have worked. But again, the full parabolic potential was lost when Young introduced the trinitarian characters directly into the story.
- As for Young’s portrayal of God as being beyond hierarchy (pp. 120ff.), this is theologically the most problematic, both biblically and from the perspective of the history of trinitarian theology. While there have been and continue to be theologians who want to do away with any and all forms of “order” in the Trinity and make the Three exist in a non-hierarchial “circle” of relationships with no one in “charge” (e.g., Leonardo Boff), orthodox trinitarian theology has always recognized that biblically, there is a primacy to the role of the Father relative to the Son and the Spirit, even if at the level of “divinity” all three are “equally divine.” In short, orthodox trinitarian theology has always recognized that the Son and the Spirit are sent and do God the Father’s will. Conversely, the Father is not sent, but only he is the Sender. However one finally ends up interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ saying “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28), we must not explain it away as something other than a permanent “ordering” in the Trinity, even while maintaining the orthodox consensus that all Three are equally divine. So, in short, The Shack depends upon a fictionalized rendering of the Trinity to make it fit into the story, but it has to take a level of theological license in order to do so. Thus, in the end The Shack portrays a Trinity that looks more like an ideal form of democratic socialism rather than the Sovereign Father in Heaven who sends his Son and his Spirit to enact his Kingdom of love and judgement on earth.
3) Assessment of the book as theological literature
- I’ll just come out and say it: The Shack, in my opinion, is not great literature, not even great Christian literature. Sure, the story line is initially compelling, but about a third of the way through, the narrative gets bogged down and taken over by a wholly different story of the “quadra-logue” between the “Trinity” and “Mack.” Without giving away too much to those who still want to read it, I think the ambiguous ending actually works against the whole story when everything that one was once led to be believe was “real” may or may not have been. My criticism here isn’t because I want everything to be clear-cut in the end–I happen to enjoy an element of ambiguity in stories and film. But in this case, the ambiguity seems damaging to the integrity of what Young seems to be trying to communicate.
- I know that this isn’t something directly about the novel itself, but I get a little nervous when I read comments like the following in the some of the reviews. One reader says, “I plan to read this book several more times, taking notes and highlighting passages that speak to me. Such intimacy with God seems so much more tangible since I’ve read this book – I couldn’t ask for a better gift.” (customer review from Amazon.com). I have no doubt that Young’s book has and is ministering to people, but I hope even Young would be a little more than uncomfortable if he knew that people were starting to study the story the way one might study scripture. Of course, Young can’t control what his readers do, and I don’t hold him responsible for the theological naivete of many readers who read the book in this manner. But I think that this is exactly why a cautionary note must be sounded for those who read the book, especially if they have limited theological discernment or training. If Young could have resisted bringing the Triune character into the story directly, people may not feel the need to “study” it in quite the same way, looking for insights into the nature of the Trinity. (Incidentally, I think this was the same problem with the Left Behind series of novels, and Peretti’s Piercing the Darkness which so many people took to be near to “Gospel truth” about the end-times and angels/demons respectively–they took these stories far too seriously as the bearer of detailed theological truth). Yes, The Shack could be edifying, but it is unfortunate that so many want more than encouragement or edification out of such a book. The dangerous thing is that too many people may think that the Triune God actually is the way he is portrayed in the story. But I, for one, am wholly unconvinced in this regard. And so you know that I am trying to be fair, I also think the same standard applies for even the great Christian works of fiction such as The Chronicles of Narnia. These works are meant to inspire and edify Christians, but they certainly are not meant to provide wholly biblically accurate insights into the nature of God, salvation, sin, etc. Indeed, one can imagine that Lewis and Tolkien would be horrified if they discovered that people studied their works to find out theological truth rather than to be moved and inspired by the triumph of good over evil that their works consistently sought to portray.
- The Shack stands as an example of what we call in literature, a Deus ex machina. You will recall from your High School English classes that a Deus ex machina (literally “a god from a machine”) is literary device that originated in the Greek and Roman plays where in the course of a story, a character finds himself in an impossible situation which is resolved by “dropping a god in from above” to save the day. (See more on deus ex machina from this Wikipedia entry). In short, The Shack is a grand deus ex machina all the way through. Let me explain. Mack and his family face an impossibly tragic situation with the loss of their dearly beloved little girl. But rather than having to deal with this terrible state of affairs like so many millions of other people of Christian faith in similar situations, Mack has an extended (visionary?) dialogue with the Trinity which helps him to make sense of it all and makes it possible for him to go on. But I ask: What about the millions of us who have had to endure tragic loss without such a grand deus ex machina? I’m sorry to say, but this is simply too convenient and unsatisfying way to tell the story. I’d rather hear a story about someone who faces a tragedy such as Mack faces but who manages through belief in God and by God’s grace experienced in the Christian community of sinning saints manages nevertheless to keep believing God despite all reasons to lose faith.
- I noted above my wariness about someone reading this book as if it were something to be studied as one might study Scripture. Granted, I do not deny that Young brings up some very thought provoking reflection that requires you to pause and think. This is, after all, the sign of a good novel. But when great novels require us to read them over and over again (i.e., classics), it is not because they need to be “studied” as a theological treatise, but because they are thought provoking and profound as they remain faithful to their genre as extended metaphors, parables or even allegories. The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia (extended parables) or even Pilgrim’s Progress (extended allegory) are profound literarily and theologically precisely because they remain consistent to their literary function. The problem with The Shack is that it starts out as a potentially provocative novel with implications for theological discourse, but ends up abandoning its character as a novel in favour of a theological discourse, indeed a discourse thinly disguised as a novel. But even that wouldn’t have been so bad had the theological discourse itself been a discourse between human interlocutors (such as what Dostoevsky sometimes does) rather than a discourse between a human and the divine interlocutors themselves. Even in the book of Job, or in Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday, the human/divine discourse is rather short and actually tends to heighten the mystery of God, not resolve it. The main theo-literary problem with The Shack is that it tends to try to resolve the mystery of the Trinity to make sense of life rather than than to preserve the mystery of the Trinity to show how problematic our reductionistic explanations of life tend to be.
So what is my overall assessment of The Shack? While I know there are some Christian commentators who have praised the book, on one hand, or soundly condemned it on the other, I do neither. I happen to think that the book is mediocre at a literary level, and at least partially theologically problematic, even slightly dangerous at times. Consequently, it isn’t a book that I intend to recommend. But on the other hand, neither do I think that it will do great harm to the Christians who choose to read it, providing the book is read as a piece of fiction–and as a piece of fiction only. I fully acknowledge that many might in fact be touched spiritually by this book and in that regard, I have no reason to denounce it. But I also say, if you are going to read this book, by all means, remember it is supposed to be a parable, not a theological treatise. As such, read it, and enjoy it as you can. But do not expect it to clarify your doctrinal understanding of the nature of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, because if that is what you expect The Shack to do, I regret to inform you that 1) there are many better books to learn about such things; and 2) you will go astray theologically if that is your expectation.