On Friday evening, I read The Shack by Wm. Paul Young. It’s a very engaging book, so much so that I all but read it in one sitting. I think that much of what Young writes stands as a needed corrective to some widespread theological misconceptions. Indeed, I don’t take exception to much of what others have objected to. I think the narrative structure allows Young to easily make some points that would otherwise be difficult to convey. The fact that it is a work of fiction grants him leeway that a theological treatise would not. If I had to summarize my take on it, I guess I would say that it’s a fascinating book with some very good points and keen insights but also some very large mistakes. I think three of the major problems with the book are as follows:
1. It doesn’t offer guidance to those who want to encounter God but have not received a typewritten note from God in their mailbox. I guess you could say that I have a more expansive view of God’s grace and presence being available for all people. The Shack all but tells it’s readers to neglect the means of grace and so leaves readers who don’t have mystical experiences at a loss. Furthermore it doesn’t tell you what to do after you’ve had a mystical experience, assuming you’ve had one. The book speaks of being more loving and more forgiving and living in greater joy and simplicity. All of these are great, but how does one go about them? (Hint: the answer involves the use of the means of grace that God has ordained.)
2. The view of salvation in the book is to limited to individuals. Both the Old and New Testaments see salvation as a very corporate act (one which necessarily includes, but is not limited to individuals). In the Old Testament it focuses on the people of Israel, in the New Testament on the church. Yet aside from Young’s Jesus referring to the church as the woman he’s in love with there’s not that much about the church in The Shack and what is there is very spiritualized. The church is the body of Christ composed of all Christians in all times and places, but it is most often experienced in local congregations where it becomes most concrete and real to us in this life. There’s very little said in The Shack about how we live together as the church, the people of God, in concrete, real life.
3. The third and final point I’ll make here is about what I believe to be a missed opportunity. When I was reading the chapters in which Mack looses his daughter, I was thinking about the way his loss, and pain and suffering might be understood as mirroring the loss, and pain, and suffering of the First Person of the Trinity (the Father) at the death of the Son. The pain of a parent at the suffering of a child is different from the suffering of the child, but no less real. But Young never makes this connection. Instead he portrays the First Person of the Trinity as having the same scars as the son which falls into the old error of patripassionism. (A very technical theological note: I believe that the error of patripassionism lies in the thinking that the Father suffered as the Son and as the Son did, not in thinking that the Father suffered at the death of the son, per se.)
Finally, a note of agreement if I’m reading Young correctly. The book has been accused of universalism or the belief that all are saved (of all the things one can be accused of universalism is by no means the worst), but I don’t think Young goes there. Instead he writes of God being reconciled to all humanity, but speaks of reconciliation as a two-way street that requires active human participation, it being outside “the nature of love to force relationship.” I believe that while God’s salvation in Jesus Christ is for everyone, not everyone will necessarily respond to God’s grace and accept it. Furthermore, God so values our freedom that some will ultimately be allowed to choose hell. I think that Young says the same thing, though he shies away from the conclusion that some people in rejecting God, will indeed be allowed to choose hell.
All in all, I’m not sure I would recommend the book (mostly because I believe there are better books to recommend), but I do understand why it has been a gripping read for so many. I would be open to discussing it further with individuals or as a group in a book study.