This has been the week for William Paul Young’s, The Shack, to come up in emails and conversation. Quite a few people are asking what I think of it. Quite a few have asked me that old question for quite a while now. I have offered no view. For some 7-ish years I’ve kept quiet, keeping in mind that we all have opinions and that my opinion is simply one person’s take on a work that many hail. Today I’m answering the question. I offer this book review because my 6th grade English teacher asked me my thoughts on The Shack. And I love her so I am crafting this book review in her honor.***
So, Mrs. C.,—here it goes:
Some 7-ish years ago, a dear friend over on NW 29th Street in Gainesville, FL urged me to read it so that we could talk about the book. She really liked the book but found parts of it troublesome. “Ann Hesston” found the book’s personal relationship aspects most challenging. And that didn’t surprise me since she and I are both Lutheran, which means that our Christian perspective tends to be grounded deeply in God’s relationship to community, and not so deeply grounded in God’s relationship to individuals.
For Lutherans, “deciding for Jesus,” and, “making Jesus personal Lord and Savior,” that’s neither our language nor our take on what God is up to in the redemptive work of Jesus. We take a much bigger view than my-own-personal-Jesus. So, Ann felt the book had a different theology than our own and wanted my take. (And it is fine and healthy to read all sorts of theologies, especially if it clarifies one’s own; not passing any judgments here, just saying it as I see it)
I confess it took me a long time to get excited about reading this book. Too much dang hype was coming from every direction, book studies popping up everywhere, even people suggesting that we take our mid-week Lenten services and toss worship for a study of The Shack. Hype is such a turn-off to me. I avoid restaurants that serve my favorite foods when they are hyped. To my notion, “hype” is vapid optimism on steroids. YUCK!
Besides—I have a prejudice, one I never shared with Ann—with only two exceptions, I hate religious allegorical works: books, movies, theatrical plays, etc. With only two exceptions, I hate them. Perhaps this is a growing edge for me, but it stands as it stands. I cannot abide these quasi-Christian works. And here’s why—-what they say matters. Theology matters.
And when people defend these half-assed, quasi-Christian, allegorical works they generally say, “Well, JDB, it’s just a story.” I watch them as their lips just keep moving, spraying out words, yet my mind has already gone numb for I’m still stuck at the words, “It’s just a story.”
Is such a remark meaning that stories hold no weight, do not matter?
Let me ask this, “What is the Bible? Isn’t it a wonderful library replete with story upon story upon story?“
I think we need to drop that “it’s just a story” nonsense. Stories matter. Just ask a Lenoir Rhyne University professor whose recently published book is called, The Practice of Story: Suffering and the Possibilities of Redemption. The story that is The Shack matters.
Now I come from a long line of “narrow-minded, evangelical fundawhacks,” whose ill-reasoned take on theology has left me much to ponder, to work through, and to unlearn. I tease that I am in the “Lutheran Recovery Program for Baptecostals.” And I confess that part of my recovery program from the ill-reasoned theologies of my mondo-mega-fundamentalist background has been to read/watch/experience allegorical works such as The Shack (which espouse particular theological views) to dissect their theologies and identify the Christian thought strands that form them. At the same time, I look very deeply into these works to find new ways of seeing sound theological things. And I am always open to challenge and to re-thinking those things which I’ve come to know as true. I do try very hard to maintain an open mind—to do any less would be to trade one fundamentalism for another, right?
When it comes down to it, The Shack reminded me a lot of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I read that painful piece of prose back in high school. It seems like it was required reading for my 10th grade English class. And, I further confess, that had I not desired a good grade in that class, I’d have abandoned it for a Louis L’Amour novel. I found myself feeling similarly when presented with reading The Shack. Had I not desired to honor Ann’s request, I’d have abandoned it for anything written by Tony Hillerman.
I did truly feel that Young’s, The Shack, is a kissing cousin to Bunyan’s, Pilgrim’s Progress, meaning that the conversations between the characters carried the weight of the book far more than the storyline itself. If conversational discourse is not your cup of tea, The Shack may prove tough reading for you. The book’s story basically goes like this—a man dreams that he spends a weekend with the Triune One in a shack—and not just any shack—the very one where his daughter was both raped and killed. The man sees the shack in this dream like a picturesque lakefront cottage rather than some falling down clapboard shanty. Such a setting becomes the space for some serious theological wrestling. It reminded me a bit of Jacob at the edge of the Jabbok river wrestling with whom Jacob perceived to be God.
Right there by the picturesque lake heavy duty, heavy hitting theological questions are both raised and managed in tremendously kind and faithful ways. The questions which The Shack tackles are ones which we humans, perhaps we Christians especially, ponder in the still loneliness of the witching hours: the reality of evil, the question of original sin, God as “other,” human-human relationships, Divinity-humanity relationships, the salvific work of God through Christ Jesus on the Cross, atonement, reconciliation, the Triune nature of Deity, forgiveness, love, mercy, faith, grace, freedom—probably even some questions were tackled that I can longer recall.
These not-for-the-faint-of-heart questions are mainly, if not wholly, tackled in the conversations held between the characters. This is one seriously dialogic extravaganza. And seriously, if conversational reading is not your cup of tea then reading The Shack will be a working effort for you, certainly a worthwhile effort, but it will not be easy going. Conversation is how the three characters that re-present God grow the human character, Mack’s understanding. Mack grows throughout the course of the lakeside encounter in conversation after conversation after conversation. The three characters re-presenting God grow Mack as one block of understanding is lovingly, carefully lain upon another in each conversation. Young does a grand job of this dialogic teaching work. (I’m actually jealous)
And this dialogic work is almost entirely experienced as relational. And that calls to mind my mom. Mom is a profound proponent of relational connection to God. Mama has a saying that I believe to be irrevocably true. And it is a saying that seems so very lost on so many of my Lutheran herd. Jackie’s saying is this, “You gotta have a heart knowledge of God, not just a head knowledge. It takes both, son.” (I so hate it when Mom is right—and in this matter—Mom is totally right)
I think Martin Luther’d agree with Mom, for Luther says, “Every man [person] must do two things alone; he [one] must do his [one’s] own believing and his [one’s] own dying.”
I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer’d agree with Mom, for Bonhoeffer asserts, “Who is pure in heart? Only those who have surrendered their hearts completely to Jesus that he may reign in them alone. Only those whose hearts are undefiled by their own evil–and by their own virtues too. “
Head and heart knowledge displayed by two stars in the Lutheran sky. Who’d have believed it? Luther and Bonhoeffer make faith out to be very personal. Mom would say that the The Shack displays the same.
Isn’t it true that people have to be encountered by Jesus, touched by Jesus?
Isn’t it true that faith has to be worked into a person by the activity of the Holy Spirit?
Can’t we drone on and on about Jesus ‘til the pejorative cows come home, but isn’t it all a waste of breath unless the Holy Spirit causes that person to apprehend by faith that Jesus came, lived, was crucified, and rose again for them?
Think whatever one may of The Shack, but it gets an A+ in the area of making abundantly clear the aforementioned question. (even if it does stray into decision theology—which Pr. Bryant eschews)
Something that is most disconcerting, however, is that The Shack makes it seem that everything God does is for people. That’s troublesome. I tend to believe what God does is for God and that all else in creation benefits from the nature of the good that God does on God’s behalf. The Shack makes it seem that Christian doctrine, inclusive of yet not limited to the Trinity, is all of it totally for people. I am not sold on that way of thinking. It’s grand if others are in that school of the thought, but that is certainly not my school of thought.
Because I believe everything is a sequence of “inter-” and “intra-” connecting relationships, I am drawn to the overt relational way that The Shack unfolds. Back in seminary we studied a book where the author described the relational nature of the Trinity as, “The Father and Son looking at One another in love, and the love flowing between and from them as the Holy Spirit.” That image is beautiful—of course, it’s left wanting for the finite cannot attain the depth, dimension, and breadth of the Infinite. Still—the image is lovely. And The Shack really seems to get at that sort of image, even to the giving of some shape to Triune function. The Shack lays it out sort of like: God relates to God in Trinity, God relates to people by God’s relationship through Christ to people, and humans are relating to one another.
To this end, God gives human relationships as horizontal; meaning, servants serving servants in mutualistic fashion. There is no space in this horizontal frame for a vertical, domineering dimension. No one trying to be top dog over all the other dogs in the kennel means that there’s space for relationships to be entirely mutualistic, open, loving, vulnerable, and free. The Shack presents all human relationships as having Jesus the Christ as center. Jesus is center because Jesus is the atoning, reconciling agent who forms and forges the union between God and humanity. The Shack does a grand job of asserting this reality.
Although The Shack’s theological perspective, such as it is fleshed out, is fairly sound, it is, however, no Heidelburg Disputation, no Large Catechism, no Small Catechism, no Smalcald Article, and certainly no Bible.
While it does offer a Christian take on so many things, even a touching look into theodicy, it does not show how the Triune One continues to meet, touch, engage, chose, claim, nourish, nurture, mature, and lead us into life everlasting. I think I may be stuck in this space, seeing things in such a way because I am a liturgical Christian.
We in the liturgical side of the Christian family trust that Christ meets us to forgive sin in the Bread and Wine of Eucharist. We are claimed by God in the waters of Baptism, and these practices (Sacraments) are instituted by Christ himself. It seems like The Shack might’ve said so, especially if the author’s aim is to increase awareness of how the Triune One is active in the world, is present in the world, is creating union in the world. The author presses furtively that God wants all people to be drawn into a relationship with God through Jesus. Seems like Eucharist and Baptism, not to mention the Word active through preaching, would be extolled as great places to be drawn into union by God.
I guess if we are foolish enough to think that our mystic dreams, emotions, feelings, “God moments,” constitute God-created union, then The Shack is a 5-star ringer. But to me that’s almost as if we’re left to think the Trinue One has joined Billy Dee Williams and Marilyn McCoo to sing one rousing cosmic round of, “Harmony and understanding, Sympathy and trust abounding, No more falsehoods or derisions, Golden living dreams of visions, Mystic crystal revelation, And the mind’s true liberation.” The Triune One comes to craft union in the common, and through the common, and by the common: common bread, common water, common wine, joined by God’s Word to do uncommon things. No emotions, feelings, dreams, or other such hoopla, accomplish what the Triune One does through sacraments. Without God creating union through sacraments we wind up joining The Shack in turning the focus to people.
Lest we take as our own, The Shack’s notion that it is all for and about is, Gerhard Forde would remind us:
“As sinners we are like addicts – addicted to ourselves and our own projects. The theology of glory simply seeks to give those projects eternal legitimacy. The remedy for the theology of glory, therefore, cannot be encouragement and positive thinking, but rather the end of the addictive desire. Luther says it directly: “The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it.” So we are back to the cross, the radical intervention, end of the life of the old and the beginning of the new…As with the addict there has to be an intervention, an act from without. In treatment of alcoholics some would speak of the necessity of ‘bottoming out,’ reaching the absolute bottom where one can no longer escape the need for help. Then it is finally evident that the desire can never be satisfied, but must be extinguished. In matters of faith, the preaching of the cross is analogous to that intervention. It is an act of God, entirely from without. It does not come to feed the religious desires of the Old Adam and Eve but to extinguish them. They are crucified with Christ to be made new.”
God creates union by making new. God authors union via intervention, not via our lakeside cabin-dwelling dreams, not via our feelings, not via our emotions, for that stuff is prone to mood and prone to change. Sacraments are God’s tools of intervention which make God’s touch tangible, not just left to externals.
The Shack takes us to the brink of this truth and just drops us there, inches from the baptismal font and yards from the communion rail. A reader could easily tumble to the idea that, “We’re all joined to God via Jesus Christ—just as we are, exactly where we are, completely like we are.” That is NOT the Gospel of Jesus the Christ. The Shack leaves such gross ambiguity that embracing this sort of “universal divine relational genericism” is a conclusion that is not only possible, but very likely indeed.
At stake here is not whether the salvific work of Jesus is universally in effect—it is. What is at stake is the “means of grace.” Apart from them, how does one access so great a union? Does one dream it into being? Does one emote it into being? Does one employ self-idolatry and craft pseudo-union on their own merits? Further, is there some consequence for those not in union? And, if so, what is said consequence?
For answers to such questions, The Shack offers not one word.
And this means for an ole Lutheran like me—The Shack is left sorely wanting—-yet simultaneously it makes me so appreciative of all that is ours in Christ Jesus. For the answers to the open-ended questions remaining from The Shack, I’d advise one to continue conversation with some tried and true conversation partners: Luther’s Small Catechism, Luther’s Table Talk, Luther’s Large Catechism, and if one dares, I joyfully invite them to join us for worship on Sundays at Zion Ev. Lutheran Church in Hickory, NC.
***and for my 6th grade English teacher. I promise to annotate this appropriately later.