The Shack by William P. Young

I picked up Young's The Shack first during its meteoric rise after it was published. For whatever reason I had trouble with it and eventually set it down. The Shack was made into a movie this spring and with its resurgent popularity, I figured it was a must read as I prepared to teach a class on the Trinity.

The youngest daughter of Mack, a middle aged man with an abusive past, is abducted and murdered early in the book. As Mack wrestles with God in the midst of this tragedy, he is invited to a remote shack by the Trinity. Mack spends a day with the Trinity (the Father represented by an African American woman, the Son by an Arab man, and the Holy Spirit by an Asian woman). 

There are some really wonderful things about The Shack that make the book sparkle. It's no surprise to me that The Shack has made the impact it has in so many lives. The thing that drew me to the book-- its depiction of the Trinity--is at times well-articulated and emotionally touching.

Papa (God the Father) explains to Mack, "We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father, and worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one." Young further explains that if God were not a Trinity, we would not have a God capable of love within himself. There is one lovely scene where Mack protests that while the Son may understand his pain, Papa does not and Papa shows him the scars from the nails in her wrists.

Young is most powerful when talking about the love of God. Papa speaks with beautiful warmth that at times pierced me. "Mack, I am especially fond of you," Papa says powerfully. In these moments I was pulled in and heard the deep love of my adopting Father.

Young even navigates his choice of having the Trinity appear as black woman, Arab man, and Asian woman pretty well. He is clear that this is how the Trinity chooses to appear to Mack, these characters are not intrinsic to the Triune God himself. While Young has received plenty of criticism for the choice of characters, I would remind the reader first that the book is an allegory and second that an orthodox understanding is that God is Spirit and is not male nor female. Yes, the gendered pronouns of God in the Bible are masculine, and yes, we refer to the first person of the Trinity as God the Father, and yes, the Son was incarnated as a male and is in his resurrected body. But we ought not dismiss The Shack because of Young's choice to make two of the three members of the Trinity female. God is, after all, neither male nor female and is in fact has female metaphors applied to him in scripture (as a mother eagle in Deuteronomy 32, a she-bear in Hosea 11 and 13, a nursing mother in Isaiah 49, a comforting mother in Isaiah 66, and a mother hen in Matthew 23 and Luke 13).

The Shack has one stylistic weakness and two theological weaknesses. Young makes a narrative choice that was just as off-putting to me as a stylistic decision. That is his choice (which he brings up several times) to make his protagonist, Mack, a seminary grad. This comes out of Young's own clear anti-intellectual bias, but it strains his credulity to the point of breaking at times. Mack, for instance, struggles with the fact that God isn't an old white guy and another time asks God, "weren't you always running around killing people in the Bible?" These struggles might be credible for a young adult or someone who has marginal familiarity with the Bible, or even an atheist, but they are not credible struggles for a seminary graduate.

More significant Young's theological issues: anti-institutionalism and universalism. Young's anti-institutionalism comes out strongly in this exchange:

"'You're not too fond of religion and institutions?' Mack said, not sure if he was asking a question or making an observation.

'I don't create institutions-- never have, never will...'

'I'm not too big on religion,' Jesus said... "and not very fond of politics or economics either."

I understand Young's sentiment here. There is an impulse by some to distance a relationship with Christ from Christianity. And certainly, our union (relationship) with Christ is at the heart of our Christianity. But the notion that God doesn't care for institutions is foolish. Institutions are organized and systematized relationships. You can't have relationships without institutions. Economics and politics are neutral entities in and of themselves. So is religion.

And Christ's love for the first institution, the church, is written all over the pages of scripture. It is Paul who rhapsodizes that husbands ought to love their wives as "Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her." Such anti-institutional teaching is not only wrong-headed, but dangerous. We need institutions and in particular we need the church. There is no Christian life without her.

Young's final and most fatal flaw is his universalism. It's not entirely clear in the book whether God just doesn't judge or the judgment of God falls entirely on Christ for all humanity. Either way it is problematic. Early on in the book it appears that there is no judgment. God says, "I don't need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment." And later God says, "I don't do humiliation, or guilt, or condemnation." But then it appears that Young shifts toward a universalism through Jesus: "In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship." In other words, all are saved through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but only some experience a relationship with Jesus. This is a universalism that at least keeps intact the salvific impact of the redemptive work of Jesus, but doesn't fit with scripture's own attestation of the scope of that work. In Matthew 25, Jesus describes his judgment on the final day where, from his "glorious throne" he will gather the nations and "separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." After commending his sheep, he will turn and say to the unrighteous, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."

Young has given the church a beautiful but flawed book in The Shack. For those who are able to navigate its flaws, it can be a book of encouragement of our breathtaking Triune God who loves his children beyond measure out of an overflow of his love for himself.