[Following is a note I wrote a few years ago. At the end of next month a film version of The Shack will come out. Jumping to conclusions, I suspect the film version will be more theologically confused than the book. I encourage you to read this note and pass it on to friends who may have liked the book. It will challenge them, but it also has the potential to set them free from the bitterness that imprisons the wounded.]
• I finally got around to reading *The Shack,* William Young’s phenomenally popular novel about a man (Mack) meeting God face-to-face after the tragic death of his daughter. The meeting takes place in a shack in the woods where a grim piece of evidence, his daughter’s bloody dress, was found four years prior. Mack’s return to the shack symbolizes his facing things from which he had been running, and his working them out in God’s presence. Because this book touches on themes that are very powerful to this generation of Christians, I’d like to offer comments in the weeks to come, beginning with an overview.
• First of all, I’m sympathetic with Young’s overall intention: to astound his readers with the actual breadth and power of the love of God. If “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9), then we can all stand to contemplate with imagination and boldness God’s graciousness to his children. And this isn’t just emotional self-indulgence. To serve Christ in health and wisdom we need a more glorious grasp of his love.
• I’m also receptive to the dichotomy Young begins to develop early in the book, the division between Christianity as “the data” or “the regulations” vs. Christianity as relationship, the union of God and man in Christ by the Spirit, divine-human perichoresis and so on. In recent years I’ve been critical of Calvinists who have stronger relationships to ideas than they have to other persons, the Lord included, and I believe this is an important criticism of Calvinist believers and thinkers that ought to be repeated within our own camp for the sake of our own spiritual vitality and faithfulness to God. Christianity isn’t an algorithm we memorize, it is, in Paul’s language, a walk with Christ in which we are growing to maturity until the day he glorifies us.
• That said, Young turns out to be a prisoner of his age, and is making the mistake that will eventually come, I’m afraid, to be the hallmark of current generations. The mistake is this: he hopes to say something profound about the love of God without building a story around the great essence of God’s love: the dark reality of sin (even in the lives of those who feel they have been victimized) and God’s willingness to forgive that sin. This is a book that presents the great dilemma of life as human suffering, not human sin; the great story as people overcoming suffering, not a suffering Savior overcoming sin on behalf of his people. The hero of this book is not God. It’s Mack.
• Young presents Mack not as an offender, but as a victim. This twists everything. In a key moment when Mack first arrives in the shack and meets the God-figure (a large, beaming African American woman), she says of his sadness and anger over the loss of his daughter, “I know what a great gulf this has put between us.” This brought me to a full stop. If the only gulf between God and man is sin, and in grace and love Christ has bridged that gulf, what exactly is Mack’s problem? The gulf — this is perfectly upside-down — is God’s offense against Mack.
• C.S. Lewis saw this a long time ago when giving talks to British soldiers during WWII. He described it as “God in the dock” (“dock” being the seat of the accused in a courtroom). “The ancient man approached God, or even the gods, as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge; God is in the dock. Man is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being a God who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench, and God in the dock.” This is Young’s program. He builds the shack not so he may run to it and repent of the foolishness of accusing God, but to give God a chance to explain himself. This is not a small error; this is a full-blown theological train-wreck.
• Within the Church, my generation’s preoccupation with personal pain, and the effort to build a new kind of “Christianity” in answer to it, will be a legacy of the erosion of orthodoxy. Over Christmas I read Laura Hillenbrand’s *Unbroken,* a true story of the almost inconceivable suffering of Louis Zamperini in a Japanese POW camp, and the eventual repentance, conversion and restoration of the man. If ever there was a man who might demand answers from God, Zamperini is that man. If he had been a baby-boomer, he might well have died an angry drunk (which is where he was when the Lord called him). Also, as I read *The Shack* I thought continually of Thomas Boston, the tender, brilliant Scottish minister who lost several children in their youth. Boston understood that no matter how difficult life became, God was still faithful and good, and there were more important questions and answers in the world — more glorious, more satisfying, more compelling — than those pertaining to the self. It’s only in finding these in Christ that life is worth living. One of Boston’s earliest memories was visiting his father who had been imprisoned for preaching the gospel. You have to imagine the foundational principles of faith that memories of that kind established in Boston’s heart. By the time tragedy hit him, his life was already committed to purposes of God that transcended the sometimes miserable circumstances of his own life. Consequently, the man’s life was immensely fruitful, sweetened by the humility of a sinner resting beneath God’s wings.
• Young’s grasp of the faith is, relatively, so narrow and suffocating: something like, “God is invalidated if he cannot prove his love for me.” The problem is (the death of a daughter notwithstanding) God has already given full and surpassingly magnificent proof of his love in Christ. God never had a need, and never will have a need, to validate himself, least of all in the eyes of his own creatures. But if there were such a need, all would have been answered in Christ making himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, that we sinners might become heirs of his kingdom.