William P. Young’s “The Shack”
While I was still working as a pastor, I brought my doubts to my bishop and he started the process of finding me a spiritual mentor. The process of my leaving licenced ministry for an indefinite period of time went faster than the process of finding a spiritual mentor, and by the time I first met the pastor who would be my mentor, I was already unemployed. We agreed to meet anyway, and see how things worked out. I was very unsecure in my de-conversion and was hoping there was something obvious I had overlooked.
One of the first things my mentor asked me to do was read a book called The Shack, written by William P. Young. The tagline on the front cover reads, “Where tragedy confronts eternity” and on the back cover is the claim that in Young’s story, he wrestles with the question, “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?” Young wrestles with this question through the fictional character Mackenzie Allen Phillips (or Mack, for short), who suffers some horrible tragedies in his life, then one day receives an invitation in his mailbox which may or may not be from God.
Please be aware that this article contains SPOILERS and that if you want to be surprised by anything in the book, you should read the book before finishing this article. You may still find nothing in the book to be surprising, but at least that won’t be my fault.
Much of my realization that there either is no God or that the Christian portrayal of God is horribly wrong stems from the immense suffering in this world. My mentor hoped that this book would help me see that suffering- and God- in a different light. A little more than a week ago, my mother wanted to lend me the same book for the same reason. They both really enjoyed this book and the images of God portrayed within. The first person of the Trinity, God the Creator, is presented as an earthy, African woman called Papa. The second person of the Trinity, God the Intercessor, is portrayed as a male, Jewish carpenter called Jesus. The third person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit, is portrayed as a mystic oriental woman called Sarayu. Sophia, a personification of God’s wisdom, also makes an appearance before the novel is over.
Much of the novel, and much of the online response to this novel, is spent dealing with these portrayals of God. If your problem with God is that you picture Him as an angry, bearded white man in the sky looking for an excuse to smite you, this novel may help you find a healthier image to keep in mind. Alternatively, you can read Good Goats: Healing our Image of God where the Linns do a better job of the same thing. Finding healthy images of God is important for theists to do, because if we believe in a God, we will often find ourselves acting in the manner we believe God acts (creating, condemning, forgiving, hiding, killing, or whatever). If, however, you hoped The Shack would address what it says it will and talk about how any conception of a compassionate and powerful God can co-exist with the slightest comprehension of how much suffering there is in the world, you are likely to be disappointed as I was.
Actually, I was disappointed, insulted, and deeply angered.
The main message of The Shack is that all suffering is the result of choosing to live independently from God, rather than in a relationship of mutual submission with God. That’s right, mutual submission. God wants us to submit to God, while God submits to us. God is already submitting to us, giving us the independence we have chosen, despite how painful the consequences of that independence are (to us, at least). Because we have chosen independence from God, we have felt a need to impose certainty where there isn’t any and create religion, politics and economics, “the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those [God] care[s] about” (179). Any suffering that does not result from man-made religion, politics, or economics is said to result from the rest of Creation being dragged from it’s proper place by man (the pinnacle of Creation)’s choosing the “ravaged path of independence” (132). Thus, all suffering is our fault: the results of our choice to be independent from God.
God has all the power and all the knowledge, but suffering is all our fault and God loves us so much that God lets us suffer out of submission to our will. Thanks, God.
But wait, there’s more!
Because all shame, humiliation, guilt and condemnation were nailed into Jesus at the cross, we are free now to choose to reconcile ourselves to God, entering into a relationship of mutual submission which will incrementally lead to a redemption of suffering. Maybe not soon enough to do anyone any good, but still, doesn’t God deserve an A for effort?
No. For while all suffering is our fault for not choosing to trust God and submit to God’s will, the story of The Shack slowly shows how it is impossible for any of us to choose God. We are doomed to suffer, unless God does anything about it, and God will not do anything about it, because God respects our “choice” though at the same time God has stacked the deck so that we can not choose otherwise. As Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) tells us through her words to Mack:
Mackenzie, you cannot produce trust just like you cannot ‘do’ humility. It either is or is not. Trust is the fruit of a relationship in which you know you are loved. Because you do not know that I love you, you cannot trust me (126).
Personally, I’d say that trust comes from knowledge of character and capability, not just knowledge of love, but either way there is a problem. A problem beyond the sheer absurdity of describing humanity as the pinnacle and point of Creation or blaming natural disasters on human independence. In order to trust God, love God, submit to God, and choose to depend on God instead of acting independently, we need to know something about God. We do not need to know everything about God, but we need to at least know we can find God and distinguish God from, say, random chance, drunken hallucinations or a slight case of indigention. Otherwise, what we put our trust in may not be God. Again, as Sarayu says, we need to constantly check the accuracy our perceptions and the truthfulness of our paradigms (197).
Why is this a problem? Young does not mention explicitly what we are to compare our perceptions and paradigms to in order to check their accuracy, and throughout the story takes away everything we could compare our perceptions and paradigm to, if we were to reach a point where we could trust God and enter into a relationship of mutual submission with God. Young tries to tell us that the only thing we can compare our paradigms and perceptions to is God’s self. That’s the only way we can truly understand God, anything in God’s creation, or the suffering in God’s creation.
Young demonstrates this in an intellectually insulting and emotionally manipulative scene where Mack is called, against his will, to sit in judgement. When doing so, Mack comes to the sudden and startling realization that all the many judgements he had made in his life “had been superficial, based on appearance and actions, things easily interpreted by whatever state of mind or prejudice that supported the need to exalt himself, or to feel safe, or to belong” (160). It might be useful to point out right now, that Mack, who is suddenly realizing his human understandings of good and evil are no more than self-centred ideas of pleasant and unpleasant, or convenient and inconvenient, was tied to a tree when he was thirteen. His father tied him there and beat him over a period of two days, whenever he woke from his drunken stupor and put down his bottle. It took two weeks before he recovered enough to walk under his own power. Later on, as an adult, Mack’s youngest daughter is kidnapped by a serial killer who expertly killed her and hid her body, as he had four other little girls beforehand. These are among the actions Mack suddenly dismisses as personally unpleasant or inconvenient, instead of judging them as evil.
Young’s Sophia, a personification of God’s wisdom, confuses the issue further by not allowing Mack to judge actions, but demanding he judge people. Sophia asks who is really to blame for these evil actions, the ones who acted, the parents of those who acted, or God who started it all. Mack blamed God, and Sophia told him that if he could judge God, surely he could judge humanity, and ordered Mack to choose three of his five children to be condemned eternally to hell. After all, this is what Mack believes God does.
Seriously, this is how Young tries to set up God as the only possible objective source of morality and touchstone for understanding reality: telling Mack he can’t judge God’s actions, but only God, and cannot judge God unless he can choose three of his own children to condemn to hell. This somehow passes as wisdom. My problem with this is that you can judge actions without condemning those who act, and you can judge God without having to condemn your own children. After all, Mack was not, at that time, judging God for condemning most of God’s children to hell, just for the hell on earth so many people suffer through. And just because Mack would not choose for his children to suffer does not mean God would not choose the same thing. By looking at the suffering that does exist, it is obvious that God has chosen to allow it, and can be judged accordingly.
But let’s pretend that Young’s little judgement scene convinced us that God is the only source of objective morality, or a proper understanding of reality. We still have the problem that we can not perceive God outside of God’s self-revelations to us. The Bible, creation, and personal revelations are typically how God is understood as revealing God’s self to us, and thus are all we can look at to learn about God (and thus choose to lovingly trust God and submit ourselves to God).
Sarayu says she will speak to Mack in the Bible, as well as art, music, silence, through people and in Creation (198). The Bible is given no real place of honour in the list. Later, she tells Mack that the biblical commandments (at least the infamous “ten”) were not given for us to follow to know how to live righteously, but to convince us of the impossibility of living righteously independent of God (202). Reminds me of my grade ten algebra teacher who put grade twelve geo-trig questions on one of our exams to prove to us that we would fail if we didn’t listen silently in class. Now, most of the bible is made up of commandments. If the commandments are not to be followed, or even trusted, as signs of God’s will for us, what is?
Creation is even more problematic in Young’s Shack. Humans (according to Young’s portrayal of the Holy Spirit) were created as the pinnacle of creation. When we chose the “ravaged path of independence” we dragged all of Creation with us (132). How can we seek God’s revelation in God’s Creation, if we have made it all into something other than it was intended to be?
There are (according to Sarayu) still signs of what God intended within creation. Think of all those poisonous plants that, if treated properly, can provide much-needed medicines. God intended those, and hid them on purpose because all children love hide and seek and we are God’s children (132). I could almost feel my heart break when I read those words.
I am surprised Young doesn’t notice how callous and cruel his portrayal of God is. Perhaps we could make it clearer by asking him to pretend someone he cares for is suffering terribly and the medicine that will ease that suffering is in a pharmacy we have access to and will let him take all the pills he wants, free of charge. The pills are not labelled; too few of the correct pills will do nothing; too many will act as poison; the wrong pills may ease a symptom, but will not cure the illness, or they may poison the sufferer. Still, if he thinks of it as a game of hide and seek, then it’s all good. Isn’t it?
If God wants to hide things to encourage us to have fun exploring, there are many wonders that can be found with effort. Purposefully hiding medicines that someone needs to survive, is evil.
As for personal revelation, I already mentioned that Young’s Holy Spirit is willing to communicate in many ways. She will not speak loudly or clearly, and expects us to make mistakes trying to listen to her as that’s part of life (195-6). Not being able to tell what God’s will is so that we can choose to submit to it is a part of life. We are forced to independently reason and choose and make mistakes, because no revelation will be made clearly and unmistakably to us. Never mind that all suffering is the result of us choosing independence rather than submission. Never mind that we can not trust or submit to God if we can’t tell what is or isn’t God, let alone what is God’s will for us. Young’s God has cheerfully set us up to suffer and take the blame for our own suffering at the same time. But she assures us that when it is all made right (somehow, somewhere, sometime, presumably after we’re all dead), we will agree that it was worth the pain (125). Isn’t that nice to know?
In Young’s defence, his stated purpose for the book (according to his blog) was to write something for his children so that they could see how he has come to view God. He may have succeeded in that purpose. There’s no way I can know. Sadly, he chose to publish this book and it was published with a cover claiming this book would tell us where God is “in a world so filled with unspeakable pain”.
Apparently, God’s in a shack.