My kids head to camp in a couple of weeks. While there, they'll have opportunity to purchase goodies at the Snack Shack each day. I've learned that "snack" is the Greek word for "junk food." The candy bars and sodas they purchase are delicious, but hardly nutritious.
I'm afraid that's my critique of The Shack, a very popular book on the Amazon bestsellers list. The book, by William Young, enjoys a list of endorsements from people like musician Michael W. Smith and author Eugene Peterson [The Message] who touts it as another Pilgrim's Progress. Let me tell you why I disagree.
The book is an allegory and, while allegories are afforded creative license, I believe they must correspond to what is true. This is especially important when it comes to biblical truth. In other words, a Christian author cannot set some truths aside in order to communicate other truths. A partially true work is false.
The Shack contains several points that I believe are dangerous, if not heretical. First, I am concerned about the author's view on the authority of the Bible. On pages 65-66, the main character contemplates a "note" he has received from God. Young writes,
“In seminary [Mack] had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice has been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while the educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just a book.”
This viewpoint sets the stage for the rest of the book. Young dismisses propositional truth-- revealed by God and recorded in Scripture--and exchanges it for an experiential encounter with God. This popular position is held by many in a postmodern culture who criticize those who start with the Bible as their guide for life. Such absolutism, they claim, puts God "in a box."
The logical outcome for Young is that God can be whatever he [or anyone else] wants Him to be. While I appreciate the author's contention that God is not "white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf," I do believe that God has revealed Himself in time in particular ways. When we take liberty with God's revelation, we run dangerously into the woods of heresy. With that in mind, I would argue:
1. The mysterious doctrine of the Trinity holds one God in three persons...not three Gods. Young sounds very tri-theistic throughout his work.
2. God the Father cannot be reduced to human form--not as an African American woman named "Papa" or anything else. The 2nd commandment very strictly forbids creating [or allegorizing] the Almighty with human characteristics. The principle is important: You cannot use the stuff below [on earth] to fashion the God above. I think it was Voltaire who said, "God created man in His image and man has since more than reciprocated." We often create God in our image rather than the other way around.
3. God has communicated Himself using masculine pronouns. I know this isn't popular and there are many who have theological arguments for neutering the godhead. My position has less to do with gender and all to do with a respect for Divine revelation.
The outcome of this reduction of God is that God isn't honored as He ought to be. A perfect example is when Mack comes into the presence of God. His response looks nothing like the awestruck, humble, repentant position of people in the Bible. Rather, when Mack first meets "Papa," he's angry [his face flushed red and his hands knotted into fists; p. 92] at God for the tragedy God allowed years earlier [I'll let you read about it]. Strangely, Papa's response is, "Mack, I am so sorry..."
Wait a minute! The Creator of the universe apologizing to Mack or me for what He has sovereignly orchestrated?! If God is always in control and is forever accomplishing His divine purposes, He need not apologize for anything! And, He certainly doesn't apologize to us! If there's any doubt, reread the story of Job and notice God's response to a man who lost even more than Mack.
A similar reductionism is expressed regarding salvation. An important dialogue takes place between Mack and Jesus:
“Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans… Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”
“Does that mean,” asked Mack, “that all roads will lead to you?”
“Not at all,” smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you”
Where do I start? What does the author mean when Jesus says "I have no desire to make them [other faiths] Christian"? Does he suggest that Christianity is too exclusive and our "only way" of salvation is an "imposition" on other faiths? Young seems to lean in this direction by having Jesus add that He wants to "join in their transformation" as if people of other faiths can be transformed in and through their faiths. Whatever happened to John 14:6?
Young attempts to take himself off the hook when he has Jesus answer Mack that "all roads don't lead to Him," but it is in what he does not say that is troublesome. He never clarifies. And so, he leaves the issue of universalism up for grabs. The good news for him [and his publisher] is that the topic is left so obscure that an uncritical reader on either side will be left happy.
To be fair, there are redemptive messages in The Shack. The reader does get a beautiful picture of God's grace. He or she is challenged to understand forgiveness. And, Young does a great job tapping into the love of God, helping the Christian to understand and embrace their identity in Christ. However, the worst of all liars in history have uttered lines of truth. Their truth, however, didn't change the reality of their errors.
I would not necessarily encourage people not to read The Shack but would strongly urge caution. I suggest that the book is a snack--a taste, but not terribly nutritious. The danger is that, like children, we may prefer the sweetness on our tongue and not realize the sugary decay that comes from careless eating.