Well after much procrastination and delay, I finally picked up my copy of The Shack by William P. Young and read it. So where does one start with any kind of analysis?
One should always start, of course, with positive comments and attempt to be fair. So my attempt to be fair and appreciative: The story was in itself engaging. Young's attempt to portray the dynamism in the relationship among the persons of the Trinity was ambitious. Perhaps the most insightful portions revolved around Mack's failure to trust the goodness of God and the nature of emotions.
During a conversation in which Mack is wrestling with the injustice which has been perpetrated on his daughter, the Father figure "Papa" remarks: "The real underlying flaw in your life, Mackenzie, is that you don't think that I am good. If you knew I was good and that everything - the means, the ends, and all the processes of individual lives - is all covered by my goodness, then while you might not always understand what I am doing, you would trust me. But you don't." To which I would only say, Amen. We frequently doubt the goodness of God displayed in the face of Christ - and this doubting is no piety but impiety.
Also profitable was his handling of emotions. When Mack asks for help understanding emotions, Sarayu responds, "Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions. Most emotions are responses to perception - what you think is true about a given situation. If your perception is false, then your emotional response to it will be false too." Peter calls us to sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts - and our hearts include not only what we think and what we do but also how we feel. Every area of our lives is to be subject to the Lordship of Christ, including our emotions. So, once again, Amen.
These were highlights for me from the book. Problems? Well there are many. The book is pervasively Arminian. As a good lover of Pauline and Augustinian election (cf. Eph 1), I find this troubling and ultimately an empty solution to the problems the main character faces. Young's conception of the Trinity is problematic, verging on modalism. He has a hard time with masculinity and so begins his tale by presenting God in female imagery - something Scripture avoids intentionally. This problem with masculinity is pervasive throughout the book. These criticisms have been made compellingly and winsomely by Tim Challies and Doug Wilson.
The single most pervasive problem in the book was Young's tendency to draw various dualisms between "relationship" and whatever phenomenon he doesn't particularly like. So he has a dualsim between rules and relationship (198), between roles and relationship (148), between institutions and relationship (178), between hierarchy and relationship (124), between religion and relationship (179). While the last has been extremely popular in evangelicalism for many years, the other dualisms are related much more to modern American culture than to any sort of biblical wisdom.
Take, as one example, his dualism between rules and relationship. Frequently we find the author criticizing the notion of a rules based faith and insisting instead on the need for a relationship free from such shackles. A rule based faith is inherently anti-Christian and destructive.
Now on the one hand there is certainly a legitimate distinction to be made here. We are not to pursue the law of God, the statutes of God, the (dare we say it) rules of God with any kind of merit mentality. We do not keep the law of the Lord as some means to earn God’s favor. Rather as those who stand in a right relationship with God, we hunger and thirst for His commands.
Consider the way in which the Servant of the Lord approaches the commands of God in Isaiah 50:4ff. He listens to the Word of God, meditates upon it, and in faith obeys what the Lord has revealed. He obeys in the knowledge that the Lord will help Him, that he will not be ashamed. His labor is not in vain in light of the promises of God.
But The Shack proceeds far beyond this legitimate Scriptural insight and instead embraces the modern dualism between rules and relationships. Scripture embraces no such dualism. The Servant of Isaiah is characterized by being attentive to the teaching, the doctrine, the rules and laws of His Master. In addition, we find in verse 10 of the Song that we are exhorted to give ear to the Word of the Servant.
Note the attitude toward the law that is reflected in the calls of Isaiah to "Listen" after this Servant Song. Isaiah 51:4 declares
“Listen to Me, My people; And give ear to Me, O My nation: For law will proceed from Me, And I will make My justice rest As a light of the peoples.”
Law will proceed from Him (cf. Isaiah 2:1ff) - and this is a good thing. The Scriptures certainly do recognize that adherence to rules simply because they are rules is deficient and inadequate. It also confesses that the goal of piety is to move beyond the simple recitation of rules to the internalization of those rules. This is the whole point of Psalm 119. We also see it in the passage we are examining in Isaiah. Look at 51:7-8:
“Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, You people in whose heart is My law: Do not fear the reproach of men, Nor be afraid of their insults. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, And the worm will eat them like wool; But My righteousness will be forever, And My salvation from generation to generation.”
Rules and relationships are not contrary to one another, in other words, but complementary to one another. We experience this in any relationship. When a relationship is just starting or when it has been rocky and is beginning to recover, simple rules are where things start. “OK,” the counselor will advise, “don’t do that anymore, do this instead.” Obviously the relationship should not stop there – the knowledge should grow and deepen so that the laws become internalized, so that they become habits of behavior. But when you’ve got bad habits, the initial destruction of them comes via baby steps of obedience, putting to death old habits and giving life to new habits. Scripture knows no dualism between rules and relationship.
We could likewise analyze the various other dualisms that Young has established, demonstrating that each of them has far less to do with biblical wisdom than with modern American culture. The danger of this approach to "relationship" is that it makes "relationship" a new idol - and God is not particularly fond of idols. And this is my final critique of the book - the god displayed in its pages simply cannot deal with the portrayal of God in the Scriptures, especially the prophets. Young's god is not sovereign, not holy, not just. He is all about "hanging-out." But the God of Scripture? He is the High and Holy One, the Lord God is His Name.