“Jesus?” he whispered as his voice choked. “I feel so lost.”
A hand reached out and squeezed his, and didn’t let go. “I know, Mack. But it’s not true. I am with you and I am not lost.”
William P. Young’s book, The Shack is ultimately about the main character, Mack, discovering that he can find his way only through interaction and friendship with God. In light of all the theological content of the book, this is important because all theology should be all about the potential for relationship with God. Theology is a question of whether or not we can find any meaning or direction for life in a God who is above, beyond, and around all things.
Since The Shack dives into some significant theological themes, it is important to ask whether or not the theological content of the book is trustworthy and faithful to the message of the Bible. Before going into some examples, I’ll say up front that I believe that most of the theology of the book is well in line with a reasonable interpretation of the Scriptures, even if it is presented in an unconventional way. In fact, this unconventional approach is what piqued my interest.
I will miss some important moments and ideas in the book, but stay with me as I review the five themes which stood out to me the most.
“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” (p. 101).
The triune nature of God is a prominent theme throughout the story. Mack has interaction with each person of the Trinity, and is often presented with a plural pronoun when you would expect a singular one, and vice versa. When any member of the Trinity is speaking, they often say “we”, harkening back to the Old Testament, where the word for God, elohim, appears 2326 times. Elohim is a plural Hebrew word, a fact that is lost in the English translation, and it is significant that in a large number of times where the OT writers were referring to God, they were using a plural word.
The balance is provided by the fact that the oneness of God is also emphasized. At one point in the story, Mack is talking to Jesus, and he asks, “What about the others?”
“I’m here, I’m always here” was Jesus’ reply.
After reading the conversations about the Trinity, I began to wonder if the author would begin to err on the side of trying too hard to explain the character of God. However, at just the right time, Papa acknowledges the limits of our understanding:
“That you can’t grasp the wonder of my nature is rather a good thing. Who wants to worship a God who can be fully comprehended, eh? Not much mystery in that” (p. 101).
Is God a Male?
“For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning.” (p. 93)
One of the difficult parts of the book for some readers is the appearance of God the Father as an oversized black woman. Isn’t God presented as a Father figure in the Bible?
The Bible is full of father-language for God, and according to Papa’s character, this is for good reason:
“…we knew once the Creation was Broken, true fathering would be much more lacking than mothering. Don’t misunderstand me, both are needed––but an emphasis on fathering is necessary because of the enormity of its absence” (p. 94)
I don’t think there is reason to be offended by the Papa character in the story. Though God never appears as a woman in the Bible, God in his essence isn’t a male or a female. Those are human categories that only applied to God when Jesus entered our existence as a man.
“Does freedom mean that you are allowed to do whatever you want to do?” (p. 95)
Another important idea in the story is whether or not we are morally free. The dialogue between Mack and Papa contains a lot of powerful stuff about what kind of freedom we can experience as we allow God to work in our lives. God renders powerless the things which actually limit our freedom, such as our genetic heritage, our DNA, the subtle social influences, marketing, or propaganda. “Inside that confluence of multifaceted inhibitors, what is freedom really?” Papa asks.
Only in Christ the Truth can we know what it feels like to be gradually free from all these limiting influences.
Did God Limit Himself?
“…we became fully human. We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed. Even though we have always been present in this created universe, we now became flesh and blood. It would be like this bird, whose nature it is to fly, choosing only to walk and remain grounded. He doesn’t stop being the bird, but it does alter his experience of life significantly.” (p. 99)
The discussions between Mack and God are full of helpful guidance in thinking about what it meant for God to become flesh and blood and walk on this earth. At no point does he attempt to completely explain it, but illustrations like the one above helped me grasp the coming of Jesus more fully.
The Problem of Evil
“This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil. Evil is the chaos of this age that you brought to me, but it will not have the final say. Now it touches everyone that I love, those who follow me and those who don’t” (p. 190).
The central event in the book is a tragedy in Mack’s life which becomes a hinge for his entire life from that point forward. It also drove much of the discussion that he had with God, as Mack was baffled as to why God would not protect his family from experiencing the horrific effects of someone else’s wrongdoing.
This question captured me the most, as it is one I have struggled with a lot. I recently asked a co-worker the classic question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Almost without hesitation, I was given what sounded like a well-rehearsed answer. I was half kidding when I asked it, and didn’t have time at work to delve into such a murky existential question, but I marveled at how flippantly he was able to dismiss such a difficult question.
The dialogue in The Shack makes no such mistake, taking the issue very seriously. Ultimately Mack is led back to the question of love, when Papa says, “If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love.”
My only critical comment of the book is that I wish Young could have somehow presented the otherness of God a little more clearly. I love how he presents God in this story, but if this is God, then I want to be a little more baffled by his greatness. What makes the Gospel so astounding is the fact that this God whose existence can never be tamed or completely explained has chosen to love us and relate to us.
This invitation to be in relationship and this “possibility of love” in the midst of a broken world make up the central theme of The Shack. The story is a wonderful parable of God’s willingness to embrace us regardless of the risk that we would refuse God’s love. And once we see how absolutely pleasant it is to be in relationship with the God who created us, became one of us, and died for us, then we can let our guard down and fully enjoy dialogue and communion with the Lover of our souls, especially when we are deeply wounded by our own sin and the sin of others.
Your comments are welcome.