God and Fiction – A Look at The Shack, Part 4

    For those of you who may be looking for the May CSFF Top Blogger Award poll, today is the last day to vote.

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Though it is a novel, The Shack by William P. Young has some very specific things to say, particularly about God and our relationship to Him. Perhaps a few lines from the “After Words” can summarize the theme:

[Mack’s] hoping for a new revolution, one of love and kindness—a revolution that revolves around Jesus and what he did for us all and what he continues to do in anyone who has a hunger for reconciliation and a place to call home.
– p. 248

Clearly, Mr. Young stresses God’s love and relationship—within the God-head, between God and Man, and ultimately between Man and Man.

Who can criticize such a worthy endeavor? some might say. I don’t think the endeavor is in question, but the product must be scrutinized, if we are to be discerning.

I applaud Mr. Young’s effort to show God as loving. Clearly, this is the message that resonates with so many readers. But there is a problem.

If I were to tell you that I am the richest person in the world and that I have decided to give my blog readers whatever they ask of me because I’m so happy with them for their support and loyalty, how would you react? With joy? Humility? Gratitude? Or … would you be skeptical about my claims to be the richest person in the world? (Hint: you’re wise if you choose the latter! 😉

You see, I think some of The Shack fans are reacting to what they perceive to be great news without examining the claims. But here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, it’s examination time.

The Other Side of the Ledger. The point that most needs examining in The Shack, from my perspective, is what Mr. Young says about God. Numerous bloggers, including such men as Chuck Colson and Tim Challies, author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, have examined the view of God portrayed in The Shack, so you might wonder why I think it’s necessary to add my voice on the subject.

From the reading I’ve done these past few days, it seems as if most critics have focused on the obvious—Mr. Young’s use of women to portray members of the God-head, the denial of a hierarchy in Mr. Young’s description of the trinity, and his portrayal of the Father and the Spirit in bodily forms.

Those are valid criticisms, and serious ones, but since much has been written already, I won’t spend a lot of time on them other than to say, these are serious matters.

God revealed Himself as Father. His masculine persona is not a construct of religion.

Jesus submitted to the will of the Father, clearly showing there is a hierarchy in the God-head without there being a devaluation of any of the persons.

And the Father revealed Himself in the Old Testament as a burning bush, a pillar of fire, a storm, and a still, small voice, yet Scripture also says no one has seen the Father. The Shack protagonist’s revamped view of God as a kindly woman, then as an older hiker is no more accurate than his previous conception of God as a Gandalf figure. More troubling is the idea that God will change his appearance to accommodate humans:

Mackenzie, I am neither male nor female … If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you.
– p. 93

Later when the God figure appears as a man, this exchange:

Mack shook his head. “You’re still messing with me, aren’t you?’
“Always,” he said with a warm smile …”This morning you’re going to need a father.”
– p. 219

While those points are troubling and have serious ramifications, I want to concentrate on a point that seems to be less often challenged. Mr. Young asserts that Jesus, while fully God and fully human, chose to set aside his divine nature while on earth:

Although [Jesus] is also fully God, he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being. He is just the first to do it to the uttermost—the first to absolutely trust my life within him, the first to believe in my love and my goodness …
– pp. 99-100

This assertion simply is not so! Jesus Himself told John’s disciples who asked Him if He was the Expected One to report what they saw: the blind received sight, lepers were cleansed, the dead raised. These acts, Jesus inferred, testified that, yes, He was the One.

Later, as He moved through a crowded street, He stopped because someone touched Him and He felt power go out of Him. I don’t pretend to understand this, but the point for this discussion is clear—Jesus did in fact have power.

In an opposite case that proves the same thing, when Jesus was in Nazareth, Scripture records that He could do few miracles because the people didn’t believe. Presumably, if Jesus was merely tapping into God’s power, healing would have been available to Him no matter what. The people didn’t believe that this son of their neighbors could really be doing miracles. According to Mr. Young, He wasn’t. Scripture implies, He was.

There’s more. Jesus forgave sins. On the spot. In front of others. In fact it was a source of contention between Him and the Pharisees.

Jesus underwent a transfiguration—a glorification of His body that brought Him into communion with Moses and Elijah. Again, I don’t pretend to understand this, but I recognize that this event was unique to Jesus, an expression of His divinity.

Jesus often demonstrated omniscience. He knew what the Pharisees were thinking from time to time. He knew Peter would find a gold coin in the mouth of a fish; that He would deny Christ three times; that the disciples would find a certain colt tied up in a nearby village; that they would see a man carrying water and follow him to an upper room; that the woman at the well had been married five times before and was currently living with a man who was not her husband; that the widow at the temple had offered her last two coins.

He even demonstrated omnipresence when He saw Nathanael sitting under the fig tree before Phillip called him.

He exercised authority over demons, over nature, over the temple. He claimed authority to interpret the law and explain the prophets.

Ultimately, a man he healed said it best:

Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened he eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, He could do nothing.
– John 9:32-33

So here’s the point. How reliable is Mr. Young’s message as it stands, if he doesn’t even begin with a true and accurate picture of who Jesus is?

Series continued in Part 5.

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Published in: on May 28, 2009 at 1:21 pm  Comments (13)  
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13 Comments

  1. First, a disclaimer. I haven’t read the book yet.

    Becky, you stated “…most critics have focused on the obvious — (1) Mr. Young’s use of women to portray members of the God-head, (2) the denial of a hierarchy in Mr. Young’s description of the trinity, and (3) his portrayal of the Father and the Spirit in bodily forms.”

    I don’t see any of these are all that serious.

    (1) I had an interesting professor in college that made just this point. God – technically – would be genderless. He’s not human per se and gender is a quality of humanity. It’s us projecting onto God out our own understanding of Him.

    Now, He did choose to reveal Himself as male but look at the time period. Do you really think a feminine deity would have attracted as much attention? I don’t think His choice of gender was as important as we make out.

    Plus, we stereotype. Men are tall and strong. Women are the weaker vessel and have long hair. Balderdash! I’m known mouse-men and lionesses that have defied these stupid stereotypes. So, what does scripture say? I can think of one verse that kind of sums up my view.

    “1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was [a] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” – Gen: 1:1-2

    That word “hovering” in verse two can be more accurately translated as brooding. The visual description – and Hebrew is SO good at these – is of a mother hen sitting on her nest of eggs to keep them warm.

    This is what God is like – a mother hen brooding over her new creation. We would call that a feminine description yet it’s very clear. He loves us that much.

    I just think that attributing feminine characteristics to God is not heretical and I think this verse bears this out. The entire bible can be understood as a story of redemption. I learned recently that stories can be either masculine of feminine. (There’s a nice post from earlier this year on Brandilyn Collins’ blog for those interested in hearing more.) Well, masculine stories are about accomplishments and conquering things – in a word, action. Feminine stories are about restoring a balance. I believe redemption falls best into the latter and if that’s the primary relationship we have with God – and it’s predominantly understood as feminine to us – then I have no problem with Mr. Young’s depiction of God as a woman.

    (2) I think this is a legitimate concern, but the case needs to be made correctly and for that we must go to history. Where does the hierarchy that we have now come from? Most people might have a concept of a hierarchy but they might not be able to express it and they wouldn’t necessarily put The Big Three in the “correct” order. (BTW, the traditional correct order is Father over the Son over the Spirit.) But, again, where did it come from?

    My college course days are long past but I remember this being sorted out at one of the big church councils. And it was determined somewhat late compared to other aspects of the faith. Either way, there were some people of the period that had a different hierarchy (placing the Spirit on top) and this was considered blasphemy. These people were deposed and the traditional structure we know now was formally recognized.

    Now, I have no problem with putting the Godhead into a hierarchy, but is it scriptural? I can definitely see evidence for this order with the Spirit on the low-end but maybe a better question to ask is how does God see Himself? The only scripture I know that hints at this is in the Tower of Babel story.

    “5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” – Gen. 11:5-7 (NIV)

    Verse 7 says “let US go down…”. I don’t see a hierarchy there. I see equity. Furthermore, one of the traditional views of the creation is that the Father spoke everything into existence, the Son formed it, and the Spirit gave life to all living things. That’s cooperation, not delegation as in a hierarchy.

    So, my conclusion is that God doesn’t see Himself in a hierarchy. I think this is a human construct that can help us understand and relate to Him better, but it’s not necessary – it’s not canon. Thus, I have no problem with Mr. Young on this point.

    (3) Remember that this IS an analogy and there’s just no better way to show dialogue in a book with an etherial entity than in some kind of bodily form. I’d chalk this up to a constraint of the medium and not put so much emphasis on it. I mean, how else are you going to portray them? Hampsters in a cage? A lion a.k.a. Narnia?

    Mr. Young could do a lot worse than present the Father and Spirit as people. Jesus did exist in bodily form so there is a precedent. I guess I just have to wonder why this is even an issue…

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  2. Sorry for the previous long comment, but there was a lot of meat in there.

    I do agree with you about the “drawn upon his nature” quote. I confess I don’t even understand what Mr. Young is saying but I wonder about the context. (Remember, I haven’t read the book yet.) Surely Mr. Young can’t mean that Jesus didn’t use His power. Clearly that’s not so. I just can’t help but think that something important is missing from this conversation. I guess I’ll find out when I read the book.

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  3. Daniel, given that you haven’t read The Shack yet, I’m impressed that you slogged through my entire post.

    You are of course right that God from time to time in Scripture reveals a “feminine side.” He did, after all, create both men and women, so femininity derives from God as much as does masculinity. The point is, however, God chose to identify Himself as Father, not mother.

    There are a couple things to understand here. God’s doing so had nothing to do with the times. He was not forced to reveal Himself as masculine because the culture was patriarchal. He established before time that Jesus would be born of a virgin. How would female god be identified as Jesus’s parent? (And NO, He did not have two mommys! Jesus taught His disciples to pray by saying, Our Father who is in heaven …)

    As C.S. Lewis wrote, even the most masculine human, when compared to God, will appear feminine. God as masculine communicates something important about our relationship with Him. He is our father; we are Christ’s bride. Those are not meaningless connections. They have value.

    And Daniel, I can’t help but think Satan would love to shake things up, give us the idea that we need to view gender through egalitarian glasses, because in so doing, we lose an understanding of God that He revealed. If we stop thinking of Him as Father or if we stop thinking that a father is important in a home or begin thinking that a father can be a mother, then we no longer understand God in the way that He showed Himself—in the Bible and in His relationship with Jesus.

    It is indeed an important issue.

    Becky

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  4. I have no problem with putting the Godhead into a hierarchy, but is it scriptural? Daniel, did Jesus do His own will or the Father’s when He went to the cross? Remember in the garden when He prayed, He was asking out, but concluded His prayer with the oft-repeated line, Not My will but Yours. Jesus shows us the Father, is the mediator between God and Man, both implying that He is somehow serving the Father.

    Is there unity in the God-head? Absolutely. Is one more important than the other? Not at all. Is one subservient to the others? I don’t think so. But the Son demonstrates a willingness to submit to the Father that I think is important.

    And the Spirit, convicting of sin, leading us into all Truth, comforting, is sent by the Son, so yes, I think that alone seems to indicate the Spirit obeys the Son, rather than the other way around.

    Becky

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  5. A lion a.k.a. Narnia?

    Daniel, before C. S. Lewis, the Bible referred to Jesus as the Lion of Judah. He’s also pictured as a lamb. These images are purposeful, but not to be taken literally.

    In Mr. Young’s story, He shows God the Father as “Papa,” with physical form. In so doing, he trivializes Him. Much of what I said in today’s post applies to this issue.

    As to your last comment, I’m surprised you think I took that quote out of context. I don’t know what I said in my post to make you think I’m trying to railroad The Shack to the point of having it say things it did not.

    Just for you, here’s the context. Papa has brought a little bird into the kitchen and put it on the table as an object lesson.

    Papa talking:

    “Although by nature he is fully God, Jesus is fully human and lives as such. [Note the present tense] While never losing the innate ability to fly [he does not mean literal flying], he chooses moment-by-moment to remain grounded. That is why his name is Immanuel, God with us, or God with you, to be more precise.”

    “But what about all the miracles? The healings? Raising people from the dead? Doesn’t that prove that Jesus was God—you know, more than human?”

    “No, it proves that Jesus is truly human.”

    “What?”

    “Mackenzie, I can fly, but humans can’t. Jesus is fully human. Although he is also fully God he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being. He is just the first to do it to the uttermost—the first to absolutely trust my life within him, the first to believe in my love and my goodness without regard for appearance or consequence.”

    “So, when he healed the blind?”

    “He did so as a dependent, limited human being trusting in my life and power to be at work within him and through him. Jesus, as a human being, had no power within himself to heal anyone.” [emphasis mine]

    That came as a shock to Mack’s religious system.

    “Only as he rested in his relationship with me, and in our communion—our co-union—could he express my heart and will into any given circumstance. So, when you look at Jesus and it appears that he’s flying, he really is … flying. But what you are actually seeing is me; my life in him. That’s how he lives and acts as a true human, how every human is designed to live—out of my life.”

    There’s a little more on the topic, but it mostly serves as a transition. The point is, if you take what Mr. Young is saying here, the conclusion is basically we all can live as Jesus lived because He wasn’t really here as God. He was, but he chose to walk instead of to fly. So His signs of Messiahship He told John’s men to report? Those weren’t signs of divinity at all. I don’t know how Mr. Young would account for the instances of omniscience or the transfiguration, or …

    But that’s the point. He doesn’t engage Scripture. He puts out ideas that sound intriguing and fresh and different and anti-religious. Notice in the quote about, at the most bizarre statement, his next line is That came as a shock to Mack’s religious system.

    So readers who are equally shocked, may then thinks, Oh, I’m just shocked by this line because of my religious system. I need to keep an open mind and not let my programming dictate how I view these things.

    It’s a clever ploy, I have to admit.

    Becky

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  6. […] not sure I’m completely tracking with Becky on this post from Thursday, though. So I was leaving her an answer and it got so long (surprise, surprise!), I […]

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  7. Re: Becky #3

    I just wanted to share a few of my viewpoints to further explore the issues raised. I think you are correct that there were more reasons God chose to reveal himself as masculine. I just did not have time to write more. (And I already wrote a lot.) I had not heard the C. S. Lewis quote before – thanks for sharing that.

    I just can’t help but wonder if in viewing God so strictly as masculine, especially when there are such clear feminine aspects and understandings, we don’t miss out on *that* side of Him too. It’s also ironic that I, being male, am arguing in favor of remaining open to the so-called feminine characteristics of God in opposition to you, a female, who is arguing for the masculine side. Clearly, masculinity is the dominant trait and perspective of God yet there is more there that should not be overlooked.

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  8. Re: Becky #5

    I’m sorry, but I’m not understanding you. I did not trivialize anything or mean to. If I did, I apologize.

    I wasn’t accusing you of taking the quote out of context at all. My words could have been clearer in retrospect. I was referring to my own lack of context since I had not read the book yet. I don’t think you are railroading anything. Your clarity of thought and objectivity are two of the reasons I keep coming back. I think you have important things to say and I like being part of the conversation.

    Oh yes…that quote again. I really didn’t understand it. The longer quote definitely helps. Thank you.

    Ahhh. It’s one of the -isms. I forget which. It’s been a while since my college days. The traditional conservative view is that Jesus was both fully 100% human and fully 100% God at the same time in the same physical being. This passage does not support that, though I think I understand Mr. Young’s intent. His intent is to show that we humans (the readers) have to trust in God with all our being. However, I think Mr. Young sacrifice’s Christ’s deity to do it and that’s unacceptable. This quote violates the concept of the trinity too. It’s written as if Jesus was just a very good person and thus, by comparison, all humans can attain Godhood like him (lower h) by totally trusting in the Father. This latter part is clearly a form of Humanism though I cannot be more specific. I think people in a past century were burned at the stake for such beliefs…

    Becky: I begin to understand why you have problems with this book. I would have the same. Thanks again for sharing.

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  9. […] In the last two posts, I’ve made a case for my belief that The Shack misrepresents the divinity of Jesus and trivializes God’s person. Equally troubling is a more subtle inaccurate portrayal of […]

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  10. It’s also ironic that I, being male, am arguing in favor of remaining open to the so-called feminine characteristics of God in opposition to you, a female, who is arguing for the masculine side.

    😀 I thought that was ironic, too.

    I do appreciate that more notice seems to be taken regarding God’s nurturing aspects. But because our culture seems bent on distorting the man/woman relationship, I guess I’m sensitive to signs that the church is following suit.

    We are blessedly different. Equal in value, different in function. I don’t have a problem with this. In the past, the problems came in thinking there was difference in value as well as in function, but this is clearly not the Biblical view.

    The new error seems to be in thinking of the sexes as equal in value and equal in function. Sorry, but that distortion flies in the face of reality!

    Becky

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  11. Daniel, when I said the following, I wasn’t implying that this is your position: In Mr. Young’s story, He shows God the Father as “Papa,” with physical form. In so doing, he trivializes Him. Unfortunately, The Shack does this by portraying the God-head in such flippant, casual terms.

    Glad the longer quote helped. I agree with you that part of Mr. Young’s view makes a valid and valuable point about our need to depend on God. If he’d only stopped while he was ahead. 😉

    And as always, Daniel, I appreciate your willingness to engage on these issues.

    Becky

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  12. There is one being who does change his form who is in the bible, and it’s sure as heck not God. Perhaps the true identity of who met this person in the shack?

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  13. […] After all, one of the main themes in The Shack was love: Clearly, Mr. Young stresses God’s love and relationship—within the God-head, between God and Man, and ultimately between Man and Man. – A Christian Worldview of Fiction, “God and Fiction – A Look at The Shack, Part 4″ […]

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