I started The Shack by William P. Young three times. The metaphors were so thick and ploddy that I kept losing the point of the sentences. And the syntax was dreadful.
But the book re-surfaced in my life, online, in personal emails asking me what I thought of it, my mom wanted to know if I recommended it and then the lynch-pin. I heard someone criticizing it as un-Biblical because there was no hierarchy in the Trinity. Now I had to read it. So last week while Dale pulled in a few trout along the Yampa River, I spent all morning with a determined look on my face, plowing through The Shack to find this Trinity stuff, to find why someone like Mark Driscoll would be afraid of his congregation reading it.
I gritted my teeth through the cumbrous Forward and first few chapters to eventually unearth a plot line that interested me. I came to like the main character, Mack who is a ragamuffin type (totally cool in my book) suffered a loss horrible, explained well enough to make me cry, and kept me shored up on the bank swatting mosquitoes for the next 4 hours.
Mack has a chance to meet God, who appears, in a shockingly unfamiliar, but not unorthodox, way as Papa (a large, tall African-American woman who loves to cook and speaks with a southern accent), as Jesus (a rather plain looking Middle-Eastern carpenter) and Sarayu (an airy, powerful Middle-Eastern woman who has this calming, serenity-inducing affect on all she meets). These are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but updated to cut through some harmful stereotypes that need to be sliced and diced and thrown away.
From my speaking on the road, I've encountered time and again women and men, young and old who cannot fathom that God could be more than male. They don't see how they have any other choice but to worship God as male. I've listened to women tell me that they can't believe they are as fully made in God's image as men (citing I Cor 11). I remember when I first realized that it was Jesus' divinity that saved all of us, not his masculinity and what that did to my concept of my own femininity. I recall watching a college woman's eyes grow wide with wonder when I told her, "You are as much of God's image bearer as a man, whether you are married or single."
There are plenty of culturally sound, but biblically inaccurate views of who God is. There are even arguments arguing that God is male, which means that something about females is less "like God" than males. The International Council for Gender Studies claims to communicate a biblical theology of manhood and womanhood. But they believe, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit are masculine in names, roles and nature." What on earth? Where in God's word do they find justification for this?
I regularly talk with people who believe that reason, power, potency, leadership, mind are male based strengths. This subtle sexism is found in more places than male-controlled church settings. Oprah's new spiritual guide, Eckhart Tolle claims that, "the energy frequency of the mind appears to be essentially male." But this belief whether spouted by Christians or non-Christians is not Biblically defensible. Mind is neither male nor female for both men and women have minds. Leaderships is neither male nor female, in fact the Bible never says a man is the God-appointed leader in marriage nor in the church. God is neither male nor female and he does not want to be represented exclusively as one or the other neither in the church or the home ("You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman." Deuteronomy 4:15-16)
There are some awfully inaccurate pictures of who God is, from uber-masculine to hierarchical that The Shack does helpful work to erase. Here are a few things that will be cited as controversial, but to which I give a hearty encore.
- While appearing female, God the Father, "Papa" makes it clear that she is not essentially female (or male) when she says "I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it's because I love you. 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" (While I belief "God's" syntax could have been better, I agree with what Papa is saying. I've written more about this in my first book, Ruby Slippers, see chapter 6 "Finding the Feminine in the Sacred")
- The argument that God must be three persons to be truly LOVE, finds a gracefully simple explanation when Papa says, "Unless I had someone to love then I would not be capable of love at all, you would have a god who could only love as a limitation of his nature." (This is the Love Argument, showing why the Trinity is itself an answer to a problem).
- On how the Fall affected men and women Young gets it right. The Fall wounded men's identity, for they tried to show through their achievements that they had value (listen to a group of men one-up each other about body parts, salaries, wife, kids, house, status). Jesus explains it in The Shack like this, "Men turned to the work of their hands and sweat of their brow to find their identity, value and security" The Fall wounded women's identity, now we tried to show through our relationships that we have value (listen to a group of women share their web of connectedness to their friends, their family, their children, listen to them measure their success by their relational intimacy). "Women turned not to the works of her hand but to the man, and his response was to rule over her, to take power over her, to become her rules." Just as it's difficult for men to turn from the works of their hands to Jesus, so it is hard for women to turn from demanding their man provide security to Jesus.
- Jesus later says that while women in charge would make the world much better, they would still not make it right. How I resonated with that as I try to show men how much they need me and how much I need them, I do NOT want to take over the world, the church, or the family. I want to partner with them because I know I am an essential part of God's image on earth. This is what Jesus in The Shack wants, too, "We want male and female to be counterparts, face-to-face equals each unique and different, distinctive in gender but complementary, and each empowered uniquely by Sarayu."
- On whether or not the Father has more authority or power than the Son or the Spirit, we get this beautiful explanation from the Holy Spirit, Sarayu, "Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to power is to choose to limit oneself--to serve."
- When Mack asks, "Isn't one of you more the boss of the other two" he gets to hear the orthodox explanation,
- "We have no concept of final authority among us, only unity, relationships without any overlay of power. We don't need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours."
- When Mack asks for an explanation Papa says, "Humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that people could work or live together without someone being in charge (translation: husband and wife can't have equal votes because you always need a tie-breaking vote.... where is that in the Bible?) . . . you rarely experience relationships apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you."
- This explanation is actually the orthodox one that NO hierarchy exists in the Godhead. This view recognizes that the Son limited himself on earth to fully depend on both the Spirit and the Father for his power, but that the Son is now re-initiated into power, that he has received this authority back again (see Matt 28:18). This view of the Trinity as a unity of equals, equal in essence and equal in role (except for Jesus' earthly stint) was polluted by recent complementarians who have chosen to read their theory of gender (man is given spiritual authority or leadership of woman) back onto their theology of the Trinity. The best defense of the original Trinitarian doctrine is the accessible book by Dr. Kevin Giles book Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity. A quick defense of the equality among the Trinity can be clearly seen in the Athanasian Creed, one of the treasure chests of all Christian's beliefs, "And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another. But the whole three persons are co-eternal, and coequal"
- Later Young has Jesus explain what mutual submission really looks like "That's the beauty you see in my relationship with Abba and Sarayu. We are indeed submitted to one another and have always been so and always will be. Papa is as much submitted to me as I to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not about obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way."
Dale and I ground our lives, our apologetic, our reason for following Jesus in the fact that of all religions Jesus dignified and validates our humanity. And I haven't even touched on the masterful way Young works through the problem of pain, which is actually the heart of the book, nor the way he talks about a Spirit-powered life, or the love that limits itself and the way the Trinity each and together restore Mack's soul.
Contrary to much of the alarmist reviews out there the book does not teach that "all will be saved", it does not distort or demean the Trinity or the body of Christ, within it's pages I found nothing pagan, nothing un-Biblical, nothing unorthodox. I found it helpful and God-honoring. If it is dangerous, as Mark Driscoll's words indicate, "If you haven't read The Shack, then don't!" then it's dangerous in all the ways Driscoll should, as a WWF wrestling-loving man, love.
But The Shack's danger is something Driscoll cannot embrace because Young effectively blows apart the argument that men should always be in charge, just like God the Father is in charge. It's dangerous because it claims that unconditional love is actually more powerful than male authority and female subjugation. This is the danger I love, for it frees and equips the Body of Christ to give to one another in mutual love and respect, not just one-way love and respect. It is the danger that flows from a God like Aslan, who is not safe, but good.
Read the book, wrestle through the poorly written points to get a refreshed experience of the depth of our God. So not let someone's alarm-ism or protectionism prevent you from dipping in.