Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Shack- A Review

Note to reader- plot spoilers are NOT included, so feel free to whet your appetite here before picking up The Shack for yourself.

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.
  1. 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")
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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."
  5. 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."
As one last note on the book, I found that the author gets the point of what we care about at Soulation, "Helping others become more appropriately human." Papa tells Mack that the reason he can't understand why Papa permits all this world's atrocities, why he lets humans choose and relinquish (of their own free will) their independence to God so slowly and painfully, so respectfully of us is, because Mack has "such a small view of what it means to be human." Later Jesus says, "Follow Sarayu, that's the point. Now you're beginning to understand what it means to be truly human."

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.


Mike Sanborn said...

Hi Jonalyn! I read The Shack at the all church campout a few weeks ago and I couldn't put it down. I loved it. It has caused me to think deep thoughts about God and I have to say it's one of my favorite books. I plan on doing a 4 week elective here at Granada on The Shack's picture of God. Thanks for the review! -- Mike Sanborn

Caryn said...

Well said, Jonalyn! I read it for my church's book group earlier this summer. For sure the book needed an editor like nobody's business (YAY for book editors!!!) and sure there were moments where I winced a bit, but that book allowed conversation among a very diverse group that never would've happened. And I'm grateful for that. It opened up God in wonderful ways I think.

Dianne said...

You're the 2nd person this week to recommend The Shack to me! I tend to be wary of the watchdogs anyways, and those kind of opinions always drive me to check stuff out for myself. Great review; good stuff here on your blog as well. BTW, I love your point that "Jesus dignified and validates our humanity."

un-nerved said...

While I have not yet read the whole book, I did not find the reason for calling God "Papa" comforting at all. He says most people have had a bad experience of fatherhood and so need a redeeming image (p.94). To me, this excuses the centuries of misogyny where God is always seen as male AND twistedly excuses men from their perhaps fine and good gifts as fathers while perpetuating the stereotype that women are "good" and "gentle" but not leaders. I had a really hard time with that, and don't know if I can pick up the book again.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Mike- kudos for you introducing this book to the GHFC clan. I'm so glad they have you!

Caryn- glad to hear a discussion group found the book good for deeper thinking and sharing

Dianne- you've tapped into one of the main reasons my husband and I run our non-profit... the formal title for this branch of thought is "Christian humanism" for more see our website: And let me know what you think of The Shack once you're throught!

Unnerved- You make a very good point. I cannot defend Young, though I can say that God has chosen to reveal himself with both male and female attributes. I want you to see how Young redeems the picture of Father, Papa in the book, but I cannot do that without revealing some plot spoilers. Do you want me to share? If so, email me at Know, however, that however "papa" grates again you, "Papa" grated against Mack as well. Mack's father and Young's own parents were part of some pretty horrible abusive moments in both men's lives. I would encourage you to delve in again if only to see how Mack is healed.

About perpetuating the idea that women are not good leaders, I did not see that anywhere in Young's work. God the Father is feminine in the book and she is a wonderful leader, as is the Holy Spirit who appears in unadulterated (she isn't called by a male word) female form. What did you think of the Holy Spirit (Sarayu)?

If you haven't got this far, I think you'd enjoy Young's depiction of her!

Molly Aley said...

AMEN and AMEN again.

A powerful powerful podcast interview with The Shack's author is here:

AJ said...

Warning: I have not read 'The Shack,' though I eventually will.

My wife reads your blog and shares various posts with me. Because one of our friends has read 'The Shack' and highly recommends it, my wife showed me your review.

I have a question about this passage from your post (I apologize if the quoting style is incorrect):

'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."'

I think I understand what Young means when he has Jesus explain mutual submission. What I don't understand is what Young means when he has Jesus say, "we are submitted to you [humans] in the same way." Do you think Young means that humans and God are equal in authority, or something completely different?

I could be reading my own view (and current issues with God I'm working on) into that quote, which is something like this: God has authority over humans, even though humans are his friends--and humans should submit (or, perhaps a better word is surrender) to His authority or will because He knows what is better for us than we do.

I know I have several(if not many) messed up ideas about God--and I'm working on trying to figure out the lies I'm believing about God and getting the truth to travel from my head to my heart. From your review, it appears that 'The Shack' will help me in getting at the truth about God.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Thanks for the link. That is an good interview though it takes awhile to get through Steve Brown's self-conscious emceeing. Since your text got cut off, here's the link "Interview with William Young"
I hope others will see it to listen to how Young is both humble, wise and admirable. He makes a great point about shame and secrets. "Authenticity and secrets just don't go together . . . for me there's nothing I can't talk about. There is something in us that is driven into authenticity . . . the lies and secrets have made shadows of us all. We are as sick as the secrets we keep. Once the lies drop away, there is something attractive about that."

This is an excellent question because it brings up the issue of what submission is. We've been defining submission for so long (I'd say too long) as something an inferior does to a superior that we have lots of authority residue when we hear submission. How would you define submission?

I would define submission as "giving my life for yours" it includes both respect and love, meekness and humility. Submission can and often does flip typical hierarchies. Submission can be done by a parent toward their child, by a boss toward his employee, by a president toward the citizens.

I'd say that when God submits to us, he is giving his life for ours, he is being loving, gentle, meek, respectful of us. It is the ultimate bowing for God to submit to us, because God has so far to bow from. It doesn't diminish God's essential superiority for him to bow to us, to lay his life down for us. This is what theologians call "kenosis" , the emptying of Philippians 2.

I do believe God will give us much authority because that's what his submission looks like for us. The Bible teaches that we will rule angels (I Cor 6:3), that we are co-heirs (very much putting us on "his level") with Christ (Romans 8:17), and God says he will give authority over to us, the nations (Rev 2:26). So while God's essence is greater than us, he shares his authority with us. Does that make sense?

I would challenge you to back up the concept of "surrender" with Scripture. I do not see surrender as something God wants from us. He wants our love and delight in him. He wants strong wills for good, not inert wills which is what surrender denotes.

What are your follow-up thoughts?

I do think The Shack will help in restoring your concept and picture of God. Glad you're willing to walk this road.

AJ said...

Warning: This post is rather long. Really long, actually.

Hello again.

I think my definition of submission would be something like “coming under to support,” which I think I’m getting from a sermon I heard in which a pastor was talking about the famous (or perhaps infamous) passage from Ephesians 5:21-33. The pastor said that in the Greek, the meaning of submit was something like “coming under to support,” and he also mentioned that, in the Greek, there is no verb ‘submit’ in v. 22, so that the literal translation would be something like “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, and for an example, look at wives and husbands.” He also said that in a previous series he went through the Greek in more detail, but I haven’t gone back to find that message yet. But, I digress.

I completely agree that “while God’s essence is greater than us, he shares his authority with us.” I think it’s somewhat scary how much authority He does give us, although it’s also an awesome privilege.

I think I get a lot, if not all, of my concept of “surrender” from steps 1, 2, and 3 of the 12 steps of recovery. My will isn’t very good at running my life, so I have to surrender my will for God’s will, because He actually knows how to run my life. I understand that God wants to make us into “little Christs” as Dallas Willard says in one of his talks in ‘Knowledge of Christ in Today’s World’ (which I highly recommend to anyone, and I think they are sold on amazon). Willard says in one of those talks that the process by which we become little Christs is by “the transformation of the will, or as I call it in the book, the renovation of the heart.” So that is where my concept of “surrender” is coming from.

Biblically, I would say that my concept of “surrender” would be found in these three quotes:

John 4:31-34 “Meanwhile his disciples urged him, "Rabbi, eat something." But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about." Then his disciples said to each other, "Could someone have brought him food?" "My food," said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”

John 5:19-20 "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these.”

Luke 22: 39-42 “Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, "Pray that you will not fall into temptation." He withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."

I think that those three passages illustrate my concept of “surrender,” in which Jesus is trying to do the Father’s will. I don’t think I’m taking the quotes out of context, or reading into the quotes what I want them to say. It is possible that I’m misinterpreting them, though—my wife would know, since she introduced me to hermeneutics.

I totally agree that God wants us to love and delight in Him, and that He wants strong wills for good. I have a tough time loving God and delighting in Him for who He is, rather than all the cool stuff He can do for me. But I’m working on that—and likely will be for the rest of my life. I’m not sure that my concept of “surrender” would lead to an inert will, because I would be using my will to figure out what God wants me to do, think, etc. Perhaps that makes me sort of like a robot, though—although I think God would still want me to ask for His input on decisions instead of just ignoring Him.

I suppose, though, that my concept of “surrender” also ties into my concept of “dependence” on God. I think that when I start to use my will apart from God, then I start to lose my dependence on Him, even if I’m doing good, non-sinful things. So, perhaps through my concept of “surrender” I stay dependent on God.

Dale Fincher said...


I like all your discussion on the comments. Willard is great.

Mind if I add a few clarifying points?

On the topic of surrender, there seems to be a couple of ways to approach it. One is passive: a ceasing of the will (because many assume the will is wrong and strong will is worse). It comes out in language of "I just want God to work through me. I'm not doing the work, God is."

While this view probably has its roots in 19th century revivalism, it is often akin to modern spirituality movements where we lose ourselves into the energy of the universe.

This is a tough view for me to swallow, though I know reading some verses from a certain angle could lead to this view.

Another form of surrender is "changing our allegiance." It is as Lewis said, when we come to Jesus we must lay down our arms. Many of the verses you listed fall into this category. Even Jesus wrestled with the human emotion of the prospect of death, pulling natural desires of aversion into the divine plan.

While Jesus didn't have to change his allegiance, the rest of us have to, at some point, put down our weapons on the battlefield. And in process of finding hidden weapons on our person throughout our walk, we lay those down too.

And when we're bringing ourselves into allegiance and 'surrendering' in that sense to a new kingdom, then, yes, it is surrender.

All that said, I don't know if that second view is what most people mean. Usually surrender is a passive thing, a beating oneself into a weaker will so God can have us (as if our wills are keeping us from him). I've heard few conversations where people actually speak of having a strong will and merely re-orienting it.

So for all practical purposes, I'd rather use 'allegiance' or, as you stated, 'dependence.' I avoid 'surrender' when I can because of smuggled in additional meanings.

Onto the idea of 'submission,' yes, the Greek word of it means to 'order under.' At least that's what the lexicons say. Extra-Biblical sources are finding it could also mean 'to be associated with.' This second meaning requires a lot more out of wives than the merely 'follow the leader' that has come with it.

That doesn't mean 'order under' isn't also a proper definition, like when obeying civil authorities, etc. But 'obedience' is not always associated with 'submission' (like the Eph 5 passage). And when it isn't there, then I wouldn't attach 'authority' as an automatic assumption.

Scripture sometimes doesn't use specific words to say things we can look up in a dictionary. This is something modernism has required. May times Scripture gives a story, paints a picture, turns a metaphor. The clinching word may not be present, but the concept is in vivid detail.

I think love is like this, as is burden bearing, etc. When the husband is called to 'love,' it is no less a submissive act. Jesus was submissive in this way (the older KJV word might be more helpful--subject). Jesus subjected himself to us, to the cross, to our sin, to our dirty feet, to our brokenness. His patience was played out, his compliment of condescension, his raising us up to be co-heirs with him. This shouldn't imply we have authority over him by any means. But the word 'savior' doesn't imply authority as does the word 'lord.' And in his saviorhood he subjected himself to us in love and asks we do it to one another.

Other examples of submission: when I go out in nature, I submit (subject) myself to the elements. When I speak to an audience, I submit (subject) myself to their opinion. When I pray for my neighbor, I submit (subject) myself to their burden. When I play basketball, I submit (subject) myself to the rules of the game. These are all examples of submission not carrying authority of me, but it does require the will to be involved in situations where we may be scarred or hurt... and there's usually also the potential for reward and gain. There's a vulnerability that is implied, but, again, being vulnerable doesn't automatically mean being under authority. Yet there does seem to be one unalterable rule to the universe: unless we submit (subject) ourselves to one another, we do not find love.

Mark 10 unfolds the role of the greatest in this world: they become last. That's become a cliche too often in the church, but if we meditate on what this means, I think we'll arrive at a much deeper sense of submitting (subjecting) to one another means. I think this can be illustrated well in marriage, with mutual submission... the woman freely associating herself with her man and the man freely laying his life down daily. Paul's created a paradox of submission: when we do it to one another, something blossoms that would otherwise have remained untapped.

That's the Trinitarian picture Young is painting in The Shack. When there is love, there is no need for heirarchy within the nature of a species, no need for government, each and every bowing the knee to Jesus and living for each other... everyone is not only look after his own interests, but equally looking out for the interest of others.

Those are some thoughts on this.

Deb said...

For the love.
Mark Driscoll is afraid of... what? sigh...

But I shouldn't have been surprised to read that he was upset. As one of my very wise and observant friends said, 'it has the fundies jumping outta their undies.'

Have read several of your blog posts... will def be back!