A while back, the editor of Christian News Northwest sent me an email saying that they were going to publish a quite critical review ofThe Shack by my colleague Jim DeYoung. They had contacted William Paul Young, the author, inviting him to reply. Paul declined firmly, suggesting that they contact me!
After a lot of reflecting, I agreed to do a parallel review which would express my much more positive perspective. Those reviews were published in the December edition of CNNW.
I was extremely reluctant to go public in a debate format between Jim and me. While we differ on some important things, I’m not interested in making it seem that we are battling at Western! But on reflection and interaction with Marc (the dean) and Randy (the president), I decided that it could be dialogue. Beside I do appreciate deeply the lavish grace in The Shack. Now I need to have coffee with Paul and see what he’s thinking!
What do you think?
My Review: The Shack is a story of the lavish grace of the triune God. That powerful focus is both the book’s strength and weakness.
Mack’s despair after his daughter is kidnapped and brutally murdered in a decrepit, remote shack, leaves him coldly bitter toward the God who allowed it. But God won’t leave him alone in his bitterness. Papa (the Father) invites Mack to meet Him at the shack. The place of horror becomes the place of renewing.
I was deeply impacted by this powerfully written story. I appreciate his exposition of Genesis 3, the models of incarnation and forgiveness, the power of the presence of God in evil places, among others. I resonate with God pursuing Mack to help him face the deep sadness so he could overcome his bitterness and brokenness. But God does not stop with helping a victim of evil. He takes Mack on to face his own sinfulness and find true forgiveness. God goes to the root of things in the gentle power called grace.
Isn’t Papa too familiar, too much the buddy? Where is the Isaiah 6 "holy, holy, holy is the LORD" whose presence brings Isaiah to cry, "Woe to me! I am ruined!"? It’s the question of the balance between God’s otherness and closeness. Many in my camp (Reformed Evangelical more or less) tend toward otherness. They also tend to see holiness, justice and wrath as God’s key attributes. Grace and love are primarily seen in the setting aside of His righteous anger rather than as a genuine compassion and desire to come alongside and help. But zeal for the holiness of the LORD must never keep one from wondering praise as the LORD moves graciously to cleanse sinful Isaiah.
Genesis 18 is a "Shack-like" story. The LORD comes to Abraham, Then three guys (I think I can show this is the Trinity at work) accept Abraham’s invitation to sit down for lunch and conversation. Note how gentle the LORD is here. He repeats His promise of a child. When Sarah cannot contain her bitter laughter, the LORD hears her unbelief and pursues her. But instead of rebuking her, He gently reaffirms His promise. How "Shack-like." Then He and Abraham discuss the LORD’s righteousness. "How can You destroy innocent people?" Abraham dares ask. Instead of rising to His throne of omnipotent holiness, the LORD gently interacts with Abraham so he will understand gracious justice. How "Shack-like."
Now I’ll quickly admit that The Shack’s portrayal of the Father as Aunt Jeremia mixing up pancakes for the boys isn’t a picture that resonates with me. But instead of blasting it as heresy, perhaps it would be good to listen to the explanation of why the Father comes to Mack in this particular form and why He later comes as a strong male figure. You’ll understand some of Young’s reasons if you’ll watch his "Story behind the Story" at www.livinghopechurch.com. Go to videos, past series, and you’ll see The Shack. As you watch you’ll see Young’s hope that God’s wrath is like his wife’s wrath when she discovered his infidelity. That kind of wrath redeems.
Young’s point is that the shack is a metaphor for all the trash in our lives. Religion teaches us to build a facade in front of it hoping that God and others will be impressed and like us, all the while desperately hiding the shack with its sin, ugliness that is our shame. The message of The Shack is that the LORD is not sitting on his heavenly throne disappointedly demanding that we clean up our shack. He is waiting to meet us in the shack and help us with the cleaning.
Does The Shack teach universalism? It doesn’t. Can the lavishly gracious picture of God be read universalistically? It could. But you’d have to ignore some key points in the book. For example Papa says He is reconciled to the whole world (192). But since reconciliation is a two way street, it must be received. Papa will not force His love on anyone.
In a key passage designed to provoke, Jesus tells Mack that those who love Him come from every kind of system (182). He declares that He has no desire to make them Christian, but to make them brothers and sisters, into "my Beloved." Mack asks, "Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?" Jesus responds, "Most roads don’t lead anywhere." This denies the common form of universalism, that all religions lead to the LORD. However Young’s response falls short of the biblical answer that the only way to the LORD is through Jesus. All religious roads lead to worship and service of other gods and eternal separation from the LORD in hell.
You can find the authors’ responses to criticisms of The Shack at www.windblownmedia.com. Paul Young’s playful response is in an article called, "The Beauty of Ambiguity (Mystery)" on www.windrumors.com.
The lavishness of grace in The Shack can bring legalists and religionists to a grace sourced repentance and to a life with Jesus filled with compassionate love and exuberant joy. But that same onesidedness can encourage people caught up in the naive universalism that plagues the church today. Tolerance and being nice, the supreme American virtues lead so many to refuse to believe the reality of people rejecting the Jesus or the LORD’s wrath against unrepentant sin.
Let me suggest that you read The Shack if you haven’t. Then reflect on Genesis 18 as well as Isaiah 6. Perhaps, like Mack, a deepened picture of the LORD will help you face your deep sadness, to repent of your sin as Mack does, to join me hoping for the day of healing in the friend whom I hurt so deeply, to face the people I’ve disappointed, and all those Shackish things. Above all, know that the Lord who meets us in our shack really is the Lord of glory, the LORD of Exodus 34:6-7.
Jim DeYoung’s Review:
Revisiting The Shack and Universal Reconciliation
Seldom does one have the opportunity to review a work of fiction written by a friend that has risen to the top of best seller lists. Recently The Shack has been approaching sales of three million or more. There is talk about making a movie of the book.
What is so unusual about this success is not only that this is purportedly a Christian work of fiction but it espouses a view of God that is creative but biblically challenged. It is novel literarily and theologically. But does a work of Christian fiction have to be doctrinally correct?
A brief look at the book uncovers an unremarkable plot. Willie retells the story of his friend, Mackenzie Phillips, who as a child was abused by his father which left him bitter toward God, the Bible, and the ministry. When his youngest daughter is kidnapped and brutally killed in a mountain shack, Mack’s anger freezes his total outlook in sadness and despair. Years later God invites him to return to the same shack. He encounters the Trinity in the form of a large African woman ("Papa" =the Father), a Jewish carpenter (=Jesus Christ), and a small Asian woman by the name Sarayu (=the Holy Spirit). These three lead Mack to discover a fresh meaning of God’s love for him and forgiveness.
Who is the author? For over a dozen years I have known William P. Young. We have discussed much theology in a "think tank." Over four years ago Paul embraced Christian universalism and defended it on several occasions. He has claimed that Christian universalism changed his life and his theology.
The number-one belief of Christian universalism (also known as universal reconciliation) asserts that love is the supreme attribute of God that trumps all others. His love reaches beyond the grave to save all those who refuse Christ before they die. Even fallen angels and the Devil himself will be conquered by God’s love and join the saints in heaven. This view of future destinies claims many texts that seem to assert that the reconciliation that Jesus accomplished on the cross extends to all creatures (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:16-20; Col. 1:19-20), that all will lovingly confess him as Lord (Phil. 2:6-11), that God’s will that all be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) will be accomplished without fail.
After he wrote The Shack the editors assert on their web site that they worked for over a year to eliminate the universalism from the novel. More recently Paul has sought to disavow universalism. But like all universalists he affirms that he "hopes" that there will be none who experiences eternal suffering. And by comparing the creeds of universalism with The Shack one uncovers the universalism and other errors.
1) There is a subjugation of God’s justice to his love. The creed of 1878 asserts that God’s attribute of justice is "born of love and limited by love." In his novel Paul asserts that God "cannot act apart from love" (102, 191), that God chose "the way of the cross where mercy triumphs over justice because of love," and that this is a better way than that God should have exercised justice (164-165).
2) The creed of 1899 asserts that God "will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness"; there is no future judgment. Similarly Paul denies that Papa (God) "pours out wrath and throws people" into hell. God does not punish sin; it’s his "joy to cure it" (120). Papa "redeems" final judgment (127). God will not "condemn most to an eternity of torment, away from his presence and apart from his love" (162). To judge is to act contrary to love (145).
3) Universalists deny a personal devil; and he goes unmentioned in the book (134-137).
4) Paul teaches that the entire Trinity became incarnate, and that the whole Trinity was crucified (99). Both Jesus and Papa (God) bear the marks of crucifixion in their hands (contra. Isa. 53:4-10). These ideas suggest the errors of patripassianism and modalism, that God is singular who assumes the different modes of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (proclaimed heresy by the church).
5) Reconciliation is effective for all without exercising faith. Papa asserts that he is reconciled to the whole world, not just to those who believe (192). The creeds of universalism never mention the need to believe in Christ.
6) Universal reconciliation rejects the idea that God willed humans to have a will that allows them to reject him. This is determinism and coercion.
7) All are equally children of God and loved equally by him (155-156). In a future revolution of "love and kindness" all people will lovingly confess Jesus as Lord (248).
8) The institution of the church is rejected as diabolical. Jesus claims that he "never has, never will" create institutions (178). This counters Matthew 16 and 18.
9) The Bible is only a revelation of God. And in the novel it is given scant attention, if not ridiculed.
The history of universalism goes back to Origen of the third century. In the sixth century it was condemned as heresy. In modern times universalism undermined evangelical faith in Europe and America. It opposed the Great Awakening in the 1730’s-40’s. By 1961 UR had evolved to join with Unitarianism to form the Unitarian-Universalist Association, with its denial of the Trinity and the deity of Christ.
How does one answer the errors of Christian universalism? From Scripture. See my reviews of this book at www.theshackreview.com.
Near the beginning I asked: Does Christian fiction have to be doctrinally correct? In this case the answer is yes, for Paul deliberately teaches theology in The Shack. But if one uses doctrinal impurity to teach how to be restored to a redefined God, one is not restored to the God of the Bible. Jesus warned that a house built on the wrong foundation will collapse (Matt. 7:24-28). So will a shack.
Heather Johnson had an internal shunt inserted surgically last night. That will drain the fluid that’s causing pressure in her brain into her stomach (or some such place) eliminating the risk of infection from an external drain. She’s been in ICU for two weeks now. A LONG time. Hopefully she will be able to go into a regular room soon. You can see updates at HeathersUpdate.blogspot.com