Having defended the genre of The Shack, and having offered some theological demurrals, let’s conclude with some delight in the good things Brother Young brings us in this book.
First, The Shack brings us pictures of the triune God that seem to me to convey a great deal of Biblical truth. Like any picture, they are partial. But they convey God’s love, God’s goodness, God’s patience, God’s forgiveness, God’s seriousness, God’s pragmatism, God’s industry, God’s understanding, God’s humour, and God’s creativity, among other divine virtues. The Shack also helps us see those qualities come out in the three members of the Trinity.
Now, that’s a lot to convey (!), and to do so in good proportion and combination is a remarkable achievement and a significant gift.
(Some critics fret that Brother Young has broken the commandment against graven images—which would be true if he had, in fact, produced a graven image and if he had done so as an ancient Israelite giving in to the lure of idolatry. Since he didn’t, and he didn’t, then we can put the stones down and let him be on his way. The Bible itself gives us verbal descriptions of God—from the visions of a number of Old Testament prophets to the Revelation given to John. Brother Young is simply following their lead.)
I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu. I found them convincing and therefore inspirational. I encourage you to spend time in their company also.
Second, I think The Shack handles well some difficult and important theological issues, such as the way Jesus depends on the Holy Spirit in his earthly career (a topic that in academic theology is known as kenosis); the way forgiveness is taught as something we do, regardless of the offender’s behaviour, and how liberating it is; and the idea that God can, and just might, use extraordinary means to communicate with us, while he generally works through the usual means of grace. (Protagonist Mack is the only one in the book depicted as having had this sort of experience, particularly in distinction to his godly wife Nan who apparently doesn’t need it.)
And this brings me to my third and last issue: revelational accommodation. The Shack is Brother Young’s attempt to speak of God, and it depicts God’s attempt to speak of God to Mack. The central rhetorical issue here is accommodation: How does God speak in such a way as to communicate well with the audience in view?
God decides to speak to an Oregonian middle-aged twenty-first century white man, and God thus adopts forms, uses concepts and vocabulary, creates tableaux, and acts all in such a way as to make sense to the object of his loving communication.
Does this communication of God say everything? Of course not: how could it? More to the point, does it say all that might be said on its topics in perfect proportion? Why should it? God is communicating to this audience at this time in order to achieve these purposes. God is not speaking to everyone everywhere. When he did that, he had to put together a very complicated book with a very complicated person, Jesus Christ, at its centre.
Furthermore, we appreciate the accommodational limitations of William P. Young’s book itself. It, too, can’t say everything, nor can it say what it says for the ages and for everyone.
(So the critics who accuse Brother Young of fomenting goddess worship [!] really do need to calm down and look again at what he’s trying to do: write a novel of how God might have met a particular person in such a way as to help him at that particular moment. Criticisms such as these give the literal reading of Scripture—the time-honoured principle of submitting to the Bible’s authority according to its various literary forms—the bad name of genre-deaf “literalism.” Sheesh.)
No, let’s take the experience of reading The Shack the way the book’s protagonist took the experience of visiting it: as a necessarily limited accommodation to his capacities and needs, the thing he needed to receive right then.
If a book can be that, it’s a good book indeed . . .
. . . as I think The Shack truly is.