Wednesday, June 10, 2009

BOOKS: The Shack

I've been hearing a lot of buzz about The Shack by William P. Young, so I figured I ought to read it. I thoroughly enjoyed this very fresh, creative imagining of what it might be like to meet God and grapple with the thorny question of how an omnipotent loving God can allow bad things to happen to innocent people. The book takes the form of a personal story, and even though I already knew the outline of the story going in, I was still swept up in it. While the story is clearly a vehicle to deliver some creative theological musings, its earnestness caught me up, and I was holding back tears in many parts of it (not good to cry while driving, you know). The vision Young presents of God is amazing and original, and the spiritual journey of Mac (the protagonist) is like a Divine Comedy for our age. To depict God at all is audacious, and to depict Him the way Young has is especially so, but it is as apt as it is surprising, which is appropriate. God should be bigger than our expectations and imaginings. God should surprise us. I won't give away too much, but this depiction of God and of Heaven reminded me of the beautiful tapestries at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, showing the community of saints as a wonderful mix of men, women, and children of all races, rich and poor, famous and unknown, ancient and modern, side by side. Through Mac's journey, Young presents some intriguing ideas. I liked his metaphor of God-as-man choosing to limit himself when interacting with humans, just as an adult can choose to limit themselves when talking to or playing with a child, in a loving way that honors the relationship. The love of a parent for a child is a powerful metaphor that is richly mined throughout. Mac's encounter with divine judgment is astonishing and brilliant. Some of the ideas are provocative, especially the disdain for much of organized religion. According to Young's God, religion, along with politics and economy, forms the real axis of evil. This God is all about loving relationship, and submission to God's love and God's life as opposed to human independence from God. In this view, organized religion is just another human power structure, an attempt to grasp control over our own security, which leads away from God.

The philosophy underpinning Young's theodicy is not new: bad things happen because God allows us our free will, and because of humankind's separation from God after the fall. What is fresh and original here is the beautiful vision of God's intentions for and relationship with the world, a vision woven around that traditionally unsatisfying answer of free will, making the complete picture surprisingly satisfying. The fact that a bigger picture can make an unsatisfactory answer satisfy is, in a way, the point. From our limited point of view in this world, evil is impossible to reconcile, but when you add God and everlasting life to the picture, it can look quite different. "Love never forces," God says, in a line that echoes 1 Corinthians 13, explaining how He always allows us to make our choices, and how He can turn even bad choices to ultimate good ends. And just when it appears God might be causing evil to achieve good ends, He clarifies that grace neither requires evil nor causes it, but it can make use of it where it occurs. In a beautiful echo of Romans 5:20, He explains, where you find evil, you find even more grace.

One pitfall of writing such a sweeping account, taking on such big questions, is that it's hard to resist faulting Young for not providing every answer. For example, while his theodicy powerfully addresses evil human actions, he doesn't really address natural disasters and disease. It's hard to see earthquakes or cancer as consequences of free will, although in one brief tangential comment, he suggests that these may be reactions of the Creation to our irresponsible stewardship of it (ecological sins, if you will). The metaphor of parent-child relationships to model the God-human relationship is beautiful and powerful, but it also raises some troubling questions. Doesn't a good parent stop their child from running out into the middle of the street? A good parent doesn't allow their children unlimited free will. And the goal of a good parent is for their child to become independent; the child is not raised merely to live out the parent's life. But perhaps that stretches the metaphor too far. The question that most haunted me after the story is this: if God so greatly desires to have a personal relationship with each of us, then why doesn't He give each of us a Shack experience?

The best (though not entirely satisfying) answer to that is of course that God has sent us William P. Young. Through a compelling story and amazing imagination, Young confronts some hard questions -- what does God want from us? what does it mean to truly forgive? what is the nature of grace? why is there evil? -- and he confronts them with the same sort of Christian boldness that Pope John Paul II displayed when he met and forgave his would-be assassin. Mac's journey will surprise, engage, and challenge you. If you have a relationship with God, this book is likely to make you rethink it (in a good way). And if you don't have a relationship with God, this book may make you want to have one.

1 comment:

Bugimus said...

I really enjoyed this book. Our bible study group read through it a couple of years ago and it inspired some deep discussions. I particularly loved how it explored possible aspects of the Trinity.

I was also struck by your question about good parents not allowing their children to run out in a street. I would say that if we had perfect vision we might just find God guiding us away from those dangerous areas as we navigate life much like a loving parent striving for balance between growth and protection.

Also why doesn't God send each of us a Shack experience? Who is to say He doesn't?

Great review TC, thanks for your insights!