William Young's ‘The Shack’

When I read William Young's novel The Shack shortly after it was published in 2007, I was so struck by its theology that I wrote a summary -- not of the story but of its theology, much of which is fairly explicit in the dialogue and the narrative. Having seen the movie a few days ago, I reread what I had written. In broad outline, the movie certainly captures and conveys what Young intends to say in the novel, and I hope and pray that it will move Christians who watch it (including me) into a relationship with God more like the one God wants to have with us, and move others to find faith they have not had before. So this seems an opportune time to post my summary from a decade ago. It follows below.

I know that The Shack generated controversy when it was published. The main criticism seems to be that Young's theology is universalist, i.e. that all human beings will enjoy eternal life with God. I'm not sure where this idea comes from. After all, the novel strongly expresses the idea that God wants us to depend on him, and this is not something any of us does lightly. It requires a decision, and without that initial decision -- and probably many -- we will not enjoy a life dependent on him. So I don't see the novel as universalist. If it were, it would show Mack and everyone else easily entering into relationship with God, but this isn’t what The Shack depicts.

I suspect that the problem some critics have with the novel is that it doesn't picture the doctrine of penal substitution, that an angry Father God meted out on Jesus the punishment that human beings all deserve. Fair enough. But penal substitution is by no means the only way to understand the forgiveness of sin through the cross, and in the view of a seemingly increasing number of scholars, not the best way to understand it (see, for example, N.T. Wright's The day the revolution began).

Another objection to Young's theology for some critics is that it is unashamedly Arminian: free will is unabashedly asserted and indeed claimed as the source of evil. Personally, I am happy with concept of free will, but not with the idea that it alone is the source of evil. Jesus broke the dark powers on the cross, but human beings can still give them allegiance if they choose.

Others, of course, find it hard to accept Young's depiction of God as a woman, but the reason for this is explicit in both the book and the film: Mac's relationship with his own father was so awful that he could not have responded to a father's love at this point. Perhaps this offends ingrained cultural sensibilities, but it is not a betrayal of the gospel.

My summary is below.

The theology of William P. Young’s The Shack

The Father greets Mack with the enthusiastic love of the father greeting the Prodigal Son (82–83).[1]  He wants to be the father we maybe never had (92). Just as birds were created to fly, we were created to be loved,[2]  so living as if we were unloved is living under a limitation (97). God’s goal is that human beings should once again be filled with the spiritual life—his life—that they lost at the Fall (113).

Human beings often imagine God to be like the best version of themselves, but he is far beyond anyone we could ask for or think of (98).[3]  God lives in a state of perpetual satisfaction as his normal state of being, and he created us to share in that (98–99), but Adam chose to go his own way, as God knew he would, so creation became broken and God chose to enter into the mess by becoming incarnate, i.e. he took on all the limitations of a human being (99). The miracles don’t show that Jesus was more than human—they show that he was truly human, trusting in God’s life and power to work in him and through him (100).[4]  Resting in his relationship with the Father, Jesus could express God’s heart and will into any circumstance, and this is how we are designed to live too (100).

God doesn’t want us to do anything out of obligation towards him but to do it because we want to (89). We can offer God nothing that can add to or take away from who he is (200). He grants us freedom of will (94), although each of us is limited by genetic heritage, social influences, our personal hurts, and the habits enshrined in our synaptic connections. True freedom is granted by God, but it cannot be forced upon us: it is an incremental process that happens inside a relationship with Jesus (95). God will never control our decisions, because true love is marked by submission and God wants us to join in his circle of mutually submitted relationships (145, 190). God does not punish human beings for sin: he doesn’t need to, as sin is its own punishment, devouring people from the inside—and it is God’s joy to cure it (119–120). God doesn’t get frustrated with us, because he can see what is going to happen anyway (186–187). God doesn’t make us feel guilty, nor is he interested in our feelings of guilt, as guilt is our response to some external ethic, not to our relationship with him (187).

All evil flows from our independence, and independence is our choice. If God removed our freedom to choose, the world as we know it would cease to exist and love would have no meaning. The world is not a playground where God keeps his people free from evil: evil is the chaos that we bring to God, and it touches everyone, whether they are in relationship with God or not. If God were to revoke this, the possibility of love would vanish (190).

Despite this evil, we are the pinnacle of God’s creation and the centre of his affection. We are surrounded by the beauty of creation and of our art, our music and our culture, laden with whispered hopes and celebrations, new life and transformation, reconciliation and forgiveness, and these things too are the products of our choices. If God countermanded our choices, these things would vanish too. So when we complain about evil, we complain that God loved us enough to give us free will. His purposes are not about his comfort or ours, but about love: bringing life out of death, freedom out of brokenness and light out of darkness. What for us is chaos is for him a fractal (190–191). ‘All things must unfold, even though it puts all those I love in the midst of a world of horrible tragedies—even the one closest to me.’ Jesus accomplished ‘the substance of everything that love purposed from before the foundations of Creation’. (191) Through his death and resurrection, God is reconciled to the whole world.[5]  Reconciliation is a two-way street. God has done his part, and his love has opened the way to relationship with him, but his love will never force anyone to participate in that relationship (192).

Our autonomy is lunacy. Real freedom involves trust and obedience within a relationship of love (132). Jesus gave up any rights and lived in dependence on the Father, opening the door for us to do the same thing (137). Every person looks like a mess, yet God sees the emergent order as we come into relationship with him (138).

God’s wisdom is elegantly simple. It is we by contrast who are complicated, because of our independence and the resulting mess inside us (172). We bring order by learning to live loved, sharing our journey in a dialogue with God (175).

Since both genders are derived from God’s nature, God is neither male nor female (93). Perhaps God depicts himself as male because he knows that in a broken creation true fathering is more lacking than true mothering (94). God is one God with three persons, and the persons are vital because they mean that God has love and relationship within him (101). God is capable of love because he has relationship within himself. A single-person God could not love (102).[6]  His creatures are able to share love and relationship because they are created in his image (101).

The three persons are not in a hierarchy but each is submitted to the others in a circle of relationship with no overlap of power. Power is unnecessary because each is looking out for the others’ best (121–122). Human beings need hierarchy because of their brokenness: someone has to be in charge. Hierarchy requires rules in order to be protected and administered, but this destroys true relationship rather than promoting it (122–123, 198). This all arises out of the human choice of independence over relationship, so that others become objects to be manipulated for the sake of one’s own happiness. The value of the individual is constantly weighed against the survival of the social structure (123–124). Human beings assert rights so that they don’t have to work out relationships (137). Hierarchy has become such an entrenched part of human existence that it is regarded as normal, and we impose it upon our image of the Trinity. But the Trinity is a circle of relationship—and human beings were created to join in that circle of love (124).

Regardless of what Jesus felt on the cross, the Father never left him: he suffered with him (96),[7]  and the Father who appears in The Shack also has the Son’s wounds on his hands (164). He never left him, just as he never leaves us. Jesus found his way through the suffering of the cross to put himself completely in the Father’s hands (96).

In Eden human beings chose the path of independence, breaking their relationship with the Trinity (146).[8]  We find our identity in our imagined independence and brokenness, and we lock the door of the heart from the inside (189). Most men turn to the work of their hands for identity, value and security (146). A woman turns to a man, and his response is to take power over her and rule her (147), but God designed the two sexes to be in mutual submission (148).[9]  The way back to this is to have Jesus’s life within us. There is no point in asking ‘What would Jesus do?’ as we can’t do it alone anyway. Being a follower of Jesus does not mean trying to be like Jesus; it means having our independence killed off and allowing Jesus’ life to function in us—to see with God’s eyes, to hear with his ears, to touch with his hands and to think with his mind. This is ‘dying daily’ (149). God uses our very brokenness as the means of bringing us back to him when the consequences of our selfishness ultimately put an end to our self-delusion (189–190).

God always knew that his creation would rebel, and would choose independence and death, unleashing a world of seemingly random and frightening chaos. The purposes for which he allows this are largely beyond our comprehension. He also knew the immensity of the cost of opening up a path of reconciliation between him and his creatures (222). God doesn’t purpose shame, humiliation, guilt or condemnation for us: they were nailed into Jesus on the cross (223).

It is part of God’s purpose to redeem even those who have committed the most heinous crimes (224). He loves them because they are his broken pain-twisted children (225). Forgiveness is not forgetting: it is letting go of the other’s throat and releasing them from our judgment (224–225, 227). Forgiveness is a power we share with God, a power Jesus gives to all who he indwells (225–226). First and foremost, we forgive for ourselves, to release us from something that will eat us up, destroy our joy and our ability to love fully and openly (225). But in forgiving we also release the other from his burden and release him to God (224–225), and if the other finally repents, a channel of reconciliation and relationship is created (226).

God’s forgiveness of our sins is complete because of Jesus, and he chooses to forget them: there is nothing left to bring them back to his mind or to cause them to interfere with his relationship with us (224). When Jesus forgave those who nailed him to the cross,[10]  he forgave every human being on behalf of the Trinity. Our debts were cancelled. It is up to us, however, whether we choose relationship with God (225).

We complain that God allows evil because we only see a small part of reality (126). He does allow tragedy, because he doesn’t control us, but he uses tragedy to accomplish his purposes and to display his grace (185, 222). Meanwhile we try in vain to control the future because of imagined fears. Because these fears have a place in our lives, we cannot find freedom in God’s love (142). If we knew deep in our hearts that God was entirely good and loved us unfailingly, then we would trust him completely and know that everything is covered by that goodness, even though we don’t understand it (126, 142). People sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the Father is stern but the Son is loving, but this is obviously wrong, since Jesus displays the character of the Father (and of the Trinity) (186).

In an attempt to control their own destiny human beings declare things to be good or bad without really knowing (133, 146–147). For example, a poisonous plant may have great healing properties (133). Our understanding of what is good or evil tends to be self-serving and changes over time, so that our good and evil are not absolute, and human beings disagree in their judgments, so that conflicts emerge (134–135). God created everything, including what we look on as the bad stuff, but when it was created it was all good because God is entirely good (131). Human beings have chosen the path of ravaged independence, dragging the whole of creation with them (132).[11]  We need to give up our right to decide what is good and what is evil and to live trusting God and his inherent goodness (136).

Lies are a fortress against insecurity, an attempt to manipulate others and the future. A fortress needs walls: these are the justifications for our lies. When we lie ‘to protect’ someone else, we do this not out of love for them but to avoid the emotions we might encounter, both in them and in ourselves. Such a lie is ultimately unloving, as it becomes an inhibitor in our relationship with that person (188).

Human beings usually see it as their right to judge people for their wrongs. We are willing enough to judge, say, the wife-beater or child-murderer, but if we judge them, then where do we stop judging? If we judge certain crimes—and all of them have their roots in sin—then we have to judge the whole human race all the way back to Adam. And if we judge him, then perhaps we judge the God who created him—which means that God cannot be trusted at all (161). If we believe that we have this power of judgment, then this ultimately entails consigning certain people to an eternity in hell. Mack is invited to consign some of his own children to hell, but he realises that he would rather go there himself than judge his kids, i.e. he judges them to be worthy of love, even if it costs him everything. In this he reflects God’s love (162–163). The acts for which we want to judge people are outcomes of the human declaration of independence from God, and God’s answer to this is his loving sacrifice (164). The alternative would be justice for everyone. The solution for us is to give up our independence, to give up our judging, to recognise who God really is and to embrace his love in the midst of our pain (165). He has already forgiven us: he did so through the Cross (189).

Our final destiny is a newly cleansed universe, not the image of heaven with pearly gates and streets of gold. The latter is an image of the Bride—individuals who together form a spiritual city of relationships with a living river flowing through the middle and tree growing on its banks that will bring healing to the nations, a city that is always open and each of whose gates is a single pearl. The pearl is the only precious stone made by pain, suffering and death, and represents Jesus (177–178). God does not create institutions (Jesus comments that marriage is not an institution but a relationship). Religion, politics and economics are the trinity of errors that ravage the earth and deceive humanity. They are vain attempts to control the future and create security in the midst of uncertainty (179). In their place God offers us relationship with him (180) and a freedom from the need for security (181) which begins with us trusting him with what little we can and growing to love the people around us with the love he shares with us (180). It isn’t our job to change the people around us—that’s the Holy Spirit’s job—it’s our job to love them without an agenda (181).

In the story Jesus rejects the word ‘Christian’ and says that people who love him have come from all religious backgrounds. Jesus says he will travel any road to find them and to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of the Father (182).

Emotions are neither good nor evil: they just are. They are the colours of the soul. Without them the world becomes dull and colourless (196–197). ‘Paradigms power perception and perception powers emotions’. If a perception is false, then our emotional response to it will be false too. Never trust emotion rather than the Holy Spirit (197).

Religion is about having the right answers, and some of its answers are right, but God is about relationship, about the living answer that changes us from the inside. God is to be found in creation, in art, in music, or in silence, through people, and though joy and sorrow, and through the Bible, but not in rules and regulations (198). The Ten Commandments were a mirror to show how dirty our faces get when we try to live independently. The only one who followed them successfully was Jesus (202). Trying to keep the law is a means of trying to live independently and to remain in control, to create certainty out of uncertainty. It grants us the power to judge others and to feel superior to them. Rules cannot bring freedom: they can only accuse. But they no longer have any power to accuse or to command. True freedom means living in relationship with God and living with uncertainty (203).

Religion uses the law to empower itself and to control the people the institution needs in order to survive, whereas the Holy Spirit gives us the power to respond and to serve in every situation. We are designed to be responsive, not responsible (a word that doesn’t appear in Scripture), to know expectancy rather than to have expectations. My expectations demand that you perform to meet them, and relationship deteriorates into rules and requirements (205). Responsibilities and expectations are the causes of guilt and shame and judgment: they provide the framework that promotes performance as the basis of identity and value. It is humans who try to control behaviour through expectations: God places no expectations upon us and we never disappoint him. He has a live expectancy about our relationship with him. To resort to expectations and responsibilities is the opposite of trusting God, and results in living in fear (206).

If we live by priorities, we create a hierarchical pyramid with (maybe) God at the top, followed by whatever else. The result may be that we give the first bit of the day (how much?) to God, then get on with the things that interest us more. But God doesn’t want a part of us: he wants all of us all the time. He doesn’t want to be the top of a pyramid: he wants to be the centre of a mobile where everything in our lives is connected with him and moves with the wind of his Spirit ‘in an incredible dance of being’ (207)(see footnote 6<\/a>).

References

Athanasius, 376. On the incarnation of the Word of God.
Young, William P., 2007. The Shack: a novel. Los Angeles: Windblown Media. 

Footnotes


  • [^1]  Luke 15:11–27.
  • [^2]  Romans 5:8, 8:39, Ephesians 2:4, I John 4:8.
  • [^3]  Ephesians 3:20.
  • [^4]  John 8:28.
  • [^5]  Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18.
  • [^6]  The assertions about the three persons here and below appear to me not to have a Biblical basis. They seem to be derived from the concept of perichoresis, the great dance, which goes back to Gregory of Nazianzus (325/329–390).
  • [^7]  This position goes back at least to Athanasius (376: Ch. 2) and there are good arguments in its favour, but it is contrary to many evangelicals belief.
  • [^8]  Genesis 3.
  • [^9]  In Ephesians 5:22–28 Paul actually says that wives should submit to their husbands because a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is head of the church, whilst husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.
  • [^10]  Luke 23:34.
  • [^11]  Biblical but incomprehensible!