I’ve just finished reading William P Young’s ‘The Shack’ and, from looking on the web, can see that this this book has generated a lot of energy (including heat!). Somehow I had missed all this and only became aware of the book when I saw it by chance in W H Smith’s in Manchester Airport when we were flying out to Hungary in August to help with a children’s mission. So I had no preconceptions about it and avoided all the hype.
I’m not going to go into detail about the story for fear of spoilers – but from my own perspective I would definitely recommend it. You need to keep objective though – it is just a story. It’s not scripture or necessarily even great literature (though Eugene Peterson in his endorsement suggested that it ‘has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!’). Indeed theologically it may at times veer into unorthodoxy (lack of hierarchy in the Trinity for one). But, in my view, that’s to miss the point.
This is where I tread on thin ice. At times it is possible for people of faith (I hate the word religious) to aim to be so right that they become wrong. Twenty years ago I would have described myself as a card carrying evangelical – but the older I get, the more I realise that all our systematic understandings of theology are at best only approximations of truth. It’s not what you know or believe but who you know that matters in the end. Transformation comes through relationship with The Father/ Son/ Holy Spirit and fellow believers on the Way. Life is a journey – you don’t arrive when you become a Christian, you walk through a door. In God’s eyes some significant things happen but the work of transformation continues.
This, for me, is where The Shack hits home. It is inspirational/ motivational in the best sense. It encourages you personally to enter into a more intimate relationship with God, especially as Father. At the same time it deals with some of the stumbling blocks that as ‘recovering’ human beings we all face/ experience to greater or lessor extents in our lives. Scripture teaches that in Jesus we can know what the Father is really like. But is that really how we relate to God in our regular Monday to Saturday lives. Young’s depiction of God in The Shack shakes our preconceptions. Do you really believe that he/she ‘is especially fond of all’ of his children? Are you able to call God ‘Abba’, or “Daddy’, like Jesus did? Each of us will respond to different aspects of the story, but this is what struck a chord with me on a first reading
Another criticism that I’ve seen online is of implied universalism. All I would say on that hot potato is that again I believe that God’s love and ability to redeem his damaged creation is much greater than my definitions sometimes allow. Interestingly, in his postscript the author quotes George MacDonald and the Inklings as among his inspirations. That made me ask who were my ‘spiritual’ inspirations (humanly speaking). Many, but top of the list would be Simone Weil, George MacDonald, John Wimber and William Barclay. At least two of those (MacDonald and Barclay) have, rightly or wrongly, had the accusation of universalism levelled at them. At the end of the day though, if we are co-operating with God in his masterwork of restoring humanity and creation, does it actually matter? One of the quotes that struck home to me in the book is that ‘God is a verb’ – it is the core of God’s nature to be doing. He is the active ingredient that transforms from the inside – not a passive external observer. God cares about us and his creation. Enough for Jesus to limit himself, become a man and embrace the cross. A deeper appreciation of that truth has the power to transform our lives
I will shortly be leading an Alpha Group (for new christians/ seekers) and my instincts are, while pointing them toward scripture, to recommend it. Sometimes the heart needs to lead the head. In human terms if the blood flow stops the brain dies. Increasingly we are having to think about new ways of getting the gospel across to people. There’s still a place for solid bible study (neglected I would argue) but that, for many people, comes later in the journey. Once again, the heart of the Christian faith is a relationship not a list. We are not under law, we have grace to enter.