A Critical Essay of William Paul Young’s THE SHACK ((Part 2))
By Jeffrey L. Whittaker
Part 1 was published in CETF # 47 (March 2009). This is the final article in the series.
God Made in our Own Image
In today's post-modern/emergent “discussion”, we constantly find a sentiment that all that has ever been known or understood about God must be done away with; or at least questioned. I'm all for each generation searching out the reasons why they “believe”, but just not casting off the Bible, which will serve as the cornerstone of their search! When we are finally introduced to the author's “godhead” in chapter 5 entitled “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner”, Mack (on his way to his meeting with “Papa” at the Shack) tells his friend Willie, “I've always sort of pictured him (God) as a really big grandpa with a long white flowing beard, sort of like Gandalf in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings” (p.73). This is actually a very wonderful point of reference for the reader, since we all probably have our own image of what God might look like (Charlton Heston maybe?).
I appreciate Young's transparency here, but when Mack actually arrives at his appointment with the deity, we are introduced to a scene that serves to further distance readers from Scripture, ushering them even closer to a subjective, existential image of a god who refuses to be governed even by his/her/its own word. Young records the details of their first meeting: “… the door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman” (p.82); “I have really been looking forward to seeing you face to face”, gushes the female “Papa”.
My mind immediately leapt to the scriptural encounters with God experienced by Paul and John, the apostles. Paul's meeting was with a glorious being who revealed, “I am Jesus”, an experience that left the bloodthirsty rabbi fasting and blind for three days (Acts 9). In John's case (recorded in Revelation chapter 1) when the glorified Christ appeared to him, the exiled apostle “fell at His feet as though dead”!
These scriptural accounts are a far cry from Young's hermaphroditic deity that gives bear hugs and bakes pies. Mack is then introduced to an oriental woman named “Sarayu” (meant to be the Holy Spirit), and finally a “jesus” figure, who “appeared Middle Eastern and was dressed like a labourer, complete with tool belt and gloves” (p.84). As Mack's spiritual eyes continue to adjust the glare of the new “light” of this “god's” nature, Papa instructs:
Mackenzie, I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature… For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning” (p.93).
Mr. Young, do you mean religious conditioning like the words of the Bible? I thought so. One more statement from the same page gives us even deeper insight into the overall philosophy that permeates the entire fabric of the book. “Hasn't it always been a problem for you to embrace me as your father? And after what you've been through, you couldn't very well handle a father right now, could you?” So here it is! Papa changes Himself into a feminine persona because of Mack's fragility. If it helps someone feel better, this “god” will become what the human wants him/her/it to be, instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and ultimately Christ, whose very being is the answer to every human sin and ill. Does this mean that for victims of sexual abuse at the hands of men we must now make God feminine? What of homosexuals—male or female (lesbians)? What of those who?… on and on it goes without end.
The power of The Gospel of Jesus Christ is that it stands permanent and reliable for all human beings, no matter where they come from or whatever they may have suffered in this fallen world. Here are two more quotes from this “jesus” once more as he describes both the holy spirit and Papa to Mack.
(Sarayu) is Creativity; she is Action; she is the Breathing of Life; she is much more. She is my Spirit… (Sarayu) is a simple name from one of our human languages. It means 'Wind', a common wind actually. She loves that name (p.110)
Once you begin to know the being behind the very pretty or very ugly face, as determined by your bias, the surface appearances fade away until they simply no longer matter. That is why Elousia is such a wonderful name. God, who is the ground of all being, dwells in, around, and through all things—ultimately emerging as the real—and any appearances that mask that reality will fall away (p.112)
Since what was just described is a textbook definition for pantheism, Young should have called his god “Elusive” instead of “Elousia”, since that is exactly what he/she/it insists on being throughout the book.
Papa then proceeds to reconstruct the crucifixion for the anguished Mack. The grieving protagonist lashes out at “god” with the accusation: “At the cross? Now wait, I thought you left him—you know—'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'” Papa calmly rewrites Holy Scripture by giving a very “Oprahesque” answer: “You misunderstand that mystery there. Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him” (p.96)
The reason that Young's “god” sees things this way is that he/she/it doesn't believe in the substitutionary/sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on behalf of sinful man. According to Scripture, Christ is the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) who actually became accursed upon the cross as He bore the sins or the entire human race (Galatians 3:13). By doing so He became something that an absolutely holy God couldn't even look upon. In fact, the very words misapplied by Mack are not originally those of Jesus at all, but rather it was His declaration (from His religious conditioning no doubt) of the prophecy inspired by the true Holy Spirit through King David in Psalm 22:1. Our Lord knew everything that was going on around Him, as well as everything that was being fulfilled through Him at Calvary. However, Mr. Young's “Elousia/Papa” god appears to forget his/her/its own prophecies, and instead psychoanalyzes Jesus as having only “felt” alone… just an emotional, scared son in need of a hug.
Mack finally achieves a catharsis, of sorts, for his pain when he is taken to a representation of “paradise” where there is a variety of brilliant auras, and little children from all the nations of the world running and playing together. The colours begin to change as one is discovered who has a different colour, one who is in distress. It turns out to be Mack's father with whom he had serious unresolved issues. As Mack embraces his estranged (and deceased) father, the brilliant colours return and all is well. The ultimate “healing moment” however, takes place when “Papa” (now a man since Mack can finally handle that form) takes the grieving father down a rocky path leading to a cave where the body of his little girl, Missy, was hidden by her killer. Mack gently scoops up the battered remains of his precious little one and returns to the Shack where jesus and Sarayu are waiting with a custom crafted casket in which to bury her. The most intriguing part of this story is however, that when Mack decides to return to the “real world”, he awakens only to find that he is once again in the same cold, dilapidated shack that he had found in the beginning of his “meeting”; the whole experience had been a dream… or something. This is the final point I will attempt to make. If “The Shack” is fiction and fable, so be it. But if it is a treatise on inner healing that Young purports it to be, then we must judge it by God's unchanging revelation of reality, The Holy Scriptures. There are countless people who have lost loved ones to violent and untimely deaths, whether by disease, car accidents, drowning, even murder. What does God offer those of us who have to stand by faith when we have hot tears running down our faces? We can hope for a psychic visitation, vision, or perhaps a visit to our local “Witch of Endor” to conjure up the dead. Or perhaps we can simply look to the words of the Bible.
Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”- 1 Cor 15:51-57.
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are fallen asleep, that you do not sorrow, as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord shall not precede them who are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord, therefore comfort one another with these words. - 1 The 4:13-18.
For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waits for the manifestation of the sons of God. - Rom 8:18-19.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said to me, Write, for these words are true and faithful. - Rev 21:1-5.
As you have no doubt gathered by this time, I am not a fan of William P. Young's “faction” fable; but I completely understand why self-proclaimed new age pilgrims like Oprah Winfrey are. The story is touching, even heartrending at points (I couldn't help but stop and think of my own dear children when Mack lost his little girl). However, as a theological work that is being taken much too seriously by Christians who ought to know better, it is weighed in the balances and found lacking. The Bible is set aside as a source of revelation, and the atoning death of Christ is replaced by out-of-body therapy and a cosmic group hug. Frankly, I would rather have people gleaning lessons from pure fantasy stories such as The Wizard of Oz, than to dabble with a story that entwines itself with accepted Christian terminology, only to subtly twist it into a poisonous brew much more lethal than anything the wicked witch of the west ever dreamed of. What is my final recommendation? Pick up a copy of Pilgrim's Progress… or even better; read your Bible!
About the Author
Jefery Whittaker has been married to Doreen for 24 years. They met in an AoG youth group. Two years after they married Jeffrey was ordained as an AoG minister and held credentials for 19 years until his resignation in 2007. They have five children. Jeffrey has travelled in full time music ministry, singing in hundreds of churches across America, as well as appearing on television. While studying in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he was employed by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for three years. He also served as a sectional presbyter in the Michigan District of the Assemblies of God for five years. Jeff and Doreen currently serve the Body of Christ as pastor of Michiana Christian Embassy in Michigan, USA, where they have been for 16 years.
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