Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Shack: A Book Review from a Catholic Perspective

I heard of The Shack from my mother. All her friends were raving about it and insisted she read it. All she knew was that it was a book about God, and God the Father was portrayed as a woman; that and the fact that many of these same friends had raved about the Divinci Code. She had no desire to read it and asked if I would read it first to tell her if she should waste her time.

Let me begin by saying that reading it is definitely not a waste of time. William Young does an incredible job of explaining some difficult theological points in a brilliant, colorful and poignant way. The gift of the book is the understanding of the Trinity it leaves with the reader.

Three years after an horrible tragedy, the main character, Mack, receives a note from God asking him to come to the Shack. The shack played a part in the tragedy that has given Mack his Greatest Sadness. Not really sure if it is a cruel joke, an insidious plot, or actually God, Mack secretly returns to the Shack to see for himself.

Mack then goes on to spend a weekend at the Shack with the Trinity. Through his interactions with the Three Persons he comes to understand the great mystery of three in one. Like most Christians, Mack finds Jesus much easier to know. Though both the Father and the Spirit have corporeal identities at the Shack, the humanity of Christ shines through in the actions and words of Jesus. Through Mack’s interactions and reflections, we see our own relationship with Christ and become more aware of how His humanity makes Him so much more accessible to us. For myself, and I assume many Christians, the Holy Spirit is the most difficult of the Three Persons to understand. Young helps us to see how the Holy Spirit works in our lives primarily through the image of a garden. It is a beautiful image that allows the author to discuss the Fall and our own souls. God the Father is portrayed as the Papa God, not the God of Justice and Wrath. Young’s explanation for why He is showing Himself to Mack as a large African American woman is brilliant.

Some of the most poignant scenes in the book are the interactions of the Three Persons together in Mack’s presence. Through a shared dinner, we are given insight into the nature of the Trinity as a perfect, complete and wonderful unity. The individuality of the Persons is maintained, but His oneness is undeniable. As three and one God interacts with Mack to show the importance of divine relationship in the lives of His most precious creation. We come to see what I believe is the most important theological fact about the Trinity: God is Love and Love is relationship focused on other.

Young also captures brilliantly the Trinity’s relationship with man as his creator. He explains the nature of divine love for man and the consequences that must come with the gift. Completely omniscient and omnipotent, God chooses to limit Himself with regard to His creation in order to allow man the fullness of the gift of love. Forcing man to act according to his intended purpose is by all means within God’s power, but to do so would not be an act of Love. Young also explains how God uses our mistakes and misuse of the gift to bring about our good. He does not send nor give suffering, that is the consequence of our own desire for independence, but he takes the mess we make and continually uses it for the benefit of the creatures He so dearly loves. Though a beautiful and theologically correct explanation of God’s power and the root of suffering, Young makes a leap that undoubtedly could be the hope of all mankind, but is disputed by the teachings of the church. For Young, there is no hell. God continually takes our mistakes and moves us toward the good. Creation is a mess, but will eventually be made right by God one person, one mistake at a time simultaneously across each of His creatures of whom “He is especially fond of.” While helping in his explanation of God as love, Young denies the possibility of hell. Therefore, we can not find in The Shack, how a God that refuses to force Himself on His creation, leaving us free to choose love, can not allow for at least some of us to Not Choose Him. The nature of Choice must have two options. Young makes a wonderful effort at explaining how that does not have to be, but it falls short of being a philosophically correct conclusion.

The other gem in The Shack is the Trinity’s purpose in creating and redeeming man. Through very human and easily comprehended scenarios, Young shows how man is called to be in relationship with the Trinity. We see how the Commandments, the Cross, suffering itself is used by God to bring us to Him. We are called to give up our Independence and allow God to live in us. Young shows how Independence and freedom are not the same thing, but actually that Independence is the result of a misuse of freedom. We come to see how we can be filled with God, yet not shackled by our choice but allowed to fly because of it. Mack’s own unique struggles and his journey to forgiveness and peace provide us with a beautiful illustration of the need for both forgiveness and the ability to forgive. By using a situation all humans would find incredibly difficult to reconcile, Young helps us to understand the means necessary and the absolute necessity of forgiveness to be truly free. He shows how it is our own shortcomings, not a lack of God’s love, which make us slaves to the sadness and pain of the world. God is neither the author nor perpetrator of evil, but He is the means for us to move beyond suffering to peace.

Where Young is on, he is right on. His imagery and characterizations lead us to a beautiful and mostly theologically correct understanding of the Trinity. He misses the boat on a few points and I think, intentionally takes a swipe at Eucharist. His lack of understanding of Sacrament is disappointing because if he were to make an attempt to explain the beautiful teachings of the Outward Signs of Inward Grace given to us by God because of our human nature and His love for us, it would probably be a joy to read. Young’s understanding of the Incarnation taken to the next step of Transubstantiation is absent and leaves the Catholic reader a little sad at the author’s misfortune at missing this most wonderful gift from God.

The time spent reading The Shack will feel like time spent with The Trinity and has an enormous amount of potential to bring the reader to a closer union with God through a greater understanding of who He is.

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