My thoughts on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit were put into over drive when I read ‘The Shack’, a novel by William M Paul Young, Hodder & Stoughton 2008.
I will not go into the story in detail, that would spoil it for the reader. I’d like to just reflect on a few points in relation to some of the arguments about some of the theology in the book.
The story is about a family that has suffered a great tragedy and how Mack (Mackenzie Phillips), the father, after receiving a disturbing note in his mailbox signed "Papa" (his wife's name for God), goes back to the place of the tragedy, 'The Shack', and in doing so he encounters the Trinity as a way to not only move on from his pain and grief, described in the book as, "The Great Sadness", but also as a way to restore his relationship with God.
In the shack, Mack encounters God as an African-American homely woman who is Papa, Jesus as a Middle Eastern Jew and the Holy Spirit as a Asian woman with the name of Sarayu, which all sounds very weird, but if you read the book, and not just read criticisms of the book, you'll find out why God chose to be seen as such.
I liked the way that the story focuses on how God could relate to each and everyone of us by adopting and adapting an image that we could relate to and be influenced by. Since God is both male and female I see no problem in a vision of God as a woman if you need a motherly influence and impact, nor do I see a problem in a vision of God as a fatherly influence and impact if that's what one needed to be able in a time of stress to relate to God, in fact Papa reverts to a male image later on in the novel as another adaptation for Mack to relate to.
There are criticisms that Young has created a craven image of God, I disagree, the image is one that Mack can relate to, not one that is to be made and used in worship. The book is not saying that God is an African-American woman named Papa (in fact Papa tells Mack that he can call her Elousia (p86)), nor that the Holy Spirit is a Asian woman named Sarayu. Just that those images and what they do and how they do it it is what Mack needs. A lot of people can relate to those images. I did. I found the connection of the Trinity as three persons more enlightening through those images. But there is no way that it led me to believe that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit actually look like that! Craven images - no way.
But what about some of the theology relating to how Mack and the Trinity relate to each other? Young has got it right in that God is personal, neither male nor female, and it can be seen, through Mack’s encounters with the Trinity, that the Christian faith is about a relationship with a living God that is profoundly and incredibly intimate. It is a two way relationship. This two way relationship is tested by Mack’s grief and anger at God. He blames God for not stepping in and preventing such a tragedy (The Great Sadness’). He is given a change to judge God. At some time or another in our lives we all think we'd love to do that. Mack expresses just how hard that is as he realises the implications of such judgements.
If Mack is taken by understanding of the notion of judgement, then on the notion of sin he even more taken back and is surprised by God who says that, "I don't need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It's not my purpose to punish it; it's my joy to cure it" (p120). Through having God say this, Young has been criticised for undermining the punishment of sin. However, it seems to me that though God may not need to punish sin, the same as in the book God has no need to eat, but does so on a social level with Mack because Mack needs to eat (p199), God does, in fact, punish sin. For if, as in the book, “sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside", then may I suggest that, “the devouring you from the inside”, is a punishment proscribed by God for sinful behaviour? Then, may I suggest that the follow on statement “it’s my [God’s] joy to cure sin” might be relating to when we repent, return to God and come to faith through belief in Christ. But I could be wrong, this is just my opinion. [The following link blog.yanceyarrington.com has some more interesting points about the theology of 'The Shack' as does Ron Sider in his review of the book]
The bit for me in the book that was most difficult was how we forgive. How can we forgive someone who has committed such a heinous crime against a member of our own family. It is easy standing on the outside and saying that you should forgive. And I am in awe of those who have experienced such perpetrators of evil and have forgiven them. I guess I will have to keep coming to the Lord to ask for help to forgive because there would be no way I could on my own. And that is one of the most powerful aspects of The Shack. That we are not expected to do things on our own. We are to invite God into our lives, we are to have a relationship with God.
There is so much more to “The Shack” than I have included here, much much more! I for one found ‘The Shack’ thought provoking in relation to my own faith and attitude towards sin, punishment, judgement and forgiveness. It made me start, made me think, made me laugh and made me cry. A good book, with a good story about a profound subject. What a way to start a theology debate!