William P. Young
Windblown Media, 2008
288 pp., 27.00
"I Am Not Who You Think I Am"
In his mega-bestseller The Shack, William Paul Young offers a postmodern, post-biblical theodicy, explaining the ways of God to his readers. Whether it is also post-Christian is very much in the eye of the beholder, and may depend on how fluid one's definition of "Christian" is. I will return to that question later. "Post-biblical" is itself a strong term. But The Shack is, I think, not accidentally but self-consciously post-biblical, a quality that contributes to its broad popularity.
First and foremost I want to consider the novel literarily. This may be especially salutary in light of Eugene Peterson's oft-quoted comparison of The Shack to Pilgrim's Progress. But a literary approach also takes us past a mere laundry-list of the book's arguably heretical assertions (to which fans typically respond, "But it's just a Novel!") to discussion of context. In what ways does The Shack fit into the tradition of Christian fiction—especially under the headings "theophany" and "theodicy"—and in what ways is it, in fact, sui generis?
Young was an unpublished writer when, in 2005, he sent to several acquaintances a draft manuscript of a story "carved out of the caves of my experience." This "experience," including an emotionally strained relationship with missionary parents and sexual abuse at boarding school—hinted at in the book and subsequently elaborated—is foundational to the story's emotional register. Young's first readers, seeing marketable potential, became collaborators and, in effect, co-authors. The published version of The Shack owes much to their artistic shaping, including, one assumes, several concentric frames around the book's literary centerpiece: a life-transforming encounter of a broken man—the novel's protagonist, Mack—with God ("Papa," curiously cast as a winsome cross between Maya Angelou and Aunt Jemima; "Jesus," an unattractive but likeable Jewish handyman; and "Sarayu," a small Asian woman, "keeper of gardens" and tears). All three members of the Godhead converse extensively with Mack, as does another godlike woman "with chiseled Hispanic features," who turns out to be "Sophia—a personification of Papa's wisdom." Together they help Mack reorder his understanding of a devastating family tragedy and of how God relates to humanity. Unsurprisingly, readers like Kathie Lee Gifford have exclaimed, "The Shack will change the way you think about God forever."
The framing devices surrounding Mack's encounter with God include several layers of "authorial" opacity. Whose story is The Shack? Paul Young, the author, gives us a fictional narrator, "Willie" (a form of William, his first name). Willie provides the novel's first-person "Foreword" and "After Words," and "ghostwrites" the story of The Shack recounted by his (fictional) friend, Mackenzie Allen Phillips, "Mack." "This is his story, not mine," Willie insists. Before we are into chapter 1, then, we have an author, fictional narrator, and fictional alter-ego (whose dreadful relationship with a Christian father mirrors Young's) telling a story in which "truth" is both asserted and disclaimed. "Whether some parts of it are actually true or not I won't be the judge," says Willie; "I would not be too surprised … if some factual errors and faulty remembrances are reflected in these pages." Several times Willie declares that he wants all of it to be true. For his part, Mack "remains adamant that every word of the story is true."
There are many literary precedents for such a narrative strategy. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer uses the device for dramatic irony; his pilgrim narrators, including a fictional "Chaucer," are typically unmasked by the stories they tell (and thus, by other "authors"/ "authorities") in ways they do not anticipate. In The Shack, though, Mack, Willie, and Paul all apparently share the same agenda: to "authorize" an extraordinary narrative of an extended face-to-face encounter with God. Why, then, do we need all three voices? To create, presumably, both an impression of collective witness for those who "buy" The Shack's theologically innovative message and a means of diffusing the criticism of those who don't: "I'm only reporting what Mack told me." And sometimes, Willie tells us, "I have my doubts."
Another framing element gently insulates Mack's claims of truthful recall: the account of his theophany is book-ended by a severe knock on the head during an ice storm and a collision that leaves him comatose and hallucinatory. Moreover, immediately before and after his encounter with God, Mack falls into a deep sleep. And yet, despite this tip-of-the-hat to dream-vision conventions, the book is at pains to argue that Mack's experience was no dream.
The most critical frame, however, is The Great Sadness. If there is a more horrific emblem of the "problem of evil" than the sexually motivated abduction and murder of a small child, surely few readers can imagine one. This is the anguish that defines Mack as we first encounter him. His 6-year-old daughter Missy was, several years earlier, snatched on a camping trip by a serial predator. Evidence of Missy's brutal death, though not her body, was located in a remote, abandoned shack. Mack has, ever since, lived under an unshakeable mantle of agonized grief.
The emotional/theological setup, then, for The Shack is the question: How can a good God permit such unspeakable evil to be inflicted on an innocent? The beginning of an answer comes in a typewritten note, inexplicably delivered to Mack's mailbox during the ice storm: "Mackenzie, It's been a while. I've missed you. I'll be at The Shack next weekend if you want to get together." It is signed "Papa" (the affectionate term for God used by Mack's wife, Nan). Deciding this may actually be a divine communication, Mack elects to keep the appointment. The "letter" is a device straight out of Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World, and as in that novel it commences a curriculum (one might think of it as "a course in miracles") initiated by a mysterious Correspondent.
Theophany (a manifestation of the divine Presence) is the explicit raison d'être of The Shack. Young alludes to the locus classicus of biblical theophany—God's appearance to Moses at Horeb—early in the novel, in Mack's response to Willie's bantering question, "So what do you think he looks like?" Mack replies, "Maybe he's a really bright light, or a burning bush." There are also clear echoes of Exodus 3 in the collective "I am" response of Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu to Mack's question, "which one of you is God?" and in Papa's assertion, "I am what I am." Further, the novel's coda quotes familiar lines from Elizabeth Browning's Aurora Leigh: "Earth's crammed with heaven, / and every common bush afire with God, / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes."
In scriptural theophanies, "he who sees" typically not only takes off his shoes but falls on his face, abject, "undone," and silent before the incomparable majesty of God. To be visited with such an experience is to be overcome with sensations of unworthiness, awe, and reverence, indeed with the fearful knowledge that the Holy Presence is a consuming fire: "No man shall see Me, and live," says God to Moses (Ex. 33:20, NKJV). In every such account the ineffable glory and incorporeality of God is strongly guarded—the face of God, explicitly, is always hidden. Though the Incarnation ends the season of theophany, it neither minimizes nor alters God's holy splendor: the Apostle John, one of Jesus' closest earthly companions, encountering the risen Son of Man in a vision on Patmos, "fell at His feet as dead" (Rev 1:17).
Theophany is strictly circumscribed in Christian literary tradition. Medieval biblical plays sometimes bring God on stage briefly to utter Latinate formulas such as "Ego sum Alpha et Omega, principium et finis" before setting creation in motion. At the beginning of the 15th-century Everyman, God expresses sorrow at human sinfulness and sends Death to Everyman, to initiate an obligatory pilgrimage. God is not, thus, a "character" in the usual sense but prime mover of the action. Most often, though, literary theophany occurs under a species of analogy or allegory. As Dante reminds us at the end of Paradiso, the beatific vision is, by definition, mysterious and indescribable, beyond the "powers of … high fantasy."
The Shack breaks all the rules. Although secular writers have fewer scruples—as films like O, God! (1977); Dogma (1999); and Evan Almighty (2007) attest—there are no significant Christian literary precedents for Young's exuberant representation of the Godhead.
Eugene Peterson has famously described The Shack as a Pilgrim's Progress for our time, an endorsement doubtless responsible for many of the book's early sales to Christian readers. But it has also left many such readers perplexed, especially those who recognize in The Shack a repudiation of every doctrinal assumption of Bunyan's Calvinism. Setting aside the qualitative judgment that would have Young's novel on the shelf next to the most popular and influential work of Christian fiction ever written, one senses, on several levels, a category mistake. Bunyan's text falls well within an established tradition of Christian allegory, with an Everyman figure named Christian fleeing the city of destruction and making his way to the celestial city. He meets characters with names like Hypocrisy, Prudence, Piety, Ignorance, and Charity and encounters trials, distractions, enlightenment, and instruction at landmarks with similarly obvious names (Slough of Despond, Valley of Humiliation, Vanity Fair). Despite these transparent didactic cues, which prevent readers from taking things "literally," Bunyan advertises the narrative as "Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream." And lest anyone still have any concerns about genre, he adds a biblical citation: "I have used Similitudes" (Hos 12:10). While allegorical dream vision is one of the most venerable forms of Christian writing in English (e.g., OE Dream of the Rood, ME Pearl, Piers Plowman, Chaucer's House of Fame), Bunyan was the first and most notable Protestant writer to employ this genre of edifying fiction. As such, he exploited the conventions in ways that heighten a sola scriptura sensibility. The Bible is not only quoted ubiquitously throughout Pilgrim's Progress; biblical references inform every aspect of plot, characterization, and dialogue.
One might adduce parallels between Bunyan's anti-Catholic satire and Young's polemical attack on Christian "religion" in general. In The Shack, religion is associated with a host of "dead nouns": "law," "fear," "judgment," "rules," "power," "expectations," and especially "performance." Jesus himself, pointedly observing that he has no wish to make people Christian (p. 182), refers to religion as part of a "man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about." But where Bunyan counters what he sees as false religion with sincere "biblical" faith, Young (through Mack) identifies the Bible itself with the religion that has traumatized him. In the foreword, we're told that Mack was "beaten with a belt and Bible verses" by his churchgoing father. He disdains his seminary education, where people sought "God in a book … an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?" In one of the novel's more sarcastic touches, Mack finds a Gideon Bible in his nightstand at The Shack: he reads a couple of verses before drifting into (apparently more edifying) flying dreams. The "truth" Mack finds in The Shack contradicts all of his previous biblical instruction: it has no content except "relationship." The Holy Spirit figure, Sarayu, channeling Dr. Phil ("How's that working for you?"), explains: "Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions … . Check the truthfulness of your paradigms … . The more you live in the truth the more your emotions will help you see clearly" (p. 197). And, she promises, "you will hear and see me in the Bible in fresh ways. Don't look for rules and principles; look for relationship." This is, perhaps, where The Shack most clearly taps into a broad evangelical consensus. "It's not a religion, it's a relationship!" is a frequent mantra on Christian radio programs and websites, and in many American churches—even of the kind Young is likely most dismissive of. But it plays well also in a dogma-averse culture generally, where "spirituality" is the more readily embraced the less specific its demands or content.
If The Shack has little in common with Pilgrim's Progress, it can certainly be compared to another English Protestant blockbuster, Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), the most important literary theodicy ever written. The task that Young has set himself is the same audacious undertaking that Milton is best known for: attempting to provide a convincing counterargument to the problem of evil. Milton dared, in a way no Christian writer before him had, to depict the throne-room of heaven, to "see and tell of things invisible to mortal eye." Ironically, it was his physical blindness that gave the poet access as a "seer" ("May I express thee unblam'd?" he asks, pleading for inner illumination), and his account is neither innovative nor descriptive: "the Almighty Father … / High Thron'd above all things" on whose right hand "the radiant image of his Glory sat, His onely Son" (3:56-64).
We are a long way from Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu: Milton could no more have re-imagined (or presumed to converse with) the Godhead in familiar, casual terms than the biblical prophets could. But Milton's address to theodicy is, likewise, untouched by New Age sentiments. The problem of evil finds its genesis, literally, in "man's disobedience." The "prime cause" of the Fall is Satan, whose rebellion and hubris prompt his desire to destroy the innocents in Eden. Redemption is planned, from the outset, but redemption will cost everything and Justice as well as love must be served.
The central themes of theodicy are explicitly reconceived in The Shack: sin, Satan, guilt, punishment, authority, hierarchy, substitutionary atonement have no place in Papa's world. Everything is absorbed into an all-encompassing, markedly feminine, love. Thus, Mack's murder of his father—we know from Willie that he poisoned his father's booze before leaving home at 13—is never mentioned by the all-knowing Trinity. Mack's disingenuous admission to friends that his father "drank himself to death" is not improved upon when he is in the presence of God. Guilt is a negative emotion, and negative emotions are swept away in the joyous free-for-all in The Shack. Papa tells Mack, "I've never placed an expectation on you or anyone else … . And because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me." Mack is taken aback: "What? You've never been disappointed in me?" "Never!" Papa retorts emphatically. One might have thought that patricide would "disappoint" God. Apparently not. And when Mack encounters his deceased father in a mystical "festival of friends" and is able at last to say, "Daddy, I'm so sorry! Daddy, I love you!" a potent emotional reconciliation is achieved, though it is strikingly unlike classical biblical repentance (Ps. 51; Lk. 15:21).
Another set-piece of theodicy, the Judgment scene, is also turned inside-out in The Shack. In Book 10 of Paradise Lost, God sends the Son to pronounce verdict on "man's first disobedience": in a sequence mirroring Genesis 3, all the actors in the Fall are judged, though justice is tempered with mercy and the promise of ultimate redemption is presaged by the Son graciously clothing Adam and Eve in animal skins. When, in The Shack, Mack is summoned to judgment before Papa's understudy, Sophia, it turns out that he is "not here to repent," or to be judged but rather to play the Judge himself. When, with coaxing, he screams that Missy's murderer should be "damned to hell," Sophia walks him through a careful explanation of why God could never condemn anyone. Jesus, with Papa and Sarayu, has taken on judgment (all three bear the marks of the crucifixion). The idea of punishment is unworthy of Papa: "I don't need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment." "Judgment is not about destruction, but about setting things right."
The Shack has a thesis, conveniently summed up in Papa's twice-repeated statement, "I am not who you think I am." Papa is "amazing, but she's not anything like the God I've known," Mack confesses to Sophia, who replies, "Maybe your understanding of God is wrong."
The point of The Shack is to prompt Christian readers, among others, to question, with Mack, their understanding of God—indeed, to "change the way we think about God forever." Young himself, in his actual rather than fictional voice, ends his acknowledgments with a benediction "that the abiding presence of Papa, Jesus and Sarayu will fill up your inside emptiness with joy unspeakable and full of glory." This, along with the promotional machine one encounters in the book's "Missy Project," should, I think, make any Christian uncomfortable. It should, in fact, convince us that The Shack is anything but "just a novel."
But The Shack's "I am not who you think I am" also revises the theophanic declaration itself: "I am that I am." As such, it problematizes the self-revelation of God at the heart of the Old Testament and of Jesus, the incarnate "I Am," at the heart of the New. We are left, then—however diverting we find Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu—with a question memorably posed by that first and subtlest of inquisitors (Gen. 3): "Is God who you think He is?" To which, in Christian terms, we have only ever been able to turn to one source for the answer.
Katherine Jeffrey is a freelance writer and book editor in Whitney, Texas, where she lives with her husband, David, and sons Gideon and Josh.
1. Since Young's Jesus welcomes all, from "every system that exists," and has "no desire to make them Christians," the term itself is sufficiently deconstructed to make the point moot for those who embrace The Shack's message.
2. I do not propose to talk about Young's style, about which there have been strongly mixed reviews.
3. In Ezekiel's vision, the One who sits on the throne is only partly seen, and even then description is veiled: "the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord" (Ezek. 1:28).
5. E.g., Bunyan's gatekeeper, Good-Will, is referenced as a Christ figure. Literary Christ figures are vastly more frequent than (even allegorically disguised) figures of Father or Spirit. Notably, the "I am" of the burning bush theophany typically enters English literature as a distortion put into the mouth of a diabolical character. Hence Iago's "I am not what I am" (Othello, 1.1.65) or Duessa's "I that do seeme not I, Duessa am" (Faerie Queene, 1.5.26).
6. On the title page of the first edition of Pilgrim's Progress, the word "Dream" dwarfs the title.
7. See Dennis Danielson's Milton's Good God: A Study in Literary Theodicy (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982).
8. As one jaded commentator has defined the genre: "Protagonist meets God somehow, and the author tries ever so sincerely … to improve on God's Whirlwind Speech to the Righteous Job."
9. A. W. Tozer, whom Young names among his influences, expresses reservations even about this degree of daring: "It is a real if understandable error to conceive of the Persons of the Godhead as conferring with one another and reaching agreement by interchange of thought as humans do. It has always seemed to me that Milton introduces an element of weakness into … Paradise Lost when he presents the Persons of the Godhead conversing with each other about the redemption of the human race." The Knowledge of the Holy (Harper and Row, 1961), p. 30.
10. This is a shorthand borrowing from George Macdonald, but it significantly alters Macdonald's theological rationale. In a longer version of this essay I elaborate some connections.
12. In Milton's version of the Fall, it may actually be the Tempter whose explanations of the ways of God with man sound most like Papa's: "doe not believe / Those rigid threats of Death; ye shall not Die. How should ye? … . Will God incense his ire / For such a petty Trespass?" (Bk. 9).
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.