Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review of "The Shack" by Wm. Paul Young -- Warning! Spoiler alert!

My friend C lent this book to me yesterday. She is able to think of God as a benevolent force in the universe, and she believes that Jesus was a good man whose words and actions were misconstrued by those who wrote about him. She told me that this book was a very close approximation of her views on God and Jesus, so I wanted to read it. The deity in this book is wonderful, nothing like the Yahweh or Jesus of the bible. Now I'll have to think of some new name for Jesus when I want to talk to her about the Jesus that I know, the cranky, chauvinistic, short-tempered, short-sighted, ignorant bigot of the gospels. Her Jesus is not even from the same planet. I hardly ever use the word "God" when I mean Yahweh, which is fortunate, as C finds Yahweh rather repugnant as well.

Here are my thoughts on the book. Warning, if you haven't read the book yet, you may wish to refrain from reading this, as I spoil the story below.

Overall, this book gets a giant "thumbs up" on the heresy meter. Throughout the book, this god makes it very plain that it is not in microscopic control of every detail of the universe. It even suggests that it is not omnipotent, but rather that it could not prevent humans from breaking everything when humans turned away from it. This god also very clearly wants nothing more than to be in a relationship with each one of us, not to be worshiped and prayed to and adored with groveling and scraping. It is quirky and playful; it likes to tease. Mysterious, but not in some geeky, technical way that can be understood only by the educated. Rather, mysterious but approachable, something you could fear, but something you don't feel compelled to fear. In order to reach Mack, the protagonist of the story, God appears to him as a woman, although it explains that it is neither male nor female. Later in the story, after Mack reconciles himself to his earthly father, God appears to him as a man, saying that Mack is now able to think of it as a father figure.

I might consider thinking well of this god, because although it allows evil, it seems to have a plan that will ultimately justify the evil, but more importantly, it does not actively participate in the evil, as Yahweh does with abandon. Near the end of the story, Mack realizes that he trusts God, and he tells God so. God's response is to beam at him and say, "I know, son, I know." A far cry from Jesus of the bible, insisting that we work our butts off for God and in the end say, "We're unworthy servants." See Luke 17:7 - 10

In the end, God leads Mack to take the final step of forgiving the man who murdered his daughter. Why?  So Mack can "release him to God and allow God to redeem him." Not so that Mack will be forgiven for his own sins and avoid damnation. See Matthew 18:21 - 35

Mack obviously does not want to forgive, and he feels a bit ashamed of himself that he is resisting God's desire. God responds, "Son, this is not about shaming you. I don't do humiliation, or guilt, or condemnation. They don't produce one speck of wholeness...and that is why they were nailed into Jesus on the cross."

Some particulars that I like about the god described in this book:
  • Mack meets God, all three persons of the Trinity. The Father turns out to be a large black woman who likes to be called Elouisa but also answers to Papa, the Son actually is Hebrew and male and actually goes by Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman, strangely hard to see when looked at directly, who goes by the name Sarayu.
  • Mack has brought a gun with him to the place where he meets God, as he had not allowed himself to believe that it was actually God calling him here. Elouisa offers to take the gun for him, and then holds it with clear signs of repugnance. This is not the bloodthirsty baby-killer of the Pentateuch.
  • This Jesus is very likable and easy-going, not the short-tempered bastard of the Christian bible.
  • Elouisa says to Mack, "I live in a state of perpetual satisfaction as my normal state of existence." The reader can tell that this is a true statement before she says it: she's a very comfortable, very kind, transcendent sort of person. This is not Yahweh.
  • Elouisa indulges in a long, rich belly laugh. This is something that neither Yahweh nor the biblical Jesus ever did. They were both frequently rageful and irritable, and sometimes they wept, but they never engaged in joyful laughter.
  • Elouisa and Jesus gang up on Mack and tease him about his failure to understand the Trinity.
  • Elousia explains to Mack that "I'm not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion".
  • Jesus takes Mack on a walk across a lake, on the surface of the water. At first Mack is afraid to step onto the water. There is not a hint of the Jesus of Matthew 14:22 - 31, who demands, "Why did you doubt?" No, this Jesus playfully mocks Mack, waiting until Mack steps into the water and gets his shoes and socks sopping wet (although he doesn't sink) before pointing out that God removes footwear before walking on the water.
  • Jesus laments the general environmental irresponsibility of the human race, something that the biblical Jesus never even mentions.
  • Jesus explains that the submission that God wants from us is not about authority or obedience, but rather love and respect. He even points out that God is submitted to us in the same way as it wants us to submit to it, not as slaves to its will, but as brothers and sisters who will share life with it.
  • When Mack finally breaks down and has a good cry over his dead daughter, Jesus is there with him and just holds him while he cries. There is not a single mention of Jesus ever doing anything like this in the bible.
  • Jesus says that he doesn't even want people to be Christians.
  • Elouisa tells Mack that she forgave him his sins (although she's already very soft on the whole concept of sin) way back when Jesus came, in marked contrast to how the biblical Jesus talks about forgiveness.
  • Perhaps the most profound statement in the entire book is here: "Love that is forced is no love at all." So much for the idea of eternal torment. This god's salvation isn't a salvation from its own manufactured punishment, as is that of the God known by most Christians. This god's salvation is a way of restoring humanity to a loving relationship with a worthy deity.
  • Elouisa says, "I've never placed an expectation on you or anyone else. The idea behind expectations requires that someone does not know the future or outcome and is trying to control behavior to get the desired result...because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me." This is so neither the biblical Yahweh nor the biblical Jesus, both of whom are hair-triggered bazookas of disappointment.
I was somewhat less impressed with these characteristics of God, but I could allow for the possibility that the author would agree with my objections if he had thought about them, and that his reason for not thinking about them is simply that the bees in his bonnet are not the same as those I have in mine.
  • The author develops the idea of why we should not presume to judge God or its methods. Before I can decide whether to follow this god, I must, absolutely must, decide whether it is worthy of being followed, whether it is good or evil. Otherwise I could just blindly follow any despicable deity and claim that I was just following orders. Judging is absolutely necessary. I will not worship a baby-killer. 
  • Elouisa comes down a couple of huge notches in my esteem when she says that she is fully reconciled to the whole world, but that reconciliation is a two-way street. This sounds way too much like Christians telling me that if I burn in agony for all eternity, it's not because God wanted it that way, but because I stubbornly chose it. I will not worship a baby-killer.
  • Elouisa agrees with the Apostle Paul in explaining that the whole reason for the Mosaic Law was to show us that we can't be in a relationship with God by following rules. "...we wanted you to give up trying to be righteous on your own. It was a mirror to reveal just how filthy your face gets when you live independently." This idea is not irredeemably bad; it just pushes the edges a bit with this idea that the purpose of the Mosaic Law was to show us that we are not good, that we are sinful. If the author had made it more clearly say that the purpose was to make us give up trying on our own and trust God to take care of things, then I'd be perfectly happy. Unfortunately, he clouds it with biblical, Pauline Christianity: God wanted us to "give up trying to be righteous on [our] own."
Thanks, C. I love you. I see you.

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