Saturday, June 21, 2008

Is The Shack Emergent?

At the heart of this book is a portrayal of God’s immanence. Young pictures God the Father, as a friendly “very large black woman” named “Papa,” Jesus as a jean-wearing guy who clumsily drops the bowl of sauce and says, “true that,” and the spirit as a partially transparent Asian girl. All three talk in a friendly, familiar way with Mack. The endearing, sometimes almost mushy love these three exhibit is appealing from the standpoint of our relationship with God, and I think this aspect of God is biblical, even if exaggerated in this story.

Unfortunately, God’s transcendence, justice, authority, and truthfulness are lost in this portrayal.

Lack of transcendence

I was uncomfortable with the notion of this large woman representing the Father who, according to scripture, “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” This is the same God who warned Moses that nobody can see God and live. Immanence is stressed in the Bible through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but the Father always stands for pure transcendence.

In the Bible, people usually fall on their face when confronted by God. Paul was blind for three days—and these encounters only involved the Son. In The Shack, the relatively irreverent Mac repeatedly throws caustic charges at God the Father:

“How can you say that with all the pain in this world, all the wars and disasters that destroy thousands?”

“But the cost!... It all sounds like the end justifies the means, that to get what you want you will go to any length, even if it costs the lives of billions of people.” 125

One’s credulity is stretched constantly by the plot anyway, but I found my credulity reaching the breaking point with this picture of a man challenging God the Father’s legitimacy and fairness to his face. No sufficient answer is given—Papa just gives smiling assurances that it all works out for love.

Lack of justice

The justice of God completely disappears in Young’s portrayal. And for this reason alone, I’m not surprised the book is popular with emergent thinkers. I think this is a major theme in emergent theology—they have virtually eliminated justice as an attribute of God. One emergent book after another heaps scorn on any portrayal of God as one who promises death to sinners.

This is why so many emergent thinkers have been questioning the penal substitution understanding of the cross of Christ. McLaren and Chalke are completely baffled as to why God would find it necessary to inflict pain on his son. They have both referred to this idea as “cosmic child abuse.” If God wants to forgive sin, they wonder, why doesn’t he just do it? That question makes sense for a human, or a God without the attribute of justice. The emergent god is way too nice to do anything like judging people in hell. An all-loving God unconcerned with righteousness and justice would never do something mean like that.

In The Shack, Mack asks papa whether she is especially fond of all or are there those who she is not especially fond of. She answers,

Nope, I haven’t been able to find any. Guess that’s jes’ the way I is.”

Mack, was interested. “Do you ever get mad at any of them?”

“Sho ‘nuf! What parent doesn’t? There is a lot to be mad about in the mess my kids have made and in the mess they’re in. I don’t like a lot of choices they make, but that anger—especially for me—is an expression of love all the same. I love the ones I am angry with just as much as those I’m not.” 119

Mack is incredulous. Responding to his amazement, papa says,

“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.” 120

In fairness, God doesn’t say sin is okay in this book, but the absence of justice is a glaring flaw. Apparently, we don’t need to be adopted through conversion to become a child of God. All humans are his children, and all entitled to his love as sons and daughters.

Other emergent themes emerge as well. We'll cover these in the next post.


Anonymous said...

dennis, i find your condemnation of the mack character for accusing God to his face to be a little out of bounds.
yes, it is a supremely foolish thing to do. it is certainly a form of blasphemy. haven't you done it? before your conversion didn't you accuse God of all sorts of things? after your conversion didn't you question God in prayer and find it supremely difficult to come to terms with some things? we just don't have the opportunity to actually face God himself like mack did, so we do the best we can. it just seems like you're underestimating human arrogance.
in these situations i find little difference between mack and myself and dozens of others, even in scripture. satan did it. job did it, too, when he nearly rebuked God for saving the ninevites.
otherwise that is the all i really found... off (for lack of a better word) about your analysis of this brief interaction.

Dennis said...

I am always reluctant to accuse God. I am so conscious of my own sin that it seems very ireverant to hurl charges at God.

Anonymous said...

You? Self-aware?! I agree. You're so self-aware you have no idea that there are actually other people in the world.

Anonymous said...

With respect I, too, find your judgment on Mack unfair. First of all, it seems to me the author is trying to create a representation of how we encounter God in our life. I don’t read it as a representation of a literal face-to-face meeting with the God Almighty. It is a parable. (If I am wrong, please say so. I haven’t read the book, only the short excerpts you gave. So if the author says that it is supposed to represent a literal face-to-face with God, feel free to correct me). And using a parable in such a way is not without example. Jesus tells a story of a son who disrespects his father by taking his inheritance and squandering it. Yet the son is still loved by the father. He tells another story of a landowner whose workers question him when they receive the same pay as other workers who had not worked as long as them. In both, the traditional interpretations say that the father and the landowner represent God in some way. And, yet, the individuals who question “God” still got their reward (son welcomed back home, workers still got their pay).

Second, I agree with the anonymous poster (though not his tone) that we do underestimate our own arrogance. We underestimate our own sin. I believe we sin constantly against God. We are probably only aware of 1% of the sin we commit against God. I think it goes deeper than individual little acts like cursing, yelling at someone when you get angry, lying, etc. Our whole mind frame is so against God’s. We are not even on the same page. I think that each of us have so much pride. At the end of each day, we have ultimately lived to serve ourselves. I know I am guilty of this. You say you are very conscious of your own sin. I think I can understand what you mean, and I certainly commend you for it. We must be humble and realize we are sinful. But what does that mean? I tend to think we are all very ignorant of the GREATNESS of our sin. And we only realize a fraction of just how sinful we are. And that underestimation … that arrogance of thinking that I understand my sin and I am so self-aware of my sin that I can repent of each an every sinful act … is a kind of rebellious act against God. I don’t view sin as only individual acts, but also as a way of life. And unfortunately, it is our way of life. Our very lives … your life, my life … are against God. We are rebelling against God. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need Jesus for reconciliation. My sinful way of life says something about what I think I deserve. I think I deserve to serve myself, do what I want, not do what God wants me to do, judge others, make lots of money, spend lots of money on stuff I don’t need instead of helping poor, etc, etc, etc. So, in a way, Mack represents you and me. I may not actually speak words out loud that are “challenging God the Father’s legitimacy and fairness to his face.” But I think my sinful way of life screams it every day.

Finally, I don’t think God judges those who are looking for justice and meaning in hardships quite so harshly. I have had the unfortunate experience of knowing a few mothers who lost their babies during pregnancy. It seems that each of them in some way or another challenged God on the issue. “Why, God?” “How could you do this?” “This isn’t fair.” I don’t think God looked with so much disdain on their line of questioning. They were asking a God who can handle those questions. I’m sure as a pastor, you have dealt with countless situations like this and even worse. And I hope you encouraged people to not just listen to what you told them, but to pray to God, and that through the Spirit he would give them answers far better than you could. We can’t get those answers if we don’t ask. I have never had such a tragedy happen directly to me. But I have worked in parts of sub-Sahara Africa where I saw entire villages of starving people. I saw tiny babies who were dying of malnutrition because their mothers had no milk. And in that moment, when I was looking into the eyes of those fellow human beings and they had their hand held out in desperation for me to give them something so that they could cling on to life … in that moment I asked, “God, why this unfairness? Where is your justice?”

KE said...


Anthropomorphising God, the Father, made me uncomfortable as well. I just can't jibe the idea of Moses coming down from the mountain in radiance after receiving the Commandments from a folky Ebonics speaking woman. I'm certainly neither racist or sexist, but reducing the Lord God to a charicature also diminishes his perfect nature and the fact that he simply cannot be in the presence of sin.

Kyle Cleveland

Anonymous said...

As I stated earlier ... what of the parables that Jesus told? Or do you think perhaps that none of the characters in his parables are supposed to represent God?

Dennis said...

None of his parables show God in a way that violates biblical teaching about his character.

Anonymous said...

If I had to summarize to someone your main concern about the book, I would say that you think it portrays a God that doesn't judge. There is no judgement on the sinner. I know there are other things, but it seems that is a major one. Would you agree that this is a major concern of yours? And if so, where is God's judgement in the aforementioned parables?

Thanks for your candid discussions, brother. Peace.

Dennis said...

No, I think you've over-simplified my complaints. If you look, you'll see I said, "God’s transcendence, justice, authority, and truthfulness are lost in this portrayal."
So, not just justice. The citations I gave showed a negative view toward authority that is more characteristic of Satan than of God.

Dennis said...

BTW, on parables that show the justice of God, the sheep and the goats, the dragnet, the parable of the soils, the wheat and the tares, the parable of the minas (lk. 19, Mt. 13, 25)and many others show him willing and planning to judge.

ryan weingartner said...

i'm a little late here, but in response to anonymous: it's one thing to question God in prayer or to be angry with God. The lesson from Job is that if you were even near a whirlwind where God spoke to you, all you could do is repent and hold your hand over your mouth. I don't think anyone could accuse God to His face because of His power, but also because He is full of truth and justice. What could we humans possibly say.