“The Shack” vs. “Polishing God’s Monuments”

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Ah, yet another chance to tackle the age-old questions of “Why does God allow suffering and evil in this world?” and “Where is God when it hurts?”……

The most talked about Christian book this year is probably “The Shack, ” a fictional story with a touching premise, deals with many issues about God and about suffering, but might contain questionable theology. It was a surprising success, and there was even talk of making “The Shack” into a movie. And Christians seem to be divided on their opinions regarding this controversial book.

“The Shack” is about Mackenzie, whose daughter was abducted and brutally murdered at a shack some years ago, coming back and revisiting the shack for a weekend, wherein he had close encounters and honest conversations with the Three Persons of the Triune God. In the book, Father God appeared as an African-American woman who calls herself “Papa,” the Son appeared as a Middle Eastern man, and the Spirit appeared as an Asian woman named Sarayu, as they seem to try to explain to Mackenzie about his suffering and his circumstances.

For example, in one case Sarayu tried to explain that God did not create evil by saying: “Both evil and darkness can only be understood in relation to Light and Good; they do not have any actual existence … Light and Good actually exist.” Or in another example, Papa expressed his (or her?) all-lovingness by saying: “I don’t need to punish people for sin … Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It is not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” Papa even said: “We [the Trinity] have limited ourselves out of respect for you.”

People who love the book say that it is a heartwarming story that helps them gain a fresh understanding of God as a loving figure who desires an intimate relationship with us, and they find in it comfort through their daily struggles. People who loathe the book say that it dangerously (and some may say, subversively or even heretically) attempts to recreate and reimagine who God is, tending to disregard parts of scripture and established church teachings in favor of new “revelations.” Proponents of the book counter the book’s opponents by saying that we need to focus on knowing God anew and having a fresh relationship with God and to be skeptical of the canned answers and dead theologies from institutionalized religion.

After plowing through many many reviews of “The Shack,” I’ve concluded that viewing the book as only a theological treatise is probably unfair. In other words, I would not say the book is deliberately heretical or subversive. The author, William Young, wrote the book to deal with his personal struggles (which obviously includes some deep personal tragedies as well as being hurt by fellow Christians in the past), and only published the book when his wife urged him to do it. The book seems to have been written from a point of view of “Where is God when life is so painful?”, and Young ultimately answers with “God is there, just not who we think He is,” and I can appreciate it being a genuine message about suffering. But I would say also that Young is probably mistaken in how he wants God to justify Himself to man in regards to suffering. The book is genuine, but sadly mistaken.

In other words, I do not recommend people to read “The Shack.” Besides the fact that I am not comfortable with the book’s questionable theological aspects, there are just so many other better books in the world to read and to invest your time.

Incidentally, at the same time, Wendy and I are reading a book called “Polishing God’s Monuments.” In some ways it’s similar to “The Shack,” in that it tells of a (true) story of the suffering of the author’s daughter, and how the whole family deals with it. But “Polishing God’s Monuments” is written with a lot of wisdom and theological depth, and it also contains many touching moments of the story of suffering. As opposed to “The Shack,” instead of seeking to understand God in order to deal with the suffering, the author of “Polishing God’s Monuments,” Pastor Jim Andrews, seeks to rely on the tried and tested faith that God has built up in him in the past. At one point, Andrews quoted a devotional by W. Glyn Evans, which says:

“I will not demand that God explain himself to me at any time, for this is the characteristic of the unregenerate man. I must be willing to let God be unreasonable, in my view, if necessary, because he is not concerned with my understanding, but with my faith. The unregenerate man sees contradiction in the world and demands that God justify himself before him; the believing man makes no such demand, but believes God supremely.”

That’s quite a different message from “The Shack.” And Andrews proceeded to tell a touching story about how his daughter and son-in-law battled a debilitating illness for 20 years, and at times when they felt isolated and misunderstood, how they stood by their faith in God and their lives inspired many people.

I highly recommend “Polishing God’s Monuments,” and I won’t talk too much more about the book, because you should go and read it for yourself what it’s all about. It’s a book that, once you begin, you don’t want to put down. The Introduction and Chapter 1 of “Polishing God’s Monuments” are available online.

You may also be interested in:
Review of “The Shack” in Christianity Today
Review of “Polishing God’s Monuments” by Tim Challies

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