The minute I started reading Paul Young’s novel The Shack, I was entranced. Young took me into a world where God came down in the form of three unlikely individuals and messed with the life of a broken and cynical man. Through its pages I saw a new portrait of a God I knew, yet, strangely, seem to have never met–a God who lavishes love, grace and forgiveness on humanity with such unrelenting fervor . . . and I found myself stopping and questioning my own sensibility at times: Does such a Being even exist?
After all, there is another darker, more sinister, picture of God to which I had been accustomed: a God who hates, bring destruction and devastation, strikes humankind with his fierce (and righteous?) anger, holding us to ransom over the flames of hell.
I remember telling a friend that I was reading The Shack and found it to be the most incredible story of grace I had ever come across. I loaned her my copy and, before hiding it away in her handbag rather quickly, she told me that she could not let her friends see her with it–especially those in her church fellowship group–because it was so heretical. (Puzzled expression on my face, and I think I said something along the lines of “You’ve got to be kidding!”)
To me, this book was so straightforwardly simple and showed a wonderful picture of a God I wanted to know. To her, it was another threat to a “safe” theology which enabled her to live quite comfortably amongst her like-minded acquaintances.
So when I received a copy of The Shack Revisited by C. Baxter Kruger (2012: Hachette Book Group/Hodder & Stoughton), I jumped into it head first, hoping to make some sense of Evangelicalism’s strange love-hate relationship with this recent bestseller.
Kruger lets us into a little history of the original volume: Young never intended this book to be published, but wrote it for his family to explain his own experience over 11 years of brokenness and the realisation of the overwhelming love and forgiveness of God in his life. What we read is his own story, although viewed in the life of Mack. Mack lost his daughter Missy and became overwhelmed by his own Great Sadness. That Sadness–and the period of Young’s own life it represents–is characterised by the seemingly very real absence of God. As Kruger comments, “That is a lonely place.” (p.23).
Kruger’s companion volume to The Shack was not solicited by Young. It arose out of Kruger’s own interaction with The Shack and out of the profound impact this book had in his life and ministry. The Shack Revisited is a well-rounded explanation of the underpinning theology of the novel, written with the average pew-sitting Christian in mind. It takes into account not only how the Biblical writers saw God’s relationship within God’s self and with Creation, but also teaching from numerous Church writers and theologians, including many from the first centuries of Christianity’s existence. I was quite pleased to read so much commentary within this book that echoed the writings of one of my favourite authors and theologians, C.S. Lewis. In fact, as Kruger rightfully states, the fingerprints of C.S. Lewis are all over this book. Themes such as those by which Lewis is so constantly taken to addressing are found throughout the volume and the author makes this abundantly clear:
Within us all there lies a broken dream, “our inconsolable secret,” as Lewis calls it, that is so precious to us we protect it with a thousand defenses. “The secret which hurts us much,” Lewis says, “That you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence.” We know that we are made for glory, but only know hints of its joy. In the midst of life we long for more. Something is missing: creation is aflame with a glory we cannot touch but we know it’s ours. We are moved by ancient music, but cannot find the great dance. So “we pine,” as Lewis says. But such pining is too much to bear. So we bury our longing and protect our dream’s sleep. (p. 36)
After laying the groundwork in showing the background and purpose of this book, Kruger breaks into the theological themes of Young’s book with the common understanding many Christians have of God. He shows the one view of God as being an angry Deity intent on holding sinners over the flames of hell’s fire (as represented in Jerry Falwell’s favourite sermon of all time, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards) (p.53) The other view, demonstrated so beautifully in The Shack is one portrayed by Athanasius in where God has never abandoned human beings who has always walked alongside brokenness.
The God of all is good and supremely noble by nature. Therefore he is the lover of humanity. [Athanasius quoted by Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought.]
As, then, the creatures whom he had created . . . were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was he to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning . . . It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself. [Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God] (p.55)
Kruger assumes of the reader a Trinitarian theological understanding (chapter 6). So much of the book is caught up in the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit, perhaps because this is the point in which critics have accused Young of going too far. (Whilst the apparent human-likeness of each person of the Trinity was refreshing and enlightening to me when I first read The Shack, to many that has brought God into disrepute, making God too familiar and not so much a distant other-worldly entity as their theology would dictate.) Drawing from the gospel record and from the interpretation of this by the early Church fathers, he shows the involvement of God with humankind from the very beginning, through the Hebrew patriarchs and into the coming of Jesus. The interplay between the three persons is shown as always being a given throughout the story of God (chapters 7 and 8)
This is not polytheism (as was the accusation made by the Jews against early Christians), nor modalism (where God manifested in different ways at different times), but a true relationship. Jesus claimed this, telling his disciples that he and his father were one, that he would send the Spirit to them who would be as he himself to them. The most common demonstration of this relationship has always been the baptism of Jesus where the Spirit appeared above him as a dove and the voice is heard saying “This is the son whom I love. . . .” (This debate over the nature of God culminated in the councils of Nicaea (325 C.E.) and Constantinople (381 C.E.) affirming the nature of the Trinity.)
Kruger introduces the idea of perichoresis: an understanding of the triune God as a mutual indwelling without a loss of personal identity, as Sarayu tells Mack: “You cannot share with one and not share with us all.”
Then why does not needs us–why does God love us? Is God not enough in God’s self? Does not that relationship within the Trinity satisfy God in itself?
Chapter 10 is worth the price of this book. Here Kruger addresses the love of God for humans within the context of perichoresis. In fact, he shows how the love of God could not exist if it were not for the triune nature of God. As Richard of St Victor said, “There can be no love without relationship.” C.S. Lewis added to this: “Love is something one person has for another person. If God was a single person before the world was made, He was not love.” In this, Karl Barth says, we were “created to be loved, and to live loved, and to love others without agenda.”
The Father Son and Spirit love us for our benefit, not for increasing their membership rolls, or for making themselves look good, or from anything they can get from us.There is no need in the blessed Trinity. It is an overflowing fountain of other-centered love. The shared life of Father Son and Spirit is about giving, not taking; sharing, not hoarding; blessing others with life for their sake, not manipulating for divine control. The Father, Son and Spirit are focused on giving themselves for our benefit, so that we too can experience real life. They need nothing in return. (p. 120)
The result of this is thus:
We were created that we could be, that we could live and share in the life and joy of the triune God. Jesus’ Father is not holding his breath to see if we jump through the right hoops before he decides our fate. There is no list. We are not here to “glorify God” by our religious performance. We are here to live “in the glory” of the blessed Trinity. (p. 121)
What place, then does the wrath of God have in the context of such a relationship? Kruger puts it this way:
Wrath is the love of the triune God in passionate action, saying “No!” It is love’s fiery opposition to our destruction. Likewise, the judgement of God is not the divine “dark said” finally having its say. To judge is to discern, to see into a matter and understand what is wrong in order to make it right and whole. Thus, as Pope Benedict said, “The judgement of God is hope,both because it is justice and because it is grace” [Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, 47] (p. 128).
From the perspective of an Evangelical Christian, C. Baxter Kruger has done a remarkable job of revealing to the reader of The Shack the theological skeleton on which the story written by Wm. Paul Young forms the visible part of this remarkable body of truth. For the person who has read the book, but who may have questions about the integrity of the facts, this is a must-read. For the one who would so much love to embrace the reality of the loving, caring and relational God but who wonders how it will fit within their existing understanding of God’s nature, you need to read this. If you have any misgivings about the reality of a relationship with God, if your are in a place of brokenness, if you feel that God is not with you or for you, then you owe it to yourself to grab a copy of The Shack and revel in the truth found in its pages: how much God loves you and wants to heal your life and bring you to a place of freedom and grace–and then you must read The Shack Revisited, if nothing more then for Chapter 10!
* I realise that here I may lose those who understand God’s objective as only accepting those who personally repeat a prescribed prayer, perform a required ritual, or live in a particular way. While this may be deducted from several “proof texts” in Scripture, this is not in accordance with the general understanding of the nature and work of God as understood by those who lived during the immediate centuries following the events written in the gospel record.