This is the first of a series of reflections that came out of a Sunday School class at New Dublin Presbyterian on The Shack.
Popularity does not necessarily equate to quality, as much of today’s chart topping music readily attests; however, neither should a work of art be dismissed simply because it is “popular.” A surprise bestseller of 2008, William P. Young’s novel, The Shack, is unquestionably popular: it quickly became a New York Times bestseller and, today, over one million copies are in print. This is quite a feat, especially when we consider that Young published the first copies out of his own basement!
There are other humble beginnings concerning this book’s origins: Young initially wrote the book as a Christmas gift for his six children. It strikes me that this is a key insight into Young’s motive and, therefore, the purpose of the book. The author insists that The Shack is fiction, but readily admits that it is an attempt to explain his own theological beliefs that grew out of his own spiritual journey. While we all don’t write books, this motive to personalize our faith is a task we all share. In fact, it is a part of every Sunday morning.
Think for a moment about the most memorable sermon illustration you have ever heard. When I was a teenager, I remember that my father told a captivating story about a man who tied enough helium balloons to his lawn chair that he actually took off into the air and sailed over his neighborhood! Ever since then, I’ve had a vivid mental picture of this guy flying over roof-tops; but I confess that I have no idea what scripture my Dad was trying illustrate! Therefore the effort to personalize our faith or make it real to our experience is a difficult task. For even the best preachers, the message can get lost in the metaphor.
To a certain extent, I think that The Shack as a 248 page sermon illustration. Personally, I think that William P. Young’s success lies, not so much in his ability as a writer, but because he wrestles openly and honestly with the most important questions. These questions are the heart of our faith, the kind of questions that keep us up at night, tossing and turning. Who is God? Where is God when tragedy strikes? What is love? How can we live our faith in a personal way? We’ll consider these questions in a series of blog posts . . .
For now, let me offer another initial observation: remember that Young’s purpose was largely pastoral. He wanted to write a narrative that shared some of his insights that would, in turn, help his children think about their faith. It is telling to me that Eugene Peterson loves Young’s book; the former is an experienced pastor and prolific author, but is perhaps best known for his modern English translation of the Bible, The Message. Here is an example of why I think this is an important connection:
In Psalm 19 of The Message, the famous phrase that God’s law (torah) is “sweeter also than honey, even sweeter than drippings from the honeycomb” is translated by Peterson: “You’ll like it better than strawberries in spring, better than red, ripe strawberries.”
Do you see what he did? Peterson is an accomplished Hebrew scholar. Yet he was trying to convey the sense of the words through translation; it is an exercise in creativity, rather than a literal word-for-word translation. I would argue that Young attempts a similar feat in The Shack with the traditional understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity: he “translates” the traditional Trinitarian formulate “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” into different images. We’ll look at this specifically next time . . .
But let’s be clear; word games are not the point. In fact, we must be careful that we do not obscure meaning in our effort to translate or understand. While we might grant Peterson’s transformation of honey into strawberries, Young has come under heavy scrutiny, even censorship, for imagining different images for the Godhead. I think Young’s genius is found in such imaginative explorations, yet it should give us pause. As is true with preaching, sometimes our illustrations can get the best of us. Sometimes we need to make sure that our flights of fancy, no matter how intriguing or creative, are tethered securely to the ground. So we need to use scripture as an anchor to keep us from soaring off over the neighborhood. Ultimately, we are talking about the mystery of the divine nature, but we do have the Bible as a reference. As John Calvin famously said, the Bible is like eye-glasses: it brings our understanding of God’s presence and way in our world into clearer, sharper focus.