Shabernacle (or, The Shack and the Tabernacle)

Scalpel

How would you like to have your appendix removed with a rusty scalpel?

Sorry, that’s kind of a weird question.  But it’s not random.  In a sense, I think that something similar is going on among American Christians today, particularly those who are reading the ultra-popular book The Shack.  Many people are raving about how this book has deepened their relationship with God.  I don’t doubt that this is happening; this book has a lot of truth in it that is cutting out infection in people’s lives.  However, it is also riddled through and through with severe errors, and I am afraid that these errors will be unconsciously absorbed by those who read it, until over time a newer and more severe problem will develop.  A rusty scalpel may cure an immediate illness, but it will introduce a more severe infection that may ruin the whole body.

So why am I writing about this book again?  Didn’t I already cover it a few months ago?

The ShackTrue, I wrote a three-part series of posts on The Shack.  To be honest, though, I never really felt like I had a total grasp on what I liked and didn’t like about the book.  That changed earlier this year after I finished studying the tabernacle for seminary (my two earlier posts on the tabernacle can be found here and here).  I found that the tabernacle was a helpful lens through which to view The Shack.  This is because The Shack is, in effect, a sort of tabernacle; the book is all about our relationship with God.  So let’s line The Shack and the tabernacle up next to each other and see what they tell us about God.  Where do they agree (the good points of the back) and where do they disagree (the bad points of the book)?  We’ll do this by asking several key questions.

1.  Does God love people?

The Tabernacle: Yes!  The tabernacle was the means by which a holy God could dwell with the people whom he loved.  After being delivered from Egypt, as they prepared to meet this God, Moses wrote a song with these lines:  “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode” (Exod 15:13).  God loves people—and in particular, the people whom he has chosen for his own!

The Shack: Yes!  This is a point that is beaten to death, and that’s a good thing.  Papa (the Father) tells Mack that he is “smack dab in the center of my love” (p. 98).  However, there is a question as to what William Young thinks love is.  For example, he claims that the people who know God are “the ones who are free to live and love without any agenda” (p. 181).  Love without an agenda is no love at all!  Love always has an agenda—to see others conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.

2.  Does God want to be in relationship with people?

The Tabernacle: Yes!  The whole point of the tabernacle is that it is the dwelling place of God among his people.  God could have remained aloof, observing the world from afar.  Instead, he chose to be closely involved, meeting and talking with his people in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:22).

The Shack: Yes!  In fact, the book is focused on the idea of relationships—between God and man as well as between man and his fellow man.  Papa tells Mack, “I desire to be in relationship with every human being” (p. 100).  Now, there are strong indications that Young’s idea of relationship is markedly different from the biblical idea of relationship (that is, God’s idea of relationship).  But we’ll get to that later.

3.  Is God holy?

The Tabernacle: Yes!  You can’t miss this theme; it’s the single reason for the entire book of Leviticus.  Throughout Exodus 26–31, God insists that the place where he dwells and the people to whom he ministers be holy as well.  Holiness means “set apart”—particularly in a moral sense, in which God command us to be holy as well (Leviticus 11:44–45).

The Shack: Yes.  Papa tells Mack, “I am what some would say ‘holy, and wholly other than you'” (p. 98).  However, beyond this concept of being something other, there is hardly any mention of holiness in the book.  There seems to be almost no concept of holiness as moral purity, and Mack is never told that he must be holy.  While The Shack focuses on the love of God, it almost totally ignores his holiness.

4.  Is there any obstacle between man and God (i.e. sin)?

The Tabernacle: Yes!  The unholiness of man due to his sin is what separates man from God.  Leviticus emphasizes the defilement of sin that hinders the close communion that God wants with his people.  In Exodus 32, the people build a golden calf as an alternative worship system; God nearly wipes them out in his wrath because they have “sinned a great sin” (Exodus 32:30).  Sin in the Bible damages our relationship with God; it is identified as breaking his law, as failing to love him, as being morally twisted and corrupted, and ultimately as rebelling against his authority.

The Shack: Yes.  The Shack emphasizes many things that stand between us and God; essentially, Young views “sin” as anything that hinders our relationship with God.  Throughout the book, he places particular emphasis on fear, a lack of trust in him, and independence from him.  All well and good!  However, he also adds hierarchy and institutions to the list.  In other words, authority and institutions (whatever he means by that) are inherently sinful.  This flies in the face of what God really teaches in the Bible; the authority of God is a great thing, and he gives authority to people as well.  He also institutes marriage, human government, and the church, among other examples.  Young’s idea of relationship has more in common with hippie communes than with the love relationship that the true God wants us to have with him.

5.  How does God handle sin?

The Tabernacle: Ultimately, there are two ways that God handles sin.  One is to punish the sinner.  In the Second Commandment, forbidding idolatry, he declares, “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5–6).  That God punishes evildoers is an inescapable theme of both the Old and New Testaments.  Yet there is hope for us in a second way!  In the Old Testament, the Lord offered atonement for sins through a ritual known as the Day of Atonement, in which the people’s sins were paid for by the death of an animal as a substitute (Leviticus 16).  Ultimately, this prefigured the atonement offered by Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9–10).

The Shack: The Shack has two things to say about sin.  One is that sin must be forgiven by God (p. 225).  The second is that God does not intend to punish sin.  Papa tells Mack, “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.”  This is only a half-truth.  It is true that sin itself can be a punishment (Romans 1:24–31).  However, the Bible is crystal clear that God actually does punish sin, both in this life and (more importantly and finally) in the next.

6.  Why did Jesus Christ have to die?

The Tabernacle: As we just saw—prefigured by the tabernacle—Jesus Christ had to die to bear the penalty of our sin, satisfying the absolutely just wrath of God against our sin by serving as a substitute for us.  And that is just one aspect of the crucifixion!  It is because of his sacrifice that we are forgiven of our sins.  And it is because of his righteousness that is made ours that we can now boldly come before the God who loves us, in relationship with him (Hebrews 10:19–22).

The Shack: First, Jesus provided the example of a servant who gave up his rights (p. 137); this agrees with the Bible (Philippians 2:5–8).  Second, in some sense, what Jesus did allows God to forgive people of their sins (pp. 224–225); obviously, this is true as well.  Third, Jesus accomplished the reconciliation of the entire world—meaning every last person on earth—to God (p. 192).  Here’s where we run into problems, because first of all, this is nonsense; reconciliation is not possible between a willing party and an unwilling party.  In fact, those who do not believe in Jesus Christ “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18).  Fourth, and even more troubling, Jesus did not die to bear the penalty of our sins as a substitute for us.  On p. 96, Young (using God the Father as his mouthpiece) insists that God did not forsake his Son at the cross (Jesus was just really whiny in Matthew 27:46, I guess).  If he was not forsaken, then we who should be forsaken for our sins have no confidence that Jesus Christ has received this affliction in our place (Isaiah 53).  If you think I am reading too much into this, Young himself has explicitly denied that Jesus Christ died as a substitute for us, bearing the penalty for our sins.

Bottom line?  It would appear that the God of The Shack is a God of love (sort of), but he/she is not particularly holy.  This is not the true God that we are called to worship!  I encourage you, if you plan to read this book (or already have), read it with exceptional discernment and caution.  Be careful about surgery done with a rusty scalpel.

His Dwelling Among Us (Part 1 of 2)

“You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).

Is that the God you grew up knowing?

Or has your relationship with him been a little more…casual…than that?

When it comes to our perspective on God—on how we relate to him—we tend to err in one of two ways.  The first error is to focus exclusively on his transcendence.  We think of God as cold, distant, and uncaring.  He’s far away; he doesn’t love me very much; he merely tolerates me.  The second error is to focus exclusively on his immanence.  In other words, we always think of God as being close, familiar, and friendly.  He’s my divine buddy.  There really isn’t much standing between him and me.  He’s not particularly holy.

This is what happens when we try to melt down God and recast him into the shape of an idol—an idol that resembles a human figure.  However, despite our best efforts, the God of the Bible is both transcendent and immanent.  He is an awesome and holy God; he is also God with us.

Lion door knockerBut how?  How can a God who is so holy that he cannot stand the least sight of sin—so holy that anyone who looked him in the face would die on the spot—how can such a God remain with us?  If you’ve carefully read the book of Exodus, then you know that this is where the tabernacle comes in.  The tabernacle was a royal tent for God.  More than that, it was the place where a holy God could dwell with a sinful people whom he loved.  It was where the Lord would meet with man (Exodus 25:22).

If we really want to understand and appreciate the Lord’s holiness and love, we have to understand the tabernacle.  Here’s what the Old Testament teaches us about it:

  • The tabernacle was inconvenient. If you’ve ever struggled through the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle in Exodus 25–27, only to push through yet another account of its construction in 36–38, then you know what I’m talking about!  If it’s inconvenient to read about the tabernacle’s construction, how much more inconvenient was it to build it?  The same goes for the entire book of Leviticus, which contains numerous details regarding the sacrifices and rituals that were to be performed there.  The Lord’s presence among his people is tremendously inconvenient.
  • The tabernacle was dangerous. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu found this out the hard way in Leviticus 10.  They offered the wrong incense recipe on the altar inside the tabernacle, and were struck dead for it.  To enter into the inner room of the tabernacle—the Holy of Holies—each year was a fearsome responsibility for the high priest.  In fact, he had to fill the room with incense smoke so that he would not see the Lord and die (Leviticus 16:13).  All of the Lord’s instructions had to be followed to the letter in order for his people to gain access to him without dying.  The Lord’s presence among his people is tremendously dangerous.
  • The tabernacle was the only way to God. Where does Israel’s idolatry toward the golden calf take place in the book of Exodus?  As a matter of fact, it is sandwiched in between the Lord’s description of the tabernacle and the construction of the tabernacle.  This is not a coincidence.  The golden calf was Israel’s solution to how God could dwell among them; through it they could worship the Lord (Exodus 32:5).  But the Lord was incensed that they would try to come to him on their own terms, not on his terms.  The tabernacle may have been inconvenient and dangerous, but it was the only way that the Lord could dwell with his people.

Now, if I were in the Lord’s shoes, I know for certain that I wouldn’t have bothered.  I don’t care enough about other people to go through all that trouble.  What incredible love he showed!  Rather than taking the easy way out by remaining distant, he chose to dwell with the sinful and rebellious children of Israel.  The book of Exodus ends with the Lord guiding his people through the wilderness toward the Promised Land.  He has not changed; he loves his people today, and he longs to be with us.  And we have something far greater than an earthly tent by which we can gain access to God.  More on that in the next post.

Authority in The Shack

The ShackOn Sunday, I posted a one-sentence review of The Shack and promised to return with a couple more posts:  the first critiquing its teaching on authority, and the second examining why it seems to be so popular and emotionally powerful.

So…the first.  If you haven’t read Gerald Hiestand’s review, do that first; then come back here.  Before I had read The Shack, I read his review, and it sounded over-the-top to me.  After reading the book, I’m convinced that, far from exaggerating the problem, Hiestand has put his finger on the single most dangerous theme of the book—that authority is a human construct brought about by the Fall, that God considers it “ghastly” (p. 122), and that it is incompatible with true relationship.  Though there are many serious errors in the book, this is one that Young relentlessly pursues throughout the course of his story.  He lays it all out explicitly on pp. 121-124 in a conversation among Mack and the members of the Trinity.  During the course of the dialogue, Jesus explains:

Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it.  You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power.  Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you.

One possible response to this is to engage in an imagined philosophical debate with Young over whether authority or hierarchy really is incompatible with relationship.  Instead, I simply want to appeal to God himself—to the words given to us by God, not merely by William P. Young.  The true God reveals himself primarily through the holy and precious scriptures “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).  The inherent goodness of God’s authority is stunningly obvious throughout the pages of the Bible.  The first recorded words of God to man reflect his authority in an unbroken, sinless love relationship with his creature; in a rapid series of commands, he tells the man and the woman, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion…” (Genesis 1:28).  That last one, especially, reminds us that man was created as part of a hierarchy, as God’s vice-regent over the creation.  Throughout the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2, prior to the Fall, God commands all things into being, and he commands Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:16).  Throughout the rest of the Bible he issues commands and decrees, and one day he will return to rule the nations “with a rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15).  The one true God is not afraid of authority; he is not afraid to reign.

Because Young is familiar with the Bible, he can’t help but slip back into hierarchical terminology when referring to God, describing Jesus as “Lord of Creation” (p. 176) and “king of the universe” (p. 216).  But otherwise, he’s pretty consistent in applying this principle because he proceeds to denigrate the authority of the Bible, of the church, and of men.

The Bible

The only time Young mentions the Bible with more than a passing reference is when he attempts to devalue it.  This takes place on pp. 65-66, where he portrays it as God’s words “reduced to paper.”  It is not “overt” or “direct” communication by God.  It is “moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects…the intelligentsia.”  It limits God:  “No one wanted God in a box, just in a book.”

While Young uses biblical terminology throughout much of the book, he feels free to supplement the teachings of scripture with his own ideas about God, even going so far as to contradict the Bible if necessary to suit his agenda (as we have already seen).  He does not respect the authority of scripture as Jesus Christ did (Matthew 5:17-19).  He does not treasure its words as the psalmist did (Psalm 119).

The Church

Once again, every mention of the church as an institution is negative.  Using Jesus as his spokesman, Young explains that the church “is all about people and life is all about relationships” (p. 178).  It’s hard to argue with that…until we remember that to him, relationships are incompatible with authority.  Young’s Jesus insists, “I don’t create institutions—never have, never will” (p. 179).  This is utterly absurd; Christ did institute his church.  He gave it the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism.  He established procedures for church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).  His apostles, sent with his authority, affirmed the offices of elder and deacon (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9).  They laid out rules and guidelines for proper conduct in the church (1 Corinthians 14) and care for the widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16), among other things.  The Holy Spirit equipped the people of the church with spiritual gifts “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7)—including the gifts of leadership (Romans 12:8) and administration (1 Corinthians 12:28)!

If the church—local and universal—is not an institution, I don’t know what is.  Institutions are not inherently bad; in keeping with his response to the concept of authority itself, Young is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Just because the church can be twisted and imperfect doesn’t mean that structure and hierarchy are themselves evil.  In the church, they are the structure on which relationships grow and flourish.

Masculinity

Hiestand came down hard on this one, and after reading the book, I understand why.  Let’s set aside the jarring fact that God the Father appears as a woman (Young insists on veering from the almost exclusively male depiction of God in the Bible).  Beyond that, the author undermines male headship and strongly implies that women are superior to men.  As a result of pitting relationship against authority, Young ends up rightly affirming feminine virtues while criticizing a caricature of masculine virtues.  His Jesus explains to Mack, “Like most men you find what you think of as fulfillment in your achievements, and Nan [Mack’s wife], like most women, find [sic] it in relationships.  It’s more naturally her language” (p. 146).  It’s not hard to figure out where this is leading.  Young spends the entire book rejoicing in relationships, so of course women, who are apparently better than men at this, end up being naturally superior to men.

Young’s Jesus goes on to say, “The world, in many ways, would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled.  There would have been far fewer children sacrificed to the gods of greed and power” (p. 148).  When Mack speculates that perhaps it would have been better if women were given the role of authority, Jesus responds, “Better, maybe, but it still wouldn’t have been enough.”  Then he goes on to insist that power in human hands always corrupts and is inherently bad.  So the damage has been done to masculinity; perhaps the world wouldn’t be a perfect place if women were in charge, but it would be better.

The Shack is all about a love relationship.  This would be a great thing if Young left room for other perspectives offered by the Bible, which talks about our spiritual journey as fearing the Lord (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14), as a sacrifice to God (Philippians 2:17), as slavery to a new master (Romans 6:15-19), as a battle “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12; tellingly, The Shack never once mentions the devil or demonic forces).  But rather than leaving room for these and many other perspectives, he excludes them.

God has and will use The Shack to remind people that he loves them and longs for a deeper relationship with them.  For that, I praise God and marvel at his use of flawed instruments to accomplish his perfect will.  Yet I am afraid that this book will not only lead people astray with blatantly false teaching but encourage people to become fatally unbalanced in their understanding of masculinity, of the church, of the Bible, and ultimately of God himself.