One of the biggest publishing phenomena of late, The Shack by Wm. Paul Young generated discussion among people all over the world, selling over 18 million copies. I have discussed that book elsewhere, and now I turn to Cross Roads, Young’s recently released novel. Please note that this will not be a review and I will not provide a summary of the plot. Instead, I am exploring the theological and philosophical themes that Young raises throughout Cross Roads. There will be Spoilers ahead.
The notion of crossroads is a major theme throughout the work, and Young utilizes the imagery to discuss free will metaphorically. Anthony Spencer (Tony), the main character, finds himself inside his mind, which is portrayed as a kind of land with various roads and places inside it. Initially, he begins exploring this land and finds himself coming to numerous forks in the road. He continues to find these forks and realizes that as he continues to make choices, “it occurred to Tony that the number of direction decisions was diminishing; options were significantly decreasing” (35). Young doesn’t expand on this much, but it seems like a vivid illustration of libertarian free will, wherein one’s choices in the past do indeed influence their choices in the future. As Tony makes choices on his path, he finds that the choices available to him decrease. The reason, it seems, is because his choices have started to form his world. It seems to me that this is a great way to show libertarian free will in literature.
A robust theology of church and salvation is something that I think is necessary for an adequate theology. I find one reason for this illustrated well by Young:
Church, thought Tony. He hadn’t set foot inside one of those since his last foster family had been religious. He and Jake [Tony’s brother] had been required to sit silently for what seemed like hours… He smiled to himself, remembering how he and Jake had schemed together and ‘gone forward’ one night at church, thinking it would win them points with the family, which it did. The attention their conversions garnered was initially rewarding, but it soon became clear that ‘asking Jesus into your heart’ dramatically increased expectations for strict obedience to a host of rules they hadn’t anticipated. He soon became a ‘backslider,’ in a category, he discovered, that was profoundly worse than being pagan in the first place. (124)
It seems clear to me that here the act of conversion has itself become a work, rather than a gift of grace. Tony’s concept of conversion at this point in the book is that of “asking Jesus into your heart.” Unsurprisingly, when he fails to perform other adequate works–obeying a set of rules. The problem with this theology should become clear immediately. By suggesting that Christianity is about “going forward” and publicly affirming a faith, this form of theology puts the believer in the position of affirming faith, rather than receiving it as a gift. When faith becomes a public work, it becomes the Law instead of the Gospel. When demands for works are made on faith, then faith itself becomes a work. Unfortunately, this kind of works-righteousness sneaks into theology at all levels, ever seeking a place to grow.
The problems with this theology are portrayed vividly in this illustration. The notion that people need to make a public declaration of faith leads to its abuse, as Tony and Jake attempted to do, but it also leads to difficulties for those who believe their declaration was itself true (unlike Tony and Jake, who simply did it to glorify themselves in the eyes of their foster parents). When someone makes their “decision for Christ,” their faith life becomes wrapped up in that decision. Their walk with God is contingent upon their continuing to make this decision. Unfortunately, this type of theology makes faith all about one’s own decisions, rather than Christ’s justification and the free gift of faith.
There are many church bodies who do not ordain women to the office of the ministry. That is, they hold beliefs that say women should not be spiritual leaders of men in the church. Young explores this issue when Pastor Skor shows up and challenges Maggie, one of the main characters, regarding her outburst during a church service. Pastor Skor takes Maggie’s outburst and disruptive behavior as a clue to him from God that he has been too lax in his instructing his congregation in the Bible. He makes an argument that women should not be leaders in church and should remain silent:
And we affirm the Word, which declares there is no longer male or female [Galatians 3:28], but… the Word is speaking of how God sees us, not about how we function in the church, and we must always remember that God is a God of order. It is vital that each person play their part, and as long as they stay within the roles that God has mandated, the church functions as it was meant to… (167)
The pastor goes on to quote 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 to support his position. Yet Young, through Clarence, an elder who is with the pastor to talk with Maggie, provides a counter-argument to this reasoning:
It is sarcasm… I believe that the apostle Paul was being sarcastic when he wrote what you read… He is quoting a letter that these folk sent him with questions, and he is in total disagreement with what they have written to him. (168-169)
Clarence defends this position by alluding to 1 Corinthians 14:36, apparently using the KJV: “What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?” Given the way this verse is worded, Clarence holds that verses 34-35 are a quote from a letter the Corinthians sent to Paul which Paul then responds to sarcastically by wondering whether the Corinthians think that God’s word came only to them.
Young’s offered interpretation seems possible, but perhaps not made explicit enough. It seems to me possible that Paul would have made it more clear that he was quoting another’s writing here. The KJV seems to support the interpretation given to 1 Cor 14:36 here, but other translations phrase it differently, in such a way that the verse seems to be more of a challenge to readers to dismiss what Paul is declaring in 34-35.
Of course, one could still argue that Young’s interpretation has great strength, noting that nowhere in the Bible do we see this command in the Scripture “as the law also says” and so we may infer that Paul is referencing an extra-biblical teaching and rebutting it. In fact, this seems to line up with Young’s argument perfectly because we can see that Paul would be citing a Judaizer’s teaching in the church in Corinth–who would hold that the silence of women is taught by the Law [Jewish extra-biblical law]–and then refuting this by noting that the word of God did not come from them alone (see Katharine Bushnell’s God’s Word to Women for an extended look at this argument). It seems to me that this does have some significant strength, thus empowering Young’s argument.
Therefore, it seems to me that Young offers a fairly decent egalitarian interpretation of the passage, though he could have given other arguments which would take into account the passage’s cultural context, in which women were speaking out of turn in worship. The core of the statement seems to me to be that the women in this specific context needed to learn from their husbands at home and remain silent in church so that they did not cause disruption.
The way the scenario plays out in the book is also difficult to evaluate because Maggie definitely was disrupting the church service and would have appeared at least slightly crazy to those around her. She was screaming about a demon speaking to her and was, in fact, mistaken about that. I think she can be forgiven for her extreme reaction given the strange situation in which she found herself, but the Corinthians passage is in context all about order in worship in general, and certainly people bursting in screaming about demons would be disorderly worship.
Thus, it seems to me that Young offers a possible interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, but he has made his case problematic by the narrative context in which he placed it. It is worth noting that this work will get people talking about the issue. Young has given a somewhat strong version of a lengthy egalitarian argument in the form of narrative.
Practical Ethics and Disability
Cabby, a boy with Down’s Syndrome, is featured prominently throughout the book. Young uses him as a foil to show that those with disabilities have much to contribute to modern society. Perhaps the most poignant way he does this is through the negative portrayal of Tony’s view of Cabby:
Tony had never known a ‘retarded’ person. He wasn’t sure if that is what you called them… His opinions on most nonbusiness matters may not have been founded on evidence or experience, but he was sure of them. People like Cabby were an unproductive drain on the resources of society; they were valuable only to their families. He believed they were tolerated because of liberal persuasions, not because such people had any intrinsic worth… It is easy to create a category of persons, like retarded or handicapped, and then pass judgment on the group as a whole. He wondered if that was not the heart of all prejudice. (108-109)
In contrast to Tony’s view, Cabby turns out to be insightful and delightful. He is shown to have positive value in a number of ways that go beyond his immediate family. He ultimately shows the practical usefulness of inherent human worth.
For Young, understanding God as relationship is central to the concept of deity. The concept of deity that is presented is that of Trinity. Much ink will be spilled, I feel certain, on whether or not Young portrays the persons of the Trinity correctly, just as there was in The Shack (see my own discussion here).
Young’s position seems to be largely unchanged from that in The Shack, and so much of the commentary will follow the same line. I think he does a very good job of exploring the inter-relational character of God and the temporal submission of Christ in the incarnation to God the Father. Some may see the primary difficulty with Young’s portrayal of God is that the Father makes very little appearance in the book, but near the end readers find out that is not the case. In fact, the Father is intricately involved in all aspects of God and the life portrayed in the novel.
Those who conceptualize God as inherently male will have a problem with the book, however. Unfortunately, some paganism has indeed hung on in the church, wherein some view God as a gendered being. In the Bible, however, we find that God is spirit and not a man. Thus, I think that Young’s use of gender with God may shock some but also underscores the fact that God is not a gendered being, and instead transcendent.
Young offers a short discussion of historical theology and God that seems to me to at least partially miss the mark. It is very brief, but I think it is worth discussing. Young puts the following commentary in the mouth of Jesus himself:
The Greeks, with their love for isolation [of deity] influence Augustine and later Aquinas… and a nonrelational religious Christianity is born. Along come the Reformers, like Luther and Calvin, who do their best to send the Greeks back outside the Holy of Holies, but they are barely in the grave before the Greeks are resuscitated and invited back to teach in their schools of religion. The tenacity of bad ideas is rather remarkable, don’t you think? (73)
There are a number of problems with this small passage. First, Augustine heavily influenced both Calvin and Luther. In fact, Calvin’s theology is tied very intricately to Augustine’s view of free will and original sin. Similarly, Luther’s view of original sin derives directly from Augustine’s exposition in City of God. Second, it seems unfair to view Aquinas as a kind of anti-relationalist when it comes to God’s nature. Aquinas very much emphasized the triunity of God, which was (and is!) an extremely important topic. To thus accuse Aquinas of undermining God’s relational-ness seems unfair. Finally, the notion that the influence of Greek philosophy on Christianity is somehow inherently bad seems a bit shortsighted. There are innumerable positive contributions that reflection on Greek thought has brought into the fold of Christianity. Among these are the very concept of free will that Young pushes in his book, along with a number of aspects of Trinitarian and Incarnational theology that Young seems to support. This may seem to be a nitpick, but it seems to me that if Young is going to use his book to make comments about historical theology, it is vastly important to get that historical development right.
Cross Roads is another thought-provoking work by Young. Those who read it will be forced to think about all the topics on which it touches, regardless of whether they agree with Young’s conclusions or not. As with The Shack, this book will almost certainly be widely read. Those who are interested in Christian theology and apologetics should consider the book a must-read simply for its cultural relevance. Ultimately, Young has authored another fictional work that will inspire conversations about theology on a wide scale.
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The Shack by William Paul Young is one of the most popular Christian works of our era. It is hard to ignore the impact this book is having throughout America. It is discussed in Church book clubs, discussed on Christian forums, and generally well-known. I was in Kansas this past week and my fiancée’s mom (feels awesome saying that) urged me to read it, for no other reason than to be able to engage in dialogue about it. I’m going to try to keep my review as spoiler-lite as possible, though there are spoilers scattered throughout this review. This is the only warning.
I went in with some strong biases against the book. I’d heard from others that it is pretty terrible theology and borderline (or actual) heresy. Needless to say I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, but, like any good work will do, The Shack proved my biases wrong.
The plot is fairly simple. A man, Mackenzie, has a horrific tragedy happen to his daughter; this tragedy affects his whole family in negative ways; then he receives a letter from God (?) asking him to come to the place the tragedy happened to talk about things. The rest of the narrative revolves around this discussion. One note I should make as a reviewer is that Young’s prose is fantastic. His descriptions of everyday events and locations inject a reality into the story that is necessary to get readers hooked, and he writes about the uncommon and the supernatural with stunning beauty.
The plot serves as just the background for what the book seems (to me) to be; The Shack is a stirring work of philosophical and theological investigation of the nature of God, the problem of evil, and our hope in Christ.
Readers who have read the work or read anything about it probably already know that God is portrayed in the work as three “persons” in a very literal way. The Father, “Papa”, is a motherly black woman, Jesus is a plain-looking middle-eastern workman, and the Holy Spirit changes her (?) form throughout the work. I feel it is necessary to address this, because this is perhaps the most controversial part of the book. It seems to me, at least, that the idea of God coming to people where they are should not be such a hot issue. Christ Himself describes God’s action in terms of a hen gathering chicks beneath her wings (Luke 13:34). God appeared in various forms throughout the Old and New Testaments (burning bush, still voice in the wind, incarnate Christ, etc.). I find it dubious at best to claim that God does not/can not appear otherwise to individuals–perhaps as a mother to those in need (and this would line up well with the Christian background of religious experiences, cf. Perceiving God by William Alston).
These three persons serve to drive the narrative of The Shack while also making claims about the various works of the persons of God. There are many points throughout the book where I found myself nodding as Young wrote a wonderful insight about the work of God. Young’s answers to some of the most poignant questions of humanity resound throughout the work. One of the most stirring moments is a chapter in which Mackenzie is asked to decide which of his children goes to hell. This is meant to reflect the way Mackenzie (and some Christians) seem to put God in the judgment seat, arbitrarily determining who goes to heaven and who is damned to hell. Mackenzie begs to be condemned instead of his children, and in a powerful turnabout, he is told that this is exactly how God feels. He became incarnate to die for our sins, to give the opportunity for all to be saved, loving all God’s children perfectly (p. 165). Moments like this occur throughout The Shack.
Another thing I must share is The Shack‘s answer to religious diversity. Jesus says that those who love Him come from every background, including other religions. This leads Mackenzie to ask, “Does that mean… that all roads will lead to you?” Jesus answered, “Not at all… Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you” (184). Should Christians agree with this answer? I leave it open to the reader to answer this question. Suffice to say that The Shack will challenge readers from all walks of Christian life.
I finished the book in the span of a day. I set it down late at night, realizing I couldn’t be the same Christian I was before. The Shack grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. The questions Young asks through Mackenzie are questions all Christians must face, and the answers he provides focus on one thing: the Love of God. There are definitely things that made me uncomfortable while reading The Shack, but there are other things I realized were suddenly made clear. Treating The Shack like a theological treatise is unfair. It’s not a doctrine book, it’s a work of Christian fiction, and it excels in its niche, asking questions, giving answers, and leaving it to the reader to decide whether he/she agrees or disagrees. This is a fantastic work and I highly recommend it to my readers. You don’t have to agree with what Young says in The Shack to make the book worth reading, but you should read it.
The Shack on Amazon