What if you could go back and put things right?
By Wm. Paul Young
Hodder & Stoughton. 304 pages. £7.99
ISBN 978 1 444 745 993
It’s 18 million copies and six years since The Shack burst onto the Christian scene. There’s little doubt it has been an influential book and it’s perhaps surprising it’s taken this long for a second novel to come from William Young’s pen.
Loved and loathed in equal measure, it seemed to divide Christianity at its broadest level, though most evangelicals were agreed it contained some alarming teaching. Given the success of the first volume, expect to see Cross Roads in bookstores (both Christian and secular) and topping internet lists — it’s already climbing the Amazon rankings.
First of all, it’s worth outlining what kind of book this is. It’s a story told in a classic novel form which occasionally leans on the allegorical style of Pilgrim’s Progress. Young would like you to think that it’s in the mould of C.S. Lewis (indeed, ‘Irish Jack’ is one of the key characters that makes regular appearances). But the story is not as subtle as one of Lewis’s allegories. It’s more direct: the story of Tony Spencer, a bad husband, brother, father, but enormously successful in business.
Tony suffers from a brain tumour, collapses and is in a life-threatening coma in a US hospital. The action is equally divided between two locations: one in Tony’s soul, pictured as a wasteland landscape inhabited by Tony, Jack, the Holy Spirit and Jesus; the other as Tony consciously inhabits various characters who come into contact with his body — a Down’s Syndrome teenager, a nurse and so on.
A good big picture?
If all that sounds a bit, well, weird, just dispense with the detail for the moment. At a macro level, this is a basic story of redemption. Tony gets one chance to change things. He can heal one person. Obviously, he will heal himself, won’t he? The book is the story of how he wrestles with his conscience and finally uses this one-off healing power to benefit someone other than himself.
As a story of redemption, that’s just about digestible: bad man turns good in the end and so (the lesson goes) don’t you go being bad. Of course, redemption stories always run the risk of being sub-biblical. They sound suspiciously like salvation by works. That’s always going to be a risk. But as a kind of ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ story, they can serve a purpose, and this one does too.
It is even relatively orthodox on some key ideas: the oneness of the Trinity (p.71) and the substitutionary nature of the atonement (p.194) are just two (perhaps surprising) examples. But overall, the macro story is infused with meaningless psycho-babble which clouds the storytelling. At one point, when Tony tells Jesus that he doesn’t feel very wonderful, Jesus replies: ‘For there to be an “I am not” there must first be an “I am”. Image and appearance tell you little. The inside is bigger than the outside when you have the eyes to see’ (p.65). I found myself thinking of one of The Matrix films: I really have no idea what they are talking about!
The devil is in the detail
And this begins to explain the serious problem with the book. In telling the macro story of redemption, the micro details are, at best, misleading and, at worst, plain wrong. There’s hardly space to catalogue the detailed scriptural disaster field that this book presents, but some key lowlights will suffice:
* There’s a deficient view of salvation. Tony — the bad man, remember — discovers that Jesus has inhabited his inner being since birth. Sure, Tony prayed a prayer as a young child in foster care, but that (as the book reveals) was insincere. Anyway, Jesus was already there. Tony just needed to realise it. Despite the orthodoxy of the description of the cross, salvation is expressed solely in terms of relationship with the Jesus who is ever-present in the inner being.
* Not surprisingly, therefore, regeneration is redefined. It is ‘centred and built on everything you got right, not what you got wrong… the focus is on rebuilding, not on tearing down. In every building torn down there is much that remains that was once true and right and good, and that gets woven into the new…it is the refurbishing of the soul’ (p.159). As most Bible readers will understand, refurbishment is hardly a biblical salvation category.
* There’s a poor doctrine of hell. ‘Tony’, says Jack (C.S. Lewis), ‘hell is believing and living in the real when it is not the truth… whatever you believe about death and hell it is not separation’ (p.48). What happened to the ‘great chasm’ of Luke 16.26? There is a kind of insipid universalism here.
* The relationship between the Father and the Son is distorted. ‘Why are you here?’ Jesus is asked by Tony. ‘Papa hasn’t shared that piece of purpose with me so far… he knows I like surprises’ (p.69). How different from the teaching of John’s Gospel, for example, where adult Jesus knows precisely what he is doing and saying and why.
* Moreover, God is not supremely sovereign. As a plot device, giving Tony the power to decide who the one person Jesus will heal is may work. But, as theological detail, it will not do.
The detail simply does not stand biblical scrutiny. However, behind all this are two particular problems for evangelicals.
First, there is the question of the voice of God. In her February 2009 review of The Shack (see the EN website), Sarah Allen perceptively pointed out that God does not speak in The Shack; rather Young speaks on his behalf, effectively putting whatever words he wants into God’s mouth. The same error is repeated here. In fact the Bible is dealt with almost entirely negatively. The idea of an authoritative proclamation from God himself as the Spirit inspires the Bible writers is absent. Instead we get Young’s own interpretation of what God might say.
Second, there is the question of the Trinity. True, as explained above, the book is orthodox on the oneness of the Godhead. But there are significant problems with the personification of the Trinity. For Young, the Spirit is a native American grandmother. Jesus is a good-time guy in a checked shirt. The Father turns out to be represented as a seven-year-old girl.
This is simply heretical. God the Son is incarnate in Christ, not a next door neighbourly woodchopper. The Father is personified in Scripture, but as a Father, not a small child. And he is not enfleshed. Neither is the Spirit. While Young may feel that these are useful plot devices to represent the relationships that exist between the three persons of the Trinity, they are not biblically accurate or helpful.
Is it any good?
And therein lies the dilemma of the book. Is it any good? That largely depends on whether you feel it is possible to separate the big picture from the small detail. Personally, I cannot. Young has set out to deliberately use Christian detail to serve the bigger picture. Unlike, say, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, the allegory thus becomes dependent on the small elements that make up the macro story. No one believes in talking animals, and so the Narnia books work: the allegory is not pushed too far. Young’s book is quite different.
If the two can be separated, then this is an average book about redemption and the danger of living for yourself. Perhaps, just perhaps, someone who is not a Christian might pause and think after reading it. But they will get the same message, better put, from Dickens’s Christmas Carol, for example. If the two cannot be separated, then this book is everything I feared it might be: a distorted, sub-biblical picture of the glorious Christian faith, empty of the wonder of the cross. Which is rather ironic really, given its title.
Director of Ministry at the Proclamation Trust