The Shack

Well, I have finally finished “The Shack,” a novel by William P. Young.  This book is hot stuff.  Search “The Shack” and you’ll find hundreds of pages dedicated to the issue.  Presently, the book is the #3 on the Bestsellers list on Amazon.com.  It’s the #1 on the NY Times Paperback Trade Fiction list.  It’s a hot book.

On the contrary, it’s also a hotbed for discussion in the Christian realm as there is great controversy over the messages and theology that the book presents.  I don’t like to post negative reviews of Christian writings, but I can’t really present it any other way about this book.  While the book does have some great aspects to it, I believe it distorts the picture of who God is.

When I first heard of the book, I heard that it was such a wonderful story that every Christian should read in order to edify their relationship with God.  It has been endorsed by Michael W. Smith and even Eugene Peterson.  Peterson is quoted on the cover as saying, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.  It’s that good!”  Thus, after reading these things, I was ready to read it.  As I began to search for a copy, I began to hear other thoughts on it, as John Piper, Chuck Colson, and Mark Driscoll all gave negative reviews of it, including Driscoll calling it “heresy” and Colson warning people to “Stay out of “The Shack”.”  Thus, after reading it, I see their obvious objections to the book.

Warning:  This review is long.

Background:
The book is about a man named Mackenzie Phillips, better known as Mack.  Long story short – on a camping trip with his kids, his daughter Missy is abducted and brutally murdered at an abandoned shack.  Thus, Mack’s life begins a downward spiral of depression known to him as The Great Sadness.  One day Mack receives a letter that says, “Meet me at the shack.  -Papa.”  Papa, a name for God given by his wife, Nan, makes Mack skeptical, nonetheless he visits the site of the brutal murder for the weekend in the middle of a snowy and winter cold.  As he arrives, he sees nothing and decides to leave when suddenly the world turns into a happy, lush green and wonderful place.  The shack is no longer abandoned and run down, but instead it is inhabited by – you guessed it – God, along with to other friends, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  Thus, we dive into an allegorical dealing with the Trinity.  

What are the problems?

Much of the information presented in the book is good.  It deals with forgiveness and love throughout it.  It speaks overwhelmingly of God’s love for us.  But, too much of the information bothers me.

First, it humanizes God.  Yes, I know the story is fiction, but this is a serious issue that is being dealt with.  Anytime in the Bible that someone encounters God, it is not a human to human encounter.  It is a “fall-to-my-knees-in-unrighteousness” encounter.  Paul is blinded and hits his knees on the road to Damascus.  Our friend Mack enters the shack and is greeted by Papa – an african american lady.  This point, I get – God is neither male or female, but I feel this crosses the line.  God being portrayed as a loving african american lady (in my mind like the Pine-Sol lady) is too weird.  The way that God is portrayed, not just physically, but even personality wise is ridiculous.  Jesus is portrayed as your typical middle-eastern man…a Jew.  The Holy Spirit, known as Sarayu, is an asian lady who seems to float around.  Again, this humanizes God way too much.  God is our friend, that is made abundantly clear through Scripture.  God is not our homie, casual neighbor, Pine-Sol lady, or asian spirit….this is God we are dealing with.

Secondly, the relationships between the Trinity are addressed.  On page 121, the issue comes up of hierarchy within the Trinity.  Mack says, “Isn’t one of you more the boss than the other two?…I have always thought of God the Father as sort of being the boss and Jesus as the one following orders, you know being obedient.”  When the issue finally becomes addressed, Sarayu says – “Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity.  We are in a circle of relationship not a chain of command or a ‘great chain of being’ as your ancestors termed it.  What you’re seeing here is a relationship with any overlay of power.  We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best.  Hierarchy would make no sense among us.”  All of this said, I have to ask – is this correct?  The book goes on to claim that hierarchy is a humans created hierarchy to basically feel better.  

I fully agree that the Trinity places the Godhead on equal terms.  The Trinity is such a heavy issue to address, but to say that there is no hierarchy seems to contradict what Jesus said.  In John 14:28-31 Jesus says, “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I… the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” Mark 13:32 says, “No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Acts 5:32 speaks of the Holy Spirit and says, “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”  Thus, this concept seems to completely contradict what the Bible teaches about the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  

Dealing with the issue of Father, again, knowing God is not male or female, it still seems ridiculously – odd – to place the FATHER, PAPA, as a woman.  

Thirdly, it deals with sin in the wrong way.  The book has God saying on p. 119, “I don’t need to punish sin at all.  Sin is a punishment in and of itself.”  While God never says that sin goes unpunished…this is wrong theology.  This is found NOWHERE in the Bible.  In fact, the concept is actually that sin MUST be punished.  God is Holy and God is loving, but His holiness is seen.  

Finally (and this list could go on and on), I want to deal with the issue of the church and religion.  On page 179, we hear about Christ’s love for the church, his bride essentially.  As Christ describes his love for this “woman” the church, Mack says “She’s not the place I go on Sundays.”  Jesus then replies, “Mack, that’s because you’re only seeing the institution, a man-made system.  Thats not what I came to build.  What I see are people and their lives, a living breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programs.”  Mack then asks how he becomes part of “that church – This woman you (Jesus) seem to be so gaga over.”  Jesus replies, “It’s simple, Mack.  It’s all about relationships and simply sharing life.  What we are doing right now – just doing this – and being open and available to others around us.  My church is all about people and life is all about relationships.  You can’t build it.  It’s my job and I’m actually pretty good at it…”  Mack’s thoughts then race and he thinks, “[It’s] simple.  Not a bunch of exhausting work and long list of demands, and not the sitting in endless meetings staring at the backs of people’s heads, people he really didn’t even know.”  

I agree with the thought that knowing Christ and loving people are central to Christianity.  Christ’s greatest commandment is to “love God and love others.”  This is true, but this book seems to take it to another level to the point where “organized religion is wrong.”  It gets postmodern in some aspects as Jesus says that he is not too fond of religion and institutions…Jesus even says, “I don’t create institutions, never have, never will.”  Yet, throughout the Bible it seems that Paul instructs the churches how the church should be directed.  There has to be direction at the church.  The church is valuable.  It’s not “endless meetings staring at the back of people’s heads” but instead it is the place of fellowship as we are instructed to “not forsake the assembling of yourselves.”  The whole concept of the church seems to go too far to me, as well as many others as it presents religion and whatnot as being messy – which to some degree I agree.  But then, it pushes too far as it speaks of the universal church, almost to the point of saying, “Only have your relationship with God…the local church isn’t important.”  

I could go on much more, but these are some of the biggest problems I see.  To humanize God in such an irreverent way is ridiculous.  Some of the relationship between Papa and Jesus and Sarayu is simply that – irreverent…bordering on blasphemy in some sections.  People who walk away from this book get an idea of leaning on God in times of trouble – very valuable and true, but it’s not an accurate picture of who God is.  God is our friend, but God is so much more than that.  It humanizes God way too much.

Secondly, it misrepresents the Trinity.  Again, by doing so, it distorts the picture of God.

Finally, it gives a postmodern look at the value of the church.  Yes, Christianity is all about our relationship with God and others, but don’t leave out the value of the institution of the church.  

Overall, I see this book as dangerous to people.  In today’s world of Christian illiteracy, it gives people the wrong idea of who God is.  It gives wrong theology about God and the Trinity.  It devalues the concept of the church.  It worries me even more as teenagers will read this, and in today’s world, absorb these false ideas as truth, thus setting the stage for the way they look at the world.  It’s a dangerous book, but if someone wants to read it, read it in order to understand what it falsely represents.  Read it knowing these warnings.  Read it so you can pinpoint the parts that are contrary to Scripture.  

If you are a youth pastor or in ministry in some way – READ IT.  This is what society is reading.  This is what your youth will read.  It’s such a popular book…don’t remain ignorant as to what it says.  Read it and be prepared to address it.  

This won’t make me popular with all of the books popularity.  If it has edified you, so be it…but recognize the inconsistencies with Scripture.

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  1. August 25, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    re. “On page 121, the issue comes up of hierarchy within the Trinity. Mack says, “Isn’t one of you more the boss than the other two?…”

    Like you, I just finished reading Shack, but I was also reading the book “Pagan” by Frank Viola at the same time, where the same issue comes up.

    Viola, a pioneer of the house church movement (to which Shack editor and publisher Wayne Jacobson also subscribes) makes the point that the hierarchy within the Trinity applies to Jesus only within the incarnation. In other words, Jesus is fully submitted to the Father during his time on earth. Only. I think that’s the view that’s being put forward here.

    I think the “church” issue you conclude with has much to do with the timeliness of this book’s appeal. In similar books such as, “They Like Jesus But Not The Church;” we hear this sentiment expressed repeatedly. It’s not really fair to fault The Shack for saying what everyone else is thinking; the part of this that isn’t resonating with you is putting the words in the mouth of Christ himself. Personally, I think if Jesus was in most towns on Sunday morning, he’d hang out at the mall.

    I don’t see this book as dangerous. I think it’s a window into a more authentic, Biblically-based version of Christianity for people who would never touch the titles on sale in a Christian bookstore. I don’t see “inconsistencies,” just some broad brush strokes being criticized by people who would have preferred a high resolution photograph.

  2. August 31, 2008 at 2:50 am

    Read it. Agree that it has questionable principles in it. Also agree with Paul that others may find it easier to swallow as an introduction to Christianity and may even pique further interest. The theme of Christ is evident and the Word never goes out void, so seems like just a harmless fiction book with strong and entertaining Christian undertones. Or it’s straight from the pits of hell, I don’t know?

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