Before diving right in, let’s just set some groundwork and create a bit of a paradigm with which to view The Shack through. After all, paradigms power perceptions and perceptions power emotions (according to Young, pg. 197). Also, since its easier, I’ll from now on I’ll just use the page number, and all references to Scripture are taken from the ESV.
The Shack, while primarily a work of fiction, is not written to be simply a work of fiction. Most people may not be aware of this, but Plato only wrote in dialogue form. So while on the one hand, when one reads The Republic, Meno, Crito, or the infamous Apology, or any of his other works, you are reading philosophy, you are also reading literature which presents characters meeting in random places and dialoguing back and forth about certain issues and ideas. Later in his life though, Plato claimed in a personal letter to a friend that he had never written any philosophy. The letter as best we can tell is authentic, so we are presented with a problem. In one sense, he is correct, he never wrote any philosophical treatises and therefore did not didactically teach his ideas through his writing. However, it also would be foolish to assume that Plato just enjoyed creating characters to interact with Socrates and had no ambition of promoting any of his ideas. It’s simply a literary tool at any author’s disposal to use in conveying information.
Carrying this over to William Young, when he says in personal interviews The Shack is primarily a work of fiction, or just a story, in one sense that may be true, but we would be foolish to read it as just a story. The fact that close to 100 pages of the 240+ page book contain various strains of dialogue between different members of the Godhead and Mack lets you know there is more on the author’s mind than simply telling a story. And just as Plato puts words in Socrates mouth in his writing, like it or not, Mr. Young is putting words in God’s mouth in his writing. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but one has to read The Shack with this in mind and ask yourself what it is that the author really saying and trying to communicate through the medium of fiction. One can try to assert that The Shack is simply a story, but there are too many rabbit trails of dialogue about theological and philosophical issues to justify such a statement.
Just a slight side note at this point, anyone who had studied literature, whether English, American, or World, should know that very rarely is anything ever just a story. Some authors are better storytellers than others, but does anyone really believe books like The Scarlet Letter, Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, Oliver Twist, The Great Gatsby, The Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird and many more are just stories? If you do, you have not looked very far into each of those author’s intentions and purposes in writing. I don’t want to project intentions onto William Young, but lets not be naïve and assume he doesn’t have any and that The Shack isn’t trying to convey anything deeper than story about Mack and his issues.
That in mind, I’ll leave the literary angle alone for the remainder of this critique, as when it comes right down to it, this book’s power does not lie in its great storytelling, but more in the emotional appeal it makes to people through the dialogues that take place during the time when Mack visits God. There is a reason this book made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and it is very doubtful that would happen because this book accords so well with Biblical truth. More than likely it accords with something people want to hear, but we will see as we examine it further.
When one reads a book like The Shack, especially if reading in an uncritical fashion, one is probably unfamiliar with the way a book’s content will take root and have an effect. Typically, ideas when presented filter through the mind and are examined before it is determined whether or not they accord with Truth or not. After a decision is made the ideas will tend to stimulate the affective domain as they take root and an emotional response (positive or negative) usually occurs. Following this, the behavioral domain is affected and some type of action occurs (throwing the book across the room, recommending it to all your friends).
For me, the process looked like this: As I read The Shack I was looking for the ideas the author was presenting (which is the way you are supposed to read a novel) and seeing if they accorded with Truth. I paid a little attention to the literary angle, but was mainly concerned with what the author was really saying. More and more of what was being said did not conform with Truth, whether it contradicted it outright, or more subtly presented half-truths and misrepresentations of either theological systems or philosophical positions and so my response in the affective domain was to more and more dislike the book. Not simply because I didn’t like what was being said, but because what was being said was not true and the protagonist was slowing buying right into it.
I hope you see how this is meant to work. Anytime you read a novel written in first person point of view, you naturally put yourself right into the characters shoes. So if the character is presented with new ideas and he conforms to them, it is very easy for you to do the exact same thing without realizing it, and without critically thinking about what you are being told, especially when the author very slyly puts the words in God’s mouth. As the character’s emotions are roused, so are yours because you are no longer reading the story from without as an observer, you are following the protagonist on his journey and slowly conforming to his thoughts and emotions. It’s a very manipulative tool and as such, you’ll notice that while the Bible is mainly narrative, it is never narrative in this form.
Having my thoughts wrapped around the ideas in The Shack, my emotions aroused in the way that they were, my behavioral response was to assimilate this critique in order to give people a slightly different paradigm to power their perceptions and therefore their emotions (remember these are Mr. Young’s own words), so that they would not be so quick to buy into the theology that is presented in The Shack.
I suppose that is sufficient for an introduction right?
Strengths of The Book
Let’s start with the positive contributions The Shack makes, as there are some. For instance, the depiction of Mack forgiving his daughter’s murderer is very good, and should be a challenge to anyone who has the read the book to let go of the other person’s throat and forgive them, however hard that may be. Also the centrality of Christ (pg. 202 and elsewhere) is very well promoted throughout this book, a foundation of our faith that tends to be something lighter versions of Christianity miss altogether. In addition a good model of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is presented (pg. 113) The danger of lying is well represented later on (pg. 188.) as well as the subjective nature of labeling things good and evil (pg. 135) versus resting in God’s understanding of just what constitutes good and evil. (pg. 136).
In addition, humanity being in relationship and community is promoted very well throughout the book (specifically on pg. 201) and this is well grounded in the fellowship that is inherent in the Trinity. The purpose of the law is well established as well (on pg. 202ff) and combats some of the errors that have crept into Christian thought ever since Paul’s day. In addition to grounding community in the Trinity, Mr. Young does and exemplary job of grounding love there as well as he demonstrates that without a multiple person Godhead, love could really not be possible (pg. 101).
Speaking of love, it is also a major theme in this book, and even that may be a bit of an understatement. Once Mack has been talking to Papa a bit, hardly a page goes by without love being mentioned or used as a verb. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with this, but the question to be asked in light of it is whether or not a Biblical conception of love is being presented, or whether a pop-psychology (in the vein of Carl Rogers and/or some unnamed Christian psychologists) conception is what is being used.
No one would argue with the idea that God is love (1 John 4:8.) however, the impression given by The Shack is that it is His controlling attribute (pg.102). Is this the God that is presented throughout the pages of Scripture? Before you answer, keep in mind, while there is a strong basis for God’s love in the Old Testament (almost always used as steadfast love) there is more of an emphasis on us loving God than the other way around. When thinking of love in the New Testament, 1 John has much to say, but again, the emphasis is on us loving God, not the other way around. This can be seen by simply using an online concordance and searching the words God and Love together. In perusing the results a fairly Biblical conception of what love looks like should emerge.
In doing research of this kind, you may run across something else that has the ability to ruffle some feathers. You will notice there is a lack Biblical support for the idea that humans are created to be loved (pg. 97). That is mainly because this is not a Biblical concept but it a pop-psychology concept popularized by Carl Rogers, and even lightly Christianized by people such as Gary Chapman in his conception of the 5 Love Languages. Maybe one could build a convincing case for humanity being created to be loved, as Mr. Young attempts to do so, but its ability to be compelling rests on how well it accords with what God has already revealed in His Word, not on how well it makes you feel.
Another feel good idea about love presented throughout the book is the idea that love bears no expectations on the other person. In thinking about this just briefly, what is one way you can tell that someone really loves you in a Biblical sense? It’s a leading question I know, but with a little reflection you might come up with the answer that you know someone really loves you when they won’t put up with your crap. People that see through your façade and speak truth into you life demonstrate that they really love and care for you. Not only that, it is the model of interpersonal relationships championed by the apostles Paul and John right alongside the love one another commands. The problem that has occurred in The Shack, is love has been mixed with an unhealthy understanding of tolerance. In the classical view of tolerance, one tolerates the person but not their actions if the actions do not accord with what is right. This is the best way of viewing the way God still tolerates sin in believer’s lives. However a more modern understanding of tolerance switches from the person to the person’s actions and viewpoints and insists that they be tolerated no matter how erratic, bizarre or downright wrong they may be. This view of tolerance is dangerous and one will not find any such understanding presented in the Bible, and in fact will find a God there who does not exhibit that form of tolerance in any way for to do so would compromise His holiness.
In looking at these ideas of love and tolerance, a much more compelling concept is the idea that in bearing the Imago Dei, humans are created to represent our Creator, and as part of that the natural emphasis would be on displaying love, not receiving it. We are meant to reflect glory back to God and find ultimate pleasure in Him for who He is, not the love that He provides. To do that would be to use God as a means to an end, and would ultimately be unfulfilling. This is why throughout Paul’s writings, and even back to 1 John, the emphasis is on knowing God, and loving one another in response to that experiential knowledge of our Creator. “So let us love one another for love is from God and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God (1 John 4:7) and since no one has ever seen God; if we love another God abides in us and his love is perfected in us (4:12), for this is the love of God: that we keep his commandments (5:3). While not placing expectations on each other’s actions, there is a strong sense in the New Testament that simply tolerating whatever someone you love does is not appropriate either. Frankly if we are honest with ourselves, it is only people we are merely affectionate towards that we will tolerate in that way. People we truly love we will confront and rebuke just as God does to us out of His love (think Hebrews 12).
Moving on to the actual story itself, in a very broad sense, Mack moves from simple affection for God to action motivated by his renewed knowledge of God. In this way, Mack doesn’t really love God at all until he forgives the man that murdered his daughter and until he forgave his own father. No matter what he has said, until he moved from word and talk to truth and deed (1 John 3:18.) he did not really love God at all, he merely had strong affection for God based on his interaction. So taken as a whole The Shack does provide a fairly good model for how knowing God motivates us to love one another and changes our lives and heals out pains. However, the road to get there at least in The Shack is riddled with theological errors and false conceptions about both God and humanity. So while in an overall sense, the message is very good and should be compelling, the means to get there suggest a lot of half truths and downright falsehoods that make it hard to honestly recommend that someone read this book. You would do much better to spend the time studying what the Bible says about God’s love and how that should be reflected in you. Maybe the little theological pitfalls are lost on most readers and only stick out to me after having wrestled through them myself before God and His Word. Or maybe, they are fairly significant, for in believing certain things to be true of God when they are actually not can in some ways be damnable. As could putting words into God’s mouth that don’t accord with Scripture, but at this point, I will that up to you the reader to go back and try to decipher.
So there you have it; that is my overall critique of the message of The Shack. I didn’t particularly like it, some for preferences reasons (like a dislike for the tone and attitude that comes through) but I was generally bothered while reading by the irreverent tone that Mr. Young uses in bringing the members of the Trinity to life (literarily speaking of course) and did not particularly find it in keeping with a healthy fear of the Lord and reverence for His holiness. However more important than the tone were some of the things the members of the Trinity actually said and aside from the many barbed references to both seminary and the church today at large, I found what appear to me to be a good many theological pitfalls in the book. Some of these stick out to me because I come from a differing theological system, and of course I will believe my way is a more Biblically faithful way to understand things, as that is natural of anyone who has consciously worked through what they believe. In perusing this list, you can feel free to disagree, but it is more for reflection than to stimulate arguments. To be honest, I don’t have the time to fully explain each of these and some could be their own full length paper just to dissect and define why they are issues. If something significantly jars you, feel free to look it up yourself and see if what God is saying in The Shack accords with what God has already said in the Bible. If you’d really like to discuss any of them after looking it up yourself, feel free to drop me a line.
- Papa denies the separation that occurred on the cross between the Father and the Son, and also has subtly implied they were both on the cross, which is a weighty theological issue to reckon with (96)
- Papa asserts that humans were created to be loved, however there needs to be direct Biblical support for an assertion like this (97)
- Modalism (a condemned heresy) is implied, and just in passing (99)
- The idea of Jesus not using his divine nature while on earth is presented which is a theological issue that does not have Biblical support, but does not have Biblical condemnation either (100)
- Papa asserts that God cannot act apart from love (sounds good, but is love really the controlling attribute of God’s nature?) (102)
- Jesus’ affirmation to Papa, it appears to exude a more Rogerian concept of love than a Biblical one (107)
- In Papa’s discussion of children she is especially fond of, there is the first hint of a different version of tolerance being expressed. It is more fully brought out later on, but the seed starts here, seeming to imply that God is fond of everyone ever created and loves them all just the same (118-119)
- Papa states she doesn’t need to punish sin as it is its own punishment and her purposes are not to punish it but cure it. On the one hand there is a bit of truth to this, but on the other hand, God’s holiness demands that sin be dealt with and a casual reading of the Bible will reveal that God doesn’t always purpose to cure it (120)
- An egalitarian model of the Godhead is presented something that is not only controversial because of the implications it carries over to human relationships but is also entirely lacking in any Biblical support. It’s a nice idea, but it is not found on the pages of Scripture, this is one of those areas where it becomes hard to say The Shack is just a story and a children’s story at that (121-122)
- The idea that authority is a God given institution is denied, to the bewilderment of anyone who has ever read much of the New Testament (think Romans 13 for starters) (122)
- The infringement on God’s sovereignty begins with Papa asserting that the Godhead works within the systems of man instead the Biblical view of the systems of man being instituted by God (123)
- A very sketchy view of man’s original purpose is presented as being unencumbered by structure, however a simple reading of the Genesis creation account does not readily give rise to this idea (124)
- The suggestion is made that God’s purposes will never infringe on human will. This is very sticky ground so I won’t get into too much here. Depending on what Mr. Young really means by this, it could be correct. In a certain sense if you wish to retain human will this strongly, you can use it to defeat both God’s omnipotence and his omniscience, neither of which should be compromised (125)
- Trust (or presumably faith) is defined as the fruit of a relationship in which you know you are loved. This sounds really good, but it is not a Biblically faithful way of defining trust. Why does this not work? (126)
- Papa asserts that she is not a “self centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way.” This is a very negative way of stating several things the Bible actually asserts about God, namely that His purposes will not be frustrated, and that He demands all glory and praise and honor (126)
- The Holy Spirit is pictured as being erratic and unpredictable. A better way of thinking of this might that God’s ways are not man’s ways (128)
- Jesus tells Mack that to force his will on him is exactly what love does not do, and when worded that way there is some truth to it. However, he then goes on to say that genuine relationships are marked by submission even when your choices are unhelpful or unhealthy. I touched on this earlier, but to get a Biblical view here, replace “even” with “except” and you are more in line with what Scripture teaches (145)
- The unhealthy view of submission and love is translated into marriage as well. Thinking about this briefly, is that really the view of marriage we find in the pages of Scripture? (146)
- Jesus denies that his life was meant to be an example to copy. Paul must have misunderstood this idea when he admonished the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitated Christ. I see what Mr. Young is getting at and it is a redefinition of Christlikeness, you can decide whether or not it is a Biblical one (149)
- An odd view analogy of how God elects people either to heaven or hell is presented, it seems to be an emotional appeal to undermine election, but I could be wrong. Election took place before the foundation of the world as God in His foreknowledge choose some vessel to made for honor and some to be made for dishonor. How inscrutable are His ways and wise are His judgments! I can see how emotionally unappealing election is, however, if you don’t want to believe in unconditional election that is fine, your only other option though is salvation by works (162)
- The idea that all human are God’s children is presented, rather than the understanding that only the elect are God’s children. Why is this a sticky way of understanding humanity, and what support does it have in Scripture? (163 and in a few other places)
- The cross is presented as the place where mercy triumphs over justice because of love. This is almost a blasphemous understanding of the cross, can you see exactly why? For starters, God’s attributes never contradict one another so even the idea of one over-riding the other is unfathomable, but aside from that, how does this distort the message of the cross? (164)
- Sophia asserts that Papa has never used evil to accomplish his purposes. Aside from the places in the Bible that directly contradict this, in light of what was just said above, can you see how ridiculous this assertion is? What could be more evil than the betrayal, condemnation and undeserved beating and crucifixion of the Son of God? And yet what could be a more glorious accomplishment of God’s purposes in redeeming the human race? C.S. Lewis is wise to state that God will use you no matter what in this life, you can decide whether it is as a Judas or a John (165)
- There are several untenable problems with making Sophia be the personification of God’s wisdom with making her a fourth member of the Godhead. Granted, its just a personification, but it is better to interpret the embodiment of wisdom to be Christ, in whom all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge are deposited (Col 2:3) (171)
- There appears to be an oversimplification of grace implying that the Christian walk makes no demands of you. This is sort of true, but at the same time not really. Why is that so? (178)
- We find an unnecessary rant against religion and other institutions, not realizing that the problem is not with religion or with institutions but with depraved people being involved in them. The anger is justified in a sense, but it is being directed in the wrong way (179)
- We see too instances of “love without an agenda” being promoted. I think we have covered how this is unbiblical, but just thinking about it from a practical standpoint, how does one love without an agenda? Love must be demonstrated through actions and while not necessarily having an agenda, it seems like something more need to be said (181)
- We find hints of pluralism, but at the same time it may just be referring to people’s past before coming to faith. Looking at it again, this is probably what is meant (182)
- Again Papa reiterates that she does not orchestrate tragedies, and that she can use them but does not need them to accomplish her purposes. This is an emotional appeal for sure, because not only is it unbiblical, it is philosophically untenable as well. There are a few ways to resolve the problem of tragedies in the face of a good and loving God, but this way does not work without undermining many other facets of who God is (omnipotence and omniscience again). I could write a short essay on this sometime, but not here (185)
- Omnipotence is undermined a bit further with the analogy of 47 events before someone will hear God (187)
- Papa asserts that she used Mack’s choices to work perfectly into her purposes, which is somewhat true, but again implies limitation of God’s part in favor of human free will. Maybe I’ll just write the next essay on how that works (189)
- Implies that humans deserve respect for simply being human, there is some dignity in bearing the Imago Dei, but this seems to distort it slightly (190)
- Papa claims that her purposes are always and only an expression of love. Unfortunately, again, this makes love to be the controlling attribute in God’s nature, something you won’t find very readily presented throughout the Scriptures. Holiness, yes and that is what gives love its basis, but to boil it down to love is to oversimplify and distort the purposes of God (191)
- Papa asserts that she has never placed an expectation of Mack or anyone else. This is rather hard to square with most of the Old Testament, as well as command in 1 Peter like “Be ye holy as I am holy.” Papa then goes on to assure Mack that she has never been disappointed with him, which again, is hard to square with the Bible and the idea that sin grieves God (206)
- Omnipotence is further undermined in exchange for a God that is loving and good. In saying that he did not purpose Missy death, the question remains who did, or better yet, does fate stand at the helm of the universe or does God? While it may be painful to believe that God purposed the death of a loved one, is it not also reassuring to know that God is firmly in control of any and all situations and not only knows what is best for you but will work everything out to your benefit? (222)
- Presents unlimited atonement, but substitutes forgiveness for atonement. In a sense what is being implied is that everyone has been forgiven of their sin in Jesus death on the cross. I don’t think this is exactly what the Bible teaches about the cross, but I could be wrong (225)
- Builds a slightly higher conception of human worth than I think a Biblical view would warrant. On the one hand we are important, but that can’t be taken too far either without overexaggerating our value on our own apart from God (235)
These are just things to think through either in reflecting on what you’ve read or to keep in mind before you read. I can’t say I would recommend reading The Shack simply for all the side roads it could take you down, but the overall message if it is near what I described earlier is good, but it is at the expense of distorting the character of God and the nature of love, two things that one must be very sure of having grounded properly in the Bible and not in man’s conception of either.