The Shack, by William P. Young, 2007, Los Angeles, Windblown Media, 248pp.; finished 6/2/8; rated 2

This book has made the rounds, and I’m impressed by that. In its 7th printing, it can be found in airport bookstores, Sams and Walmart, and practically anywhere books are sold. People keep asking me, “Have you read The Shack.” Well, I have now. I read it over two days of flying from North Carolina to Dallas to Portland to San Diego to Dallas.

Two things up front: (1) I didn’t like the book; having said that, (2) I get what the author was communicating, and agree with him: relationship is what God really wants with us, and the author has a good grasp on grace.

I didn’t like the book for a bunch of reasons, I’ll give just a few in this review. First, the author chooses to use the imagery of two women and a man as representations of the Holy Trinity. All through the book, God the Father is portrayed as an old black woman – an Aunt Jemima type. Now, I love old black women, but I have trouble with God being portrayed as such. “But it’s just a story,” someone will say, or someone else will tell me, “It’s a literary device to get across the point that we can’t put God in a box.” I know, I know. I get it. But I also get that God himself (if you take the Bible to be His work, which I do), never used such a literary device, and in fact, for the whole of Christian history (until the recent liberal and bizarre and heretical antics of the Episcopal Church) God is portrayed in the masculine. If we are faithful to Scripture and to history, we don’t have permission to monkey with this image, and to do so invites danger. “But it’s only imagery”, someone might reply. So it is. But imagery is important (because ALL communication is imagery – symbol) and bad imagery is bad (because it communicates the wrong idea). Does God contain masculinity and femininity? Of course. But he reveals himself in the masculine, and if anything, his creation is imaged as the feminine (including his particular creation, the Church), and to confuse the two is to bring confusion between the two – hence nature worship and goddess worship go hand in hand.

Second, the author doesn’t understand the Trinity (not that anyone does, but this author really doesn’t). He presents the Holy Trinity as God-the-Three-Individuals-Who-Share-One-Mind. Young’s portrayal of the Trinity is closer to the Star Trek collective society, the Borg, than to the biblically revealed Trinity, in whom the Father is unseen and unknowable and is seen and known only through the Son. To be more biblically faithful, Young would have written this book with only one “seen” member of the Trinity – the Son. To further complicate things, on page 145 the Father is submitted to the Son, and on 122 the Spirit tells Mack, “we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity,” contra St. Paul in 1 Co. 15.24-28.

Third, the author steps dangerously close to (and probably over) the line of patripassionism – the early heresy that God the Father died in the crucifixion. On page 103 he has Mack saying to the Father, “I’m so sorry that you, that Jesus, had to die”. The Father (who is a woman, remember), doesn’t correct him, but simply tells him that she isn’t sorry, it was worth it.

Fourth, on page 179 and the few pages following, the author portrays Jesus as being anti-religious, making it that organized or institutional religion isn’t God’s idea at all, and simply something that he has to deal with due to the frailty of humanity. Oddly, at the same time, he embraces the authority of the Bible, which comes to us through that very institution he tends to reject. Then, going a step further, while he has Jesus dismissing organized religion in general (and saying, “I don’t create institutions, never have, never will”), he also has him saying that he has followers who are Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, and “I have no desire to make them Christians…” (p. 182). So much for Matthew 28.18 and the Great Commission.

Fifth, and finally, the book can be pretty sappy. For example, on page 107 God the Father, that is, Papa, who is, remember, an old black woman, suggests they all pause for devotions. While Mack is expecting Jesus to pull out a Bible, “Instead, Jesus reached across the table and took Papa’s hands in his, scars now clearly visible on his wrists. Mack sat transfixed as he watched Jesus kiss his father’s hands and then look deep into his father’s eyes and finally say, ‘Papa, I loved watching you today, as you made yourself fully available to take Mack’s pain into yourself, and then giving him space to choose his own timing. You honored him, and you honored me. To listen to you whisper love and calm into his heart was truly incredible. What a joy to watch! I love being your son.’”

While there are witty moments (like God cooking dinner “from scratch” and Mack not being exactly sure what that meant), and while I get that the author is trying to draw people into an experiential relationship with God and not just a formal religious life devoid of true spirituality, I found the negatives far outweighing the positives in this book. Trying to portray the Trinity in a work of fiction is nigh on impossible, and should be attempted, if ever, only by someone who has a very solid grasp on the historical doctrine itself. Otherwise, it paints the wrong picture, and wrong pictures can create wrong concepts and beliefs.


5 responses to “THE SHACK

  1. OK. I see your point. However, I feel you’ve completely missed the simple beauty of the message of forgiveness and God’s great love. That’s why us simple folk liked it. 😉

  2. I know you find it difficult to separate the theological from the pure fiction but I found myself longing for a more intimate relationship with God after reading the book. I liked the struggle Mack had with all the “whys” that we all have and never seem to get answers that satisfy. And the struggle to forgive is definitely something we can all relate to whether it be small daily things or monumental things like Mack had to forgive. I realize God isn’t obligated to satisfy us with answers. The answer that we will know in the sweet bye n bye doesn’t always help. I suppose that could give us hope if looked at in a certain light.

    Another thing the book opened my eyes to see is is how judgmental I am, even judging God for the way he does or doesn’t judge people I judge as wrong. Your sermon was about that yesterday. Sitting in that judgment seat is only reserved for One and it ain’t me. I know this but somehow the book presented it in a little different light.

    Maybe the book wasn’t theologically correct but it sure stirred something deep within me to make me want more than what I have now. In light of that I will say I liked the book.

  3. great fodder for my next book group discussion which is about this book

  4. Dear Bishop Ken,

    Thank you for your insight and clarity regarding “The Shack”. I have glanced through the book and talked at length with other who have read it. Most people liked it alot, but a disturbing number praised it to no end.

    Although I have university and seminary training, I consider myself, “common folk”. I work and minister in the workplace and community daily. As a poet and writer, I appreciate the use of creative imagery to get a point across. As a minister, I try to use the Bible as a standard of communicating the Truth of God. I understand the message that the author was trying to communicate, but found that the delivery was terribly flawed.

    In my discussions, I have found that many people believe that they understand how God functions and communicates so much better now that they have read this book. What a shame. So many conveyed to me that it supported their belief in universalism-that is, all paths lead to God and all will be saved.

    My fear is that so many will now in a genuine spirit of trying to love more become so much more “non-judgemental” and will fall into the sad place where so many Christians now live. This place is a luke-warm, savourless, and tragic place of not proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ because the world thinks that it is judgemental. If the enemy can defuse the Church in this way, he has stopped the Saving Message of Christ from going out to this dying world. Of course, this will not happen in it’s entirety as we know, but many will be sidetracked and shipwrecked. God protect and keep us on the narrow Way.

    Thank you for sharing the solid and Biblical insights that you do. I have enjoyed reading the material on your blogs and websites and am intrigued by the CCR.

    Asking your blessing.

  5. A book written by a theologically correct scholar wouldn’t have anywhere near the literary creativity of The Shack. Young did his best with what he had and came up with a very powerful and thought-provoking story. It is up to the reader to discern truth. None of us should be deriving our theology from one work of art, whether that be a book, movie, song, TV show, etc. In your position as a Christian leader I thank you for correcting the theological inaccuracies of the book. I didn’t notice the universalist tendencies that you quoted when I read it. However I think more lay folk like me are drawn closer to God through this book than are led astray by it, so it is a net gain for the cause of Christ. I think Young set a boat sailing at a good clip, and we need rudders like yourself to tweak the direction it is sailing in. God can and does use even theologically inaccurate things to work in people’s lives. I wouldn’t discourage Young from writing something like this again.

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