I spent the day, on a relaxing vacation, reading “The Shack” by William Paul Young. This book was given to my daughter. My wife read it several months ago. Several people in our small group have read it. Several people at work have read it. While here on vacation, I had several people say, “I noticed you are reading ‘The Shack’. I read that too. What do you think?” I have also seen a few copies being read pool-side and on the airplane. Needless to say, this little book has made the rounds. My discussion with people who have read the book are all very similar. Everyone found profound and moving content in the book. And everyone had some negative criticism as well. Some harsh. Some minor.
So as a public service to all of my faithful readers (hit counter is at about 3, thanks Mom), I will do a little mini review of “The Shack”. Since I am a theologian and not a book reviewer, I will limit my criticisms to the theological content—the good and the bad.
- God as a woman: Many would rather I place this in “The Bad” section but I actually found it to be an effective literary device. I found myself thinking of all the ways in which God has manifested himself (YES! He is referred to in the Scripture as a male—no question there). Often, God appeared to men within their dreams and we never really get a concrete example of what the dreamer sees or experiences. In the case of Mack (our hero) in “The Shack”, he encounters God as a matronly black woman. This manifestation is revealed in the book to have been part of a dream and is intended to provide comfort, familiarity, and an object lesson in human prejudice (not wanting to reinforce religious stereotypes). I too, was convicted by the thought that I would far more expect God to look like Gandalf than Aunt Jemimah. Why? Perhaps it is because I am male and white. Don’t the female qualities we all love so much in our mothers have their origin in God’s character? Of course. Even Jesus described himself once as a mother “hen” longing to gather her chicks. I too, like Mack in the book, had a terrible relationship with my father so I found this to be an effective way to initially relate to God (it “skirted his resistance” to God’s love). By the way, when he needs to, God later relates to Mack as a father. I thought this worked well.
- Much of Mack’s conversations with God contain excellent Systematic Theology. For example:
- One of my favorite parts of the book was when the Holy Spirit touched Mack’s eyes and allowed him to see the spiritual dimension of life. The author chose to express, quite effectively, the “unseen” in terms of color and light such that feelings and relationships became rays of light and sparks. I particularly enjoyed the picture of all of this light and radiance weaving a tapestry upon which Jesus walked as he entered the picture. I was moved by the picture of Jesus, seeing Mack from afar, standing alone on a distant hill, whispered in his ear, “Mack, I am especially fond of you.”
“By nature I am completely unlimited, without bounds. I have always known fullness. I live in a state of perpetual satisfaction as my normal state of existence.” (p. 98-99)
“Jesus is fully human. Although he is also fully God, he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being.” (p. 99-100)
“We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father, and worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one.” (p. 101)
“…there are millions of reasons to allow pain and hurt and suffering rather than to eradicate them, but most of those reasons can only be understood within each person’s story. I am not evil…your choices are also not stronger than my purposes, and I will use every choice you make for the ultimate good and the most loving outcome.” (p. 125)
“The real underlying flaw in your life…is that you don’t think that I am good. If you knew I was good and that everything—the means, the ends, and all the processes of individual lives—is all covered by my goodness, then while you might not always understand what I am doing, you would trust me. But you don’t” (p. 126)
“Creation and history are all about Jesus. He is the very center of our purpose and in him we are now fully human, so our purpose and your destiny are forever linked. You might say that we have put all our eggs in the one human basket. There is no plan B.” (p. 192)
“The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. It is a picture of Jesus. While words may tell you what God is like and even what he may want from you, you cannot do any of it on your own. Life and living is in him and in no other.” (p. 198)
On the purpose of the Ten Commandments,
“…we wanted you to give up trying to be righteous on your own. It was a mirror to reveal just how filthy your face gets when you live independently.” (p. 202)
The author has a seemingly low view of Scripture. Mack receives a hand-written invitation to go to the shack. It is signed by “Papa” (his wife’s pet name for God). As Mack struggles over whether this note is a hoax the author states:
“In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?” (p. 65-66)
Now I know this is written from the standpoint of a wayward Christian but the author does little to overtly correct the misstatements about the Scriptures (“reduced to paper”, God “in a book”, “guilt edges”). Readers are left with the expectation that REAL understanding and revelation come only from the type of personal encounter with God that Mack experiences, apparently in a dream. The one thing I just couldn’t shake was how the author knew all of these wonderful truths about God—such that he could write a book claiming to speak for God. It is quite clear that every theological proposition stated in this book has its origin in Scripture (“properly interpreted, of course”). And I couldn’t help but think that this author had reduced God’s voice to paper and here I am moderating and deciphering it. So which written revelation of God should I turn to in order to understand the nature of the God of the universe? No-brainer.
- The author, like so many others with a similarly low view of Scripture, cannot come to terms with a wrathful God who punishes sin. The concept of a punishing God is portrayed in the book as one of the many incorrect, and therefore debilitating beliefs embraced by our hero. One which must be eliminated in order to truly have a relationship with God:
““But if you are God, aren’t you the one spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire?…Honestly, don’t you enjoy punishing those who disappoint you?” At that, Papa stopped her preparations and turned toward Mack. He could see a deep sadness in her eyes. “I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”” (p.119-120)
I’m sorry but this is just psycho-babble. It’s as if sin is simply a mental illness that left uncured will “devour us”. No. Sin is falling short of the holiness of God. Sin is what plunged creation into turmoil—causing suffering and death. And just where did Mack get the idea that God spills out “great bowls of wrath” and throws people into a “burning lake of fire”? I suppose we should just dismiss the book of Revelation as merely the angry rantings of the apostle John (who just needs to encounter the REAL God).
- The author holds a man-centered soteriology (doctrine of salvation). At one point in his conversations with Jesus, Mack is told that the earth has been abused by the majority of humans, to which Mack asks Jesus, “…why don’t you fix it?” Here is the response:
“”Because we gave it to you.”
“Can’t you take it back?”
“Of course we could, but then the story would end before it was consummated.”
Mack gave Jesus a blank look.
“Have you noticed that even though you call me Lord and King, I have never really acted in that capacity with you? I’ve never taken control of your choices or forced you to do anything, even when what you were about to do was destructive or hurtful to yourself and others.”” (p. 145)
Now let me get this straight. The earth is OURS because God gave it to us. (Ps. 24:1: “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;”). We call Jesus Lord and King but he has never really acted in that capacity. (“Acts 2:33: Jesus is ”Exalted to the right hand of God”). God has never taken control of choices or forced almighty man to do anything. (“Gen. 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Acts 2:23: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”). The author believes that salvation is all about man. We are the central figure in the whole enterprise. Note the next interplay between Mack and Jesus after Jesus reveals that God submits to mankind in the same way that Jesus submits to the Father:
“Mack was surprised. “How can that be? Why would the God of the universe want to be submitted to me?”
“Because we want you to join us in our circle of relationship. I don’t want slaves to my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me.” (p. 145-146)
Too bad the apostle Paul didn’t read “The Shack” before he chose to frequently describe himself as a “slave” of Christ Jesus. All that poor self-esteem for nothing. The Scriptures clearly state that the purpose of salvation is for the GLORY OF THE FATHER. No. Mankind is not the central character in the story of redemption.
- Another problem is the tendency of the author to blur the distinctions between justification (the one-time action by God to declare sinners righteous) and sanctification (the ongoing process whereby a once-justified sinner is transformed more and more into the image or character of Christ). Although both of these processes are activated by the Holy Spirit, justification is monergistic. In other words, justification is a work accomplished by God all by himself with no help from me. On the other hand, sanctification is synergistic. Sanctification results when I co-operate with the Holy Spirit.
In “The Shack”, we are led to believe that Mack is a wayward believer whose greatest need is to reach a higher level of sanctification. Therefore any talk of Mack making decisions to better align himself with the desires of God would make perfect sense. However, the author mixes statements that would only apply to justification into the mix. For example, Jesus is sharing with Mack what it means to be in a true relationship by using the example of the perfect love relationship within the Trinity. To this, Mack says:
“I really want what the three of you share, but I have no idea how to get there.”
Jesus then responds:
“The world is broken because in Eden you abandoned relationship with us to assert your own independence. Most men have expressed it by turning to the work of their hands and the sweat of their brow to find their identity, value, and security. By choosing to declare what’s good and evil you seek to determine your own destiny. It was this turning that has caused so much pain.”
“Is there any way out of this?”
“It is so simple, but never easy for you. By re-turning. By turning back to me. By giving up your ways of power and manipulation and just come back to me.” (p. 146-147)
This is the essence of “decisional regeneration”, the doctrine that one is born again by making a simple decision to turn to Jesus. What is missing in this doctrine is the mysterious, supernatural power of the Holy Spirit that moves some who hear the preaching of the gospel from being spiritually “dead” and unable to respond to the gospel’s call to being spiritually “alive” and therefore able to embrace what Jesus has to offer.
The reason that I believe the author is mixing up the concepts of regeneration and sanctification is his use of language linking Mack’s problem with the results of the Fall of Adam. Jesus never pled with people to return to him for mending of a broken relationship. No. Jesus and his disciples preached repentance and forgiveness of sin. This is the essence of the gospel. Unless one is born again, he will never see (recognize) the kingdom of God.
- Finally, the author, in his attempt to reconcile the reality of God’s sovereignty with man’s free will has come down on the side of a God who will get everything he wants but is somehow impotent (without force) to change man’s free will. On the face of it, this seems to be the most logical way to keep God from bearing the guilt of the evil acts men do but it ultimately strips God of his sovereignty. In addition, the author lands squarely on the doctrine of “unlimited atonement” (in other words, Jesus died for all the sins of all humanity—even the unbelievers). For example, I mentioned earlier where the author correctly states that Jesus is the very center of God’s purpose to reconcile mankind to himself—there is no “plan B”.
“Seems pretty risky,” Mack surmised.
“Maybe for you, but not for me. There has never been a question that what I wanted from the beginning, I will get.”
Papa sat forward and crossed her arms on the table. “Honey, you asked me what Jesus accomplished on the cross; so now listen to me carefully: through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world.”
“The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?”
“The whole world, Mack. All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is no the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way.” (p. 192)
It seems that the author, like myself, considers the problem of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom to be a mystery. However, the author makes two fatal statements: 1.) Through the death of Jesus, God is fully reconciled to whole world. And 2.) for God to draw men to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is an unloving display of force.
First of all, if God is reconciled to the whole world then the whole world (including unbelievers) stands guiltless before God. There is therefore no place for eternal punishment. There is no need for a two way street since reconciliation is already accomplished. You can’t be reconciled and unreconciled at the same time.
Second, God uses his power (force) all the time to influence the seemingly free choices of humans. He does this overtly by giving men up to their sinfulness so that they commit egregious acts of violence such as crucifying the Son of God (planned by God all along). He also does this covertly through providentially bringing about such circumstances as to influence their choices of careers, mates, even sock colors. To say that God would be unloving if he were to influence choices in any way is to completely miss the nature of love and the nature of reality.
In conclusion, there is both good and bad in “The Shack”. Although the good is very good and has blessed perhaps millions of readers, the bad is so bad that it completely overshadows the good. Would I counsel people NOT to read “The Shack”? No. I would counsel them however to be careful when one dares to speak for God. Make sure you compare God’s “words” with God’s Word.