Problems with The Shack, Part 1: General

The Shack, at this writing, is the top-selling trade paperback in the nation according to the NY Times Bestseller List. It carries endorsements from Eugene Peterson, Michael W. Smith, and Wynonna Judd, and copies are being passed around like candy in Christian circles. Readers say it has changed the way they think about God-indeed, changed their life entirely.

And yet, here I am writing a series of posts about what I believe are serious problems in the book. I’m aware that this might make me look like the stereotypical Reformed guy who can find a heresy under ever bush. All I can do is say, with a clear conscience, that I’m going to these lengths because I love God, and I believe this book misrepresents him. I love God’s church, and I believe many of the ideas in this book are dangerous to it.

So here goes. I’ve divided my comments into three four sections, which I’ll post separately. Today we’ll consider some overarching themes of the book.

General tenor of the book

The overall air of the book was frustrating to me. The Shack is anti-theological– overall I got the impression that the word theological was being used as a synonym for bad, lifeless, or untrue. The main character’s seminary education has given him all sorts of false ideas about God, and he constantly offers incorrect views that the persons of the Trinity mock and correct. Ironically, at the same time God is constantly stating facts about himself-facts that are, by definition, theological. This is the tired false distinction of doctrine vs. relationship-as if you can be in a relationship with someone and not know any facts about them!

I also found The Shack to be anti-Bible-the Bible is never mentioned as a way to know God, and Mack denigrates his previous understanding of Scripture. It is anti-church- the visible church is, after all, an institution, and God says “I don’t create institutions-never have, never will” (179). Mack’s religious background, like his theological education, is always referred to negatively (including his family devotions as a child, 107). It is anti-Christians-although God says he is “especially fond” of individuals and of the whole world, believers as a group are never mentioned positively. Christians, in The Shack, are people who don’t understand God, who use religion to manipulate others-the term itself is even denigrated (182).

The book’s portrayal of God, I believe, borders on the idolatrous. It is one thing to have a story with a lion who serves as a Christ figure; it is quite another to put words into the mouths of the persons of the Trinity. When you’re having God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit say things that originate in your own imagination, the line between fiction and theology has gotten blurry, and it calls for some careful stepping that Young does not deliver. The most obvious example of this is the use of women to depict God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, but I was more troubled by some specifics. For instance, God the Father is a black woman named Papa, and her dialogue in places sounds like a character from Gone with the Wind: “Guess that’s jes’ the way I is… Sho ‘nuff!” (119). Papa engages in bathroom humor (88, 121), and there’s a scene where she and Jesus bump into each other in the kitchen, spill a bowl of sauce, and go through a slapstick routine while cleaning it up (104-05). I’m just stodgy enough to think this is not an appropriate portrayal of the God before whom the angels in heaven hide their face (Isaiah 6:1-3).

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Comments

  1. Fiction is comprised of “putting words into the mouths of persons,” and if a writer can not do that with God as a character, there can never be any fiction about God. Or, if only scripture can be attributed to the mouth of God, then because scripture is true, a story would not be fiction. This creates a circular trap which Christian writers can never overcome. God created us in his image – that means we have all his imagination and creativity to bring to bear in our imaginings of him. While I’m quite sure nothing we imagine even begins to come close, I’m equally sure it takes nothing away from God to imagine him in ways that comfort us – a father, a mother, a shepherd, a gardener.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jan. I believe there can be “fiction about God” that does not explicitly use God as a character, and therefore avoids the dilemma to some extent. Like I said, this is the difference between classics like Narnia or Lord of the Rings and The Shack. The former two present truth about God, even have characters who may be said to represent God, without the danger of making God say things that are unbiblical (which in my view The Shack does).

    It’s true that we bear the image of God, but that does not mean that we are free to imagine him however we will. Sin has marred the image of God in us, so that we can no longer trust our imagination to represent God rightly. In fact, we will tend to imagine a God who’s just like us– an idol, if you will. God has to reveal himself to us; our imagination is insufficient. Thankfully he has done so, and I would argue that he’s said plenty in the Bible for us to meditate on and process without busying ourselves imagining other things we think might comfort us.

  3. Let me respond to your four “anti” comments. First, “anti-theological”. The Shack was not intended to be a theological threstise. It was written as a fictional story, an allegory, with the intention of communicating in story form one man’s journey of healing and renewal in his relationship with God. With that said, we are all theologians in the sense that we all have certain beliefs about God which effect the way we live and The Shack is a story of one man’s journey of discovery and experience of God which transformed his life. And yes, tweaked views of God can be learned in Seminary, as well as in Church and in life. There is no person who possesses a perfect or complete understanding of God, nor will there be in this life. Fortunately, a perfect theology is not a requirement for having a relationship with God.

    Second, “anti Bible”. Simply because the Bible is not specifically mentioned as a way to know God does not mean the author is against it. Let me ask you this question. Can someone come to faith in Christ apart from being exposed to the Bible? I believe so. God is not contained in a book. And I believe in the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible.

    Third, “anti-church”. Though the majority of the visible church may have devolved into an institution, please support from scripture the idea the church was ever intended by God to be one in the first place. All the analogies for the church in the Bible suggest a living organism, not a formal institution.

    Fourth, “anti-Christian”. Religious thinking, structures and the practices that derive from them even in Christiandom often do wind up manipulating and controling others and results in casting Christians in a bad light. We should never be afraid of facing the truth. Again, this book was being written from one man’s experience, but unfortunately many believers and non-believers alike have been turned off by how Christ has been misrepresented by the people that bear his name.

  4. The Shack is a fiction and yet, a parable of a God-encounter story of a person struggling with his own pain and has come out to his own truth. It is alive and yes, because it is alive, messy, too! It is threatening indeed to some of us who want to build around us secure walls and controls. Those who dare indeed to come out in the open with all their human vulnerabilites because they have experienced God have nothing to fear and defend and lose… and when I look at again the Jesus of the Gospels (not that Jesus that was historically conditioned through the years) yes, His existence was controversial and messy one. They murdered him.

  5. At issue here is the ability to influence the masses with a non-biblical view of God. Millions will not read the Bible, but they will read this book and come away with ideas, and perhaps affirmations, that the Bible and the Church are irrelevant. It infers a permission for the reader to create his or her own image of God, outside the clear teaching of Scripture.

    Furthermore, Young is a Christian universalist; he believes that Jesus is one way to God among many. This is about as anti-biblical as you can get for Jesus claimed to be the only way to the Father and Heaven (John 14:6). The book reflects his believes. Is it reasonable to assume that there is at least some desire on his part to “enlighten” people as to what he believes to be the truth about Christianity and its teachings?

    I realize this is a work of fiction and it will not unravel the fabric of Christendom. It will flash and pass just like The DaVinci Code before it. However, let those who know and accept the truth of Scripture encourage others to approach this book as a pure work of Young’s imagination and universalist leanings.

  6. I have to agree with jake and fred. The book is packed with not just Biblical things that we can all agree to disagree on, essential Christian doctrine that can be literally understood by any born again Christian. The fact that so many big names endorse it doesn’t hold any weight with me and shouldn’t anyone else either… E. Peterson is responsible for the poorly translated ‘message’ Bible and I won’t begin to list the many problems of MWS because slander isn’t profitable or good for anything

    The real question is. Should there be any writing about Biblical principals or God that doesn’t include scripture references at least in the footnotes to back up the illustrations being used to demonstrate them? The answer is emphatically NO.

    Universalism and motilism (which is how the book portrays The trinity). Are both great heresies that are running rampant in the Church.

    Any author or pastor or song writer should take great care in all their endedvors as to how they portray God to their respective audiences because they have a responsibility to convey sound doctrine. Because, unfortunately, people will pick up a fiction book instead of God’s word

    A “Christian” with no desire for God’s word is not really a Christian, so says the Bible. God is not confined to the Bible, but the born again believer will desire to know the will of the Father as given in Scripture.

    Lastly it is not ok to illustrate God the father as a female. Is he anatomically male, no because He is spirit and not an annatomical being. BUT He refers to Himself with a masculine designation. To make a statement even in fiction that contradicts scriputure is clearly heretical and possibly blasphemous. Great review so far jake I’m looking forward to part 2-4.

  7. For: Fred, et al.
    From: an interview with Wm. Paul Young

    New Man: Yes, but some of the language you use sounds a little like Universalism, the doctrine that all will be saved. How do you respond to that?

    Young: Very simply. I’m not a Universalist. I’ve never said anything other than the road gets narrowed down to one man, that’s the person Jesus Christ. I’ve been very clear about that. And it’s very clear throughout the whole book, unless you want to find an agenda for Universalism in there.

    It’s okay to debate the book. Discourse is important. But let’s make sure that we are using truth to make our points.

  8. I simply disliked the book. I didn’t even think it was very well written. The dialogue at the shack became trite and sometimes even uncomfortable to endure. My head will not wrap around the concept that God would be portrayed as a black woman named Papa (or that ANY woman at all would be called “Papa”, for that matter). Maybe I missed the point, but the book didn’t draw me in enough to even care. If you want to learn about God and His nature, and Jesus Christ and His infinite love for mankind and the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life, here’s a novel idea…..put down The Shack and pick up a copy of the living, breathing WORD of God and read that instead. It will certainly be time better spent.

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