by Barry Traver
William Paul Young’s theological novel The Shack is a contemporary phenomenon that pastors, elders, and deacons must reckon with. Why? One reason is that—like it or not—so many people (church people and those outside the church) are reading the book.
Here are some of the specifics: The Shack was number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and since its original publication in 2007 (in spite of being self-published by an unknown author through an unknown publisher) it has sold two million copies. At the time this review was written, The Shack had received a total of over two thousand customer reviews on Amazon.com (most books get only half a dozen or fewer customer reviews). Two-thirds of the reviews of The Shack give the book the highest rating (five stars), many of the reviewers testifying “the book changed my life.”
It is important to recognize that the positive responses (on and off Amazon) are coming not only from those outside the Christian faith, but also from those who profess to be evangelical Christians. One oft-quoted example is Eugene Peterson, professor emeritus of spiritual theology, Regent College. Here is Peterson’s praise (which can be found on the front cover of the book):
When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize, the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!
But is The Shack that good? And is the teaching of The Shack in line with Bunyan and the Bible? Lane Keister, author of the Green Baggins blog on the Web, doesn’t think so. He has this to say:
The Shack is the story of a man [“Mack”] whose [youngest] daughter is brutally murdered. The man … receive[s] a message from God [four years later] to meet him at the shack, the very place where his daughter was murdered. He then meets God….
The upshot of the plot is that God explains to the main character the whys and the wherefores, and the man is healed. The theological upshot is that God is good, but not all-powerful….
Contrast Job. Job lost much more than the man in the story…. He had much more to complain about than the man in The Shack. He too wanted God to explain…. But when God finally has His say, He tells Job that He does not have to come to the bar of human reason. Humans have to come to the bar of God.
This is where C.S. Lewis comes in. In his brilliant essay entitled “God in the Dock,” he makes [a] really important [point].1
Here is that important point from Lewis:
Ancient man approached God … as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God is in the Dock.2
The author of The Shack is a typical example of “modern man”: From Young’s perspective, God is in the dock and God (through the author of The Shack) must present “a reasonable case for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease.” Young ignores Lewis’s rebuke and—with tongue in cheek—titles chapter 7 of The Shack “God on the Dock,” making an allusion to Lewis’s essay and his own rejection of it (104-114).
Young’s approach is far different from that which we see in John Bunyan and in Job in the Bible, as Keister explains:
Bunyan and Young go in fundamentally different directions. Christian’s journey is to the bar of judgment as a defendant whom God will acquit based on the spotless righteousness of Christ imputed to him. The man’s journey in The Shack is to the bench, where he magnanimously acquits God of wrong-doing, once it becomes evident that God is really powerless to stop it….
… [O]ne of my friends… noted the contrast between the way in which God is portrayed in the Bible as opposed to how God is portrayed in The Shack. The God of The Shack is hardly a God with the least little hint of awe and majesty. He is not the God of the whirlwind, which is how God treated Job. He is not the God before whom all bow their faces to the ground.3
In chapter 6 of The Shack, Mack meets God, and we as well are introduced to a very different view of the Triune God from that found in Scripture:
The door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African American woman…. Just as she turned to enter the cabin, a small distinctly Asian woman emerged from behind her…. He [Mack] then glanced past her and noticed that a third person had emerged from the cabin, this one a man. He appeared Middle Eastern and was dressed like a laborer, complete with tool belt and gloves (82-84).
All three are “down to earth,” humanized to such an extent that any sense of awe seems to be excluded:
Mack tried again to look at the Asian woman…. From her attire, Mack assumed that she was a groundskeeper or gardener…. [T]he large woman put her arm around Mack’s shoulders, drew him to her, and said, “Okay, we should probably introduce ourselves to you. I am the housekeeper and cook”…. “And I,” interrupted the man who looked to be in his thirties and stood a little shorter than Mack himself, “I try to keep things fixed up around here. I enjoy working with my hands, although, as these two will tell you, I take pleasure in cooking and gardening as much as they do” (85-86).
We learn that these three represent the Persons of the Triune God: “ ‘Then,’ Mack struggled to ask, ‘which one of you is God?’ ‘I am,’ said all three in unison” (87).
It is difficult to see the portrayal of the Trinity in The Shack as other than a violation of the second commandment (the commandment against creating images of God), even if Young creates his images with words rather than pictures.
We move from Young’s treatment of God to his treatment of the Word of God. While the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “The scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man,” Young seems to see the Scriptures as rather unimportant or uninspiring (especially when compared with The Shack?). Here, for example, is how Mack sees his experience of family devotions:
Images of family devotions from his childhood came spilling into [Mack’s] mind, not exactly good memories. Often, it was a tedious and boring exercise in coming up with the right answers, or rather, the same old answers to the same old Bible story questions (102).
USA Today notes not only that The Shack “slams ‘legalistic’ religions, denominations and doctrines, [but also that it] barely even mentions the Bible.” 4 That may be one reason why the discussions in The Shack seem often to open the way for theological error.
For example, here’s one passage in The Shack which seems to leave the door open to universalism. In chapter 6 we are introduced to God:
“You seem to be especially fond of a lot of people,” Mack observed…. “Are there any who you are not especially fond of?” She [God] lifted her head and rolled her eyes as if she were mentally going through the catalog of every being ever created. “Nope. I haven’t been able to find any. Guess that’s jes’ the way I is.” Mack was interested. “Do you ever get mad at any of them?” “Sho’ ‘nuff! What parent doesn’t? There is a lot to be mad about in the mess my kids have made and in the mess they’re in. I don’t like a lot of choices they make, but that anger … is an expression of love all the same. I love the ones I am angry with as much as those I’m not.” “But,” Mark paused, “What about your wrath? It seems to me that if you’re going to pretend to be God Almighty, you need to be a lot angrier.” [She replied,] “Do I now? [Mack said,] “That’s what I’d think. Weren’t you always running around killing people in the Bible?” (118-119)
Susan Olasky wrote a review of The Shack for World Magazine, a review which contains some interesting background on Young’s attitude toward the Church:
Young is no longer a member of a church, nor are his publishing partners, both former pastors. They are a part of a movement that rejects the institutional church…. His hostility … shows up in The Shack.5
Young has praise for “relationships” but disdain for “institutions,” a disdain shared by the Jesus portrayed in The Shack (who also shares Young’s sarcasm):
“You’re not too fond of institutions and religions?” Mack said…. “I don’t create institutions—never have, never will” [replied Jesus]. “What about the institution of marriage?” “Marriage is not an institution. It’s a relationship…. Like I said I don’t create institutions; that’s an occupation for those who want to play God. So, no, I’m not too big on religion,” Jesus said, a little sarcastically (179).
Enough examples have already been provided, I think, to suggest that one problem with the book is that it promotes “relationships,” “love,” “acceptance,” “hugs,” etc. at the expense of the Word of God, the Church, traditional historic Christianity, authority, doctrine, the fear of God, etc. Some feel that the book (more than) runs the risk of actual heresy (in the treatment of the Trinity, for example, especially in light of the second commandment).
To those who would suggest that The Shack may be bad theology but good literature, I offer two brief comments: (1) the book is poorly written (I’ve not found any fans of the book who regard it as well-written fiction or literature) and (2) it is really impossible to extricate the theology from the fiction (The Shack ceases to be The Shack if you ignore the book’s subtitle, “Where Suffering Confronts Eternity”).
I hope that I’ve been successful in setting forth what you need to know about The Shack. If so, I hope you’ll spend your time on better books, including what is—although neglected by Young—the best book of all, God’s Word.
- Lane Keister, “Job and Bunyan Versus The Shack,” Green Baggins, http://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2009/01/07/job-and-bunyan-versus-the-shack.
- C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1970), 244.
- Keister, “Job and Bunyan Versus The Shack.”
- “Shack opens doors, but critics call book ‘scripturally incorrect,’ ” USA Today, March 29, 2008, http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2008-05-28-the-shack_N.htm.
- Susan Olasky, “Commuter-driven bestseller,” World Magazine, June 28, 2008, http://www.worldmag.com/printer.cfm?id=14137.
Barry Traver, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is Web Design and Technical Associate for OPC.ORG. Ordained Servant, April 2009.
Republished by permission of Ordained Servant, a journal of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and of Barry Traver, ©2010.