The Shack - A Total Belter?
Pete Bell reviews 'The Shack by William P Young. If you're planning on seeing the movie or reading the book, read this first!A Total Belter?
So, The Shack. It’s quite something. It’s a bestseller. Many Christians love it. Eugene Peterson, of ‘The Message’ fame, reckons it’s the new Pilgrim’s Progress. Is that right aye?
The subheading, ‘Where tragedy meets eternity,’ sounds beautifully optimistic, and when in the foreword you’re told that the book is about guy spending a weekend with God, you can see why many Christians would be excited. Who wouldn’t want to imagine what it would be like to hang out with God for a few days?! It’s even more amazing when it comes out of a hopeless situation right?!
Well, God may well use hopeless situations to draw people to himself, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be anything like how ‘The Shack’ depicts it.
A Tragic Story
The context story itself is a fairly intriguing one. A little girl is abducted, and presumed murdered while on a camping holiday with her dad, Mack. If William P. Young had just taken the initial few chapters and developed a whodunit kind of book, he might not have sold as many copies, but I’d have probably been happier.
But the story isn’t really about the kidnapping. It’s about Mack’s relationship with God. And it’s that which develops as we go through the book.
At the outset, we find that Mack’s wife, Nan, is the one with the more intimate relationship with God, calling him ‘Papa,’ showing that depth of familiarity and warmth. Mack though, is not as close to God, and ‘The Great Sadness’ as he calls it, the abduction and murder of Missy, has only served to deepen a chasm between him and God.
Mack then receives a note in his mailbox, inviting him back to The Shack where Missy’s dress was found, blood stained. It was a note signed ‘Papa,’ and after deliberating some time, and doubting whether God would in fact do such a thing, Mack goes back to the snow covered shack.
Then it gets weird.
The snow disappears, the sun comes out, the shack is restored from a dilapidated old ruin to a beautiful log cabin. Hesitantly, he approaches the shack, the door flies open, and he’s met by “the face of a large beaming African-American woman” – Papa, apparently God the Father… (p82) As we go on, Mack is introduced to Sarayu, an Asian woman, who’s meant to be the holy spirit, and a Middle Eastern man, who is Jesus, obviously.
Now, the book is in no way a theological discourse or a presentation of systematics, but it most definitely does portray a theology and makes huge claims as Mack enters into dialogue with these three.
Along the way Mack also meets his dead daughter, and dead Father. His Father was abusive and Mack poisoned him to kill him, but the two share a beautiful reconciliation in a dance of light that evokes images of the transfiguration.
Through this weekend of learning from Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, Mack finds redemption in forgiving others, including God, his Father, and Missy’s killer.
The story ends as strangely as it began, Papa, Jesus and Sarayu disappear, the snow returns, Mack ends up in hospital, and it seems like time hasn’t actually moved forward since he’d been at the Shack. Mack puts it down to Sarayu’s time bending, of course.
A Deeper Story
Throughout the book Young is constantly giving a vision of who God is, what God is like, and what that means for mankind. While we could praise Young for helpfully showing that God is good, kind, patient and loving, we also need to rebuke him for only telling half truths, for subtly twisting truths, and sadly telling outright falsehood.
Creative licence is one thing, putting words in the mouth of God is another, and making an image of God (albeit on paper) is another entirely. None of Mack’s seminary training was helping him process these events, and that’s no wonder. In all of this, Young is portraying a picture of God that is not biblical, but is palatable, inclusive, warm and fuzzy and loves to give cuddles. It is painfully obvious that this is a picture of God as western society would want to perceive ‘it’.
Who is God?
“I’m not merely the best version you can think of…” Papa declares, but really the whole book seems to be just that.
“Mackenzie, I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning.” P93
The reason that Papa appears as a woman is for Mack’s benefit. God here is who Mack needs God to be. Later on Papa becomes an older, pony tailed man at a time when Mack needs a father figure. Rather than being the dependable, unchanging, Rock of Ages as revealed in the Bible, God in the Shack is changeable, depending on who we are and what we need.
So the Shack questions the very nature of God and his revelation. The reason? Young joins with the post modern, ‘free-thinking,’ society who rejects the authority of Scripture. When Mack wrestles with receiving the note from Papa, he ponders that “God’s voice had been reduced to paper… access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia.” P66 The Bible is therefore not enough for us to know who God is and what that means for his people. Dangerous ground. How then do we really know who God is? Just listen to Young I suppose…
What is the Gospel?
When the authority of the Bible is taken away, everything within it is taken away as well, and so the Gospel is taken away.
“I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment.” P120
I can understand why many would wish the Bible said that. But it does not. The Bible reveals that God is a holy God and that sin cannot go unpunished.
More than that, the book is overly optimistic about mankind. It acknowledges that people are a mess, but suggests that they just need a wee bit help tidying up rather than a completely new life.
The big sin in The Shack is people demanding independence from God. Rightly it shows that we are made for relationship with God, but Young somehow manages to dumb it down to seem like mankind’s rebellion leaves God a wee bit sad, and just wanting his people to come back for a cuddle.
Papa tells Mack that people are the ‘pinnacle of my creation and center of my affection,’ which is true, but not the whole picture. Again, sin isn’t a grievance against a holy God that warrants His wrath and will be punished in eternity, but rather an inconvenience that spoils life here and now but will ultimately not come to much.
And actually, it’s cool, cos everyone will be reconciled anyway… ish.
“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.” P192
It’s not mankind that needed reconciling to God, but vice versa. In all of this Young holds a low view of God, in that God is defined by his humility to become like us. But even more than this, Young portrays a completely pluralistic, universalist worldview. Papa will be reconciled to the whole world, regardless of belief.
“I’m not a Christian” says Jesus. P182.
He then goes on to give a big plug for pluralism. Bhuddists, Mormons, Muslims and Baptists are all alike. There are people from all these places who know and love Jesus apparently. But here in one quick move Young is nullifying Jesus’ of the Bible’s exclusive claims. It all comes back to authority of Scripture though, and how God has revealed himself. If the Gospel, and the Bible, are not the exclusive way to hear of Jesus and be saved then everything else is up for grabs right enough.
Numerous times Young disses religion, or ritual. Perhaps it’s no bad thing to warn against legalism, but Young goes the whole hog and is almost portraying anti-nomian thrust that declares that it’s not overly important what you do, God simply wants your relationship. Cuddles again.
So the Gospel that Christ came to die for sinners and calls all people to faith and repentance is nowhere in ‘The Shack,’ but rather the message we get is one of loving acceptance, regardless of ‘performance’, regardless of belief or response. Repentance would be good, but isn’t urgent.
A messy theology
So there’s no real view of God, or of mankind, so it’s no surprise that throughout the book there are lots of other little messy threads dangling, some more dangerous to pull than others.
The Trinity is a big example of the mess. Obviously we are hit right away with the images of each person in the Trinity as human. Papa is shown to have died on the cross, and be fully human in Jesus. There’s no hierarchy within the trinity, only loving submission. There’s no chain of command, since authority is a man made construct. Quite how Young would then deal with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane I’m not sure.
God’s sovereignty is also challenged.
“To force my will on you,” Jesus replied, “is exactly what love does not do. Genuine relationships are marked by submission even when your choices are not helpful or healthy.” P145
In essence, ‘The Shack’ leaves us with a God who is a bit helpless, not really doing anything or even wanting to do anything. Yes God may be involved in people’s lives, but not to bring about His own will or purposes.
While genders are acknowledged as being different, there are most certainly feminist digs, aside from the fact that God is called Papa and is female… “Men! Such idiots sometimes.” Papa exclaims.
The church is undermined, and is declared to not be an institution but about relationships. Again in essence this could be true, after all a church is not a building but the people, but sadly this is portrayed at the exclusion of authority and structures.
Similarly, devotions are used as an example of a nice thing to do, but not something to be ritualistic about. Communion is celebrated ‘with no ritual or ceremony.’
Any kind of rules, structures or discipline are pretty much portrayed as sinful. It’s all about love, being kind, forgiving and caring and everyone will be happy. Or at least, even in life’s tragedies, people will be able to cope with a little bit of ‘love’.
A Sad Ending
Reading ‘The Shack’ left me deeply saddened. It’s a brutal indictment on popular, mainstream Christianity, which includes many who would use the term ‘evangelical.’ It is far from orthodox. It is inoffensive, and wants to be all about love. But it’s not.
The truly loving God as revealed in the Bible is a jealous God who will punish sin. But that’s an offense, so that’s not the picture that Young portrays.
Instead, Young gives itchy ears what they want to hear. He portrays a god that ticks all the boxes for western culture, a god who does not really require anything and does not really do anything, a god who tells people what they want to hear, a god who is what people want it to be, a god who will only affirm but never challenge. It’s subtle, because it plays to the crowd. But that’s what makes it so dangerous.
Each chapter kicks off with a quote, and this one at the start of chapter 6 is particularly telling and perhaps a statement of the whole book:
“No matter what God’s power may be, the first aspect of God is never that of the absolute Master, the Almighty. It is that of the God who puts himself on our human level and limits himself.” Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity. P88
While we cannot lose the wonder and joy of Christ humbling himself to become human to take the place of sinners, we cannot begin with seeing him as a human. When we begin with a god on our level, we cannot really go anywhere but to define it as we would want. When we go to the Bible, we find God as he has defined himself. When we start with the human level we simply make a god in our image.
There’s more that could be said, particularly about suffering and it’s place in the Christian life, but these are some of my thoughts on what stands out from the book as a whole. It’s been helpful to read it, if only to be able to challenge others who want to read it or who have read it and enjoyed it. Don’t read it if you don’t have to. Sadly though, many people have and will read it, and will find it particularly compelling. Many more will think of God in the same way as the book portrays without even going near the book.
If you want to know who God is, or want to know Good News, don’t go near the Shack. There’s plenty other good books to read, don’t waste time with The Shack.
Above all, read the Bible and rejoice in the Almighty, One True God who has revealed himself, and made a way for His people to know Him through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s love right there.
If you’d rather read someone more reputable than me…
Tim Challies - http://www.challies.com/book-reviews/the-shack-by-william-p-young
Tim Keller - https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-shack-impressions