Monday, September 22, 2008

"The Shack" by William P. Young: The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly

The Shack, by William P. Young, is a book that has created a flurry of activity--both praising it's merits and denigrating it as heresy. After questions by numerous friends, I decided to read it and write a small review.

The Good

To begin with, the story is emotionally gripping. The Shack tells the story of Mac--a father whose daughter is abducted by a child molester, and murdered in a shack. Following this ordeal, Mac receives a note from God inviting him to meet God ("Papa," as He is affectionately referred to throughout the book) at the shack where his daughter was murdered. Mac decides to go to the shack, not fully knowing what to expect, and ends up meeting with God. In the pages that follow, Mac works through the loss of his daughter with God and ultimately learns to forgive his daughter's killer.

A second positive feature of the book is that it emphasizes relationship with God. The bulk of the book concentrates on a series of conversations Mac has with different persons of the Trinity. In these conversations, there is an emphasis on relationship with God as opposed to following a list of rules or religious expectations. In general, this is a good thing (but see my criticisms below for more on this point).

Finally, the book does a good job attempting to answer the emotional problem of evil. In his conversations with God, the deep grief that Mac is experiencing is met with the simple truths of the Bible. Mac therefore learns to accept the simple truths of Christianity in the midst of his suffering. These truths include simple realities such as:
God loves you,
you can trust God,
God has a purpose you cannot see,
and God is with you when you don't sense Him.
Most of the theological truths in the book are not anything especially deep or new, but rather standard truths of orthodox Christianity. One thing that I appreciated about the book is that it does not attempt to answer the "Why?" question with a specific answer. Instead, the book offers general truths regarding God's nature and care, and Mac learns to stand in the reality of these truths. This is how the emotional problem of evil (in distinction to the intellectual problem of evil) ought to be dealt with.

The Bad

While there are good things about The Shack, there is also a number of negative things present in the book. To begin with, relationship with God is emphasized to the neglect of other truths about God such as His majesty, holiness, wrath, and justice. When Mac goes to the shack, the three persons of the Trinity appear to Mac: the Father in the form of an African-American woman, the Holy Spirit in the form of an Asian woman, and Jesus in the form of a Middle-Eastern Jewish man. God the Father is known throughout the book as "Papa," and it seems that Papa is always in the kitchen baking some delicious food for Mac and is always available to have conversations around the kitchen table or on the front porch. This portrayal of God emphasizes God as being our friend, but greatly neglects God as King and Lord of the universe. In our culture where the gravity of God's holiness is rarely felt, this does not help produce respect for the Almighty God. Part of the way that this low view of God is conveyed is by how Mack approaches God's presence. He does so without any sense of unworthiness and without a reverent fear of God. Because this is more of an attitude than a propositional truth in the book, it is easily transferred to readers without their conscious knowledge. This makes it especially dangerous.

Much has been made of God's depiction as a female. It should be said that the book explicitly points out that God does not have a gender, and that both genders are derived from the nature of God, and that God can reveal himself in many ways. The book explains that the reason God chose to reveal himself as masculine in the Bible is that God knew that sin would result in a lack of good fathers. This reasoning is a conjecture without any biblical support that probably is more telling about American culture and the author's personal experience than it is about God's purposes in the Bible. While it is beyond the scope of this critique to argue for this point, I believe that God's depiction of Himself in the masculine throughout Scripture goes to the very nature of masculinity and the nature God Himself. It is therefore problematic to portray God as the opposite of how He has repeatedly chosen to reveal Himself. Instead, we ought to respect God's self-revelation in the Bible.

There are things mentioned in the book that run completely contrary to orthodoxy. Probably the most flagrant of these is religious pluralism that borders on universalism. In the book, the idea is expressed that people of all religions are believers in Jesus (perhaps by other names). Additionally, non-Christians are referred to as God's children throughout the book. At one point, it is expressed that sin is it's own punisher, and God does not need to actively punish sin. This is in line with the general theme that God is our friend, as opposed to our King. The book's depiction of God makes it almost unthinkable that God would exhibit wrath towards sinners. These types of errors are found subtly throughout the book.

Finally, there is a general attitude that pervades the book that portrays the institution of the church as dry, empty and without substance. Orthodoxy is seen as missing the "deep truths" about God's love, friendship, relationship, and grace and is instead seen to be focused on rules, expectations, and law. And likewise seminary is seen as being a place of cold useless knowledge. This general attitude pervades much of the current emergent literature, and is the result of a post-modern tendency to see authority with disdain. In reality, the main theological insights that the book offers are simply restatements of orthodox Chrisitianity, although they are portrayed as "deep truths" only accessible through this special encounter with God at the shack. At one point, Sunday School and even the Bible itself are portrayed with this negative attitude! It is simply unacceptable that the book portrays the Bible with disdain instead of the prominent position that the Bible demands as God's unique form of revelation to us. Because this is an attitude that pervades the book, it is especially easy to see how readers could unintentionally adopt the same general attitude, which is dangerous.

One thing that makes The Shack dangerous is that the misinformation above is presented as the thoughts of a man coping with the tragic loss of his daughter. It therefore makes one prone not to question these issues, but instead let them slide by with the grace that we normally would give to someone grieving a tremendous loss. However, because this is a fictional book depicting God Himself, we ought to be careful that we do not inadvertently gain false views about God by accepting these thoughts of a grieving fictional character. It would be easy to allow the emotional impact of the book bypass our discernment so that we don't consider which statements about God are true and false.

The Ugly

One of the most popular critiques of The Shack is a sermon by Seattle pastor, Mark Driscoll. After listening to Driscoll's take on The Shack, I'd have to say I think he blows some of the statements in the book out of proportion. (His view on The Shack can be found here: ). He has four charges against The Shack:

1. The depiction of the Father and the Holy Spirit as humans violates the command to not make a graven image unto yourself.

In context, this 2nd commandment is dealing with the way in which God is worshiped. We are commanded not to make an image for the purpose of worship or veneration. The full verse states,
"You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments." Exodus 20:4-6
God commanded images to be made of serpents and cherubim, so this must be specifically forbidding the creation of images for the purpose of worship--not the creation of images in general. It is a stretch to say that this precludes us from using any metaphor or symbol to understand God--otherwise it would be wrong to represent Jesus as a lion in the Chronicles of Narnia, not to mention the numerous biblical metaphors used for God (i.e. fortress, rock, shepherd, father, etc.). Additionally, God has chosen to reveal Himself in numerous forms: a burning bush, a pillar of fire, a cloud, etc. However, I will say that the particular metaphors/forms that Young uses do not promote a high view of God, and in some ways run contrary to the biblical view of God. To the extent that they create a false conception of God in our minds and therefore our worship, they are sinful.

2. The depiction of the Father as an African-American female and the Holy Spirit as an an Asian female is goddess worship.

Simply because the author describes God as revealing Himself as a female does not mean that the book advocates goddess worship anymore than metaphors in the Bible about God being like an eagle, lion, or lamb means that we are engaged in animal worship. Later in the book God the Father reveals himself as a Gandolf-looking grandfather figure. I suspect that this is a resistance to the particular metaphor of a woman representing God. I am sympathetic to this as my above criticisms indicate, but I think that saying this is goddess worship is going a bit far. Indeed, within the pages of Scripture the metaphor of a mother is used of Paul and even God (1 Thes 2:7; Psalm 131).

3. The book advocates modalism.

This is Driscoll's weakest point, and this point makes me question whether he even read the book. Modalism is the heretical view that God is one Person who reveals Himself in 3 different forms or modes of being. This is contrary to the biblical doctrine of the Trinity in which there is one God who eternally exists as 3 Persons. Driscoll cites a passage in which Papa states, "I am truly human in Jesus," claiming that this is modalism. In this passage the author is emphasizing the same point that Jesus makes in John 14 saying, "Whoever has seen the me has seen the Father." In other words, Jesus is an exact example of the character of God--Jesus is God in the flesh. This is not modalism. At worst, this is just imprecise theological wording--which might be excusable given the genre of the book. The book is a fictional story, and therefore we should not apply the same rules of interpretation to it as we would apply to a systematic theology. If the book does lean towards a trinitarian heresy, it would not be modalism, but instead tri-theism (there are 3 gods) because we see constant interactions between the Persons of the Trinity, without seeing how these Persons are unified as One Being.

4. The book indicates that there is no hierarchy in the Trinity, but instead only a circle of relationship because heirarchy only makes sense among sinners.

I think this is Driscoll's best point. The book indeed indicates that there is no heirarchy in the Trinity, but instead emphasizes God's unity. In one sense, the book is correct. The book emphasizes that when making decisions, the Godhead is unified in their decisions and there is no conflict in which one Person of the Trinity overrules another Person of the Trinity using their power/authority. Rather there is a relationship of complete trust/unity between the Persons of the Trinity. So when Jesus prays in Gethsemene saying, "Take this cup from me, yet not what I will but what you will," He is in an attitude of absolute trust towards His Father. Having said that, the book does error in advancing the view that there is absolutely no heirarchy in the Trinity. This is a result of the common post-modern assumption that all heirarchy results from power plays and manipulation of others. In contrast biblical heirarchy involves a mutual understanding of roles and humble submission and trust. Just as there are roles within the husband/wife relationship, although husbands and wives are equal in their being and worth, so within the Trinity there are roles which create a heirarchy, but there is no heirarchy when it comes to the being or worth of the members of the Trinity.


While some of the criticisms of The Shack are unwarranted and overblown, there are reasons to be cautious of this popular book. After reading it, I would not recommend it to a friend. The errors in it are subtle and therefore dangerous. Additionally there are a number of excellent (better written!) books available on dealing with loss and grief, and each of these would address the same issues as The Shack without the negative baggage. In contrast to The Shack, I would not hesitate in recommending the following books on loss and grief (in this order):

Baffled to Fight Better by Oswald Chambers
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Van Hauken
A Grace Disguised by Gerald Sittser
The New Freedom of Forgiveness by David Augsburger

In any case, the author of The Shack has made it clear that they intend on producing a film based on the book, and therefore Christians ought to be informed on the good and bad found in this story so that they can serve as a guide to others. It's very easy to unconsciously adopt the attitudes in this book, and therefore Christians must exercise extreme discernment in confronting subversive attitudes and statements found within it. Below are a couple of other reviews for people interested in further reading.

1 comment: said...

I have to say that "The Shack" by William P. Young was a very thought provoking read.

After reading the book, I was left pondering several things about it – which is a true testament to the book's worth. I had several questions on the validity of some of the descriptions of God but I had to humbly admit that there may be no answers this side of heaven for how God presents Himself to each individual.

I posted a more in-depth review of this book on my own blog