The Shoddiness of The Shack

With all the attention given to the movie The Shack, it would be good to take a careful look at the book it is based upon. The author, William P. Young, wrote The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity (Newbury Park, Calif.: Windblown Media) in 2007. Below is review of the book by Dr. Michael LeFebvre, pastor of Christ Church Reformed Presbyterian in Brownsburg, Indiana, and author of Singing the Songs of Jesus: Revisiting the Psalms and Exploring Ecclesiastes: Joy That Perseveres.

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The Shack is a modern day allegory of the Christian life. Like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, William Young’s The Shack is a vivid tale designed to teach the reader about the way of salvation. But Young’s vision, while helpful in points, ultimately presents a different kind of salvation than that of Bunyan’s classic.

Bunyan’s pilgrim labors under the burden called “sin,” and he only finds freedom from its guilt by receiving forgiveness at the cross. Young’s protagonist is cast in a more postmodern image. The Shack’s central character is Mackenzie Phillips, whose struggle is not with sin and guilt; Mack’s burden is “the great sadness”—the accumulated emotional baggage from his abusive childhood and the death of his daughter. Rather than seeking his own forgiveness, Mack’s journey is one of learning to forgive God for letting him suffer so much, and learning to forgive the people who so deeply wronged him.

In a visionary weekend with God at the site of his daughter’s death (the shack), Mack is allowed to confront God with all his bitterness and questions. It is in this weekend with God that the book leads us through a series of doctrinal lessons on subjects like prayer, why bad things happen, forgiveness, judgment, man’s free will and God’s sovereignty, knowing God, and inner healing. In The Shack, God provides Mack with answers through elaborate object lessons and lots of love, until Mack’s anger and “great sadness” gradually melt away.

The immense popularity of the book shows that its author has touched a chord in the contemporary church. Readers identify with Mack’s angst and are hungry for answers to the questions Mack raises. That much is commendable about the book—the church would benefit from more novels that confront the hard questions about God’s hand amidst the dysfunctionality woes of modern society. But, while this book purports to answers Mack’s questions in the voice of God, the answers often sound more like American public radio than Scripture.

For instance, a major theme through the book is God’s supposed despair over mankind’s use of authority. God explains to Mack that he never intended for people to live in heirarchies, since, “Heirarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you” (pp. 122–3). A major theme of the book is the author’s vision of a world where loving relationships are so pure that structures of authority are unnecessary. This sounds more like a vision from a 1960’s commune than one from Scripture.

Significant attention is also given to the author’s vision of the Trinity. Perhaps the greatest, positive contribution of this book is its strong emphasis on love within the Godhead as the source for all Christian love. In a period when trinitarianism, and inner-trinitarian love, is often neglected, The Shack is pointing the church’s attention in a profoundly important direction with this cover-to-cover emphasis. However, while Young has captured a right principle here, his particular vision of the three Persons of the Godhead bears more resemblance to the modern television family than the biblical testimony of the Three-in-One.

God the Father (“Papa”) is introduced in the image of an African-American mother figure always busy about the kitchen dishing up folksy wisdom—curiously like “The Oracle” of the first Matrix movie. (Is it a coincidence that Papa tells Mack that mankind is living in a “matrix … while completely unaware of its existence” on p. 124?) In Mack’s vision of the Father, Papa is not “in charge” within the Trinity. “We have no concept of final authority among us,” he explains to Mack, “only unity,” thereby setting the role model for the aforementioned idea of human society without authority. Furthermore, this version of Papa disavows any idea of wrath; he doesn’t punish sin, “Sin is its own punishment” (ch. 8).

The Holy Spirit is introduced in the image of an Asian woman with ethereal characteristics reminiscent of eastern mysticism. She is not so much a minister of divine order, but one who loves “fractals” formed by introducing messiness and chaos into our lives (ch. 9). Jesus, a Middle Eastern carpenter, is indeed “Lord and King,” but he “never really act[s] in that capacity with you.” He prefers to leave mankind to their own free will, since “to force my will on you … is exactly what love does not do.” Actually, rather than thinking of Jesus, or indeed the full Godhead, as asserting authority over us, Jesus offers Mack a new perspective: “In fact, we are submitted to you…” (ch. 10).

Gone is the vision of Bunyan’s pilgrim fleeing the City of Destruction, mindful that he deserves divine wrath and is amazed to find grace. In pilgrim’s place is Mack, whose suffering gives him the right to question God (even Job never got that far). Furthermore, despite Mack’s sins and those of his afflictors, the God of The Shack makes it clear, “I don’t do humiliation, or guilt, or condemnation” (p. 223). Here is a novel image of God and a new doctrine of salvation.

Does William Young really intend to replace the historic vision of God and salvation with a new picture, or is this review simply nitpicking? At countless points throughout the story, we find Mack amazed at what he is learning. The reason is because this vision of God is so very different from everything Mack used to think about God: the things he learned, for instance, in family catechism as a boy (p. 107) and in seminary as a young man (pp. 9, 65, 198). This constant refrain on Mack’s “retraining” is significant, because it tells us that the author knows he is confronting us with a new vision of God to replace the one we grew up with.

“I am not who you think I am” (pp. 119–20), Papa calmly replies when Mack remarks at how different this God is from what he had always understood from the Bible and from seminary. In fact, Mack’s journey cannot begin until he finally abandons his seminary training to “only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course” in order to welcome the possibility of new, “direct communication with God” beyond Scripture (pp. 65–6). On this basis, Mack’s journey helps him even to “see [God] in the Bible in fresh ways” (p. 198). The Shack really is an explicit effort to offer Christians a new vision of God beyond that presented by a traditional, orthodox reading of the Bible.

The result is a novel which shows keen insight into the crises of American life today, but is too hasty to abandon biblical orthodoxy to address those crises. If someone wants a winsome sequel to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, rather than consulting The Shack, search the internet for Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “The Celestial Railroad.” Though written early in American history, Hawthorne’s humorous but convicting sequel to Bunyan’s classic is well adapted to the American church.

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For further reviews, see these helpful articles by Tim Challies:

  • In case you are still not convinced about the concerns of this book, Tim gives an even lengthier review here.
  • Regarding the movie, listen to Tim explain Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or reviewing) the Shack.
  • Also, William Young has recently published another book entitled Lies We Believe about God. He expresses openly his understanding of God. Tim also has a helpful review and warning about this book.

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