The movie, The Shack hits the theaters with many lauding its story. Back when the book was published I wrote two reviews. My first review was posted on a couple of different sites and when that happened I thought to review my review. Although I attempted to be even handed in my first review of The Shack, my second review was a bit more critical. After discovering some views of the author I thought I had to write the second review.
So, read both reviews to get the whole picture. With the movie hitting the big screen you will more than likely get some other reviews. My reviews will make life and the conversations interesting. Please remember I wrote these reviews some 8-9 years ago. I’ve edited both of them for clarity.
First Review: Sometime in December 2008 (I think).
The Shack is a compelling story of tragedy and restoration. Admittedly, I approached the book skeptically as I’d heard it expressed some unorthodox views of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I understood the book is fictitious and the author seeks to extend some ideas to those who struggle with a strict religious background, unforgiveness, or tragedy. To this end, The Shack may be successful. The way in which the author gets there is exceedingly unorthodox.
I don’t mind stretching my mind to comprehend things about God. The Shack certainly does that and expresses God’s love, forgiveness, grace, desire to indwell people and walk in the relationship. The last seems to be the strongest point made about God and people; He wants relationship, not religion. Well said.
The Shack opens with Mack, the principal character receiving a note from “Papa” who requests he visit “the shack.” The story then spins backward four years to the time when Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy was abducted and murdered by a serial killer. “The Shack” is where they found Missy’s clothes; her body had not been discovered. Mack reluctantly returns to the shack, the place of his deepest pain.
Mack is guided by God through a series of conversations to face his grief, forgive his past, and also forgive his greatest offender: Missy’s murderer. The story unfolds nicely and draws you into itself making you hungry for the next episode. It is a compelling story.
Papa, the name Mack’s wife, used for God, meets Mack at the shack. Here’s where things get strange. Papa, who is God the Father, appears to Mack as an African American woman; you can almost hear Oprah’s voice when she talks. The Holy Spirit is an Asian woman, and Jesus is an ordinary man, not the risen and ascended Jesus of Revelation.
This departure from Biblical imagery is troubling. I understand that the author wished to help people get outside their self-constructed boxes in which God fits. This attempt certainly does it, but I’m not sure if the author loses something in the translation.
This image in The Shack is not the “wheel within a wheel” in Ezekiel. Neither is it the Jesus of Revelation. This picture is a weak construct by the author.
What makes a book like The Shack difficult to comment on is that it is a fictitious story that also makes statements about reality, especially God. Anytime someone leaves the Bible behind and tries to describes God, more than likely you’ll end up in trouble. To infer that God the Father is a loving parent doesn’t elevate God but lowers Him to humanity. The author’s descriptions of the Holy Spirit represented by an Asian woman does the same thing, no matter how many colors accompany her. It lowers rather than raises an understanding of God.
Then there are the statements that aren’t biblical. Young makes comments that all people are God’s children, that the Trinity became flesh in Jesus and also was on the Cross with him. That is erroneous at best, heretical at the worst.
Other elements are simply wrong. As much as The Shack does say, what it doesn’t say is as important. It never mentions why the price Jesus paid is the way to the relationship with God. It does mention Jesus’ death but never about forgiveness of sins. There is never a call for repentance, but a “returning.” This image seems like a postmodern deconstruction and reconstruction. Young Asserts our first parents, Adam and Eve didn’t fall - they turned. And now they must re- turn. It’s sort of like doing a 180. There is no repentance.
The Shack does make “independence” a problem but never calls it sin. You have to give up your freedom and allow God to lead you. Well enough, but it doesn’t quite say it as Peter did in Acts 2 or 4. Although some tout The Shack as one of the most poignant messages in our lifetime, I find that a bit difficult. I mention this because it is nothing like The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis. Nor does it compare with anything allegorical like Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Pilgrim’s Progress, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra or That Hideous Strength. The Shack isn’t close to Lewis or Tolkein on one of their bad days.
Here are some quotes from The Shack that are troubling:
Mack: “Why is there such an emphasis on you being a Father?”
Papa: “Well, responded Papa, turning away from him and bustling around the kitchen, “There are many reasons for that, and some of them go very deep. Let me say for now that we knew once the Creation was broken, true fathering would be much more lacking than mothering. Don’t misunderstand me, both are needed- but an emphasis on father ins necessary because of the enormity of its absence.” pg 94
Although God as Father is in the Old Testament, it is a revelation brought clearly by Jesus in the New Testament. Only those who receive Jesus and believe in Him have the right to call God their Father. This is not a reaction to man’s sin, but how God determines to reveal Himself. In other words, God would not equally reveal Himself as “Mother” according to the Scripture. Although God is without gender or sex, He chose to reveal Himself as Father. What Paul Young wrote in The Shack is not just conjecture, but is fiddling with God’s nature.
“When we three spoke ourselves into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human. We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed. Even though we have always been present in this created universe, we now became flesh and blood.” pg 99
This statement is heresy. God the Son became flesh, The Word became flesh, the Holy Spirit did not, nor did God the Father. It sounds from this that this is a confusion of persons in the Trinity - denying they are distinct persons in one Godhead. Some may think this is a “Jesus only” heresy.
Mack gingerly reached out and took the poisonous twig, “ If you had not told me this was safe to touch, would it have poisoned me?”
“Of course! But if I direct you to touch, that is different.” pg 132
This quote could be considered a violation of natural laws which God only miraculously overrides. The statement also sounds like “voluntarism” that is, God can do whatever He likes, and doesn’t live out of His essence.
“Seriously, my life was not meant to be an example to copy, being my follower is not trying to ‘be like Jesus,’ it means for your independence to be killed.” - The Jesus character, pg149
Paul exhorted the church to “imitate him as he imitated Christ.” Obviously, Jesus is the supreme example of selfless love, submission, and obedience. Being a follower is being an imitator. If Jesus is not our example, who is? If the author wished to express that believer ought to let Christ live through them and not follow Him he ought to have demonstrated how this works without imitating Christ.
As far as literary style I’d give The Shack an “A.” As mentioned, this is a compelling story. In relevance to the Bible I’d give it a C and in theology, I’d give it an F. The Shack as I’ve said is compelling as a story, but it goes too far astray from the Scripture and leans more on one’s feelings. God is only love but not wrath. He is forgiveness but not holiness. The Shack doesn’t respect the Scripture but takes a “Joan of Arcadia” approach to God’s person. I can’t recall one Scripture quoted. In fact, only once is the Bible mentioned in a constructive way.
The Shack is a mixture of biblical themes, New Age, Emergent, and Oprah-ology. Perhaps some would consider that to be too harsh. The problem with books that state they are fictitious and then make theological statements is that they bear no responsibility. Because there isn’t an “argument,” there is nothing to refute or agree with formally. Several times I had to wonder if the author was proposing universalism, which everyone will be saved. My conclusion was that I didn’t believe he was, but I couldn’t be clear as neither was the author. Pragmatists will declare how many people are helped by this book. That may be so, but pragmatism is not a test for veracity. One must be careful that this is not proposing “another gospel.” The message of The Shack is warm and fuzzy; that is a sign of the times.
The book may be helpful to people who receive the message of forgiveness and abandon themselves to God. Readers ought to remind themselves that the book is fictitious but makes some theological statements that aren’t true. The troubling part is that some statements are true and others aren’t. When this is done it serves only to confuse unsuspecting people.
The Shack has taken on a life of its own. Producers are speaking about making this a movie. Again, this is unfortunate because it creates unbiblical illusions about God. Although it portrays God as approachable, that is both true in one sense and untrue in another. It is true that God is approachable, but not without conditions. The conditions are to believe in Jesus as Savior. The Shack gives the impression that there is no distance between humans and God. According to the Scripture, the distance is separation and is made by sin and Christ must bridge it by His atoning work. Our culture wants an approachable God without the cross, without the blood of Christ. Cultures may want an approachable God, but Scripture is clear about what the right way is; we can only approach God through the person of Jesus.
The Shack is a good read, a welcoming story. However, it has some pitfalls as I’ve mentioned. I find this to be the most disturbing thing about the book. It’s kind of like running into low clothes lines. My recommendation is to read with caution; enjoy the story but don’t take the theology seriously at all.
Back to the Shack - reviewed again
My review of The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young, some months ago, posted here on this site, was subsequently posted on two other sites. Both garnered some comments and discussion. Most of the discussion was positive, although some whimpered at my mistreating this blockbuster novel. Today, I still have strong feelings and would make some adjustments to my recommendations.
Reading back through my assessment of Shack, I believe I should have been more direct and not so forgiving of Young's book. I even made a comment to “read with caution.” Knowing what I know now about the author, I would write, “Do not read,” and if you have a copy - “Go straight to trash and dispose of.” If you think this is harsh, you may want to read on.
Since my review of the book, (I read it twice and listened to it in an audio format,) I’ve been amused to read some of the other comments and reviews. After a while, I began to think maybe I ought to make some adjustments.
Just recently, I came across a couple of insightful, if not, telling reviews. One review was written by a friend of William P. Young, author of The Shack. James De Young wrote an extensive review of which I will just mention a few quotes. His analysis is telling and confirming. Although I gave Paul Young a pass, that he was not a “universalist,” De Young asserts that he most assuredly is. [That’s what I get for being a nice guy. I should have gone with my gut.]
Someone who is a “universalist” believes in universal reconciliation. That is, there is no final judgment, no hell, which obviously affects the destiny of humanity. Everyone is reconciled to God in the end according to this view.
De Young describes Young’s portrayal here, “
“Paul has written a creative, provocative novel. Unfortunately, it is creative theologically in the sense of reinforcing universal reconciliation that distorts the evangelical understanding of God, the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the meaning of the death of Christ, the necessity of belief in Christ, the final judgment, and the destiny of all humanity. In the sixth century, the church called universal reconciliation heresy, and it has treated this belief as such ever since.”
“While he frequently disavows general universalism, the idea that many roads lead to God, he carefully affirms that Jesus Christ is the only way to God and that all will be reconciled to God either this side of death or afterward.
A careful reading uncovers universal reconciliation remains as a strategic focus of the book. And this is not unexpected when the author (in his “Acknowledgments”) attests to having been influenced by many writers that include several universalists. He cites one at the beginning of chap. 14. His earlier claims were that Christian universalism changed his life and his theology.” ( I quote this as is from De Young’s review, “At The Back Of The Shack A Torrent Of Universalism: A Review” (Revised ed., May 2008. HTTP:// theshackreview.com/content/ReviewofTheShack.pdf)
Most of De Young’s comments are similar to what I wrote in my review. Creative writing is to be welcomed and encouraged. Creative theology is another story. The popularity of The Shack is indicative of the church’s overall theological demise. The church has become theologically ignorant - stupid, in everyday speech. Abandoning theology is not the answer for an anemic church. It is misunderstanding theology and its purpose that has led to this powerless, self- centered purposeless church. Not knowing what it is we believe and why we believe it is the sound of death to any movement.
Today, evangelical theology is abandoned for a “mystery” faith that is feeling and experientially based. If we are not moved emotionally, it can’t be God.
If our ears are not pleased - it’s boring. The idea of “studying” is repelled because that is “modern.” We are more esoteric in our approach to Bible study than we care to admit. Most people do not know what the Bible is for, misread it, and misinterpret its meaning. Some of the worst statements I’ve heard are things like, “I don’t want a God I can explain.” Huh? I think the person who says that means they don’t want a God they can fully explain, but that’s not what is said. No evangelical theologian has even attempted to say that they fully understand all that there is to learn about God. However, in response, any attempt to explain anything about God is rejected. To say I don’t know everything about God is not saying I don’t know anything about God.
Somehow the idea of studying the thought and ideas of past theologian/ churchmen is “putting God in a box.” We don’t want a God restrained in a box; we want a God cloaked in mystery - why? So, we can worship what we don’t know? We do not read to understand today. We read to be “surprised” by a zinger of a statement that moves us emotionally. We don’t read to reason through someone’s arguments.
Admittedly, I’m conflicted over the attention Shack receives. Conflicted because I think it is rife with heresy and garners high approval. No doubt it is a moving story - but it is also the biggest pile of popular theological rubbish written. I’m also conflicted that so many cannot perceive the biblical and theological corruption. It is worse when people say they don’t mind the corruption - it’s a good story. That’s like excusing Hitler’s atrocities because he was a good speaker and leader. Where are the moral and ethical components necessary to make decisions?
Another example of a good review comes from Paul Grimmond in We Need More Shack Time. This reviewer made a tremendous insight.
“Just like Adam and Eve in the garden, we have thrown God away. As we have done so, it has become necessary to make our decisions about right and wrong. What is the only basis that we have for making such decisions? It is the presence or absence of pain. So the existence of pain has become the problem that God must solve to be credible in the eyes of judgmental humanity. A key to The Shack's Christian appeal is that many of us now think this way
C.S. Lewis compiled a group of essays in God in the Dock. Way before his time in assessing culture, Lewis pointed out that before the 20th century it would be unheard of to question God. I don’t mean asking God questions, but the idea of God being “in the dock,” basically means putting God on trial. That is what is happening in our culture and the church. We have begun to prosecute God and the Scripture.
I agree with Grimmond; The Shack is Young’s attempt to make God account for pain and evil in the world. Why do the righteous suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? Or, as in Shack, how can these atrocities happen to innocent children? The setting for this story is brilliant in that it grabs you by the emotions right from the start. This idea gives one reason not to be observant of other considerations like “Is it biblical,” or “Is it theologically or doctrinally sound?” Those questions are eclipsed by the grief-stricken Mac as he reluctantly responds to Papa’s note. One might say these issues aren’t even on the radar.
I just have one question: “What about Job?” Does this biblical account of pain, evil and suffering not matter? Did Job suffer the loss of everything dear to him - his riches ransacked, his family massacred in an unbelievable accident? After Job’s interactions with his “friends” and then a brief rebuttal by Elihu, God spoke to Job . . .
Then the LORD said to Job,
“Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
Let him who reproves God answer it.”
Then Job answered the LORD and said,
“Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth.” (Job 40:1-4)
The next passage is telling.
Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm and said, “Now gird up your loins like a man;
I will ask you, and you instruct Me.
“Will you really annul My judgment?
Will you condemn Me that you may be justified? (Job 40:6-8)
“Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?” that is the question to ask Mac. Do we believe we must make God account for His actions? In a world of “down-sizing” have we down-sized God to a manageable deity? Our rejection of the ancient paths has led us up a dead end creek to a human sized God, one without wonder and mystery.
I reject the unbiblical view of God crafted in a heretical imagination. This idea is “every lofty thing raised against the knowledge of God.” This idea is also no real surprise as the mood in the church welcome something like this book. Biblical illiteracy has led to this embrace of non-biblical stories in place of an authentic biblical worldview.
People are so starved for a relationship with God they will feed on anything. The problem is they have rejected God’s means of feeding His people. So, they think The Shack, is great! [I shudder to write it.] We can approach God as if he were a warm-hearted woman.
When we fail to recognize the centrality of God’s sacrifice in Jesus - the price he paid, we lose redemption and the very nature of the redeeming God. God is not so brokenhearted over man’s sin that He will excuse anyone’s behavior. To say “God is love” and forget “God is holy” is a huge mistake. Al Mohler says in effect that we live in a world today where holiness is not popular. Where we once sang, “Holy, Holy, Holy” we now sing “Jesus is my buddy; he’s a good ole’ boy.”
The idea that God has somehow changed to accommodate our modern or postmodern mood is ridiculous. Job gives the answer to our suffering and grief when God puts things in the correct biblical, theological perspective. The rest of Scripture answers the question on the character and attributes of God. We don’t need novels to make us feel good about ourselves or to help us get a grip on God. We need to receive the transmitted revelation from God’s “word.”
Finally, what Shack demonstrates is the church’s inability to know the truth. Jesus said it simply, “. . . If you continue in my word, then you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. That ought to be enough for us. However, because we don’t “continue” in his word (s) we go sniffing for something “new” and “fresh.” The result is something like Shack which is so far off of Biblical revelation that it appears like a newly discovered or uncovered view of reality. Please, don’t tell me it’s just a novel. Oh, but wait . . .
It is novel in that its approach to conveying ideas is new. In a generation that lives by its emotions, it grabs your insensible emotional reactions first. Once you’re emoting for Mac’s daughter and Mac himself you've been had. You readily inhale the rest of this misinformed, misleading repertoire of conjured theology and doctrine. It is a “gotcha” moment.
Shack has garnered way too much attention. Again, it reveals the shallow understanding of God and His word in the church today. A compelling story ought not to be the criteria for good literature when it conveys heresy. For those who would like to move the boundaries of heretical thought and doctrine, I would only say go back to the Scripture and see what it says about such actions. I believe you will find the results are devastating.