The Shack: 3 Up and 3 Down
The Shack is about to hit the big screen. With a release date only a few weeks away, a movie adaptation of the incredibly popular book The Shack: When Tragedy Confronts Eternity has brought the controversial best-seller back into the forefront of public view.
If you are not familiar with The Shack, here is a brief summary of some key points. [And, yes, this article contains spoilers!] The book was written by William Paul Young initially as a gift for his children. He wanted to write a story that would help explain his journey and faith to them in a creative and powerful way. It was suggested to him that he seek publication for it, but no publisher would accept it. With the help of a friend, the book hit the press in 2007 with little expectation. It has since gone on to sell over 20 million copies, mainly through word-of-mouth advertising.
The plot of the book centres around main character Mack. Mack is a husband and father of five, but a somewhat lonely and lost soul. On a camping trip with three of his children, his youngest daughter (Missy) is abducted while he is saving his other two children from drowning after a canoe tips over. It is later discovered that the perpetrator is a child serial-killer and when authorities manage to get a lead on his whereabouts, they trace it miles away to a shack in the middle of the woods. Missy’s clothing is discovered bloodied on the floor, but neither she nor the killer are found.
This tragedy begins several years of extreme depression for Mack. Tension in the family rises. One day, Mack receives a letter in the mail, presumably from God, inviting Mack to meet him at the shack where his daughter was murdered. Doubtful at first, Mack ends up returning to the place of his worst nightmares for a weekend visit with God. Mack and God, who manifests in trinitarian form, share two and a half days worth of experiences and conversation that help bring Mack the healing he so desperately needs.
What’s the Big Deal About The Shack?
The book has been met with mixed reviews, especially among Christians. Some laud it as a masterpiece that has helped them discover God and find their own healing from past hurts. Others decry the work as heretical and dangerous.
Most of the controversy circles around the authors depiction of the Trinity and their interactions with Mack. For instance, God the Father takes on the form of an African-American woman who is called Papa. The Holy Spirit takes on the form of an ethereal Asian woman named Sarayu. Jesus appears as a middle-eastern man who resembles a modern-day carpenter, with a plaid shirt and tool belt around his waist. Later in the book, Mack also meets a woman who represents God’s wisdom in human form (similar to God’s wisdom being personified as a woman in the book of Proverbs).
The events that take place are also quite controversial. Mack has several visions (even though the entire encounter might be classified as a vision) that are difficult to interpret. He is able on one occasion to see Missy in the afterlife and have glimpses of her with others in a heaven-like place. He also meets his deceased father and forgives him for abusing him as a child. All of the experiences are described in vivid detail, coming off as quite other-worldly.
The portrayal of God has other controversial elements as well. The Trinity all come across as extremely affectionate towards each other and Mack. They kiss and hug…a lot. They hold hands and stare into eyes…a lot. They eat food…a lot. While it is obvious the author intends to show God as capable of enjoying the mundane moments of life, one can also argue that it diminishes God’s transcendent, holy nature.
The conversations that Mack has with each member of the Trinity—both collectively and individually—contain a lot of controversial material. They talk about God’s nature, man’s free will, the purpose of God in suffering and pain, the differences between men and women, and a host of other hot topics.
While some have pushed back against criticism of The Shack by saying it is merely a writing of fiction and should be taken as such, make no mistake about it: the book is incredibly theological. Young intends for the reader to be shaped doctrinally by the work. It is impossible to believe the book is just a casual, fanciful tale that is purely imaginary. Rather, it presents God in a very specific way. It teaches core concepts about God and directly refutes others. In short, The Shack is not just a piece of fiction. It borders on a systematic theology of God wrapped in story form.
One other point should be mentioned. Though fictional, William Paul Young says the story is based on true events. The book is a parable of sorts that is meant to depict the events of the author’s own life. Young was the son of missionary parents, and the tribe whom they worked with abused him as a child. When he was six years old, Young was sent to a Christian boarding school where the abuse continued. Growing up a broken man, Young later committed adultery on his wife in an ongoing affair. These tumultuous events lead Young to rediscover his faith and find healing, along with a restored marriage. In the book, Mack’s murdered daughter represents the younger version of William Paul Young, both deeply wronged by others. Mack, the main character, represents Young’s older self who is bitter against God. From what I heard elsewhere (unfortunately I can’t remember where so I can’t link to it), Young says that the inspiration for using women as God personified came from women he met while on the mission field as a child, whom he says demonstrated God’s love better than anyone else he knew.
Commendations and Criticisms
With all of this in mind, I would like to offer three commendations and three criticisms of The Shack. Unlike some who have attacked the book, I actually did read it. I was left with mixed feelings, more so than any other book I have read in recent memory. For whatever it’s worth, I offer a few points for consideration.
1. It bravely tackles the big questions
Even without the inclusion of an encounter with God, the storyline is bold to say the least. A family is torn apart by the kidnapping and murder of a 5-year-old girl. Painful details are not glossed-over. Several chapters are dedicated to the unfolding of these events. As a father myself, it was hard not to read the story without imagining what kind of experience it would be like if it happened to me.
I think this is highly commendable. At the centre of the book is how God deals with human suffering, especially unjust suffering. And it is hard to come up with a more gut-wrenching, demonic form of evil than that of a man who kidnaps little girls, presumably rapes them (we are never told this is the case in the book), kills them, and (at least for a while) gets away with it. Such horrifying injustice would certainly raise questions about God’s goodness and trustworthiness.
I find that when trying to deal with the problem of human suffering, many Christians talk about it in ways that fail to acknowledge the true depth of pain that mankind endures. We share cliches and pretend that thin answers will suffice. Admirably, The Shack aims not to do this. While perhaps not all the conclusions that the book reaches are biblical, I appreciate the author going after the hard stuff.
2. It emphasizes God’s grace and redemption
The God of The Shack is full of love and grace. He (She?) truly cares about people and creation. He cares about human suffering and is present in the midst of it. The God that Mack encounters offers hope for all, even in the most dire of circumstances.
Through their weekend together, Mack finds the healing and closure that has kept him from escaping what is known in the book as “The Great Sadness”. He releases the anger that he had been holding against God and enjoys a restored relationship with him. He also ends up becoming a better husband and father as a result of his encounter with God at the shack.
But it is not just Mack who finds redemption. Mack’s father, who was a raving alcoholic and abuser, also finds forgiveness. And in perhaps one of the more powerful exchanges in the book, God reveals that he desires for Missy’s killer to find redemption as well. Mack, not surprisingly, is initially appalled at the idea and wishes to consign the man to hell. But after realizing that he too is not worthy of the grace he has received from God, Mack forgives his child’s murderer.
I greatly appreciate the scope of grace and redemption that is present in The Shack. It is true: God’s scandalous grace is offered even to the most heinous of sinners. His forgiveness knows no bounds to those who avail themselves to it. Even the most twisted and perverted person on the planet is loved by God.
3. It is very well written
I was familiar with the concept of the book well before I ever read it. Knowing that it contained vivid portrayals of God in human form, as well as a ton of dialogue, I expected the book to be hard to read. But that was decidedly not the case. William Paul Young is a wonderful writer. He takes what would be an extremely difficult concept to write about and does a masterful job.
While I can imagine that not everyone would enjoy the work, the quality of language is without question. I think that is a large part of the appeal. Not only is it a story about God at work in human pain—a concept that intrigues a lot of people—the story itself is just really well written. Young knows how to turn a phrase and paint a picture. His use of adjectives and adverbs in particular make the book come alive to the reader. While the content itself is not as easy to swallow, the writing itself is. I believe this partly explains the book’s success.
While there is a lot to commend, there are some troubling aspects of The Shack as well. Here I suggest three.
1. It presents false views of God
The book has a lot of helpful and unhelpful things to say about who God is. While a lot of what The Shack teaches about God is profoundly biblical—his triune nature, his lovingkindness, his patience, his redemption through Christ’s death, his self-sufficiency, his all-knowing nature, etc.—there are also a lot of things the book says about God that aren’t biblical at all.
Some examples come to mind. In a few places, Papa (representing God the Father) is seen to have scars on his wrists, just as Jesus does. The only explanation offered is when Papa says the cross was something “we” accomplished. While ambiguous, this imagery borders awfully close to what theologians call modalism, which is the false teaching that the distinct persons of God (Father, Son, and Spirit) are not actually distinct at all. The Bible is clear that God the Son was crucified for sin, not God the Father.
There is also the portrayal of God the Father as a black woman and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman. In the book, God explains that he is neither male nor female (which is biblically true), but is revealing himself to Mack in feminine ways because of the baggage he carries as a result of the abuse he endured at the hands of his dad. While I can understand to some degree what Young is doing, it is troublesome nonetheless. God is revealed in Scripture primarily in terms of a Father. Perhaps the command not to make any earthly depiction of God was given to prevent this very kind of distortion (see Tim Challies on this subject here). Likewise, the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman is a curious choice as well. Since I was uncomfortable with these images, I asked myself, if those are bad choices, what would be a better ones? The answer I came up with is, I don’t think there is a good choice. God is presented in Scripture in physical terms only a handful of times, and they seem rich with symbolism. The same is true for the Holy Spirit. It makes sense to me that God does not really desire to be known or thought of in physical terms. Instead, God is seeking those who will worship him in spirit and truth.
Other depictions of God were questionable. The Trinity is portrayed as a very affectionate bunch. They enjoy each other’s presence and delight in one another endlessly. While I think this is absolutely biblical, and granted it would be a hard concept to picture, the way Young does so in the book left me dissatisfied. The members of the Trinity kiss each other, hug each other, and hold hands with each other constantly, and do the same with Mack. Later in the book, when Papa changes from a black woman into the form of a man, he gives Jesus a kiss on the lips. While I don’t think Young intends to suggest anything homosexual about God, the image is also deliberately provocative.
I get the point: God is loving and he is happy to expresses this love. I can support that. But it felt like the love of God in The Shack was reduced to human expressions of it. Mind you, the author kind of painted himself into that corner when he decided to portray the Godhead in human forms. Nevertheless, I found it one-dimensional. God’s love comes most profoundly not in the form of a kiss or embrace, but in the cross of Christ. God shows his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
Many other examples could be pointed out.
- Concerning the Trinity, God tells Mack “hierarchy would make no sense among us”. Yet Scripture does not support this claim.
- God tells Mack, “Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else,” and “you won’t find the word responsibility in the Scriptures.” This does not seem to align with Scripture, which does in fact teach that God has expectations for human beings.
- God also tells Mack that he (God) is submitted to him (Mack), trying to explain that God would never force anyone to do anything outside of their own will.
- Jesus at one point says “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptist or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my beloved.”
2. It de-emphasizes God’s holiness and wrath
The God of The Shack never gets angry in the course of the book—not even once. The only time God’s anger is discussed is a less-than-half-a-page dialogue (pg 56-57) where Mack says he expected God to be a lot angrier than Papa seems to be, which Papa dismisses as something that Mack has projected onto God as a preconceived notion that he needs to shed. As someone who loves Scripture, I cannot help but call this portrayal of God woefully lopsided. In an effort to show God’s warmth and love, Young inadvertently (or not?) made God into a huggable teddy bear. But this depiction does not do justice to the God of the Bible.
In Scripture, God displays anger over sin. He executes judgment on humans, sometimes in the form of violence. He shows that his patience is not unlimited. Even Jesus, who is hailed by some as the tamer version of the Old Testament tyrant-god, chases people out of the temple with whips, shows intense anger towards the Pharisees, and exhibits frustration towards the disciples.
Yet you would never know that God might do any of these based on The Shack. There are even hints of universalism in the book; at one point, God says that Christ’s death forgave the sins of the world. When Mack’s asks for clarification, God says “In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship.”
One point is certain: the God of The Shack is not a God to be feared. He is all love and understanding in unlimited quantities. I cannot recall any point when Mack shows any significant fear toward God. Yet Scripture teaches that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). How can Mack truly know God if he doesn’t even get to the first step of the process?
3. It mingles good theology with bad theology
If it were not evident already, The Shack is basically a giant mish-mash of solidly biblical theology with solidly unbiblical theology. The problem is in trying to discern between the two. My fear is that the enormous success of the book is in large part due to a readership that does not have the biblical knowledge to separate one from the other. For someone who does not know their Bible very well, The Shack could easily sweep the reader into a fantasy world that posits just enough truth about God to be palpable, while mingling in enough falsehood about God to be damaging. It is remarkable to me that while reading the book, I was at times astonished at the clarity and precision of a biblical truth being portrayed, while only a paragraph later had my jaw lying open at the presence of a horribly false claim.
All the more confusing is that the book is written in the form of fiction. How are we to understand it? What should we take literally, and what should we allow for creative licensing? The problem with saying that The Shack is fictional is that the bulk of the book is conversation between God and Mack which is densely doctrinal in nature. While the setting (meeting God in the woods) and plot (Missy’s death and Mack’s family turmoil) might be imaginary, the content of the conversation is not. Quite the opposite in fact. The author intends the reader to form beliefs about God under the umbrella of Christianity from reading the book. It really reads in some places like a sermon transformed into a story. So while I understand that there should be room for creativity in the arts when it comes to spiritual things, The Shack seems to cross that line.
As a matter of concern for me—though this point will not be shared by all Christians—is that there is a definite point in the book to denounce what is sometimes called Calvinism or Reformed theology. Though neither of those terms show up in the book, core concepts do. Chief among them is the idea of human free will. Perhaps the most significant point of conversation that keeps coming up between Mack and God is the importance and extent of human free will. God is insistent over and over again that he would never violate another person’s free will. This, God says, is absolutely essential to a loving relationship. While that may sound good, it does not hold up to Scripture in my estimation. God can and does sometimes override our free will, and while we often think of that in negative ways, it can be a positive (as I have written about before). The point is that the concept of man’s total depravity and inability to save himself without God’s divine intervention is completely absent from the book, and for me that is a significant downside.
My overall impression of The Shack is that there is more to dislike about the book than there is to like. While I appreciate the attempt to show God as a healer and one with whom we can have an intimate relationship, the book simply has too many other flaws to make it overall a commendable piece of work. I fear that for newer or immature Christians, or those who are just exploring Christianity, they will latch on to a view of God that is unbiblical based upon reading The Shack.
My advice is this: before you dive into reading lots of books about God, or watching movies of the like, first spend a lot of time reading the book that God wrote. The Bible is God’s revelation of himself to mankind. In it, he shows us who he is, who we are in respect to him, and the path to salvation and a life-giving relationship with him. While other books can be helpful to discover these same truths, nothing is quite like the Word of God. It is living and active and sufficient to lead us to the truth.
I personally would not recommend The Shack to others. I believe there are other, better books out there that can teach similar truths without mixing in so many problematic things. But if you are someone who has already read the book, intends to read the book, or intends to watch the movie, I would simply encourage you to do so with a discerning eye. Proceed with caution. Compare what you encounter with Scripture. The Bereans checked everything they heard the apostles teach with the Bible to see if it was true, and for this practice they are commended (Acts 17:11). I would suggest all of us to do the same.
I am one who really enjoyed the book. I am female and made in God’s image, so I had no trouble with Papa. I am a mature Christian so I was not bothered by the theology. The main message I got from the book is that God is whatever we need Him to be at the time, to meet all our needs or to bring us to the place he wants us to be in. He could be stern or loving. He loves us and wants us to be in right fellowship with him. I appreciate your insights into this book, Jeremy, I do see the danger for new Christians.