The Shack

April 23, 2009 at 4:45 pm | Posted in Books and Movies, God's Love, It's All About God, Theology | 2 Comments

          I recently completed reading William Paul Young’s poignant novel The Shack.  I read it because many people had asked me my opinion of it.  Though this best-selling novel is fiction, it clearly was written to present a theological message.  Before I read it I heard everything from “this is the greatest book since the Bible,” to “this book is outright heresy.”  I tend to take a skeptical approach to such things, and I read this book with that same skepticism, but, at the same time, I tried to read carefully the theology presented without prejudging the book.  After seeing some harsh criticisms and high praises, I decided to read it for myself, and then determined to read very little about it, so I could make up my own mind on the matter.

          I’ll say right up front that there’s nothing in this book I find objectionable enough to call heresy and some that is very good theology, but I still have concerns about it.  There are even some people to whom I’d like to give the book because I think its moving presentation would touch them with what they need to hear.  I’ll start this review with the positive and then share my concerns in the end.

          Let me briefly outline the plot for any readers not aware of this book.  Mack is a man who suffers a great tragedy in the abduction and murder of his youngest daughter.  For the next four years “The Great Sadness,” as he calls it, takes over his life, and Mack questions much of what he’s been taught about God.  Then God appears to Mack in the place where his daughter was killed – a dilapidated old cabin in the mountains simply called The Shack.  Through this God encounter, Mack learns that much of what he’d been taught about God was wrong, but he experiences God’s love and purpose with a whole new understanding.

          On the positive side, my biggest concern was with the character of God presented, and Young nailed those concerns.  He clearly presents a Trinitarian theology, including some matters that are missed by so many who would present God’s character through a similar medium.  For example, when he first meets God, he meets three persons and wrestles to understand.  “‘Then,’ Mack struggled to ask, ‘Which of you is God?’  ‘I am,’ said all three in unison.  Mack looked from one to the next, and even though he couldn’t begin to grasp what he was seeing and hearing, he somehow believed them.” (p.87)  And the presentation is clearly not modalism, as some have claimed:  “We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes,  .  .  .  I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one.” (p.101)  Young also tells us that God is complete in himself, even though the popular, and wrong, notion is that God created because he was lonely.  “By nature I am completely unlimited, without bounds.  I have always known fullness.  I live in a state of perpetual satisfaction as my normal state of existence.  .  .  .  Just one of the perks of Me being Me.” (p.98f)   Finally, the book shows us the nature of Jesus as fully divine and still human.

          Also on the positive side, Young’s God is a God of love.  If you struggle with the truth that God loves you, especially because of your upbringing or because you think God has let you down, then this would be a great read.  I believe this is the greatest strength of The Shack.  God is good whether we believe it or not, and everything he does for us he does out of his love for us, even if we don’t understand it.  “The real underlying flaw in your life, Mackenzie, is that you don’t think that I’m good.  If you knew that I was good, and that everything – the means, the ends, and all the processes of individual lives – is all covered by my goodness, then while you might not understand what I am doing, you would trust me.  But you don’t.”  (p.126)  I’m afraid that describes too many of us.

          Finally, Young presents the human race as flawed and our only hope as Jesus’ death on the cross.  This truth comes out in many facets through the book, and I won’t take time to quote more than one them here.  In explaining Jesus’ death to his daughters, Mack says, “His daddy didn’t make him die.  Jesus chose to die because he and his daddy love you and me and everyone in the world.  He saved us from our sickness.” (p.31)

          On the negative side, I want to avoid the minor issues.  I could take the author to task on his egalitarian view of men and women and his related misunderstanding of authority in general.  I could write about his usual (but not always) Arminian understanding of God’s sovereignty.  But these matters were not major concerns as I read.  I could, like every negative review I read before deciding not to read any more, complain about Young’s personification of God as a woman.  Though I was at first uncomfortable with the “Aunt Jemima” type woman whom God appeared as, there was reason in the story for God’s appearing that way, and biblically, there is no reason to criticize that point.  God is neither male nor female, and both attributes come from him (Genesis 1:27).  Besides God is sometimes presented as a mother-figure in scripture (Psalm 131, Isaiah 66:13, Luke 13:34).  Mack needed a mother figure more than a father figure at this time in the book, and God accommodated that need.

          My biggest concerns were in two areas, both related to Young’s extension of God’s love beyond biblical mandate.  First, Young’s God doesn’t seem to be a God of ultimate glory.  In his presentation, God’s love for us is the end of the matter and highest purpose God has.  “Mackenzie, my purposes are not for my comfort, or yours.  My purposes are always and only an expression of love.” (p.191)  Though everything God does comes from his character, love for us is not the end of the matter – the ultimate issue.  In the book, the whole universe is all about us – humans.  While looking at the stars with Jesus, “Mack simply lay still, allowing the immensity of space and scattered light to dwarf him, letting his perceptions be scattered by starlight and the thought that everything is about him…about the human race…that all this was for us.” (p.113)  Certainly, God created the universe for us to enjoy, but ultimately he created it for his glory, and The Shack seems to miss that point.  The biblical God has a higher purpose than loving us, for such a view seems to contradict God’s fullness in himself; everything is for the ultimate end of God’s glory.  Even his love for us is not an end in itself; it too is an expression of his glory.  On a related thought, there is no sense of awe when Mack figures out who the God-persons with him are, yet in scripture, when one encounters and realizes God’s presence, there is a fear and awe that causes them to bow down, or feel insignificant.  Isaiah might be the most famous example (Isaiah 6:5), but others would include Moses and Peter.  Even angels, who stand in his presence, are fearsome and awesome creatures, so certainly God is all the more.  I want to be careful not to over criticize here, because the book makes it plain that our significance is found only in God.  I think it would be hard for a fiction work of this nature to emphasize both God’s love and his glory, but this work doesn’t seem to address God’s glory at all.

          My second big concern was the area of obedience to God.  Certainly God loves his people and extends his grace them, and we are to live in that love, but that doesn’t excuse us of obedience.  There seems to be an attitude in the book that it doesn’t matter what we do, because God loves us and offers us his grace.  The entirety of chapter 14, “Verbs and Other Freedoms,” seems to make this point.  Although The Shack correctly emphasizes that rule keeping can’t justify us, and that rules don’t change our character, instead they tend to make us proud, there is no mention of obedience as the expression of our love for God.  We cannot be declared righteous by rule keeping, but when we understand what God in his love has done for us, we want to keep his rules, not out of a need to justify ourselves, but out of our love for him.  The biblical picture is that we love God because he first loved us, and our love is demonstrated by our obedience to his commands.  As Jesus said, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.”  And “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.” (John 14:21-23)  Because The Shack so emphasizes one’s relationship to God, this point would have fit the story nicely, but it too is missing.

          If you struggle to believe that God is good and that he loves you dearly, then The Shack would be a great read.  Just don’t consider it a work of technical theology.

AN ADDED NOTE:  Concerning God’s love being the ultimate end of all things rather than his glory I wanted to add this note.  At the beginning of chapter six, “A Piece of p,” Young includes this quote from Jacques Ellul.  “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.”  Although Young didn’t say this himself, he must have included it because he agrees with it; it summarizes what he was trying to say in the chapter. When I read this quote in the book, I wrote “Wrong!” in the margin.  What makes God putting himself on our level so amazing is exactly the fact that God is first and foremost the Almighty.

          This of course plays into the obedience issue as well; the reason obedience to God is an expression of love to God is because God is the Almighty.  We don’t express our love to other people by total obedience because there are times when not obeying a faulty human would be the best expression of love.  That never happens with a sovereign God.

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  1. Since writting this review, I have added an addendum that considers one comment in the book, which I missed the first time, and which I do find heretical. You can read that here:
    https://pastorglenn.wordpress.com/2009/04/29/revisiting-the-shack/

  2. There were numerous insightful comments to this review that were lost when I moved the article and it was accidently deleted. Here are two responses I gave to those comments. You can figure out what the comments were about by the response. Thanks for reading. GG

    I agree with you that Jesus’ limitations could be a concern here. There is a theological debate about what Jesus’ capabilities are post-ascension. Of course, “he emptied himself, taking on the form of servant, being made in the likeness of man,” and we debate what that emptying involved and how long it lasted. I believe he purposefully chose not to use some of his divine attributes while on earth, but never gave up those attributes; otherwise we would have a Savior that is not fully divine. Since there are indications that Jesus still has a human form (the ascension, we will recognize his wounds, etc), what does that say about those attributes now? Personally I feel that his “emptying” was a temporary condition – a choice for a time, and that he can and will exercise all the divine attributes. How else could Jesus say he would be with all his people, even to the end of the age? However, when you consider that the Trinity is always in cahoots, and the Spirit can accomplish everything necessary in our lives, what difference does it make? The practical outworking is the same whether Jesus is limited or not. In other words, his limits, if there are any, are meaningless. His thoughts are the Spirit’s thoughts are the Father’s thoughts; so any action he wants to accomplish the Spirit wants to accomplish and the Father wants to accomplish, and it will be done.

    Somehow I suspected someone would ask me about the comment concerning Arminian theology. Notice that is I didn’t say, “his Arminian understanding of God’s sovereignty,” but “his usual (but not always) Arminian understanding of God’s sovereignty.” Young seemed to me to be inconsistent (but then again I tend to think an Arminian understanding is inconsistent). I didn’t make an effort to note much in this matter, as I was more interested in areas of heresy, and I don’t think Arminians are heretics. But here are some things I did find.
    “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.”
    “The whole world? You mean those who believe in you right?”
    “The whole world, Mack. All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way.” (page 192)
    The last paragraph is clearly an expression of Arminian theology and a misunderstanding of Calvinism. The Reformed perspective is not that God comes half way and that’s all he can do so he waits for us, but that he comes all the way to us. It is not that he forces us into relationship, but that his grace is irresistible. If that last term is one to stumble over, think of this, I often find my wife irresistible also, and I don’t have a problem with that!
    Maybe even clearer is this statement on page 225: “In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship.” The God I know does more than wait for me to choose him, he draws me to himself in love and grace.


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