(Originally published August 27, 2009)
William P. Young’s tale of spiritual rebirth and renewal is flying off the shelves and topping bestseller lists all across America. It has been hailed as “Pilgrim’s Progress for a new generation” and touted by Christian pastors and writers as being “like a prayer.” Having heard a lot about “The Shack,” I thought it was probably time that I read it for myself.
Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips is on a family camping trip when his daughter Missy is kidnapped by a serial killer. In an abandoned shack deep in the forest, he finds her torn, bloodstained dress…evidence she has become the killer’s next victim. Four years pass, during which Mack is ravaged by “The Great Sadness” and loses touch with God. One winter afternoon, however, he receives a letter – seemingly from God – inviting him to return to the shack where The Great Sadness began.
Mack does so, and what he finds is something he couldn’t have envisioned in his wildest dreams.
The shack has somehow transformed into a beautiful cottage inhabited by three “people” – a motherly African-American woman affectionately known as “Papa”, Jesus, and an enigmatic Asian woman known as Sarayu. As it turns out, these are the three Persons of the Trinity. (Papa = God the Father, Jesus = God the Son, Sarayu = God the Holy Spirit). What they have to say to him will change his life forever.
Thus begins the controversy over “The Shack.”
As the book continues to increase in popularity, debates over “The Shack” will likely become more and more frequent. My verdict? Very mixed.
I’ll start with the good things before considering the negatives. Young paints a beautiful, heartwarming portrait of God’s love for humanity. Mack’s journey of redemption is moving and inspiring in a way that few other books are.
Young is also an excellent writer. The first 50-100 pages are filled w ith gripping suspense as Mack attempts to track down the killer who has taken his daughter. Depictions of Mack’s anger against God are also passionate and heart-wrenching without being overly sentimental.
It’s a great story, but unfortunately, “The Shack” contains a lot of dubious theology that strays a little too close to Cosmic Humanist (New Age) territory.
ISSUE #1: GOD AND MAN
One of the most prevalent themes in the book is the relinquishing of all control to God. Sounds Christian, right? Well…not quite.
“Declaring independence will result in evil because apart from me, you can only draw upon yourself. That is death because you have separated yourself from me: Life.” (Young, page 136)
Now, if you’re like me, that probably raised some eyebrows. But there’s probably nothing inherently unscriptural about this statement. Let’s go on:
“You mean,” Mack interjected a little sarcastically, “that I can’t just ask, ‘What Would Jesus Do’?”
Jesus chuckled. “Good intentions, bad idea. Let me know how it works for you, if that’s the way you choose to go.” He paused and grew sober. “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. I came to give you life, real life, my life. We will come and live our life inside of you, so that you begin to see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, and touch with our hands, and think like we do.” (Young, page 150)
Here’s where things start getting a little thorny. First of all, we ARE called to “be like Jesus” – Jesus even exhorts his followers to follow his servant example.
“And if your Lord and teacher has washed your feet, you should do the same for each other. I have set the example, and you should do for each other exactly what I have done for you.” (John 13:14-15)
Second, notice the words Jesus uses to describe his presence in a believer. It’s a little more “mystical” than traditional theology…almost, in a sense, blending the Creator with the creation. The theme of becoming “one” with God is further developed through a poem at the end of the book:
Breathe in me…deep
That I might breathe…and live
And hold me close that I might sleep
Soft held by all you give
Come kiss me wind and take my breath
Till you and I are one
And we will dance among the tombs
Until all death is gone
And no one knows that we exist
Wrapped in each other’s arms
Except the One who blew the breath
That hides me safe from harm
Come kiss me wind and take my breath
Till you and I are one
And we will dance among the tombs
Until all death is gone
(Young, page 237)
This does NOT sound like the God that Christians have been worshiping for almost 2,000 years. Rather, it sounds a lot like the God that New Age author Marilyn Ferguson talks about in her book “The Aquarian Conspiracy”:
“In the emerging spiritual tradition, God is not the personage of our Sunday School mentality. God is experienced as flow, wholeness, the ground of being.” (Ferguson, page 383)
As Christians, we are called to have faith in God…but not to become “God” ourselves. Consider the following verse:
“Be humble in the presence of God’s mighty power, and he will honor you when the time comes.” (1 Peter 5:6)
We are not called to unite with God in the sense that we share in His divine essence. Rather, we unite with God by having faith in Jesus Christ. We humble ourselves before God – acknowledging our need for Him – and he cleanses us from our sins.
Let’s talk about sin and repentance while we’re on this subject…
ISSUE #2: LAW AND GOSPEL
At one point, Papa tells Mack:
“Seriously, Mackenzie, it’s not about feeling guilty. Guilt’ll never help you find freedom in me. The best it can do is make you try harder to conform to some ethic on the outside. I’m about the inside.” (Young, page 189)
Unfortunately, this is yet another deviation from accurate, Biblically grounded theology. We feel guilt because of our conscience:
“God accepts those who obey his Law, but not those who simply hear it. Some people naturally obey the Law’s commands, even though they don’t have the Law. This proves that the conscience is like a law written in the human heart. And it will show whether we are forgiven or condemned, when God appoints Jesus Christ to judge everyone’s secret thoughts, just as my message says.” (Romans 2:13-16)
Young does not have a very high opinion of man’s need for salvation. “The Shack” has a lot about “love” and about “uniting with God” but not very much about the horror of our own sins and our own desperate need to be redeemed. (To be fair, the book does try to answer the question “where is God in a world of suffering?”…an EXTERNAL concern… but there is very little dealing with our INTERNAL need for Christ.)
Let’s consider the following passage:
“But,” argued Mack, “if you didn’t have expectations and responsibilities, wouldn’t everything just fall apart?”
“Only if you are of the world, apart from me and under the law. Responsibilities and expectations are the basis of guilt and shame and judgement, and they provide the essential framework that promotes performance as the basis for identity and value. You know well what it is like not to live up to someone’s expectations.” (Young, pages 208-209)
Mack is right. Without law (and God’s expectations!) everything WOULD fall apart. Let’s go back to the Bible and see what God really has to say:
“The Law has shown me that something in me keeps me from doing what I know is right. With my whole heart I agree with the Law of God.” (Romans 7: 21-22)
Young, though, doesn’t think much of God’s law either:
“Religion must use law to empower itself and control the people who they need in order to survive. I give you an ability to respond and your response is to be free to love and serve in every situation, and therefore each moment is different and unique and wonderful.” (Young, pages 207-208)
Or perhaps New Age author Marianne Williamson said it better in her book “A Return to Love”:
“To say ‘God help me,’ means ‘God, correct my thinking.’ ‘Deliver me from hell,’ means ‘Deliver me from my insane thoughts.'” (Williamson, page 22)
This is perhaps the most egregious flaw in “The Shack.” There is virtually nothing about God’s role as the judge of sin. There’s a lot about love and mercy and grace…but virtually nothing about God’s justice. The issue of our innate sin is avoided almost entirely.
The Bible, on the other hand, speaks plainly:
“I am not the one who will judge those who refuse to obey my teachings. I came to save the people of this world, not to be their judge. But everyone who rejects me and my teachings will be judged on the last day by what I have said. I don’t speak on my own. I say only what the Father who sent me has told me to say. I know that his commands will bring eternal life. That is why I tell you exactly what the Father has told me.” (John 12:47-50)
Young tosses in a brief mention of the Bible at one point:
“Mackenzie!” she chided, her words flowing with affection. “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. It is a picture of Jesus. While words may tell you what God is like and even what he may want from you, you cannot do any of it on your own. Life and living is in him and no other. My goodness, you didn’t think you could live the righteousness of God on your own, did you?” (Young, page 200)
“Do we destroy the Law by our faith? Not at all! We make it even more powerful.” (Romans 3:31)
Why is this? How can the judgement of the Law be reconciled with God’s love for us?
One of the things I remember from my Confirmation classes is the threefold purpose of the Law: to serve as a curb, a mirror, and a guide. The Law was given to provide a check on man’s sin (example: the Ten Commandments), effectively curbing the evil of our hearts. It serves as a mirror in that it shows us our need for God and our own inability to save ourselves. And it serves as the guide for an ordered society and a Christ-centered life.
We can’t hope to fulfill the Law by ourselves. But does that mean the Law is worthless? No. (Why else would so much of the Bible be devoted to pointing out our sin). Christ upheld the Law perfectly…but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do those things that God has ordained. A prominent speaker remarked recently that “if everyone in America simply upheld two of the Ten Commandments, we’d be a lot better off.” The Law is what gives us the foundation for moral decisions and an ethical society (I’ll talk more about Young’s view of society later on):
Further on in “The Shack”:
“Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?” Mack had now completely stopped eating and was concentrating on the conversation.
“Yes. In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful.” (Young, page 205)
But as Christians…we ARE bound to follow Christ’s example. God calls us to do those things that further His kingdom, not just what we “want” to do at any given time:
“Some of you say, ‘We can do anything we want to.’ But I tell you that not everything is good for us. So I refuse to let anything have power over me.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)
ISSUE #3: SOCIETY
Young clearly has a bit of an agenda. Examine the following passages:
“Our earth is like a child who has grown up without parents, having no one to guide and direct her…Some have attempted to help her but most have simply tried to use her. Humans, who have been given the task to lovingly steer the world, instead plunder her with no consideration, other than their immediate needs. And they give little thought for their own children who will inherit their lack of love. So they use her and abuse her with little consideration and then when she shudders or blows her breath, they are offended and raise their fist at God.” (Young, page 145)
Instead of talking about the many great successes brought about by this “exploitation” – such as thousands and millions of people being lifted out of poverty by scientific discoveries and exploration, Young falls back on eco-friendly platitudes (conveniently ignoring the passages in Scripture that talk about “filling the earth and subduing it.”)
New Age author Frijof Capra (in his book “The Turning Point”) agrees with Young’s view:
“The universe is no longer seen as a machine, made up of a multitude of objects, but has to be pictured as one indivisible, dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interrelated and can be understood only as patterns of a cosmic process.” (Capra, pages 77-78)
This ideology isn’t limited to environmentalism, however:
“The world, in many ways, would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled. There would have been far fewer children sacrified to the gods of greed and power.” (Young, page 148)
Young’s “Jesus” is something of a political leftist. He doesn’t talk much about the biblical concept of gender roles – men as “creators” and women as “cultivators.” Rather, a particular brand of feminism leaks into Young’s theology. (Much has been written elsewhere about this subject, so I’ll steer clear of it.)
“Jesus” doesn’t believe in organized religion either:
“Like I said, I don’t create institutions; that’s an occupation for those who want to play God. So no, I’m not too big on religion,” Jesus said a little sarcastically, “and not very fond of politics or economics either.” Jesus’ visage darkened noticeably. “And why should I be? They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about.” (Young, page 181)
Once again, politics trump truth. Economics and politics provide the foundation for restraining man’s sinful nature and establishing a functioning society in a fallen world. Religion (specifically Christianity) provides us with a foundation for ethics and morality. (But as I’ve already discussed, Young isn’t too keen on discussing the sin nature of the individual.)
“The Shack” is the biggest sensation in Christian publishing since the “Left Behind” series. It’s a compelling, deep story filled with spirituality. The question, however, is whether that spirituality is founded on Scripture.
As we’ve already seen at length, “The Shack” strays from the Biblical foundations of Christianity at numerous points. It almost seems as if author Young is creating his own brand of Christianity – a God he would like to worship…but not the God of the Bible.
Should you read “The Shack”?
I can only recommend this book for thoughtful Christians encouraged in engaging the popular mindset of Christianized Cosmic Humanism. The theology being set forth in “The Shack” is certainly not true to Scriptural principles.
Yes, it’s appealing. But more importantly…is it accurate?
The answers are found in God’s Word.
A beautiful story filled with questionable theology.