27 October 2008

The Shack

[The Shack]
When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress did for his. It's that good!

(Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message)

It is clear to me that The Shack is a mix of good and bad. Young teaches much that is of value and he teaches it in a slick and effective way. Sadly, though, there is much bad mixed in with the good. As we pursue his major theological thrusts we see that many of them wander away, by varying degrees, from what God tells us in Scripture.

Despite the great amount of poor theology, my greatest concern is probably this one: the book has a quietly subversive quality to it. Young seems set on undermining orthodox Christianity.

(Tim Chiallies, www.challies.com)

W. Paul Young's The Shack (2007) has taken popular Christian culture by storm. Some reviewers compare its impact to the great classics such as Pilgrim's Progress. Others condemn it as subversive heresy. Why such controversy?

Genre: theological fiction

Personally, I have shied away from writing works of fiction with God / Jesus as a character. In one exception (Carpenter), all of Jesus' words are drawn directly from Scripture. Why?

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1, NIV)

How much more so one who attributes words to God himself!

Young's words are, in fact, judged more strictly than most – if not by God, then by fellow Christians. That is to be expected. Some of his critics use mostly rhetoric, portraying him as some sort of eastern mystic or anti-christ. I think we can safely discount them. Whatever else one might say about Young, he obviously believes in the centrality of Christ. (See below, Salvation offered to all.)

However, other criticisms relate to his interpretation of Scripture. These merit some attention.

One source of controversy is that Young does not limit himself to "mere Christianity". He has a distinct worldview, a filter through which he interprets Scripture. Of course, the same might be said of any of us. Many of the sharpest criticisms reflect a different worldview, a different filter.

When it comes down to it, I would maintain that controversy is inherent in the genre. You simply cannot depict God / Jesus as a real person, carrying on real dialog, without offending somebody. Especially when wrestling with transcendent topics like the Trinity and the Incarnation, our understanding is always going to be incomplete, our analogies imperfect. And someone out there is sure to take offense at your presentation.

A living God

I consider the following to be one of the book's key passages.

In seminary he [Mack, the main character] had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God's voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners' access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. (p. 65-66)

Young is reacting against a prominent historical tradition which (so he claims) has denied the ability and/or desire of God to interact directly with his creation (cessationism), and has established a new priesthood of intellectuals to intermediate between people and God.

I think Young's grievance is well founded. I spent a year at a seminary, highly respected in evangelical circles, which could well be the one that Mack attended.

Oddly enough, none of the criticisms I have seen address this point directly. But I suspect this is really the key point that most of the critics are reacting against. Theologians and seminary professors have set themselves up as the new Pharisees, and cannot bear to see their authority questioned. When you see defenders of "orthodox Christianity", I suspect this authority is really what's at stake.

Jesus had a reputation for being highly unorthodox. We should not be afraid to follow in his footsteps, when appropriate.

(Disclaimer: This characterization certainly does not apply to all theologians and seminary professors, many of whom I deeply respect. However, I think such hubris is a natural temptation for all intellectuals, and is intrinsic to certain traditions.)

Salvation offered to all

I mentioned earlier that Young's theology is undeniably Christian.

"Papa, can you help me understand something? What exactly did Jesus accomplish by dying?" [Mack asked].

"Oh, nothing much. Just the substance of everything that love purposed from before the foundations of Creation," Papa [God] stated matter of factly, then turned and smiled. …

"Creation and history are all about Jesus. He is the very center of our purpose and in him we are now fully human, so our purpose and your destiny are forever linked. You might say that we have put all our eggs in the one human basket. There is no plan B. …

"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." (p. 191-192)

No eastern mystic or pantheist could possibly make these claims.

On the other hand, I sympathize with those who say Young stopped short of presenting the whole gospel message. Why does the world need to be reconciled? How did Jesus accomplish this?

Young's attention was in another direction. The passage continues:

[Mack responded,] "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." (p. 192)

This is another key message of the book: Jesus has opened a way for all people to be reconciled with the Father; all we must do is accept it. Young reinforces this view repeatedly, throughout the book.

I would consider this to be the essence of the gospel message.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1Jn 2:2)

However, this view contradicts a highly influential system of theology, which teaches that God predestined his chosen few to go to heaven; and predestined the remainder, the vast majority, to go to hell; and we as individuals have no choice in the matter.

Again, I find it odd that none of the criticisms I've seen address this point. But I'm sure it made its share of enemies.

Authority and headship

Young makes many valid observations about the legalistic and unloving nature of traditional hierarchical religion and societal structures, and rightly emphasizes the priority of relationship. However, he goes overboard in refuting the place of any sort of authority or headship in God's plan.

For starters, he denies the headship of the Father in the Trinity.

[Papa said,] "Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command or a 'great chain of being' as your ancestors termed it. What you're seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don't need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us." (p. 122)

[Jesus said to Mack,] "That's the beauty you see in my relationship with Abba and Sarayu [the Holy Spirit]. We are indeed submitted to one another and have always been so and always will be. Papa is as much submitted to me as I to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way." (p. 145)

The Scriptures are clear, in contrast, that the Father is the head over the Son, and the Son submits to the Father, not the other way around.

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God." (1Cor 11:3)

The Garden of Gethsamane, in particular, provides a stunning picture of the submission of the Son to the will of the Father.

"Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." (Lk 22:42)

Young furthermore denies a role for God-ordained authority in human society.

"Humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that people could work or live together without someone being in charge," [Papa said.]

"But every human institution that I can think of, from political to business, even down to marriage, is governed by this kind of thinking; it is the web of our social fabric," Mack asserted.

"Such a waste!" said Papa, picking up the empty dish and heading for the kitchen.

"It's one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you," Jesus added. "Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you." …

Sarayu continued, "When you choose independence over relationship, you became a danger to each other. Others became objects to be manipulated or managed for your own happiness. Authority, as you usually think of it, is merely the excuse the strong use to make others conform to what they want." (p. 122-123)

The Scriptures, in fact, teach that authority among humans was instituted by God.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. (Rom 13:1)

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. (Heb 13:17)

Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1Pet 2:13-14)

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Eph 5:22-24)

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. … For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. (1Cor 11:7,10)

In fact, authority was even present in the unspoiled creation before the fall.

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." (Gen 1:26)

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Gen 1:28)

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. (Gen 2:19-20)

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him." (Gen 2:18)

Undeniably, the pattern of authority established in creation was corrupted and perverted, and has been subject to endless abuse. But that does not mean authority, itself, is wrong.

Rather than denying headship, we should emphasize what headship is supposed to look like, modeled on the Trinity and the relationship of Jesus to his Church. A leader in Christ is called, not to lord it over others, but to give up himself for the one he leads. (Mt 20:25-26, Eph 5:25)


I was frankly disappointed by The Shack. The teasers and the opening chapters led me to expect a sympathetic, broken man wrestling with the difficulty of trusting God in an evil world. Instead, most of the book consists of a surreal dialog between a rather cardboard character and three somewhat fantastic characterizations of the members of the Trinity. It provides interesting food for thought at places, while at other places the dialog is forced and trite.


In the end, The Shack is a work of fiction. Its overall message is: Trust God rather than your own wisdom or traditions. I can't argue with that.

The author has an evident theological bias, no doubt deriving from his own experience. Shocking. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. One hopes the discerning reader will recognize that this is not the true Word of God, and measure the content against Scripture.

Apparently, the Holy Spirit has used The Shack to work powerfully in many people's lives. I have no problem with that.

Pilgrim's Progress it is not, but I'd consider it worth reading.

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