The Outlook, March 2009, Volume 59, No. 3, pp. 26-13

 

Looking for God in William Paul Young’s
The Shack–A Book Review

Annette J. Gysen

 

 

“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the waters below.”
Deuteronomy 5:8

People know about the Trinity, but they only have a vague understanding of the relationship between The Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus. “The Shack” gave me
a greater understanding of how God can be the Trinity at the same time. I also gained a greater understanding of what “God is love” really means.

—customer review on Amazon

A fascinating publishing industry phenomenon, the best-selling novel The Shack has captured the attention of millions of readers around the world. It has become the subject of magazine and newspaper articles, panel discussions, and water-cooler debates. By all rights, no one should have heard of this low-budget, self-published novel by first-time Oregon author William (Paul) Young. The book has defied all the rules and sits comfortably at the top of the bestseller lists, and has for some time. Recently, Hachette Book Group has partnered with Windblown Media to handle sales, marketing, distribution, licensing, and manufacturing of the book, bringing a global readership and a lot of money to the author and original publishers of this title, which to date has sold over a million copies. A movie is in the works.

Young’s story evokes impassioned responses from both those who love it and those who see it as heresy; indifference is a rare reaction. The novel has been praised by Christian notables such as Eugene Peterson, whose endorsement is quoted on the book cover, claiming the book “has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.” But it has been condemned by evangelical leaders such as Albert Mohler and Chuck Colson. Mohler says, “This book includes undiluted heresy.” Is the shack of Young’s story a repository of biblical truth, shining the light of Scripture on doctrines that are difficult to grasp, or is it a shelter of deception, heretically misleading its readers and portraying something other than the reality of God’s Word? It must be one or the other; it cannot be both.

The Story
As anyone who has an interest in this book knows by now, the novel deals with the themes of suffering, forgiveness, and the age-old question of where God is in a world filled with pain. It is the story of Mackenzie Philips, whose youngest daughter, Missy, was abducted and murdered by a serial killer during a family vacation. At the crime scene—the shack—detectives found Missy’s blood-soaked, torn dress, but they were unable to find her body. The story picks up about four years after this event, frequently referred to in the book as the Great Sadness.

As the story opens, Mack, weighed down by sorrow and guilt over the death of his daughter, is angry and distant from God. He receives a note inviting him to the shack where Missy was murdered, deep in the Oregon wilderness. The note is signed by Papa, and Mack fairly quickly determines that this is an invitation from God. He decides to accept the invitation, travels to the shack, and has a life-changing, weekend-long encounter with the Trinity, which Young depicts as a jolly African American woman who calls herself Papa (God the Father); Jesus, a thirty-something Jewish man; and Sarayu, an Asian woman representing God the Holy Spirit. Later in the story, Mack also converses with Sophia, a personification of God’s wisdom. And as Mack’s needs and acceptance evolve during the course of the weekend, Papa “morphs” into a pony-tailed, gray-haired older man, demonstrating Mack’s willingness to accept God as a father figure. During the weekend, Mack has the opportunity to engage in lengthy dialogues with each member of the Godhead, and they discuss such weighty subjects as the Trinity, Christ’s death on the cross, forgiveness, authority, and free will. Mack experiences healing and leaves the shack a changed man.

But It’s Only Fiction
From a literary standpoint, the writing itself is poor quality fiction. Many readers find the story emotionally compelling and are “brought to tears,” and this accounts, at least partially, for the book’s popularity. It resonates with anyone who has ever been hurt by another person, suffered a serious loss, and has generally felt abandoned—probably most of the members of the human race. However, the dialogue is often silly, and the plot contrived. One example of this inanity occurs in chapter 7, when Mack happens upon a scene in the kitchen, where the members of the Trinity have been preparing breakfast. Jesus has apparently dropped a bowl of pancake batter on the floor, and the batter has spilled everywhere, including on Papa’s skirt and bare feet. The conversation and action that follows is reminiscent of a badly written situation comedy:

All three [members of the Trinity] were laughing so hard that Mack didn’t think they were breathing. Sarayu said something about humans being clumsy and all three started roaring again. Finally, Jesus brushed past Mack and returned a minute later with a large basin of water and towels. Sarayu had already started wiping the goop from the floor and cupboards, but Jesus went straight to Papa, and, kneeling at her feet, began to wipe off the front of her clothes. He worked down to her feet and gently lifted one foot at a time, which he directed into the basin where he cleaned and massaged it. “Ooooh, that feels sooo good!” exclaimed Papa, as she continued her tasks at the counter . . .

“We were going to have this incredible Japanese sauce, but greasy fingers over there, “ Papa nodded toward Jesus, “decided to see if it would bounce.” “C’mon now,” Jesus responded in mock defense. “My hands were slippery. What can I say?”

Papa winked at Mack as she passed him the rice. “You just can’t get good help around here.” Everyone laughed (p. 105).


If the author were portraying only human characters interacting with each other, this scene would be ridiculous enough, but sadly, the ridiculous becomes offensive when the reader realizes that this is a depiction of the interaction among the members of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Bad form and content come together and result in irreverence, as the author writes a scene that is more like the seventies sitcom Three’s Company than the scriptural revelation of the Trinity.

Reviewers have noted that the author has been influenced by writers like C. S. Lewis, and Young himself mentions his indebtedness to Lewis. Message author Eugene Peterson has made the unfortunate comparison of The Shack to Pilgrim’s Progress, but the novel doesn’t come close to the level of excellence that Lewis and Bunyan have achieved in The Chronicles of Narnia and Pilgrim’s Progress, respectively. And another deeper difference lies in these authors’ treatments of biblical themes and the nature of God.

So why are Lewis’s and Bunyan’s fictional treatments of biblical themes acceptable, while Young’s is not? The difference is that while both of these writers have used fiction to convey biblical doctrines, they have remained consistent, generally speaking, with Scripture as they have done so. Christian art must point us to the truths of Scripture and reflect the reality of the universe that God has created; creativity must have boundaries, and when an artist’s creativity leads him to create new “truths,” he has gone too far with his art and has, in fact, created a lie.

According to Lewis, his Chronicles of Narnia explore a universe that is parallel to ours, and the central character in the stories, Aslan the lion, “is an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like, if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ ” There are, in fact, parallels between Aslan and Christ. In The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan creates a new world, which he sings into existence, and then gives his creation the gift of speech. He rules over Narnia. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan dies in the place of the traitor, Edmund, but is resurrected the next day, offering forgiveness and redemption. RBC Ministries research editor Dennis Fisher explains, “In portraying a lion as the king of Narnia, Lewis creates a parallel to the Bible’s messianic reference to the Lion of Judah . . . Lewis offers an imaginary parallel with clear portraits of Christ as Creator, King, Savior, and Friend.” The character Lewis has created has been formed and informed by the author’s knowledge and study of Scripture; while this is clearly a work of Lewis’s imagination (and he would be the first to say so), Scripture has provided the reference point, and his imagination has been taken captive to the obedience of Christ.

Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is more of a study in contrast with The Shack than a comparison. Bunyan, a seventeenth-century English Puritan writer and preacher, writes in his apology, or explanation, of the story that he has written an allegory about the life journey of saints and “the way to glory.” He acknowledges that he is using a fictional form to convey biblical truth, and, in fact, he justifies the use of fiction by pointing out that Scripture itself uses allegory to set forth truth. Not only is Bunyan concerned that his content be biblical, he is also concerned that readers understand that the form he uses is biblical as well. Throughout the story, he continually alludes to Scripture in an effort to base everything he says on it alone. At the beginning of the story, his central character, Christian, is distraught. He has been reading a book (the Bible) and carries a great burden on his back (his recognition of his sinfulness). Christian weeps as he wonders, “What shall I do to be saved?” During his allegorical journey, he learns how a man can be justified before a holy God and then live faithfully before Him. The story ends as Christian enters the gates of heaven and joins the worshipers around God’s throne. Bunyan conscientiously seeks to tell the story of the Christian life in a manner that is consistent with biblical truth, and, therefore, the God of Pilgrim’s Progress is the God of the Bible. Bunyan never portrays the Trinity in an imaginative way that would stray from the depiction of the Godhead in Scripture.

In The Shack, however, just the opposite occurs. Mack is angry with God. The narrator in the foreword to the story tells us that “Mack is not very religious. He seems to have a love/hate relationship with Religion, and maybe even with the God that he suspects is brooding, distant, and aloof” (p. 10). The narrator notes that Mack and he attend the same church and observes that Mack is noticeably uncomfortable there. While Bunyan strives, through his story, to affirm the truth of Scripture, Young questions the truth of Scripture and mocks the truth that God has revealed Himself to His people through Scripture alone. Mack believes that God has toyed with him and questions whether there is any good in following God at all. “Mack was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that didn’t seem to make any real difference or affect any real changes. Yes, Mack wanted more” (p. 66). While Bunyan’s Christian seeks to find out who he is, who God is, and how he can possibly be reconciled to God from the pages of holy Scripture, Mack wants nothing to do with this book with “guilt edges,” and the answers he finds to the questions he has about God and suffering are very different from the sola scriptura answers that Christian finds.
And this raises the issue that the novel is, undeniably, a work of fiction. The author would never have his readers believe that the events of this story actually occurred. Some would argue that because this is a work of fiction, there is some room for imagination and license. After all, we’re not intended to take this seriously. And yet, as author and Reformed blogger Tim Challies has pointed out, the novel “is clearly intended to communicate theological truths. It is meant to impact the way the reader thinks about God, about love and about life. It is not a book that was written only to share a story, but to share theology.”

Themes in The Shack

The Church
Because this work is a novel, and not a systematic theology, it can be difficult to pin Young down at times on exactly what he believes. But certain disturbing themes recur throughout the narrative, making it clear that Young is intentionally writing the fiction of the emerging church, with its disdain for doctrine, creeds, institutional religion, the church, and authority. The Shack’s criticism of the institutional church rings true for many readers. In WORLD magazine, writer Susan Olasky reports in an interview with Young, who no longer is a member of any church: “Young says, ‘[the church] doesn’t work for those of us who are hurt and those of us who are damaged . . . If God is a loving God and there’s grace in this world and it doesn’t work for those of us who didn’t get dealt a very good hand in the deck, then why are we doing this [involving ourselves in church]?” This bitterness shows up in the story in Young’s attacks on historic Christianity, and his dismissal of the doctrine of the church is a case in point. In a conversation between Mack and Jesus, Jesus explains to Mack that the church is “all about relationships and simply sharing life.” He explains further, “‘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 . . . They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about” (p. 179).

The Belgic Confession tells us the church is “a holy congregation and assembly of true believers, who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.” In subsequent articles of the confession, we learn that all believers are duty bound to join the church; to discern the true and false church; that the Lord has taught us in His Word how the church is to be governed; that there are to be officers, who maintain order and discipline and administer the sacraments. All of these elements, which require organization, order, authority, and submission to that authority, are the things Young objects to when Jesus tells Mack that the church is simply about relationships and sharing life. For Young, the church is nothing unique; we have relationships and share life with coworkers at our jobs, with our hairdresser, daycare providers, and psychologists.

Scriptural Authority
Early in the novel, before Mack even meets the Trinity at the shack, we learn that he doubts the authority of Scripture. The author mentions that Mack had attended seminary, where “he 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.” Through Mack, Young ridicules the truth that God speaks through His Word: “God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects . . . Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?” (pp. 65–66).

Mack’s story in the novel itself demonstrates that, for Young, experience provides truth that the Scriptures cannot. Mack resolves his bitterness and anger against God not as he reads the Scriptures and comes to greater understanding and not as he hears the Word preached, but rather as he directly communicates with the Trinity at the shack. It is only then that he is able to come to terms with his daughter’s death, seek and extend forgiveness, and reconcile himself to God. Sadly, though, the god with whom Mack reconciles is the one of Young’s imagination, and not the God of the Bible.

Authority
In fact, Young seems to take issue with anything that suggests a hierarchy, that a person is obligated to submit himself to another authority, and even denies that there is submission among the members of the Trinity. It is clear from many passages of Scripture that the members of the Godhead have distinct functions. The Son submits to the Father, and the Holy Spirit submits to both the Father and the Son. In John 14, Jesus tells the disciples that the words He is saying to them “are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (v. 24). He comforts them by telling them that the Father is sending the Holy Spirit in His name (v. 25). Jesus tells His disciples that He obeys the Father (14:31; 15:11). Later in John, in His high priestly prayer, Jesus tells the Father that He has brought glory to the Father on earth “by completing the work you gave me to do.” Clearly, Jesus came to do the will of the Father. Jesus tells His disciples He will send the Holy Spirit, who also “goes out from the Father.” This is just one of many passages of Scripture that set forth the truth that there are distinct functions among the members of the Trinity, and the Son submits to the Father, and the Spirit submits to both the Father and the Son. The three work together in harmony; there is no hint of resentment among the Trinity. Hierarchy is part of the character of God Himself.

Young, however, contradicts this truth and suggests that the idea of hierarchy is only a crazy notion of the human race. The human notion of hierarchy, Young’s Jesus explains, destroys relationships rather than promotes them. Sarayu explains further:

“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.”

“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 . . .

“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” (pp. 122–23).

For Young and the characters in his novel the notion of hierarchy, that some have authority and some must obey, is a “diabolical scheme” in which humans are “hopelessly trapped” (p. 124).

A Distortion of God

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:1,4–5)

The buddy-god that Mack encounters at the shack bears little resemblance to the holy God Isaiah encounters, the God who drives Isaiah to worship, to recognize that he is ruined and in need of redemption. Young’s depiction of God is probably the most offensive flaw of the book. Young’s false ideas about God are all tied to his distaste for the historic doctrines of Christianity and his anti-authority stance, but at the root of all of Young’s wrong ideas about who God is, how the members of the Trinity relate to one another, how God relates to humans, and humans respond to God is his need to create a sort of “comfort-food” god, a god of the kitchen who bakes pies and makes us feel good about ourselves. Young creates a god not to be worshiped; this is a god to pal around with, one who is a little bit smarter and nicer than most humans—one who bakes well, stargazes, gets careless and spills pancake batter, and at times is just plain silly. What Young has done in this novel is to create a god in his own image, a god who appeals to him and who at times resembles the God of Scripture but in the end is a far cry from the great I AM who revealed Himself to Moses and Isaiah.

In fact, in Mack’s universe, God is a subjective being. He (or she) exists in whatever form most meets a particular human’s need. Young has portrayed a god who becomes what we want him (or her) to be. Because Mack has had a difficult relationship with his father, God the Father (or Papa) comes to him in the form of an African-American woman—something completely different from a white man’s stereotypical image of a father figure. But later in the novel, Mack’s father-figure issues resolved, God the Father appears to him as an aging hippie, an old man with beard and gray ponytail. Many critics have rightly criticized Young for portraying God as a female. Obviously, in Scripture, when God speaks of himself, He speaks of himself in masculine terms, and so ought we to speak of Him. But more to the point for Young, it seems, than making a statement about feminizing God is a need to depict God in a way that becomes palatable to those who have father issues. It leaves me wondering: If Young’s character were an animal lover who enjoyed the companionship of dogs more than human beings, would Young’s god be a German Shepherd? One critic of the novel has suggested: “If a friend had a cold, abusive father, don’t make the God of your story into a warm, loving female to compensate. Show your friend what a true father is like, using the example from Scripture” (Got Questions Ministries). This writer further points out, “God never changes Himself so that we can understand Him better. He changes us so that we can see Him as He truly is. If God changed His nature, He would cease to be God.”

So this is not a god to be reverenced. When Mack verbally attacks Papa, suggesting that God is not worthy of his trust, he brings Papa to tears, who is sad because of the great gulf that exists between the two of them (p. 92). Mack snaps at God in anger (p. 96) and feels free to use foul language in his expressions of frustration and rage (pp. 140, 224). For Mack, God is not transcendent. Mack has no sense of awe or of God’s holiness because this god does not require it. When Mack relates to the Trinity of The Shack, it’s as if he is talking to peers—people who are a little wiser, a little kinder, and a little more generous than most humans.

The following are some of the more obvious untruths regarding God represented in The Shack.

God is not a God of justice or wrath: During one conversation with Papa, Mack asks if God spills out “bowls of wrath” and casts humans into a “burning lake of fire.” “At that, Papa stopped her preparations and turned toward Mack. He could see a deep sadness in her eyes. “I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it” (pp. 119–20).

God the Father suffered on the cross, a form of an ancient heresy called patripassionism. As Mack talks with Papa, Young’s version of God the Father, he observes scars on Papa’s wrists. Papa explains, “We [Papa and Jesus] were [at the cross] together.” When Mack asks why Jesus then cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he learns that Jesus was only expressing His feelings at the moment, and not what actually was. Papa responds, “I never left him” (pp. 95–96).

There is no distinction among the members of the Trinity and there is no authority or submission among the members of the Godhead. Papa tells Mack, “When we three spoke ourself 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” (p. 99). During one of the foursome’s lengthy mealtime conversations, Mack asks the Trinity if they have a chain of command. Jesus responds by telling him that a chain of command would be “ghastly.” Sarayu explains in more detail: “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).

These are some of the major, more obvious errors in the novel. Discerning readers will find many more errors that they will object to. Some would argue that friends and family members have been helped by the themes of love, forgiveness, and restoration in the book, which, in their thinking, makes this a helpful tool; the reality is that these people are being “helped” by Young and his false theology and not by biblical truth. A reader’s response to this novel will depend on how seriously he takes the Word of God as the only source of truth. For those who believe that we can know God only as He has revealed Himself to us in His Word, this novel should be difficult reading. The great tragedy of this novel is that undiscerning readers, moved by the plotline, think that they are coming to a greater understanding of God and the Scriptures, when in fact they are coming to a greater understanding of Young and the god he has created.

In the end, it’s difficult to find good reasons for reading this book, and those who read it must exercise great care and discernment. We certainly shouldn’t be encouraging seekers, young Christians, or those who want to understand Scripture and God better to look to Young’s ideas. If we want to know the truth about a historical figure, we turn to the best source about the person. Imagine this scenario: A novelist writes a story about George Washington. Many of the incidents in the plot and the writer’s characterizations of Washington are different from what we know to be true from historical accounts that have been derived from Washington’s own writings and the writings of his contemporaries. The novelist’s ideas are a product of imagination and not fact derived from careful research. A Ph.D. student writes his dissertation, but bases his thesis on this novel, which contradicts what history tells us to be true. How foolish will this student appear to his advisors when he presents his findings!

And yet millions of readers are reading The Shack, a work of fiction that portrays the Trinity very differently from the way God portrays Himself in His Word, and claiming that they now understand the Trinity, forgiveness, and salvation in a way they never have before. How disappointing that they have not come to know God through the truth of His Word, which is sufficient: “The holy Scriptures . . . are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15–17).

It is sad that so many can be persuaded by so little. All that we read—whether it is fiction, nonfiction, science, or history—must be evaluated by the ultimate source, Scripture. This does not mean that we may only read those things that are in accord with and based on Scripture. It just means that we may not derive our understanding of God and His truth on works of art that have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. While Young’s ideas are disturbing, how much more disturbing are the responses of those who are adopting his ideas—the product of his imagination—as truth and reality? May we take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

 

Sources quoted in this article:

Wm. Paul Young, The Shack (Los Angeles: Windblown Media), 2007.
Tim Challies, A Reader’s Review of the Shack, www.challies.com
Review of The Shack, GotQuestions.org
Dennis Fisher, Narnia: The Story Behind the Stories (Grand Rapids, Michigan: RBC Ministries), 2007.

 

Mrs. Annette Gysen is a member of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan,
and she is an editor at Discovery House Publishers in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

 

 

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