"The Shack" has been a popular book in Christian circles, at least at the time this article was originally written in May of 2008. It is about to be released as a movie starting Sam Worthington. Now, I am not saying we don't want Hollywood to produce good Christian material. But, sad to say, if Hollywood wants to do something Christian, then we need to be cautious. And, if the movie is anything like the book, then there is reason for concern.
The Shack is supposed to be the account of man who spent a weekend with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit in a shack in a forest. It is a fictional story1 of Mr. Mackenzie Allen Phillips, written by William P. Young. Mack suffers the horrible loss of his young daughter to a serial killer. Of course, Mack is highly distraught and traumatized. The book is about his "healing" via an encounter with the persons of the Trinity who all three take human form and dialogue with him in this cabin and the surrounding countryside. It is written well enough to be an enjoyable read. It has many positive things to say, such as God being loving, that he wants a relationship with us, and that Jesus died for us. However, it has enough things in it to raise a cautionary flag.
According to Mack's account, God summoned him, via a note, to a shack--the very one where, apparently, his daughter was killed. In this shack, God the Father appeared to him as an African-American woman (p. 82) named Papa (p. 86). Jesus is a Middle Easterner who "was dressed like a laborer, complete with tool belt... and a plaid shirt with sleeves rolled just above the elbows," (p. 84). The Holy Spirit was an Asian woman (p. 85) who was named Sarayu (p. 87, 110).
If you know your Bible, this should trouble you. First of all, Scripture tells us that the Father cannot be seen (John 6:46; 1 Tim. 6:16). The Holy Spirit never appears as an individual, but as a dove (Matt. 3:16), wind (John 3:8), and fire (Acts 2:3). Jesus was most certainly Middle Eastern, but it seems highly unlikely he will appear with a tool belt and plaid shirt.
Other problems are as follows. The Father had scars on his wrists--like the crucifixion wounds of Christ (p. 95). This is wrong. It was not the Father who was crucified. The person of the Father has no body of flesh and bones as does the Son (John 4:24; Luke 24:39). Yet, in the book, the Father has scars. Perhaps this is supposed to be an expression of how each member of the Godhead shares in the being of the others, but if that is so, shouldn't the representation be biblically accurate? I certainly think so. Therefore, it should not be that the Father would have scars on his wrists - since He has no wrists and He does not appear to anyone (John 6:46; 1 Tim. 6:16).
On a positive note, The Shack represents the Trinity pretty well. "We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one God with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father, and worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one," (p. 101). That was encouraging, as were other areas that spoke about forgiveness, love, relationships, atonement, etc. But, other important issues surfaced within the pages.
In biblical Christianity, there is a doctrine called the Economic Trinity. It describes the relationship of the members of the Godhead with each other as well as with us. For example, the Father sent the Son. The Son did not send the Father, (John 6:44; 8:18; 10:36; 1 John 4:14). Jesus came down from heaven, not to do His own will, but the will of the Father (John 6:38). The Father is the head of Christ (1 Cor. 11:3). And, 1 Cor. 15:27-28 speaks of creation being in subjection to Jesus and then in verse 28, Jesus will be subjected to the Father. The Greek word-form for "will be subjected" is 'hupotagasetai,' which is the future, passive, indicative. This means that it is a future event where Jesus will be subjected to the Father forever. All this means is that there is a hierarchy within the Trinity. However, when we turn to page 124 we find this, "So you think that God must relate inside a hierarchy like you do. But we do not." This blatantly contradicts scripture. Therefore, Mack's account cannot be true since it contradicts Scripture.
On page 99, it says, "When we three spoke ourselves into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human. We also chose to embrace all the limitations this entailed. Even though we have always been present in this created universe, we now became flesh and blood." This is a direct contradiction to scripture. It was only the son who became flesh. Furthermore, it confuses what the Trinity is (one God in three distinct persons) and risks that the heresy of modalism (that God is one person who takes three different forms).
On page 136 it says, "Mackenzie, evil is a word we use to describe the absence of Good, just as we use the word darkness to describe the absence of Light or death to describe the absence of Life. Both evil and darkness can only be understood in relation to Light and Good; they do not have any actual existence." Unfortunately, this is humanistic philosophy and is false. Evil is the intent to do harm whether it be physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. It is contrary to the will of God (Gen. 6:5; 1 Kings 11:6, Matt. 6:13; 12:33–37). The Bible clearly tells us that such evil exists and it is not merely the absence of good. Satan is, for the lack of a better term, the manifestation of such evil, (Matt. 13:19; John 17:15; Eph. 6:16).
On page 145-146 we find, "Mack was surprised. 'How could that be? Why would the God of the universe want to be submitted to me?' 'Because we want you to join us in our circle of relationship. I don't want slaves to my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me.'" We have to ask, is there any place in Scripture where God expresses a desire to be submitted to any individual human being? Nope. If anything, we the creatures are to be in subjection to the Holy and Majestic God of the universe, not the other way around. The Shack reduces the glory of God and elevates the stature of man--something false religious systems do.
There was an emphasis in the book on building relationships. This is good. We don't want sterile and stale doctrinal statements governing our relationship with God. We cannot reduce our Holy Lord to such formulas, but the Scriptures do declare certain things about God with a sufficiency and clarity that should guide our understanding of Him. The Bible reveals what God says about Himself. It is what He wants us to know about Him. Therefore, it should guide both our relationship with and understand of God. We relate to God based on how we view God. That is why doctrine matters when it comes to God’s nature, holiness, incomprehensibility, majesty, and so much more. Furthermore, any fellowship with Him cannot occur without the mediatorship of Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). And, if we redefine God and make him into something he is not, then we violate the doctrinal revelation that He has given us in the Bible and commit idolatry. Nevertheless, I had the distinct impression while reading the book that having a proper understanding of God was somehow something to be avoided. “Doctrine” was subtly ridiculed, along with the idea of formal theological training. The Bible, as God's word, was not elevated as the inspired standard of truth. Instead, subjective experience was repeatedly promoted. Error develops when people look to experience rather than God’s word to guide their spirituality (Gen. 3:6).
I'm not saying we should avoid experiencing God. But, we have to be careful not to elevate human doctrines above God himself. Knowing God is not simply about relationship. It is also about truth and knowing Him in truth (John 17:3). We are commanded in the Bible to have both an intimate relationship with God through the person of Christ (1 Cor. 1:9), and to know Him truthfully. We are called to exhort in sound doctrine (Titus 1:9), to "speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1), and to have purity in doctrine (Titus 2:7). Such doctrines include the revelation of God, His nature, His calling, His sovereignty, His holiness, His majesty, His purpose for us, His redemptive work, and all other such teachings which are vitally important to us. These are needed in order to properly understand God and to properly discern if the subjective spiritual experiences we have are true or false. But let's get back to the book.
On page 205 God says to Mack, "My words are alive and dynamic-full of life and possibility; yours are dead, full of law and fear and judgment. That is why you won't find the word responsibility in the Scriptures." That caught my eye, so I went to my computer Bible program and did a search for the word responsibility. I found that in the New American Standard Bible it occurs four times (Num. 4:16; 1 Chr. 9:31; Ezra 10:4; 1 Tim. 5:22). It does not occur in the King James. The NIV has it in 13 places. So, that's a problem.
Here is another concern. Does God place expectations on us? Does He expect us to believe in Him, to follow Him, to seek to be like Christ, to love others, to worship Him in truth, etc.? Of course He does, yet on page 206 Papa (God the Father) says, "Honey, I've never placed an expectation on you or anyone else. The idea behind expectations requires that someone does not know the future or outcome and is trying to control behavior to get the desired result." Well, this is a problem since God does expect certain things from us, and it is not necessarily true that an expectation from God means He doesn't already know what the result will be. God knows we are sinners, yet expects us to be holy. God says, "you shall be holy, for I am holy," (1 Pet. 1:16). God expects us to pick up our crosses and follow after Christ (Matt. 10:38). So, again, the Shack comes up short.
Universalism is the unbiblical teaching that through the atoning work of Christ all people will be saved. The book seems to hint towards that, but I wasn't sure if Mack was saying that God was advocating it. On page 225 we are told by God, "In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship." Logically, if all humans are forgiven of their sins, then all humans go to heaven. This is the doctrine of universalism, and it is a heresy that is contradicted by scripture (Mark 3:28; Matt. 25:46).
Following are various quotes extracted from the pages of the book. They reveal the casual and, if I might say, irreverent manner in which the holy and majestic God is portrayed. Anyone who has encountered God in the Old and New Testaments is humbled a great deal and never speaks of God in any casual or flippant manner. See Isaiah 6:1-4 for the biblical response to God's presence and contrast it with the following.
- Jesus speaking to Mack about the Father who is an African American Woman (p. 89).
- "Jesus laughed, 'She's a riot!'"
- Here is a dialogue found on page 90. Mack is speaking to the Father who is listening to music.
- "May I ask what you're listening to?"
"You really wanna know"?
"Sure." Now Mack was curious.
"West Coast Juice. Group called Diatribe and an album that isn't even out yet called Heart Trips. Actually," she winked at Mack, "these kids haven't even been born yet."
"Right," Mac responded, more than a little incredulous. "West Coast Juice, huh? It doesn't sound very religious."
"Oh, trust me, it's not. More like Eurasian funk and blues with a message, and a great beat." She sidestepped toward Mack as if she were doing a dance move and clapped. Mack stepped back.
- "May I ask what you're listening to?"
- Jesus wiped the Father's (Papa) feet. (p. 105)
- "'Ooooh, that feels soooo good!' exclaimed Papa, as she continued her tasks at the counter."
- Jesus and Mack together (p. 108).
- "'C'mon,' said Jesus, interrupting Mack's thoughts. 'I know you enjoy looking at stars! Want to?' He sounded just like a child full of anticipation and expectancy."
- Food is being passed around at a table (p. 121).
- "'Whoa,' said Papa, who had returned from the kitchen with yet another dish. 'Take it easy on those greens, young man. Those things can give you the trots if you ain't careful.'"
- By a lakeside, skipping stones (pp. 170-171).
- "As he entered the clearing, he saw Jesus still waiting, still skipping stones." "Hey, I think my best was 13 skips," he said as he laughed and walked to meet Mack. "But Tyler beat me by three and Josh threw one that skipped so fast we all lost count."
- While Jesus and Mack are walking on water and see a large trout (pp. 175-176).
- Jesus said, "'I've been trying to catch him for weeks, and here he comes just to bait me,' he laughed. Mack watched, amazed, as Jesus started to dodge this way and that, trying to keep up with the fish, and finally gave up. He looked at Mack, excited as a little kid. 'Isn't he great? I'll probably never catch him.'"
- Jesus and Mack are talking (p. 182).
- Jesus said, "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."
- The Father and Mack are talking about forgiving the man who murdered Mack's daughter (p. 224).
- "Mack, for you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him."
Would you consider the previous examples to be how God would actually speak and behave? Is this how we are to understand God? Is this scriptural?
Is it worth reading and supporting a book that is 90% good and 10% bad even if that book helps people? A lot of people would say yes. But, the Bible warns us about just such a thing. "Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?" (1 Cor. 5:6).
The shack is full of good things. It has some important theological problems, some issues that directly contradict scripture, and it presents an irreverent and casual attitude toward God. Yes, there are nice things in it and people might even be helped by the book. But so what? There are some nice things in Mormonism, too. Should we encourage people to read the Book of Mormon because Mormonism might help someone feel better? Not at all.
Sadly, experience has shown me that most Christians aren't interested in biblical fidelity. No, I'm not talking about biblical nit-picking. I'm talking about fidelity to the revealed word of God to the point where we don't contradict what is plainly stated in scripture!
We Christians should regard the word of God as the final authority on all things, and any supposed accounts of actual occurrences should be compared to scripture, not our feelings, wants, and desires. In the case of The Shack, the book falls woefully short of scriptural truth in many important areas and has the strong ability to mislead people regarding God's nature, work, and plan for us.
Again, I do not recommend it.
On July 9, 2008, I interviewed the author of The Shack on my radio show. William P. Young, who goes by Paul Young, defended his book and everything in it. He denied the economic trinity. He justified writing his work under the umbrella of imagery and representing the Father as being seen, and as a black woman. It took numerous times for me to get him to admit that the Father was not crucified. He repeatedly would not answer my question about his statement that God in Jesus has forgiven all people of their sins--which He has not done. After asking him about this over and over, he would only respond with "Jesus is the savior of the world." It was a real problem trying to get him to answer.
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this book.
- 1. On page 247 of the book in the "Afterward" the author says, "Well, there you have it - at least as it was told to me. I am sure there will be some who wonder whether everything really happened as Mack recalls it, or if the accident and morphine made him just a little bit loopy. As for Mack, he continues to live his normal productive life and remains adamant that every word of the story is true." In my radio interview with the author, he stated it was fiction. I found this to be confusing since the afterword implies it is not.