The Shack: A Pastoral Review of the Popular Novel
William Paul Young has written a New York Times best-selling book entitled “The Shack” which has taken the Christian world by storm. Many in our church have read it. Many in our church have asked my opinion on it. And others have denounced it as heresy and dangerous. In an effort to provide good pastoral care for the flock of Emmanuel Baptist Church, I chose to read this book first hand before giving my official views and opinions. In this somewhat lengthy article, I will attempt to set forth my “official” review of this book.
The story centers around a middle-aged man named Mack whose 6-year-old daughter was abducted and murdered by a serial killer while on a family camping trip in the Oregon wilderness. Mack struggles with this tragedy and his relationship with God has become very cold and distant. His loving wife, Nan, refers to God as “Papa” and is the spiritual anchor of the family. Three years after what Mack calls “The Great Sadness” (the death of his daughter Missy), he receives a letter in the mail from “Papa” inviting him back to the shack in the wilderness where they found Missy’s bloodstained dress. He loads up his friend’s jeep and heads back to the place where he never thought he would go—the shack. It is there that he encounters God and learns to deal with his loss and understand the mysterious ways of God.
As a writer, Young is engaging and talented. He has a poignant way of drawing the reader into the drama and is a very colorful storyteller. In the first few chapters that described this abduction, I was on the edge of my seat with both anticipation and a sense of dread knowing what would happen. This is a warning for those who have not read it yet, that this portion is very intense. As a fictional novel, Young writes a colorful, compelling story with interesting characters and in where the main character Mack comes to a deeper understanding of God and his faith is strengthened at the end. So as a narrative and a story, I have no problem.
There are some helpful statements in this book, although they are few and far between. William Young takes a noble stab at explaining the problem of evil and how God works through that to accomplish His purposes. Most of what he says in this area is good but does not go far enough into exploring how God not only “responds” to our evil, but actually, works all things out for good for His elect.
But…there is a subversive nature to this book. It tells a compelling, exciting story about faith in God and Young makes it clear that this is fiction. Yet, when he begins to introduce the character and person of God and issues of faith and struggles within the realm of Christianity, he moves from fiction to theology. While most who read this will see it as a fictional story, there is a very clear message about God that Young wants to get across to his readers and he makes great pains to articulate a theology—albeit not in a textbook format but through compelling characters in a story.
I will come out right away and say that I will not endorse this book and will not recommend anyone to read it. I found it disturbing and while not blatantly heretical, it does introduce views of God and faith that are opposed to orthodox theology and the clear teachings of the Bible. I would definitely not recommend it for a new Christian. If a Christian has the desire to read it, I would warn them strongly to use very sharp discernment and to weigh the opinions of William P. Young with that of Holy Scripture. I do not condemn or judge any Christian who chooses to read “The Shack” or who even was moved by it. That is between you and the Lord. But as a pastor who cares about the spiritual growth of my flock and who has been charged by God to protect the flock from false teachings, I have a responsibility to clearly articulate my concerns in a way that his hopefully loving, but at the same time truthful.
With that being said, I have SIX major problems with this book. I will attempt to interact with direct quotes, dialogue, and statements made in the book and compare these to direct quotations from Scripture.
First of all, “The Shack” presents a negative treatment of Scripture, theology, and exposes the reader to what I call an “unmediated encounter” with the living God. Throughout the book, seminary education is seen as negative as well as anything that has to do with the institutional church. What do I mean by an unmediated encounter? God has always used a Mediator to speak to humans. In the Old Testament, it was Moses, Joshua, the priests, and the prophets. They represented God and they were the intercessors and mediators of the covenant. Your average Israelite could not just barge into the holy of holies and talk with God. He has always spoken to us with a mediator. In the New Testament, that Mediator is Christ who is the only way to the Father. Now, we have a closed canon of Scripture and a final, authoritative, and binding revelation of God’s Word to us in the 66 books of the Bible. It is in Scripture that we find truth, not in encounters in shacks out in the wilderness face to face with God. This is very close to Gnosticism. I am not sure of William Young’s theological background, but he clearly has a disregard for the institutional church and does not set for the Scripture as the final rule of faith.
As a matter of fact, there is a disturbing statement by Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) on page 203 where she says, “I have a great fondness for uncertainty.” How in the world could the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of Truth and who inspired sacred Scripture say that “she” likes uncertainty? This sentiment is very prevalent in the emerging church where they do not want to submit to the authority of an inerrant Scripture that clearly dictates truth with a capital “T”. One of the most striking statements by Jesus in this book is found on page 182 where he says, “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian” Again, the reader is supposed to view anyone who claims to be a “Christian” as a negative thing.
The second area of concern is the issue of breaking the 2nd Commandment. Exodus 20:4 says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” God in His sovereignty has ordained that there be no image created of Him or any personification of Himself other than Jesus. In this novel, God the Father is personified as a large African-American woman named “Papa” who dances around the kitchen cooking great food and singing along with jazz music. (Now, I have nothing against good food or jazz music), but God the Father is Spirit. He does not have a body. Jesus said this in John 4:23-24: “But the hour is coming, and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” God the Father does not have a body. Only Jesus is the visible and physical expression of an invisible God. Colossians 2:9 says, “For in him (Jesus) the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” God the Father nowhere in Scripture has a body nor are we commanded to worship Him in an image fashioned in our own mind. Clearly, Young sees that having the Father inhabit an African-American woman would make a very colorful story. She bebops around the kitchen and speaks in “ebonics” which I found to be a little racist. In 1 Timothy 1:17 Paul gives this doxology to the Father: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” Clearly from this passage, God is invisible. He is Spirit and does not have a body. Again Paul states this in 1 Timothy 6:15-16 about the Father: “He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.” God dwells in unapproachable light and no one has seen Him. When you study the 4th and 5th Chapters of Revelation, you see that the Father dwells in heaven on his throne and is surrounded by lightning, thunder, a glassy sea, and flying creatures who prevent anyone from having access to this holy God.
In addition, the Holy Spirit is also Spirit. In this novel, the Spirit is personified by a whimsical Asian woman named Sarayu who floats around a lot and likes to garden. Again, the Holy Spirit does not have a body. Jesus is the only Person of the Trinity who has a body. Hebrews 1:3 states, “He (Jesus) is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15 that “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” The word for “image” is the Greek word “ikon” which means the visible expression of an invisible God.
Now how does the Shack break the 2nd Commandment? It has God the Father inhabiting a body as well as the Holy Spirit and this man Mack is in their presence without any fear, trembling, or concern. As a matter of fact, a few times he actually cusses in God’s presence—“damn” (page 140) and “son of a bitch”. Mack is welcomed into the Shack and sits around the dinner table with the “Trinity”, goes stargazing with Jesus, and works in a garden with the Holy Spirit (Sarayu) and he even gets perturbed and sarcastic with each member of the Trinity. Now compare this to Isaiah’s vision of Jesus on the throne in Isaiah 6:5: And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” When Isaiah was in the presence of Christ the Lord, he fell on his face as an undone sinner who was fully aware that he was a sinner in the presence of a holy God. Not once does Mack bow down in front of the Trinity or express worship or homage in this type of way. He engages in folksy dialogue with the Godhead over tea, pastries, and other mundane things. Or how about John the Apostle in Revelation when he sees Christ Jesus appear to him on the island of Patmos? Revelation 1:17 says, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” John fell as a dead man in the presence of Christ.
The Godhead that is described and illustrated in The Shack is not a God that is a consuming fire and holy. God the Father or “Papa” is a woman who kisses others on the cheek a lot and is a good cook. Jesus is a carpenter with a tool belt and flannel shirt who is unimposing. And the Holy Spirit is a wispy Asian woman who floats around and works in a garden. Clearly, by personifying God the Father and God the Holy Spirit with physical bodies, William Young has broken the 2nd Commandment. Another weird incident in the book occurs on page 95 where Papa shows Mack the scars on her wrists. This seems to indicated that God the Father suffered physically from the crucifixion, when clearly the Scripture teaches that only Jesus as the God-Man suffered and bled on the cross.
The third issue I have a problem with is the effeminate nature of God presented in this book. God has revealed Himself to us as Father—masculine. Christ Jesus is the exalted God-Man. And the Holy Spirit is also referred to as a “He”, not an “it” or a “she”. By personifying the Godhead in feminine expressions, it denies the clear revelation of Scripture. On page 107, Jesus holds Papa’s hands and gazes into her eyes and is seen as a very effeminate person. In addition, Jesus is portrayed as more of a touchy-feely hippy who holds hands with Mack as they are gazing up at the stars. I am concerned that this book is another way of emasculating the church, which the feminist movement has made great inroads into evangelicalism over the past few decades.
Now, let me say a word of empathy. In the story, we find out that Mack’s father was an alcoholic, legalistic “elder” in the church who physically abused him. So his relationship with his father was very unhealthy and as a result Mack has not had a positive male influence in his life. “Papa” says that she/he chose to reveal herself as a woman because she knew that Mack would have a hard time relating to a father. On page 93 she says, “For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning.” Again, we see this subversive move to undermine theology and Scripture. If one holds to orthodox Christianity, it is seen as something negative that we fall back into instead of opening our mind to this new revelation. I perfectly understand this issue of negative fathering and I know of many Christians who have had very terrible relationships with their fathers and find it hard to relate to God as a Heavenly Father. But we cannot just arbitrarily choose how we want God to be. He is neither male nor female, but He has revealed Himself in Scripture as masculine—as a loving Father. Not as an effeminate, African-American woman.
The fourth area of difficulty I had in this novel is the low view of the sovereignty of God and the exalted view of the free will of man. This novel was very man-centered in its theology and worked at great pains to nullify God’s absolute sovereignty. At the beginning of Chapter 6, we find this quote: “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.” To me that is a border-line heretical statement that is exactly the opposite of who the God of the Bible is. Job 42:1-2 says, “Then Job answered the LORD and said: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” Psalm 135:6 says, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” And Paul clearly articulates the absolute sovereignty of God in Ephesians 1:11 when he writes, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” God by His very definition is the Almighty Master who reigns in heaven and does all that He pleases and works all things according to the counsel of His will of which no plan of His can be thwarted.
Yet all throughout The Shack, the Godhood of God has been demoted to these very human characters and the free will of sinners has been elevated. Papa also says on page 102 that “unless I had an object of love—or more accurately, a someone to love—if I did not have such a relationship within myself, then I would not be capable of love at all.” In other words, God depends upon humans as objects of His love in order for Him to be a truly loving God. Instead, the Scripture teaches that God does not need anybody or anything to make Him love or happy. He is totally self-existent and totally satisfied as God without any needs or wants. This again makes humans the center of reality instead of the glory of God.
Over and over again, Papa does not want to force herself on humans and highly respects our freedom. There is a statement on page 123 that borders on the Open Theism heresy that God does not know the future and was somewhat surprised by the sin of Adam and Eve. Papa explains to Mack, “We carefully respect your choices, so we work within your systems even while we seek to free you from them…Creation has been taken down a very different path than we desired.” This again exalts the free will of man and shows God as reactionary to our choices instead of acting in His providential rule over all creation. On page 145, Jesus says that although Mack calls Him Lord and King, He really doesn’t act that way because He values our human choices and doesn’t want to force Himself on us. Again, this is a half-truth. Jesus is a gentle, compassionate Savior, but He is also the King of kings and Lord. It seems that William Young wants to de-emphasize the Lordship of Christ to a more “Jesus is your buddy” Savior.
One of the strangest episodes in the book is on page 104 when the klutzy Jesus drops a large bowl of food on the floor and every one starts to laugh. I can’t imagine Jesus the sovereign of the universe dropping a bowl of sauce on the floor. On page 92 Papa says, “If you let me, Mack, I’ll be the Papa you never had.” Here we have God the Father asking permission of a sinner to be his heavenly Father and then later on that page, Papa begins to cry. Now I don’t discount that God shows emotion, but I found it very awkward that this large African-American Papa is crying in front of Mack and asking permission to be his Father/Mother.
The fifth issue I have a problem with is the vague presentation of the cross and the lack of clarity in presenting the gospel. From this book, one would find it very hard to understand how to actually become a Christian and what actually occurred on the cross. This is very alarming due to the popularity of this book outside of evangelical circles. On page 110, Jesus said, “I am the best way any human can relate to Papa and Sarayu.” Out of Jesus’ mouth, he says that he is the “best” way. How does this compare with the actual words of our Savior in John 14:6, “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This book also subversively undermines the wrath of God against sin. The cross is mentioned vaguely and we don’t find out the Biblical reason for the cross: that God’s wrath against sin needed to be propitiated (fully exhausted and deflected from us) through the atonement of Christ. On page 120, Papa says, “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’s my joy to cure it.” Now at first glance, this statement is halfway true. God is in the business of forgiving and curing sin but only through the cross of Christ. Our sins have to be punished. It will either be punished on Jesus in our place on the cross or we will suffer eternally in hell for our sins. In Luke 12:4-5 Jesus says, “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” Jesus clearly tells us that there is punishment for sin. And it comes from God casting us into hell. Again Jesus Himself tell us in John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
On page 182 Jesus says this, “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institution…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.” I have to ask a simple question: “What does that mean?” Notice how William Young subtly discounts being part of the body of Christ in a local church and discounts the word “Christian”. One cannot become a son or daughter of God the Father unless they repent of their sin and trust in the sufficientcy of Christ’s atoning work on the cross in his or her place. True transformation comes from the gospel. True transformation comes from becoming a Christian and the means God has most specifically ordained for our spiritual growth is gathering corporately on Sunday morning for worship as the church.
On page 192, the cross is explained in very fuzzy details. Papa tells Mack, “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.” Mack asks, “The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?” And Papa responds, “The whole world, Mack. All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part, totally, and completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship, but is the nature of love to open the way.” Without going into a detailed explanation of sovereign regeneration and particular redemption, we are left with a very puzzling question. It sounds like from Papa’s words that through the cross everyone in the world has been reconciled to the Father regardless of whether you believe in Christ or not. Instead of the atonement being a finished work of Christ accomplished for His people, it makes salvation up to the sinner to decide whether he wants in on what Jesus did or not. Instead of the Holy Spirit regenerating God’s elect and applying the work of the cross to them, the sinner again is in charge of his or her own destiny.
The sixth difficulty in this book is the strange way in which the Trinity is presented. In an attempt to try and describe or illustrate the mystery of the Trinity, William Young gives us a disjointed and contradictory view of the Godhead. For example on page 99, Papa makes this statement: “When we three spoke ourselves into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.” Nowhere in Scripture does it speak of the Father or the Holy Spirit speaking themselves into human existence. Only God the Son, Jesus Christ, was the eternal Word become flesh through the incarnation. This is very confusing. In addition, on page 99, Papa tells Mack that Jesus has “never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being. He is just the first to do it to the uttermost—the first to absolutely trust my life within him, the first to believe in my love and goodness without regard for appearance or consequence.” This sounds very close to the Mormon theology of the eternal progression of man and that Jesus was the first human to learn godhood. All throughout the gospels, we see that Jesus was endowed with “authority” (exousia in the Greek) to cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead, and teach the truth. He has authority by virtue of being the Son of God who is the fullness of all Deity in bodily form.
The author tries really hard to make the Trinity interact in a loving relationship by cleaning up after each other and doing the dishes and kissing each other on the cheek, but this again is a mirror reflection of human love shown in very homey ways, instead of in eternal holiness. While the Bible teaches us that there is a unity and co-equality within the Trinity, the Scriptures also teach us that there is a functional subordination among the three Persons. God sends Jesus to earth to fulfill His will and Jesus joyfully submits to the Father. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit as our Helper and Spirit of Truth whose primary task is to glorify Jesus. While the Three Persons are equal in essence as fully God, they do submit to one another in purpose. God the Father elects us and initiates our salvation. Jesus came in time as the God-Man to die in our place by being obedient to the will of the Father. And the Holy Spirit points us away from Himself to the glory of Christ. Yet, in the Shack, this idea of functional submission is seen as a negative thing. On page 122, Jesus and Papa discuss with Mack how the concept of chain of command or hierarchy are “ghastly”.
Another weird description of the Trinity comes on page 204 where Sarayu tells Mack that “my very essence is a verb…not a noun.” This is very confusing. If you take this at face value it sounds like the Holy Spirit (Sarayu) is nullifying the Personhood of God. God is a Being. God is a noun, not a verb. Yes, God works and creates and acts, but those actions come from His essence as God.
In closing, my biggest area of concern is that while Young attempts to make this a fictional allegory, he has in fact created an entire book where he as the author speaks for God. He creates dialogue of what God supposedly says and how the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit interact. We have already been told what God has said in the Scriptures and it is final. It is His inspired Word—the Bible. We don’t need another voice. I find it close to idolatry and somewhat arrogant that an author can create this quazi-Bibilcal situation within the Trinity and actually presume to create a dialogue between a holy God and a sinful man, Mack. Instead of relying on Scripture for revelation, Sarayu tells Mack on page 195 in response to his question on how he will be able to hear the Holy Spirit: “You will learn to hear my thoughts in yours.” The Holy Spirit clearly has the job of guiding us into all truth of the Scripture. Nowhere are we told to learn to hear the Holy Spirit in our thoughts. This borders on mysticism. Jesus tells us in John 16:13-14 : “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
The one huge red flag in this entire novel is the lack of looking to Scripture for revealed truth. Instead, we are given this encounter with Mack talking directly to the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in a mystical face-to-face manner without the written word. As a matter of fact, when the Scriptures are alluded to by the Sarayu they are seen as negative. Mack asks on page 203, “Are you saying that I don’t have to follow the rules?” She replies, “Yes. In Jesus, you are not under any law. All things are lawful.” Now that is taking Romans 6:14 out of context and giving license (especially to a new believer) that the pursuit of holiness or obedience to the Word is optional in the Christian life and we can do whatever we want. This is an abuse of grace. Paul starts out this chapter with this poignant reminder in Romans 6:1-2 : “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
Interestingly, Sarayu also says on page 205: “That is why you won’t find the word responsibility in the Scriptures…Responsibilities and expectations are the basis of guilt and shame and judgment, and they provide the essential framework that promotes performance as the basis for identity and value.” Again, this is a half-truth. Obviously we don’t want to be motivated by guilt and shame and get into the performance trap of legalism in hopes that by doing good works God will somehow accept us. He accepts us on the basis of Christ’s righteousness given to us by grace. But, in our progressive sanctification, we have the responsibility to pursue holiness and to grow in godliness. We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling and fight the good fight of faith. We shouldn’t be scared by the words “responsibility” or “discipline”.
As a work of fiction, William Young is an interesting and entertaining writer, but as a theologian he strays away from orthodox Christianity. I do not discount that many people have been profoundly affected by this work, but my primary question would be how has their understanding and worship of the Tri-Une God been enhanced and impacted by this novel. I pray that your worship, understanding, and devotion to the Lord is informed and mandated by Holy Scripture and not the fanciful imaginations of William Young in his novel “The Shack”.
[Guest Post by Pastor Sean Cole, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Sterling, CO]