Friday, July 24, 2009

Book Review: The Shack

As our introductory post indicates, this blog was set up to discuss and try to resolve difficulties that Christians may experience in their academic studies and projects. One way of meeting this goal is to draw attention to works by Christian scientists, apologists, and theologians who have addressed this kind of issue. We hope occasionally to review such books; we also intend to deal with publications that we believe Christians should be warned against. A case in point is Jitse van der Meer’s recent review of the Bible-critical work Meeting Jesus For the First Time, by Marcus Borg, a member of the notorious Jesus Seminar. The book with which we are introducing this thread, namely the recent bestseller The Shack, is on a rather different level. It is popularly written and offers no academic challenges, although it does offer theological ones. In any case, its popularity and often uncritical acceptance among believers suggests that a brief analysis may be called for. Comments on the initiative are invited.

Wm. Paul Young, The Shack: When Tragedy Confronts Eternity, first appeared in 2007. The copy I have in front of me states that the book is now “The #1 New York Times Bestseller,” with over 5 million copies in print. Although widely acclaimed by many Christians, it is a controversial book among orthodox believers. Some church members I have discussed it with recommend it highly, but others reject it as unbiblical and spiritually dangerous. The description “blasphemous” has even been used. Who is right? What is the book’s message?

First something about the story. The back cover gives the following summary of the book’s contents: “Mackenzie Allen Philip’s youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later…Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever.”

What he does find is a pleasant cottage situated in a beautiful natural landscape (symbolizing heaven? the new earth?). The cottage is inhabited by what are presented to us as human manifestations of the three Persons of the Trinity. They are a kind, motherly, beaming African-American woman (who is, paradoxically, referred to as “Papa”), a middle-aged carpenter, and a small breezy woman of Asian descent. There is some crude symbolism in this portrayal of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. One of the author’s aims is to challenge the reader’s “religious stereotypes,” and he obviously counts among these the idea that God is male and white and western (true, we are told later that He is not female either, and toward the end He is portrayed as male). Other apparent “stereotypes” are God’s holiness and transcendence. Young portrays the persons of the Trinity as ordinary human beings. In fact, we are told that with Christ’s incarnation the Father and the Spirit also “became fully human,” and even that the Father shared in the Son’s suffering and still bears the physical scars of the crucifixion. God’s humanity and humility are paramount throughout. Mack can converse with the Persons of the Trinity as their equal. He is even told that just as man must submit to God, so God submits to man, in order to draw him into the divine “circle of relationship.” And so Mack feels free to blame God for human suffering, to snap at Him, and to demand explanations. He does all this with impunity. God’s friendliness and willingness to explain Himself and to mollify His inquisitor never cease.

Much of the book’s appeal no doubt results from its political correctness, its emphasis on relationship, and its portrayal of God as non-judgmental, ever-kind, very human, non-transcendent. It is true that not all the book’s contents are of the same caliber. Good things are said about the cause of evil and of human suffering, about man’s error in insisting upon his autonomy, about human freedom and responsibility, divine grace, and forgiveness. Also biblical is the stress on the future restoration of all things – the fact that the believer’s ultimate destiny is not heaven but a renewed earth.

But these positive aspects do not make up for the negative ones. Much of the biblical message is ignored and God is portrayed as humans might like Him to be, not as He has revealed Himself. This is, I believe, a transgression of the second commandment. There are, as we have seen, additional theological errors – the portrayal of the Godhead in visible form (again a transgression of the second commandment), the teaching that the Father and the Spirit have assumed a human nature, and the ancient heresies of modalism and patripassionism (the Father’s sharing in the Son’s suffering and death). There are hints of universalism and also of Pelagianism – for example when Mack is told that God is fully reconciled to the world but that this is as much as He can do; it is up to mankind to accept the “new relationship” He offers.

More could be said, but this review is not meant to be exhaustive. I merely want to draw attention to the questionable message of a book that is widely read among Christians. For additional critical reviews I refer to one by Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, Seattle, and especially to that of Tim Challies, who wrote a lengthy, balanced, and thoroughly biblical analysis of The Shack. I further mention a recent article by the Rev. Wes Bredenhof [“Emergent: A Brief Introduction”, Clarion v. 58, n. 13 (19 June 2009) pp. 301-3], wherein, like Tim Challies, he relates the message of The Shack to that of the emergent church movement.


John W. Mahaffy said...

Thoughtful review, and on target. (I finished reading the book during a recent vacation, just because of the popularity of it.) Your links at the end are worth following. Another excellent one is:


Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Thank you, John. I have now read the review you mention and recommend it highly. Of special interest is the information that Young and his publishing partners are no longer members of a church and are in fact hostile to the idea of the church as an institution. This hostility is evident throughout the book, as is the author’s very low view of Scripture, of historic Christianity, and of God’s majesty and transcendence. Also enlightening is the comparison the reviewer draws between the Book of Job and The Shack. Job teaches that God does not have to justify himself to mankind, but as the reviewer points out, in Young’s book God is treated as if (in C.S. Lewis’s terms) he were “in the Dock” with humanity as his judge. Lewis sees this attitude as typically modern. Let me quote one paragraph from his essay “God in the Dock” (1948): “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He [man] is quite a friendly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial might even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God in the dock.”

The qualification of The Shack as heretical is altogether to the point.

rab said...

Part I

I read this book and though I had some misgivings, I very much appreciated it. The storyline and character development are not on a par with great writers, so I have to assume Eugene Peterson's comparison with "Pilgrim's Progress" has more to do with the theological content. In fact, in terms of literary quality, I would rate it somewhere around low-grade science fiction.
But the storyline is not the point of the book. The point of the book is that Young went through some very difficult times and came through with a renewed, perhaps one could even say reformed, conception of God. He wanted to share his epiphany with his children, so wrote an allegorical tale. He was encouraged to share more widely and did so.
Some of the theology is a bit dicey, as Freda has already mentioned. I agree with some of her criticism, but want to say something from an entirely different perspective.
First of all, let's deal with Young's position as regards the institutional church. He says "(The institutional church) doesn't work for those of us who are hurt and those of us who are damaged". Two things: First, I am not hurt or damaged and it is my position that those who have not been should not judge; secondly, I know of cases where there was extreme hurt and damage, and the institutional church was of little help, even in one case excommunicating a hurting member, thus driving him away. However, in spite of losing connection, Young still professes to "love the community of believers".
I am amazed and somewhat puzzled by the amount of criticism this book draws. Some of the criticism seems quite defensive and hysterical (viz. Driscoll). I just don't get it. Is Young's personal portrayal of the Trinity going to defile ours? Are we in danger of worshiping large black women in place of God? I don't think so. Yes, Young has his characters doing strange and un-God-like things, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Is anyone in danger of taking these vignettes (like the spilled pancake batter scene) seriously as something in which the Persons of the Trinity would be involved? I think even someone who has never heard of Christ would understand that these scenes are just used as fillers between theological discussions.

rab said...

Part II

But I as well am pleased and thankful at what Young gets right. In my daily work and interactions with neighbours and in reading news media, I am always amazed at how little is understood regarding Christians. People tend to view us as self-righteous, intolerant, right-wing, in favour of retributive (rather than restorative) justice, unforgiving, and finally irrelevant. Now consider this: the book promotes the view that people are all depraved, unable to do good apart from God, in error when insisting on their own autonomy ("The 10 commandments are a mirror to reveal how filthy your face gets when you live independently"), anti-Arminian in the sense of pointing out the pointlessness of trying to earn salvation.
Re justice: God asks Mack what to do with his child's rapist-murderer, and Mack says he wants him to burn in hell. God corrects him and makes him see that we are all depraved and to allow the possibility that the offender could be reconciled. Perhaps this is what bothers me most about the negative reviews by other Christians: the sense that they believe the author is wrong in recommending that the offender could be forgiven. I am involved in a prison ministry program, and this is central to my beliefs (There but for the grace of God go I...).
"God" says: "The real underlying flaw in your life, Mack, is that you don't think I am don't trust me." A very dramatic and very effective scene develops in which Mack is asked to choose which of his children goes to heaven and which to hell, just as he imagined God would be doing. He ends up begging to be allowed to suffer in their place. Any parent can empathize with Mack in this scene. I thought it was a wonderful demonstration of why Christ died for us, and of the magnitude of His sacrifice.
Challies in his review is also thankful for the positive aspects of the book. The difference for me is that I think these positive attributes are decisive.
Last month I was on an airline flight and because the view as we were landing was so spectacular, I switched to an empty window seat. I had left "The Shack" on my seat and as we braked to land, it slid forward onto the floor, sliding all the way to the front where a (coincidentally, large Afro-American) woman picked it up for me. "You're reading this book? It's a wonderful book." Knowing its message of God, love, justice and forgiveness, and the fact that over 5 million people were reading it and also declaring it "wonderful", my eyes were shining. "Yes, it is" I said.

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Thanks, Rick Baartman, for outlining the positive aspects of The Shack. They deserve to be mentioned. I myself admitted a number of them in my review, and so did Tim Challies and the OPC pastor Barry Traver in theirs, but you have added to the list. I agree with every point you make, and especially with the observation that Young’s story may well help correct a popular vision of a legalistic Christianity, one that stresses God’s wrath at the expense of his love. The book is pastoral in many ways. One can’t help being moved by the central message that, in the words of Romans 8, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” Missy continues to be in God’s care, also after her cruel death; in fact, death has for her been swallowed up in victory. There is much comfort in this message for anyone who has suffered a similar loss. In any event, the author’s sincerity is not in doubt, and his attempt to be “relevant” is praiseworthy.

But when all this has been said I still have serious problems with the deficiencies I mentioned: with Young’s heretical teachings (Pelagianism, Patripassionism), his hidden attacks on traditional Christianity and the instituted church, his tendency to ignore Scripture, his transgression of the second commandment, his portrayal of God and the Holy Trinity as human, all too human… Can we overlook all this because in other ways the book is appealing — pastoral, in tune with our postmodern sensibilities, “relevant”? I am not convinced. I think we are encountering here a theological movement that is dangerous and that we must guard against, also and especially for the sake of the young people in the church. So by all means, let’s continue the discussion, and let’s indeed hold on to what is good in The Shack. For information on the background of the movement I referred to I again suggest Rev. Wes Bredenhof’s article “Emergent: A brief Introduction” (Clarion, June 19, ’09).

Anonymous said...

I am also "amazed and somewhat puzzled by the amount of criticism this book draws". As far as I am concerned, most of the criticisms just don't cut it. I agree he seems to have an axe to grind against the organized church. But as Rick Baartman stated, the positive qualities of the book far out-weigh the negative. Does it promote Pelagianism? On any given Sunday, one can take a number of statements off the pulpit out of context and condemn them as Pelagian. This can also be said of Scripture. Take some of the Psalms for example. Without comparing them with the rest of Scripture and the fact that Christ is their fulfillment, they could be construed as Arminian or Pelagian. Regarding the second commandment - what about Genesis 18where God (YHWH) comes down to speak to Abraham in the form of the male human being? In fact, most of the book of Genesis portrays God as a human. So, I find that Young does not ignore Scripture at all. He even describes the Garden of Eden as a real place in time and space. Patripassionism is a "theological error dealing with the Godhead which states that the Father became incarnate, was born, suffered, and died on the cross". Young believes in the Trinity and no where in the book does he indicate that the Father became incarnate and died on the cross. Young's point that the Father suffered with the Son is debatable, but is hardly a salvation issue.

Ed Baartman