The Shack, Pt. 2

First, here is Ben Witherington’s review of The Shack (pretty sharp guy).

Ben Witherington is a worthy critic who gives a mostly positive but cautious review of the book. If you have read the book and are not theologically trained, I would almost insist that you follow up your reading with a healthy critique like the one from Witherington.

The Shack is a book by William Paul Young, I enjoyed the book, for the most part. It is a good read, hardly a classic like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (sorry Eugene), in fact some parts are downright embarrassingly trite. At one point Young has Jesus mouth the words “True that” like some beer commercial “I want to sound cool” guy saying “what’s up?” for “wassup?”  Young has God saying the same trite things that some pastors say when people are confronted with the devastation of sin and evil. God is recreated in his pastoral image. When I hear my words, frail human pastor, in the mouth of God, I am disappointed. The picture painted of the divine in the Shack is often simply a reflection of the author’s theological position, and often not a very good position at that. And that is where the huge challenge lies in the undertaking of a book like The Shack. His vision of God ultimately disappoints. It is like watching your favorite book put into movie form; that isn’t how I pictured it. The Shack does engage some great topics that Christians don’t normally talk about, like the Trinity, and addresses some heart tugging issues like the real problem of evil in the life of the main character, Mack.

I was going to write a point by point critique of the book, as you can see, I have marked many passages. Some of those markings were exclamation points, most of them were question marks and challenges. Hard and harsh challenges. But Witherington covered many of them so I won’t rehash them here.

The thing I want to add to the review by Witherington is to ask the question: Can we really benefit from a book that misses the mark on so many theological points?

Many have said to me, “it’s just a work of fiction, you can’t criticize it as if it were a work of theology.” That is a legitimate caution. Yet not many Christians read works of theology. Many Christians cannot define the doctrine of the Trinity nor can they spot harmful variations from the orthodox statement of the triune God. Many form their theological framework from the anecdotal, sermonic, or lay teaching to which they are exposed.

The Shack is not a subtle allegory. It is not an obtuse work of fiction that makes allusions to the spiritual realm by means of parabolic or metaphoric figures of speech. It is a blatant theological treatise written in a fictional context. In fact, I have run across many who believe that the introduction and after words imply that this is not a work of fiction but a recounting of a true story, names changed to protect the innocent. Their misunderstanding further solidifies my concern.

As such, The Shack needs a harsher critique. It does not deserve an oblique “pass” based on its “genre” as if that protective foil grants freedom for the unchallenged critique of the Christian faith and the church. William Paul Young’s statements about the Trinity are not simply fuzzy, or not “quite right.” They are unabashedly and blatantly non-Orthodox. But to the uninitiated the picture feels good and tugs at an emotional place that brings a comfort, and an answer to difficult questions. So it is received uncritically, and unchallenged. We so want to understand the mysterious that sometimes we will settle for something we can understand or relate to, even if it is inadequate. I also have concerns about his views of revelation, authority and order within the church.

So the question can be asked this way: “If the answer makes me feel better, does it matter if it is accurate?” The answer to that question is that it does matter.

True comfort is rooted in truth.

Modern mythology is rampant in the church and in the minds of many Christians. I regularly hear at Christian funerals sentiments and beliefs that are un-Biblical; ideas that have their roots in popular presentations of eternal issues. We have learned about death from “The Sixth Sense.” We have learned about Satan from “The Exorcist.” We have learned the story of the Exodus from the movie “The Ten Commandments.” On and on we could go. Many have substandard views of the Christian faith because their source for faith is in songs, works of fiction, movies and the media. Since many pastors have conceded to culture and never step into the rarefied air of theology from the pulpit, most Christians are left with little of substance to ground their theological journey.

Should you read The Shack? I am not recommending the book. There are too many downsides to make up for the value I might gain from reading it. It is seriously flawed theologically, and this is not a minor detail, nor can I chalk it up to “its just fiction.”

One final thought. The second commandment is:”You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.”You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

The second commandment prohibits the fashioning of idols. Jewish understanding of this passage extended into the arts, and the prohibition extended to the artistic representations even of human subjects as the image of God. This sensitivity is reflected in the work of Chaim Potok in the book “My Name is Asher Lev.” Marc Chagall is a famous Jewish artist whose artwork reflects this challenge as he portrayed his human subjects in a way that he felt absolved him from the prohibition; he painted people with four fingers for instance as a way to “get around” the commandment. Later in his career, he abandoned such practices.

In the Shack, there is an attempt to paint a picture of the Trinity. It is a literary picture, but a vivid one. We rightly avoid the analogies (the egg as shell, yolk and white; water in its states of steam, liquid, ice) commonly raised to attempt an explanation for the trinity. The analogies from nature are inadequate to explain the mystery of the divine. They don’t explain the trinity, and they sometimes affirm non-trinitarian ideas. The Shack seems to stand smack dab in the middle of the reason for the prohibition of commandment #2. The image painted of God is amorphous, mutable, conformed to the need of the moment like a shape shifter. All three persons in the Shack take the form of humanity, and characteristics of humanity. These pictures could classically fall into the criticism of painting God in our image to suit our needs and desires. Could it be that Young has violated the second commandment?

It would be different if Young had written a work of fantasy, or was more subtle with his references. But he didn’t and he isn’t. He writes as if the story were a true account encased in fiction. He writes explicit theological concepts, not allusions or suggestions. This is his explanation of the Godhead, his sermon. Much of it is appealing and accurate theologically. But much of it is alarming, and quite simply mistaken.

The Shack is full of dangerous theological ideas, that in times past were labeled heresy. If you are comfortable wading in the mire of theological waste for a few nuggets of truth, jump into The Shack.

Should you read the Shack? I have a list to recommend before this book.

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  • Jon Mills

    I have read the Shack five times, the first out of curiosity, the second time because I liked it, and the other three times looking for the alleged “bad theology”. I have yet to see anything in the book that is contrary to scripture, but there are several things that may go against established orthodoxy.

    It is obvious that the book has impacted many lives in positive ways buy drawing people into a relationship with God, helping them to understand His love, explaining the answer to “why” questions that people ask when bad thing happen, and attempting to explain the difficult concepts involved in the Trinity.

    If this book is of the Devil and so dangerous why has the danger not materialized with so many copies sold. Are you aware of anyone who has been lead into harm as a result of this book? I do not understand the vehement criticism of this book by fellow Christians.

    Again, I have looked and looked for ANYTHING that contradicts Scripture and I can find nothing. What are your top three issues with the book Steve?

    Most people who read The Shack love it and feel like it answers many questions they have always felt.

    There have been many times when religious leaders have been on the wrong side of important issues and this may be on of them. Example: when Christ raised Lazarus they not only plotted to kill Jesus but also wanted to kill Lazarus because the whole resurrection thing was a threat to them.

    I hope this is not the case with todays leaders.

  • stevebag

    Hey Jon,

    My blog encountered some kind of problem today and reverted to a couple of days ago…my comments are lost but whenever someone other than myself comments I get an email with the comment intact. So I have restored your comment and may or may not try to rewrite my comment to you. I replied to this comment as well but it was deleted so I don’t even know if you saw it…technology sometimes lets us down.

    Thanks Steve for the thoughtful reply. My intent is not to get into a big argument with a brother, but I am just baffled by such intense criticism from church leaders over this book which has obviously been used by the Holy Spirit in peoples lives.

    More questions:

    1. In I Cor 11 the meaning of the word “head” is not easy to pin down, but by looking at the different relationships mentioned there are clues. It is obviously not talking about a chain of command as we know it for these reasons. Why isn’t Christ the head of the woman and only the man? Must she go through the man to relate with Christ? Can we not come boldly before the Father and commune in fellowship or is it only Christ that can do?

    One thing that is clear from this verse is that what ever “head” means the relationships appear to be the same. Man with woman; Man with Christ; Christ with God. Head cannot mean “boss” since Christ doesn’t boss Christians around. Luke 22 gives some insight into the type of organizational structure found in God’s kingdom. Christ says he is greater, yet here as our servant. Things are upside down. I do not understand it all totally but it is more than likely that the type of relationship found within the Trinity is quite different from what we think of as hierarchy and may be something that is in fact beyond our ability to grasp.

    2. On the Trinity thing, these are concepts that my mind isn’t elastic enough to comprehend. As Christians we serve one God. He cannot be separated and still be one, yet we see three in the Scriptures. The simple fact that this is a contradiction in our minds tells me it is dangerous to try to put this kind of God into a box and say we understand how He functions. Saying they are the same in essence but different in function makes no sense. Saying they think as one, act like one, talk like one, love like one, (he that has seem me has seen the Father) and we don’t understand how they distinguish themselves from one another does make sense.

    3. The Shack does not tell us to disregard the Bible and it’s teachings, but you are right, it does communicate that the believers relationship with God is not dependent upon any human “go between”. Mutual submission within the body of Christ is what we are called to. Christ said it was the Gentiles that exercise authority over each other but that was not to be the case amongst us.

    I still don’t understand the negative passions but they seem to come only from “the “authorities” who control the meaning of the text and are needed to “decipher” it”.

    I am praying that if there are issues in The Shack which are in fact Biblical errors that the Holy Spirit will show me. I am one of His sheep, I recognize His voice, and am listening.

    Your bro

    Jon