Concerned by THE SHACK

The Shack: Pilgrim’s Progress or Heresy?[1]

If you haven’t read The Shack, you probably have a friend who has. It is currently one of the hottest books on the market. The novel, written by William P. Young and published by Windblown Media, has to date sold more than eight million copies. It debuted on the New York Times bestseller list in early June, 2008 and has stayed there ever since. No less a figure than theologian and author Eugene Peterson has given it high praise, saying, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!”

The story line centres on the profound pain of Mack, whose young daughter, Missy, was stalked, abducted, and then murdered by a serial killer. As the story opens we are presented with a deeply wounded middle-aged man who endures each day with great sadness, deeply cynical that anything could ever help him. At the heart of his pain there is a deep reservoir of hostility and anger toward God, who has made him drink such a bitter cup.

The novel quickly morphs into an allegory. Mack receives a mysterious note that invites him to meet God in the very shack where his daughter was murdered. There Mack encounters a feisty African-American woman named Papa (God the Father), a smaller Asian-looking woman named Sarayu (God the Holy Spirit), and an unimposing Jewish man garbed in carpenter’s clothes (God the Son)! Yes, for an entire weekend Mack eats with, hikes with, converses with, works with, jokes with the Triune God of the Bible. Without spoiling the book for those who have not read it, Mack’s encounter with the “Trinity” brings deep healing, rest, and some answers to his disturbed soul.

The novel unfolds the person of God to the reader in unexpected, sometimes funny, and, on occasion, emotionally moving ways. I will not soon forget Mack’s first encounter with Papa. This rather large, energetic African-American woman launches herself at him, lifts him off his feet, and whirls him round and round in an exuberant embrace of pure love, shouting his name over and over. The key to the book is revealed when “Jesus” confides to Mack, “You were really stuck and we wanted to help you crawl out of your pain.” In fact, people tell me they found themselves reading this book with tears streaming down their face. It seems something extraordinary and perhaps transcendent has flowed from the author to his reader.

Lynn Garrett, senior religion editor for Publishers Weekly, notes, “People are not necessarily concerned with how orthodox the theology is. People are into the story and how the book strikes them emotionally.” I think Garrett is right on and this is deeply concerning.

Despite my appreciation for certain aspects of the novel I remain deeply troubled by much of the teaching that comes out in Mack’s conversations with the various persons of the Trinity. Does the God portrayed in The Shack speak with the same voice as the God of the Bible? Sadly, in many instances the answer to this question must be “No.” For example, Papa says, “When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.” But Historic Christianity, based on the Bible, has never believed that the entire Godhead became incarnate. Only one person in the Trinity became fully human, the second person of the Godhead, the Son, who became our Lord Jesus. If the author can be so wrong on so basic a point, can he be trusted with the other words he puts into God’s mouth?

Again, Historic Christianity has always taught that God’s nature includes both love and justice, and that God one day will punish sin. But William Young’s God says, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment. . . . It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” In fact, in various places Young implies that God will in the end reconcile everyone to himself, contradicting the biblical concept of final judgment and punishment.

In Christian circles, The Shack is causing considerable controversy. Though highly lauded by some, others such as Dr. Albert Mohler rightly insist it contains “undiluted heresy.” And this positive reception of the book by knowledgeable Christians is what is ultimately most disturbing: how can they praise such a work? And what does this say for the state of current Christian wisdom and thought?

[1] The bulk of this book review was originally published in the Guelph Mercury, August 26, 2008. Republished with permission.

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