"The Shack": What God Should Have Said?
Walter Henegar, Issue Number 20, June 2008
If no one has handed you a tear-stained copy yet, The Shack is a work of Christian fiction penned by first-time novelist William P. Young. The story centers on family man Mack Phillips, whose seven-year-old daughter is kidnapped and murdered in the opening chapters. After three and a half years of understandably “Great Sadness,” a mysterious note invites Mack to the site of her murder, a shack in the woods. There he spends a healing weekend with the three persons of the Trinity, who manifest primarily as an African-American woman called Papa, a middle-aged Jewish Jesus, and a wispy Asian woman named Sarayu. Literary criticism aside, give the brother credit for guts: Young attempts to answer the problem of evil and the nature of the Trinity in 248 pages.
Sales of The Shack have skyrocketed since it was first published in May 2007, garnering rapturous praise from readers (“life-changing,” “joyfully giving away copies by the case”) and glowing endorsements by the likes of Eugene Peterson—who, inexplicably, compares it to Pilgrim’s Progress.
Writing an unfavorable review of The Shack, then, is like criticizing your Aunt Martha’s macaroni casserole. Sure, it’s fattening, but everyone else in the family loves it, so why not just shut up and eat your Waldorf salad? Any critic risks stumbling directly into the book’s own well-worn stereotype: a strident religious nitpick. God the Father, as portrayed in The Shack, oughta cluck her tongue and give you a talkin’ to.
Of course, not every detail is worth dissecting; a novel is not systematic theology. Yet it’s clearly more than just fiction. Mack’s conversations with Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu make up the bulk of the book, with his questions serving as little more than prompts for their extended divine speeches. Though never citing Scripture directly, the characters make enough allusions to biblical content to imply fidelity to orthodox Christianity. Combined with chapter-heading quotes by thoughtful Christians like C.S. Lewis and Marilynne Robinson, the effect is prophet-like: not quite “Thus saith the Lord,” but not far from it.
And therein hides the book’s gravest, and most subtle, problem. Though some parts roughly align with biblical teaching (and many others explicitly contradict it), the book’s overall attitude toward Scripture is persistently dismissive. Mack’s own disdain is conveyed early on: “God’s voice had been reduced to paper. … Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?” (p. 65-67).
More significant, when Mack mentions biblical events or concepts (often in gross caricature), “God” promptly brushes them off and glibly explains how it really is. Unlike the biblical Jesus, who constantly quoted the Old Testament and spent many post-resurrection hours “opening their minds to understand the scriptures,” The Shack’s Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu turn Mack’s attention away from Scripture, coaxing him to trust instead their simplistic lessons set in idyllic, Thomas Kinkade-like scenes and delivered in the familiar therapeutic language of our age.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. Positively, The Shack’s God-figures emphasize the full divinity of each person of the Trinity, the superiority of divine wisdom over human understanding, and the absolute necessity of grace over the illusion of human merit. Those are great points to emphasize, and there are a few pithy insights on lesser matters as well.
Negatively, however—that is, in clear opposition to Scripture—they explicitly teach that there is no authority or hierarchy within the Trinity, and that God is never willing to violate human free will. There’s also a paragraph that seems to imply universal salvation, and a chapter about judgment that stubbornly avoids pronouncement about the fate of the wicked. In fact, there’s little reason to believe that The Shack’s God ever judges anyone. By the end of the book, even the daughter’s serial killer appears to be, conveniently, on the road to redemption.
Despite regular jabs at organized religion, there is something systematic about Young’s theology. Apparently, the essence of sin is our fearful desire to control God’s messy-by-design world, and thus all rules, expectations, hierarchies, or positions of authority are merely human inventions servicing this vain desire. Salvation, then—or healing, at least—is found by surrendering these misguided ideas and embracing the mystery of relationship. As Papa explains to Mack: “Submission is not about authority and it is not about obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way… we want you to join us in our circle of relationship” (p. 145-146).
Young’s diagnosis of sin as “control” has some merit, but his prescription of an entirely flat, circular relationship between us and God ultimately violates a fundamental truth of biblical anthropology: God is the Creator, and we are His creatures. Even after we have been redeemed by Christ, our relationship to God is rightly characterized by obedience and one-way submission to Him.
The result? To the extent that you trust The Shack, you will distrust your Bible—including huge chunks of the Old Testament and at least half of the red letters. Few errors are more corrosive to vigorous Christian faith. Some will plead that there is enough meat for careful readers to spit out the bones, but sadly, this yeast leavens the whole loaf.
In the end, The Shack is spiritual comfort food loaded with theological trans fat. Though not without some nutritional value, its effect on the body of Christ is more harmful than healthy. Even if you love it, and even if it makes you cry. Junk food and bad movies can do the same.
Good fiction has the potential to illuminate biblical truth, but not when it effectively supplants it. We need the Bible, not The Shack. The true Word takes more work to understand, and it won’t always tell us what we want to hear, but we can trust it to reveal a greater, wiser, more loving, and more gloriously Triune God than any novelist could conceive.