What is the Deal with The Shack? Good Book, Bad Theology or Something Entirely Different

the-shackEver since William P. Young’s book, The Shack first came out back in 2007 it has been the subject of strong disagreement in the Christian community.  Followers of Christ of all denomination seem to be deeply divided over it, they absolutely love it or absolutely hate it.  It is that kind of book.  People on both sides of this divide are puzzled at how the other side Christians are just not understanding why it is so good or why it is so bad.

With the movie adaptation coming to theaters on March 2, 2017, this dramatic difference of opinion will likely be brought back into the forefront and possibly cause further division among God’s people.

Rather than just ignore it, let’s do what is good and healthy for Christians and talk about it.  Get it out in the light.

For those who haven’t read the book, Young’s book is about a father, Mack who lost his young daughter while on a camping trip when a serial killer abducts and brutally kills her.  Yes, this is how a Christian book starts and as you will read below, is part of the problem with it.  This plot aspect is really jarring so if you are sensitive to this type of story, don’t read it.  I can’t imagine it will be fun to see depicted on screen either.  After receiving a note from “Papa” who we later find out is God, Mack experiences an encounter with the three persons of the Trinity, here is the Wikipedia plot summary (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t read it):

Four years prior to the main events of the story, Mack takes three (of his five) children on a camping trip to Wallowa Lake near Joseph, Oregon stopping at Multnomah Falls on the way. Two of his children are playing in a canoe when it flips and almost drowns Mack’s son. Mack is able to save his son by rushing to the water and freeing him from the canoe’s webbing, but unintentionally leaves his youngest daughter Missy alone at their campsite. After Mack returns, he sees that Missy is missing. The police are called, and the family discovers that Missy has been abducted and murdered by a serial killer known as the “Little Ladykiller”. The police find an abandoned shack in the woods where Missy was taken. Her bloodied clothing is found but her body is not located. Mack’s life sinks into what he calls “The Great Sadness”.

As the novel begins, Mack receives a note in his mailbox from “Papa”, saying that he would like to meet with Mack that coming weekend at the shack. Mack is puzzled by the note—he has had no relationship with his abusive father since he left home at age 13. He suspects that the note may be from God, whom his wife Nan refers to as “Papa”.

Mack’s family leaves to visit relatives and he goes alone to the shack, unsure of what he will see there. He arrives and initially finds nothing, but as he is leaving, the shack and its surroundings are supernaturally transformed into a lush and inviting scene. He enters the shack and encounters manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity. God the Father takes the form of an African American woman who calls herself Elousia and Papa; Jesus Christ is a Middle-Eastern carpenter; and the Holy Spirit physically manifests as an Asian woman named Sarayu.

The bulk of the book narrates Mack’s conversations with Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu as he comes to terms with Missy’s death and his relationship with the three of them. Mack also has various experiences with each of them. Mack walks across a lake with Jesus, sees an image of his father in heaven with Sarayu, and has a conversation with Sophia, the personification of God’s wisdom. At the end of his visit, Mack goes on a hike with Papa, who shows him where Missy’s body was left in a cave.

After spending the weekend at the shack, Mack leaves and is so preoccupied with his thoughts that he is nearly killed in an automobile accident. After his recovery, he realizes that he did not in fact spend the weekend at the shack, but that his accident occurred on the same day that he arrived at the shack. He also leads the police to the cave that Papa revealed, and they find Missy’s body still lying there. With the help of forensic evidence discovered at the scene, the Little Ladykiller is arrested and put on trial.

Based upon how many people read the book, it is obvious that it was impactful.  Your book does not have to be good to be a best seller, but it does have to make an impression.

So what is the deal – what is the good or bad of it and why are people upset about it?  Here is my take.

The Good:

As you can guess, the book is quite powerful.  The story line is unbelievably emotionally charged and Young does an excellent job conveying the loss and sheer heartache surrounding a father’s loss of a child.  I read this book shortly after it came out and as a dad of a little girl, I was bawling while reading it.  It was quite unattractive, my wife kept asking me if I was ok.  At multiple points in the book, I was brought to tears over the depiction of Mack’s loss and suffering.  I don’t know if Young had loss in his life, but The Shack pulls you in and makes the pain of loss clear and palpable.  For people who have experienced great loss in their lives, this depiction of a character who suffers and then finds redemption through God was significant.  It seem like many readers experienced a “he gets what I am going through” kind of feeling with Young’s writing.

Young also does a good job of portraying God’s wonderful love for His children.  Mack spends years sad and angry at God and in rebellion but God is there ready to show him that His perfect love washes away all sin.  As a believer in Jesus, seeing anyone walk through great pain to a point of trust in Jesus is an awesome thing to behold, even in fictional form.  Jesus used all different types of pictures in parable to convey just how much the Father loves us and to help us understand God in our limited mind so just using fiction can be a good thing.

I have friends who experienced great pain in their lives from loss and abuse and they feel like The Shack really spoke to them and helped them through their struggles. Offering a picture of an understanding and all forgiving God when so many people need it is a good thing and should not be dismissed because the book is otherwise flawed.

The Bad:

We can get into specific theological issues with The Shack and there are quite a few, but for me there are two main problems with the book.  They are big ones:

1 – Young’s pictures of God and His actions towards Mack diminish portions of God’s character in favor of making God more acceptable to man.

God is presented in a number of persons who look like regular old people…people that Young thinks are sympathetic.  They look nothing like the Biblical depiction of the Trinity and Young depicts them as such for a troublesome reason, to make the protagonist feel more comfortable.

In other words, God changes Himself into an image different from His regular old awesomeness so that a man feels more comfortable with Him. God changes to accommodate man’s feelings.  While this seems to make sense in the flow of the story, it is completely upending the actual relationship involved and making the eternal, unchanging God subject to our feelings about Him.  Mack is supposed to be the servant of the Most High Eternal God, not the other way around.

In the Bible, when people interact with the heavenly beings as they truly are, whether it be with angels or with God, the reaction of the people is dramatic.  “Fear not” or “get up” are usually the first words spoken as the person has fallen on their face in awe or is terrified by the brilliant holiness before them.  Jesus knocks Paul to his knees when He appears on the Road to Damascus and Paul’s companions remain on their knees during that entire encounter.  When God appeared at Mt. Sinai to Moses, the mountain was covered in smoke and lightning and thunder.  The Israelites were terrified and even later Moses’ has to veil his face because the glory of God just reflecting off of him is too much to see.

God by nature is awesome and glorious and powerful and holy  – it is who He is and He does not ever, ever, ever ( did I mention ever) apologize for it.  You simply cannot understand God unless you understand His whole character.  Depicting God as serving tea to someone to make them feel better may make the reader feel better but it places the Creator as subject to the whims and emotions of the created.  God loves us but doesn’t cater to us and He certainly doesn’t lower Himself to placate us.

In our self centered world, frankly, this is just about the last inaccurate picture of God we need to offer to people.  We already have enough trouble lowering God down to our level.

2 – The second reason why The Shack is problematic is it uses emotional manipulation to make its theologically fuzzy points.

I felt icky after finishing this book.  I did not realize why at first and as I had said was bawling at multiple parts of the book so it was confusing to feel negative emotions after such an emotion fest.  But as time went on and I couldn’t get rid of the unsettled feeling, I realized that I was feeling the way that I usually did after dealing with the hyper-manipulative folks from my past.  I had arrived at an emotional conclusion and it felt satisfying, but there was a vague awareness that it wasn’t really mine and wasn’t really genuine.  I realized that I had just been emotionally manipulated by the author.

The plot of the book begins with an incredibly heartbreaking event in the life of Mack and drags you into what is a terrible picture of guilt, anger and sorrow.  If you have a heart, you are jarred by the horror and then feel deeply for Mack as he drifts through the years that follow feeling lost and in great pain.  This sets up an almost inescapable desire on the readers part to make it better, doesn’t matter how just make it better – I beg of you, please I just need resolution!

As a Christian and with the framing of the story to include Mack’s anger and doubt of God, the resolution is set up to involve God making it all better.  When the encounters with God happen, you are just so grateful to make the pain stop for Mack and for a happy resolution that the details kind of don’t matter.  Who cares that the Holy Spirit is depicted as an Asian woman, Mack is happy and my sad emotions are replaced with happy emotions – yay!

Hitler was a master at this tactic during his rise to power in Nazi Germany.  He would throw out dramatic fearful concepts in his speeches to get people’s primal reactions firing and evoke strong responses.  He would talk about the greatness of Germany, betrayal, the dangers of Communism and hatred of Jews to get people in an emotion driven frenzy that he then twisted to his purposes.  Because of all this big, bad scary stuff, you must follow where I lead.

Young is not Hitler but he employs the same tactic on a much smaller scale… but it is still emotional manipulation.

Because of the great sorrow of Mack and his loss and resulting anger and resentment, the powerful emotional triggers, the reader is induced to follow Young’s depiction of God because God has to be like The Shack’s version for their to be any resolution. It is the only way to resolve the emotional turmoil created by the author.  Young gets you so involved in the life of Mack that it is easy to lose sight of a proper view of God and not care about it, just please let me stop feeling sadness for Mack.  As I said, when you see it, it is just icky.

So my conclusion, The Shack is not the worst book in the world.  It does present a view of God’s unrelenting love that is positive and has helped many deal with the pain of great loss.  Presenting God as loving, as He truly is, in a world that has a view of God as the scary angry man on the mountain is a good thing.

But boy is the rest just a mess.  Even without getting into the specifics of the theological errors, Young presents a false and potentially damaging view of God that diminishes Him, raises up man and equates Him with a man.  Then there is the manipulation.  I don’t regret that I read the book but I have many years history of learning to see through manipulation.

So I don’t recommend The Shack…at all.  It is just too much chaff to sift through to get to the wheat and there are many other better books out there.  It is the literary equivalent of watching the Oprah show, there are some good points and it presents a sympathetic viewpoint but is ultimately lacking when it comes to the spiritual issues of life as it completely misses God.

So reader beware.  Freedom in Christ says that you are free to read it though and make your own decision.


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