This post is from February 24, 2011, and I review the controversial book The Shack written by William Paul Young. I made edits and expansions when necessary; I actually tried to contract it a bit because it was pretty long.
I have not written about UT basketball in a while; school’s been kind of busy. Oh well. This post will not be about basketball but about William Paul Young’s The Shack, a very popular Christian book that came out a few years ago. Over the years, there have been rather strong reactions to the book. Some have sworn that it completely changed their outlook on God and Christianity. Others, normally on the conservative evangelical side, have denounced the book as heretical, most notably Dr. Al Mohler and Mark Driscoll. Since I have had the book in my possession for a couple of years and because of these strong reactions, I decided to read through it and see for myself what the big deal is.
My findings? In a nutshell, both extremes are overreacting: I am neither inclined to recommend the book to anyone or completely denounce it as heresy. For the details, keep reading.
Before I begin, I want to explain how I will review the book. I will not give a plot summary at all, although some plot details will surface as I explain some things. Instead, I will primarily look at some of the accusations of heresy and see if they are legitimate. It is important to keep in mind that this book is relatively tricky to review because it is not a book on systematic theology but a work of fiction, which means it will be quite a bit more artsy about how it conveys its thoughts . Still, it is a book that was originally intended to teach Young’s children about his views on God and certainly intends to teach something, and thus it is perfectly legitimate to critique the ideas presented. Also, I tried my best to read the book charitably while keeping a critical eye. I did not try to find a heresy under every rock, and when things were ambiguous I tried to give the author the benefit of the doubt. In addition, I will focus more on the theology on the book, in which Young worked with collaborators, than on the theology of Young himself, though that will come up when necessary. I will also not discuss the lawsuit between Young and his associates because it does not impact the content of the book itself.
Anyway, while I will not give a summary, the basic idea of the book will be helpful: The main character, Mack, was on a camping trip and his daughter was kidnapped and brutally murdered at an abandoned shack. Years later, he receives a letter from God to meet him at the shack, and from there the story unfolds.
Criticisms of Heretical Teachings
The Charge of Feminism or Goddess Worship: One of the more striking things in the book is the portrayal of the Father as a large, African-American woman. It certainly may sound absurd, if not downright heretical, to portray the Father in this manner and raises suspicions of a feminist agenda. However, while I do not agree with the author’s strategy, it is obvious that the reason he portrayed the Father this way was to try to shake the stereotypical picture of God as an old man in the sky. Not only is this confirmed in interviews, it is stated plainly in the book itself (95). Young states clearly in this interview and in the book that he does not believe God to be biologically male or female (which is correct) and that he believes that both masculinity and femininity both come from God (also correct). In fact, the second Mack gets over his issues with his own dad, the Father is immediately portrayed as a man again (220). Nowhere is the Father given a feminine name, and regardless if he is portrayed as a man or woman, he is still called “Papa,” the term of endearment for God that Mack’s wife uses.
I have to apologize to Driscoll fans here, but Driscoll was unfair when he mentioned this part of the book during his series on doctrine. His synopsis of the book as God wanting to meet “Mack in the Shack” drew laughter, but he did not state why God wanted to meet Mack. He continued by scornfully noting how God the Father is portrayed as a woman named Papa by sarcastically saying, “I’m not making this up.” He took these parts straight out of context to make it sound ridiculous, which is hardly a useful way to go about critiquing anything, and went so far as to say that the book is encouraging goddess worship. Again, I do not find the Young’s way of challenging religious stereotypes smart at all, but it is obvious that that’s what he was trying to do rather than actually teaching that God the Father is a woman. Frankly, this one wasn’t that hard to figure out, and I either doubt Driscoll even read the book or read it without an agenda.
The Charge of Modalism: Now this one is a little trickier because Young is unnecessarily sloppy with how he portrays the connection between the Father and Son. Modalism is the heresy that God is not three in one but has existed in three different “modes,” which is a denial of the Trinity. On the one hand, it seems positively absurd to accuse Young of modalism when the book consistently shows the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as distinct persons who are often present at the same time. This does not exactly mesh well with modalism for pretty obvious reasons. It might even make more sense to accuse him of the heresy of tri-theism, three different gods.
Then again, the book features strange descriptions of the Incarnation and crucifixion. For example, Papa is shown to have scars on his wrists (97) and states that the Father and the Son were “together” at the cross (98). Later, Mack says to the Father, “I’m so sorry that you, that Jesus, had to die” (105). This can easily be read in two ways: That the Father died on the cross, or that Mack is correcting himself quickly that it was really Jesus. Either way, “Papa” does not bother to clarify it. In addition, Papa says that “we three became fully human” in the Son of God (101). All of this sounds quite like modalism, but after this, it is clearly stated that Jesus is the one who died on the cross when Mack asks the Father about Jesus’ death (193). Likewise, in other parts of the book it is made clear that Jesus is the one who suffered death as opposed to the Father (165) and was the one who became fully human (101). Papa also says ambiguous things like, “Although I have only been limited in Jesus, I have never been limited in myself” (102). What are we to make of this giant mess?
I think clues can be found in the book as well as the interview above. In the book, Papa says that he never left Jesus, which is a mystery, and that Jesus “put himself completely into my [Papa’s] hands” (98). Elsewhere in the book, the three persons of the Trinity show an acute awareness of the all the experiences the others have and share that experience. It seems that while the book affirms that it was Christ who became man and suffered actual death on the cross, he believes that the Father (and the Spirit) suffered something when that happened. Now, some may say that this is a form of modalism called patripassianism, which literally means “the father suffers.” Theologians in the early church held to divine impassibility, meaning that the Father cannot suffer pain, so they would obviously reject any idea that the Father felt some sort of grief over the death of Christ. However, while the modalistic aspect of patripassianism has been justifiably rejected, later Christians began to question the long held idea of the Father’s impassibility for biblical reasons, so holding to the fact that the Father can experience grief is hardly heretical. Thus, it seems that Young is trying to say that while the Father did not suffer actual death, he definitely felt great pain when his Son was nailed to the cross.
That being said, the whole idea of trying to use the imagery of scars on the Father’s wrist is misleading and prone to misinterpretation, and even in a work of fiction I found that portrayal to be unwise. One should not have to dig quite that much into the book and into other sources to figure out what the heck the author is trying to say about such a foundational doctrine of Christianity. While I find the charge of modalism to be unwarranted, it is one that Young set himself up for with a host of bizarre and irresponsible descriptions.
The Charge of Graven Imagery: Driscoll in particular charges the book for breaking the second commandment, which is to not make an image and worship it. However, I am not sure where he is going with this; figurative portrayals of the Father in a fiction do not constitute a graven image. C.S. Lewis portrays Jesus as a lion in his Chronicles of Narnia, and even Veggie Tales had a vegetable character who clearly represented God in their movie The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, which by the way was nowhere near as good as Jonah. True, Christ is called the “lion of Judah” (Rev. 5:5), but this is obviously figurative language. After all, Jesus compares himself to a hen (Matt. 23:37), and I imagine that some Christians would throw a fit if Lewis or someone else portrayed Christ as a chicken. Yet I have not heard such great rage over these examples, so if Driscoll and others wish to be consistent, I will await their denunciations of Lewis and Veggie Tales.
The Charge of Mischaracterizing the Trinity: Driscoll and others also have a problem with how The Shack portrays inner relationship of the Trinity. The book clearly takes a view that there is no hierarchy within the Godhead (124), which is not a view that Driscoll or many other evangelicals hold. I will only say this: Even if Young is wrong here, this does not constitute heresy. The fact of the Trinity is critical for a Christian, not whether or not the Trinity has an hierarchical structure. This is a matter where I think it is acceptable to have debate within the Church.
The Charge of Universalism: In one part of the book, Jesus tells Mack that he is not interested in making people Christian and that he is not a Christian himself (184). He continues to say:
Those who love me have come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims; some are Democrats, some Republicans and many don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, in my brothers and sisters, in my Beloved.” (Ibid.)
This passage is not clear and has drawn accusations of pluralistic universalism. However, it is important to see that right before this, Jesus talks rather harshly about “institutions” and “systems,” calling them futile attempts at power (183). It is therefore clear that his definition of “Christian” merely means a member of the institutionalized Church, not necessarily a member of the body of Christ. Elsewhere in the book, Jesus talks glowingly about his bride, the Church (179), so it seems that Young’s usage of “Christian” here is quite worldly. Furthermore, right after this passage, Mack asks Jesus if all roads lead to him and Jesus says no (184). What this passage is trying to say, and this is confirmed by Young’s associate Wayne Jacobsen in his response to criticisms, is that believers in Christ can come from anywhere. Thus, the book is not teaching universalism and is not even teaching the Christian sort of universalism. Young himself is a Christian universalist, but Jacobsen made sure he removed explicit endorsements of that position in the book. However, I will once again say this: The way this is worded is sloppy and easily misinterpreted, and playing games with the word “Christian” is hardly useful or enlightening.
The Charge of Denying Penal-Substitutionary Atonement: This would actually be correct, but the question is: Does a Christian, to be saved, have to explicitly affirm penal-substitutionary atonement? I do not believe so. In the interview I linked before, the interviewer claims that he believes that “everything” hangs on the debate regarding penal-substitutionary atonement. I do not agree with this, especially given the primcy of the “ransom” view in early Christians. What is necessary for salvation is the realization of sin in one’s life and the faith that Jesus dealt with this sin on the cross, not a sophisticated theology regarding the mystery of the crucifixion. Young’s theology here is not well-thought out, as his only recourse in this interview is to quote 2 Cor. 5:21 that Christ became sin for us, and he more or less left it at that. However, this shows an awareness of sin and the fact that Christ died for sin. Do not get me wrong, I hold to penal-substitutionary atonement, but I am not going to call someone a heretic for not agreeing with it.
The book also seems to deny that God punishes sin, as “sin is its own punishment” (121). There is some truth to this, but it’s ultimately wrong. It is true that sin is its own punishment in the sense that anything against God is ultimately headed nowhere, but it is also true that God does punish, even if it is handing someone over to their own rotten desires. That said, Young elsewhere talks about God as Judge, and again this ambiguity does not help the book at all.
There is more that can be said, but that is enough for present purposes. What can I say about this book? I will refrain from questioning William Paul Young’s faith, since I am in no position to evaluate his personal life but can only go by his explicit beliefs. Still, there are a host of problems in this book. The theology is often poorly thought out, the presentation of his ideas is frequently careless, and his intentions of challenging religious stereotypes are not executed in the wisest of ways. He believes in sin but does not quite communicate the severity of it. He believes in the Trinity but describes God in ambiguous and sometimes silly ways. He believes in the cross of Christ but does not adequately explain the price paid by Jesus. The book, frankly, shows the author’s lack of careful thought and interaction with the body of Christ.
Are there good parts of the book? Sure. The story itself isn’t bad, and it can be very moving when it describes the kidnap and murder of Mack’s daughter as well as his future dealings with this tragedy. In that regard, the book is very honest about the severity of evil in the world, and instead of offering an answer as to why this happened, Mack only finds comfort in a relationship with God. This is an important lesson for Christians to learn and something the book got right. While some parts are cheesy, there are also some well written parts, and I appreciated the reality of the emotion displayed by the main character. It is perhaps possible that whatever its flaws are, the Holy Spirit can still use the book to break down unbiblical stereotypes about God and Christianity that both Christians and non-Christians hold.
All that being said, I do not see myself recommending this book to anyone. I may encourage someone to read it just for the sake of being familiar with a popular book, but as far as teaching clear truth, I would tell them to look elsewhere. Still, some Christians need to chill out: Don’t be eager to accuse something as heretical without careful examination, and don’t swallow what an uninspired author says wholesale. That will help keep you from overreacting.