The Shack:Hath God Said?

“Mack would like you to know that if you happen upon this story and hate it, he says, ‘Sorry, but it wasn’t primarily written for you’… I can promise you that the conversations and events (in this book) are recorded as truthfully as Mack can remember them, so please try and cut him a little slack…these are not easy things to talk about.” So begins the current best-seller, The Shack, by William P. Young.

I am thankful that the Word of God doesn’t begin the same way as The Shack. If it did – stating that if the reader hates it, it’s contents are is not for them – few would ever come to repentance and have a genuine conversion experience, as “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word” (Romans 10:17). And if the events of the Bible were also simply recorded “as truthfully as (the recorders) can remember them”, again, few would be compelled to trust it, myself included. But thankfully, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2Timothy 3:16). And so it is with this plumb line, or maybe these days, this “line in the sand”, that we measure and critique yet another bestseller that is being devoured by the Christian audience that seemingly has an unending appetite for books to tell them what God hath truly said. (With all the books out there to tell us what the Bible means, I sometimes wonder how we are any different from the Mormon persuasion with our extra-biblical booklist.)

In our media-saturated culture, the written (or spoken) word has the power to not only create a strong sense of reality for the reader if it instructs, but at the same time can serve to reflect the very culture it helps to form. Some will likely form their theology from this book as though it were a pulpit; others who find flaws in it’s theology will look into the mirror it holds up and see in it a Polaroid moment in time of the state of the church. Those whom God has raised up to warn the church of error will most likely see the Polaroid and decry the pulpit; this is discernment at work. I cannot understate the alarm and grief I feel over any who might make The Shack their pulpit and curse the Polaroid and it’s accompanying “negative”.

For the plot construct, Young’s main character, Mack, goes on a spiritual journey in which he is divinely invited to experience a weekend alone with God, asking any question he wishes and getting, well, “Godly” answers. If Young’s God is the triune God of the Scriptures, and one would hope so in a book that is marketed as “Christian”, one who is biblically literate should be able to hold his portrait of God up to the light of biblical revelation and things should match up. In other words, it should not require rocket science to assess whether the God of The Shack and the God of the Bible are one and the same – identifiable, and recognizable. A common metaphor here might be, if you are going to recognize counterfeit money you have to have studied the real thing thoroughly first. Makes all too much sense.

Now no one is equating The Shack with Scripture on an inspired level, but for all it’s preaching and do-it-yourself theology, the writer better have a compelling reason – and some heavenly credentials – for putting so many words into God’s mouth, remaking Him into his own image, and presenting Him in a way that is often contrary to His Word on page after page. If I were a seeker, or new believer, and I trusted in Mr. Young’s interpretation of God’s character, (and many will) I fear that there would be much I would have to relearn should I ever pick up a real Bible and begin to take it seriously on any level.

Perhaps Eugene Peterson’s (The Message) glowing endorsement sets the tone by placing this book on far too high of a pedestal to begin with. Apparently Peterson doesn’t think so, as he speculates, “when the imagination of writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize, the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrims’ Progress did for his, it’s that good.” I am already quite suspicious of this overly generous assessment and this new fiction+theology mutation. Let me put it kindly: if John Bunyan had relied on The Message for his inspiration, Pilgrims’ Progress would never have been written, and that is no speculation on my part. And the church is worse off today because The Shack was written. Not so of Pilgrims’ Progress. Perhaps Mr. Peterson should dial his enthusiasm for this book down a notch or two until the reviews come in. At any rate, I saw through and through the influence of The Message in this book, and The Shack often sounds like an even more dumbed-down picture of God than that perverted paraphrase, and I would not have thought that was possible.

With the current best-selling status of The Shack, and having personally spent countless hours over the last several years familiarizing myself with today’s church trends – the buzzwords, agenda and overall spirit – this ‘story’ begs to be revealed for what it is, and I am giving The Shack no slack whatsoever.

Although it is supposedly fiction, it was clearly not written for the story. I find this new fiction/non-fiction genre disturbing from a spiritual standpoint, but not completely surprising, as today’s Emergent is more enamored of parables and narratives than absolute truth. Here, the premise and fictional backdrop is simply a stage prop to expose the reader to all manner of “emerging” and “house church” movement “theology”.

The first couple of chapters set up the tragic story of dad Mackenzie Phillips (I immediately thought of the actress from Norman Lear’s “One Day at a Time” liberal feminist drivel and daughter of Mama’s and Papa’s John Phillips) who takes his children on an anticipated camping trip. While his back is turned (he’s busy saving his son’s life in the lake) his youngest, Missy, is kidnaped and murdered, and dad spends the next several chapters alternately blaming himself and God for the events that transpired. There is extensive emotional manipulation in the story’s setup which serves as a thin veneer to draw in the most hard-hearted reader, paving the way for the author to utterly switch gears as Mack begins to question God’s nature in allowing such a horrible tragedy. Once the reader ‘takes the bait’ at the beginning, he or she is drawn into some of the most awkward melodrama and over-the-top sentimentality about life and God that should ever be allowed by law. Any author who has so little respect for their audience that they cannot trust them to have a genuine, honest feeling for their story or characters on their own is simply selling something. I do not care for being setup as a consumer, because if a product fills a genuine need it will not require a sales pitch. But in today’s church, the consumer mentality is a given for those who are given to it.

I found the main character to be shallow, one-dimensional, and not terribly bright. Despite the fact that Mack is struggling in the shadow of “The Great Sadness”, as he calls this chapter of his life, I had a hard time finding him to ring true to my Midwestern sensibilities, and I found that distracting. The character is simply not someone I would want to get to know or deeply care about, even if this were simply any work of fiction, book or film. I may be a pretty tough sell in the ‘bait’ department, but the character profile, again, is probably not what people are buying this book for, so no sense in belaboring that. No, there is a far greater gullibility at work within Christendom that rockets a book like this onto the best-seller list. (#1 in late June)

In my own Kodak moment at the shack, I saw throughout its pages a snapshot of a generation disgruntled with the organized church and ‘pew and pulpit’ expressions of Christianity; I saw a personalized and trademarked version of God that requires the least commitment; seekers seeking experience over truth; and an anti-authority, spiritually lazy consumer. By the jargon and theology that is embedded in this book and it’s underlying condescension and ‘protesting’ agenda, (with a dose of liberal theology) – all genetic markers of the Emergent movement – I sensed an artificial, self-righteous and disingenuous feel to it. Many will be attracted to what they think is a true depiction of how God works in our lives, particularly, in the area of “when bad things happen to good people.” It’s OK to delve into this arena, some have, with integrity; but if the author is less than honest with the reader on such weighty issues as the nature of God, a faulty premise will lead to a faulty conclusion, and seeking God in spirit and in truth is nothing to play dress-up with.

Here are some Emergent sensibilities that rose up to greet me throughout the book:

“Try as he might, Mack could not escape the desperate possibility that the note just might be from God after all, even if the thought of God passing notes did not fit well with his theological training. In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges…Sunday prayers and hymns weren’t cutting it anymore, if they ever really had. Cloistered spirituality seemed to change nothing in the lives of the people he knew…he was sick of god and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs….” (pp 65-66)

Here we find a classic and somewhat cynical introduction to the post-modern mindset, in which a total shift in how church is done is being called for by the likes of Brian McLaren, Robert Schuller and a host of up-and-coming emergent personalities. The notion that something other than the Western approach to spirituality will let God out of the box that evangelicals have put Him in permeates the thinking of today’s emerging, Eastern mystic. Since when is the God of timeless eternity bound by anything so temporal as East/West or ancient/modern labels anyway? In an effort to release poor God from His “book”, they simply place Him in a different one of their own writing, farther away than ever from “in Spirit and in truth”. And what does God Himself say about “that book” that He needs to be sprung from? Psalm 138:2 tells us “For Thou hast magnified Thy word above Thy Name.”

Gee, I guess not all books are created equal, and The Shack drives that point home in living color.

Now, once Mack decides to take God up on His offer of meeting him at the shack, things take a turn I was not ready for. God meets with him in the form of 3 persons: a “big black woman” (the author’s words) named Elousia who represents God the Father and is called “Papa”; a lanky, gee-whiz Middle Eastern type with a tool belt named Jesus; and an Asian woman named Sarayu who does some fancy tricks with color and light and invisibility. The conversational tone between the two is intended to catch the reader off guard with overt casualness, but in example after example of slang and regional accents, I found it flippant and irreverent, and at the very least, inappropriately disrespectful – and even had I been reading this as a perfect heathen I would have been offended. I had more sense (translate: “fear of God”) even as a Catholic child than to view God as some sort of “good old boy” buddy that takes very little seriously. Apparently this is the kind of god people today prefer. The interplay between the three is mushy and saccharine, and there is so much psychobabble about relationships, purpose, and conversations (more postmodern jargon) that I found myself cringing even at the lack of subtlety on the part of the author. Why be coy and hide behind a God of your own making? Just come out and tell us what you believe, even if it’s been done over and over already by countless emergent authors who further spread their postmodern poison through blogs and endless conferences.

“Elousia” likes to listen to Euro-funk blues music that “has a message and a great beat”, by musicians that “haven’t been born yet”, claiming that God doesn’t care for that church-y music because after all, “these kids aren’t saying anything I haven’t heard before; they’re just full of vinegar and fizz. Lots of anger, and I must say, with some good reason too, They’re just some of my kids showin’ and spoutin’ off…”(p. 90) This implies that the younger set knows much more of spiritual things than the old timers and how they express it matters neither here nor there, even to the point of suggesting that God winks at human pride. The Word tells us that we are to communicate with one another ‘with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’ (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). On and on, this preachy book sets itself up as the voice of a hip, rockin’, dancin’, cookin’ and philosophizin’ God whose authority, majesty, justice, and power are inconsequential in presenting the gospel, not even worth an afterthought. Just so we’re happy with our god, that’s all that matters. God exists to make us as comfy as a Starbucks couch.

And there is so much more: God could be male or female but since we have so few father figures in the world we have a need to think of Him that way today (pp 93-94) Jesus lives moment by moment fully human, (p. 112) and didn’t really do any miracles as God. He just” rested in the Father” and so was then able to do things the Father did. He ‘never drew on His nature as God to do anything’; every human was designed to live like this” (p. 100) God is “in all things” (p. 112). God does not punish people for sin because sin is it’s own punishment (p.120) This is pure heresy. I don’t believe that people who are indulging in sin on a daily basis generally feel “punished”, they are just fulfilling the desires of the flesh and rebelling against God’s law. The bible states clearly, “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) and, “for thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee. The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity.” (Psalm 5:4,5) Or maybe this one is clearer:

“The LORD tests the righteous, but the wicked and the one who loves violence His soul hates. Upon the wicked He will rain coals; Fire and brimstone and a burning wind shall be the portion of their cup.” (Psalm 11:5,6) God winks at sin? I’m not seeing that.

This book has an anti-authority edge to it, one of the running theme songs of the emergent and house church belief system that says there should be no pastors or elders, or leadership within the family unit. One particularly telling segment suggests that all we really need to co-exist is a ‘circle of relationship’ (whatever that is) within earthly institutions, since God did not set up any models of human authority. The need for authority is simply a result of our “lost and damaged condition”(p. 182). Yes, we humans are a mess, says Young, but there are no rules, we can do what we want – in fact, God loves our mess (p. 138). We need to be willing to “re-examine what we believe” (p. 197); the Scriptures do not hold us to any responsibilities (p. 205); Jesus is the “center of our purpose” (p. 192) and was “fully reconciled to the world”. Really? I thought the world was reconciled to Him – HE did not need to be reconciled to the world, but the world to HIM. This is an important distinction. This man-centered gospel is an abomination and should be revealed exactly for what it is.

Finally, and this last quote is so close to something Brian McLaren or Doug Pagitt might say it’s scary: “Those who love Me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrat…Republican…not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions….I have no desire to make them Christian, but want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa”(p. 182). Someone tell me how this final quote from The Shack’s Jesus resembles the Jesus of the New Testament who claims: “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life…no man comes to the Father but by Me.” (John 14:6)

Awkward, slippery, pretentious – this book has just enough error to make a doctrinal mess of everything. I find it so telling that a book like this can expound so much error and appeal to so many Christians who have a walk that is a mile wide and an inch deep. I find nothing in the Christian life or Scripture that even hints toward the idea that we could receive a note from God, spend 2 days with Him in a shack, and have all our questions answered in an endless stream of verbal, face-to-face enlightenment. We must not forget in this postmodern re-thinking “phase” that God himself told Moses, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” (Exodus 33:20) Perhaps I am just one of those ‘modernist hold-overs’, but I expect the Christian life to be one of ongoing sanctification, repentance from dead works, death to self and taking up my cross, trials, cost-counting and persecution, and many UN-answered questions. We walk by faith, not by sight, and God changes not – ancient, modern, postmodern (or, “yesterday, today, forever”).

As you have already gathered, I could not find one thing to recommend in this book. If the majority of today’s Christian authors had a genuine godly fear in their lives, they wouldn’t play with His character and his sheep as though there was no accountability for such mischief. If you must read it, proceed with caution and have at your side a well-marked copy of the Scriptures.

And remember, every rat trap has real cheese in it.

I have been a believer since 1981. Everything else before that is relatively meaningless. My heart has, from day 1, always been toward the subject of bible prophecy and I have seen the Lord do amazing things in my life through simply studying the Word and applying it to my life. I am a wife, grandmother and work full time in ministry. Life is full, and full of learning curves and seasons.

3 Responses to “The Shack:Hath God Said?” Subscribe

  1. Sylvia July 8, 2008 at 12:51 am #

    I just read this book yesterday, mainly so that I could say that I had. I have read many wise critiques of this book. This is one of the few, however, that touched on most of the concerns that I had personally when reading the book ——including “MacKenzie Phillips!??!?!”. I appreciate very much your inclusion of scripture references.

    One thing that I would like to bring up because I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere else, is the relationship between “Papa” the saucy maternal god lady and “Jesus” the uuuhhh—christ figure. The way that she would tease him and he would just take it, for example, after he had spilled the pancake batter, just gave me the creeps. I don’t see how the image of God as a domineering mother degrading her grown son in front of company, and Christ as an effeminate nebbish, who swishes around saying “Isn’t she greeaaate!” contributes to a healthy view of the trinity.

    When I came to the part where “Papa” was explaining the Valerie Berntinelli that that none of the three were “in charge” and that “power” was some construct of man, I would have guffawed, but I was too close to puking and didn’t want to do so be forever banned from reading entire books at Borders.

    Thanks for posting this, God Bless.

  2. Mary July 8, 2008 at 6:38 am #

    I find it interesting that each review takes a different slant, there is that much wrong with this book. It seems those who hate it hate it thoroughly and those who love it find nothing wrong with it. Does that describe the spirit of the age or what? Deception is everywhere and frightening in scope.
    I appreciate your comments. I too was disturbed by the “gee whiz” quality of their Jesus and appalled – sickened – at the lack of reverence…I cringed at those parts and wondered how long O Lord? One other thing I left out, not on purpose but for lack of space (I could have written a book on it myself!) was the part where the children meet with their dearly departed sibling in their dreams. There is NO precedent for this in the Word and further proof this author just makes things up as he goes.

    I laughed outloud at your “One Day at a Time” reference. It’s hard to ignore.

    I never in all my days thought I would see the church in such an obvious state of apostasy. Come Lord Jesus.

  3. Sylvia July 15, 2008 at 11:17 am #

    You just wonder why. Why is this treacly overwrought, novel, where every tiny event is the climax to a “Touched by An Angel” episode, so important to the people who liked it? While it was gently engaging at the very very beginning, the heavy-handed, hideous prose was in full flight the moment Valerie entered the sweat lodge. You’d think you could say—”hey, there’s a teeny bit of heresy in this” and people would be like “Oh good! I wanted an excuse to burn this ghastly book!”. Is the story carrying the heresy, or is there heresy carrying the story, eh? Ick! Scarysad.

    Oh hey, I just now noticed your very apt double entendre about “real cheese”! Hehe ;-)

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