The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity


The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity
William P. Young

Review by Dr. Glenn Kreider, professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

Used with permission

Ranking consistently in the top ten at Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and other booksellers over the past couple of months, The Shack has clearly connected with a wide audience . . . and stirred up its fair share of controversy.

At the center of the book is the most difficult of all theological dilemmas: the goodness of God and the problem of evil. Where is God in the midst of pain and suffering? How can a good God allow the kinds of horrific evil that humans and other creatures experience? Why doesn’t He do something to stop it? Why does God seem so unconcerned about suffering and injustice? Intense and complex, these questions have almost universal appeal.

The Shack was written by a Christian father for his children, to help them understand his relationship with God. William P. Young explains that he never intended to write a book, but that this story became the means of communicating the real conversations he had with God and with friends and family over several years. Though the story is fictional, it seems pretty clear that Young’s claim that the conversations were “all real, all true”1 is a claim that the words of God found in this book are true. Now, any work which claims to record divine speech needs to be read carefully and critically. Claims to speak for God must be treated with utmost seriousness. Hence, the controversy.

The Plot
In this novel, the protagonist, Mackenzie Allen Phillips, receives an invitation from God to meet Him at a shack in the woods. It takes Mack a little while to decide to keep the appointment, but his curiosity and his pain eventually convince him to make the trip. When he arrives at the shack, it and its environment are transformed into an idyllic setting by the presence of God. Mack, too, undergoes a remarkable transformation, although that change takes longer to accomplish.

Four years earlier, Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy, had been kidnapped during a family outing. Her body had never been found, but the evidence pointed toward her murder at this abandoned shack in the Oregon wilderness at the hands of a serial pedophile. Mack had identified Missy’s bloody dress, found on the floor in front of the fireplace in the shack. As would be expected, these years had been difficult for Mack and the rest of the family, a period he describes as “The Great Sadness.” But, after spending a couple of days at the shack with God, Mack returns home a changed man. Through a series of conversations with God, he begins to understand how God’s love provides the basis of forgiveness and the power to change human lives. The transformative power of redemption through forgiveness is the theme of the book.

The Strengths of the Book
I so wanted to like this book. It is an engaging story, even though it is very predictable. The horrific nightmare this family experienced is every parent’s worst fear and thus the story connects with the reader at a deep level. The author effectively uses word pictures, characterization, and plot development to probe deeply into the emotional recesses of the reader’s soul. The conversational tone draws the reader into the story, encouraging him or her to experience vicariously Mack’s spiritual transformation. The story stresses God’s love for His children, emphasizes human freedom as the cause of sin and evil, focuses on forgiveness and reconciliation as the solution to sin and evil, stresses the hope of eternal life in God’s presence in a new creation, and encourages the reader to interact with the human characters and God in a deeply meaningful way.

The Weaknesses of the Book
But I cannot recommend this book. The reason is simple: the author’s portrayal of God is confusing at best and untrue at worst. An engaging story is not enough. Emotional appeal is not enough. Many such books have been written, some even by Christians. Young is claiming that real conversations between himself and God are put into the mouths of Mack and God. Regardless of whether or not God continues to speak today—and Christians differ about that—what He says today can never contradict what He has said in the past. A book which purports to describe God must be accurate. A book which tells the story of God’s involvement in the world must be consistent with God’s revelation of Himself in His Word. This book does not measure up to God’s self-disclosure. A couple of examples will have to suffice.

Confusion about the Trinity
The first couple of chapters of the novel advance the plot to the pivotal point at which Mack arrives at the shack and meets with God. Throughout the book, the triune God appears in three human forms. His first encounter, at the front door of the shack, is with Papa, a “large beaming African American woman.”2 He then meets a “small, distinctively Asian woman,” named Sarayu, and a Middle Eastern laborer, who is obviously Jesus (83). Mack concludes that “this was a Trinity sort of thing” (87). Portraying the Trinity as three people, separate from one another, is hardly appropriate. God is not three separate people; that would be three gods—tritheism. Rather, He is one in essence yet three in person. The persons must be distinguished but never separated. Of course, the Trinity is a great mystery and beyond human comprehension. It is not, however, appropriate to portray God in a way which treats the doctrine of the Trinity as tritheism.

Confusion about Christ
Not only is this novel’s portrayal of the Trinity inadequate, so is its portrayal of Christ. Christians confess that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, two natures in one person (called the “hypostatic union”), because this is the teaching of the Scriptures. In this union the integrity of each nature is preserved. The author’s view of Christ confuses the natures and undermines the uniqueness of the hypostatic union. In one conversation between Mack and Papa, Mack explains his belief that the miracles of Jesus are evidence of His deity. Papa corrects him, “No, it proves that Jesus is truly human” and continues,

Jesus is fully human. Although he is also fully God, he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being. He is just the first to do it to the uttermost—the first to absolutely trust my life within him, the first to believe in my love and my goodness without regard for appearance or consequence. (99 – 100)

Mack is shocked to learn this, so he asks about Jesus’s healing of the blind. Papa explains:

He did so as a dependent, limited human being trusting in my life and power to be at work within him and through him. Jesus, as a human being, had no power within himself to heal anyone. . . .

Only as he rested in his relationship with me, and in our communion—our co-union—could he express my heart and will into any given circumstance. So, when you look at Jesus and it appears that he’s flying, he really is . . . flying. But what you are actually seeing is me; my life in him. That’s how he lives and acts as a true human, how every human is designed to live—out of my life. (100)

Several significant problems exist with this understanding of the incarnation. First, it is not true that Jesus “had no power within himself to heal anyone.” Jesus, as the God-man, did, and does, possess full and complete deity (Colossians 2:9). Young’s view sounds like kenotic Christology, that Christ gave up His deity when He became human. If He did not retain full deity on earth, He is not fully divine. Second, no other human is like Jesus in being fully divine. No other human has the power of deity as Jesus did. The incarnation of Jesus is one of a kind. And it certainly is not the case that all humans possess the life of God in them, as Papa’s statement implies.

Conclusion
I first read this book because it was recommended to me by several people I know and trust. Most significantly, I read Eugene Peterson’s recommendation: “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” (front cover). That is pretty high praise. I began reading with a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm. The story hooked me from the first couple of pages. Although my experience of suffering and pain is not to the same degree as Mack’s, I have many of the same questions he has. As I read this book, I waited with anticipation for the conversations with God to begin. As they did, I felt an increasing feeling of sadness in the depths of my being. This is not only not literarily comparable to the work of John Bunyan, it is even less worthy of theological comparison. This is a dangerous book. Its view of the Trinity is inadequate and its view of Christ is unorthodox. That is not good.

Notes
1. William P. Young, “Is the story of THE SHACK true . . . is Mack a ‘real’ person?” http://www.windrumors.com/30/is-the-story-of-the-shack-trueis-mack-a-real-person/ , accessed May 14, 2008.
2. William P. Young, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity (Los Angeles: Windblown Media, 2007), 82. Hereafter cited in text.

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8 thoughts on “The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity

  1. Pingback: Theological Reflections on “The Shack” IV: Trinitarian Heresy? « John Mark Hicks Ministries

  2. Pingback: common grace kingdom » Blog Archive » The Shack: theological shamble

  3. I was set not to like the book, The Shack but after reading it, I thought it was really good and thought provoking. All the time I read it, I kept thinking it needs a study to go along with it. I finally decided God was urging me to write a study which I did. If anyone would like it, email me at prayerdigm.bookstudy@yahoo.com. I would be glad to send you the study. You are welcome to use it and copy it for others.
    Trish Pickard

  4. Call it what you want, like it or not. The Shack was a brilliantly created story depicting the Holy Trinity as fictional characters. It was written with the best of intentions and with creative juices flowing straight from the divine. We must remember God is neither male or female but spirit, He is not of flesh only His son was of flesh. “The Shack” embraced truth, love, compassion and forgiveness, all concepts from the way, the life and the truth that Jesus so graciously tried to give us. What THE SHACK book gave us in fictional writing, the new book causing such a stir THE TRUTH “The Illumination of Conscience” by author Jeff Simoneaux is doing in the non-fiction genre. It also tells an amazing story only the story is not fictional at all but lined with immediately understood truths and enormously meaningful degrees of certainty. I highly recommend the book as it changed my life already. I was given the task of proof reading and copy editing it and was proud to be amongst the very first to get my hands on a unedited version.

  5. Is God’s Word not sufficient as He provided it, are His gifts not enough as He designed them.  A book and movie such as The Shack are man’s attempt to show that God needs our help, that man can add to what God has provided.  Man is demonstrating His pride by directly and blatantly adding his ideas and depictions and words to what God has given us.  It is God’s word and gifts that are supposed to change man and renew our minds, The Shack is an attempt to add to and change man’s thinking about God.  I ask that Churches not condone and facilitate this, allow God’s people to be in AWE of Him as He has shown Himself to us, allow His saying,  “I AM WHO I AM”, to be sufficient.

  6. I feel uneasy about The Shack, but I don’t know that I would nail that unease down where Kreider does here. First of all, I’m not sure that there’s indication in Scripture that Trinitarian theology or even an acknowledgement of the hypostatic union are necessary for salvation, necessary for a life of discipleship, so a reader’s developing confusion in these areas doesn’t strike me as terribly destructive, in and of itself. It strikes me as an Acts 18, “Apollos” type situation where readers of The Shack can receive pieces of the puzzle and later process through the deeper nuances of Christology and Trinitarianism.

    Second, we have to recognize that OUR understanding of the Trinity and of Christ’s essence is, at best, theological metaphor. When Young is dappling in these concepts, emphasizing some aspects of Trinitarian theology, diminishing others, he’s not, in essence, doing anything different from what capital-T Theologians have done for thousands of years. He’s constructing an elaboration of God’s nature based on the minimal data we have available in natural, historical, and special revelation. His construct has weaknesses, impurities. So do all of ours. We are smaller than God. His ways are not our ways. Entering into conversation with The Shack can facilitate humility on the part of the traditionalist theologian.

    It’s still an important question, though, whether the weaknesses in The Shack’s theology are necessarily going to build toward a false understanding of God. It’s important because we want to understand God as accurately as we can–that is good and right, in and of itself. It is also important because an inaccuracte understanding of God can damage our daily walk with Christ. I don’t know that I can fish out all the implications for how doctrine of the “higher” things can influence our choices and sentiments, but I think many of us have experienced that dynamic, or we’ve seen it in people we care about.

    As for The Shack, though, that danger might be minimalized by the fact that Young isn’t elaborating a full, systematic theology. He is emphasizing particular corners of systematics that serve his plot and his purpose. That is simply the nature of art: it draws attention to select elements of human experience, to select elements of universal truth. Sometimes an artist chooses to paint everything else in caricature to emphasize those particulates he or she is interested in. This could make The Shack less threatening because most casual readers will have their eyes drawn to the aspects of God that Young paints the narrative around, not to where Young takes creative license with homoousios, for example. Readers will reflect on the relational aspects of God–both within the Godhead and between God and us–because that is what Young emphasizes. The Modalist aspects of the presentation are there to facilitate a comprehendable metaphor for relationship, so they will–I believe–be relegated to the realm of mystery in the reader’s mind. In other words, I don’t believe Modalism will crystallize as a theological construct in the minds of most readers.

    What COULD crystallize, however, is an attitude of license itself. This is my deeper question: is The Shack’s loose Trinitarianism a whimsical theological sojourn made to tell a story? Or is it a statement of rebellion against the constraints of traditionalism? If it’s the latter, the tone of that defiance will inevitably make its way into the story. Whether traditionalist views of God are accurate or not, a general disposition of self-satisfied sbversion; of elitism–setting ourselves above tradition as commentators (rather than as participants); even of levity concerning doctrine–these are the kinds of attitudes that become dangerous to us.

    What is the heart of The Shack? Can that heart be seen in the cautionary, systematic guardrails that Young does or doesn’t set up? Can the absence of those guardrails necessarily be evidence of their deliberate dismantling? Can the book have value for what it crafts well concerning the nature of God and his relationship to us? Can any book with God as a central character (outside the Bible) be considered safe theology, when human beings will inevitably get his character wrong? I find that, even after analysis, I’m only left with questions.

  7. Pingback: The Hypocrisy of White Christianity |

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