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The Shack: A Book Review             

By Jim Pierce
Author of the blog Confessional's Bytes

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A few weeks ago a new book by the name of The Shack came to my attention in a discussion over how Christians should view books that use fiction to teach doctrine. I did some preliminary research into the book and wasn’t exactly thrilled by the reviews I read. I reluctantly decided to purchase the book and read it for myself to see what all the fuss is about. I am not disappointed that I did because I confirmed what the reviews I read about this book had claimed; namely, that The Shack contains deep, troubling, doctrinal errors.

I am not going to get into much detail over the story line of this book. When reading the book it becomes obvious that the story is being used as a vehicle to drive along the theology and philosophy of its author. While this book is fiction, it is meant to convey what the author believes are truths about the reality of the world, humanity, God, and our relationship with Him. It is toward these beliefs presented in the book that I will be turning our attention to as many others apparently have. In my reading of personal reviews of this book at I found many people crediting this book for changing their lives forever. In fact, some have claimed they are handing out the book by the case, because they believe it is so life changing. When looking for the book at a local Christian book store I was told they were sold out because they have a person on staff dedicated to selling the book to customers and he had been doing a “spectacular job.” The Shack has certainly become the latest "Christian phenomena."

Before I get into the book I want to talk about the author. His name is William P. Young. This is Young’s first printed book and as is already clear, book sales are doing well for him. It has been suggested in other reviews of his book that Young is an “Emergent”, or is part of the “Emerging Church Movement". In an interview with (World Magazine Online) it is pointed out that Young is part of a “movement that rejects the institutional church.” That is a common theme among Emergent, who are against doing what they often refer to as "brick and mortar church." It is also brought to our attention in the same interview that Young, “…is no longer a member of a church, nor are his publishing partners, both former pastors.” One of these partners is the editor of The Shack and a very close friend of Young’s, Wayne Jacobsen. Jacobsen is a proponent of Emergent and very much into the idea that Christianity isn’t about church, but about relationships;(1) a hallmark teaching amongst Emergents. Both Young and Jacobsen don’t see a need for church and don’t formally attend one. Since this review is not about the Emergent/Emerging movement I would like to recommend to those unfamiliar with the movement a series of articles published at “Sound Witness” titled, ”The Emerging Church” for a good overview of what can be found in this movement. Suffice it to say, that after reading the interviews mentioned and linked above, I am thoroughly convinced that Young is part of the Emergent/Emerging church movement. Knowing this should prompt us to approach The Shack with caution, even though it doesn't, in and of itself, guarantee that the book will contain false teachings. However, as we will see, some of the false doctrines of the Emergent/Emerging Church Movement are found throughout the book.

The story line of the The Shack is about “Mackenzie Allen Phillips” and his journey in dealing with deep pain and suffering over the kidnapping and murder of his six year old daughter Missy. Young powerfully recreates the circumstances leading up to the fateful day that causes so much inner turmoil for Mack, as “Mackenzie” is known by friends and family members. The resulting psychological trauma of the loss of his daughter is referred to as “The Great Sadness”. It is his psychological trauma that drives Mack into anger at God. Indeed, The Shack ventures into pop-psychology as Mack deals with his pain and as his unlikely therapist “The Trinity” guides him along the path of recovery.

This brings me to the “god” of The Shack. Just to be blatantly clear here, the “god” depicted in The Shack is not the Holy Trinity revealed to us in Holy Scripture. Young’s “trinity” resembles the “god” of the heretical view called “modalism” more than anything else. In short, the heresy of modalism rejects the doctrine of the Trinity claiming that God is not three persons, but one person who “manifests” Himself in three modes of being, or “personas”. That is, God plays the role of Father at times, Son at times, and Holy Spirit at times. Tertullian, who wrote against this heresy in the third century Christian church, remarked,
"By this Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy; he put to flight the Paraclete, and he crucified the Father." (emphasis mine)(2)
That the Father was crucified is precisely what we find in The Shack. Young develops his cast of three divine “personas” as Papa, a “large black woman” (p. 84) who also goes by the name “Elousia”; Sarayu, who is revealed to Mack as a slim Asian Woman, represents the “holy spirit”; and Jesus who is depicted as a man of Middle Eastern decent. As the story unfolds Mack realizes Papa has scars on “her” wrists:
”Papa didn’t answer, only looked down at their hands. His gaze followed hers and for the first time Mack noticed the scars in her wrists, like those he now assumed Jesus also had on his…. ‘Don’t ever think that what my son chose to do didn’t cost us dearly. Love always leaves a significant mark,’ she stated softly and gently. ‘We were there together.’” (emphasis mine, p. 96)
Interestingly enough, Young doesn’t describe Sarayu as having scars on her wrists. Although, he does write, ”When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human… we now became flesh and blood.” (p. 99) Later in the dialog Mack once again notices the scars on “Papa’s” wrists and says, “I’m sorry that you, that Jesus, had to die” to which Papa responds, “…we aren’t sorry at all. It was worth it.” (p. 103)

Unfortunately, Young continues to mangle the doctrine of the Trinity by forever limiting Jesus to his humanity. We see this where he writes,
”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.”
Astonished by this revelation Mack asks, “So, when he healed the blind?” to which Papa responds, “He did so as a dependent, limited human being….” (pp. 99,100) Here Young describes his Jesus as being “grounded” and it is permanent, he never draws upon his divine nature. Mack is confused and continues his questioning to Papa, and keep in mind the context here are questions to Papa. He asks her, “So does this mean that you were limited when Jesus was on earth? I mean, did you limit yourself only to Jesus?” The Papa persona responds, “Although I have only been limited in Jesus, I have never been limited in myself.” (p. 100)

Towards the end of the book Young emphasizes his modalistic tendencies by having Papa change from a “large black woman” into a man with “silver white hair pulled back into a ponytail, matched by a gray splashed mustache and goatee” (p. 218) The idea is “god” can choose different masks through which “it” reveals itself to humanity. “God” can be a woman, a man, or whatever else “it” chooses. (see p. 94) Why? In Young’s theology God doesn’t exist as three distinct and persistent persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
”It is quite simple really. Being always transcends appearance—that which only seems to be. Once you begin to know the being behind the very pretty or very ugly face, as determined by your bias, the surface appearances fade away until they simply no longer matter. That is why Elousia is such a wonderful name. God, who is the ground of all being, dwells in, around, and through all things—ultimately emerging as the real—and any appearances that mask that reality will fall away.” (p.112)
Young’s “trinity” is simply personifications of a being that dwells in all things. Indeed, he verges into pantheistic thought with the idea that it is “god” who emerges as “the real” and that the world of appearances mask its reality. This concept of “god” is one where the individual’s perceptions of “god” determine how the deity is seen. So, “god” can be a “mother”, or a “father”, or anything else the religious adherent perceives, but they are all expressions of “the real”: the One.

In sum, Young clearly rejects that Jesus ever acts out of his divine nature. Furthermore, he has the Father claiming that He has been limited in Christ! God the Father has never been limited in His power and He was not incarnate in flesh. The scriptures are clear the Father gave His only begotten Son to die on the cross, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Finally, Young’s concept of God leans towards the pantheistic idea that God is the ground of what is “really real” and that the aspects of God, the “faces” of God, are a matter of what we need to perceive at the time. Young’s deity does not persistently exist as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In the theology of The Shack, “god” personifies itself in such a way as the perceiver needs for the moment. Young’s "god" is not the Christian God.

Much of the confusion over the nature of God in The Shack is likely a result of Young’s view of reality as expressed in the book. In the above, we find that Papa essentially takes on varying forms to meet the needs of the perceiver (you and me). Papa mentions that “being always transcends appearance.” In other words, the world we perceive is a construct. So, what is a view of reality beyond the construct, in The Shack? Young answers this question through his character Sarayu which is his representation of the Holy Spirit. Sarayu states,
”…if you had eyes to see the greater reality, here is what you would witness: As you continued your current conversation, a unique combination of color and light would leave you and wrap itself around the one who had just entered, representing you in another form of loving and greeting that one.” (p.214)
In The Shack what turns out to be “really real” is that we are all beings of light with varying patterns of color defining our uniqueness. This is simply mysticism. The idea is that the real is an all pervading light emanating from a single source; in this case Young’s deity. Mack wasn’t able to see this “truth” being limited to the world of appearances. It took the power of Sarayu to heal Mack’s eyes so he could see reality (p.208). Once his eyes were “opened” he could see that everything was comprised of light and that how we are expressed to each other through our senses is really a matter of changing patterns of unique colors.

In Genesis chapter two we are told “…the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (v. 7) Our bodies aren’t merely “appearances”. They are not “really” light. In fact, the resurrection of our physical bodies is an important part of Christian doctrine. Just as our Lord Jesus was raised from the dead in a glorious body (Phil. 3:21) so, too, our bodies will be transformed at our resurrection. More importantly though, depicting a “reality” where we are not in transformed physical bodies when we arrive to heaven is a denial of not only our own bodily resurrection, but also the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ! (see 1 Cor. 15:12-19) Young inadvertently denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus when he moves off into Gnostic mysticism, relegates the physical world, including our bodies, into a world of mere appearances and the “real” world is one comprised of “bodies” of light.

Throughout The Shack there is a heavy anti-establishment and anti-institutional theme. Indeed, Young has Papa calling hierarchies in relationships, such as the order of relationship in a marriage, “Such a waste!” (p.122) Furthermore, his Jesus tells us,
”Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it…. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intend for you.” (pp. 122, 123)

“As well-intentioned as it might be, you know that religious machinery can chew up people!’, Jesus said with a bite of his own…. ‘You’re not too fond of religion and institutions?’ Mack said…. Jesus paused, his voice steady and patient. “Like I said, I don’t create institutions; that’s an occupation for those who want to play God. So no, I’m not too big on religion’, Jesus said a little sarcastically, ‘and not very fond of politics or economics either.’ Jesus’ visage darkened noticeably. ‘And why should I be? They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about. What mental turmoil and anxiety does any human face that is not related to one of those three?” (p. 179)
It is Young’s anti-establishment/anti-institutional ideologies that allow him to embrace universalism. Mack asks Jesus, “is that what it means to be a Christian?” and Jesus responds, “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian.” Young's Jesus continues,
”Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who 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….” (p. 182)
Here Young has clearly denied that God has established an earthly hierarchical system through which He works. The church is not one where Jesus is its “head”; there is no order to creation such as woman created for man. Indeed, throughout the dialogue between Mack and the “trinity” one gets the sense that man is an equal partner with God. More to the point, Young's thoughts about hierarchy implies a rejection of authority as being God pleasing, which clearly contradicts Holy Scripture,
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment." --Romans 13:1-2
According to Young, it isn’t the will of God that there is civil government, or even marriage, those are all institutions we create allowing us to “play God.” In The Shack God is only concerned with relationships; in fact, he wants to set us free from systems altogether (p.123). What Young is advocating in The Shack is not the denial that Christ is the only way; instead, it is more akin to the New Age philosophy that “Christ” is mystically found in all religions, or in no religion, per se. In fact, we see this with the words expressed through Young’s “Jesus” who says, “I will travel any road to find you” (p. 182). In other words, “Christ” will find you in Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or anywhere else: Jesus isn’t a Christian and neither are his followers which are found in every human made institution which the god of The Shack detests.

The Jesus of the Holy Scriptures declares, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6 ESV) The teachings of our Lord and the Apostles found in the Holy Scripture unequivocally teach that there is no salvation outside receiving the saving faith In Christ. "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12 RSV) Indeed, St. Peter warns the Church of false teachers and vividly explains that God Himself keeps the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment:
"But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority." --2 Peter 2:1-10
There is no meeting Jesus in other religions, or life philosophies, outside the Christian Church. The Holy Spirit delivers us from false religions and sets us on the one true road to salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord.

It is little wonder then that in The Shack we don’t find in Mack’s story of “redemption” law and gospel. Instead, we find talk of having a “relationship” with God only in terms of a journey to restore us from our “brokenness” because of the fall; which seems more like psychological turmoil than anything else. In fact, Young’s deity doesn’t need to punish sin at all. Why? “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” (p. 120) Indeed, not only does Young’s deity not punish sin as a holy God, but he refuses to convict of sin through law,
“When Jesus forgave those who nailed him to the cross they were no longer in his debt, nor mine. In my relationship with those men, I will never bring up what they did, or shame them, or embarrass them”. (p. 225)
Contrast what Young writes with the Word of God:
”Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” –Romans 3:19-20

“Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. –Matthew 13:36-43
Scriptures are clear that the law brings knowledge of sin, it convicts of sin. Furthermore, we know from the Bible that God is holy and must punish sin. If sin isn’t punishable by God, then there is no need for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Worse still, in the above quotes from The Shack, is the implicit rejection that Christ was punished on the cross for our sins. Indeed, why did Jesus have to go to the cross at all, if God doesn’t punish sin, requiring redemption? Gone is the substitutionary atonement of Christ in Young’s writing.

The above are just a smattering of examples of what is wrong with The Shack. Sadly, this book abounds in errors! I have read where some Lutherans are touting this book as teaching Lutheranism and that couldn’t be further from the truth. This book is full of theological confusion and outright heresy. I can not recommend anyone read this book unless it is to uncover the errors in it. What The Shack might get right doesn’t outweigh what it gets wrong.

I would like to end this review with a couple things I did like about The Shack. I did find the book very entertaining as far as fiction goes. The story of Mack is very engaging. I am a father of two children and I can only imagine what a person who has lost a child to murder would feel, and Young weaved a touching story of one father's loss into something I could relate to. Young does a very good job developing the character "Mack" into somebody I could sympathize with and see some of myself in. He masterfully put me in the passenger seat and drove me along Mack's arduous journey ending in relief.

I also found the deity Young creates to be very affable. Young creates a resort setting for Mack with the trinity catering to his every need while together they work through Mack's pain over the loss of his daughter Missy. Why go to "Club Med" when you can have "Club Shack"? At least at "Club Shack" the staff truly does know your every need even when you don't!