Recently I completed the book The Shack, which is right now the #3 book on Amazon.com, and has found increasing popularity within evangelical circles (in particular within “Emergent”). While this was a very engaging read and a very captivating story, I feel there are many problems with the book’s worldview and dismissal of historic orthodoxy. I first became aware of this through the web, and seeing lots of people both recommend it, as well as it being featured on a daily edition of the Albert Mohler Program.
This review is not intended to dismiss what has been written as a great piece of literature, or to promote a censorship movement within the churches. One of the beauties of living in America is the right to free speech and free press. This allows a great freedom to express one’s views in safety and to help cultivate the marketplace of ideas. While there are many who speak publicly against things I (and many other Christians) cannot agree with, we must come to an understanding that their right to speak outweighs our opposition to it. Any society that censors ideas and books is a society that promotes intolerance and a dominant minority (c.f. Third Reich). My intent is also not to encourage churches to rise up in arms against this book. Every time we do so, we only make it more popular (see how The daVinci Code fared against The Golden Compass). Nevertheless, we as Christians must be vigilant and cognizant of what is going on around us in the culture-at-large.
This book is highly popular in Emergent Church circles. The “emergent” movement can be anything from wearing square glasses and having a soul patch while singing in candlelight to being a full fledged denial of objective Truth and placing the whole of Christian faith and doctrine into relativistic terms and ideals based on experience rather than revelation. For a discussion on what the Emergent Movement is, click here. While there are many in the Emergent movement who can be considered brothers in the faith, the rejection of Universal Truth and revelation by many should cause us to be hesitant.
The story centers on a man, Mack, who has a very troubled past but has overcome that and has a good life with a great family in the Pacific northwest. One weekend, he takes his children on a weekend hiking/camping trip to a beautiful park in Oregon. While there, he meets a couple other families and a friendship kindles with them. One day, as he rescues two of his children in a canoe accident, they realize the youngest, Missy, has disappeared. During the ensuing investigation it is discovered she was likely kidnapped. The evidence points to a serial killer the FBI had been tracking known as the Little Ladykiller. Obviously distraught, Mack and his family fall under what Young refers to as The Great Sadness, and the family dynamic changes drastically. Her bloody clothes are found in an old shack shortly thereafter, but her body is never recovered and the family is left to only assume she has been killed. Mack receives a letter in the mail from a person named Papa, calling him to come back to the shack. Mack considers this a cruel joke, but remembers that Papa is his wife’s favorite name from God. His curiosity gets the best of him, and he ventures out to the shack to figure out what is going on.
Upon his arrival, the memory and anger resurface and his feelings towards God are revealed. Mack desperately wants answers but feels his prayers and concerns are being shouted to a deaf and uncaring person. At his wit’s end the scenery around the shack changes and when he goes to the door he is met by an older African-American woman who reveals herself to be Papa. Not only has Mack been granted presence before God, but the entire Trinity is present (Jesus pictured as a middle-aged Jewish man, and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman). They begin the healing process for Mack and through a series of discussions, meetings, and other encounters begin to restore to him the joy that he once had and the peace of being healed of his hurt. In one scene he is able to see Missy in a sort of dream sequence where she tells him all is well and that she loves him. After receiving new insights about his faith and being granted a bigger picture of the world, Mack leaves and assists the police in locating Missy’s body as well as other evidence used to track down and arrest the killer.
On a very personal note, this book was a great look into the heart of grief, guilt, and pain experienced by someone going through situations that we all pray we never have to go through firsthand. The prose Young uses is captivating, and his command of the language and descriptions of the scenes literally takes you out of your chair and into the woods and other scenes in the novel. Having gone through some intense grief and pain in my own life, I was able to empathize with Mack in his struggle. In this regard, it reminded me of the great C.S. Lewis work, A Grief Observed.
When reviewing any book, it must be considered within its literary genre. This book is billed as fiction, and during the reading process it must always be in the mind of the reader that this is a story designed as fiction rather than detailing real events that happened in the Northwest. In this regard, it is one of the more captivating novels I have ever read. I had a hard time putting it down, longing for Mack to receive the peace he so desired regarding his daughter’s death (a similar peace I have longed for regarding the death of my mother).
That being considered, we must remember this is not a theology work. However, I would contend that even as fiction, it has tremendous implications as a work of doctrine. Each of us is influenced by our worldview, which is (though circular) a description of how we view the world. We cannot differentiate how we look at the secular or fantasy from how we look at the sacred. While Young does not intend to change our theological foundations (I assume), his worldview is inherently dangerous and faulted and is at its best misinterpretation and at its worst a heresy.
My first point of contention is how God is depicted. We see in Scripture that God is spirit, and He has no flesh or corporeal existence to limit Him, but the depiction of God as a woman is a clear split from the witness of Scripture and of the history of orthodoxy. God is referred to throughout Scripture as “Father,” and while He does care for His children in a way that is very sensitive and tender, we must acknowledge the fact that He refers to Himself as “He.” We are not to construct new ways of depicting God or deciding how we want to label Him. The depiction of the Divine Feminine is rooted in the fact that as a culture the concept of a “Father” is in many places reduced to simply biological. The concept of “Father” is too difficult for many to bear, whether by abuse, neglect, absence, or other circumstance. Rather, God should be thought of in the feminine, or even in the neutral (Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer) so as to not cause stumbling. While it is true that many have experienced that, and as the Church we must minister to those needs, it is not sufficient to redefine how God is depicted. Seeking to depict God as we wish is in essence idolatry, where we seek to set forth the terms of the relationship rather than God setting the terms.
My second point of issue with this is the depiction of the Son. The Council of Chalcedon sets forth the dual-nature of Christ as being both fully human and fully divine. How this works is still a mystery, but through the witness of Scripture we must take it as such and leave the unanswered questions to eternity. In the New Testament there are places where the divine nature of Jesus are clearly stated (i.e. when He says that He existed before Abraham), and at the same time the reality is there that He was fully man (He was hungry, tired, thirsty, called Himself a Son of Man, etc.). In this book, the human nature of Christ is so deeply emphasized that it diminishes His divine nature. He is so emphasized as being the Son of Man that there are times when it almost looks like adoptionism or Nestorianism. One time, it is said that He could not by Himself on earth do any of the miracles, that it was the Father (or Mother… whatever…) working through Him. Jesus even says that He chooses to set aside his divine nature to identify Himself more with humanity. This is all good and true, but you must be honest with the fact that Scripture portrays Him as the King of Glory and equal in being and personhood to the Father. He is also kinda well… a wimp, focused more on relationships and being sentimental than being a powerful King, and to quote one of my heroes, Mark Driscoll, I can’t worship a guy I can beat up. That is a side note, but one I felt like throwing in the mix too.
A third point of contention I have with this book focuses on the exclusivity of the Gospel message, or how there are times when I wonder if this work realizes or believes such to exist. When we deal with the claims of Christ, we must choose whether what He says is true or what He says is false. If it is true, then when He says there is no other way to Heaven but through Him, it must be taken as truth. That said, there is one point where Jesus tells Mack that He does not care if His followers are Christians, Mormons, Buddhists, etc. While I think that He is maybe saying He is the only way, the language used is a bit evasive and when He says “I do not desire to make them Christian,” I wonder what Young is meaning by that? One of the dilemmas of Emergent/Post-Modern Christianity is half the time, you can’t tell what they’re thinking because they never come out and say it.
A fourth thing I must speak on is that the book masks most of its assumptions and statements under the umbrella of all things being “in relationships.” I believe relationships are important, and that connecting with people in a genuine and authentic way is important to build bridges to the Gospel. But revelation does not come from relationships, it comes from the speaking God who is not silent, and Truth is not discerned from interactions but rather from the mouth of an authority.
All things said, I am not out to make you want to throw this book away or dismiss it without giving it a fair day in court. Your soul will be blessed in reading this, as you can glean some insight into what pain feels like and looks like. You will have trouble in your soul as well, as something just isn’t right about the depictions and circumstances. It is indicative of a greater cultural phenomena of denying Truth and exposing everything to experience and subjectivity. My prayer is that you will seek the Lord regarding your response to this book, and if you have any questions about it or if you wish to discuss this further, please contact me. It is a blessing to be able to write in this forum, and I pray that it is an encouragement to your soul. May we seek Him more daily,