The Shack by William P. Young is at the heart of some major controversy in Christian circles. By choosing The Shack as my first review, I might be opening myself up to a huge controversy (then again, since I’ll most likely have few readers in the beginning, it could get buried in future posts and not read by more than a few. Either way, here are my observations of this book.
For my part, I enjoyed “The Shack.” It is not a riveting adventure or cozy armchair read, but it is interesting. Using Philippians 4:8 as a guide, I find much of the story is good and excellent and worthy of praise. There are some areas of concern, though, and I will address those in this review.
Be warned: Me being me, this review will not be a step by step detailed account of all the plot and theology and possible errors or misconceptions. I am just not that detailed or analytical. My strength is in summary and in bringing some harmony and reconciliation between the disparate views. The Web has many sites devoted to detailed analysis of “The Shack.” One such review is at Challies.com. There are many others and a quick Google search will find several varying opinions for your research.
“The Shack” tells the story of Mack, a grieving husband and father. The story begins four years after the tragic kidnapping and murder of his youngest daughter, Missy. He finds a note, supposedly from God, inviting him to “the shack.” The same shack where the trail of the kidnapper ended and evidence was found that Missy was dead. Mack goes to this shack, where he supposedly meets God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They spend the next couple of days teaching Mack about God and about life and about living in relationship with Him. In the process, Mack experiences comfort, learns to give and receive forgiveness and has his perception of God challenged and re-adjusted.
And that is the heart of the controversy. Is the picture of God presented in “The Shack” truly God? Or is it a caricature, not worthy of notice? Or a dangerous deception to be shunned and exposed?
In “The Shack” God is portrayed, at least at the beginning, as a large Jamaican woman. Jesus is a middle-aged man of Middle Eastern descent and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman. This could be a big mental and philosophical hurdle for many to overcome. While the author probably had valid reasons for each choice, which had nothing to do with irreverence or a feminist agenda, for some this literary choice may be make the story too jarring to enjoy.
Other objections center around the theology of the book. My first reaction to all the theology objections is, “It’s fiction!” Just as I ignored all the theological hoopla over “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” and so many others, so I’m inclined to ignore that argument for this book. It is fiction. “The Shack” is not a treatise on theology.
Or is it?
It certainly has pages and pages of theological discussion, thinly veiled as character dialogue. It certainly presents itself as a vision from God, a vision admittedly aimed at one person, Mack, but still a vision of God . . . about God. It certainly seems to be striving to make a point about God, even if it is loosely portrayed as fiction. And one of the characters in this so-called fiction story IS God. So even if I choose to enjoy “The Shack” as a purely fictional story, I still need to keep my mind on full-alert. I need to keep the truths found in God’s Word in focus as I watch for theological error, deceptions and untruths or even just sloppy, incomplete explanations of important truths.
On the other hand, I also must guard against over-analyzing what is essentially, a fictional story of fictional characters. Yes, there are things in this book that could be of concern, but should we pick it apart and scrutinize and parse every phrase? We certainly do that with the Bible. The Bible is God’s Word. He has supernaturally protected it, inspired it and makes it live and breathe in our hearts and minds. It is His message to us. We should study it and analyze it and scrutinize it to find the treasures of wisdom in it. We needn’t and shouldn’t do the same with fiction.
The Shack is not the Bible. The Shack is a fiction account of one man’s journey toward God. It is one author’s rendering of what might happen if God appeared to a man. If God does appear to men, as he did to Peter, Stephan and others, He does it any way He wants! There is absolutely no way we can “put God into a box”. So, realistically speaking, William P. Young’s supposition that God might appear as a motherly Jamaican woman is possible.
The validity (or lack) of that Jamaican woman’s dialogue and teaching must be confirmed or challenged by Scripture. The truth must be searched out and determined. If anything in “The Shack” contradicts God’s Word, it is suspect. More than that, it is not from Him. It is heresy.
Some object to New Age or Hindu elements in the discussion or to universalist teachings presented as truth by “God.” Many say those errors and fallacies are obvious. I don’t see it. That is not to say it isn’t there. I have not studied New Age philosophy or Hinduism or the Universal Church teachings. For some who have spent years immersed in those teachings or lifestyles, the subtle turns of phrases or ways of explaining concepts may in fact be heretical. And Mr. Young may believe and be promoting those errors.
Then again, his words could be revealing the struggle, common to believers and theologians throughout the ages, to make deep theological truths clear and understandable. How can we expect our imperfect, imprecise language to perfectly reveal complete truth about forgiveness, salvation, Christ’s redemptive work, the Trinity, and so much more? The goal of any believer’s discussion of God, whether spoken or printed, is to make Him more accessible, more lovely and desirable, to reveal Him as the magnificent being He is. The response to “The Shack” demonstrates success on many levels.
The common response from many is “My perception of God is so much clearer, my relationship with Him more intimate and fulfilling.” Yes, it is possible, even probable, that their understanding of God is imperfect, even erroneous. But they have been ignited with a desire to know God! And this in a time and culture oftentimes radically opposed to the God of the Bible. God is more than capable of showing Himself to them if they are really seeking Him. No matter how imperfect or flawed it might be. I applaud anything that causes people to take a closer look at my Lord. I will let the Lord lead them into greater understanding and truth. After all, I also am still learning to know and practice truth.
It may be that Mr. Young is a universalist or worse. It may be that his entire perception of God is skewed and in error. Or it may be that, because of his unique history, he has a perception of our Lord we should not ignore. It seems to me that many have heard, many have been touched by that perception and believe they are now closer to God. Whether they have heard Truth or a version of deception posing as truth has more to do with them and their actual relationship with God, I think, than with the presence of theological purity, or its lack, in “The Shack.”
I find nothing that directly opposes Scripture in The Shack. I do find some simplistic and incomplete explanations of deep theological truths. I do see some jarring personifications or illustrations used to make a point. But I also see explanations and illustrations that clarify truth, crystallize understanding and make God more real in my own life.
And that is something that is good and noble and worthy of praise. In light of Philippians 4:8, I believe I can recommend this book, albeit with some reservations. If you cannot suspend your belief and judgment to allow God to be portrayed as a woman, you won’t enjoy this book. If you have the tendency to accept all you read without question and are easily led away from the truth, you should probably refrain from reading it. And if you find yourself picking apart the theology presented and getting little of benefit from the story, you should probably set it aside.
If, however, you are open to finding truth in unlikely places and you compare all you read to Scripture, you might just see God in this story. And, like Mack, be drawn into an even deeper relationship with Him. There is truth to be found here. Just make sure what you take from the book never contradicts The Book.