My thoughts concerning Wm. Paul Young’s best-selling novel (Note:this review was written in 2010, but with the movie coming out this year, I thought I would republish it)
By Jesse Jost
Like most reviews of The Shack, I start out by telling you that my curiosity was piqued by hearing friends rave about the book, both in favor of it and against. It’s hard to resist reading a book that draws the fire of trusted conservative voices such as Mark Driscoll and Hank Hanegraaff, while at the same time garnering from Eugene Peterson one of the greatest compliments a Christian work of fiction can receive: He compared it to Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress. Curiosity finally got the best of me and I picked up a copy of this story that has been on the bestseller lists for months and now fills the pages of over three million books worldwide. Now that I have read it, I understand the controversy and compliments this book has stirred. My own journey to the shack increased my dangerous leaning towards schizophrenia…part of me loved certain aspects of the book, while the other part of me was battling feeling “queasy” (to use Hanegraaff’s word) and agitated. So this review will be written by two people in one body. The parts praising the book will be written by my “ego”, while my concerns will be written by my “id”. (I may be using Freud’s terminology wrong, but only because I don’t care to do the research needed to accurately portray Freud’s theories. If he doesn’t like it, he can blame it on my repressed memories.)
Before I get to my thoughts, I want to fill you in briefly on the gist of the novel. I may give too much of the plot away in this review, but I don’t think that matters a whole lot. This book is not a mystery thriller where you only enjoy the book because you have no idea what magnificent plot twists are coming. The primary allure is Mack’s encounter with God. Mack is the main character, who is based on the author, Paul Young. Mack came from an abusive home and struggles with hating his deceased father. Despite this rough beginning, Mack manages to marry a godly wife and they have a large family. Their life takes a tragic turn when their six year old daughter, Missy, is abducted and murdered by a pedophile. A few years later Mack finds an invitation from “Papa” to meet him at the shack where Missy was murdered. Mack secretly slips away and discovers that it was God who asked Mack to join Him. In this novel, God is portrayed as a trinity. Papa, who is a large black woman, represents God the father. Jesus is depicted as a middle-eastern looking man with a large nose, and Sarayu is a slight, flitting Asian woman who represents the Holy Spirit. (More on this later from my id.) Through fascinating interactions and conversations with all three, Mack is able to find healing and a new level of trust in the goodness of God.
In random order I would like to mention the aspects of the book that I thought were excellent.
– This book made me hunger to have a more intimate friendship with God, to know His heart in a new way, and to see the blessings and the tragedies of life through His eyes.
– The dialogue gives a fresh appreciation for God’s immeasurable love for us, and uses word pictures that convey this love in tangible terms. I came away with a renewed faith in the absolute goodness of God and his Father’s heart toward us.
– I found it refreshing to see God portrayed with a sense of humor, and how he finds delight in us in much the same way I find delight in John-Michael (my 23 month old son).
– There is a powerful scene where Mack meets Sophia, who is the personification of wisdom that is found in the book of Proverbs. Sophia puts Mack in the hot seat and tells him he must judge his family and judge God for the tragedies. Mack is overwhelmed by his inadequacies for such a task. Sophia chides him that inadequacy never stopped him from judging before. This book gently shows how often we make judgments on things in this life. We arrogantly think we know enough to judge our experiences and other people as good or evil. But our problem is that rather than judging by the righteous standard of God’s Word, we use instead the arbitrary dictates of our own selfish whims. We set up self-centered expectations of our rights and then blame God when things don’t go our way.
– There is a scene where Mack is alone, then suddenly finds Sarayu (the Sanskrit word for wind), the Holy Spirit, sitting behind him. He is startled and asks when she got there. She replied that she is always there. It gave me a renewed desire to commune with the Holy Spirit, to remember that He is always there, and to lean more on His guidance and comfort.
– This book reminds us as well that we cannot live like Jesus, nor “do what Jesus would do”, unless we first have submitted to Him, and let Him live through us.
– I loved the part where Sarayu heals Mack’s eyes for a few moments. While the scene that followed was rather cryptic and hard to follow, it did remind me that our eyes are jaundiced and that if we could see God and His gifts for what they really are, we would be blessed beyond belief.
– I also loved the reminder from Papa to live in the now, and not be controlled by the past or the future. Worrying about the future – letting our imagination run away – is dangerous and unrealistic. When we imagine tragedies in the future, we imagine the situation in a false, God-less world. We cannot imagine the grace that would accompany such tragedies. Like Jesus said, “today has enough troubles of its own.”
These were the aspects of the book that I didn’t like but could see his point.
– One of the most frequent criticisms of this book is that God appears as a female. In The Shack, Papa makes it clear that he does not have a body or a gender, but that both male and female represent parts of His attributes, and this is simply the form He has chosen for this meeting. (Later on, Papa does appear as a grey-haired man who would be the age of Mack’s father.) This was an aspect of the book that was very hard for me to swallow. I know Paul Young had his reasons, but I still disagree with any female representations of God. However, it did make me think and I had to realize that there are times in the Bible that God likens himself to a mother. It also helps to realize that the author wants this book to be read as a parable, not as an allegory. Much of the charges of heresy have come from readers who try to read too much into aspects of this parable.
– Papa has scars on her wrist. This has led to the charge that this book contains the “Patripassianism” heresy, which denies the distinction between the Father and the Son and says that it was the Father who suffered on the cross. But it is clear that Young is not teaching that. I think the scars are simply a symbol telling us that the Crucifixion was painful for the Father as well.
– Jesus makes an ambiguous statement that “those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims…. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters.” In the next sentence Jesus is clear that not all roads lead to God. And in Young’s defence, He does say that that his followers come from these systems, not that they are still in them.
– The Trinity insists that “nothing is ritual.” It is hard to believe that this is the same God speaking who instituted all the rituals for OT Israel. I don’t think God is against ritual or predictable repetition (after all, who created the sunrise and sunset?) I think God is only against ritual when the life goes out of it and it no longer points to the living God behind it. The Shack does not make this clear, however.
– The book conveys no fear of God, which the Bible insists is the beginning of wisdom. Hebrews tells us to consider the goodness and the severity of God. Without meditating on both aspects of God, we can be lulled into a false sense of security. This book does an excellent job of portraying God’s goodness but not His severity. The God portrayed is “good”, but far too “tame.”
I think what bothered me most was the Shack’s God’s denial of “hierarchy” and “rules” in the perfect life He calls us to. Both of these claims are very troubling to me and I want to take a quick look at both.
– Hierarchy – Paul Young must have been badly burned in the past by rules and authority because he appears to have a clouded perspective. Yes, I know that hierarchy and power can lead to abuse, but God created them for a good purpose. What men like Young seemingly fail to see is that power and authority in God’s Kingdom are about service and love. For example the “hierarchy” in our family of Father, Mother, and Child, gives us a chance in our different roles to serve and to protect. If I said this family thing should be all about relationship and co-submission, like Young suggests, or if I refused to take the mantle of authority, I would be shirking my God-given duty to serve my wife and son in the capacity of leadership. Someone needs to take the lead, and carry the weight of responsibility. It would unfair to a child to carry that weight. It is the same with churches where men don’t want a position of authority for fear that the power will corrupt them. It is important to realize that power can corrupt, but it also important to recognize that power comes from God. When power is submitted to God, and driven by His love, the more power, the greater the potential for good. We need men who are not afraid of power and authority, but are willing to lay down their lives for others and take up the tremendous weight that comes with this responsibility.
– Rules – In this book different members of the Trinity say that they are against rules and that life is supposed to be about love and relationships. There is a grain of truth in this sentiment. We cannot achieve a relationship with God through mere rule keeping, and God does not simply want to burden us with arbitrary do’s and don’ts. I understand that it is relationship that He is after. I also agree that if we were infallible and free of our terrible propensity for self-deception, then we would not need rules. But the Bible is realistic about our fallenness. John, the beloved disciple, whose passionate message till the day he died was “Love one another”, constantly links rule-keeping with genuine relationship. Look at this passage: “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:3-6)
Without rules and the laws of God, we would be deceived into a false relationship with a false God. God is not only passionate about relationships; He also wants us to have the real thing! His rules are not burdens. They are His loving instructions to us so that we can find true freedom.
In a defense of the theology of The Shack, collaborator Wayne Jacobsen says you should read a book like you eat a chicken: enjoy the meat but throw away the bones. Rarely is this advice more applicable than for The Shack. This book does contain sweet chunks of succulent meat, but it also contains large hunks of dangerous bones. If you have developed the spiritual teeth of discernment, you will find much to benefit from in this book. Otherwise, go read Pilgrim’s Progress.