Doctrine of God
'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty'
The Shack: good news or bad story?
- Daniel Hames trained for ordination at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has degrees in Theology and Ecclesiastical History, and is a Theology Network Associate Staff Worker for UCCF. View all resources by Daniel Hames
William P. Young’s novel The Shack has enjoyed enormous success all over the world, has garnered both high praise and heavy criticism. A great deal has already been said and written about its assumptions, theology, and the possible agendas behind its authoring. For this reason, there’s little point in rehearsing the premise, plot, and characters, and we can proceed simply to examine the contents of the book themselves.
Young is a seminary educated ex-minister of a Christian denomination in Canada, and the theology we find in The Shack is no accident: Young is clearly writing with an agenda. The Shack is plainly designed to teach spiritual lessons, and especially to challenge the assumptions of Christian readers. In nature, then, the book is comparable to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), or Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian (2001), which McLaren calls ‘narrative theology’: fiction with a didactic purpose. This means that in assessing The Shack we should not arbitrarily make a black and white distinction between a systematic theology and a novel. Of course we should read The Shack for what it is, but also be aware that it is doing far more than simply telling a moving story.
So The Shack is definitely a novel, but it is definitely designed to teach us spiritual lessons and challenge our theological understanding. It aims to do this in two main areas: the being of God (the doctrine of the Trinity), and the problem of suffering (notably the justice and goodness of God).
God the Trinity
Mack meets God in the shack, and it is interesting that he meets three physical, visible persons. For some readers, the idea of three distinct persons might be difficult to swallow but it has to be admitted that this is preferable to Mack meeting a bearded old man! Young vividly portrays the three as having deep relationships of love, and some passages depicting this are very welcome (his first meeting half-way through chapter 5, for example, is especially warm and creative). As the story progresses however, the problems that emerge around The Shack’s doctrine of God are less tri-theistic, and tend more towards a kind of inferred pantheism (especially in sections about the Holy Spirit). With regard to the unity of the three persons, Young seems to fall into modalism. In the depictions of the three persons of the Trinity, there are a number of points worth exploring.
The most immediate detail which consistently causes some surprise is that the Father is portrayed as an African-American woman of generous proportions. This is not quite equal to the SCM poster, ‘Does God exist? If so what is she like?’ (essentially a feminist polemic); though it is a deliberately shocking and subversive move. Papa appears to bear close relation of The Oracle in The Matrix. The appearance of a homely African-American woman in her kitchen to surprise Neo is mirrored almost exactly by Mack’s first meeting with Papa. Like The Oracle, Papa’s explanations of God, reality, and suffering appear to owe more to philosophical slights of hand and Eastern mysticism than the Biblical affirmations to which Christians normally turn.
‘Papa’ explains that neither maleness nor femaleness are essential to ‘her’ being, and that ‘her’ appearing as either is simply for the sake of Mack’s own understanding (p. 93), hence Papa later appears to Mack as a man for a time in which he needs a father (p. 218). This is quite problematic, since the assertion that the Father is genderless is really a philosophical one rather than a biblical one. As much as ‘maleness’ may fashionably be seen as a creaturely thing, or a social construct, the fact is that the Father has revealed himself fundamentally as ‘Father’ rather than as ‘Mother’ or ‘Ground of all Being’. Young apparently anticipates the objection, and has Papa answering that objection thus,
‘… there are many reasons for that [revealing myself as Father], and some of them go very deep. Let me say for now that we knew once the Creation was broken, true fathering would be much more lacking than mothering.’ (p. 94)
This is yet more disturbing, as it seems to suggest that the Father is only Father ‘for us’ and since the Fall, rather than in any final sense. There is no hint throughout the book that Papa is in any way a Father to Jesus (nor even a Mother!). The fatherhood of Papa is purely functional, and it speaks nothing of the real person which lies underneath the shifting shape, nor of the Father’s eternal relation to the Son, which the Bible presents as the source of the Creation itself.
On the surface, The Shack seems keen to wrestle with the doctrine of the Trinity but is consistently both confused and confusing. While it is apparently keen to display the three in loving unity for which it is to be commended, it sadly falls into the most common philosophical traps of squashing the members of the Godhead into one. On p. 99, Papa is shown ‘enjoying herself, all by herself’ and taking pleasure in ‘Me being ‘Me’ as if Papa in herself is the entirety of the Godhead, even though Jesus and Sarayu are not present. We would want to affirm that biblically the Father’s pleasure is in his Son rather than in himself (Isaiah 42:1-9, Mark 1:11), and while we may talk about God being ‘happy in himself’ before the creation, this is a shorthand for speaking about the fellowship of the Trinity rather than an individual self-acceptance or self-absorption (John 17:24). Young’s contentment with a ‘mathematical’ oneness is really a slip into modalism, despite the presence of three persons in the shack.
An historic form of modalism is expressed clearly when, on a number of occasions, there is the suggestion that the Father was Incarnate with the Son. The most significant of which is on p. 99, and actually includes an Incarnation of the Holy Spirit.
‘When we three spoke ourselves into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human. We chose to embrace all the limitations this entailed. Even though we have always been present in this created universe, we now became flesh and blood.’ (cf. p. 165, 201)
This passage should cause us to cringe at the very least, as it is such a bizarre take on the nature of God and the Incarnation. The gospel itself is under threat if we maintain that the ‘Son of God’ is not an eternally distinct person from the Father, in a relationship inherent in the Godhead; moreover to suggest that it was not only the Son, but also the Father (and Spirit) who were Incarnate is to inexplicably ignore the plain reading of scripture. This leads Young to tell us that Papa, the Father, was also crucified. Mack touches the scars on her wrists (p. 95), and Papa says on p. 96 of the cross, ‘We were there together.’ (emphasis in the original).
Young appears to forward the notion of a Trinitarian crucifixion to counter Mack’s understanding of Christ’s cry of dereliction, which has ‘haunted’ him – presumably pained by the prospect of the Father abandoning Jesus. Papa tells Mack that ‘no matter what he [Jesus] felt at that moment, I never left him.’ (emphasis in the original). As at many points throughout the book, Young gets us to deconstruct our understanding of scripture (in this case that the Son bore the Father’s wrath against sin on the cross), but fails to give us an alternative interpretation. What is really happening in Matthew 27:46 on Young’s account? We are left in the dark somewhat, and there is a sense that Young sees a secret meaning ‘behind’ the obvious reading of the text. The Father is also spoken of as being on the cross, suffering with the Son on p. 103 and p. 164. Some readers might object, saying that this is surely a creative attempt to show that atonement was a Trinitarian work; yet the stress on Papa’s scars is too difficult to brush aside in this way. Young is telling us that Papa was nailed to the cross with Jesus.
The teaching that the Father was Incarnate and crucified was noted in the third century and called Patripassionism, based on a single-person God who was expressed in three different ‘modes’. We should be clear that simply by depicting Papa, Jesus and Sarayu conversing with Mack in the shack, he in no way vindicates himself from this charge. It is a cause for some considerable sadness that Young would incorporate this teaching into his book, whether through ignorance or on purpose, perhaps assuming the defence that a work of fiction need not be held to account theologically. There is a distinction to be made between the theological imagery of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and the straightforward account that Young offers here. There is a gulf between Lewis’ purpose in making Aslan a ‘Christ figure’ and Young’s purpose in putting words into the mouths of the divine persons! While all illustrations and allegories will fail eventually (and at this point will depart from the theological reality), Young’s explicitly didactic purpose in The Shack calls for great theological rigor and responsibility. Indeed, to write the Father, Son and Holy Spirit into a novel is perhaps a questionable move at the outset. At the very least, if he had wanted to express the Trinitarian nature of the atonement creatively, surely there were ways open to do this that would avoid leading undiscerning readers to warm to historic heresies.
Finally on the presentation of the Father, there is another of Young’s deconstructions of doctrine surrounding sin and the wrath of God. On p. 119-120, Mack questions Papa about ‘spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire’ (in the Old Testament) and whether Papa enjoys this. Young has Papa answer rather alarmingly, ‘I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. 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.’ While Mack’s question reflects a common misunderstanding of the Bible’s teaching about God’s judgement (something Young is right to question), again there is no different reading offered for those narrative passages which speak of God’s anger. Instead, the idea of sin’s offence to God and its resulting penalty is simply torn down. If Young is hoping to liberate his readers from counterfeit conceptions of a capricious and unreasonable judge, why does he feel the need to cut-out the clear witness of the Bible on the issue? The reason is that Young is not appealing to the Bible at all, because of his commitment to a universalism which teaches the final salvation of everybody through Christ, reflected in Papa’s comment to Mack on p. 127 that evil is not going to be ‘justified’ but ‘redeemed’, and on p. 225 ‘In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship.’ As James B. De Young points out,
‘Mack acknowledges that he believes that God “will condemn most to an eternity of torment, away from his presence and apart from his love.” But the story proceeds to show that Mack is wrong in believing this!’
While this might sound like good news, it is really no good news at all since The Shack’s picture of God is of the one who has forgiven us, but done nothing to pursue us. It is our job to seek relationship with him. The biblical good news is that Jesus seeks out his lost sheep, puts it on his shoulders, and carries it home. In the gospel, the Lord comes looking for us, since in our sinfulness we would never go searching for him.
Young’s universalism underpins the book, expressing his view that nobody will be judged for sin on the last day, and that amongst God’s attributes love will always conquer justice. This means all discussions of sin, hell, and the cross are much skewed throughout the novel. I believe that promoting this position is one of Young’s primary goals in publishing The Shack.
The person of Jesus is imaginatively and attractively presented as a keen woodworker, a lover of nature, and the one with whom Mack feels the greatest affinity. There are some enjoyable passages as Jesus enjoys the creation, and shows delight in relating to Mack. Yet here too, there are some grounds for grave concern. These revolve mainly around the nature of Christ as both man and God. Papa explains in conversation with Mack
‘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.’ ‘So, when he healed the blind?’
'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.’ (p. 99-100)
Young might call on scriptures like John 5:19 to support his case (‘I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.’) but this is to overlook the fact that John is describing Jesus’ eternal divine life, not explaining the mechanics of the Incarnation. What develops is picture of the Son being only human and never acting as God during the incarnation, but only relying on the Father for all he needs to do. The rest of John 5 clearly contradicts this: the Son receives life ‘in himself’ from the Father (v. 26) to give to his people. Life really belongs to Jesus, and it is his to give, and because of his complete divinity it is through Jesus that we can truly know the Father (Matthew 11:27). Jesus of Nazareth is not merely a human vessel relying on the power of God, or else he can never be anything more than a revelation of a true human being. The Bible shows that he is the perfect revelation of God, and those who do not honour him as such fail to honour the Father (John 5:23). Cyril of Alexandria’s famous phrase was that ‘God walked the streets of Nazareth’. This is conspicuously absent from The Shack’s Christology.
Later, p. 145 exposes another unusual approach to Christ. Young has Jesus saying,
‘Have you noticed that even though you call me Lord and King, I have never really acted in that capacity with you? I’ve never taken control of your choices or forced you to do anything…’
The obvious concern is that many people struggle with Christ’s Lordship and Kingship, and Young wants to rescue Jesus from being portrayed as a cruel master. But if we did call Jesus Lord and King does this necessarily mean he would be forcing the hands of his subjects? Again, Young seems to want to challenge orthodox biblical interpretation but is agonizingly vague about what he is really trying to prove. It is of course a straw man: Christ is Lord and King- and exalted to the highest place with the Name above every name!- but that is never biblically linked to tyranny or suppression for his people. If Young wants simply to encourage his readers to think carefully about how Christ exercises his Lordship, why does he leave open the possibility of scrapping the concept altogether? Later we will return to his obvious difficulty with authority.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is given the name ‘Sarayu’ (wind) and depicted as a small Asian lady with a shimmering appearance that makes it easier to see her when you are not looking directly at her. This is an effective and creative way of expressing the Spirit’s self-effacing work of glorifying Christ (John 16:13-14). She is the most mysterious of the three in the shack and into her mouth is put some of Young’s most telling rhetoric. She is defined by Papa on p. 110 as follows, ‘She is Creativity; she is Action; she is the Breathing of Life; she is much more. She is my Spirit.’ (emphasis in the original). This is an interesting on account of its lack of a solid personhood for the Spirit.
The identity of the Holy Spirit as a distinct person in the Godhead is an important thing to preserve. Jesus carries-out his ministry anointed by the Spirit (Isaiah 42:1, 48:16, 61:1; Psalm 2:2; Luke 3:22; Acts 10:38), the Holy Spirit refers to himself as ‘I’ in Acts 13:2, Romans 8:16 tells us that the Spirit testifies with our spirits, Hebrews 9:14 calls Him ‘the eternal Spirit’. Significantly, Jesus tells the disciples to baptise in the Spirit’s name along with his own and His Father’s in Matthew 28. Defining the Spirit as an impersonal force flies in the face of scripture, and even though Sarayu is given a physical form, name, and personality, the problem stands.
This trend continues, and is expanded somewhat on p. 204 when Sarayu speaks about herself, Papa, and Jesus,
‘I am… I am a verb. I am that I am. I will be who I will be. I am a verb! I am alive, dynamic, ever active, and moving. I am a being verb… my very essence is a verb.’
To say that ‘God is a verb’ is not a new idea, and find its roots in Kabbalah and other mysticism. It is strange that Young wants to borrow from those who maintain that ‘the divine’ is a force, or a presence in everything, yet he clearly steers toward this again on p. 198 when Sarayu tells Mack,
‘You might see me in a piece of art, or music, or silence, or through people, or in Creation, or in your joy and sorrow.’
This is most clearly seen on p. 112 :
‘God, who is the ground of all being, dwells in, around, and through all things- ultimately emerging as the read- and any appearances that mask that reality will fall away.’
The speaker is Jesus, and he is talking about the Father (in this instance referred to as ‘Elousia’- a composite of the Hebrew El (God) and the Greek ousia (being)).
Young’s depiction of the Holy Spirit initially, and the whole of the Godhead subsequently, reveals that far from an imaginative fictional work on the personal triune God of the Bible, The Shack seems to meditate instead on a Unitarian/pantheistic deity which presents itself as ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Spirit’ for the benefit of human beings’ understanding. While the Trinity is often regarded as a difficult doctrine to comprehend, the three persons of the Godhead are the centre of Christianity’s good news as they act together for our salvation. It is reason for genuine grief that this doctrine is so distorted in a story that has proved so popular around the world.
It is fascinating that Mack meets a fourth person; one whom the other three are excited for him to meet. She is Sophia the embodied wisdom of God, and it is with her in the absolutely crucial chapter 11 that Mack’s most serious business is done. It is this chapter that deals with the issue of judgment (which I believe to be Young’s primary bone of contention in the book), and this chapter in which Mack makes the biggest leap in terms of his ‘recovery’ by seeing Missy. This is bizarre, since it means that more power is given to Sophia to change Mack than the three members of the Trinity. In fact the three seem simply to facilitate his visit to Sophia by making him pancakes and coffee, walking him to her cave, and preparing him for his visit to her!
Sophia’s presence as a ‘fourth person’ is both disturbing and perplexing, and is perhaps a further hint at the Unitarian conception of God that apparently characterises The Shack. That a fourth person, ‘Wisdom’, does the bulk of God’s work is perhaps a demonstration of a philosophical commitment to God being primarily a divine force of knowledge rather than a communion of three distinct persons. Surely no creative prerogative is licence enough to add persons to the Godhead!
What’s going on underneath?
The driving concerns behind Young’s underlying theology manifest themselves briefly at certain points. Sarayu’s discourse on ‘paradigms, perceptions, and emotions’ on p. 197, Jesus’ reflections on power and sin on p. 147-8, and Sarayu’s denial of hierarchy within the Trinity on p. 122, exude the feel of having been lifted from Michel Foucault rather than the Bible. There is a constant suspicion of authority and power for this reason that underpins the book; especially a latent cynicism about Christianity as historically expressed. Among the objects of scarcely concealed scorn are, church, ‘… Sunday hymns and prayers weren’t cutting it anymore, if they ever really had’, (p. 66), theological education ‘None of his old seminary training was helping in the least.’ (p. 91), doctrine, ‘That came as a shock to Mack’s religious system’ (p. 100), and biblical interpretation ‘Mackenzie, religion is about having all the right answers… there are a lot of smart people who are able to say a lot of smart things from their brain because they have been told what the right answers are, but they don’t know me at all. So really, how can their answers be right even if they are right?’ (p. 198)
Young’s evident problem with authority is of course partly warranted. Fallen human beings make imperfect fathers and ‘lords’, we abuse our power and debase the duty we are given to mirror God’s authority over the universe. Yet The Shack’s outright rejection of authority (whether biblical or ecclesial), especially that of Christ as Lord and King is too far. It is particularly disturbing since the gospel relies on the grace of God being bestowed by him as ruler of the universe, and on Christ being ascended to the Father’s right hand for the security of the believer. To deny the essentially supernal nature of the gospel is to rob it of all grace. The love of Jesus in The Shack is the love of a peer not of a King, and far from being unmerited; it is almost as if Mack’s pain has earned it.
One does not have to read for very long online about William P. Young to find that these issues are ones that he has struggled with personally, leaving the church in which he was a minister. So it is clear that The Shack is in some sense autobiographical, certainly reactionary, and to a degree polemical. It is important, then, that we do not see The Shack as a creative work in a vacuum. Instead, I think it is demonstrable that Young’s project is to deconstruct readers’ conceptions of God and salvation, leaving them to rebuild the picture however they like. There is a clear reliance on theology from experience rather than the revelation of an external Word, a clear example is on p. 126,
‘Trust is the fruit of a relationship in which you know you are loved. Because you do not know that I love you, you cannot trust me.’ (emphasis in the original).
Humanly speaking, trust may be generated by relationship- but we are to know God is trustworthy simply because he says he is (Romans 3:4). Our experience confirms this, but is not fundamental in us knowing it. In The Shack there is a clear preference for experience over revelation which is potentially perilous for Christian assurance. Our perception of suffering and pain in our lives will sometimes lead us to believe that God is untrustworthy: it can only be his external promise that will sustain our faith at these times.
Why portray the Father as a lady called ‘Papa’, or call the Spirit ‘Sarayu? Why arouse doubt and dislike over parts of scripture without appropriate apologetic? The answer is simple: because external revelation is not the focus, internal experience is. Why ignore scripture’s teaching about the fate of unbelievers and root for a universal salvation? It is because external revelation isn’t the authority, but rather personal preference.
The problem of suffering
While the doctrines of God and salvation permeate the book and their expression has required a thorough critique, the book is really about the problem of suffering. It is a story of Mack coming to terms with childhood abuse from his father, his rash retaliation in poisoning him, his loss of Missy, and the misappropriated guilt of Kate. While The Shack name-checks forgiveness, the cross of Christ, and the plan of God, I feel that it is ultimately unconvincing in the answer it offers to suffering and evil. The fundamental reason for this is that The Shack is a statement of Young’s universalism. Throughout the book, love is seen as the attribute of God’s character that will consistently conquer the others, especially his justice- nobody it seems will finally face the justice and wrath of the Father. As we have seen, Young is certainly clear that Christ did not do so on the cross.
Missy’s abduction, rape, and murder are horrific, yet the book seems to give only very shallow attention and answers – many readers have commented that its treatment of the loss of a child is in fact remarkably glib. While the idea of a universal reconciliation to God and loved ones is offered as ‘hope’ for Mack and for readers, I cannot help but feel the book actually makes light of the suffering of Missy. It does the same for Mack’s abuse from his father, and their outlandish cosmic reunion in chapter 15 is dealt with in such a fleeting manner that I thought I had missed a few pages! There is little account given of the Fall as the root cause of murder and rape, and greater weight is placed on our free will as humans to choose what God would not. Young does not show God as the one who will one day deal with sin and evil, so much as the one who can weave it into a tapestry that will in the end be beautiful.
‘…there are millions of reasons to allow pain and hurt and suffering rather than to eradicate them, but most of those reasons can only be understood within each person’s story… Your choices are also not stronger than my purposes, and I will use every choice you make for the ultimate good and the most loving outcome.’ (p. 125)
I believe that such thin and cursory treatments of suffering, justice, and forgiveness are inevitable for a theology so broken and impoverished as Young’s universalism.
For orthodox Christianity, the cross is the key to understanding both the love and justice of God, since it is here that God shows most clearly his determination to punish and destroy sin, and simultaneously his love in providing reconciliation through faith in Christ’s sacrifice. Young, in contrast, portrays the cross as a demonstration of God’s love and sympathy as a co-sufferer. While it is true that Christ’s sufferings enabled him to be a ‘faithful and merciful High Priest’ sympathising with our weaknesses (Hebrews 2), in The Shack the cross cannot be, and is not advanced as the final answer to suffering and injustice. Instead, we are met with swathes of pantheistic hand waving, which simply raise more questions, and obscure the reality of future judgment, the nature of sin and salvation, and the need for faith.
Despite my initial open-mindedness to The Shack, and my determination to read and review it charitably, I conclude my thinking over its contents feeling very disturbed. I began by thinking it may have been a good-hearted book which made some innocent (if serious) missteps, but having carefully considered it I have changed my mind. Sadly I can see only a partially-disguised tract for a Unitarian brand of universalism, decorated with some post-structural philosophy and nods to Eastern mysticism. In the end, The Shack is hardly a Christian book at all.
God the Trinity is squashed into a monolithic omnipresent ‘verb’, the nature of Christ is divided, and his cross is emptied of all meaning. Salvation, therefore, is nothing to do with personal trust in Jesus but is made automatic for all. The answer to the evil and pain in the world is not the kind justice of God demonstrated on the cross, but rather the hope that God may continually work our free choices into a better future.
The true good news that the Bible gives us for comfort in our suffering is more than the assurance that God is good, or that things will work out in the end. It is even more than the consolation that Jesus suffered with us. It is that Jesus suffered for us on the cross, bearing the sin of humanity and conquering the evil that has polluted us and the universe. It is the great promise of the gospel that those who trust that their sin has been paid for by Christ can be united to him, knowing the fellowship of the Trinity eternally in a renewed and cleansed cosmos. In this story, God truly does come to dwell with his people in his creation – not to brew coffee, but to wipe away their tears, to banish death, and put an end to pain. The one who ‘makes all things new’ is the very same Lamb who was slain for the sin of the world, and who is the beginning and end of all things, the one to whom the faithful are united forever (Revelation 21:1-8). It is a far better story, and far better news than the impotent god of The Shack.
Some Possible Questions
Surely you’re not saying it’s all bad?
It is true to say that a number of the passages in the book are warm and attractive, expressing creatively at least some of the truth about God’s love for the world and the reality of following Christ. However, on balance, I’d say that the book is extremely unhelpful and even dangerous. This is discerned not only in what it says, but what it misses out, and its general tone. I don't think I could in good conscience recommend it to somebody experiencing real suffering.
Calm down! It’s only a novel!
One objection is that The Shack is first and foremost a novel and should be treated as such. On one level, this is true. The vast majority of the book is dialogue, and it does not set-out to define its terms carefully, walk through doctrine, and interpret scripture as a non-fiction book might, since that is not usually the shape of a conversation.
The Shack is consistently being read and marketed as one that changes readers’ perception of God, and the Christian life. William P. Young’s own website (www.windrumours.com) bears an advert for the book with the title, ‘God as you’ve never seen him before’ which is clearly a supposed benefit of reading The Shack. Many readers have said that the book has reduced them to tears as they’ve reached a new place in their relationship with God. One writes on Young’s website,
I couldn’t put it down. My heart soared at every turn of the page. I wept with agreement, excitement, hope, joy, sorrow, and beauty in your description of Papa. I know Him as you described and I love him so. Your book is a [sic] overwhelming and very accurate (in my opinion and knowledge of what I know of our Daddy).
Not only are readers crediting The Shack with transforming their spiritual life, but it is fascinating to see that they are also using its language and names for God, and incorporating these into their own discipleship. Some readers even appear to confuse the story with reality,
Dear sir, I read your book, The Shack, and I absolutely LOVED it! It was increadible [sic]. It changed me. Thank you, thank you for allowing God to work through you and Mack to write this book. It touched me in a way I have never allowed anyone to touch me before. Tell Mack thank you for being willing to tell you his story, I appreciate it. And thank YOU for writing it. God bless you.
As much as this is determinedly a book of fiction, an overwhelming majority of readers – and advertisers- are claiming that this book alters one’s spiritual life upon reading.
An author cannot escape the requirements of biblical faithfulness and theological responsibility by pleading ‘It’s fiction!’ Just as a child who is told off for swearing at home will not get away with it by claiming they were quoting a film. There’s a naïveté about thinking in this way that elevates the purity of artistic expression to the level of speaking the truth, which is perhaps a sign of the relativism that’s so much abroad in the late-modern West. The fact is that in our artistic and creative expressions of Christian devotion, we are not free to conceive of God and his truth in our own terms- least of all terms that contradict his own self-revelation- no matter what our personal experience may leads us to believe. The fact is that all things are to be judged by the scriptures, whether a chat in the pub, a painting, a sermon or a novel.
But I enjoyed it- it helped me, and I know others it’s helped
I think it would be important to think carefully about what you mean when you say the book has ‘helped’ you. Has it shown you that God is three persons who relate to one another in love? If so, I wonder why this was new to you. There are many books about the Trinity that do a far better job than The Shack. Has it encouraged you that God loves you unconditionally and is with you in life’s troubles? If so, I wonder why you needed The Shack to point this out to you as again, there are plenty books that remain faithful to the Bible in teaching this.
Fundamentally, I think The Shack has a certain poignancy and punch that makes its readers feel emotionally affected; but its comforts are not real, its promises are vague, and it finally gives no satisfying answer to the problem of suffering. I would not recommend it to anybody to help them through difficult times.
Are there alternatives to The Shack?
Yes! Here are some recommendations.
The issue at the heart of the book is really suffering, and our assurance that God is with us and for us in it. Sadly, since Young's universalism means he has no theology of judgment, the cross has no real part to play in his answer to suffering and evil in the world. So a good place to start would be with an understanding of the cross. Try Mark Meynell’s Cross Examined, or this article from Theology Network: Theology of the Cross: Subversive Theology for a Postmodern World? by Graham Tomlin.
The sovereignty of God and his loving care over the creation is a central issue. Try this article from Theology Network: An Introduction to Sovereignty.
If you’d like to think about the Trinity, try Tim Chester’s Delighting in the Trinity, or listen to Mike Reeves' series of talks on Theology Network:.
If you’re looking for a book of comfort, for a dose of warm and big-hearted gospel medicine: Richard Sibbes' The Bruised Reed is matchless. You may find reading aloud will help you with the language.
And as a good balance to The Shack, the book of Job deals with a man who– like Mack– suffers greatly, is faced with dead religion and pat answers, but encounters God and emerges healed and changed. Its answers are vastly different to Young's.