Suppose there is a book endorsed as a having "the potential to do our generation what John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress did for his." We would assume the presence of a book that Christians would want to flock to for some keen insights. Well, that book is being flocked to, but with some concern by some Christians. I, personally, am quite concerned about the new best-selling book "The Shack" by William P. Young.
According to my sources, this book is highly praised by emergent churches and students. Sadly, these are people who rarely have the theological background and maturity to deal with some of the subtle problems with this book. The popularity of this book is even more concerning. As of the writing of this article (May 13, 2008) it is Amazon.com's ranking number 1 in three different categories: General Fiction, Mystery & Thrillers, and Religion & Spiritual Fiction. My copy of the book is the tenth printing and it has only been out for one year. And if all this is not frightening front-end discourse, it is being made into a movie, too!
The book is fairly well written as a story, but I would certainly raise issue, however, with the inability to clearly interpret some important parts of the dialog pertaining to faith. The book is a captivating story about the forgiveness of a father toward the murderer of his 6 year old daughter. The book begins with Mack, the main character, receiving a note that could be from God. It simply reads, "It's been a while. I've missed you. I'll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. – Papa." (Papa is a name for God that the main character's wife uses, though Mack is uncomfortable with it because of his own bad relationship with his father.) The shack in this letter refers to the painful place were the search for his daughter is brought to a tragic close. A few years earlier, during a family camping trip, Mack's six year old daughter, Missy, is abducted by a known serial killer whom targets young girls. A lead sends the police, including Mack, to an old shack in the middle of the woods where Missy's blood-soaked dress is discovered. Now three years later after this mysterious note appears in his mailbox, our character decides to go the shack to see if this is some kind of prank, or else, if God will show up. 'God' shows up, and Mack spends a weekend at the shack interacting with the different members of the trinity and learning to forgive God and Missy's killer.
The Truth be Told
Although I found more than enough problems with this book to place it prominently on my "heresy shelf", there are some theological points that are made quite well, with accuracy, and fresh analogy. The overall thesis of the book is that forgiveness is certainly desirable, and Mack is confronted by 'God' to let go or risk being let go of. Indeed, Matthew 6:15 is quite clear about the requirement of forgiveness. The author takes the time to address forgiveness as required to grow beyond the pain of a deep hurt, such as the murder of his daughter. But even beyond this, on page 227 we see that forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, and that is refreshing because of the number of Christian messages (particularly for kids) that try to simplify 'forgiveness' to mean 'forgetting'. Thus, the author is very clear about what forgiveness is and its purpose in our life.
A great deal of time in the book is focused on moving from people making choices in independence of God toward dependence on Him. The book never clearly mentions the fall or salvation, but the concept is certainly present concerning the state of the human race as being self-centered and independent. In that independence, we are trying to solve all of our problems on our own, but that is not the model that God would have us follow. In fact, many times it is asserted that our best efforts only lead us into more pain, and the solution to this is to focus ourselves on God and to become dependent on Him.
An interesting twist for a book containing so much emergent theology is that the author asserts through the personification of the Holy Spirit that objective truth does indeed exist. During the dialog about what happened in the Garden of Eden, the conversation shifts to what is true and what is not. The view in mind is that humans are all trying to find their own way from their own opinion of what is good or bad, right or wrong. When Mack asks if there is a way to fix the problem, the response is astounding:
You must give up your right to decide what is good and evil on your own terms. That is a hard pill to swallow; choosing to only live in me. To do that, you must know me enough to trust me and learn to rest in my inherent goodness (page 136).
But before you praise such a remark, understand that the book does present many seeming sound principles only to denounce them later.
A final praise is an interesting discussion that developed on page 147 where Mack and Jesus are talking about how the fall has impacted men and women. He describes the fall as turning the men from God to work and himself, and women from God to human relationships. He uses the word 're-turning' to describe moving from the natural state back to the state of centering everything on Christ. This is certainly a biblical concept and a good, easy to follow dialogue about the fall of man (though neither sin nor salvation is directly mentioned).
The Lies be Told
With those statements of praise, I would like to dive into the problems with this book. Of course, since we are talking about a human author writing a fictional book with a dynamic character who is supposed to be learning more about God, I will certainly give grace where it is needed. Even still, this book, and I do not exaggerate, contains rank heresy oozing from page after page. Of course, if I cook a nice delicate meal of greens and meats, and other hearty foods and place just a little poison on the top, you would not be so inclined to eat it. Why should our theology be any different? As I move through these points, some of the issues will be small errors, but some will be large. I will tell you in honest truth, I almost did not make it through this book because of the grief this author has done to the Holy Spirit, and that will be made very clear by the end of this review.
The Attack on the Bible
The first quarter of the book was quite interesting and read quite well. By the end of chapter four, we have met the main character, Mack, and learned of the root to The Great Sadness, which is the term applied to the sad memories of his daughter's death. But it is at the very end of the fourth chapter that the attack on God and the deconstruction of the church begins. Starting on page 65, Mack is wrestling with the idea that this message may have come from God. He reflects:
In seminary, he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God's voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated westerners' access to God was mediated and controlled by intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was the guilt edges?
So we see here that the character has a low view of scripture. But let me grant that the main character of a 'Christian' novel about finding God will indeed be hostile to the scriptures at the beginning of his journey. A sound book would set him strait by the end, but sadly we do not see that here. There is absolutely no place where the Bible is referred to as a guiding path, and to the contrary, it is seen more as a hindrance to getting to know God (i.e., it is irrelevant). Here are a few examples:
Snuggling like a small child deep inside the heavy down comforter, he had only made it through a couple verses before the Bible somehow left his hand, the light somehow turned off, someone kissed him on the cheek, and he was lifting gently off the ground in a flying dream (page 115).
During a conversation with the personification of the Holy Spirit, Mack addresses the matter of God's expectations of people to avoid sin, read the Bible, and other Christian duties, she says, "I see. And how's that working for you?" (page 197) She continues on, "The Bible doesn't teach you to follow rules. It is a picture of Jesus. While words may tell you what God is like and even what he may want from you, you cannot do any of it on your own." Of course, the Bible is primarily about Christ, and the Christian life is Grace-orientated, but the fact that the scriptures are useful for all manner of living, teaching, rebuke, and instruction tells us that it is certainly more than a vague picture of a person (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The Attack on the Trinity
The attack on the Trinity begins with the introduction of the entire Godhead. You may have noticed by now some female references to God in the above section. That is because God the "father" (frequently referred to as Papa) is a jolly black African-American female. Of course, in emergent style, there is one paragraph on page 93 that states the slipperiness of the error in affirming that God is neither male nor female, but that (s)he appears to Mack in this form to challenge his presuppositions about who God is. My main concern here is the gender blurring so frequent in our youth culture today in calling this African-American woman "Papa" with the rest of the textual references being female could certainly confuse one of the young readers such as the 12 year old child referenced on the author's website (www.theshack.com). So, is God a male or female? Or does it even matter?
Jesus is Jewish which is certainly accurate, but apparently black which does not fit the cultural profile of a Jewish man. The Holy Spirit is portrayed as an Asian woman who is very mystical in activity. Mack can not focus on her as she moved about (phased in and out of vision) and she engulfed Mack in a lifting sensation (page 85), she appears at multiple places at once (page 128), and apparently levitates as a few other places particularly when she is passionate about conversation being discussed. She is also the only one who performed an apparent 'miracle' in the book (page 207).
Within this trinity, contrasts appear between the Bible and how they are portrayed. It started when Mack was curious if there is a chain of command in this trio, but they respond that they are all equally submissive to one another. Furthermore, authority structures are a direct result of sin. The problems with this view are numerous
It is clear from scripture that God the Father is over God the Son and God Spirit (Mark 9:37, Matthew 10:40, Galatians 4:4, John 14:26, John 15:26, and John 16:7).
There is certainly a hierarchical structure concerning angels (1 Thessalonians 4:16, Jude 9, Revelation 12:7-10)
Hierarchical structures exist inside of human relationships in houses, churches, and governments (1 Peter 2:13-25, Ephesians 5:22-23, Colossians 3:18-25)
So you can see here that this book makes light of the trinity, and denies the structures set within it that give the modern day church the governing direction and the model by which we are to follow.
So Great a Salvation
This book has very confusing dialog about sin and salvation leading the reader to be confused about the intent. First, to be sure, the book does use a mystical sense of sin and the primary place to discuss sin is in the Garden, so that is where we find Mack in the ninth chapter. The main problem in the book is that we never see the pure man apart from evil, the serpent (in any form) is totally absent, and we never see why people are in such a deplorable state. To be sure, however, they are in a deplorable state as is depicted by the dialog on page 135 which culminates in saying that it was a sorrowful day when they ate the fruit. The 'gospel' is then given when Jesus is said to have given up all of his rights so that Mack may live free (page 137).
The next more puzzling issue to me is a sense that I believe the author is denying Hell, but it is written in a way that can not be determined for sure. There are two main sections of dialog which seem to support this, the first is in the chapter entitled "Here come da judge." Mack enters a cave where he is confronted by his thoughts to judge God and the human race. The dialog in this section is used to humble Mack, and it finally breaks him when he is commanded by Sophia, the judge, to pick three of his five children to have an eternity in Hell. He finally begs that he go himself in their place, and then he gets what Sophia is praying at: Jesus has come to be the substitute for all people. If this were all the dialog, I might give a hearty AMEN, but it is not. Sadly, it goes on to become perilously close to universalism (a system where the whole world is saved and goes to heaven). When the dialog about him taking God's place, Sophia responds with "I am only asking you to do something that you believe God does…You believe he will condemn most to an eternity of torment, away from his presence and apart from his love. Is that not true?" Mack stutters a reply, "I suppose I do. I never really thought about it like this. I just assumed that somehow God could do that. Talking about hell was always sort of an abstract conversation." The problem ensues after Mack offers himself instead of them and Sophia replies, "You have judged them worthy of love, even if it cost you everything. And now you know Papa's heart who loves all his children perfectly. When this scene lasting several pages is completed, I am not sure if the author is implying that no one ever goes to hell because of Jesus (universalism) or not. It is so open ended, but it seems to lead to that conclusion. The chapter concludes with this statement, "[Mack], judgment is not about destruction, it is about setting things right (page 169)." The final kicker here is that Sophia is not God, but rather, the personification of God's wisdom.
As I mentioned, there is another part of the book where 'God' seems to deny the wrath in the Bible and in the future prophecies in Revelation and other New Testament books. This is the disturbing dialog on page 119 which begins with a conversation about how God loves all of his (her) children equally:
Mack: What about your wrath? It seems to be to that if you are going to pretend to be God Almighty, you need to be a lot angrier.
God: Do I now?
Mack: That's what I'd think. Weren't you always running around killing people in the Bible? You just don't seem to fit the bill.
God: I understand how disorientating this all must be for you, Mack. But the only one pretending here is you. I am what I am. I'm not trying to fit anyone's bill.
Mack: But you're asking me to believe that you're God, and I just don't see….
God: I'm not asking you to believe anything, but I will tell you that you're going to find this day a lot easier if you simply accept what is, instead of trying to fit it into your preconceived notions.
Mack: But if you're God, aren't you the one spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire? Honestly, don't you enjoy punishing those who disappoint you?
God: I am not who you think I am, [Mack]. I don't need to punish people for their 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.
What just ensued? Well, a multilevel theological deception. Let me explain it this way. The first deception is that there is no hell or torment, wrath or lake of fire. I am not sure what Bible (if any) this author has read, but a very cursory read through much of it will confirm what the author is trying to deny. The next level, however, is much graver. He sets up people for a straw-man argument. Recalling that this is an argument where a false perception is set up and then attacked. The false perception is this: God is pleased to punish sinners. He is the blue-suited, baton carrying bad cop who is waiting for his creatures to misbehave so that he can whack them. That is the false perception, but the Bible paints a totally different picture of God. The God of the Bible does not take pleasure in condemnation, but he is perfectly just, so His justice demands it! But His grace is extended through Jesus Christ to all those who believe and God judges Christ in the their place allowing Him to receive their judgment, and the saved to receive eternal life in Heaven. So you see here that many false perceptions of God and what He does are set up, and the author is free to lead the reader to a view that is contrary to the Bible.
To be fair to the claims that I am making about this book, there is a part on page 192 that seems to deny universalism, but again, with a lot of confusion. Mack asks what Jesus really accomplished on the cross and the answer is: "Through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world." Mack tries to clarify this by asking if (s)he means only the ones who believe in Jesus. "The whole world, Mack. All that I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship, but to open a way." What exactly does this mean? I am not sure, but it sure matches the rest of the book with open-ended theology that can be interpreted many ways.
Tragically, the most devastating material on salvation and the nail in the coffin for any discerning Christian comes from the heresy on page 182:
Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists of Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions…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, into my beloved…What it does mean is that I use any road to find you.
Once again, the major problem here is the open ended interpretation. If he is suggesting that Christ finds people in any system and pulls them out, I would agree, but since there is no separation, and no restoration anywhere in the book, it is best assumed that any system you choose to be a part of, or no system at all, you will be met by Jesus and brought into relationship with him without any change to your course.
Christian Traditions Destroyed
It is interesting to see how 'God' replies to the traditions of prayer, Bible study, and devotions in this book. I have already mentioned what happens when Mack tries to read his Bible, and how the book was somehow removed from his hands (page 115). But it continues what we see the response to prayer. Of course, prayer is only at a dinner table before a meal:
The only awkward part was at the very beginning when Mack, out of habit, bowed his head before he remembered where he was. He looked up to find all three of them all grinning at him. So as nonchalantly as he could, he asked, 'Um, thank you, all…could I have a bit of that rice over there?'(page 105)
He has apparently learned his lesson by breakfast the next morning when he did not bow his head and just said thank you while 'God', mockingly said, "You aren't even going to bow your head or close your eyes? Tsk, tsk, tsk. What is this world coming to? (page 120)" There are no other references to prayer to God from this trio of 'Gods'. Devotions, I believe, are mentioned just to debunk them. Another scarecrow gets destroyed as we hear a long dialog of the uselessness and boredom of devotions from Mack. Here is the devotion that Mack experiences with 'God':
Jesus reached across the table and took Papa's hands in his, scars now clearly visible on his wrists. Mack sat transfixed as he watched Jesus kiss his father's hands and then look deep into his father's eyes and finally say, 'Papa, I loved watching you today, as you made yourself fully available to take Mack's pain into yourself, and then give him space to choose his own timing. You honored him, and you honored me. To listen to you whisper love and calm into his heart was truly incredible. What a joy to watch! I love being your son!'
Whatever this exchange was, 'devotionals' does not come to my mind!
The Emergent Grab-bag
As I have already mentioned, this book has a lot of emergent theology expressed in it. Although the author claims on his website to not be a part of any specific group because "nobody would want me," he has a lot of emergent ideas. This is section aptly titled because of the number of little emergent concepts that are small but ever present. The first of these that shows up quite clearly is the push for world peace. The best I can tell from the scriptures, peace is certainly desirable, but it is not always practical. Many people would argue that wars don't solve any problems, but most people would certainly fight if the battle raged on their front yard! I have already mentioned about this books 'God's' view of wrath (page 119), but there are a few other, more striking images that come up. Mack himself was an old war veteran, but he has changed his ways and wants nothing to do with a gun that his friend, Willie, gives him because of the perceived danger in hiking out to this shack. The problem comes when he enters the shack and 'God' is taking his coat and other things. When the gun comes off, "which she took from him with two fingers as if it was contaminated (page 84)." All throughout this book is the peace movement expressed in its various ways.
The next item in the Emergent Grab-bag is the deconstruction of the church. Many of the quotes from above easily fit under this category, so I will not take the time to mention them again. Clearly, the whole book is about rethinking the Christian faith, which is the ever-beating drum of the emergent movement. In this book, we are to assume the life the average Mack, a man with theological training, from a home with a father who is an elder in the church and an abusive alcoholic, we have our own preconceived notions, all of which are wrong and so we must cast them off to embrace this author's twisted views. Is this movement better summed up in other words? Even the few Bible verses in this book are reinterpreted in ways that totally exclude the context. These are quotes that start on page 65 where Mack is struggling with how God communicates to us today, It continues on near the end of chapter 5 when 'God' (the father) is depicted as a large African-American woman, 'God' (the Holy Spirit) is a mystical Asian woman, and Jesus is apparently not 'white'. Page 90 suggests that God is not holy as she (God) is listening to vulgar funk music. On page 96, the book challenges what actually happened on the cross. The claim is that God the father never left Jesus when he calls out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me! (Mark 15:34)" is challenged when she says, "You misunderstand the mystery there. Regardless of how he felt at the moment, I never left him." The problem here is that for the work of Christ to be done, God had to abandon Christ if only for that second to make His sacrifice the fulfillment of our sin (remember that the wages of sin is death, which is separation from God). The next striking re-thinking (or old thinking, rather) that the author suggests certainly parallels the Gnostics when he suggests that Jesus is not our example, but what we all can become if we trust in God enough and achieve a super level of faith (page 99). And the final re-thinking that is attacked is the sacrament of communion which is shared on page 236, "without any ritual, without ceremony, they savored the warm bread and shared the wine and shared the stranger moments of the weekend." Clearly, this is no communion, but just a gathering to eat and drink in such a manner as to make light of a clear sacrament in the church today. Added to these are the re-thinking of devotions, prayers, wrath, judgment, and all of the other things mentioned above.
The next grab-bag item is the redefinition of words, a very common trend in the emergent church. The only major word that I saw repeatedly redefined in this book is 'holy'. In reality, holiness means 'set apart', and has a reference to how we are set apart from the world for Him. In this book, holiness is redefined to mean more of a 'relational closeness', and is always used in a feel-good situation suggesting that holiness means to make the other person feel good in a way that 'warms the soul'. Consider these passages, "Something simple, warm, intimate, genuine; this was holy. Holiness had always been a cold and sterile concept to Mack, but this was neither (page 107)." The statement was said in the 'devotion' when Jesus was expressing feel-good words to 'God'. Holiness arises again on page 110 when Mack and Jesus are out watching the stars and admiring their beauty. The text reads:
Mack was not sure how to describe what he felt, but as they continued to lie in silence, gazing into the celestial display, watching and listening, he knew in his heart that this, too, was holy.
What does this situation have to do with 'holy', set apart, different? It does not, rather, Mack is just feeling good feelings.
The next little oddity that popped out at me is the constant capitalization of the word 'creation'. Interesting, though, references to 'God' are not capitalized. The word 'creation' appears many times throughout the book and it is always capitalized and the only thing that I can think of is that the creation is worshiped. To be fair, the book does not seem to suggest worshiping nature, but this is the emergent grab-bag where nature is often times placed on a pedestal above the God who created it. You see this in the drive for environmentalism in these churches.
Another interesting grab-bag item is how much this book ties into the popular movie, "The Matrix". Of course there have been people trying to use this movie to share the Gospel, a matter that I find disturbing. To be clear, I do believe that knowing the basic plot information of the movie can certainly help if a discussion about it comes up, but I strongly caution against using any movie as the kickoff point for the Gospel. Isn't Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John enough? As I was reading this book, I was struck at the very real similarities of the 'God' personification to the oracle in The Matrix. The large African-American woman, always in the kitchen, always talking in interesting mind-teasing concepts to make the character think; she is certainly reminiscent of the oracle. I wrote down the possibility of this relation in the margin of my book but was even more surprised by some of the later dialog on page 124 between Mack and 'God' about how people see a twisted view of reality. Papa continues, "It is the matrix; a diabolical scheme in which you are hopelessly trapped even while completely unaware of its existence." It could not be any clearer, but what does this have to do with the emergent movement? The emergent movement seeks to introduce culture at every point, even over doctrine, and who cares what the nature of the media choices are? The matrix, a rated R movie, is sadly seen as a high-mark of cultural conformity even in church youth groups. Why is it a required explanation of 'God'?
The final item in the Emergent Grab-bag is the doctrine of relationship over all else. In innumerable places in this book, it is clear that relationships are all important. In reality, that does not rest with scripture in many places where we are told about the consequences of following Christ. Consider Luke 12:51-53:
Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
He says that we will be persecuted should we seek to have good relationships with those people or preach the Gospel? Should Peter and John have sought the relationship with the priests, or preached the Gospel (Acts 4:18-22)? Should Stephen had been quite so as to not offend the crowd, or preach the Gospel that cost him his earthly life (Acts 7)? Should Luther have stepped up and given in to church to maintain the relationships or do what God commanded was right? The list can go on. Relationships are indeed important, but even in the scriptures, we are commanded not even to eat with an unrepentant sinner who claims to be a Christian (1 Corinthians 5:11). The scripture is very clear about the importance of relationship, but it is also very clear about avoiding dangerous error and wretched situations. One must give way to the other and the emergent churches, along with this book, go out of their way to say that all conflict must give way to support relationship. Must I remind you that even Paul and Barnabas parted ways over disagreement (Acts 15:36-41)?
This book, in my opinion, is a dangerous poison. It is not even worth reading in my opinion because the story is certainly not good enough to endure the down-right heretical theology. Several times in the reading of this book, I was bothered and wanted to put it down, but I persevered to bring this report to you. What you have read here is a deep analysis of this book. I am sure that I left out both good parts and bad parts of the book, but I believe this work to be accurate as a whole. In final summary, I believe that Mack may have met someone in the shack that weekend, but he should have tested the spirits. The beings that he met denied many clear aspects of the scripture, are involved in feel-good relations above all things. They attach to social agenda over the God of the Bible. They deny authority and attribute it to sin. They promote pure license to total freedom, constantly joke around with no sense of seriousness, and deny wrath, judgment, and possibly hell. In short, Mack met up with a few demons in the shack and his life-changing story is a ploy to turn others away from the one true God toward a feel-good gospel of personal joy and satisfaction.