Theological Critique of The Shack
By Matthew Rose
When William P. Young wrote The Shack as a Christmas gift to his 6 children, he reportedly had no idea that he would soon become a best selling author. Since its publication in 2007, the book has spent 70 weeks atop the New York Times best seller list and sold over 10 million copies. According to Eugene Peterson, “this book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!”
Or is it? The Shack has created plenty of controversy. Multiple rebuttals have been written. A number of leading evangelicals voiced their concerns and critiques. These negative reactions range from assessments of literary quality (or a lack thereof) to accusations of heresy. Norman Geisler, for instance, finds 14 problems with the book and concludes that Young has compromised Christian truth in an attempt to engage current culture.
Is The Shack a new Pilgrim’s Progress or a dangerous set of doctrinal distortions? Most likely, the truth is somewhere in between. But where? Below, in an attempt to answer that very question, I will discuss the theology and apologetic perspectives found in The Shack before analyzing its strengths and weaknesses. Rather than trying to summarize the story, I will assume that the reader has read the book.
The Theological Perspective of The Shack
If theology is the study of God, then The Shack is certainly a theological work. If Christian theology is essentially Trinitarian, then this book is certainly an attempt at Christian theology. But does this book offer an orthodox picture of the Christian God? Below I will evaluate Young’s picture of the Trinity.
Orthodox Christianity teaches that there is one God existing in three eternal and equal Persons. This distinguishes the Trinity from Polytheism (three gods), Modalism (3 phases of 1 person), and Subordinationism (inherent hierarchy within the 3 persons). These 3 ISM’s are the most common departures from the orthodox view of the Trinity. Does the depiction of God in The Shack match with orthodox Trinitarianism or one of these other ISM’s? Thankfully, there are enough statements about the Trinity in the book to make an answer to this question possible. The chart below contains some of the most straightforward statements about the nature of the Trinity contained in the book:
The Shack vs. Polytheism
“Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “Which one of you is God?” “I am,” said all three in unison. (87)
“We are not three gods” (101)
The Shack vs. Modalism
“We are not talking about one god with three attitudes” (101)
“If I were simply One God with only One Person, then you would find yourself in this Creation without something wonderful, without something essential even… [without] love and relationship” (101)
The Shack vs. Subordinationism
“Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command” (122)
“To you it is almost incomprehensible that relationship could exist apart from hierarchy. So you think that God must relate inside a hierarchy like you do. But we do not.” (124)
“Papa [the Father] is as much submitted to me [the Son] as I to him, or Sarayu [the Spirit] to me, or Papa to her.” (145)
Throughout the book, then, these three departures from orthodoxy are confronted and avoided. In terms of numbers, at least, The Shack offers a thoroughly orthodox representation of the Trinity. God, in The Shack, is one God and three Persons (and these Persons are eternal and equal). But what about how each Person of the Trinity is depicted? Does Young’s portrayal of the Father, Son, and Spirit compromise the Christian faith? The chart below lists some of the key statements from the book about each member of the Trinity:
The Father in The Shack
A large beaming African-American woman (82)
“You may call me Elousia” (86)
“Elousia… that is a wonderful name. El is my name as Creator God, but ousia is ‘being’ or ‘that which is truly real,’”
The Son in the The Shack
He appeared Middle Eastern and was dressed like a laborer (84)
“I feel more comfortable around you. You seem so different from the other two.” “How do you mean, different?” came his (Jesus’) soft voice out of the darkness. “Well… more real, more tangible, I don’t know.” (110)
The Spirit in the The Shack
A small, distinctly Asian woman (84)
“And I am Sarayu… keeper of the gardens, among other things.” (87)
“She is creativity; she is Action; she is the Breathing of Life; she is much more. She is my Spirit.”
Whereas one would be hard pressed to complain about the orthodoxy of Young’s Trinitarianism, his depiction of each member of the Trinity has created quite a lot of controversy.
Center stage of this controversy has been the portrayal of the Father as a woman. It is important to determine the ground on which Young’s detractors are standing. Are they saying that the Father is male? Or are they saying that the Father should only be depicted as male?
If the claim is that the Father simply is male, then it is the detractors and not the author of The Shack who have moved beyond the pale of orthodoxy. Standard Christian theology states that God is neither male nor female. Orthodoxy should applaud the statement coming from Young’s Father figure in chapter 6 when he states, “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature” (93).
If the Father is not essentially male, then one must wonder on what basis the Father must only be depicted as male. It’s not as if The Shack is stubborn in its insistence on making the Father a female. Young goes out of his way not only to provide reasons for his choice, but ultimately the Father character is revealed through a male image. Papa (now appearing as a dignified, older male) states, “Forgiving your dad yesterday was a significant part of your being able to know me as Father today” (221).
Perhaps less controversial is Young’s portrayal of the Son. The Shack dips its pages into such deep waters as Moltmann’s theology of the cross (96) and theories of kenosis (99-100). While these subjects are indeed controversial, they are part of an in-house debate within Christian orthodoxy. Essentially, the Persons of the Trinity as described in The Shack are quite typical of orthodoxy. The Father is connected to Creation. The Son is connected to Restoration of humanity. And the Spirit is connected to cultivation of the heart/life and creativity. This is a fairly traditional approach. By and large, Young has steered clear of heretical statements in regard to the Trinity.
One last issue must be addressed in regard to Young’s treatment of the Trinity. In chapter 11, Young has Mack interact with a fourth character who turns out to be Sophia, “a personification of Papa’s wisdom” (171). Why Young made this choice is unknown to me, but, in any case, it is made clear in chapter 12 that Sophia is not a fourth member of the godhead.
The Apologetic Perspective of The Shack
If the core of theology is the doctrine of God, then the core of apologetics is finding a solution to the problem of pain. John Stott once said that “the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.” Even more than the Trinity, The Shack has the problem of pain as its core topic. The story begins by describing The Great Sadness (Young’s name for the problem of pain) in Mack’s life and ends by saying that, through the events of the story, The Great Sadness has been resolved (247).
The problem of pain is, perhaps, best posed by the Greek Philosopher Epicurus: “Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to; or he cannot and does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, and does not want to, he is wicked. But if God both can and wants to abolish evil, then how comes evil in the world?” In this book, the setting and conflict of the story illustrate the problem of pain. Mack was an abused child and is now the father of multiple children. One of those children (a little girl named Missy) is kidnapped and murdered, leaving Mack and his family in intense grief. In what way(s) does Young attempt to resolve this grief through Mack’s encounter at the shack? The chart below shows how The Shack deals with the problem of pain in past, present, and future perspective:
“We created you to share that [joy]. But Adam chose to go it on his own, as we knew he would, and everything got messed up. But instead of scrapping the whole Creation we rolled up our sleeves and entered into the middle of the mess. That’s what we have done in Jesus.” (99)
“When I created it, it was only Good, because that is just the way I am.” (131)
“Your world is severely broken” (164)
“There are millions of reasons to allow pain and hurt and suffering rather than to eradicate them” (125)
“Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.” (185)
“Nobody knows what horrors I have saved the world from ‘cuz people can’t see what never happened.” (190)
“At this point, all I have to offer you as an answer is my love and goodness, and my relationship with you. I did not purpose Missy’s death, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use it for good.” (222)
“It won’t be this way forever” (132)
“Nothing is at it should be, as Papa desires it to be, and as it will be one day.” (164)
The past, present, and future perspectives are all necessary in initiating a resolution to the problem of pain (The Great Sadness). Throughout The Shack, Young utilizes all three perspectives to address the issue.
Christianity offers great insight into the past that provides a beginning point for a resolution to the problem of pain. Objection to Christianity is often raised in the following way: “Why would a loving God create such a broken world?” The Bible offers a past perspective that renders this objection baseless. In Christian theology, God did not create a broken world. God created a good world. Young states this theme in numerous ways throughout his book. The problem of pain is not a problem that finds its origins in Creation. The problem of pain finds its origin in The Fall. The problem is not Genesis 1, but Genesis 3. God is not the source or cause of evil, pain, and/or suffering. The cause of Missy’s murder was not God’s will, but the will of a fallen human being. This insight into the past is essential for justifying God amidst the presence of pain. In essence, then, the past perspective on the problem of pain is the classical free-will defense.
The past perspective, on its own, cannot resolve the problem of pain. For even if God did not initiate evil, evil is allowed to continue under God’s jurisdiction. Why does God allow evil presently? An objector might raise the question in this way: “How can God just sit up there in heaven and watch all of this misery take place?” The Bible offers a bold response to this strong complaint. In Christian theology, God does not just sit up there in heaven and watch the problem of pain. Rather, God became flesh and lived amidst the problem of pain. What’s more, God allowed the problem of pain to land squarely on his two shoulders at the cross. The cross demonstrates that God can work immense good out of terrible situations. Indeed, the cross is the best good (it makes salvation available to all) and it comes out of the worst evil (the crucifixion of the God-man). If this is the case, then God is certainly capable of working good out of our trials and tribulations, our pain and suffering. By the end of the story, Missy’s death has been used by God to do a good work in Mack, his family, his friends, and potentially even his enemies.
Even if we consider the past and present perspectives, however, we are left with a lingering issue. An objector might continue: “But how can God allow all of this pain and suffering to continue forever? He must be indifferent or powerless!” But again, one must allow the Bible to speak for itself. The Bible states what Young has stated in his book. The problem of pain will not last. Death will come to an end. Suffering will cease to exist. Mack was able to see that Missy was not gone. She had received eternal life. He would join her one-day in a place free from evil. No theodicy is complete without a picture of eternal life.
The Shack, then, offers an intriguing and thorough resolution to the problem of pain. But I can imagine how some would find this resolution hopelessly artificial. After all, William Young has put words into God’s mouth that God has not necessarily uttered. Mack received special revelation that a real human being encountering pain will not necessarily receive. The Great Sadness is resolved for Mack because he receives a letter from God and meets the Trinity in an almost face-to-face encounter. But will we each receive such a letter? Will we each experience such a vision? Indeed, Young has his Jesus admit that Mack’s case is special (112). Is this fictional special revelation a real answer to the general problem of pain?
Strengths & Weaknesses
I have suggested that The Shack passes the test of orthodoxy in regards to the doctrine of the Trinity and that it offers a strong (albeit somewhat artificial) solution to the problem of pain. But what other strengths and weaknesses are to be found in the pages of The Shack? Below I will briefly discuss how Young handles three other topics of interest. Space is not available to deal with these issues at length:
The Shack and Religion
Young’s book is laced with criticisms of institutional religion. Mack, even after his experience with God, is “not very religious” (10). The chart below catalogues some of these statements:
Page # Statement
66 “Sunday prayers and hymns weren’t cutting it anymore… sick of all the little religious social clubs that didn’t seem to make any real difference or affect any real changes.”
91 “None of his [Mack’s] old seminary training was helping in the least”
93 “Help you from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning… this weekend is not about reinforcing your religious stereotypes”
179 “Religious machinery can chew up people!”… An awful lot of what is done in my name has nothing to do with me and is often, even if unintentional, very contrary to my purposes.”
While there is much truth in these statements, one wonders if Young has gone too far in his critique of the institutional church.
The Shack and Exclusivism
Some have critiqued Young for apparently inclusivistic themes. Below is a chart of some of the content that sparks this controversy:
Page # Statement
31 “Is the Great Spirit another name for God—you know, Jesus’ papa?”… “I would suppose so. It’s a good name for God because he is a Spirit and he is great.”
120 “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.
182 “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or 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…”
While it is understandable why some would be alarmed at quotes such as these (especially the last one), one should read the end of that conversation between Mack and Young’s Jesus as well. Mack asks if that means that all roads lead to God. Jesus responds by saying that “most roads don’t lead anywhere…[but] I will travel any road to find you” (182). Frankly, I find a lot of truth in these statements, but I am not surprised that other evangelicals have rejected them.
The Shack and the Law
I think it would be a fair critique of The Shack to say that Young didn’t provide enough nuances in regards to the apparently Antinomian statements in chapter 14. Mack asks, “Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?” to which the Father replies with a simple “Yes, in Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful” (203). Again, there is a sense in which these statements are true and a sense in which they are not (certainly there is a law for Christians, the Law of Christ/Spirit). Young could and should have better elaborated on this point.
All in all, William P. Young should be commended for writing a bold book that takes on big issues creatively. The book has created discussion and that is a good thing. The book offers lots of practical wisdom in regards the relationships between faith and rationality, sovereignty and free will, and forgiveness and reconciliation. On the other hand, it might be considered quite presumptuous to put so many words into the mouths of the members of the Trinity, some of which are questionable doctrinally, and some of which are, perhaps, superficial/idealistic.
I would recommend The Shack to my colleagues and parishioners, but I’d want to stay in dialogue with them about the contents of the book. Indeed, I’d look forward to the dialogue because Young’s book tackles a lot of interesting subjects and offers intriguing insights. I am glad that the book received a wider audience than his own children.