March 01, 2017
by Glenn R. Kreider
Ranking consistently in the top ten at Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and other booksellers over the past couple of months, The Shack has clearly connected with a wide audience . . . and stirred up its fair share of controversy.
At the center of the book is the most difficult of all theological dilemmas: the goodness of God and the problem of evil. Where is God in the midst of pain and suffering? How can a good God allow the kinds of horrific evil that humans and other creatures experience? Why doesn’t He do something to stop it? Why does God seem so unconcerned about suffering and injustice? Intense and complex, these questions have almost universal appeal.
The Shack was written by a Christian father for his children, to help them understand his relationship with God. William P. Young explains that he never intended to write a book, but that this story became the means of communicating the real conversations he had with God and with friends and family over several years. Though the story is fictional, it seems pretty clear that Young’s claim that the conversations were “all real, all true”1 is a claim that the words of God found in this book are true. Now, any work which claims to record divine speech needs to be read carefully and critically. Claims to speak for God must be treated with utmost seriousness. Hence, the controversy.
In this novel, the protagonist, Mackenzie Allen Phillips, receives an invitation from God to meet Him at a shack in the woods. It takes Mack a little while to decide to keep the appointment, but his curiosity and his pain eventually convince him to make the trip. When he arrives at the shack, it and its environment are transformed into an idyllic setting by the presence of God. Mack, too, undergoes a remarkable transformation, although that change takes longer to accomplish.
Four years earlier, Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy, had been kidnapped during a family outing. Her body had never been found, but the evidence pointed toward her murder at this abandoned shack in the Oregon wilderness at the hands of a serial pedophile. Mack had identified Missy’s bloody dress, found on the floor in front of the fireplace in the shack. As would be expected, these years had been difficult for Mack and the rest of the family, a period he describes as “The Great Sadness.” But, after spending a couple of days at the shack with God, Mack returns home a changed man. Through a series of conversations with God, he begins to understand how God’s love provides the basis of forgiveness and the power to change human lives. The transformative power of redemption through forgiveness is the theme of the book.
The Strengths of the Book
I so wanted to like this book. It is an engaging story, even though it is very predictable. The horrific nightmare this family experienced is every parent’s worst fear and thus the story connects with the reader at a deep level. The author effectively uses word pictures, characterization, and plot development to probe deeply into the emotional recesses of the reader’s soul. The conversational tone draws the reader into the story, encouraging him or her to experience vicariously Mack’s spiritual transformation. The story stresses God’s love for His children, emphasizes human freedom as the cause of sin and evil, focuses on forgiveness and reconciliation as the solution to sin and evil, stresses the hope of eternal life in God’s presence in a new creation, and encourages the reader to interact with the human characters and God in a deeply meaningful way.
The Weaknesses of the Book
But I cannot recommend this book. The reason is simple: the author’s portrayal of God is confusing at best and untrue at worst. An engaging story is not enough. Emotional appeal is not enough. Many such books have been written, some even by Christians. Young is claiming that real conversations between himself and God are put into the mouths of Mack and God. Regardless of whether or not God continues to speak today—and Christians differ about that—what He says today can never contradict what He has said in the past. A book which purports to describe God must be accurate. A book which tells the story of God’s involvement in the world must be consistent with God’s revelation of Himself in His Word. This book does not measure up to God’s self-disclosure. A couple of examples will have to suffice.
Confusion about the Trinity
The first couple of chapters of the novel advance the plot to the pivotal point at which Mack arrives at the shack and meets with God. Throughout the book, the triune God appears in three human forms. His first encounter, at the front door of the shack, is with Papa, a “large beaming African American woman.”2 He then meets a “small, distinctively Asian woman,” named Sarayu, and a Middle Eastern laborer, who is obviously Jesus (83). Mack concludes that “this was a Trinity sort of thing” (87). Portraying the Trinity as three people, separate from one another, is hardly appropriate. God is not three separate people; that would be three gods—tritheism. Rather, He is one in essence yet three in person. The persons must be distinguished but never separated. Of course, the Trinity is a great mystery and beyond human comprehension. It is not, however, appropriate to portray God in a way which treats the doctrine of the Trinity as tritheism.
Confusion about Christ
Not only is this novel’s portrayal of the Trinity inadequate, so is its portrayal of Christ. Christians confess that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, two natures in one person (called the “hypostatic union”), because this is the teaching of the Scriptures. In this union the integrity of each nature is preserved. The author’s view of Christ confuses the natures and undermines the uniqueness of the hypostatic union. In one conversation between Mack and Papa, Mack explains his belief that the miracles of Jesus are evidence of His deity. Papa corrects him, “No, it proves that Jesus is truly human” and continues,
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. (99–100)
Mack is shocked to learn this, so he asks about Jesus’s healing of the blind. Papa explains:
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. . . .
Only as he rested in his relationship with me, and in our communion—our co-union—could he express my heart and will into any given circumstance. So, when you look at Jesus and it appears that he’s flying, he really is . . . flying. But what you are actually seeing is me; my life in him. That’s how he lives and acts as a true human, how every human is designed to live-out of my life. (100)
Several significant problems exist with this understanding of the incarnation. First, it is not true that Jesus “had no power within himself to heal anyone.” Jesus, as the God-man, did, and does, possess full and complete deity (Colossians 2:9). Young’s view sounds like kenotic Christology, that Christ gave up His deity when He became human. If He did not retain full deity on earth, He is not fully divine. Second, no other human is like Jesus in being fully divine. No other human has the power of deity as Jesus did. The incarnation of Jesus is one of a kind. And it certainly is not the case that all humans possess the life of God in them, as Papa’s statement implies.
I first read this book because it was recommended to me by several people I know and trust. Most significantly, I read Eugene Peterson’s recommendation: “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” (front cover). That is pretty high praise. I began reading with a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm. The story hooked me from the first couple of pages. Although my experience of suffering and pain is not to the same degree as Mack’s, I have many of the same questions he has. As I read this book, I waited with anticipation for the conversations with God to begin. As they did, I felt an increasing feeling of sadness in the depths of my being. This is not only not literarily comparable to the work of John Bunyan, it is even less worthy of theological comparison. This is a dangerous book. Its view of the Trinity is inadequate and its view of Christ is unorthodox. That is not good.
More details from this review of The Shack:
- Is This a Real Story?
- More Confusion about the Trinity
- Confusion about God's Attributes
- Confusion about Salvation
- Other Problems