Is This a Real Story?
The author explains that the story itself is unreal; it is a fictional account of characters which he made up, except for God, who is, after all, the most significant character in the story. God is real and the intent of the author is to provide an accurate portrayal of this God. Thus, the portrayal of the divine character must be consistent with what God has revealed about Himself in the Bible. This book fails to do that.
Further, the author claims that, although the story is not real, the conversations with God in this book are real, that they reflect actual conversations he had with God and with friends and family over a period of several years. After years of such dialogues, Young was looking for a way to hand them down to his children. “So I began to create characters in situations that would allow my conversations to occur.”1 Elsewhere he addresses the truth question directly: “So is the story true? The pain, the loss, the grief, the process, the conversations, the questions, the anger, the longing, the secrets, the lies, the forgiveness . . . all real, all true.” Again, he claims, “And the conversations are very real and true.”2
It seems pretty clear that Young’s claim that the conversations were “all real, all true” is a claim that the words of God found in this book are true. Thus, this is not entirely a work of fiction and it is not an allegory. No one who reads C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia believes that Christ is a lion named Aslan. No one thinks that Lewis is giving the actual words of God. The reader recognizes that the story is an allegory. The Shack is different. Young is claiming that real conversations between the author and God are put into the mouths of Mack and God. 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. God is Truth and thus what He says is true. Thus, a 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.
More Confusion about the Trinity
In The Shack, Mack struggles to accept God’s appearance as a black woman. The conversation that ensues is confusing and difficult to understand. Papa explains:
I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning.3
Mack asks her, “Why is there such an emphasis [in Scripture?] on you being a Father? I mean, it seems to be the way you most reveal yourself.” Papa responds,
There are many reasons for that, 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. Don’t misunderstand me, both are needed—but an emphasis on fathering is necessary because of the enormity of its absence. (94)
Of course, God is neither male nor female. He has revealed himself as Father, however, and never as mother. The designation of “Papa” for a woman is not simply a mixed metaphor; it is a linguistic oddity. But it is the claim about the lack of fathering in the world that is unclear. Is it Young’s point that fathering is more affected by the fall than mothering? That would seem difficult to defend from the Scripture or from human experience. Certainly mothers are equally affected by sin and their functions would be corrupted as well. But, what makes Young’s claim even more difficult to understand is that Mack’s relationship with his mother was largely positive while his connection with his father was nonexistent. What Mack appears to need is true fathering, not mothering, the very point that Papa makes. Although much of his family background is not revealed, we learn in the foreword of the book that Mack’s father was a cruel, abusive alcoholic. It would be hard to describe a man in more need of true fathering than Mack. He would seem to be a prime example of a case in which God should appear as a Father. Later in the story, God does appear as a “dignified, older, and wiry and taller” man with “silver-white hair pulled back into a ponytail, matched by a gray-splashed mustache and goatee” (218). Papa explains that the reason for the change is that “this morning you’re going to need a father” (219). It is unclear why a father is needed now but a mother was more necessary previously.
Further, the eternal relationship of Father and Son as taught in Scripture is not simply metaphorical but an expression of actual reality. In this novel, the Father of Jesus Christ and our Father is conspicuously absent. On the other hand, the New Testament emphasis on the Fatherhood of God is undeniable (see, for example, Matthew 6:9; John 20:17; Romans 8:15–17; Galatians 4:6–7).
The novel undermines the uniqueness of the incarnation, not just by having the Father and Spirit appear in human form, which is problematic enough. Soon after meeting Papa, Mack
Noticed the scars in her wrists, like those he now assumed Jesus also had on his. She allowed him to tenderly touch the scars, outlines of a deep piercing, and he finally looked up again into her eyes. Tears were slowly making their way down her face, little pathways through the flour that dusted her cheeks. (95–96)
Papa then spoke: “Don’t ever think that what my son chose to do didn’t cost us dearly. Love always leaves a significant mark. . . . We were there together” (96). Since only the Son became incarnate and experienced death on the cross, only the Son could bear the marks of crucifixion. Neither the Father nor the Spirit bears the scars of the Son’s suffering. Surely His suffering affected the relationship between them, but those effects were not experienced in the same way by each person of the Godhead. Only the Son became flesh and blood, only the Son died on the cross, and thus only the Son could bear the marks of crucifixion in His body. That this mutual incarnation is an important emphasis of the author is seen by his return to this theme again. Later, Papa explains the Trinitarian implications of the incarnation this way:
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. . . .
When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human. We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed. Even though we have always been present in this created universe, we now became flesh and blood. (99)
This is not simply confusing, it is erroneous. The Father and the Spirit did not become human. The claim that all three persons became human is false.
Confusion about God’s Attributes
A major theme of this novel is that God is love and His love is relational. Although this is true (compare 1 John 4:7–21), Young creates a false dichotomy between God’s love and justice. In this book, God seems to deny His role as judge. This claim denies the clear teaching of Scripture (compare Hebrews 10:30–31; 12:29). Young seems to want to stress a loving Deity in contrast to a God of wrath and judgment. In so doing, he presents a God who does not punish sin. In one telling conversation, Mack expresses frustration at the judgment and wrath of God, especially as seen in the Old Testament stories. Papa corrects him,
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. (119–20)
The truth is that the God revealed in Scripture promises to punish sin because He is just and holy. God is love and God is just; the two attributes are not antithetical.
Confusion about divine attributes is also seen in another conversation. Sarayu explains to Mack that God is good and God is light/life. Thus, it is a bit stunning to hear her say, “that in one instance, the good may be the presence of cancer or the loss of income—or even a life” (136). If death is the “absence of Life” and separation from God who is Life, as she declares earlier (136), how could loss of life ever be called good? If God is good and death is the wages of sin, how could death ever be good? I cannot conceive of any world where cancer and death could be designated as good.
Confusion about Salvation
Several conversations in The Shack reveal an unclear view of salvation. This author seems to reject the exclusivity of salvation through faith in Christ alone. In Young’s novel, Jesus appears to defend pluralism. Jesus tells Mack, “The people who know me are the ones who are free to live and love without any agenda.”(181) These are not necessarily Christians, Jesus explains; they come from a variety of systems and religions.
Those who love me come from every system that exists. They are 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 followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. 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. (182)
Mack is apparently confused so he asks whether this means that all roads lead to Jesus. The answer he receives is brief and enigmatic: “Not at all. . . . Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you” (182). This conversation ends abruptly, because Jesus needs to return to His shop to catch up on His work. It is, however, hard to miss the sarcasm in the answer, “Most roads don’t lead anywhere.” On a most charitable read, these comments might mean only that Jesus is seeking the lost and He finds them on a variety of roads. But it is hard to believe that this is the intended reading because Jesus here explicitly rejects the view that people leave those other systems to become Christians. It is inconceivable to me that Jesus would ever say that He has no desire to make people Christians. If they do not become Christians then they are not followers of Jesus. Further, the categorization adopted here is confusing. To link in the same sentence the significant differences between Christian denominations and non-Christian religions with the less significant differences between Christians who are Democrats and Republicans or with the insignificant, even silly, differences between those who go to church on Sunday morning and those who do not vote is incomprehensible and unimaginable. Surely no one would place a similar amount of emphasis on each of those categories.
Confusion about the gospel and salvation is also seen in a conversation about the atonement of Christ. In answer to Mack’s question, “What exactly did Jesus accomplish by dying?” (191), Papa answers, “Through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world” (192). Mack is confused whether this means the whole world has been reconciled or only those who believe. Papa’s response clarifies that reconciliation is not dependent upon faith:
The whole world, Mack. All 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 it is the nature of love to open the way.” (192)
So apparently all people are reconciled to God already; He is only waiting on them to recognize it. This description is consistent with a pluralistic view of salvation seen throughout the book. See, for example, the description of Mack’s growth in love which was a result of “God and you together who changed you to love in this way” (156) and Jesus’s encouragement to Mack: “Just keep giving me the little bit you have, and together we’ll watch it grow” (180).
The biblical truth is that salvation is by grace through faith alone, from beginning to end, in every aspect (Ephesians 2:8–10). Humans do not work together with God in the process. God does not do His part and then wait for us to do ours. Even more confusing is Young’s view that forgiveness is dependent upon the granting of forgiveness by those against whom the sinner has sinned. This would clearly add human work into salvation. At least in Mack’s case, the murderer of his daughter cannot be forgiven unless Mack extends forgiveness to him, as Papa explains to him, “Mack, for you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him” (224). At face value, this would seem to be a claim that God cannot redeem someone until that person’s victims release him or her. Apparently the lack of forgiveness by the victims precludes God’s forgiveness.
In The Shack, William P. Young creates a false dichotomy of love and law, of rules and relationships. Papa explains that if Mack will remain tuned to God’s love, Mack “will hear and see me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship—a way of coming to be with us.” (198) Later, Sarayu corrects Mack’s understanding of the Ten Commandments. The law was not given to produce obedience; rather,
We wanted you to give up trying to be righteous on your own. It was a mirror to reveal just how filthy your face gets when you live independently. . . .
Can you clean your face with the same mirror that shows you how dirty you are? There is no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake. (202)
Young’s view appears antinomian, in that people live in complete freedom, without any obligations to a moral code: “In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful” (203). In fact, Sarayu explains, “And contrary to what you might think, I have a great fondness for uncertainty. Rules cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse” (203). The apostle Paul seemed to have a different view of the law (Romans 7:12–13).
In the foreword, it is revealed that when he left home at thirteen, Mack had poisoned all of his father’s bottles of booze. This implication that Mack had murdered his father is an unresolved issue in the story. The narrator mentions it early and leaves it there. There is no hint that what he had done should be considered wrong. There is no discussion of his responsibility to confess that sin and accept punishment. Because there is no statute of limitations on murder, it would seem that this tension should be resolved. Or, at the least, some emphasis on its sinfulness would be appropriate. Surely the author does not intend to excuse Mack’s behavior?