The Shack is a novel that tells the story of a man named Mackenzie (Mack) who has lost a daughter to a serial rapist and murderer. The girl’s belongings, along with blood stains, are found in a shack deep in the forest. Presumably, the shack is the place the girl met her demise. Mack is summoned to the shack when he finds an unmarked letter in his mailbox, which is signed simply “Papa.”
If you are familiar with the book, you may have already heard that God (“Papa”) appears to Mack in the form of a large, African-American woman. While visiting the shack, Mack also meets Jesus, appropriately cast as a Middle Eastern man, and the Holy Spirit, represented by a woman named Sarayu, the Sanskrit word for “wind.”
The author explains why he uses an African-American woman to represent God, when he puts these words into God’s mouth: “Mackenzie, 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.”
However, the implication of this passage is that there is something inherently wrong with religious conditioning, which derives from Scripture and denotes God in the masculine. If God’s word can refer to Him as “Abba, Father” how can the author so cavalierly toss Scripture aside and put words in God’s mouth?
And this is, in large part, one of my major concerns about The Shack. Many who read this review will claim that the book is only a work of fiction and the author should be allowed to articulate his ideas freely and without constraint. Yet, by putting “his ideas” in God’s mouth he distorts God’s truth to the wrong ends. “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine… they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4) A synonym for “fables” is “fiction.”
The cover of the book contains an accolade from Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, a paraphrase version of the Bible. Peterson claims, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” Yet, a book that puts words into God’s mouth, especially words that do not square with revealed Scripture, hardly approaches the brilliance of Bunyan’s allegorical novel.
On page 99, Papa tells Mack, “When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.” Yet God, the Father, never became human, neither did the Holy Spirit. Only Jesus became fully human.
The author not only presumes to put words into God’s mouth, but God is also misrepresented in other ways. On page 95, Mack asks Papa how he/she can know how he really feels. “Papa didn’t answer, only looked down at their hands. His gaze followed hers and for the first time Mack noticed the scars in her wrists, like those he now assumed Jesus also had on his.” Yet, in John 4:24 we read the words of the real Jesus, who claims, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” God, the Father, never became flesh, except perhaps in Mormon heterodoxy. And God certainly wouldn’t have borne the marks of crucifixion, a penalty Jesus paid fully to God.
My primary concern in The Shack creeps in initially on page 110, where Jesus states, “I am the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu. To see me is to see them. The love you sense from me is no different from how they love you. And believe me, Papa and Sarayu are just as real as I am, though as you’ve seen in far different ways.” Note that Jesus says, “I am the best way…” The designation “best” implies that there are “other” ways, perhaps not as optimal, but other ways to come to know God. Contrast this with the words of Jesus in the gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one cometh unto the father, but by me.” (John 14:6)
This same problem becomes even more explicit in Chapter 12, page 182, where Jesus says, “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 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.” Mack then asks, “Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?” Jesus replies, “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”
Consider the words of the real Jesus:
“And he said unto another, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But he said unto him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but go thou and publish abroad the kingdom of God.’ And another also said, I will follow thee, Lord; but first suffer me to bid farewell to them that are at my house. But Jesus said unto him, ‘No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:59-62)
A Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ. For Jesus to say “I have no desire to make them Christian” is to distort the very plain teaching of Scripture. If the author only wished to teach that the “church universal” is not contained within the confines of a single denomination, and had stopped prior to that sentence, I would have agreed. Many Christians were Buddhists, Mormons or Muslims, but are no longer bound to such worldly institutions by virtue of their Christianity. “For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10)
I had the pleasure of listening to the audio version of The Shack and I must admit the narrator was wonderful. After the conclusion of the book, my version included an interview with the author, in which William P. Young, who prefers the name Paul, insisted that he did not intend to teach Universalism. Yet, a long time friend of his, James B. DeYoung, Th.D., professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary in Portland, OR, offers a different perspective. DeYoung insists that Paul embraced Christian Universalism, also known as Universal Reconciliation, about four years ago. Universal Reconciliation “asserts that love is the supreme attribute of God that trumps all others. His love reaches beyond the grave to save all those who refuse Christ throughout their lifetimes.” This sort of universalism is identical to that espoused by the Universalist Church in America that joined with the American Unitarian Association in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. As one raised in the Unitarian Universalist Church, who has studied the Bible extensively, I can assure you that Paul Young’s doctrinal understanding of orthodox Christianity is deficient. You can read James B. DeYoung’s review of The Shack, however, please note that it is in PDF format. If necessary, you can download the free Adobe Acrobat Reader 9.