UPDATE: Dear readers, the movie version of The Shack will be out soon, so I thought it might be a good time to dust off my December 2009 review of the book.
The Shack by William P. Young is an unlikely publishing phenomenon. The book was first conceived as a private gift to the author’s children and a few friends. Young’s friends were so thrilled with the manuscript they encouraged him to find a publisher, but after several publishers rejected the book, Young and his friends self-published. Propelled almost exclusively by word-of-mouth in the evangelical Christian community, sales skyrocketed, and the book has been firmly ensconced in the best seller lists for many months now, with sales topping one million copies. The Shack has also been a phenomenon in the evangelical Christian community, spawning websites and seminars and breathless blurbs such as the one by a theology professor comparing The Shack to Pilgrim’s Progress.
This Thanksgiving my wife and I took a trip to visit family in Clear Lake, Iowa, and we decided we would use our time on the road to see what all the fuss was about. We popped an audio copy of the book into the CD player, and by the end of the trip we had finished the book, and I was deeply troubled.
The Shack is the story of Mackenzie Phillips, known as “Mack” to his friends. Mack grew up in the Midwest, the son of an abusive Bible-thumping alcoholic father who beat him and his mother regularly. Mack left home at an early age and after spending several years wondering the globe and attending seminary, he settles in the Pacific Northwest with his wife Nan and their five children. On a weekend camping trip a serial killer abducts Mack’s youngest child, Missy, and takes her to an abandoned shack, where he murders her. Mack is devastated by the loss, and sinks under “the great sadness.” All of this back story is recounted in flashback. The book’s narrative begins four years after Missy’s death, when Mack receives an invitation from “Papa” to visit him at the shack where Missy died. Mack reluctantly accepts the invitation and travels to the shack where he meets God, who appears to him in three persons, God the Father in the form of a large black woman who invites him to call her “Papa,” God the Son in the form of a Jewish handyman, and God the Holy Spirit in the form of a small Asian woman named Sarayu. Most of the rest of the book is a dialogue between Mack and these persons, in which Williams explores themes of the problem of evil (what theologians call the “theodicy”), the incarnation, the trinity, free will and determinism, forgiveness and relationships.
I can understand why The Shack has become such a phenomenon. Williams is a talented story teller, and he weaves his theological discussions into the narrative deftly without allowing the story to get bogged down in dry theory. Williams treats us to a profound discussion of the problem of evil. How can a loving God allow such evil to befall His creation? How can He allow innocents like Missy to suffer so horribly? Surely He could have prevented Missy’s death, and by not preventing it when he could have done so easily, is He not in a sense responsible for it? Papa tells Mack that evil is the inevitable result of free will. God chose to limit Himself by giving man the ability to choose. Man chose evil, and this has led to immense suffering, even by those who have not yet chosen evil themselves. At one point Jesus says, “To force my will upon you is exactly what love does not do.” And at another Papa says, “If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love.”
God allows evil because He allows love, which requires Him to allow us to choose. God’ heart breaks at the evil His children have caused, but He will not intervene now in a direct way. Instead, He will use all things, even man’s evil, to accomplish His purposes in the end, and in the mean time, Papa says, “You’ve just gotta trust my love.”
Here Williams echoes Dostoevsky in Brothers Karamazov. The atheist, Ivan, spews at his Christian brother Alyosha: ” Listen! if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer, and why they should buy harmony with their suffering.”
The problem of innocent suffering nearly drove Dostoevsky mad, and his Alyosha never attempted to rebut Ivan with a theoretical Christian apologetic; for Dostoevsky knew that all attempts at theodicy are ultimately unsatisfying, and in the end all we can do is confess that in this age we see through a glass darkly, and while we are waiting for the time when we shall see face to face, the best we can do is hope and trust in God’s love demonstrated to us at the Cross.
Williams’s discussion of the incoherence of relativism is spot on. Sarayu asks Mack “what is good?” and Mack responds with a standard “the good is the desirable and the desirable is what I actually desire” relativist answer. Sarayu responds that Mack’s standard is no standard at all, because things he once found desirable he no longer desires. Therefore, if the standard shifts even within Mack, how could it possibly by used to judge among others, and any attempt to use a shifting standard must result in chaos.
Mack asks “Why do I have so much fear in my life?” God answers: “Because you don’t believe.” Truly, if we believe what we say we believe – that we serve the all powerful and loving God who spoke and the universe leapt into existence at the sound of His voice – then why do we fear?
Williams’ discussion of forgiveness is perhaps the best I have ever read. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting (how can it); nor does it mean that we cannot be angry and hurt at the wrong we have suffered. Nor is it a once and for all event. It is a process that begins with the choice to relieve the other from condemnation and judgment (to “take your hand off of their throat” as Williams puts it). That choice must be followed by successive choices. Every time the matter is brought to mind we must choose to forgive yet again. Forgiveness is the choosing of the other, and in that sense it is little different from love. And forgiveness is powerful. Williams writes: “Every time you forgive, the universe changes.” Indeed.
But for all of its powerful insights and provocative images, at the end of The Shack I was deeply troubled, and I cannot recommend it, because The Shack is rife with error. Indeed, the error in The Shack is perhaps the most powerful kind of error because it is mixed with powerful truth, which makes the error all the more attractive to the undiscerning.
Before turning to the book’s shortcomings, let me first say a word about a criticism of the book that I do not share. Some commentators have attacked Williams’ use of the “Papa” metaphor as flippant or even sacrilegious. This attack is not entirely fair, because Williams is careful to explain that his images of God are strictly metaphorical. Any attempt to capture the character of God must necessarily be incomplete and metaphorical. Nevertheless, if the author is able to use the metaphor to express more clearly some aspect of God’s character in a way that helps people understand, then it is a good thing. There are plenty of reasons to be disturbed by The Shack, but its provocative use of metaphor is not one of them.
Now to the parts of the book I found troubling.
There are numerous technical heresies in the book, which others have documented, and I see no reason to replicate that technical discussion here. Instead, I will point you to Norman Geisler’s excellent summary here.
Williams’ many doctrinal failures, troubling as they may be, are not, for me at least, the main problem with the book. The main problem with The Shack it is that it is so completely infused with the zeitgeist, the spirit of our age. It is no wonder The Shack is so popular. Far from challenging the biases and preconceptions of our time, Williams panders to and reinforces them. He tells people what they have been preconditioned to want to hear, and it is little wonder they are lining up in droves to hear it. Let me give a few examples:
Emasculating God. In our postmodern age manliness and masculine virtues are under attack. Far from challenging that bias Williams gives us a feminine, even an emasculated, God. It is no accident that two of the three images Williams uses for God are women. Now the metaphor of God as a kindly black woman who bakes scones is not necessarily wrong in itself. God is kind and tender. But Williams errs when he suggests that is anything close to a complete picture, that God is only tender and kind. God is also a consuming fire, powerful beyond our imagining, and fearsome. When Isaiah encountered God he fell on his face and cried “Woe is me; for I am undone!” Williams’ effete God is not the God of the Bible.
Anti-Church. In his website Williams declares that he is not a member of any church. This is consistent with his statements in The Shack in which he declares that God hates religion and has no use for churches. This is absurd. God clearly ordains and establishes the church in Scripture. Leave it to Williams to suggest that Paul and Augustine and Martin Luther and Charles Wesley all had it wrong, that we need to throw out Scripture and 2,000 years of tradition and do it his way. The spirit of our age tells us that traditional institutions – including marriage and the church and the family – must be changed to suit our more enlightened preferences. Williams does not challenge that spirit; he bows to it.
Flirtation with Universalism. “Inclusiveness” may be the only sacred tenet of postmodernism, and the spirit of our postmodern age simply cannot abide the gospel’s claims of exclusivity. Jesus said that he is the Way and that no one can approach the Father except through him. Now Jesus’ claim may be true and it may be false, but one thing it is not is inclusive. Jesus did not say he is one way or, as Williams puts it, the “best way” to God. Jesus said he is THE WAY. “Christian” means literally “little Christ” and by extension a follower of Christ. Williams’ God, who declares he has no interest in making people into Christians, is not the God of the Bible.
Ranting Against Hierarchy. Postmodern theorists tell us that all narratives are about power relationships, and Williams keys off of this concept when he says that all hierarchies are evil. Scripture tells us just the opposite, that God has ordained hierarchy in government, in the church and in the family.
I could multiply examples of Williams’ frothy postmodern platitudes, but you get the point. Williams is a man of his times and he has no interest in challenging the spirit of his age. In summary, I believe Geisler’s conclusions are apt and quote them at length here:
The Shack may do well for many in engaging the current culture, but not without compromising Christian truth. The book may be psychologically helpful to many who read it, but it is doctrinally harmful to all who are exposed to it. It has a false understanding of God, the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the nature of man, the institution of the family and marriage, and the nature of the Gospel. For those not trained in orthodox Christian doctrine, this book is very dangerous. It promises good news for the suffering but undermines the only Good News (the Gospel) about Christ suffering for us. In the final analysis it is only truth that is truly liberating. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). A lie may make one feel better, but only until he discovers the truth. This book falls short on many important Christian doctrines. It promises to transform people’s lives, but it lacks the transforming power of the Word of God (Heb. 4:12) and the community of believers (Heb. 10:25)