Book Review – The Shack

An associate at work insisted I read “The Shack.” He wouldn’t give me many details of the book but did say it revealed God’s grace in personal tragedy. After a few false starts, I was able to finally start the book.

Not being a great fan of Christian novels, I was immediately disappointed but endeavored to continue reading. I confessed I was entertained by Young’s prose in that he gave so much detail in visualizations of descriptions. I did become distracted as I begin to analyze his style and forgot about the message. However, all authors have their own distinct style and I should leave it at that. In chapter 7 he became C.S. Lewisesque with the transformation of the lead character’s reality (Mark) into a fantasy land. Ugh…, Lord of the Rings here we go. (I enjoyed the movies but just couldn’t hang with the books.)

If you have ever read C.S. Lewis, “The Chronicles of Narnia” or John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim Progress,” you understand how the authors use the power of metaphor and association to illustrate the character and attributes of God. Young uses contemporary metaphor to reveal God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. He lets the dynamics of the family relationship describe his understanding of the trinity. The reader can immediately identify the three persons of the Godhead by the roles Young has assigned to them. I’ll admit that God cast as an Aunt Jemima type threw me for a loop at first. However, “God” explained that “She” appeared in the form that Mark identified with or needed most, i.e., a nurturing mother. Jesus was portrayed as handyman fisherman good ole’ boy. I never did figure out the Holy Spirit.

Leaving Young’s entertainment value behind, I began analyzing his theology. I easily concluded that Young believes in classic Pelagianism. Which is what, you ask? Let me quote from Wikipedia, “It is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without Divine aid. Thus, Adam’s sin was “to set a bad example” for his progeny, but his actions did not have the other consequences imputed to Original Sin. Pelagianism views the role of Jesus as “setting a good example” for the rest of humanity (thus counteracting Adam’s bad example). In short, humanity has full control, and thus full responsibility, for its own salvation in addition to full responsibility for every sin (the latter insisted upon by both proponents and opponents of Pelagianism). According to Pelagian doctrine, because humanity does not require God’s grace for salvation (beyond the creation of will) Jesus’ execution is devoid of the redemptive quality ascribed to it by orthodox Christian theology.”

Young unfortunately in his attempt to personalize the Godhead did so at the expense of the Godhead sovereignty. Young’s god is similar to the one theorized by Pelagius. God created the world and sits back and observes life as it acts itself out–only occasionally intervening, but doing so as to not interfere with man’s so called “freewill.” Of course, God often resists the temptation to intervene because of His love for His creatures. This is not unlike a clockmaker who winds up a clock, places it on the mantle, and watches time go by. The clockmaker’s only chore is wind it up from time to time.

Young’s casual approach to illustrate the sovereign God described in the Bible leads me to think he was influenced by Harold S. Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” This little book was published in the early 1980’s and was a big seller. In it, Kushner trashed God’s omnipotence and omniscience. Kushner stated, “If God can’t make my sickness go away, what good is He? Who needs Him? God does not want you to be sick or crippled. He didn’t make you have this problem, and He doesn’t want you to go on having it, but He can’t make it go away. That is something which is too hard even for God.” Of course, I have no idea if Young ever read Kushner, but the thought did pass my mind.
I’ll give Young high marks for his description of lead character’s encounter with the judge. Young captured the key cause of our character’s continued remorse and brooding over his personal loss. Our hero was blaming God for his loss and angry at God for not intervening. People murmuring and complaining about how life has “dealt them a bad hand of cards” is a stab at God.

In my counseling ministry most people seeking solutions for their problems are unhappy that God didn’t give them a better break. Whether it is a better set of parents or a more loving and responsible spouse, counselees are disappointed with God that He hasn’t given them a hassle free life. They fail to see the purpose of suffering, and certainly don’t appreciate Romans 8:28-29: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” How can “all things work together for god to them that love God?” I believe trials and tribulations (“things”) help us to be more Christ like in our character and behavior.

I’ve met several people who have read or are currently reading The Shack. Young’s talent has captured the minds of many and some are riveted to his book. It’s unfortunate that they will be left with an image of God not of the scriptures. For instance, why did God create Pharaoh of Egypt? What was the purpose of the book of Job? How did Judas Iscariot glorify God? What is Romans chapter 9 talking about? The scriptures are loaded with themes and illustrations that demonstrate God’s power. These events display His attributes and how they interact to create His perfect plan.

For whatever reason, Young seeks to feminize the Godhead by making two of the persons of the trinity women. On page 93, Papa says, “I am neither male nor female.” That is a great stretch especially when you consider that of all the appearances of a deity to a human, or to a divine disclosure in the Bible (known as Theophany for God’s appearance and Christophany for Christ), not one is feminine. If God made man in His own image, why was Adam created a man? Why not something else?

So why did Young want God to appear as a female? It’s possible with his exposure as a missionary, Young wanted to introduce diversity; whether it be in sex, races, or culture. It’s also possible he wanted humankind to identify more with God if Young could be successful in making God appear more human. If God used Christ’s appearance in the Bible as Middle Eastern man to build the His bridge, why not introduce African and Oriental women to enhance the identification? Let’s not quibble. At least when CS Lewis created the lion, Aslan, to personify Christ, the Lewis reader had no problem comprehending the comparison of a Lion to Christ.

My greatest problem is with Young’s lack of understanding of sin and salvation and the Gospel message. Let me quote on page 225, Papa says “I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship.” And later, “When you forgive someone you certainly release them from judgment.”

Then what condemns a person to eternal damnation? In context, Young apparently is teaching it is the lack of a relationship that sends a person to hell. If this be true, then a relationship can only exist when one believes. So, if a person doesn’t believe, then it must be the sin of unbelief that condemns a man.

The Puritan John Owen (1616-1683), posed the following question, “For Who Did Christ Die?”

1. All the sins of all men.
2. All the sins of some men, or
3. Some of the sins of all men.

In which case it may be said:
1. If the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so, none are saved.
2. That if the second be true, then Christ, suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world.
3. But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?

Some may answer, “Because of unbelief (or lack of relationship).”
I would ask, is this unbelief (i.e., lack of relationship according to Young) a sin, or is it not? If it is, then Christ suffered the punishment for it, or He did not. If He did, why must that sin condemn them more than their other sins for which Christ died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins.”

The Bible clearly teaches that grace is what saves and uses faith as the means. Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches that even the faith is a gift of God so we can’t boast. Furthermore, Young’s theology leaves no room for the doctrine of Justification by Faith. How is a person declared righteous before God? Young needs a clear reading of Abraham’s account in Romans.

Overall, The Shack is an entertaining read and I would put it on a shelf next to the Christian romance novels genre which my oldest son refers to as “Christian smut.” It certainly doesn’t belong near Pilgrim’s Progress or near any good books on the nature of God.

If one is looking for a solid Biblically based book on how to deal with personal suffering, I strongly recommend Jerry Bridges book, “Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts” Bridges shows how we must learn about God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and love if we want to know Him better. You won’t be disappointed.

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