By Rev. Clete Hux –
What starts as a book often becomes a motion picture. This is certainly the case in pop culture. In a visually oriented age, aided by the fact that “a picture paints a thousand words”, many would rather watch a movie than read a book.
Both what is read in a book or seen in a movie communicate a worldview that defines for the reader and viewer alike how to understand or make sense of what is being read or seen. Typically, book writers and movie developers strive together for this and it does not matter if the material being covered is historical or fictional. In other words, there is a message to be communicated. With this in mind, let’s take a brief look at William P. Young’s book, The Shack, its message and possible worldview implications. Before proceeding there are some things we need to consider.
One consideration is fictional characterization. How important is it? What literary license can be taken with it? There are those who say that if a book and movie are fictional there is no need for critique because it need not be taken seriously. So, in a way, more can be said via fiction than could be otherwise if taken seriously. But, we must ask, if we are writing fiction, may we or should we say anything we wish? For instance, may we treat God as a fictional character? And are we allowed to give scripture an inaccurate meaning, all justified because we say it is just fiction?
It is one thing to make use of symbolism and metaphorical language when talking about everyday life in the created order of things. However, we should be careful not to put God Himself on the same level. True, there are places in scripture where God accommodates us in our weakness to help us understand His providential care for us. Scripture says that “the eyes of the Lord run throughout the earth” and He “measured the waters in the hollow of His hand” (See 11 Cor. 16:9; Isa. 40:12). Matthew records God being like a mother hen who protects (23:37) and Hosea says God is like a bear robbed of her cubs or a lion that devours (13:8).
Comparing scripture with scripture, we know that God is not a hen, bear, lion or any created thing. Notice that in these metaphorical instances God tells us what He is like. Nowhere in scripture does He leave it up to us to tell Him what He is like. He has not given us that privilege. This is very important lest we imagine a vain thing, making Him into an image of our own making. As a matter of fact, through the prophet Isaiah, He says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, … For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (55:8-9).
Creative imagination within a proper biblical perspective is a gift from God to be used in a way that honors Him without reducing Him to a fictional creaturely level. In my opinion, this is what Young’s story has done with the nature of God. Although there are other points I could address, space in this article limits our consideration to the Trinitarian persons of the Godhead, salvation, and how scripture should be approached.
The Shack’s Trinity
The book is supposed to be a fictional account of a man named Mack who spends a weekend at a shack in the woods with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The context is that Mack is trying to make some sense out of the tragic loss of his daughter who was murdered by a serial killer. Mack is trying to come to an understanding of why a good God could allow such an evil, an issue with which most honest thinking people have struggled.
While at the shack, all three persons of the Trinity appear to Mack. The Father appears as an African-American woman. The Son appears as a Middle Eastern man. Finally, the Holy Spirit appears an Asian woman.
The Shack’s Father
According to Mack, God the Father appears to him as a large African-American woman named “Papa”.(1) Obviously, such a physical characterization of the Father contradicts the very nature of God. We may want to see God with our own eyes, but we cannot. The nature of God is spirit and those who worship Him, do so in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Scripture teaches that God the Father has never had a physical body contrary to the depiction in The Shack. A woman who is “Papa” or a heavenly Father who is a woman does an injustice to both. God has revealed that He is neither male nor female, even though both attributes are used of Him. However, scripture records God revealing Himself in the masculine as Father, not feminine. This comes close to redefining the nature of God and accommodating the current cultural gender confusion.
There is also the issue of the confusion of persons within the trinity. The story presents the Father as having scars on His wrists,(2) intimating that it was the Father that died on the cross instead of the Son. To some, this may seem to be a small point, but Church History aids our scriptural understanding of the importance of a clear distinction of persons. The Athanasian Creed in part states, “… neither confounding the persons, or dividing the substance. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost.”(3)
The Shack’s Son
The Jesus of the story is presented as a Middle Eastern man who has a tool belt, wears jeans with a plaid shirt. No problem with God the Son in His incarnation appearing Middle Eastern. Being of Jewish descent, He certainly was not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian. The tool belt and clothing may be Young’s way of describing Jesus as a carpenter. That being said, we understand that when God the Son became man He did not cease being God. However, Young presents the Son as never drawing upon his nature as God to do anything.(4) Not only is there confusion of the person of the Son with the person of the Father, but there is confusion of the dual nature of Christ in Young’s Shack. A Jesus who limits his power to merely that of a human being who had no power in himself to heal anyone is not the Jesus of the Bible who is the only fully God-Man of history. Remember Christ equated Himself as God in His “I AM” claims. There is so much more to be said about Christ becoming flesh as Jesus, yet never ceasing to be God the Son.
The Shack’s Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit of The Shack is presented as an Asian woman named Sarayu.(5) There are three problems with this Holy Spirit. First, there is the problem of the Holy Spirit being flesh. It is a contradiction for spirit to be flesh; it is either one or the other, but not both. (It is also a contradiction of scripture to say that the Holy spirit is flesh.) The author records, “When we three spoke ourselves into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.”(6) According to Young, the Holy Spirit took on flesh, just as the Father and the Son. Biblically, it was only the Son, not the Father or the Spirit, who took on flesh. Second, there is another problem with the Holy Spirit being the Son of God. This confusion of persons within the Godhead sounds like a modalistic understanding of the trinity rather than a Biblical one. For instance, a modalist might say that Jesus is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Third, in the Bible the Holy Spirit is presented as having personal attributes, but He is never addressed in the feminine, only in the masculine.
The Shack’s Salvation
There are places in the story that lead one to think that the salvation offered promotes religious pluralism as well as universalism. For example, in a conversation Jesus pointed out Mack’s need to love and serve people. Mack asked, “Is that what it means to be a Christian?” Jesus responded, “Who said anything about being Christian? I’m not a Christian.”(7) Now, technically, that is right. Only followers of Christ are Christians. However, the worldview subtly suggested here confuses the true biblical meaning of Christianity and casts doubt on its validity.
According to Young, Jesus further tells Mack, “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 a 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”.(8) Later, Mack and Papa are discussing what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Papa says, “Through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world.”(9) This confuses Mack who asks if it is the whole world or just those who believe. Papa tells Mack it is the whole world that is reconciled and Papa does not mention that faith in Christ is necessary for this reconciliation.
This very brief unpacking of The Shack has given us plenty for which to be concerned. Every believer should know that the way to God is narrow and few find it. That way is very exclusive not inclusive like the accommodation of religious pluralism and universalism The Shack seems to suggest. The narrow road leads to life, but the broad one leads to destruction (See Mt. 7:13-14). This type of blanket coverage for everyone’s salvation without personal trust in Christ cheapens what Jesus did on the cross. Not only that, it does not take God’s word seriously about His Son’s reconciliation for us by reading into scripture something never intended.
It has been said that in the beginning God made man in His image and ever since the fall, man has attempted to return the favor. In reading The Shack, albeit a story in fictional form, one gets the impression that there is a desire to bring God and His dealings with us down to human level so that we may better understand Him. Perhaps this might help people in their own way to somehow “experience” God. It is understandable that someone undergoing personal tragedy would seek to imagine God in human form. However, we can only know God in the ways that He has chosen to reveal Himself. God has chosen to reveal His existence through His general revelation in creation and conscience (Rom. 1: 19-21), but has more specifically communicated the identity of His divine nature in scripture (Deut. 6:4;) through the special revelation of His Word and His Son. He is one God by nature, but triune in personality (Matt. 28:19-20). By the way, none of the divine persons spoke themselves into existence in human form as Young suggests. This could lead someone to believe there was a time when they were not divine.
When in our imagination, whether intentionally or not, we start moving away from having God and His Word as our fixed point of reference to interpret life and its struggles, we can become vulnerable and captive to a semblance of reality rather than being subject to actual reality. That’s why our Lord says we are to trust in Him with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding but in all our ways acknowledge Him and He will make our paths straight (Prov. 3:5-6). I must state for the record that The Shack is an interesting story and I understand why people gravitate to such a novel. Stay tuned for further possible discussion.
1. Wm. Paul Young, The Shack (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007), 82.86.
2. Ibid., 95.
3. John Miley, Systematic Theology (2 Vol; New York, Hunt & Eaton; Cincinnati, Cranston & Stowe, 1892, 1894) 228.
4. Young, The Shack, 99-100.
5. Ibid, 85, 87, 110.
6. Ibid, 99.
7. Ibid, 182.
9. Ibid, 191-192.
Notes (for further reading)
Marcia Montenegro, What’s At The Back of The Shack? A Look At William P. Young’s The Shack. http://www.christiananswersforthenewage.org/Articles_TheShack.aspx
Albert Mohler, The Shack: The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment, http://www.albertmohler.com/2017/03/06/shack-missing-art-evangelical-discernment/
Matt Slick, The Shack is Only Fiction, https://carm.org/shack-only-fiction
Matt Slick, The Shack A Short Article, https://carm.org/shack-short-article
Matt Slick, The Shack, https://carm.org/the-shack
Patrick Zukeran, Criticism of the Shack, https://www.probe.org/critique-of-the-shack/