Wednesday, July 2, 2008

snack "Shack"

My kids head to camp in a couple of weeks. While there, they'll have opportunity to purchase goodies at the Snack Shack each day. I've learned that "snack" is the Greek word for "junk food." The candy bars and sodas they purchase are delicious, but hardly nutritious.

I'm afraid that's my critique of The Shack, a very popular book on the Amazon bestsellers list. The book, by William Young, enjoys a list of endorsements from people like musician Michael W. Smith and author Eugene Peterson [The Message] who touts it as another Pilgrim's Progress. Let me tell you why I disagree.

The book is an allegory and, while allegories are afforded creative license, I believe they must correspond to what is true. This is especially important when it comes to biblical truth. In other words, a Christian author cannot set some truths aside in order to communicate other truths. A partially true work is false.

The Shack contains several points that I believe are dangerous, if not heretical. First, I am concerned about the author's view on the authority of the Bible. On pages 65-66, the main character contemplates a "note" he has received from God. Young writes,

“In seminary [Mack] had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice has been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while the educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just a book.”

This viewpoint sets the stage for the rest of the book. Young dismisses propositional truth-- revealed by God and recorded in Scripture--and exchanges it for an experiential encounter with God. This popular position is held by many in a postmodern culture who criticize those who start with the Bible as their guide for life. Such absolutism, they claim, puts God "in a box."

The logical outcome for Young is that God can be whatever he [or anyone else] wants Him to be. While I appreciate the author's contention that God is not "white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf," I do believe that God has revealed Himself in time in particular ways. When we take liberty with God's revelation, we run dangerously into the woods of heresy. With that in mind, I would argue:

1. The mysterious doctrine of the Trinity holds one God in three persons...not three Gods. Young sounds very tri-theistic throughout his work.

2. God the Father cannot be reduced to human form--not as an African American woman named "Papa" or anything else. The 2nd commandment very strictly forbids creating [or allegorizing] the Almighty with human characteristics. The principle is important: You cannot use the stuff below [on earth] to fashion the God above. I think it was Voltaire who said, "God created man in His image and man has since more than reciprocated." We often create God in our image rather than the other way around.

3. God has communicated Himself using masculine pronouns. I know this isn't popular and there are many who have theological arguments for neutering the godhead. My position has less to do with gender and all to do with a respect for Divine revelation.

The outcome of this reduction of God is that God isn't honored as He ought to be. A perfect example is when Mack comes into the presence of God. His response looks nothing like the awestruck, humble, repentant position of people in the Bible. Rather, when Mack first meets "Papa," he's angry [his face flushed red and his hands knotted into fists; p. 92] at God for the tragedy God allowed years earlier [I'll let you read about it]. Strangely, Papa's response is, "Mack, I am so sorry..."

Wait a minute! The Creator of the universe apologizing to Mack or me for what He has sovereignly orchestrated?! If God is always in control and is forever accomplishing His divine purposes, He need not apologize for anything! And, He certainly doesn't apologize to us! If there's any doubt, reread the story of Job and notice God's response to a man who lost even more than Mack.

A similar reductionism is expressed regarding salvation. An important dialogue takes place between Mack and Jesus:

“Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans… 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 brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”

“Does that mean,” asked Mack, “that all roads will lead to you?”

“Not at all,” smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you”

Where do I start? What does the author mean when Jesus says "I have no desire to make them [other faiths] Christian"? Does he suggest that Christianity is too exclusive and our "only way" of salvation is an "imposition" on other faiths? Young seems to lean in this direction by having Jesus add that He wants to "join in their transformation" as if people of other faiths can be transformed in and through their faiths. Whatever happened to John 14:6?

Young attempts to take himself off the hook when he has Jesus answer Mack that "all roads don't lead to Him," but it is in what he does not say that is troublesome. He never clarifies. And so, he leaves the issue of universalism up for grabs. The good news for him [and his publisher] is that the topic is left so obscure that an uncritical reader on either side will be left happy.

To be fair, there are redemptive messages in The Shack. The reader does get a beautiful picture of God's grace. He or she is challenged to understand forgiveness. And, Young does a great job tapping into the love of God, helping the Christian to understand and embrace their identity in Christ. However, the worst of all liars in history have uttered lines of truth. Their truth, however, didn't change the reality of their errors.

I would not necessarily encourage people not to read The Shack but would strongly urge caution. I suggest that the book is a snack--a taste, but not terribly nutritious. The danger is that, like children, we may prefer the sweetness on our tongue and not realize the sugary decay that comes from careless eating.


Leilanni said...

Interesting post . . .I hadn't heard of this book until a friend recommended it today.

Want to pick your brain on something . . .Good thoughts on being cautious when using things of this world to try to understand our God who is not of this world. I've always adored the Narnia books - I think Lewis did a fabulous job capturing characteristics of Christ in Aslan. Thoughts about that - does that fall under the same caution? Not sure what I think yet. Just musing out loud. :-)

David Daniels said...


Great question. I was wondering if someone would ask this question! There is a difference between using images to represent God the Father and God the Son. While I disagree with the characiture that Young uses to portray Jesus, I don't believe he has violated any Scriptural principles to do so. The reason is that Jesus became man--God in human form. We HAVE seen Jesus, so represneting him with image doesn't violate the 2nd commandment. However, no one has seen God at any time [John 1:18]. That's the difference.

Leilanni said...

That makes sense. Hubby and I had a great discussion about this as we were walking toward the parade this morning (with a talkative toddler we squeeze in conversations where we can! ha!). I think we concluded that every characteristic of Aslan corresponds to biblical truth, while it sounds like in this book that may not be the case . . .some do, some don't. And maybe that's where the danger lies.

Anyhow - great food for thought! Thanks!

R said...

David, thanks for not being afraid to share your honest opinion! That's what a shepherd is supposed to do--lead his flock! :0)

We appreciate you.

Rhonda D

Bob W said...

Hey Dave...

Thanks for your insight into "The Shack" and the critique on a lot of what William Young (best known to his family as Paul) is trying to say.

I just came from the Christian Booksellers show in Orlando and met and visited a bit with Paul Williams - and there's a bit more to the story than what's in the book.

He grew up as the son of a missionary couple in New Guinea, where he witnessed a great deal of physical and sexual abuse in a tribal atmosphere - he didn't have a close relationship with his father - who he described as an "angry man who he tried to steer clear of growing up"... at age 11, he was required (by the mission board) as all kids that age, to go to boarding school in New Guinea. A place where, as he described it, was filled with all types of abuse that turned many of the young men there inside out. To say, the least, he came out of these experiences a pretty messed up young man.

"The Shack" was never intended to be published - in fact, he described himself as an "accidental author" and only wanted to write this story of his own healing for his children... the goal being to get it to Kinko's in time for Christmas. He's no theologian... and never wanted this book to be described as an allegory, but rather a metaphor for the healing process that he went through himself.

I don't disagree with any of the critique you've made of some of the off-center doctrine, but wanted to put it into context of his story and let you know that he had a group of 400 people (many of whom disagreed with his book very vocally) completely spellbound as he spoke.

One last thing... and an example of some of the good that his book may bring - as he described himself as both Mack and his daughter (the bitter man and the innocent child) he related a story where through interesting circumstances just a week prior, he had received a call from a friend in Maryland who was selling his business to none other than the son in law of one of the main perpetrators of his abuse in boarding school - imagine his shock, all the way from New Guinea to Maryland. The day before I met him, he received a call from the man himself - who was reading the book - asking him for his forgiveness for all that he had done to him... Paul Young responded to him that his forgiveness had been given years ago...

Everyone he met last week, he hugged... I have to tell you, I was touched by his sincerety and his heart... He made a tremendous immpression on me.

David Daniels said...


Thanks for taking time to write--and reflecting your thoughts in such a gracious way. I really appreciate that. And, I am grateful for the additional context to understand Young's point of view. I have read some similar comments in other literature.

I am, however, a bit MORE confused. If someone writes something that they know not to be completely true and prefers for it not to be published, how does it get published? Did someone steal Young's material without him knowing it? It sounds more accurate to say that he originally did not intend to publish it, but later, for whatever reason, he decided that he wished for it to be published. At this point, he is no "accidental author" but an amateur author who is very intentionally publishing a book.

It would be at this point of decision that I wish Young would have editted theological errors and material that was originally intended to be shared in the context of family relationships so that those sections would not be available for public consumption. Perhaps then, the book would have accomplished TWO purposes: great healing for many while affirming an accurate portrait of God.

Bob W said...

I guess however it got published, I don't really think his intent was ever to write a thological piece, but (according to him) a piece of pure fiction about his healing... I remember a lot of similar comments from a lot of the Dan Brown materials... no doubt, they were pure fiction, and Dan Brown readily said that over and over... but, the "buzz" had already begun... and perhaps that how this is playing out as well...

To be honest, I don't know how this ever got published, I do know that it's self published, but not written with that purpose. I guess if someone read a piece of fiction I had written and asked me if I wanted to have it published, I would be tempted as well - but, perhaps some greater care in clarifying that the book is purely fictional, that the metaphor is purely imaginary and that the theology is not to be taken literally might have been in order...

Personally, I enjoyed the read - difficult at first with a tough story, but I did enjoy the characters... needless to say, my concern with the theological ramifications were simply not at the top of my mind... just liked the way he told the story.

Thanks for responding...

Anonymous said...

I agree with your opinions here. I was given this book by a co-worker to read during a rough time I was going through and right now I'm on page 120 and it just hasn't been sitting right with me either. I can't really even explain why but something inside is telling me that these pictures that the author is painting for us are a little mis-construed. I think you've given me some clarity on what I was picking up on here.

David Daniels said...


Once again, I am very grateful for your response and your willingness to dialogue. Respectfully, your comment suggests that we can turn on and off our theology---be accurate in our theology for non-fiction, but be fuzzy when we write fiction. Truth is, every statement we make is theological: an expression of what we believe to be true (this whole blog is a theological treatise). And, even when we're metaphorical, our metaphors reflect our theology. How strange it would be for anyone to create metaphors and allegories that don't reflect what they believe to be true. That would make them irresponsible or a liar. Since I assume that Young was neither irresponsible or intending to deceive, I must assume that his writing reflects what he believes to be true.

Bob M said...

I don't think The Shack wins any awards for theological precision. That's it's weakness. On the other hand, I talked to a guy last week on staff with the Wycliffe Bible Translators for 25 years and
theologically sound down the line, who cried when he read the book because the love of God touched him so. That's the book's magic, I think.

I would have a question for all those I have read criticizing the book for being Tri-theistic. How in the world would you convey a completely biblical account of the Trinity in fiction? How do you do it without sounding Tri-theistic? If it can't be done, does that mean dealing with the Trinity
in fiction is off-limits? Is that the kind of God we have? Sounds more like Allah/Islam than the Trinity. (By that I mean not allowing personal comment on Allah or the Prophet). I think the great thing about The Shack is that it's
getting people thinking about the Trinity, thinking about forgiveness and the kind of spiritual healing the Mack experienced.

David Daniels said...

Bob, thanks for your comments. I'd answer your very good question by stating: If a person cannot write about God in a truthful way [fiction or non-fiction] he ought not write about God at all. I certainly wouldn't want someone writing about ME, in a symbolic, allegorical way, that communicated something about me that isn't true. How much more so with God.

So far, the responses from those who love the book have been:"We're comfortable with the fact that the book isn't terribly accurate. Since it's changing the way I think about God, it's acceptable." I wonder what it will be like to stand before the Almighty and say to Him, "Your Word wasn't enough for us modern people. We needed a work of fiction, slightly distorted, to really help us get to know You."

Forgive me if I sound too strong. I think those posting comments here are mature enough to handle the serious dialogue.

Anonymous said...

Hi David:

Here comes "a blast from the past (FEFC, Austin). I totally agree with you. I got part way into the book and felt a great uneasiness. Do we take the trinity so lightly? I think the idea that others have suggested, that the author has taken a universalistic approach, is valid. All roads lead to heaven. WRONG! We have to be very careful not to be misled by a work of "fiction."

Cheers, my friend!

Jack W. (formerly UT Austin, but now Tucson Arizona)