The Shack

Because The Shack has now been made into a movie, I thought I should bump this old review of the book to the top of the pile.  This was first published on 8/21/08.

I had been asked by several different people what I thought of The Shack, a hot selling book by William Young. It is a book that is currently selling like crazy (I saw a great, big stack of them in an airport bookstore last week), and while it appears to be a big event centered in the broad evangelical world, there have been significant repercussions in our circles as well. So I (dutifully) got the book and read it. It is not the kind of book you can review chapter by chapter, and so this one review will have to suffice.

If you want to read the book like a novel, which it really isn’t, I suppose there will be some spoilers here. So, fair warning given. The protagonist of the book is named Mack, and a few years before the book opened, his youngest daughter named Missy had been kidnapped and presumably murdered. He himself had had a terrible childhood, and had finally run away from home as a teenager after poisoning his father. One day Mack receives a mysterious note from “Papa,” his wife’s favorite name for God, inviting him to come meet at the shack where his daughter had likely been killed. He decides to go, and after he gets there, the shack is transformed, and he finds himself on a weekend retreat with all three persons of the Trinity. Over the course of that weekend, he learns all kinds of things about himself and about the world that he had never suspected. That, in sum, is the basic set up.

I am going to say some hard things about the book in a moment, so I want to begin with this. The book is filled with numerous insights into what makes people tick, and those insights are wise, shrewd, pastoral, tender, and they deal with sins at the root. But the strength here is largely diagnostic, and unfortunately gets confused when it comes to the remedy, as will become apparent in a moment. William Young, the author, knows with profound clarity that fatherlessness is the rot that is eating away at the modern soul. The clear appeal of the book is because of the ache created by fatherlessness which, when coupled with the metaphoric solutions offered, provides us with a full explanation for the popularity of the book.

But I must make a distinction here — frequently (not always), the solutions as they are spoken are right on. They deal with honesty, confession, forgiveness, and they do so in a way that any orthodox Christian could embrace. But the problem lies with with the setting. Disembodied truth doesn’t help anyone really, and so the embodiment really matters.

Before getting to that, I should note in passing what I might call the theological problem. Since the discussions revolve around the murder of a little girl, the book is clearly about the problem of evil. And the answers that are offered are a standard sort of evangelical non-Calvinism, with the result that the texts that plainly state the nature of God’s involvement in such things are simply ignored. In other words, the theoretical answers in this book that grapple with this problem are about as detached from the Scriptures as they could be. This is a big problem, but any of you who have been in more than two discussions between Calvinists and Arminians have probably seen it. That is not the thing that sets this book apart.

And this brings me to the way in which this book was simply terrible, blasphemous. But before going on, I have to hasten to add that it is a peculiar form of evangelical blasphemy, one that is well-intentioned and naive. I remember one time I was at a conference where the group I was with was sharing the venue with another group. So one time I sat in on the chapel services of that other group, and they began singing “Spring Up, O Well,” which was fine with me. But since the song involved water, somebody had developed hand motions, and jumpy-up-and-down-motions. So there was this room full of adult Christians jumping up and down while they were singing, splish splashing along. But then they got to a verse where it was all about the blood of Christ instead of water, and they continued right on with the hand motions and the jumping, and the only thing missing was the rubber ducky, and nobody blasphemes like an evangelical can.

In a book clearly written to deal with the pain of fatherlessness, how does Young go about it? He makes God the Father, “Papa,” a large beaming African American woman (p. 82). The Holy Spirit is a shimmery Asian woman named Sarayu, mysterious and “way out there.” Jesus is simply Jesus, and is masculine after a kind, but in that unique way possessed by camp counselors and youth ministers with muscular forearms.

Here is a taste of the down home weekend retreat-like relationship that is going to fix Mack.

 

“Mack followed her soft humming down a short hallway and into an open kitchen-dining area, complete with a small four-seat table and wicker-backed chairs. The inside of the cabin was roomier than he had expected. Papa was working on something with her back to him, flour flying as she swayed to the music of whatever she was listening to. The song obviously came to an end, marked by a couple of last shoulder and hip shakes. Turning to face him, she took off the earphones” (p. 90).

 

Meet God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. Now Young is by no means of dunce — he is very clear that this is just an appearance, an accommodation. But the image, the metaphor, the feel of this whole book is warm and maternal, cozy and nonthreatening. The center of the discussions is the kitchen. The need is a deep father hunger, but this is not met by a father, but by the enveloping warmth of a comfort mama who makes a lot of comfort food. This symbolism is not incidental to the message of the book. It is the central message of the book.

And this reveals the bedrock problem with the whole thing. There is no way we can hide from ourselves that we have a need for a father, but we cannot bring ourselves to repent, and have our hearts turned back to actual fathers. We cannot bring ourselves to honor our (admittedly sinful) fathers, so that our lives might go well for us in the land that God gave to us. This means that we are stuck. We know that the problem is fatherlessness, but we have no intention of honoring real fathers, the way they should be honored. This is because the sin of fatherlessness is one that is shared by both fathers and children. And repentance, when it is given, is bestowed on both sides of the generational divide.

 

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (Mal. 4:5-6).

 

This generation of evangelicals really is fatherless and adrift. They know that, they ache over it, they cannot pretend not to know it, but they have no intention of turning back to their fathers. And that means repentance has not yet been given.

The impotence of this approach comes out in this book in a couple of striking ways. Young cannot bring himself to give two characters in this book a face. One is Mack’s father. In the course of the story, they do have a heavenly reconciliation, but Mack’s father remains a faceless place-holder throughout. The other character is the murderer. The book ends with Mack resolved to meet him in order to forgive him, but the story/theology set forth in this book is not up to the task of actually showing it.

The good news for evangelicals is that they are coming to recognize their fatherlessness. The good news that they are not yet ready for is that this cannot be addressed without returning to fathers.

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Josh Wallace
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Josh Wallace

It’s sad. Thank you, Dr. Wilson.

mpatrickriley
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mpatrickriley

“…nobody blasphemes like an evangelical can.”

Also, nobody blasphemes like an evangelical box of cans:comment image

Catman Doo
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Catman Doo

Wow!

Anne Viktor
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Anne Viktor

Warhol would be proud.

Christian Histo
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Christian Histo

Bravo.

Jane
Member

That’s pretty awful. But I’m looking and looking at that and fascinated by the problem of how they made the crossbars. What is going on with that?

Matt Massingill
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Matt Massingill

Um. Empty boxes glued together, prolly. Apropos metaphor, really – not a very weighty cross in this kitsch advertising context.

Jon Swerens
Member

That’s Pop Christianity for you.

adad0
Member

oof! ; – )

wtrsims
Member

Who makes a cross with Mr. Pibb?

St. Nicolas should deck that guy too.

insanitybytes22
Member

It’s an apt review. I often wonder about what motivates people to put a feminine face on God and I think a whole lot of it has to do with an inability to accept the existence of evil, to observe it in the world around you and to recognize the potential evil in yourself. If you understand the nature of evil, you don’t go seeking the comfort of mom,you go looking for the biggest, baddest Dad you can find, and avail yourself of His authority and protection. The Shack really demonstrated that truth to me. He simply cannot really see… Read more »

adad0
Member

I was given the book, but never read it. It “smelled” funny.

Tyrone Taylor
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Tyrone Taylor

Pastor Wilson (or someone else) – Is there a way to create a story similar to this that is not blasphemy? Is the blasphemy tested in how the God metaphor is played out? Aslan immediately comes to mind. I haven’t reread that book since childhood because I am uncomfortable with Jesus (and God?) being so clearly depicted in Aslan. That being said, I do enjoy Aragorn as a character because he has lots of the Jesus like traits, but is not a direct allusion to Jesus. I could use some clarity in this. Btw, I completely agree with your main… Read more »

John
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fp
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fp

Good review, especially the part where “the need is a deep father hunger, but this is not met by a father, but by the enveloping warmth of a comfort mama who makes a lot of comfort food.”

Young spoke at our church years ago, and the thing about him that struck me was his antipathy toward authority.

It’s too bad people like Young are blind to the irony of wanting a father, but want nothing to do with what makes an actual father.

lndighost
Member

What a sobering thing it is that earthly fathers have the honour and burden of being a picture of God to their children. When the role is diligently carried out, what a huge blessing it is to those children, and to their children. There is so much theology in family life lived faithfully.

insanitybytes22
Member

I have to respond on account the fact that I have seen some dark and ugly behavior from Christians especially on facebook.

https://insanitybytes2.wordpress.com/2017/03/06/the-shack/

meyer.daniel.s
Member

Thanks for this, Doug.

When we lived in a different city, an older woman of the church was giving out free copies of The Shack to ladies of the church as something that she thought would be spiritually helpful for them. In listening through the audio book though, I was horrified and angered at the breadth and depth of its intentional falsity by someone who has been trained and knows better. I wrote a four-part series of articles on the bad theology of The Shack at that time. Part 1 is here, in case it is helpful to anyone.

jennit
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jennit

If anyone is interested, Paul Young is speaking in Orlando and taking questions from the audience. http://www.theshackseminar.com

drewnchick
Member

Speaking of books being made into movies, whatever happened to “Kill the Dragon, Get the Girl”? The trailer is fantabulous, but I can’t seem to locate the actual movie anywhere!

Andrew Lohr
Member

Uh, would it be a trailer for the book itself, rather than for a movie from the book?