As is typical of The Shack from what I’ve heard, I read the book this past spring after being given a copy by a friend. The novel was already rising in popularity, and I read it partly just to see what all the buzz was about.
By now I’m told The Shack has sold over a million copies. An internet search reveals that responses to this fictional story have run the gamut, from unqualified praise to scathing critique. Of course, this varied reaction is because its presentation of God is a little unorthodox—which is precisely why some people have loved the story, and others have viewed it with suspicion.
Spoiler Alert: I’m going to discuss details of the story that will give away key elements of the plot, so if you intend to read it and don’t want the story line to be spoiled for you, then you might not want to read further. My thoughts are intended mainly for those who’ve read the book, though others may find them helpful if they are curious.
My response to The Shack was mixed. Certain parts of the story really touched me emotionally. Other aspects either left me a bit cold or raised questions about the book’s true value and the long term impact it will have.
First I’ll share the parts of the story that impacted me positively. Next I’ll share those I found to be more questionable.
The Restoration of All Things
Like most, I found the plot that frames the story gripping and heart-wrenching. Missy, the little daughter of the story’s main character, Mack, is kidnapped by a serial killer and meets a most horrific end. The book is about how God ministers to Mack in the aftermath of this terrible nightmare that no parent would ever want to face. The story becomes a vehicle, then, for offering a fresh perspective on humanity’s perennial question: If God is all powerful and completely good, why do unspeakable things happen in this world of his?
There were two scenes in the book that touched me deeply. One occurs in chapter 11 when Mack is in the cave with Sophia (“wisdom,” of course), and he gets to see Missy again, as she is in eternity. The moment is bittersweet because he cannot touch her or hold her or talk to her; he only gets to see her and hear her tell him she’s okay and that she loves him. But the message is conveyed clearly and powerfully on an intuitive level that all wrongs in this life will be righted in the life to come, and that all pains and sorrows will give way to eternal and everlasting joy. For me it was the most powerful moment in the entire story.
The other part of the book that really moved me was toward the end when one evening Mackenzie is allowed to see with spiritual eyes, to witness the glory of all living things, including a heavenly gathering of saints who have gone before. These Mack perceives as beings of pure light. His attention is drawn to one light-being in particular who is radiating a corona, if you will, of various hues of brilliant colored light. Mack is told by Sarayu (the character in the story who is supposed to represent the Holy Spirit) that one of the beings there is “having some difficulty keeping in what he is feeling.” Mack discovers that this particular light being is his father, who severely abused Mack as a boy, to which Mack responded at the time by putting poison in all his bottles of whisky and then running away from home. This scene is full of impact as father and son are reunited in a profound and emotional encounter. The question of whether Mack’s horribly abusive father was a believer is not addressed, but once again the message comes through that even the most horrible events of this life, even the most painful of relationships, will be redeemed and restored in the end. This scene for me certainly evoked my own longing that this would indeed be true, that at the end of all things that which has never been healed in this life will finally be satisfied one day.
There were other aspects of the novel, though, that did not sit with me so well, and which left me with questions and concerns. I will share these as well.
No Devil in the Details
First, it struck me as odd that a book whose purpose is to address the problem of evil makes absolutely no reference to spiritual warfare or to the presence of satan, a spiritual presence in the world that seeks to oppose God and all that is holy and good, and to seek vengeance against God by bringing tragedy on his creatures. In my view this is the book’s most glaring omission. It leaves out a key aspect of Christian teaching that, in my opinion, helps to explain the presence of evil in a world governed by a sovereign and good God.
God Is Oprah??
A second issue I had with the book was that I felt it played right into the ideological excesses of contemporary culture. Our culture and the American church are very feminized. In The Shack three of the four main characters who are supposed to represent God for most of the book are female. No wonder the book is so appealing to modern sensibilities! Isn’t this exactly what 21st century America wants in the divine: a kinder, gentler, more feminine God? This may be what we want, but is it really what we need—a more feminized portrait of God?
Up until Mack encounters God at the shack I found the book remarkably gripping and realistic. Paul Young, the author, had me asking, How is he going to resolve this? But when Mack returns to the shack and suddenly everything is transformed and beautiful, and Mack is greeted at the door by the female God-character “Papa,” I had to struggle to retain my interest in the story. “Papa” is a large, almost stereotypical older black woman. My response was, honestly, “Oh my gosh—God as Oprah!! No wonder this book is so popular! This is exactly what millions of Americans would love for God to be like!”
But is God presented as Oprah what we really need? Honestly it seemed rather trite to me….
As the story unfolds, the Holy Spirit is portrayed also as a woman—a very feminine, very savvy Asian woman—named Sarayu (which is, incidentally, Sanskrit for “wind” or “air”). And then when Mack later encounters the character who is supposed to represent wisdom as personified in the book of Proverbs, she is, of course, also a woman, aptly named Sophia (Greek for “wisdom”). For most of the book the only male character representing God is Jesus, who is portrayed as a hip young Middle Eastern man.
Quite honestly, as I read the story, with all its feminine representations of God, I felt kind of like a guest on an episode of the TV show “The View”—you know, that popular trendy morning talk show hosted by Barbara Walters and three other women. I shook my head and again thought to myself: No wonder this book is so popular!
Not So “Novel” After All…
This presentation of God in feminine form might be novel for some (no pun intended), but it was not new for me. At the seminary I attended in the 1980s, feminist students and teachers were all the time wanting to portray God in terms other than male or masculine. Seeing God the Father and the Holy Spirit portrayed in this book as women reminded me of many a tiresome chapel service at Princeton in which God was invoked as “Father/Mother God” or “Our Heavenly Mother.” So this was nothing new for me, it was just a tad wearisome. It was all too familiar, and not a pleasant association either….
In the book, author Paul Young has “Papa,” the God-as-a-black-woman character, explain that he chose to appear to Mack in this form because his relationship with his father was so bad. This is the very same argument the feminists at Princeton Seminary used to justify their insistence that God never be referred to as “Father” or “He” because it might be offensive to those who had a bad relationship with their father. I saw entire denominations overtaken by this assertion that we can no longer call God “Father” or “He” out of consideration for those who were abused by their fathers….
The character Sophia reminded me of the “Reimagining God” conference a number of feminist theologians sponsored for all the mainline denominations back in 1993, in which God was invoked as the “goddess” Sophia and the elements used in their “communion” service were milk and honey rather than bread and wine. The milk and the honey were each intended to represent aspects of womanhood, and I’ll just leave it at that.
I have experienced firsthand the errors and heresies that can occur when the Fatherhood of God is replaced with feminine images. So the portrayal of God through a majority of female characters in this book was not a source of comfort or help to me. I could go further in my critique of Young’s portrayal of the Holy Spirit as a female character, but I won’t.
Is This What We Really Need?
But my biggest question about all this is: Sure, a softer, more feminine portrayal of God is more palatable in this day and age, but is it really what we need? Isn’t what we really need a picture of God in masculine terms that’s more accessible? We’ve associated God the Father with the “otherness” and transcendence of God. In essence we’ve allowed ourselves to be backed into a corner by the claim that a masculine portrayal of God must represent only his transcendence, and so if we want a more immanent view of God (that is, God among us and with us), we must use a feminine portrayal.
But I contend that the real problem is not with the idea of a masculine God, but with our understanding and view of masculinity. I think Young would have served us better if he had worked to rehabilitate our view of God using a male character. By reverting to a female personification of God, Young has essentially surrendered to our culture’s prevailing view that masculinity itself is the problem. Indeed, at one point in the book “Papa” herself says “Men! Such idiots sometimes!” And every 21st century woman reading the book (and not a few men I suspect) respond with a hearty “Amen!” No wonder the book is so popular! It parrots the very view of men and masculinity we’re subjected to every night on TV. Please! If I want that I’ll just watch television.
[Edit added March 4, 2017: But more important than the question of what we need is, How does the Bible portray God? The Bible is God’s self-revelation, and our final authority for faith, practice, and doctrine. What does God reveal about himself in the Bible?
The Bible consistently portrays God as male/masculine. The Bible refers to God with masculine pronouns in the third person – he, him, his. The Bible reveals God as the Father of Jesus Christ and likewise as the Father of all who will accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Since the Bible is God’s self-revelation, God must have had good reasons for revealing himself in these masculine terms. And I believe his reason was because what we most need is a good and loving Father.
If God has chosen to reveal himself as masculine, then I think we tamper with this at our peril.
Now some will respond that God also speaks of himself in Scripture in motherly terms, and this is true. There are a few passages in which God speaks of himself as acting like a mother in certain ways. But there are still some important distinctions to consider. First, all the references to God being like a mother in the Bible are in the form of similes. You probably remember from grade school what a simile is: a comparison of one thing to another using the words “like” or “as.” In Scripture God says that sometimes he acts “like” a mother in certain ways, but he never calls himself our Mother, nor says he IS a mother. On the other hand, scripture says God IS a father. Jesus invites us to address God as “Father.” There’s a difference, and it’s an important one. I think to make light of or ignore this difference puts us at risk of creating God in our own image, the way we would like God to be, rather than as he really is.]
“PC”–More Than Just An IBM Computer….
With the presence of a female Asian character, a female African American character, and a Middle Eastern man, the book also plays to out culture’s current emphasis on multi-culturalism. In other words, The Shack is just so pleasantly “PC”—Politically Correct. Again—no wonder the book is so popular. Even Sarayu’s Sanskrit name and her Asian ethnicity seem like nods to the popularity of Eastern religion in our day. All this goes right along with the culture’s views on how the world ought to be. Not that there’s anything wrong with these characters being non-white. It just seems like such a blatant parlay to the spirit of our age…..
Don’t Put Your Hierarchy On Me
Another way in which this book plays to our culture is in its view of hierarchy and authority. The age we live in is very anti-authority and opposed to any form of hierarchy. The God characters in the book make strong statements that the concept of hierarchical authority relationships did not originate with God but are a product of the fallen world we live in. Young even goes so far as to say that there is no hierarchy in the Trinity, that all the Persons of the Trinity relate to one another in attitudes of mutual submission.
I may be wrong, but I can’t think of a single passage of Scripture anywhere in the Bible that describes or refers to God the Father as subjecting himself to either the Son or the Holy Spirit. The Son subjects Himself to the Father, and the Spirit subjects himself to the Father and the Son. But if there are any passages in which the Father subjects himself to the Son or the Spirit I am not aware of them. (In his forthcoming book “Reimagining Church,” house church guru Frank Viola claims to demonstrate from Scripture that hierarchical relationships did not originate with God. I am interested to see what he has to say and whether his argument holds water.)
If I am correct that Young is in error in this presentation of relationships within the Trinity, then this may be one of the gravest errors in the book. Is Young opening our eyes to a new truth in Scripture and a way in which the church has been in error, lo these many centuries? Or is he merely capitulating to the spirit of the age and furthering the rebellion against all forms of authority which so permeates our time?
Help or Hindrance?
Another concern I have about this book is the way in which it is being received by non-believers. The other day on the internet I read a response to it by a woman who said she had always avoided becoming a Christian because she couldn’t accept that a loving God would require people to believe in just one way—in Christ—in order to be saved. She said that reading The Shack had given her hope that maybe God is more the way she would like God to be.
If The Shack is introducing people to the true God and inviting people into saving relationship with Jesus Christ, then that’s a great thing. But if this book is merely encouraging us to make God in our own image, then it is doing serious damage to the cause of Christ, because it may cause people to believe they have no need of Christ in order to be saved. That would be a very tragic outcome, indeed.
I have not even said anything about the fact that by implication the book seems to leave open the question of whether people outside of Christ will be saved, and whether there will be any eternal retribution for the unrepentant.
Inspect the Fruit
Obviously, this book has become very popular. But the popularity of something doesn’t necessarily mean it is right or wrong. The Purpose Driven Life and Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now have each sold millions of copies, and yet both books have their fans as well as their detractors in the church. So popularity doesn’t really mean that much. Jesus said we would know his followers by the fruit produced in and through their lives.
This weekend I will get to hear the author in person. I’m interested to see what he and the meetings will be like.
At any rate, I guess time with tell the real story of The Shack. In time we will see whether it has really brought people closer to Christ, or if it just turns out to be another fad that has made its way through the evangelical church. If The Shack is just a fad, hopefully the damage left in its wake won’t be irreparable.