Discerning the Error and Opportunity in The Shack: Reflection and Resources
It has been almost eight years since I first read The Shack. Within a year of its release, The Shack had sold over one million copies. I purchased one of those copies myself and read it within a few days. I was aware of the controversy that swirled around it. I was aware of the doctrinal issues concerning the Trinity and universalism among other things. Yet, I wanted to practice discernment for myself. I wanted to give an informed opinion about the book and help others think through its message. Such a response is needed once again as The Shack movie releases this weekend. When I had finished The Shack, my doctrinal concerns were affirmed. The blind acceptance of the book and its teaching was even more concerning after reading it for myself. But there was something else too. While many critiqued the literary quality of the book, I found the story moving. I identified with the main character, Mack, and his journey through great sadness. I resonated with his desire to hear from God in the midst of his suffering and believed that God could and does speak into these areas of our life. In fact, I think this is one element that is particularly appealing to so many. In the eight years since I first read The Shack, Mack's experience resonates in an even greater way through losing my own mother and father. Like Mack, and every other person who has experienced pain and loss, we all desire to know there is a God who draws near and speaks into our suffering.
However, The Shack offers a misleading, if not untrue, comfort to a very real struggle for many people. The comfort The Shack offers is a less-than biblical understanding of the Trinity and special revelation as well as the false hope of universalism. The manner in which Young address the questions and struggles of Mack also reveal another reason The Shack has been so widely attractive. It suggests that Christianity as you've known it is not all there really is. God isn't what you've always thought Him to be. The Bible isn't all that you've been taught it is. To be fair, there is a nominal Christianity and much that passes for Christianity that needs to be undone and replaced with that which reflects true Christianity according to God's Word. However, Young chooses personal experience over orthodox Christianity or biblical fidelity to answer Mack's questions. In the process he discredits the reliability of God's Word and the place of the church in the process of speaking to and comforting those who are grieving. Consider Young's description of Mack's sentiments about the Bible:
In seminary [Mac] 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 had 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 educated Westerner's access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges? (65-66)
The rejection of the Bible's trustworthiness and authority is perhaps one of the most dangerous errors in The Shack because it is the very place from which we build our understanding of the nature of God, sin, and salvation. While there are some who abuse it and misinterpret it, we cannot discard it. We must return to it again and again to address the struggles we face. The Shack moves people in the opposite direction, away from Scripture and its authority.
It also appeals to the prevailing distrust of institutions and authority within our culture, including the church. In a conversation with Jesus about the beauty of His relationship with His bride, the church, Mack responds:
'You're talking about the church as this woman you're in love with; I'm pretty sure I haven't met her.' He turned away slightly. 'She's not the place I go on Sundays," Mack said more to himself, unsure if that was safe to say out loud.
[Jesus replies,] 'Mack, that's because you're only seeing the institution, a man-made system. That's not what I came to build. What I see are people and their lives, a living breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programs.' (177-178)
While there is an important word here to those who have been hurt by people within the church, it also suggests that there is something to which you can belong beyond the local church through which we can experience life as God designed us to experience it. It rightly emphasizes relationships while simultaneously undermining the very place those relationships are enjoyed. The sharing of life together the Bible envisions is life together in the local church.
The fullest answers to the real questions Young raises in The Shack are found in the very places he undermines: God's Word and His church.
As The Shack comes comes to the big screen, I hope we will not only discern its error but that we will also discern the opportunity it provides us to share about our God who draws near to us in our suffering and speaks to us through His Son and the Scriptures.
Resources on The Shack
The above reflection is not a full review of all the theological issues that arise in The Shack. However, there are a number of great resources that provide substantial feedback and critique. Consider reading some of the following:
What Does 'The Shack' Say About Our Pain - David Mathis
Review: The Shack by William P. Young (2008) - Tim Challies | See also his review of Burning Down 'The Shack' : How the 'Christian" Bestseller is Deceiving Millions by James De Young
Why I Won't Be Seeing (or Reviewing) The Shack Movie- Tim Challies | See also his follow up post Why Papa of The Shack is Not Aslan of Narnia
The Shack and the Problem of Christian Entertainment - Samuel James
Some Thoughts on the Shack (2009) - Trevin Wax