Stay Out of ‘The Shack’

When the prophet Isaiah and the apostle John caught glimpses of God, they were overcome with despair at their own unworthiness in the light of His glory. The same could be said of Daniel or Paul, or any number of figures from Scripture.

But when the protagonist of a new book called The Shack is introduced to the Father of heaven, he is greeted by a “large, beaming, African-American woman” who goes by the name of Papa.

If you have not heard about The Shack, there is a good chance you will soon. A novel self-published about a year ago by William P. Young, the book has gained quite a following in Christian circles. It is still among the top 10 sellers at Amazon.com. And when it receives a glowing endorsement from a scholar whom I respect, like Eugene Peterson, it is not a phenomenon that discerning Christians can ignore.

The story is about a man named Mack, who is struggling in the aftermath of the brutal murder of his young daughter. One day he finds a note in his mailbox-apparently from God. God wants Mack to meet Him at “the shack,” the place where his daughter was killed.

When he arrives, the shack and the winter scene around it transform, Narnia-like, into a mystical mountain paradise, perhaps meant to be heaven itself. Now dwelling in the shack are three mysterious figures-the African-American woman, a Middle Eastern workman, and an Asian girl-who reveal themselves as God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The rest of the book is basically a discussion between Mack and the three persons of the Trinity. While the discussion is mostly on the deep topics of creation, the fall, freedom, and forgiveness, too often the author slips in silly lines that, frankly, seem ridiculous in the mouth of the Godhead. Jesus, looking at Papa, says, “Isn’t she great?” At one point, Papa warns Mack that eating too many of the greens in front of him will “give him the trots.” And when Jesus spills batter on the floor and on Papa, Jesus then washes Her-or is it His?-feet. Papa coos, “Oh, that feels sooooo good.” Ugh.

Okay, it is only an allegory. But like Pilgrim’s Progress, allegories contain deep truths. That is my problem. It is the author’s low view of Scripture. For example, Mack is tied to a tree by his drunken, abusive father, who “beats Mack with a belt and Bible verses.” The author reflects derisively in another spot that “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.”

The Bible, it seems, is just one among many equally valid ways in which God reveals Himself. And, we are told, the Bible is not about rules and principles; it is about relationship. Sadly, the author fails to show that the relationship with God must be built on the truth of who He really is, not on our reaction to a sunset or a painting.

That is not to say The Shack is without merit. The centrality of Christ and God’s breathtaking, costly love come through loud and clear. But these truths are available everywhere in Scripture, everywhere in Christian literature. You do not have to visit The Shack to find them.

As Papa warns Mack, God is not who Mack expects He is. But He is also not what our creative imaginations make Him to be, either.

He Is, after all, Who He Is.

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  • PapaFox

    As a new member of the Catholic Church, I am chagrined but not suprised by this review. I’ve been attending mass for about 15 years and I quite honestly never wanted to have anything to do with becoming a member of the Catholic Church even though my entire immediate family is Catholic. All of that changed for me when I moved to Tennessee and started attending a Catholic Church here.

    For once, I found myself involved with a Catholic Church that concentrated on teaching it’s members the Good News instead of dragging them down the road into a debt-debtor relationship with the Lord. I found a Catholic Church willing to look at the bible as a collection of writings that are both fact and fiction. A church that looked upon the bible as a picture of Christ.

    This book does nothing more and nothing less than that. This book, in my humble opinion, does a fantastic job of making people realize that there are things that need to be done to put you into a righteous relationship with God but these things can only come from a loving relationship with him not through anything that you have the power to do yourself.

    This book will speak to some and it will confuse and anger others just as the bible does. Don’t pass on this book based on the fact that someone else says that you can find the truth through other means. Read it if you wish and decide for yourselves. The Lord speaks to all of us in different ways. Maybe you’ll hear him through this story. I feel that if you can read anything that makes you want to have a closer relationship with Christ then I see READ IT!

  • trailblazer

    I’m glad to see a Catholic review of this book as several people had suggested it as a “must” read. I did read it, twice. The first time through left me with mixed feelings so I read it again to help clarify what I thought the was the books actual message; to try and figure out if the uncomfortable parts were a matter of my own inability to see things in a different way or, something else.

    My conclusion is that, despite several parts I enjoyed, the message it gives is awkward if not dangerous because it tends to lead one away from a strong sense of religious community that is so essential to proper discernment. Even more and most particularly it would seem to lead one away from a need for the Church as an institution even though it is this same Church that has preserved the Truth expressly for the sake of God’s people.

    It paints a lovely picture of relationship with God but at the expense of leaving one vulnerable to hearing supernatural messages without the ability to discern their source. The personification of God the Father and the Holy Spirit in bodily form seems to me also helps set the stage for some human to claim to be God as if He really intends, apart from the reality of Jesus’ life, to be with us in that way.

    This is not to say that God does not love us intensely and intimately and that it’s possible to have a very deep relationship with Him. However, emotion is a very undependable way to measure the quality of this relationship. He remains, however, the Creator and we the created; a relationship of great humility that I found largely absent from this story.

    Lastly, as I mentally overlay the story over the Gospel the difference becomes really stark. I do admit, nonetheless, that there is a great need for people in this day to have a deep awareness of God’s love for them but I disagree with the author that his is apart from the responsibility the Gospel imparts to all Christians.

  • Christine

    I registered on this site because I just read The Shack and am looking for some insight on it. I really appreciate your comments. Trailblazer, I thought you had some really good points. I was troubled by the book and have been attempting to sort out the truth from error. You mentioned that it leads us away from the Church as an institution. I too was concerned about the disdain expressed toward the Church and Church hierarchy. Did you feel we were all being dragged down to the same low level of equality, even God?!

    Also of interest to me is your comment about the book setting the stage for us to see ourselves as God. I, too, had this sense. And yet I can’t quite put my finger on it. A more detained analysis would be helpful. Anyone???

    Trailblazer, you said, “He remains, however, the Creator and we the created; a relationship of great humility that I found largely absent from this story”

    I could not agree more!!!! There is such Hubris in setting up fictional characters and having them be the Godhead teaching every kind of theology. This should be the role of the Church, not novel writers.

  • philipj

    I read and enjoyed the book. My sense of doctrine or catechism was not threatened by what was obviously a novel, not a papal missive. I did not agree with every theologic construct, but found nothing “dangerous”.
    The original review above is unhelpful. He seems to bristle at the Creator expressing himself in colloquial terms. The references to Him/Her etc, seems trite and sophomoric. To reference Christine, is it not hubris to define how God must express Himself? Would it be a silly thought that the God of creation would come as a defenseless baby? The early Jewish community certainly thought so.And the critique about scripture is illogical and not at all a compelling argument. The use of the Bible here is a legitimate criticism of hypocrisy, (in the form of the drunk father) which is and has been ever present.
    I see no specific attack on the “Church”, but rather an emphasis on trusting God, primarily through a relationship with Christ, acknowledging the Love manifest by the Holy Spirit. A beautiful summary of our theology. No it didn’t mention the specifics of an organized church. A reasonable criticism could be the Universalism expressed. One can reasonably assume this was to sell a maximum of books. Jesus’ character does seem to contradict “I am the Way”.
    I would disagree that a basic tenet was equality with God. God, as Papa, frequently reminds Mack that she is God. She is “I am”. She answers his questions often first with the query, “how deep do you want me to go?” There is, to me, no implied equality, but an intense desire for a true loving relationship. My favorite line, in response to Gods explanation of the age old concern….why do bad things happen to good people…..relates to the divine purpose. Macks anger would mirror a typical human response, bristling at purpose in tragedy. Gods explanation of choice and the reality that “your choices are not stronger than my purposes” was a eloquent statement of love, forgiveness, divine understanding and Holiness.
    I have bought this book for several friends. It like so many other things, is simply a baby step which will speak differently to different people. Its primary message is to trust God, even when it doesn’t feel right, to give up our roles as Judge, and to embrace forgiveness. If this has the effect of moving people, even in baby steps to a more loving, Christ like walk, i say congratulations.
    Having been impressed with this little book, i admit some surprise with which some have come out with swords blazing. Google the title, and read the wide array of reviews. It seems clear that the more orthodox your stance, the more your perceived offense.
    I find myself searching more for the threads that bind us, not things that divide.
    Peace.

  • MikeMays

    I have just finished reading “The Shack” and found it to be a very moving story. As a new Catholic, I found the story minimized the importance of the church community and this bothered me. But I did love the emphasis on relationship. Because of my uncertainty, I started to seek out the Catholic perspective on this piece of fiction. Thank you to the folks that have posted. I agree pretty much with what was said. I thought that the illustration of what the Trinity is was very simplistic, but gave a good start to the interactive love that the Trinity is. The fact that God in three persons is total love was there. In fact, I sensed a deeper love in the Trinity while reading than what was printed on the page. This feeling kept me voraciously reading to see more of it! The total congruity of the Trinity is so deep and so wide leaves me in awe every time I contemplate it.

    To Chuck Colson: Thank you for starting this thread. When you say, “too often the author slips in silly lines that, frankly, seem ridiculous in the mouth of the Godhead,” remember that the story was originally written for his children. (“The Shack was a story written for my six children, with no thought or intention to publish.” – http://www.theshackbook.com/willie.html) With this in mind, I think, while silly, it gives a wonderful preview of God at a level that a child could understand.

    As to the Bible bashing, for many, the journey back to God may have a time in their life where the Bible was used to beat down rather than build up; a tool for guilting rather than teaching. I see this novel as a reminder that no matter what has happened in your life, God was there. No matter what sin you have committed, God loves you and will forgive you. God never commits evil. The evil in this world is a result of man’s independence. Not necessarily each man’s, but mankind. I thought the story made a great attempt to show this.

    As a father, the points on unconditional love and loving each of your children uniquely were great reminders of why I love being a dad and why I love having children. While I have had conflicts with my two, I have never lost love for either of them. I believe that this is true of God as well. He loves us unconditionally and wants us all to come to be with him in the end days. But that is, of course, conditional on our acceptance of Jesus Christ and repentance. I don’t think the book really visited this facet of faith, but then again, it is a novel not a treatise.

    I truly enjoyed this book and will recommend it as a great work of FICTION to my friends and family. I am going to share it with my priest as well so that I can get greater insight into the Catholic perspective.

    May God be especially fond you.

    Mike Mays

  • johnnyyak

    I just read The Shack and loved it! I think the love relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit was presented very well. The author made it clear to Mack that the Trinity could portray themselves in any way they wanted and they chose the way they did to make Mack think – to make us think – about our preconceived notions of God. God is beyond our understanding, beyond our imagination. God is too big to put into a box that we can describe. I can’t wait to read it again!

    I am on the Teens Encounter Christ retreat staff and one of the talks deals with the Trinity. Each talk contains a synopsis of information that the presentor is supposed to cover. I found a lot of the information in that talk that corresonded with what was in the book. The Trininty is a love relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. We are invited into that relationship constantly, much like Mack was invited into the Shack, where we can experience God’s love.

    As long as you remember it is fiction, as long as it makes you think and evaluate your relationship with God, I think it is a safe bet!!

    John Yaquinta

  • Croman2009

    Personally being raised Roman Catholic the book The Shack makes more sense to me than the church ever did and touched my heart like the church never did

  • Midget

    I enjoyed the book but as I was reading I found myself wanting to ask someone if this acceptable to read because there were things that caused me to question my interpretations. As a former Child Protection Caseworker and a Director of Religioug Education this book spoke of many areas that I could accept but there also were areas that appeared questionable. Yet after having a daughter raped in college (but fortunately still alive); I could also relate to the fathers feelings. I thought very well written emotionally but theology was confusing. I found myself questioning Sophia and her role from the Catholic perspective and be cause I couldn’t wait to finish the book I went on the computer for a catholic view on what I was reading I found a book review by Fr. Robert Barron and I was prewarned about the second half of the book appearing to have had some Martin Luther influence. Once I knew that I was able to read that section more relaxed. While I couldn’t pin point all of the messed up theology; I just knew as I read it that there were areas that just felt uncomfortable with how I believed and challenged me but I kept reading and then was able to digest it as a wonderful story but was able to tell myself there were theologicall errors but a good read. I even asked my pastor about the book and after much discussion he too agreed a good book with some theological errors. But if you were aware and kept them in perspective it would be ok to read.

  • Sum Romanus

    That was an excellent appraisal. You touched on the two main problems 1. Relativism 2. The Faith is Revealed and not experiential i.e., it can’t be cut to taste.
    P.S. I believe the writer of the first comment needs to enrol in a catechetics course – focusing on ecclesiology.

  • Herbert Thorne

    There is nothing wrong with seeing God, as I do, as a loving Father, not a tyrant bent on destroying a wayward human race, and boy are we wayward. I feel like the book,
    God is my father, and cares enough for me to correct me, not with fire and brimstone, but loving care, that humanity sure could use, in this Greedy and self centered world, that breeds war and hatred.

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