Mackenzie Allen Philips is invited by God back to a shack where his daughter had been brutally murdered some four years ago, to wrestle with the question ‘Where was God’? His host for the weekend will be the Triune God, his opponent doubt and ignorance. On a personal basis, it is best not to challenge someone that is still ‘under the influence’ of grief; yet when experience defies the integrity of God, silence reinforces error.
The motivation for Wm. Paul Young’s writing of The Shack may have been a tragedy that carried with it immense sorrow, its inspiration however, grossly dubious, must be distinguished from its feeble message. Feckless but fruitful, The Shack has sold over two million copies, traveled to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list and prompted praise from Wynonna Judd and Michael W. Smith. Eugene Peterson writes, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.”
Is Young really the next Bunyan, The Shack comparable to Pilgrim’s Progress, Til We Have Faces or The Silmarillion, or simply another installment of religious pabulum offered to tickle the ears and satisfy the cravings of a spiritually anemic church? While The Shack does not travel the proverbial paved road to Hell, it frequents quite a few rest-stops along the author’s good intentions: fueling up at Political Correctness, asking directions at Mediocrity, The Shack drops its transmission at Soft Heresy.
Far from the depth and Scriptural accuracy of Bunyan, Lewis or Tolkien, Young writes like a failed seminarian or frustrated out-of-work Pastor looking for a pulpit. The bones of the book, a conversation between a scarred father and the Creator of the Universe is actually an interesting supposal, yet that creativity lasts about as long as the flavor in a stick of Juicy Fruit, and soon is surpassed by six or seven sermons that the author would like to scream at ‘organized religion.’ Classic literature it is not, sound doctrine – not hardly, The Shack doesn’t even rise to the level of campy creativity but reads like Mad Magazine’s commentary on ‘The Trinity’ and ‘evil in the universe’.
One of the biggest disappointments is the authors’ propensity for political correctness. The early warning comes when Young, in an odd, incoherent way fawns over that fount of Christian tolerance that is Bill Moyers. Strikingly coincidental, the week I read the book for review, the news had just reported that a recently uncovered memo reveals that Bill Moyers, on behalf of the Johnson administration, ordered the FBI to investigate suspected homosexuals.
I’m glad to see Moyers has moved on from suspicion of gays to the true threat of the free world – Christians and Patriots. I suppose Rosie O’Donnell and Bill Maher will show up in the sequel or in the many soon-to-come derivatives like, The Shack for Teenagers. If the strangely inappropriate grovel for a ‘useful idiot’ doesn’t make you cringe, referring to God as ‘Papa’ throughout the book just may.
In a saccharine, Sesame Street doxology, the author over and over again tries to make the reader comfortable with it and he never quite gets us there. Part of the problem may be that Young depicts God the Father as a ‘large beaming African-American’ woman named Elousia, and it just seems plain crazy to call ‘Her’ – Papa. Here, it is hard to believe that the author thought that this would be an original, groundbreaking gimmick to facilitate a greater understanding of the ever-elusive truth about God.
For years, the irreligious left has done its best to try to tweak believers by stating that God is a woman with some of the most ardent atheists suggesting that God is an African-American woman. Pro-choice, Pro-Gay, Anti-Christian groups even Wiccans market a series of bumper stickers that state the same.
The slur, that those nutty evangelicals are a bunch of ‘patriarchal, homophobic, chauvinistic, xenophobes’ – the fulfillments of Mencken’s slur ‘the booboisie,’ is hardly the fertile ground for an author to construct the classic Christian tome of the 21st century. If millions of enthusiasts believe that ‘Oprah is God’ would it not be prudent to introduce these ‘seekers’ to a God, who is Oprah?
Even an Oprah who loves to bake, and why stop there; maybe the world will be more understanding of the mysterious character of the Holy Spirit if we perceive the Spirit of God as an Asian woman, who we’ll call Sarayu. God’s wisdom too will be a woman that we’ll call Sofia, she’ll be Mexican; it’s almost a shame that we’re stuck with a Jewish carpenter in Jesus, but maybe we can work around that.
If that doesn’t strike you as strange, Young goes out of his way to pitch his multi-cultural God to the point that he denies that a Jew is actually white. Most of my Jewish friends would find that surprising, as do I, an Assyrian and fellow Semite, who would be arrested or expelled if I didn’t check Caucasian on certain applications; but let’s play along.
God is Black, Asian, Jewish and Mexican and certainly not white in His, oh I mean Her personification in The Shack. Of course in casting the movie, we’ll have to have some white guys or racist America will never go see it (tip of the hat to Bill Moyers). Well let’s cast the scarred, ignorant, doubting Thomas father and the child rapist/murderer as white guys and we’ll be all good.
As a matter of fact, by the time you get to the descriptions of God and personification of Wisdom, you eerily suspect the author had a long fevered bout of influenza in front of the television as his inspiration.
One long weekend with a bottle of Nyquil, a few VICADIN and a box of Kleenex, cloaked with an electric blanket, gripping his remote Control, Wm. Paul Young watched Oprah. Rachel Ray was her guest. Then came Charlie’s Angels starring Lucy Liu as the Holy Spirit, Catherine Zeta Jones follows on a commercial for the fragrance Sofia, and to top it all off Ty Pettington of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (I know he’s white, but at least he’s a carpenter), he turns a shack into a summer cabin while whistling Waiting for a Miracle, and there you have it.
Forgive me for leaving the sublime for the ridiculous but they are trying to make The Shack: The Movie and I’d love to offer my services as casting agent. Although, with her attraction to the New Age I’m sure Oprah would consider playing the Christian God a step down and pass on the offer, so how about Aunt Jemima – big, black and full of syrup sounds like the perfect choice for ‘Papa.’
The book, which falls short on multiple levels, cannot be blamed for its greatest disappointment – its reception. Millions of copies sold, the probability of a movie strong, a movement is building to make The Shack the new WWJD, the fictional version of The Prayer of Jabez or The Purpose Driven (Life, Wife, Church, et. al.)
The popularity of a book like The Shack among professing Christians is only possible in a time of a spiritually illiterate church (see II Timothy 4:3,4). This book along with the mall-like entertainment centers known as churches and the ‘third-rate music to fifth-rate lyrics’ that is contemporary Christian music are the signs of the times and ‘the times they are a changin’.
When Howard Hendricks was asked about the breadth of the super church movement, he gave a surprising answer – “It’s forty miles wide and an eighth of an inch deep.” It seems that a great number of “Christians” prefer the toddler’s wading pool to the deep knowledge of God. Bubble-gum Christianity will love this book!
In his book, Unlimited Grace, James Kirkwood talks about the modern perception of God as “The Santa Claus of 34th street or the Heavenly Earthquake Magoon,” either we’re sitting on Burl Ives knee with a cup of cocoa in front of a roaring fire or else we’re on the wrong end of Buford Pusser’s walking stick.
The Shack is the former, presenting God as your Grandpa, make that the Super Nanny; Jesus ‘the meek and mild’ as your shop teacher and the Holy Spirit as a wistful elucidation of the Oracle at Delphi. The most popular religious movements in Hollywood today Scientology, Kabala, even Milkshake Christianity are those that neuter God, that remove the idea of sin and judgment, of evil and Hell.
In the book, even the perpetrator of the heinous crime of kidnapping and murdering a young girl is presented as just another wayward child, himself a victim, who had been “a twisted little boy.”
Instead of meeting the Lord Jesus Christ, the express image of the Godhead in the shack, Young finds it necessary to personify the Father and the Holy Spirit, even the Wisdom of God; yet where is His chief adversary? With no Devil and the suggestion that evil and darkness don’t actually exist (page 136), that judgment is just ‘setting things right’, are we ever really told why Jesus Christ and Elousia have scars on their hands? Of course, it was Christ himself who talked more about Hell than anyone else in the Bible, but The Shack presents a Christ who could be the guy on the other side of Tim the tool guy’s fence in Home Improvement.
As ridiculous as the book turns out, the most preposterous thing ends up in the acknowledgements where among the list of people he is grateful to and for, Young lists McDonald, Tozer, Lewis, Zacharias, the Inklings and Soren Kierkegaard. Acknowledging these men for this book is the equivalent of Saul Alinsky quoting the Founding Fathers in his how-to guide for Marxist overthrows – Rules for Radicals.
The men quoted would find it sorely out of place and the only one left alive to comment, Ravi Zacharias, seems conspicuously absent in forwarding an endorsement. I could acknowledge William Shakespeare and John Milton for a cartoon or a coloring book, but that would not supply the needed gravitas that Young is lacking. And tying one’s work to these names implies that, were they here, they would endorse it or that their work has somehow added to this one; yet nothing could be further from the truth.
A cursory understanding of these men and their works would leave you either laughing or cursing at the suggestion. None of these authors would put words in God’s mouth, Zacharias uses the very words of Christ and expounds on common Christian doctrine in his Conversations series; Tolkien would not dare to write dialogue for God (Deuteronomy 4:2; Proverbs 30:6; Revelation 22:18); Lewis rejected outright the ‘Jesus is my homeboy’ of his day, even presenting Aslan in his Narnia series as ‘a good Lion, but not a tame one.’ In Lewis’ The Four Loves, he argues strongly against God ever presenting Himself as “friend” in relationship to His Creation, but time and again as Father or Husband.
Tozer is the biggest surprise though; a man who wrote prolifically on the attributes and Holiness of God would find the tone and the presentation of the Triune God in this book, lacking in dignity and full of heresy.
Rare is the book that fails from the very first page, and here The Shack is truly exceptional, as from the very subtitle it tears its Achilles tendon. Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity is a denial of the patterns in Scripture and most of the great authors that are found in Young’s acknowledgments.
Lewis’s book Til We Have Faces in itself is a rejection of the premise of this book, ultimately rejecting that Creation even has the capacity to go face to face with the gods, Til We Have Faces. And Scripture, well, as my Italian friends say, ‘forget about it.’ There is nothing anywhere in The Holy Bible that could have inspired this fable. Over and over it is said that man cannot bear the face of God. His Glory must be subdued around man or it will be all consuming. Frosting cupcakes with the black ‘Barefoot Contessa’ while singing funk hip-hop is not quite ‘put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’
When Job, with even greater reason to ‘confront eternity’ than Mack challenges Deity, It is God who does the confronting;
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. (Job 38:1-4)
My King James must have left out the part where God and Job share collard greens and wash dishes together; though the beat down God gives Job after 63 more questions like the one above could be called- ‘soul-food.’ Isaiah, the most pious soul in all of Israel falls to the ground at first glimpse of God’s throne,
Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. (Isa 6:5)
The Shack’s depiction of a weekend rendezvous with ‘Neapolitan Godhead’ is closer to an episode at Tori Spelling’s Bed & Breakfast than it is to Isaiah’s vision or anything else in Scripture. The Holiness of God, His Justice and Righteousness become crystal clear to mortal man when confronted with His Glory. Lewis wrote Til We Have Faces for just that purpose and Mr. Young would have done well to have read it. The Apostle Paul, almost bashful, relates of an experience in Paradise that he is not able or allowed to describe; Young is simply not able.
Cue The Doors soundtrack as you read of Mack in Paradise with the Godhead. Forgive me but the description is reminiscent of Jim Morrison eating Peyote with an Indian Shaman. The only thing missing is the patch quilt VW Bus with the multi-colored walking teddy-bears waving out the back window.
Putting Political Correctness and mediocrity aside, the truth is that the author is both thoughtful and insightful and though he draws out many observations that are valid, even enlightening, all of the good is poisoned by the true shame of the book, soft heresy.
If Young ever was a student of Tozer, the blatant ignorance of the attributes of God would have A. W. reaching for the nitro-glycerin pills. Young suggests that God “limits” himself to achieve a greater/deeper understanding of his relationship to man; as if God needed to lean on experience in any way that is anthropocentric.
If Mr. Young had read Tozer’s Attributes of God, he would have learned that Omniscience means that God knows all that is real or potential and by definition – God cannot learn. Jesus was not limited when he came to earth; he willingly emptied himself of Divine prerogative.
It wasn’t Jesus minus Divine attributes, but as John 17 points out Jesus, laying aside His Heavenly Glory. The Shack presents a God who doesn’t believe in institutions, even the institution of marriage and that authority is an evil of man and not Divinely inspired; at this point you would expect Elousia to turn into ‘Meathead’ from All in the Family. Young must have missed that semester of Seminary where The Divine Institutions are taught.
For that matter, a good Sunday School teacher would know that it was God Himself who established the marriage relationship, or is Genesis 2 not in Young’s Bible? In the sermon section of the book, Young suggests: there really is no wrath, no punishment from God, but that sin is its own punishment; Hell is AWOL, evil and darkness don’t really exist; that Jesus joins Greenpeace; that God will travel any road to find His lost sheep even if that road is false religion; that God really has no expectations of that which He has created and redeemed; and that there are no responsibilities for those He has divinely enabled. It just doesn’t strike me as someone people would pick up stones over or nail to a tree.
As a matter of fact, He doesn’t sound offensive at all. The world even gets a whitewash as Young has God praising the world in a way that makes you wonder why He even chose to redeem it, rather than simply nudging it in the right direction.
But why be satisfied with soft heresy when you can throw in a bit of blasphemy? The most ridiculous suggestion in the whole book: God begging the father of the slain child to forgive the serial killer because God actually needs Mack’s release in order to redeem the killer (page 224). If divine redemption is actually based on the ability of sinful man to forgive and not on infinite grace and the capacity of God to save, we are of all men most miserable.
Behind what many readers will interpret as an author whose broken heart has been softened by the Grace of God, lies the complicated truth that when held up to the light. The Shack reveals that Mr. Young is a driven man with an agenda who still struggles with bitterness. Scripture tells us that our true adversaries are the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, but the majority of Young’s wrath is projected against Guilt, Judgment and organized religion.
Wm. Paul Young, whatever his intentions, has given the God of the Bible an Extreme Makeover; like others before him who have tried to make God more palatable than the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ declare Him, he has reduced the Triune Godhead to a laughable Mod Squad. When experience should drive us deeper into the Word, Young attempts to drive the Word into his experience, and in doing so The Shack becomes just another reductionist theology.
The GRACE BELIEVER does not endorse every view of every author. Through this column and its literature ministry, the Grace Believer seeks to aid Christians in building an interesting and informative Home Library that will add to their understanding of God’s Word, enhancing personal growth and increasing effectiveness in ministry.