This week’s book of the week is the ever-so-polarizing The Shack by William P. Young.  I have received more questions about this book than I did about The Da Vinci Code.  When people ask, it normally starts like this, “Have you read The Shack? What did you think about it?”  I’ll ask what they thought about it and they want to know my thoughts before they give a response.

Most people either love the book or they despise the book.  I have yet to find anyone in the middle.

I heard so much about this book on both sides before reading it, it was very difficult for me to go in unbiased either way.

After reading it, I am torn.  To those who think it is the best book in the world, I want to encourage you to check all of its claims against the truths of Scripture.  To those who think it is theological heresy, I want to encourage you to be careful in how you respond to people whom this book encourages.  This is a fictional book written by a man who is fallible.  And this review is written by a man who is fallible.  So if the book has done good in your life, praise God, but we must remain willing to address all claims to truth by the truths of Scripture.

Here’s the synopsis of this fictional book: Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness.  Four years later, in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend.

At the shack, he encounters the Trinity.  God the Father takes the form of an African-American woman named “Papa.”  Jesus Christ is a Middle Eastern carpenter, and the Holy Spirit is personified as an Asian woman named Sarayu.  During this weekend, Mack wrestles with the question of theodicy (if God is good and loving, why does he let bad stuff happen?).

With all that being said, I can’t address all the issues in the book, and I can’t write this review as simply as other reviews that I write.  So, let me start with the good stuff, and then I’ll also provide you with some things to watch out for.

The Good

  • The Shack will always have an audience. An old preacher saying is that if you preach to hurting people, you will never lack a congregation.  Let’s face it – life hurts.  People are in need of hope.  Mack’s situation is devastating, and he asks questions that many people wonder.  The author’s attempt to deal with human suffering is honest and transparent.
  • God’s compassionate heart tuned to our suffering. Young words things in such a way that really illuminates the compassionate heart of God.  He is able to depict a God who is in control yet still hurts when his children hurt.  He rightfully reminds us that God collects all of our tears (Psalm 56:8; mentioned on page 84) as he is intimately aware of our sufferings.
  • Refreshing reminders of solid truth.  There were dialogues in this book that had me shouting “hallelujah!”  When questioning God’s activity, Mack is reminded that “You must give up your right to decide what is good and evil on your own terms” (136).  When speaking of church, God informs Mack, “What I see are people and their lives, a living breathing community of all those who love me, not building and programs” (178).  And some other really solid lines: “Being my follower is not trying to ‘be like Jesus,’ it means for your independence to be killed” (149).  “All evil flows from independence, and independence is your choice” (190).
  • God is in control. Even though the book flirts with open theism, Young does depict God as remaining in control.  In one conversation, Papa tells Mack, “I am what I am.  I’m not trying to fit anyone’s bill” (119).  I couldn’t agree more with that statement which is why the next section is also important.
  • Free Will vs. God’s Will. Young does a good job at trying to explain most suffering in the world.  Every person wants independence from God and then we shake our fist at him when other people exert that independence and it causes hurt in our own lives.  We cannot have it both ways.  The ability for us to have choice allows most suffering in the world to take place.

The Dangerous

  • We must never replace Scripture’s authority for personal experiences. While describing Mack’s thinking, the author writes, “In seminary he 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” (65).  This is probably the line that caused the most backlash for me.  While so much is good about this book, this line represents serious danger.  What is wrong with sacred Scripture in the first place?  What is Scripture lacking so that we feel like we need something else?  It appears as if the author regrets his seminary training, and I hate if he had a bad experience, but that can’t cause us to pendulum shift away from the fact that Scripture must be our sole authority.  If we don’t keep it as THE authority, then we each have the right to make our claims on God.  Personal experiences are real and powerful, but we must never, ever put them ahead of biblical teaching.
  • Postmodern thinking infiltrating the Church. The common philosophy of our day centers around postmodern thinking.  What’s true for you is true for you and what’s true for me is true for me.  I think God is like one thing, you think he is like another, and then none of us knows for sure because we have removed any sense of authoritative teaching.  Here are dangerous phrases heard in churches today: “I think God is like…this Scripture means this to me…I think that God is going to let all people get into heaven…I think God is just like a grandfather who just loves us but never gets us in trouble.”  And so on and so on.  Let’s face it – if we were left with the task of coming up with God’s identity, we could never agree.  And anyone who can change what God is like has attempted to have authority over God’s which was the original problem in the Garden of Eden and what is still plaguing us today.  God is God.  We are not, and we should never try to bypass His truths for our ideas.  Without Scripture, we are left to mere opinions and we would never arrive at any sense of unity or truth.
  • God does not have to pay for the failures of mankind’s fathers. When Mack talks with Papa, he expresses his surprise at his/her form.  While the being is called Papa, the deity is a grandmotherly figure.  The reason God appears as a woman is because Mack had a bad relationship with his father.  When wondering why Papa is a woman, Papa replies, “maybe it’s because of the failures of your own papa?” (91).  Eph. 3:14-15 tells us that all fathers on earth get their name from our Heavenly Father.  This is huge!  I am called a father because God is a father — not vice versa.  God didn’t look at Adam’s interaction with Cain and Abel and said, “I want that.  Start calling me Papa.”  God doesn’t learn how to be a father by looking at us depraved men.  Depraved men look at God to learn how to be a father.  So even if this world is full of men not cutting it does not mean that God has to change his form or his gender.  Would the book have lost power if God has been seen as an actual Father?
  • Just because this world is full of disappointing men doesn’t mean that God must become a woman.”Mackenzie, I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature…to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning” (93).  Papa explains that he/she appears as a woman so that Mack can relate to her better since he has male role model issues.  So what about people with disappointing mothers?  What about those with both?  The underlying issue is that God is who he says he is.  He reveals himself through Scripture as a man.  Yes, as a Spirit, but a man Spirit.  People who seem to go against this line of thinking concerning this book will ask, “What would be so bad if God was revealed as a woman?”  Absolutely nothing!  If that’s how he revealed himself.  But the responding question should be, “What is so bad that God did reveal himself as a man?”  It is more sexist to change the gender of God than it is to accept it as he presents it.
  • God has never been limited. “We have limited ourselves out of respect for you” (106).  In making God more approachable, the Trinity explains to Mack they limit themselves for the sake of relationship.  That is another slippery slope – God is not short on knowledge, and he has never and will never limit himself of anything!  And that is for our benefit!  This line of thinking makes God reactionary and not as powerful.  This belief leads to God waiting to see what we are going to do and trying to scratch His head and think of a game plan to counteract.
  • God has, God does, and God will be proactive. “Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies” (185).  I couldn’t agree with this statement more.  Tragedies happen because people make bad choices.  Selfishness causes all types of evil.  But God has, does, and will proactively engage himself in our lives and in this world in sometimes ways we don’t understand to bring about good.  In an attempt to make God more likable in view of the suffering of this world, we can never attempt to strip away his power to make him the Cosmic Watchmaker who wound this thing up and now is just watching it go on a course.  He is very involved in the affairs of our lives and in this world, and he often actively does things to draw people’s attention towards Him.  And He can get away with it, because He is God and not trying to “fit anyone’s bill.”

Final Thoughts

I failed at keeping this post short, but I want to make sure that we examined some of the major issues.  My concluding thought for this book is this:

The Shack’s message of hope in times of suffering does not hold a candle to the hope presented in another book — the Bible.

While I was thrilled at many ways the author depicted things in this book, I have been discouraged to hear comments like this one, “I never truly understood the love of God until I read this book.”

Brothers and sisters, what is more relatable than the God of the universe suffering in our rightful place?

This book is all about suffering.  Where did we stop becoming overwhelmed with the fact that Jesus died in our place for the suffering of all humanity?  No scenes in this book can hold a candle to the God who promises rescue when banishing transgressors out of the Garden (Gen 3:15), the God who fights on our behalf (Exod 14:14), or the one who carries us through wildernesses like a Father (Deut 1:30-31).  Scripture depicts the Father who could not give up on his children (Hosea 11), the one telling us to come and be satisfied for no cost of our own (Isaiah 55), or the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

Jesus lived a perfect life and died a death in our place, and we must never get used to that.  You can let The Shack encourage you, but let the Bible transform you.  If you hold these two books in rightful place, but I just want to encourage you to test everything against the Scriptures (Acts 17:11; 1 Thess 5:21).  Once again, I rejoice if this book has helped your journey just make sure it doesn’t sidetrack you on your journey.

Travis Agnew is a Christian, husband, father, pastor, author, blogger, and religion instructor.