(by William P. Young)
- A Book Review by Jamie Johnson, Fall 2008

The Shack by William P. Young is intriguing many readers and is making its rounds in evangelical Christian circles. My wife was excited as she read it and that's how I came across it. Eugene Peterson states "This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress did for his." The book is thought-provoking, containing many good truths. However, as with any book, this book requires discernment. There are some concerns with some of the messages in the book and how they compare to Scripture. As with any book, it must be treated as any book that is not Scripture -- with discernment. Even what I write will have its theological shortcomings. Where readers of The Shack must use wisdom is to realize that the book is a fictional novel with theological themes, not a book on theology. Even though the character(s) of God speak(s) in the book, it is not literally God-breathed as Scripture is. Therefore, the reader can relax and enjoy a good novel written by a man.

In this book, God meets man in horrific tragedy, specifically at the place of the tragedy - the shack. The core of the book seems to be captured when God speaks to the protagonist Mackenzie (Mack):

"Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn't mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don't assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn't depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors" (p. 185).

Young challenges his readers' perceptions of God. Mack meets the three Persons of the Trinity. God the Father is depicted as a large African woman named Papa, God the Son is depicted as a middle-eastern looking lumberjack, and God the Holy Spirit is depicted as a small Asian woman named Sarayu. While one could waste time debating these depictions, one thing Young does is challenge our tendency to "put God in a box." Sarayu profoundly captures this when she says:

"Not much to understand [about emotions], actually. They just are. They are neither bad nor good; they just exist. Here is something that will help you sort this out in your mind, Mackenzie. Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions. Most emotions are responses to perception -- what you think is true about a given situation. If your perception is false, then your emotional response to it will be false too. So check your perceptions, and beyond that check the truthfulness of your paradigms -- what you believe. Just because you believe something firmly doesn't make it true. Be willing to reexamine what you believe. The more you live in the truth, the more your emotions will help you see clearly. But even then, you don't want to trust them more than me" (p. 197).

Besides the last sentence, this paragraph is a healthy challenge to our perceptions of God.

This holds to be true as the humanity of Jesus is strongly emphasized (initially, almost uncomfortably), but later balanced with Him as "Lord of Creation" (p. 176), "the King of the universe" (p. 216), and "the man who is God and the God who is man" (p. 216). Themes throughout the book mention truly being human, truly living, and true reality, pointing to Jesus' humanity as the ultimate example, seeming to echo the film The Matrix and seeming to proclaim Colossians 2:16-17:

"Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ."

Relationship is a central overarching theme in The Shack, a theme I will reflect on much in this review. The book both depicts and speaks to relationship well. It emphasizes relationship as when Jesus says to the protagonist, "Mack, you don't need to have it all figured out. Just be with me" (p. 178). Likewise, simplicity is emphasized in relationship with phrases like "no agenda" and just being with Jesus. I found many quotes valuable as they pertain to and capture the theme of relationship scattered throughout the book:

"You don't play a game or color a picture with a child to show your superiority. Rather you choose to limit yourself so as to facilitate and honor that relationship. You will even lose a competition to accomplish love. It is not about winning and losing, but about love and respect" (p. 106).

"You are free to love without an agenda" (p. 181).

"True love never forces" (p. 190).

"So many believe that it is love that grows, but it is the knowing that grows and love simply expands to contain it. Love is just the skin of knowing" (p. 155).

I love how Young ties love with knowing (and love expands, and so it actually does grow). And the next quote has been a treasure to me when considering living out truly loving relationships instead of trying to fulfill the expectations of man (or placing expectations on others):

"[I]f you and I are friends, there is an expectancy that exists within our friendship. When we see each other or are apart, there is expectancy of being together, of laughing and talking. That expectancy has no concrete definition; it is alive and dynamic and everything that emerges from our being together is a unique gift shared by no one else. But what happens if I change that ‘expectancy’ to an ‘expectation’ -- spoken or unspoken? Suddenly, law has entered into our relationship. You are now expected to perform in a way that meets my expectations. Our living friendship rapidly deteriorates into a dead thing with rules and requirements. It is no longer about you and me, but about what friends are supposed to do, or responsibilities of a good friend" (p. 205).

And Young pushes for deep, genuine, trusting relationship:

"[F]orgiveness does not create a relationship. Unless people speak the truth about what they have done and change their mind and behavior, a relationship of trust is not possible. When you forgive someone you certainly release them from judgment, but without true change, no real relationship can be established" (p. 225).

Young scatters his challenges to rules (expectations, again), power, and coercion like gold nuggets for the reader to find and digest:

"It is true that relationships are a whole lot messier than rules, but rules will never give you answers to the deep questions of the heart and they will never love you" (p. 198).
"Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to power is to choose to limit oneself -- to serve"
(p. 106).

I would specify that healthy relationships are not about power, though they may include dynamics of power such as in a healthy professional relationship between an employer and employee.

"…I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love" (p. 126).

However, one needs to be discerning about what love is. Jesus is loving, but "with justice, He judges and makes war" (Revelation 19:11). Also, the Bible does talk of God's wrath. If Jesus is who He claimed to be (and He claimed to be God), then there is a wrath that comes with the package. He is merciful, but also holy. Teaching that Jesus is always soft and winks at sin as if to say, it's OK that you sin, is not Biblical. If Jesus was that soft, then there would have been no need for the Cross. Sometimes love means we tolerate something, but not accept it. It's kind of like the phrase, "Love the sinner, but hate the sin." Acceptance can be part of love, but isn't always part of love. Love has boundaries (Young seems to agree). That means there are some things love will accept and some things love won't accept. John 3:16-18 says it best about love and condemnation:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son."

Young is clear that we are not to condemn, but even implies that God doesn't condemn (more on that later). While it is true that man looks at the outward and only God can see the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), it is also true from the above verses (John 3:16-18), there is condemnation carried out by God, even though it was not Jesus' purpose in coming to the world.

Yet, despite some of this, there are valuable and practical applications for relationships between people contained in both the quotes and the story. This is clear as the book moves beyond making statements about relationship, but shows the experience of relationship between people and between man and God. Throughout the book, Mackenzie's relationships with his children grip my heart as a father. At times, I nearly came to tears amid tender scenes such as when he watches Jesus with children, struggled as he worries about his daughters Missy and Katie, and chuckled as he sings "a silly little song he used to sing" to one of his girls (p. 195). I can identify with Mack. I can identify with relationship.

And considering one more relationship quote, I find the next statement thought-provoking:

"To force my will on you…is exactly what love does not do. Genuine relationships are marked by submission even when your choices are not helpful or healthy" (p.141).

Some of the discussion in the same chapter as that quote mentions how God submits to us. I know it may be semantics, but I would think it be better framed that God respects our free will, not that He submits to us. Of course, this opens up the debate about free will versus predestination, which is for another place. Young, in making some statements supporting free will, rightfully rebukes humanity's choices.

"All evil flows from independence, and independence is your choice. If I were to simply revoke all the choices of independence, the world as you know it would cease to exist and love would have no meaning.… This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil. Evil is the chaos of this age that you brought to me, but it will not have the final say. Now it touches everyone that I love, those who follow me and those who don't. If I take away the consequences of people's choices, I destroy the possibility of love. Love that is forced is no love at all" (p. 190).

And while Young seems to imply arguments supporting free will, he seems to argue the other side as well:

"People are tenacious when it comes to the treasure of their imaginary independence. They hoard and hold their sickness with a firm grip. They find their identity and worth in their brokenness and guard it with every ounce of strength they have. No wonder grace has such little attraction" (p. 189).

Young writes many thought-provoking things, which cause the reader to stop and think and even reflect on himself or herself. My pen writes especially furiously in my journal when Sarayu is in the picture. Here are some of the many thought-provoking quotes (not just from Sarayu):

"[W]ithout wisdom, imagination is a cruel taskmaster"
(p. 141).
"[W]here do you spend most of your time in your mind, in your imagination, in the present, in the past, or in the future?"
(p. 141).
"Guilt'll never help you find freedom in me. The best it can do is make you try harder to conform to some ethic on the outside. I'm about the inside" (p. 187).
"Nobody knows what horrors I have saved the world from 'cuz people can't see what never happened" (p. 190).
"For you to know or not…has nothing at all to do with whether I am actually here or not. I am always with you; sometimes I want you to be aware in a special way -- more intentional" (p. 195).
"Emotions are the colors of the soul; they are spectacular and incredible. When you don't feel, the world becomes dull and colorless" (p. 196).

And yes, there are the concerns if considering some of the theology in the book (in addition to what I have addressed). Again, though, remember that this is a novel, not a theology book. These theological issues are worth noting (and why I do so here), but not at the expense of ignoring the good in the book. Yet, in all honesty, there are messages in the book, which do not line up with Scripture. The protagonist, Mackenzie, meets Sophia, a personification of God's wisdom as characterized by Young. Cults have claimed Sophia as a Person of the Trinity, a co-partner with God, or the Goddess. Fortunately, the book makes it clear that Sophia is not God nor a Person of the Trinity. That clarification was not immediately noted, but comes in the chapter immediately following Mackenzie's encounter with her. I am glad that Young made that clarification, but there is concern as Sophia talks to Mackenzie and challenges his belief:

"You believe [God] will condemn most to an eternity of torment, away from His presence and apart from his love"
(p. 162).

What is being challenged is actually something scriptural. Compare with Matthew 7:13-14:

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."

Sophia speaks to Mackenzie, challenging him to sit in judgment of God. This is a powerful section since Mackenzie, like many of us, judges what God does. Yet, it is also a very touching section of the book where Mackenzie is able to get a glimpse of Heaven (I'll say no more since I do not want to give away anything). Reading it, I almost had tears in my eyes. However, Sophia challenges Mackenzie with an idea that is in contrast to Scripture as if to reprimand him for his belief:

"And you must choose three of your children to spend eternity in hell. … I am only asking you to do something that you believe God does" (p. 162).

While it is horrific to pause and think of the challenge to Mackenzie, Sophia is not supporting that Mackenzie choose to condemn some of his children, but to challenge his judgment of God and to challenge the belief that God sends some of His children to hell. While Scripture is clear that we are not to be in judgment of God, it is also clear that God does not send His children to hell. Where the The Shack errs is in assuming that all people are God's children. Compare this idea with John 8:43-44 where Jesus is talking to people whom He indicates are not God's children:

"Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies."

Ephesians 5:8 also challenges the idea that all people are God's children:

"For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light."

Now being children of light and once being in darkness implies correctly that the Ephesian believers were once children of darkness, i.e., not God's children.

After siding with the popular - but incorrect - notion that all people are God's children, The Shack, at times, seems to sugar-coat judgment. Sophia says the following:

"[J]udgment is not about destruction, but about setting things right" (p. 169).

There are multiple verses in Scripture which challenge this. I will list a few:

Romans 9:21-24:

"Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory — even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?"

Galatians 6:7-8:

"Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life."

2 Thessalonians 1:8-9:

" He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power "

And probably the most direct challenge is 2 Peter 3:6-7:

" By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. "

And the theme of simplicity is echoed again in regards to Mack's encounter with Sophia. The character of Jesus says, "[W]ith her, everything is normal and elegantly simple. Because you are so lost and independent you bring to her many complications, and as a result you find even her simplicity profound" (p. 172). This divine simplicity versus humanity complicating things is echoed, especially in regards to institutions. The character of Jesus says the following:

"…I don't create institutions: that's an occupation for those who want to play God… I'm not too big on religion, …and not very fond of politics or economics either…They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about" (p. 179).

Point made and these three are often corrupted. However, don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Not all institutions are bad or part of a "trinity of terrors" or "for those who want to play God." Granted, institutions at the cost of healthy relationship are often bad -- or is it the people behind them? And what about Romans 13:1 in regards to the institution of government?

"Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God."

The book flirts with relativistic language but then subtilely draws back and leaves room for truth, though not necessarily firmly stated. A hallmark example of this is where the character of Jesus says the following:

"Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved" (p. 182).

The words Young uses, which allow these statements to work are were and some. However, the challenge-the-status-quo and anti-institutional language is a bit strong. The label Christian has lost meaning over the centuries. To some, it means westerner, churchgoer, an offspring of "Christians," or some other person who isn't necessarily Christian. While the Bible does not use the word Christian, the word really means "little Christ," a disciple of Christ. And Young's description of "transformation into sons and daughters…brothers and sisters…Beloved" describes true Christianity. Jesus is concerned about us being His disciples and us being disciple-makers. So, I would conclude that Jesus is concerned about making us truly His -- truly Christian.

Young prevents relativism and this excerpt being misconstrued by having the protagonist ask, "Does that mean…that all roads will lead to you?" to which the character of Jesus responds, "Not at all…most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you" (p. 182). This would have been a good opportunity to echo the words of Jesus in John 14:6 ("I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.") or point to the Cross, but Young seems to avoid directly addressing these at this point. Young subtilely does this throughout the book where he grips the reader's attention and leaves some theological tension, but then eventually weaves his way back to it.

In fact, Young does address the Cross eventually. Papa is talking to Mackenzie:

"Honey, you asked me what Jesus accomplished on the cross; so now listen to me carefully: through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world…The whole world, Mack. All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship, but it is the nature of love to open the way" (p. 192).

This might attempt to challenge the Limited Atonement/Election crowd. This again begs for an Arminian-Calvinist debate (free will versus predestination), but that is for elsewhere. Yet, in response to the quote, here are some verses to consider:

"He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption." (Hebrews 9:12)

"But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself." (Hebrews 9:26b)

"And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (Hebrews 10:10)

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

The verses from Hebrews use the phrase "once for all" which the author might try to use to address the world mentioned in the quote from Papa above while the verses in Ephesians remind us that we are not saved by our own works, a challenge to the idea of "a two way street," though I would add that there are two parties in any relationship and believers are participants in God's grace. And then there's the question about whether God is ever to a point of saying "I have done my part" in the grand scheme of things. Certainly the Cross was "once for all" time [2017], but God is still at work and His grace is still manifesting itself.

"[H]e who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 1:6b)

And though there are theological tensions, even concerns, Young respects Scripture and eventually gets to what really matters -- glorifying God, truth, relationship (especially with Jesus), and the Bible -- as demonstrated by the following quotes:

"The Bible doesn't teach you to follow rules. It is a picture of Jesus. While words may tell you what God is like and even what he may want from you, you cannot do any of it on your own. Life and living is in him and in no other" (pp. 197-198).
"[R]eligion is about having the right answers, and some of their answers are right. But I am about the process that takes you to the living answer and once you get to him, he will change you from the inside. There are a lot of smart people who are able to say a lot of right things from their brain because they have been told what the right answers are, but they don't know me at all" (p. 198).
"You might see me in a piece of art, or music, or silence, or through people, or in Creation, or in your joy and sorrow. My ability to communicate is limitless, living and transforming, and it will always be tuned to Papa's goodness and love. And you will hear and see me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don't look for rules and principles; look for relationship -- a way of coming to be with us" (p. 198).
"Mack, I don't want to be first among a list of values; I want to be at the center of everything" (p. 207).

Young appears also to have a Biblical view of the law. In one scene, Mack asks God why He created the Ten Commandments. The Spirit responds with the following:

"Actually, we wanted you to give up trying to be righteous on your own. It was a mirror to reveal just how filthy your face gets when you live independently…But can you clean your face with the same mirror that shows you how dirty you are? There is no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake. That's why Jesus fulfilled all of it for you -- so that it no longer has jurisdiction over you. And the Law that once contained impossible demands -- Thou Shall Not … -- actually becomes a promise we fulfill in you…But keep in mind that if you live your life alone and independently, the promise is empty. Jesus laid the demand of the law to rest; it no longer has any power to accuse or command. Jesus is both the promise and its fulfillment.…[T]hose who are afraid of freedom are those who cannot trust us to live in them. Trying to keep the law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control" (pp. 202-203).

And the author recognizes the Christian's call to action beyond mere head knowledge, but an action that demonstrates a dependency on God as evidenced by these quotes:

"I am a verb. I am that I am…Nouns exist because there is a created universe and physical reality, but if the universe is only a mass of nouns, it is dead. Unless ‘I am’, there are no verbs, and verbs are what makes the universe alive" (p. 204).
"Because I am your ability to respond, I have to be present in you. If I simply gave you a responsibility, I would not have to be with you at all. It would now be a task to perform, an obligation to be met, something to fail" (p. 205).

By the end of the book, despite the themes of all being God's children and no condemnation (pp. 223-224), there still remain the other wonderful themes (relationship, etc.) and the many treasures in quotes (some mentioned above). And there are touching and beautiful pictures of forgiveness and reconciliation both man-to-man and between God and man (pp. 215, 221). At the end, you see a transformed life, reconciliation in process, and a peace despite tension. Again, there were times where I was rapt with emotion, sometimes awe, sometimes sadness, sometimes feeling vexed. The Shack is a book that touches the heart and challenges the mind in subtle and direct ways. My hope is that it will promote discourse that will open avenues to the Gospel and even, yes, to having persons become Christian. With the concerns and goodness surrounding it, The Shack is a thought-provoking and enjoyable work of fiction. Perhaps it will be a tool in opening discussion of Scriptural Truth so that there can be transformation, reconciliation, and a peace despite tension as there was for Mackenzie.

Page numbers are taken from the paperback version of the book.

[2017] Word or item added in 2017.