Posted by: Billy Marsh | April 24, 2008

Dr. Mohler on The Shack

Let me begin by stating that I have not read the new “Christian” novel, The Shack. In fact, I had never heard of it until about a week ago, which shows just how swamped I have been with school work and various other and asundry matters. Typically, I stay pretty aware of these type of things; however, I owe it to my culturally-savvy friend, Keith Krepcho, for bringing this book to my attention. I’m not going to bash it or tell you to shun it. I would rather have read it before I speak that strongly about it. However, I doubt that once reading it, my response would be any different. It’s hard not to trust Dr. Al Mohler’s well-informed thoughts on any given cultural issue.

Dr. Mohler, not too long ago, was also very unaware of The Shack. On a vacation, some friends asked if he’d read it, and if so, what did he think about it. At that time, Mohler had not read the book, but subsequently sat down and read all 200+ pages in one sitting (I still can’t do that, even on “easy reads”). Once he had turned the last page, Mohler was deeply concerned with respect to his friends’ referral to this book. Later, though, he finds out that his friends were not recommending the book because of their approval of it, but rather, they deeply desired for Mohler’s insightful critique of it due to the alarming nature of its presentation of Christianity, namely, the Trinity.

Apparently, William P. Young began writing this book as a story for his children. However, the manuscript was later picked up by a publisher after Young had already put it into press on his own dollar. The main character in the book loses his daughter who was raped and brutally murdered, and thus, carries a heavy dosage of depression and grief. At some point, the man receives a letter which ends up being sent from God, which tells him to go to “the shack.” There, the man meets the Trinity. Everything seems fine up until this piont, but here’s the kicker: God, who is referred to as “Papa,” is an african-american woman, Jesus is a Jewish man, and the Holy Spirit is also a female figure.

However, this weird and unorthodox presentation of the Trinity is not the only point of question regarding Young’s take on Chrisitanity. As the dialogue unfolds between the main character and “the Trinity,” heretical views of Jesus’ identity as the God-Man appear as well as other expressions that overtly disclose Young’s promotion of inclusivism and pluralism. This issue of man’s sinful nature is also dealt with in an “Osteen” fashion.

I’ll let you read the book and listen to Dr. Mohler’s radio program where he provides thoughtful commentary on the message of this book. What I want to do is speak just briefly with respect to what I felt when I heard how loosely some of the major doctrines of the Christian faith were treated in this story in conjunction with the overwhelming approval and praise of it by some leading Christians in our society.

On the front cover of the book is a blurb by Eugene Peterson which reads, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” Elsewhere, Michael W. Smith hails it as a life-changing book that has the capability of radically transforming one’s spiritual life before God. What I’ve noticed is that the thing about deception is that you don’t know you’ve been deceived usually until the deed is already done. And in this case, that’s what I observe to be occurring.

I walked into our seminary LifeWay just a few days ago and on the window glass on the doors were promotional materials taped up for the whole world to see, affirming this book in an extremely positive manner. What’s the deal!? I mean, does no one screen this stuff before it’s plastered all over the place, setting a snare for believers? What alarms me the most is the “Christian” response to other Christians who critique material that calls into question orthodox Christian theology as if the God who they want to express spirituality towards is somehow separated from his own personal identity.

Right now, The Shack is #8 on Amazon’s bestseller lists, and if you click onto its page, you will see that blogger Tim Challies is the first person who has left a review. Obviously, he disapproves of the book and regards it as “subversive” to orthodox Christianity. Yet, on his review you will see that currently there are 68 other comments. I scrolled down over a large part of them, and most of them were rebuking Challies for thinking that Christianity is only about “theological correctness.” Eventually, I had to quit reading the responses to Challies’ review since I felt my blood pressure rising. I wish Martin Luther was here. Our pesonalities are too much alike; I’m sure we’d be friends.

Where did Christians, or so-called Christians, ever get the idea that God doesn’t care how you view him? It seems to me that when Jesus declared so passionately before the Jews that “Before Abraham was, I am (Jn 8:58),” or “I and the Father are one (Jn 10:30),” that just maybe we ought to take his own personal declarations of divine identity to heart when we come before him desiring to live lives pleasing to him and for his glory. I was very disgusted by some of the comments on Challies’ review that said something to the effect: “Yeah, I kind of disagreed with his view of the Trinity, but you missed the point. Forgiveness and the gospel to all people was its true message and is the same thing that Jesus came to do. God is calling us to intimacy.” Statements like these clearly demonstrate not only that contemporary Christians have failed to truly grasp the essence of Christian theology, but even more so, the true meaning of the gospel. Is there any gospel at all without the Trinity? Absolutely not. What amazes me is that people honestly think that the gospel is somehow detached from God’s personhood. It seems to me that underlying most of the objections to reviews such as Challies’ have more to do with someone wanting to uphold his or her own take on spirituality rather than striving to see his or her God, Lord and Savior, served in purity and truth, with holy reverence and awe. Hopefully, one day, we will see flyers for books taped up on doors encouraging us to buy them that present a high and exalted God, who is glorious and is represented as he has revealed himself in Scripture, rather than promoting books that permit us to go home, kneel on our knees, and pray to “Papa,” the large african-american woman and somehow lead us to think that we have found the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Responses

  1. We labor with you and Kim in asking that he continue to pour our his grace, with joy and humility, to be always before the throne interceding for the saints.

  2. Billy,
    Well I cannot speak about “The Shack” since I have only now heard about it, but I can speak to the broader problem of Christian retail and the lack of sound doctrine amongst the average Christian. 1) My wife works in Christian retail, as you know, and gets somewhat frustrated at times at some of the books her chain sells. At times it seems almost like Tetzel is alive and well in Christian retail! The decision to sell a broader range of products in order to bring in a broader clientèle is a strategic decision that has a lot of grey zones and hard decisions.
    2) We both know that the average Christian of today in the average church is not being very well taught in theology, apologetics or even the Scriptures. We live in an anti-intellectual, emoting world, even in the Church. Radical individualism that says “My opinion is equally valid as the Pastor’s or Jonathon Edwards or Calvin, etc.” has infected the Church.
    3) If it’s new and different, makes onto Oprah or the 700 Club then it will sell, regardless of the bad theology it contains.
    4) When it comes to recent Christian fiction, I have enjoyed Ted Decker (sp?) Dekker? and was not alerted by any false doctrine in the 3 books of his I have read. But then I am not the brightest blade in the drawer nor the sharpest bulb in the chandelier…or something like that.

  3. 2 Timothy 4: 3,4,&5

  4. “Is there any gospel at all without the Trinity? Absolutely not.” I was a bit surprised by this comment. What do you think the heart of the gospel is if it is so lost apart from the Trinity? Also, what is it exactly about the Trinity that causes it to be so central to the gospel do you think? The best way to get back to me is via email. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thomas

  5. Thank you for your words. A friend handed me this book two days ago, I have been so sick reading it, can’t believe these so called Christians love this book. Forget the fiction…read God’s word.. this writing is dangerous.

  6. Thank you Kari, it seems that the book is still selling many copies, and Christians are still deceived into thinking that just because it is fiction, it isn’t harmful. I’m glad God has given you a discerning spirit.

  7. I am deeply saddened that all of you cannot see God and his character in the context of a God-given human imagination. If you had read the book and read his blog, Paul Young is not advocating a particular view of theology. He is allegorically connecting to dealing with the God who sees and knows and provides comfort. Thinking is not merely establishing concrete ideas. It is filling in the open spaces based upon the foundational truths. You are intellectual laggards with no stomach for creativity or expression of the faith outside of a theological construct. Though I agree that everyone should be discerning, I find that a grounded Christian should be able to rightly divide truth and fiction. May you find an apologetic that is stronger than dialogue for a church gathering amidst the many ups and downs of real life in this world.

  8. Kevin,

    As an engineer I understand the use of imagination when it comes to designing. My wife is an artist and she uses imagination to draw and paint pictures. In a true sense God is the Chief Engineer and Chief Artist – from His creation of the worlds and all their intricate complexities to the “painting” of the beautiful sunrises in the morning to the magnificent sunsets in the evening.

    You can apply a creative imagination to a host of other occupations or circumstances where imagination is used for good. Adam had a creative imagination to name the animals [Gen. 2:19].

    But just like everything else good that God created and gave to man, imagination was tainted and distorted after sin entered the world and is regularly used for evil purposes – intentionally or not. One of those being to spread false doctrine and cast doubt on God’s word [Satan’s first point of attack….Yea hath God said…? – Gen. 3:1].

    To that end, the question needs to be asked when does the imagination become evil?

    Before that question can be answered you have to first define right and wrong, good and evil. In other words there must be a standard. From a Christian standpoint, that standard is God’s Holy and perfect word.

    …I the Lord speak righteousness, I declare things that are right. – Isaiah 45:19

    The words “imagination” or “imaginations” provides an interesting word study in scripture. It is tough to find it used in a positive context [eg. Gen. 6:5, 8:21, Luke 1:51]. To me that is a red flag in the use of my imagination particularly as it relates to God.

    Many times I’ve stood on the shore of the ocean and tried to imagine in my mind those high walls of water and the dry land between when God split the Red Sea.

    In instances where God has chosen not to reveal something about His character or purposes through His word, red flags better go up on where one allows their imagination to lead them.

    Whatever God wants us to know about Him and His character is revealed in and can be found in His word alone and to some limited extent His creation, however, there is no place for imagination beyond that. If there is something I don’t understand or something I want a deeper understanding about with respect to God, His character and His purposes, it is to His word alone I will go – not my imagination.

    To distort and fictionalize God’s truth and character as it is revealed in His word is evil. It is false teaching.

    God’s prescription for “filling in the open spaces” is to meditate [think] on His word – Selah –not to see where our sin-stained imaginations will take us.

    If by “theological construct” you mean a Biblical world view, I don’t know what other world view a Christian would want to take. That should be the foundational starting point for every Christian. The only other world view I know of is a humanistic world view, which is not Christian.

    When you speak of discerning; discerning when? and according to what standard? Under what circumstances is one to exercise discernment?

    You mention grounded Christians – What about the “ungrounded” new babe in Christ? What of those that lack discernment and discipleship and are easily misled? What about the seeking unbeliever picking up a piece of supposed “Christian” literature?

    There are plenty pieces of good Christian literature that remain faithful to the Word of God and the truths expressed within it.

    God’s already clear Word is more than sufficient and without need of the imagination of man to make it palatable.

    All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. – 2nd Timothy 3:16-17

  9. Kevin,

    Just a few points of response to your comments.

    1) Your exposure to the contents of my blog is very limited as shown in your critique that “we” are anti-imagination here. On the contrary, I’m a huge supporter of Christian creativity, and try to support those who are doing it well, especially in the area of music, movies, and books. So my dissatisfaction with “The Shack” has very little to do with my interest in Christian fiction. With respect to allegory as a literary device, I loved Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progess” and Lewis’ “Narnia.” So this post is not an attack against the Christian arts.

    2) You made the comment that Paul Young is not advocating a particular view of theology, but that is unavoidable no matter his ultimate purpose. Whether or not he has subscribed to a certain school of thought or a particular denomination, he has still communicated theology in his work. Anytime someone speaks about God, his nature, and his works, that person is doing theology, regardless of whether or not he has placed it into a nice and tidy theological construct. Even abstract theology is still theology. To think that “The Shack” is devoid of theological ideas about God that are subject to being either true or false is naive.

    3) You mention that grounded Christians should be able to rightly divide between truth and fiction. This is the comment that scares me the most, one that I have heard from numerous other defenders of Young’s novel. It is a false dichotomy and seems to be an argument based more so off of the genre of Young’s book rather than its truthfulness. First, though the story may be fictional, Young has placed his characters in the real world and has taken the Christian God of the Bible as the deity of its setting. In other words, Young is presenting the One True God in a fictional story. There is nothing wrong with this method, so long as he gets it right, which does not seem to be the case. It would be different if he had created a fictional world with fictional characters and a fictional deity. But he hasn’t. He is making truth claims about the God of the Bible in major, non-negotiable doctrines such as the Trinity, Jesus the Incarnate Son, the Holy Spirit, and the nature of salvation. Narrative, whether it is allegory or not, still is a bearer of meaning and communicates a message. You don’t have to write a theological textbook in order to put forth theological truth claims. If Young is going to set his story in the real world and use the Christian God of the Bible as the God of his characters, then he is accountable to speak of him rightly based upon his revelation in the Scriptures.

    4) The intensity of your rebuke brings to my mind again the alarming notion that people are more protective of Young and his book than God and his “Book” (the Bible). It is hard for me to relate to the type of loyalty that people seem to display to other men and their works when the God that they profess to believe in and live for has possibly been misrepresented. It doesn’t matter how powerful the story may actually be; my allegiance lies with the dignity of my God. In John 4, Jesus tells the woman at the well that God is looking for his true worshippers, those who will worship him in spirit and in truth. So why is it so unpopular to uphold God’s true identity and how he has revealed how he works in this world through Scripture to people who are confessing to be his worshippers? When people bite back at me for interacting with Young’s ideas of God in “The Shack” stating that I don’t understand his book and ask “Have you even read it?”, I always feel compelled to respond saying, “Do you really know God and have you read his “Book”?” If so, then you should have the same problems as I do with the theological content of “The Shack.”

    I have an apologetic that answers the ups and downs of everyday life. As Francis Schaeffer has said so well, my hope rests in the God who is there and who has spoken. He is not only the God who exists, but the God who indwells my being, and has told me in the Bible, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” – Hebrews 13:5-6.

  10. Hello again,
    I really appreciate your feedback. A couple of things that I will leave with you…

    You are right that I have limited exposure to your website. I am just surprised with the backlash against The Shack (even that a good number of posts indicated an ignorance on the exact contents of the book). I don’t have a specific loyalty to the book. However, it did spur me to examine who the God of the Bible is.

    The Bible alone is sufficient as the truth of the God who is exists and is not silent. However, I think that in the human experience, God gives vehicles to shake us up and question what we read or see. I don’t agree with all of the ideas that he purports. At the same time, I connected the grace and mystery in the book as something that I read about in Scriptures and had not connected it on a human level.

    You guys have also made a good point about the not-so-grounded or non-believers. I don’t disagree with the possibility of misinformation for lack of a better word. However, I think it provides an excellent point of discussion and would be a great vehicle.

    My general issue is that there seems to be a rise of negative commentary on fiction works dealing with spirituality that are not overtly Christian or mention God. We think that there should be a published response to Golden Compass or Harry Potter or Chronicles of Narnia or Star Wars. How do we encourage people to think correctly about pop culture if we don’t know what it is…

    Am I looking at this the wrong way? I feel like we tell people to run from everything that does not have Christian or Bible or God in it (overt Christianity). I would welcome your feedback greatly…

  11. Kevin,

    Thanks for responding, and sorry for not getting back to you sooner. You bring up some great questions; some that I am always wrestling with.

    I think authors like Francis Schaeffer, Charles Colson, James Sire, and Nancy Pearcy help us to regain a view of Christianity that sees the Christian faith as something that speaks to every walk of life and not just to areas such as evangelism or missions. Christianity is a total-life system of belief, so we definitely need to know how to view culture, and not only Christian culture.

    The Chronicles of Narnia is probably the one book out of the ones you listed that receives the least amount of criticism. In fact, since the movies started coming out, it has become another bandwagon that Christians are jumping on. But let’s take Pullman’s “Golden Compass.” Here’s an author that is an outspoken atheist and is militant in his attacks against Christianity. He admittedly has written “His Dark Materials” trilogy as an atheistic anthesis to Lewis’ Narnia. As Christians, we can’t possibly support this type of literature, no matter the quality of his work, nor should we expect to find avenues of Christian spirituality that ought to be emulated in such a work.

    Christians issue responses to works such as Pullman’s in order to counteract the positive outlook many would have on his work and his message, not to discredit the role of arts. Satan is the deceiver and his lies are not always easily discerned, and are not beyond being cloaked in something as seemingly innocent as a children’s fantasy book.

    On the area of finding spirituality in sources not explicitly Christian, we must be cautious. This is not to say that non-believers do not have insight into the human condition. In fact, sometimes you’ll find there a better depiction of things such as human depravity and hopelessness than in Christian artistic portrayals. I think another example would be in Jane Austin’s novels. They’re not explicitly Christian, but from what I’ve observed by being married to a woman who adores Austin’s works, is that she had incredible insight into the struggles of womanhood and personality as well as what true love was meant to look like. I once read somewhere that if a man ever truly wanted to know how a woman thinks, he should immediately go and read Jane Austin. And I have to say that I agree for the most part. That, of course, is a reductionistic view of her books, but this is only a comment, not a book review. All humans are made in the image of God, and therefore, we should be able to see glimpses of what Schaeffer calls “the mannishness of man” in other works, whether they are Christian or not.

    We, however, must come to understand that “true spirituality” is not a common experience shared between humanity through the ups and downs of life. Yes, other works may have spiritual elements in them, but as Christians, we must take our cues from the Scriptures. Christian spirituality is only “Christian” when it is in compliance with how God has told his people how to live. Other works like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia may help to shed light on themes that are already expressed in the Scriptures, but they are not God’s Word, and thus, must be measured according to all that God has spoken to us in the Scriptures.

    I believe that we are on the edge of a Christian culture that is trying to redeem itself from its confused past, but we must be careful that in doing so that we don’t blur the lines and begin to embrace the world rather than Christ. Christians are people who confess that the Christianity is the truth and that the God of the Bible is the only, true living God, and that Jesus is the only Savior. Therefore, we are not as free as those who hold to other belief systems or those who believe in nothing at all, to welcome anything and everything that seems good and profitable, but goes contrary to what we believe to be true about reality as revealed in God’s Word.

    I wouldn’t turn people away from books and music that are not explicitly Christian. Instead, I would ask them to read and to listen with a Christian worldview and discerning heart and mind. If this wasn’t the case, then I wouldn’t be able to enjoy The Lord of the Rings as much as I do, since, though Tolkien was a Christian, his work was not intended to be explicitly Christian.

    Good discussion, what are your thoughts?


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