Posted by: Billy Marsh | January 14, 2009

The Shack Revisited

They say that controversy is always good publicity, and at least with regard to my posts in opposition to The Shack, I can testify that this proverb has proven true. Last year I submitted two blog posts in response to “the book of the hour,” and ever since, they have caused my blog to receive more attention than any of my other entries by leaps and bounds. Almost every day, the first of the two, “Dr. Mohler and The Shack,” holds the top spot on my “Top Posts” widget (Click here to view the second post). The only time it seems to be dethroned is when I publish something new, but it only takes a matter of days, or perhaps hours, for it to regain its place of dominance.

The “Comments” on both of these posts are just as prominent. Every now and then someone will evidently stumble upon my post, get mad, and leave a vehement response to which I will try and reply as generously as possible, attempting to speak the truth in love. Usually, most of the bitterness towards my warnings against embracing The Shack is a result of people disregarding my arguments for the fact that I hadn’t read the book. This occurs even though I state plainly in both posts that I intend in no way to judge the book per se, since I had not read it, but instead my purpose was to interact with ideas within the Christian community that are being raised by readers of The Shack, both from those who approve and disapprove. Nonetheless, it seems to be a vain expectation to assume that people will actually read your words closely and respect what you have written along with your intentions. If people can’t even read my blog posts and come to terms with all that I have written, then how can I take comfort in them reading The Shack carefully with discerning eyes?

Since I continue to engage with people over this extremely popular fiction work, I resolved to read it for myself over the Christmas break. Although this may satisfy my critics, my dissatisfaction with The Shack’s theology and how evangelical Christians have wholeheartedly embraced this book has only been heightened and now given a fuller picture. Having finished the book, I only owe it to my readers to give one final assessment of Young’s allegorical attempt at explaining theology proper. I will be as brief and gracious as possible, and will try to be as sensitive to the actual “story” as I can since the murder of the main character’s (Mack) daughter, Missy, is not a trifling matter.

In brief, here’s a list of real concerns that I have that should be not be overlooked behind the fiction.

1) The Overt Anti-Intellectualism – From beginning to end, Young seems bent on making sure the reader has as little regard for theological training and education as possible. Over and over again, Mack either thinks or says in response to his “re-education” at the shack that everything he’d been taught at seminary about God, spirituality, and church was in vain. Towards the end of the story, Sarayu (the Asian-female manifestation of The Holy Spirit) says, “And contrary to what you might think, I have a great fondness for uncertainty (203).” At times I felt as if I was reading a novel by an Emergent church writer since uncertainity and mystery were continually elevated to an exalted place, even by Young’s allegorical God, over and against acheiving objective truth and certain knowledge about theological matters. Again, as Sarayu attempts to turn Mack’s “religious-system” upside down, she states, “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.” Mack responded, “I understand what you’re saying. I did that for years after seminary (198).” These type of exchanges, especially with respect to “seminary” and its collective worth, become wearisome, and for a book that promotes relationship over content, by the final page, Young comes across as too preachy.

2) Therapeutic Salvation – The one gong that resounds loud and clear, and redundantly I might add, is Young’s take on the nature of salvation. Born out of the story’s conflict, Mack’s path to redemption travels across the plains of desperation and the mountains of suffering, rather than flowing through the rivers of his repentance of sin. Two things are obvious in regard to the portrayal of salvation in this allegorical treatise. First, there appears to be a complete absence of the seriousness of sin and disobedience and its need to be removed before one may partake in the new life found in Christ. While trying to figure out Papa, Mack sarcastically attacks the notion of God being a God of wrath in rebuttal to “her” statement that “I love the ones I am angry with just as much as those I’m not (119).” In reply, Papa explains, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it (120).” Later, when being interrogated by Sophia (Lady Wisdom), in reply to Mack’s confession of his messed up worldview, she remarks, “You are a glorious, destructive mess, Mackenzie, but you are not here to repent, at least not in the way that you understand Mackenzie, you are not here to be judged (158).” Everytime the traditional notion of sin tries to pop its head up, Papa, Jesus, Sarayu, and here, Sophia, thwart all of Mack’s “pre-conceived” notions about theology and reveal his ill-informed “religious-system.” The fact that Mack is angry at God, almost in a hateful manner, is chuckled away by Young’s depiction of the Trinity. Throughout the entire dialogue, which is by far the bulk of the book, Mack never seems to be in the wrong in terms of his thoughts and actions. Everything he does and says is justified, and oddly enough, God is the one who is doing the justifying. Along with Mack, I ,too, was shocked in several places to see the seriousness of sin unmasked as a “sin” of organized-religion and theological institutions. In the chapter “A Morning of Sorrows,” Papa helps to shed more light onto Young’s therapeutic view of salvation when he says, “In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship (225).” In other words, according to Young’s understanding of the atonement, man is only out of relationship with God simply because he chooses to be, not because he is a sinner, condemned and unclean. This statement also contributes to another issue I have with Young’s soteriology with respect to traces of inclusivism and pluralism in his story, but I’ll get to that later. Since God sees humanity’s sin as a trifling matter, it is no wonder that the essence of the Christian life becomes something akin to moralism and fluff. This leads me to my second quarrel with Young’s therapeutic presentation of man’s redemption.

Near the beginning of his encounter with God, Mack is told by Papa that this “weekend is about relationship and love (102).” In my opinion, there could be no better way of defining what Young is conveying in this story. He is pleading with people, through the “mouth of God,” to scrap the marginal stuff and have a real, living relationship with God. The only problem is that all of the marginal stuff appears to be all of the theological content that tells us not only how to have a right relationship with God, but even more so, the ability to truly know who God is. Apparently, God ,too, is in favor of relationship at the expense of being worshipped in truth. Along the way, Young comes up with some weird conception of the Christian life that seems to say that the reason that God has redeemed humanity is so that he can experience life through man’s eyes. In one instance, Jesus states, “Because we want you to join us in our circle of relationship. I don’t want slaves to  do my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me (146).” And in another place, this idea comes across even more strongly when Jesus says again, “We’re meant to experience this life, your life, together, in a dialogue, sharing the journey. You get to share in our wisdom and learn to love with our love, and we get . . . to hear you grumble and gripe and compain, and . . . (175).” But what Young means by “relationship and love” is so vague, even from the lips of his rendition of God, that theology is left no place to fill the empty void with substantive content and direction, but instead, is seen as something that only straps chains on the freedom that God wants to have in relationship with his creatures. There’s no talk of holiness or what it means to be godly. There’s no discussions on how to fight the flesh and resist temptations to sin. In fact, in one section, Papa goes to great lengths to assure Mack that he has never placed one single expectation on humanity, and that he has never been disappointed in us for anything. “She” even goes so far as to say that “That is why you won’t find the word responsibility in the Scriptures (205).” After all this lovey-dovey talk about relationship from God, I was waiting for the Trinity to set a campfire behind the shack, join hands with Mack, and sing Kum-bay-ya. Believe me, it would not be out of place in this cliché and superficial presentation of the community a Christian is supposed to find with the Godhead. Young tries to bring his message home one final time through the closing words of his friend Willie, who, speaking on behalf of Mack’s wishes, exclaims, “. . . he’s hoping for a new revolution, one of love and kindness (248).”

So what do I mean by “therapeutic”? Therapeutic salvation is defined as man’s redemption consisting of nothing more than psychological healing. There’s no real spiritual “old man” to cast off; instead, you are fine just the way you are, and God comes along, pats you on the back, and boosts your self-esteem. In Mack’s case, his “conversion” experience is his psychological healing from losing his daughter Missy. However, this is a false notion of salvation, and it does a terrible injustice to the penalty and sacrifice that Christ made on the cross for the sins of his people, bearing in his body the real wrath of a just God. Not that God doesn’t heal people’s psychological wounds. He most certainly does, but this is not the essence of salvation nor is it a full picture of the Christian life, namely, the one that God expects of his people as revealed in the Scriptures. During Mack’s redemption, there never comes a moment where he is broken over his sin, and falls prostrate before the Holy God, beating on his chest, and crying, “Have mercy on me a sinner!” Instead, all of his mistakes are merely misunderstandings and supposedly bad theology as a result of a “boring-church” and a bunch of talking-heads at seminary.

Please BEWARE and do not be DECEIVED!

Wow, I only got to two of my points and I have almost 15. Obviously I will have to add another post and get to as many of them as I can.

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Responses

  1. Satan is nothing if not clever. I would actually guess, knowing nothing about the book, that if the theology were really solid, it wouldn’t have made the bestseller list. I actually hadn’t heard of The Shack before, but after reading our points, and then checking out another site, it’s pretty clear that this is not a book I’m ever going to want to read. And I’m sorry you had to read it. That must have been hard. But I’m glad to be warned. Thanks.

  2. Dear Billy,
    I have to admit ahead of time that I am struggling in my flesh to find the right words for a response. Not that I am upset about your post (really, I was anxious to see what you had to offer), I am just a bit sad. But, admittedly, I am still unable to form my own strong opinions of this book at this point, since I just finished it last night. My good friend (and yours, as well), Jason, gave me the link to this post after I had informed him of my reading of The Shack.
    Just a few notes on myself, so you know where I’m coming from: I attended the same seminary that I presume you are at now, although only briefly (before I decided to join Wycliffe Bible Translators and chose a different ministerial direction). I am also persuaded much by some of your favorites: MacArthur, Piper, and (I assume) the late reformers. I hope that is enough to say that I do not come from too different a persuasion as yourself, and I hope that you will grant me the ear of a fellow, without any presumption that I’m a loon from some off-the-wall cult (which I don’t think you would presume, anyways).
    I, unlike you, was not told anything about the book before I read it, except for a brief introduction by the aunt that gave it to me as a gift for Christmas. So, I guess you would say that I picked up the book with far less expectations than yourself. Nonetheless, I’m sure you and I share this thought after reading it:
    How much of this “vision” was real? Apparently some of it was, because he walked his wife and the police officer directly to the place of his daughter’s body, where “Papa” supposedly led him. All theology aside (and I agree with you, that is what the author seems to want to do with theology: put it aside), it strikes me as odd and unusual that he had such a vivid “vision” as to find out exactly where his daughter’s remains were.
    I’ll stop with that line of thought here, though, because I just realized it was not the “validity” of the vision that you responded to in this post, but rather the question of whether the theology in the book matches that of Scripture. I can’t question (nor can anyone) a man’s testimony about something like this, especially when the vision creates some tangible and visible results. Not only did they find his daughter, the remaining girls that the man killed, and the killer himself, but Mack was permanently changed by this experience, be it a dream or vision or whatever (or slight coma after the wreck, which I also wonder if that played into the whole “experience”, also).
    As for the comments about seminary in the book and the implications that seem to be adverse to proper theology, I was not struck as hard by those comments as you must have been. I did not feel that the walls of my theology were under attack, but rather, challenged in a way that only sparked me to ponder more deeply about who my Savior, my God, and my Comforter is. I did not gather from this book that sin was of less consequence than what I gather from Scripture, but rather, that perhaps my Father in heaven knows, understands, and ultimately and miraculously forgives my sins. Papa does say in the book (much to the delight of a Calvinistic reader such as myself) that he knew that Adam would do what he did, thus implying what you and I are persuaded of by Scripture, and led through by our favorite reformers.
    The only thing that I was sharply challenged (and affected) by was how intimately Papa, Jesus and Sarayu interacted with Mack. That, to me, was far beyond my learned theology. Yes, I agree, it was all quite mushy-gushy at times, and “therapeutic” is a good word for a lot of what the vision suggests. But, my friend, don’t you hope that the Jesus that you know would at least care half as much about your pain and internal war as he supposedly does Mack’s in this book? After reading the book (with the lack of prior knowledge that I had before hand), I have to say that I really hope that my God loves me at least that much. And here’s an implication that I got from the book: Papa suggests, quite expectedly, that his love far exceeds what our finite, human brains could ever imagine. Papa says in the book that he is altogether “other” than we are, and his love is so perfect that we cannot even fathom it’s depths, width, and heights. That does, indeed, follow quite perfectly with the God of Scripture.
    I have to say again, I picked up this book with far less expectations than yourself, and came away with thoughts of John the Beloved laying his head on the Jesus’ chest. You want to talk about mushy-gushy, I can’t remember a time in my adult manhood that I’ve ever laid my head on the chest of a grown man (or have even thought about it)! That’s the level of relationship that Jesus wants with us, and that’s the level of relationship that Mack got in his supposed vision, don’t you agree?
    I’m interested to hear a response, so please don’t hesitate to email me. Also, I hope that you will join me in urging our mutual friend to read through The Shack so that he can join the discussion. You know just as well as I do that he is very good at bringing specific Scripture into any discussion, and I think we’d both benefit from his knowledge of the Word.

  3. James,

    I recognize your name but can’t recall the face. Moreover, I have about three friends here at seminary named Jason and I’m not exactly sure to which one you’re connected. Anyways, I’m glad you stopped by and gave your own personal thoughts regarding The Shack. I was also glad to see that your response, though in disagreement, was tempered as opposed to what I’ve been expecting to receive since publishing this post.

    I have a tendency to get long-winded in comments, so I’m going to try and rein it in, since I’m planning on posting a “Part II” which will feature more of my concerns with the book, ones that I would normally raise in writing this response.

    Perhaps my having heard much about The Shack before reading it has some bearing on my ill-favored outlook towards it, however, as someone who has tried to focus sharply in on hermeneutics and interpretation, especially with respect to authorial intention as the defining part of my theological education, I came to the book with an open mind and open hand, ready and willing to stand corrected and persuaded. Nonetheless, this did not occur despite the fair reading I attempted to give Young’s fiction.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really picking on the “story” per se. It has the potential to be moving, and obviously has been for millions of people. But I think what most people take for granted is that the story itself rests upon the theological perspectives presented by the author. Therefore, I am unable to enjoy the story since by doing so I would have to stand in agreement with Young’s view of God and other major facets of theology.

    Even though you noted that you did not really pick up on the negative connotation towards seminary in the book, whether or not it was as emphasized as I have represented it here, the fact is that Young never portrayed it in a beneficial light. After the first few comments regarding the vanity of Mack’s “seminary days,” I started to take note of each time seminary was mentioned. By the end, never once was seminary or formal theological training depicted as something that would be reliable for knowing God.

    You say that the book caused you to think more deeply about who your Savior is, but the way that Young portrays “the God who cares” is not revolutionary. Of course God cares. The Bible is replete with affectionate language and metaphors in describing how God cares for his people at all times, especially when they suffer. However the way that Young paints God’s approach to forgiveness comes across as something that was done for humanity’s sin rather than individuals who sin daily against God. Rarely is Mack portrayed as guilty or sinful, but rather the only thing that ever seems to keep him separated from a relationship with God in The Shack is his “pre-conceived” notions about God and off-the-mark theology (which is usually blamed on seminary). Whether or not the Father knows, understands, and miraculously forgives sin should not belittle the seriousness of sin and God’s hatred of it. Yes, God may understand that I’m fallen and finite and bound to be sinful, but he is still holy and he requires that his children, as obedient children be holy as he is (1 Pet 1:14-16), for as the author of Hebrews states in Heb 12:14, without holiness no one will see the Lord.
    My attack on Young’s “therapeutic” view of salvation was not an attack on intimacy. Although I made an off-hand comment about the book’s “lovey-dovey” tone, I am not an opponent of striving for a deep level of intimacy with the Lord. I believe, however, that we must not immediately equate the “mushy-gushy” with deep, personal intimacy. This would be a very superficial way of testing for closeness in a relationship. “Therapeutic,” as I noted in the post, is a descriptor for the way in which Young presents salvation and spirituality in general. Salvation is more than merely healing psychological wounds, though it is definitely part of it.

    You said, “But, my friend, don’t you hope that the Jesus that you know would at least care half as much about your pain and internal war as he supposedly does Mack’s in this book?”, but my problem with this rhetorical question is why would I have any reason to hope anything different? I didn’t enter my reading of The Shack with a lesser God or Savior than the one presented in the story; in fact, the core of my quarrel with the book is that I didn’t encounter the great and majestic God that I know and have seen in Scripture and have experienced in my own life. You wrote that your “learned theology” was exceeded by the depiction of the Trinity’s intimacy with Mack, but that is not the case for me. Christ has already proven to be a sufficient Redeemer and friend, The Holy Spirit a faithful Comforter and Counselor, and the Father an unfailing Protector and Provider. I have already tasted of the Lord in his word and have had very intimate communion with God in prayer and in his Word and in the Church, his body. For me, The Shack was a very pale and thin picture of the God (and inaccurate as I will point out in “Part II”) that I have walked with for so many years, before and during seminary.

    Nevertheless, as I said before, “Therapeutic” is an attack against a certain view of the essence of salvation, not intimacy with God. In addition, my caveats against The Shack are geared more towards major theological themes and doctrines such as soteriology, the atonement, Christology, and the Trinity rather than whether or not one’s relationship with God is mushy or stoic. That probably more has more to do with one’s own personality than anything else. There should be room for both unity and diversity in that regard. For example, my dad and I are extremely close, but we are not “lovey-dovey.” However, I’ve yet to see but a handful of father and sons that have reached the level of intimacy that we have, but you won’t catch me laying my head down on his lap, but our relationship is not the lesser for it. Yet, I know that if a time came that merited such an event to occur, his would be ready and willing as a resting place for my weary head.

    I hope you stick around for my second post where I’ll state more of why I see The Shack as dangerous to orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, I appreciate your interaction and sincere thoughts and would welcome more too. And I am more than aware that just because someone read The Shack that doesn’t mean they’re suddenly not a Christian or a bad Christian, but, in my opinion, it definitely has the potential to do more harm than good for the sake of Christianity.

    It looks like I got long-winded anyways. Sorry. There’s just so much material to cover.

  4. Hey Billy,
    Thanks for responding! I’m glad I looked back on your page – I originally thought your response would come to my email box.
    I certainly see where you’re coming from, and I appreciate your understanding that I haven’t had much time to formulate strong and absolute opinions about the book myself. Something that I want to discuss after your next post is this (and this brings up a real question, not a leading one): One thing I agree with in the book is the fact that dreams can have meaning, and can be an avenue of God’s communication, somewhat like prayer. I say this not even being one who has had too many vivid dreams, at least not dreams that have provoked me to any real action. I certainly have had dreams that have moved me in the direction of fear, which I know were not of God. Beside my personal experience, we’re left with the question of how much of Mack’s dream (or supposed vision) was, in fact, a genuine message. We’re still left with the reality that he awoke in a hospital bed with a vivid remembrance of “God” leading him to the body of his daughter, and then, without the slightest doubt, he led his wife and an officer directly to it.
    This is not to say that this would validate the “preaching” of the rest of the dream. But, I’m anxious to see if this question is a part of your next post. At least, if it’s not, could you give me your thoughts personally?
    Another question I have – and this might help me approach my evaluation of the book from a better angle – have you found any outside information on the author that might suggest that he added to the story to make it more than the “true story” was? In the author’s prologue, I believe he says that they tried to stick as close to the real story as possible, but then in the acknowledgements in the back he speaks of the folks who helped him to “dramaticize” the book as to make it film-worthy. So, do you have any outside info on the author and, perhaps, his background?

  5. James,

    Thanks for dropping back in. You bring up a lot of issues in your last comment.

    With respect to visions, I’m not opposed to God still working in that way in speaking to his people. However, since we have the biblical canon of God’s special revelation, I believe that it is sufficient as God’s voice in directing, informing, and guiding his people in this life. In addition, since we do have God’s Word final word in Scripture, whatever occurs in these “dreams” or “visions,” in order to be valid and from above, must correspond and complement (not supplement) what we already have in the Bible. This is why my issue with Young’s story isn’t the “vision” per se, but rather the content of the vision. If God is going to reveal himself in a vision or dream, he is going to be true to himself and to what he has already solidified in Scripture.

    Even still, “visions” are hard to critique since they are purely personal experience, but like a professor of mine in college always use to say: Did God meet you in a dream, or did you dream that you met God? This is why this type of ambiguity for personal, religious experience where the setting is the subconcious must be held accountable to the authority of Scripture because we can be certain and sure about what God has revealed in his written Word.

    I have other thoughts about visions and dreams, but that’s a topic too big for the comment box.

    As far as Young’s background, all I know is what is in the book. I haven’t really researched him personally. Are you suggesting that Mack’s vision may have actually happened to Young and that he has tried to articulate his real experience by means of the fictional story?

  6. For a background on Young, I’ve found his blog, windrumors.com, and http://www.theshackbook.com. He does indeed confirm that this story is NOT based on a true story.
    I wasn’t actually suggesting in my last comment that this could have been Young’s story, and not someone named “Mack”. But, from his blog, apparently it IS Young’s story. He wrote it strictly as a fictional story for his kids, which I think is somewhat bizarre, but could also be a quite thoughtful thing to do (since he intended to reveal some things about himself in the book). He says on his blog: “The pain, the loss, the grief, the process, the conversations, the questions, the anger, the longing, the secrets, the lies, the forgiveness…all real, all true. The story in particular… fiction.”
    So, the only hang-up I had about criticizing this book was the “fact” that it was based on a “true” story (as it leads you to believe in the prologue). Knowing that it’s not based on an actual dream, from an actual person, with an actual testimony of God speaking to him, is enough for me to not think much of any of its contents.
    I’m with you 100%…this guy is preaching a new age pseudo-Christianity, and I fell for some of it. Blessings to you as you continue to critique this incredibly tempting and deceptive book.


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