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What Will We Find In “The Shack”?

What Will We Find In “The Shack”?

It is a # 1 New York Times Best Seller.

It’s endorsers read like a “Who’s Who” of modern Christian and even secular media.

Eugene Petersen went so far as to say, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good.”

It is “The Shack”.

A little novel written by an Oregon salesman and self-published by two former pastors with a $300 marketing budget is lighting up USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list with a wrenching parable about God’s grace.

First-time author William P. Young’s book The Shack, in which the father of a murdered child encounters God the Father as a sarcastic black woman, Jesus as a Middle Eastern laborer and the Holy Spirit as an Asian girl, is No. 8 on the list.

Young says that when he wrote the book in 2005, “my only goal was to get copied and bound at Kinko’s in time for Christmas as a gift to my kids.”

Until The Shack sales soared, he was a manufacturer’s representative for a technology company by day and did website design work on the side. But he had always been a writer, he says, who gave poems and stories as gifts.

He wrote the book to explain his own harrowing journey through pain and misery to “light, love and transformation” in God to his six children, ages 14 to 27.

Eleven years ago, Young says, he was hanging on by a thread, haunted by his history as a victim of sexual abuse, by his own adulterous affair, by a life of shame and pain, all stuffed deep in his psyche.

“The shack” was what he called the ugly place inside where everything awful was hidden away. The book is about confronting evil and stripping the darkness away to reveal a loving God within, he says.

Lynn Garrett, senior religion editor for Publishers Weekly, calls the book’s success “most unusual. It’s every self-published author’s dream to start out this way and sell at this level.”

Why are so many heading for The Shack?

“People are not necessarily concerned with how orthodox the theology is. People are into the story and how the book strikes them emotionally,” Garrett says.

Those who love the message of “The Shack” are positively evangelical about it. Pastors are basing sermon series around it. Others are forming what are called “Shack Studies” to discuss and encourage application of it.

But as you can imagine, not everyone has found a visit to “The Shack” an edifying experience.

Berit Kjos offers this analysis of the portrait of God contained in “The Shack”.

The Shack opens in the context of tragedy. Four years have passed since the cruel murder of Missy, Mack’s precious six-year-old daughter. Enveloped in grief, he receives a strange invitation. “I’ve missed you,” it says. “I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. Papa.” What could it mean?

Doubtful, but drawn to the meeting, Mack heads for the Oregon wilderness and finds the dilapidated old shack. “God” miraculously transforms it into a cozy cottage, and Mack meets his supposed maker:

“…the door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman. Instinctively he jumped back, but he was too slow. With speed that belied her size, she crossed the distance between them and engulfed him in her arms….”[1,p.82]

“Just as she turned… a small, distinctly Asian woman merged from behind her….  He then glanced past her and notices that a third person had emerged… a man. He appeared Middle Eastern.”[1,p.84]

“When they finally stopped giggling, the large woman… said, ‘Okay, we know who you are, but we should probably introduce ourselves to you. …you could call me what Nan [Mack’s wife] does: Papa.’…
     “’And I,’ interrupted the man, who looked to be about in his thirties…. ‘I am Hebrew….’
     “Mack was suddenly staggered by his own realization. “Then, you are….”
     “’Jesus? Yes….’

     “Mack stood dumbfounded…. Just as he was about to crumple to his knees, the Asian woman stepped closer and deflected his attention. ‘And I am Sarayu [the Holy Spirit, Creativity].’ she said…
     “Thoughts tumbled over each other as Mack struggled to figure out what to do…. Since there were three of them, maybe this was a Trinity sort of thing…. ‘Then,’ Mack struggled to ask, ‘which one of you is God?’”
     “’I am,’ said all three in unison.'”

Their ongoing dialogues reinforce this new view of God. They immerse Mack in spiritual re-education, for each comment contradicts his previous understanding of God. For example, this new “Jesus” never returned to heaven. Was there no real resurrection? Not according to the female “God”:

“Although by nature he is fully God, Jesus is fully human and lives as such. While never losing the innate ability to fly [which he demonstrates in the book], he chooses moment-by-moment to remain grounded. That is why his name is Immanuel, God with us….”[1,p.99-100]

But the Bible tells us that Jesus did return to His heaven after His crucifixion. Besides, neither God our Father nor the Holy Spirit made themselves finite or visible to man. “No one has seen God at any time,” said the true Jesus. (John 1:18) Yet, here we see all three in human form — on earth! “God” explains:

“‘By nature I am completely unlimited… I live in a state of perpetual satisfaction as my normal state of existence:’ she said, quite pleased. ‘Just one of the perks of Me being Me.’
      “That made Mack smile. This lady was fully enjoying herself…
      “We created you to share in that. But then Adam chose to go it on his own, as we knew he would, and everything got messed up. But instead of scrapping the whole Creation we rolled up our sleeves and entered into the middle of the mess—that’s what we have done in Jesus…. When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human. We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed. …flesh and blood.”


As you can tell this is challenging, controversial stuff.

Wayne Jacobsen, a member of the pastoral vetting team behind “The Shack” explains the decidedly unexpected portrait of God in this way:

The book uses some characterizations of God to mess with the religious stereotypes only to get people to consider God as he really is, not how we have reconstituted him as a white, male autocrat bent on religious conformity. There are important reasons in the story why God takes the expressions he does for Mack, which underlines his nature to meet us where we are, to lead us to where he is. While Jesus was incarnated as man, God as a spirit has no gender, even though we fully embrace that he has taken on the imagery of the Father to express his heart and mind to us. We also recognize Scripture uses traditional female imagery to help us understand other aspects of God’s person, as when Jesus compares himself to a hen gathering chicks, or David likens himself to a weaned child in his mother’s arms.“The Shack” certainly has a strong message of grace.

 Those who love the book speak of its eloquent and emotionally moving portrayal of the power of God’s unconditional love to sustain and strengthen those whose lives have been wracked by personal tragedy.

But at what cost?

The book certainly accomplishes its goal of “messing with religious stereotypes”.

But does it stop there?

 Is it possible it is also “messing with” a scripturally based understanding of the nature of God?

My encounter with “The Shack” reminded me of the time I spent in churches involved with the “Faith Movement”.

There was no doubt that the people there loved the Lord and desired to honor His Word.

There was also no doubt that many of the services I attended were emotionally moving and helpful to those who attended.

But there was also no doubt that as I grew to understand God’s Word, I began to see some serious disconnects between the messages being preached and the message of the Bible.

My unease came to a head when I sat in a study where the teacher claimed that in the eternal state God would come up to us and say, “Child, go create a planet for Me.”

At that moment I faced a choice.

There was so much good going on there. I had been built up and strengthened there. I had seen miracles and people being genuinely saved there.

But when leadership began putting words more in keeping with Joseph Smith than Jesus Christ in the mouth of God the Father, I knew where my ultimate loyalties had to lie.

I left.

How does this relate to “The Shack”?

I have no doubt there are many edifying aspects of this fictional story.

I have no doubt hurting people will be blessed by aspects of this book as they accurately reflect the truth of God’s Word.

But whenever we start putting words in God’s mouth that He has never said.

Or describe God in a way he is never presented in the Word.

We are on shaky ground.

Each reader will have to form their own conclusions about “The Shack”.

But as you evaluate this fictional work, could I respectfully encourage you to engage in the following exercise.

If you found yourself in church on Sunday morning, and the pastor began to speak about your relationship with “God the Mother”

Would you sit all the way through the message because you heard that the other things the pastor had to say were very moving and helpful?

Would you come back the next week?

Would you recommend the fellowship to others?

In this light, Lynn Garrett’s observation greatly concerns me.

People are not necessarily concerned with how orthodox the theology is. People are into the story and how the book strikes them emotionally.”

Paul gave us a heads up about the rise of just this kind of acceptance of emotionally impactful but spiritually questionable messages in the Last Days:

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers;  and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (II Timothy 4:3-4)


One Response

  1. I wrote a lengthy review on “The Shack” addressing the controversies.

    Bottom line- If the focus of your faith is a relationship with God The Shack will be wonderful. If your focus is on legalism, then The Shack will disappoint.

    I like the over all theme that takes God out o the box–Don’t worry about yesterday or fret over tomorrow. Enjoy God now. He has it all in control. Surrender and walk in joy.

    BLOG CONTEST: I’m giving away 3 copies of The Shack on my blog. Pop over and add your comment to enter.

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