Have you heard the buzz about the little book called The Shack? I admit that I read some books because I’m so sick of hearing about them that I finally cave in. This book sounded ridiculous to me, and I had zero interest in reading it. But people just won’t shut up about it. So, I caved.
Here’s the plot: A guy named Mack goes to a shack to meet God who is named Papa and is actually an African American woman. Got that? But, Jesus is also hanging around in his workshop, along with a whispy, gardening, Asian lady named Sarayu who is supposed to be the Holy Spirit.
When I first read about the plot, I laughed. It sounds like something from a cult’s Sunday school class for pre-schoolers. I can see the coloring pages now.
But, I started getting upset when I saw this in Christian bookstores and being promoted by prominent Christians (most notably Michael W. Smith). However, what really got me riled up (we’ll call it righteous indignation) was the quote on the cover, calling it this generation’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
William P. Young is no John Bunyan. And this little work of heresy is no Pilgrim’s Progress, the most printed work of literature next to the Bible.
Bunyan and I have a bit of a history. I wrote my Master’s thesis on him, and I’ve spent years reading and researching his work. I’d recognize a Bunyan if I saw one.
John Bunyan was a puritan in the 1600s who was persecuted because of his faith. In fact, he wrote the Pilgrim’s Progress while in a jail cell, impoverished and supporting his family by making shoe laces in his cell. That’s poor. He was in jail because he didn’t agree with the state church and the state’s politics. He wanted to lead his own congregation and to preach freely. His doctrine was sound, bible based, Trinitarian, and also Calvinist (for those who care about that kind of thing).
While sitting in jail, amidst his own trials, Bunyan wrote for his persecuted flock an allegory about the dangers and snares Christians face on the road to the “Celestial City” (heaven). Buyan allegorized ideas, the problems people face on this road, such as the “slough of despond” and “vanity fair.” Young’s story also addresses pain, but it’s the overarching “why is there evil in the world?” question. His approach isn’t to allegorize ideas. He chooses to allegorize God himself, something that Buyan never did in all his allegories (this might be because it would have gone against his puritan iconoclasm and been a form of idolatry for him).
According to an article in USA Today, Young grew up a MK (missionary’s kid), where he experienced sexual abuse at the hands of the tribesmen. He’s had seminary training through the Christian and Missionary Alliance and was also a pastor for a Foursquare church for awhile. But, what could have been the foundation for solid theology didn’t end up that way. Young was working a series of odd jobs while writing this, supposedly for his children, but after failing to find a mainstream publisher, he eventually self published. A strong word of mouth got the publishing industry to reconsider their previous objections to the work. I can only assume that they were hesitant to publish a first time author with blatant heresy in his writing.
Both men faced hardship in their life. No doubt there. I won’t get into “who had it worse.” Wheras both men are committed to dealing with the issue of human suffering, only Bunyan fully looks to scripture to find the answers. No, I’m not critiquing Young for his lack of scripture verses, where Bunyan cites many. I’m taking issue with Young’s weak theology and misuse (or neglect?) of scripture to shape his picture of the trinity.
There are two great critiques of the book available online in video format from two authoritative sources who can speak to the doctrine and misuse of scripture in the book. One is Pastor Mark Driscoll (a regular on this site). The other is Dr. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist theological Seminary.
Some of the most powerful issues they raise are the problems of the trinity being separated into three who are never fully one (hence the problem with making an allegory out of the trinity–nothing compares), Young’s denial of the authority that is biblically acknowledged in the trinity (God the Father in charge with JC and HS submitting), the universality of salvation (Jesus will seek and save everyone), and the low view of scripture given by the “trinity” characters.
I’m not one to say, “Don’t read this book.” But, I am one to caution you to hold the Bible in one hand while you read it. Just because it’s a work of fiction, it doesn’t mean you can let your guard down for one moment. In fact, theology comes less thinly disguised than this. The DaVinci Code comes to mind as a prime example.
One final word. Then I’ll shut up with the lecture. I’m not saying there aren’t thought provoking, inspiring moments in the book. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a poorly written, predictable, clunky, and often sermonizing narrative. But I was convicted that I need to call Jesus my “Abba” (Papa) more often, as Jesus instructed us to do. The parts about forgiveness of others were also very insightful. I’m still digesting those. So, no, I’m not dismissing everything. But I’m also not going to buy a copy of the book to endorse it with my money (I borrowed the one I read), nor am I going to encourage others to buy it just to read the few good points in the pages. I think the dangers far outweigh the benefits.