Amy’s Marginalia: The Shack

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.


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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I also puzzled over the “buzz” this book has received. I read it and found it poorly written frankly not to mention some of the theological issues (Christ being fully man but not fully God when he was on earth being one…). Thank you for the thoughtful review!

    AL: Another excellent point to bring up about the book. I wasn’t armed with direct quotes on that one, but “Jesus” says some strange things about being separate from the father. An orthodox trinitarian view always holds that Jesus was fully man and fully God. Anybody that denies that should raise some serious red flags!

  2. My blog link “Pearls in a Nutshell” did a review of this book last summer. She gave a very strong warning against it.
    Thank you for also presenting a scholarly review, and for sounding the alarm. As usual, even the most funky book still has a bit of good to offer, it was helpful that you could parse the bits.

    There are so many odd bits out there now days; I am glad you are a watchman on the wall for those of faith, and that you are willing to apply your literary insight as well.

    (Go Sarah Palin! Had to add that too.)

    AL: Thanks Jill! Though I think “watchman” is far too high a title for my post, but I’ll accept “random literature sniper” or something like that. Don’t mess with Bunyan, but especially, don’t mess with my God.

    Yea Girl Power! Palin’s bringing sexy back to the executive office.

  3. Amy, I haven’t read “The Shack”, but it sounds as though Mr. Young is “tickling the ears” of his readers. Regardless of the book’s true merit, I think placing it on the same level as “Pilgrim’s Progress” was a haughty mistake indeed. Maybe after a few hundred years in print Mr. Young’s publishers can make that less then humble claim.

    AL: Great point Josh. Well said. You’re right, time will tell. I’m just way too impatient to let time do the sorting of who is great and who is not.

    A friend of mine pointed out that the cover quote that’s getting all this buzz came from Eugene Peterson, the guy who wrote the Message translation of the Bible and a ton of other well respected books. His direct quote, from the cover is “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good.”

    It’s a strange quote, especially for the cover, but I think it’s Peterson’s name that cinch’s it. I think he’s saying that it’s like another Pilgrim’s Progress, which is how most critics seem to be taking it, but my friend picked up on the other element to this quote, which I hadn’t considered, which is that this book is somehow doing something for us. I’m trying to figure out what he thinks that John Bunyan did for his persecuted generation that this book is doing in the same way, with the same power and authority. Obviously, without God’s word and truth backing it, I disagree that it can have the same effect.

  4. Thanks so much for this review Amy. With all the talk about this book, I figured I might be missing something if I didn’t read it. Based on your comments though, I don’t think I’ll bother. I have enough John MacArthur, John Piper and others to keep me busy instead 🙂

    AL: I’m honored that you take my advice so seriously. If you do have friends who would like to hear your take on it, there is something to be said for having read it yourself, though. I find that I lack some persuasive authority when I’m arguing about a book that I’ve never read before. But, this book’s theology is pretty easy to grasp from the back cover. It’s enough that the trinity is personified in unbiblical ways, and if that’s something that you have issues with, I think it’s enough to give grounds for not reading the book.

    You raise an excellent point. With so many good books to read, who wants to waste their time on junk?

  5. Great blog, Amy. You raise some excellent points on “The Shack”. Also you have me thinking it’s time to read “Pilgrim’s Progress”. I would enjoy reading more book reviews in your blog, both contemporary and classic works, fiction and non fiction.
    I can just picture Bunyan, in jail making shoelaces and writing his book. God doesn’t forget his Own,
    whatever their circumstances.

    AL: Thanks mom. That shoelace image always sticks with me too. Just a picture of who he really was at heart. Christopher Hill wrote my favorite academic biography of Bunyan entitled “A Tinker and a Poorman,” really captures how simply he lived and his humility.

    I think the Pilgrim’s progress is an excellent alternative to reading the Shack. When people ask you if you are reading the Shack, the most popular Christian book right now, you can come back with another question, “have you read the most popular Christian book of all time? (next to the Bible of course)” Both play with allegory, focus on the theme of human suffering, and aim to understand God better.

    I think Pilgrim’s Progress is very readable today, but even if anybody is having a hard time reading it, there’s children’s versions and modern paraphrases that attempt to make the 17th century language more modern sounding. Oh heck, I should just do a post on it later.

    maybe i’ll do a Pilgrim’s Progress review. =)

  6. Just as a follow-up, I hope you continue to do more book reviews Amy. I remember a while back you talked about C.J. Mahaney’s book “Humility” and I thought, “Ok, I have to add that one to the list now” 🙂

    On a side note, I agree with Jill’s comment above about Sarah Palin. She had a lot of pressure on her last night, and she responded by hitting a home run. Interesting two months coming up for sure, but I’m so glad to see she’s off to such a good start.

    AL: Thanks Joe! You have certainly gotten me thinking about writing reviews more often. Typically, I’ve been just recommending books, but since you guys seem to appreciate me evaluating the junk as well, I can see the merit in talking about the different ones I’m reading.

    Palin is a fun one to watch. I’m bummed I missed her speech last night, so I’m hunting for the online version of it. I’ve been reading all the news on it though, and I’m very impressed.

  7. Amy, I really appreciate your thoughtful review here…and just want to say I had the same question about Eugene Peterson’s high recommendation–why? And I wish he would explain it (or maybe he has, somewhere…) further. Unfortunately, I have never read Pilgrim’s Progress…and based on what you say here, I shall get myself a copy very soon.

    I did read The Shack (someone gave me a copy) early this year. I read it twice through, more carefully the second time to try and pinpoint what specific things about it troubled me, because several of us were planning to have a one-time discussion about it. As you say, it has its lovely and inspiring moments, but others are downright weird. Overall, I came away from it with a vague uneasiness about the message behind the story, and did not care for the poor writing either. I was the only one in the group who seemed to have any reservations about The Shack.

    I think perhaps people are responding to the relationship aspects of the story so strongly, because we do live in a world where most relationships are not deep or meaningful…and especially with God. Since deep, loving, involved relationship is what God designed us for, everyone is starving for it. And this story does portray many aspects of relationship with “God,” albeit the three-but-not-one god, as you mention in your review.

    I don’t have the scholarly sort of mind or theological training to properly dissect this story…which is why I appreciate your review, and why I’m going to check those other two review links you give us. The one thing I personally found most troublesome is that not once is Satan mentioned or even hinted at anywhere in this book; it’s as though he does not exist. And…I really don’t care to have images in my mind of God the Father as this book’s “Papa”, the Holy Spirit as the wispy “Saroya” and so forth. If I were not already well grounded in my relationship with God, I wonder how this book would have affected my idea of who He truly is?

    There are so many books out there of MUCH greater benefit if someone is seeking truth or understanding. For example, Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy is infinitely more worthwhile to read…and he talks about the real God, not some allegorical representation…and this real God’s great love for us, and inspires the hearts of his readers to want to know Him better. And does this using the Scriptures verbatim….

    AL: Such wonderful insight! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your heart here! You pinpointed a few things that were just on the periphery of my awareness that now make complete sense for me. You’re right, no Devil! Unless somebody spots a reference that I can’t remember. I recall the book mentions angels, but I recall no demons being mentioned, either. For a book that was fundamentally addressing the question of evil in the world, which is what the main character goes to the Shack to sort out, you’d think you’d need to mention something about an enemy that is the source of a lot of evil.

    I like that you point out the relationship angle in the book. I think that part of the book’s charm comes from the harmony he depicts in the Trinity, and how we imagine having that sort of harmony in our own lives. It seems so peaceful, not the vengeful God that sometimes gets preached from pulpits. But it gets wacky when Young tells us that there’s no authority in the trinity, and he has some weird ideas of what submission means in relationship (instead of the biblical concept).

  8. You MISSED Sarah’s speech?????
    How could you???

    Oh girl, how sad. By the by, Palin’s youngest daughter Piper stole the show, which I am sure you read about. Lil Miss P. marched right up to John McCain on stage, and put her hands on her hips, and started talking to him. McCain bent down from the waist to get what she had to say while all around them the convention was going wild with applause for the speech.

    The next morning it hit me: If Piper has that much command of the situation and great men at age 8, then let me go ahead and sign up right now for the Piper Palin for President campaign, to commense somewhere around 2040.

    AL: *furiously hunting for videos from last night’s events so I don’t miss out*

  9. I agree that the relationship angle was appealing to me. This book challenged my thinking on independence, and how that choosing independence over relationship makes people manipulate and manage one another for their own happiness. It reminded me that God doesn’t want part of our time. He wants to be involved in all of our days & He wants all of us.

    Another wonderful reminder was that often when we think of the future, we worry about what will happen and our thoughts are motivated by our fear and worry. Seldom when we imagine those worrisome scenarios do we picture Jesus there with us. Instead we picture ourselves scared, suffering, anxious, crying as if we had been abandoned by the One who promised to never leave or forsake us.

    Although I agree that The Shack had some difficult areas, I found several things that were touching to me. I enjoyed your review. I’m glad I found your blog. 🙂

    AL: Thanks for sharing your thoughts Susanne. I think its wonderful that God has used the book to speak to you about a closer relationship with Jesus and about not having fear because we have Him always with us. I can’t deny that those are incredible insights to gain and to share with others. Those truths are also powerfully expressed in these Bible verses, which are very meaningful to me.

    “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

    “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31: 6).

  10. Amy. . . thank you for this post. I have felt somewhat defensive about my defending .. .don’t read the book. .to my friends. I was given two copies. . two of my friends thought it was wonderful .. and then I had to tell them I thought not. .
    It certainly made me think about why it just didn’t sit right with me. .I’m no Bible scholar but I am sensitive to the Holy Spirit speaking truth into my life. My cousin Julie who Jill directed you too did write another really good review on the dangers that lurk in this book.
    I think I was most amazed at how people just believed it must be worthwhile.

    AL: I checked out your friend’s review, and I was thrilled with all the scripture she used to combat the lies in the book. What a great approach! I think that the “sword of truth” is our best defense.

    I feel for you, in your situation being among people who are so excited about the book, even giving it to you as a gift. It’s hard to not be rude when the book is being given as a gift! I’m not sure how to respond to that one! I think that people who read my blog will know not to send me a copy now, hehe. But I think you’re right sticking with the conviction the Holy Spirit is giving you. He gives you discernment, even if you don’t have the logic to support it, yet. We have a good God who will protect us, if we just are careful to listen to his voice. In addition, it’s always wise to hold things up to the light of scripture, which is our ultimate measuring stick of truth.

  11. Hi, I found you by clicking on the “Christian Life” category in one of my posts, which led to other WordPress posts with that category. I’ve been curious about this book after hearing “buzz” both good and bad about it. It’s both amazing and sad to me that so many Christians can get so caught up and enthusiastic about a book with major doctrinal problems. I haven’t read it yet — as someone else said, I have so many other good books waiting to be read that I don’t know if I will, but sometimes I feel it would be helpful to read it just to be able to speak intelligently about it.

    I enjoyed your review — thanks!

    AL: Thanks so much for stopping by my blog and taking the time to comment! Isn’t it incredible the amount of buzz there is surrounding this book? I agree, there’s certainly pros and cons to reading it and not reading it, and it’s just got to be up to each individual to make that decision. From visiting your site, it looks like you certainly do read a lot as well, so I can imagine that you’d have other priorities! Blessings!

  12. Great review Amy. I forwarded it around to a few others here at FamilyLife. The quote from Eugene Peterson could possibly highlight the fact that many endorsements aren’t actually coming from the author or celebrity themselves, but they are often pre-packaged by the publisher along with a short version of a manuscript and a request for an endorsement. I’m not saying that is the case in this instance, but I have been amazed at the number of similar requests that I see come through my office.

    Another book that could be added as alternative reading is C.S. Lewis’ “A Grief Obseverved”. I’ve also heard great reviews on a book called “A Grace Disguised” by Jerry Sittser.

    AL: Thanks Ross. I appreciate your insider’s perspective here. I think you have a great point about how Peterson might have endorsed the book. Very possible.

    I also wonder if we just put him on too high a pedestal. When we read a recommendation by certain people, we use it as an excuse to disengage our own critical thinking because we assume that someone else has already done that for us. I don’t think that should ever be the case. God has given us all the Holy Spirit with the power to discern good from evil, and we should listen to that still small voice. Of course, we should also make a habit of holding things to the light of scripture too.

    Can’t wait until we get to celebrate with you guys on the birth of the new baby!

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