The Shack – The New Pilgrims Progress?

I was asked about the Shack – the multi million seller book which is about to be made into a movie – so here is a review article I wrote a few years ago. I still think it stands….

 The Professor – “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” Eugene Petersen.

The Pastor – “Wrapped in creative brilliance, The Shack is spiritually profound, theologically enlightening and life impacting” – Steve Berger

The Pundit – “This book was absolutely amazing… so powerful and moving. Great for contemporary thinkers and a good starting point for people who struggle with feeling awkward about faith. It made me feel so peaceful and at ease… this book was fantastic” – Catie.

The Presenter – “The Shack will change the way you think about God forever.” Kathie Lee Gifford – Co-host NBC’s Today Show T

The Pedant (or Prophet) – “Sugary sweet sentimental sap. Heresy”

The Shack is the latest publishing phenomena from the US, selling from one to two million copies depending on who you are reading (now ten million plus).  It is a work of fiction which tells the story of Mack, who is struggling to come to terms with the murder of his young daughter. Mack receives a note from God telling him to come to the shack where his daughter was murdered. There he meets the Trinity – Papa (the Father) an African American woman, a Middle Eastern workman (the Son) and an Asian girl (the Holy Spirit). There then follow several conversations and experiences as ‘the Trinity’ helps Mack to come to terms with his loss.

The book has been warmly received and is being seen by many Christians as a great way to communicate the Gospel. Indeed as tearful superlative is heaped upon tearful superlative one is hesitant to offer any criticism. In fact those who love the book, already have their defences in place – if one disagrees with them then we are either desensitised, not in touch with our feelings or with God’s, and worst of all, as one enthusiastic reviewer put it, we must be, wait for it, Calvinists.

I came to this book with an open mind. Not least because of the endorsement of Eugene Petersen and some other friends who were very supportive of it. And yet as I read it I became increasingly depressed, alarmed and even sickened by it. Why? Certainly there are some good points and some interesting discussions in the book but overall the Church which is the pillar and ground of the truth, needs to be warned and the flock protected from the teaching and false doctrine within. I don’t mind that that The Shack is not particularly well written (I found myself getting bored at what is in effect a sermon in story form) . Nor is it a major concern that the book is full of the sugary sentimentalism which results in the Disneyfication of Christianity. No – where it really matters is in the New Age spirituality, the heretical doctrine and the hyped commercialism.

Firstly there is the now familiar emergent/New Age attack upon the Bible – God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects…..Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one boulnd in leather with gilt, or was that guilt edges?. Who needs the Bible when as ‘the Holy Spirit’ says you will learn to hear my thoughts in yours? Anyway the Bible is not ‘me’ enough. As Mack puts it I guess part of me would like to believe that God would care enough about me to send me a note. That’s what we need. A note from God. Personal. Handwritten. Not a book that tells us about what God has really given. It is false doctrine about the word of God, revelation and how we know God. So much false doctrine in so few words.

And of course the ‘Church’. Jesus says ‘I don’t create institutions, never have, never will’. There is an element of truth in that but there is also a considerable element of destructive falsehood. It is Jesus who died for the Church, and Jesus who provided apostles, prophets, teachers, etc for the Church. It is an organic body – but it is still a body with structure and order – a structure and order which our touchy feely rebels can all too easily dismiss with a wave of their ‘it’s just an institution’ wand.

It gets worse. ‘Jesus’ says I have no desire to make them Christians (speaking of those who were Buddhists, Mormons, Baptists, or Muslims). Really. I thought the point was that we would become Christ’s Ones – followers of him who died and gave his life for us? Not surprisingly there is a completely inadequate doctrine of sin. God does not want to punish sin. He wants to cure it. So unless everyone is saved then it looks as though God’s will is thwarted. Which leads us on to the implicit universalism in The Shack.

Mack asks ‘Papa’ if there is anyone she is not especially fond of. To which the response is ‘ Nope, I havn’t been able to find any. Guess that’s jes the way I is. ‘Of course the notion that God loves everyone equally fits well with the Disney generation but it is not biblical nor logical. As my ten year old likes to point out, if everyone is special then noone is special.

But for me the major heresy in the whole book is the way that the second commandment is completely ignored. One assumes that the Lord had a good reason for telling us not to make an idol in the form of anything to represent Him. Are we now saying that we know better than the God who forbids us to make images of him? Does God not know best how to reveal himself without us getting in the way by creating our own images? Be warned. When we ignore Gods commands about himself we end up with the kind of speculative nonsense such as the reason for God being called Father is because after ‘The Creation was broken, true fathering would be much more lacking than mothering.’

Finally there is the hyped commercialism. At the end of the book we are asked to ‘continue our experience’ of The Shack at the website and to participate in The Missy Project which in effect means spreading the word, lobbying to get it made into a film, blogging and of course selling and buying as many copies of the book as we can. We are urged not ‘to make it an advertisement but just to ‘share’.

This book is dangerous. Not because it challenges us, or makes us think about ourselves. But rather because it could, as Kathie Lee Gifford points out, change the way that some people think about God forever (or at least until eternity). If you want to know about God then read the Bible. If you want to know God then believe the Bible. If you want to see how far down the road the church in the Western World has gone from reasonable, historical, biblical, Christ centred Christianity then read The Shack.


11 thoughts on “The Shack – The New Pilgrims Progress?

  1. There’s a big difference between an allegory that seeks to help man understand his pilgrimage between rebirth and the grave, and one that presumes to know God well enough to write an allegory about him. One is filled with testosterone, and the other with estrogen. IMO

  2. Michael W. Smith – “THE SHACK is the most absorbing work of fiction I’ve read in many years. My wife and I laughed, cried, and repented of our own lack of faith along the way. THE SHACK will leave you craving for the presence of God.”

    the above quote I think made an important point – the book is a work of fiction! The author is known to have not had a positive male role model in his life, so God appears as a woman with whom he is able to or is ore comfortable connecting with. The problem comes when this is held up next to the bible and where there is any difference, the bible is not deferred to. So yes, God as Father gets usurped if The Shack is treated as fact not fiction. There is also no deferral within the Godhead whereas the bible talks of Jesus not considering equality with God something to be grasped and only does what he sees the Father doing, even deferring to His will when it comes to His own death.

    So – as a novel it is a good seller. If it leaves on craving for the presence of God then that’s no bad thing. Neither is is bad to be creatively brilliant, good, helping people struggling to feel at ease. However the Gospel distresses the comfortable and comforts the distressed. Craving for the presence of God is only helpful if it results in meeting God on God’s terms not what makes one feel comfortable. What one of us does not want to be happy and free of suffering? But how insufferable is it to be around any one of us if we are only content with things on our terms?

    As a story, as a novel it can be enjoyed and if it is a comfort to anyone faced with tragedy then that is great, but there’s a limit. It can’t be taken seriously theologically without encountering difficulty.

  3. Theological fiction can be an interesting read but I suppose it depends if you have a theology or not that that can be challenged will make it enjoyable or not.

    I am interested in your definition of Western World – you mention it a lot. What do you mean by it?

  4. Some well-meaning and longstanding Christian brother gave the “The Shack” to me as a gift. Needless to say after scanning a few pages I found no appeal to read it any further. My grave concern is what has happened to the insight and discernment of Christians if they could read it, find no problem with it and give it as a gift to others.

  5. Thank you yet again for a hard hitting, eye opening review. Here in Australia many have been deceived by this book, especially those involved in harmful Charasmania or those who have unfortunately experienced some kind of physical abuse or drawn to a feel good give me a Jesus fix Christianity. We where hit by the shack approx 5 years ago in Oz and quite hard at that – I came across this sermon by Dr Michael Youssef in the U.S who could not hold back but warn his congregation in 2009.
    The Shack: Uncovered (Full Sermon) – Michael Youssef

    For our Lords Glory and His alone.

  6. I guess I will be in a minority here but ……
    Its some years since I read The Shack. I remember being uncomfortable with it for some of the reasons you list above very eloquently. However I think there is also danger in over reacting. You’re right: it’s not the Bible and cannot be used as a base for some kind of new “shack-theology”, but once we get past that single point, I think books like this can help to open up our own narrow conceptions of God.
    One personal example if I may: when God the Father turns out to be a large and jolly African lady I really didn’t like it, almost stopped reading right there. But I felt God was saying to me that whatever I do think of him, however I perceive hi min my own tiny, narrow and (undoubtedly biased) imagination, when I see him face to face I will be as surprised, as shocked as if he were a large and jolly African lady. I will be knocked off my feet at how wrong my narrow picture of about him was.
    I think there are dangers – which you point out at length, – but there is also good here. And yes the difference may not always be obvious which is why we do need to know our Bible well.
    Thanks for another thought provoking article!

  7. I have never heard of this book, let alone read it (I must have led a very sheltered life!). So having read David’s critique I googled for others and found opinions fairly polarised. This is a fairly typical example of supporters.

    http://www.cbn.com/entertainment/books/ElliottB_TheShack.aspx

    But I find the views expressed very concerning. For example:

    “The problem is that the author is attempting to describe the indescribable. Scripture tells us that God’s thoughts are higher than ours, so I don’t expect that humans will ever be able to fully understand heavenly things. How should one depict The Trinity? Where would one even begin to describe a God that is three in one? I certainly wouldn’t know where to start, which is why I find Young’s depiction of them so fascinating. Observing how these three characters interact gives readers a better understanding of some aspects of God’s nature.”

    This to me summarises a major problem in the practical theology of many churches today in that they have become very existential, i.e. how can I encounter God today in my personal experience. This approach is typified by the Charismatic movement and other similar versions (Toronto blessing etc.). The manifestation of the presence of God in some way, generally in a meeting, is the way we get to know him (so we are led to believe). This can lead to sentimentalism and Gnosticism (and frequently does) – and this book seems a typical example.

    But all this is at the cost of the historic gospel meaning the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. People don’t preach on the four gospels any more, or at least not in any systematic way. We get the Prodigal Son at a “gospel” meeting, and the usual bits at Christmas and Easter; but take people through a whole gospel – it just doesn’t seem to happen anymore.

    The Disciples were as slow and stupid as we are, witness Philip’s famous question in John 14, 8. Jesus’s answer is to the point – if you want to know what the Father is like then look at me. He couldn’t have been clearer!

    “The problem is that the author is attempting to describe the indescribable.” Well get back to the historic Jesus as taught in the gospels and you will learn as much about the Father as you will ever need to know. As for “depicting” the Trinity again Jesus went straight to the point about the Holy Spirit in John 3,8.

    You don’t need a degree in theology to understand the nature of God – just an open heart and a teachable spirit.

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