Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Shack: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Yesterday I read William Paul Young's The Shack almost entirely in one sitting. The writing is fantastic. He really knows how to pull a reader in and not let them go. He knows how to tug on the emotions, making the reader laugh and cry.

Reading this from a theological perspective though, my review of this book is mixed. There are aspects of this book that are very good. There are parts where we border on heresy. And there are parts where we go over the deep end into the abyss of not even being Christian anymore.

First, the good...

I love this book’s depiction of the Trinity. I've read reviews where people have gotten angry that God the Father is depicted as a woman, stating that this view is not biblical. Apparently, they've been reading a different Bible than the one I have:

"I have looked away, and kept silence, I have said nothing, holding myself in; But now, I cry out as a woman in labor, gasping and panting." -Isaiah 42:14 

"For thus says the LORD: Lo, I will spread prosperity over her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent. As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you; in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort."-Isaiah 66:12-13

"You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, You forgot the God who gave you birth."-Deuteronomy 32:18

Mystics throughout time have used feminine imagery for God. Theologians over the centuries have used "motherhood" as a metaphor for God.

The Catechism itself has something to say about this:

"By calling God "Father", the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children. God's parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God's immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father." -CCC 239

I have no problem, therefore with God the father being personified as a woman.

And the Trinity, itself, is depicted beautifully:

“As he leaned against the doorway watching, Mack was full of thoughts. So this was God in relationship? It was beautiful and so appealing. He knew that it didn’t matter whose fault it was—the mess from some bowl that had been broken, that a planned dish would not be shared. Obviously, what was truly important here was the love they had for one another and the fullness it brought them. He shook his head. How different this was from the way he sometimes treated the ones he loved!” –pg. 107

“He had never seen three people share with such simplicity and beauty. Each seemed totally aware of the others rather than of himself.”- pg. 123

“They all laughed and then busily resumed passing platters and helping themselves. As Mack ate, he listened to the banter between the three. They talked and laughed like old friends who knew one another intimately. As he thought about it, that was assuredly more true for his hosts than anyone inside or outside creation. He was envious of the carefree but respectful conversation and wondered what it would take to share that with Nan and maybe even with some friends.”-pg. 202

An even more beautiful and accurate depiction is touched on:

"Man - whether man or woman - is the only being among the creatures of the visible world that God the Creator has willed for its own sake; that creature is thus a person. Being a person means striving towards self-realization, which can only be achieved through a sincere gift of self. The model for this interpretation of the person is God himself as Trinity, as a communion of Persons." JPII, MULIERIS DIGNITATEM, part 7

To Young’s credit, he makes it clear as frequently as he can that while the three Persons are personified in three different people, they are, in fact, One.

Now, the bad….

First, mixed in with some decent theology is a lot of pop psychology, self-help, feel-good crap. For example:

“Not much to understand, actually. They just are. They are neither bad nor good; they just exist. Here is something that will help you sort this out in your mind, Mackenzie. Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions.” - pg. 199, the Holy Spirit explaining emotions to Mack

It has been explained to be before by different priests that emotions in and of themselves are not bad. You can’t control a fleeting emotion. However, it can become sinful if you entertain that anger by prolonging it or act out of that anger (or lust or any other negative emotion). I looked up this exact quote to see if Young had borrowed it from any particular psychologist, but I couldn’t find one. Readers: let me know if you know of one.


The entirety of Chapter 15 is an acid trip around a very touching scene of reunion between Mack and his abusive alcoholic father. In this chapter, the Holy Spirit gives Mack healed vision to let him see as God sees. With this gift he can see all creation and all time. That I understand, because God can see those things. However, he can also see himself and others robed in color and light. This color and light can change in accordance to what a person is feeling or doing at any given time. It can also reach outside of the person to touch those they care about. As someone who has previously practiced Wicca/Neo-paganism, this color and light sounds suspiciously like auras. The belief in and vision of auras are generally banned in Christian circles under the heading “No sorcery, witchcraft, or occult.” As the Bible states:

“When you come into the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abominations of the peoples there. Let there not be found among you anyone who immolates his son or daughter in the fire, nor a fortune-teller, soothsayer, charmer, diviner, or caster of spells, nor one who consults ghosts and spirits or seeks oracles from the dead. Anyone who does such things is an abomination to the LORD…” - Deuteronomy 18:9-12a

If you thought that was bad, now we have the ugly…

The two biggest areas where Young misses the mark are Authority and Evil.

First, authority:

“I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.” – pg. 184, Jesus talking about his relationship to humanity

This completely goes against all mainstream Christianity. Some Christians do not believe there is any salvation outside their church. As far as the Catholic Church, this is discussed in CCC 846-848. 

“They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about.” –pg. 181, Jesus talking about politics, economics, and religion

The Shack is thoroughly anti-organized religion. Some church-goers are depicted as sincere but naïve. They are good people doing good things, mislead by church authorities. Other church-goers and church authorities, however, are depicted as hypocritical, lying, and the cause of much evil and suffering in the world.


”Both evil and darkness can be understood only in relation to light and good; they do not have any actual existence.”-pg. 138, Holy Spirit discussing good and evil.

This is an Eastern and philosophical concept, not a Christian one. Evil is certainly a lack of Good, but it also has an existence of its own. It is “the opposite or absence of good.” If evil did not exist, why did Jesus have to die for us? If evil does not exist, how does one explain suffering? Why are we, as Christians, engaged in a cosmic battle with something that does not exist? See CCC 309-314

In conclusion:

The Shack is very well written. However if you are a Christian (especially a Roman Catholic) who is looking to this book for any religious teaching, you are looking at the wrong place. This book, arguably, should not call itself Christian at all. It is very entertaining. For all it's faults, I can see how this book could be enormous help some people in the grieving process. But do take it's theology with a grain of salt. It is frequently inaccurate when it comes to Christian doctrine.

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