The Shack

My friend read this book and liked it so much that he sent it to me.

I can't recommend it.

It is Christian in about the same way the Book of Mormon is Christian: it affirms that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected the third day, but the rest is mostly fiction -- vaguely related to the Bible, but missing its main point. This is important, because (again like the Book of Mormon) Shack presumes to give deep insights on what God is really like.

There are insights there, insights that many people miss from misreading or failing to read the Bible, but those insights are painted into a rather unBiblical but very popular model of Christianity which gives prominance to relationships (by which they generally mean unconditional affirmation).

There is some affirmation and relationship theology in the Bible -- about 37% of the verses that address that topic (the other 63% is anti-affirmational), but those verses (both pro and con) constitute maybe 20% of the total. So relationship theology gets less than 8% of the ink in the Bible [you can see my accounting in God of Truth]. There is far more attention in the Bible given to the First and Second Great Commandments.

If you are a Feeler or a Feeler-wannabe (most American church members), you will like this book, but you should read the Bible instead. It's better for you. If you are a Thinker like me, you just plain won't like the mush. I think the author explains the problem well when he has God say:

The problem is that many folks try to grasp some sense of who I am by taking the best version of themselves, projecting that to the nth degree, factoring in all the goodness they can perceive, which often isn't much, and then calling that God. (p.98)
That is exactly what Willie Young and his co-authors have done in this book. It's just as foolish when Young does it as when the people he criticizes do it.

There are numerous problems with the metaphor, God-in-the-shack. Here is a sampling:

God in this story likes to cook. So each member of the Trinity is preparing some part of the evening dinner. Jesus mixed up something, but dropped the bowl on the way to the table. During the meal, Papa (the feminized Father) responds to our hero's request for some rice:

"Sure. We were going to have this incredible Japanese sauce, but greasy fingers over there," Papa nodded toward Jesus, "decided to see if it would bounce." (p.105)
This is ridicule, pure and simple. Most people I know (myself included) would wilt from shame if we were on the receiving end. Most people skilled in the social graces know not to do it to their employer or to a cop. A few people skilled in verbal self-defense might try to parry the thrust. Young has Jesus get defensive, but that was not necessary, nor should it have been. The God of the Bible only ridicules evil, never good people. At least not in the Bible. Ridicule is a form of criticism against which there is no defense, and it is reserved for those people who are unalterably hostile toward God. When Jesus was taunted here on earth (in the Bible, the real Jesus), he did not defend himself. There is no defense. Apparently the relationship/affirmation theology that Young is promoting in this book is not profound enough to protect people from ridicule.

After the meal God announces a time of devotion, which turns out to be Jesus fawning all over Papa:

Papa, I loved watching you today... (p.107)
He mercifully declines to repeat it the second night. Many people have a hard time understanding and effecting family devotions. I don't think this silly caricature helps.

There is one particularly good insight in this book:

All evil flows from independence (p.190)
But he doesn't carry this ball very far. Somehow Young can't see that the unconditional affirmation which pervades the rest of the book leads necessarily to exactly that kind of independence. Doing "whatever you want" (p.88) is by definition independent.

I'm inclined to think that if William Young's Jesus were answering the Pharisees in Matthew 22, the chapter might have come out a little different. Recall the context:

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Matt.22:36
The Papa of The Shack would answer, "Honey, you have it all wrong." Maybe Young wouldn't have Jesus say that. Jesus in the Bible had no problem telling people they had it all wrong -- just 7 verses earlier in the same chapter Jesus said that -- but the Shack would certainly have God going on to say something like, "Commandments are about rule following. We care more about relationships." Check it out: the word "relationship" is not in the Bible. The idea is arguably implicitly in a couple chapters in John's gospel and a couple more in his first epistle, but mostly missing from the teaching of Jesus. Why is that, if it's such a central theme? Did God misunderstand His own most important theme when He inspired the Bible? I don't think so.

In another context, I offered the opinion that religion makes a lousy novel. Shack is living proof of that. The authors (William Young "with Wayne Jascobsen and Brad Cummings", which is the usual way to credit ghostwriters) chose to self-publish, probably because the bulk of this book is one long sermon after another, "God" telling the hero Mack what God is really like. On the publisher's website they admit that no conventional publisher would take it. There is a reason for that. The other publishers knew what they were doing.

So I repeat, don't bother reading this book.

Tom Pittman
rev. 2008 September 15