NOTE: The following review is for the book only: I have not seen the movie, and so I don't know what the producers may have changed from the content of the book.
The Internet exploded again a couple of weeks ago with the release of the movie version of The Shack, written by William Paul Young, the son of Canadian parents who were missionaries to New Guinea. It is the story of Mack, a man hardened by tragedy: in his youth, he was abused by a hypocritical father who was a deacon on Sundays and an angry drunk the rest of the week; as an adult, he endured the unimaginable heartbreak of his youngest daughter, Missy, being abducted and murdered by a serial killer. One day, a few years after his daughter's death, Mack receives an unlikely message in the mail, presumably from God, to visit Him at the shack where his daughter was killed. There he meets 'God', and his healing begins.
The phenomenon, if nothing else, has provided a perfect barometer measuring where every person lays within the Christian Church, which is in a state of civil war—whether we realize it or not. On one side, there are those who value truth, structure, and holiness; on the other are those who pursue experiences, acceptance, and relationship. For two weeks, verbal grenades have been lobbed across both sides, as has been increasingly typical over just about any subject these days: the holiness crowd is claiming that William Paul Young is a universalist heretic while the 'love trumps all' group is declaring that this is the best book ever (some are saying it's better than the Bible), and that anyone who has a problem with it is oppressed by a demon of religion or a critical spirit.
Before I commented on it myself, I wanted to read it thoroughly. Doing so would move my commentary beyond our normal attention span these days (it's no longer a news story), but it was worth it to get a clear, unfiltered perspective. One thing is true: as a story, The Shack is an absolutely riveting read—I wish I were half that creative as an author (I'd certainly sell a lot more of my own material)! I actually found that I liked parts of the book more than I originally thought I might; where the story bogs down is when the author tries to theologically explain everything Mack is experiencing—which is funny, given that so many people were saying he was not being theological—half the entire book is a theological treatise on the nature of God and His interaction with us! (Could this be a lesson for me in my own writings?)
The true controversy—for me, at least—is that for all his theological musings and metaphysical machinery employed to try and make his views sensible, William delivered only one half of the Gospel. Yes, what matters is our experiential love relationship with God—and He does love us beyond what we can ever imagine, and this love is brought out masterfully in the book. But that relationship is predicated on the truth and the holiness of who God is and what He wants from us according to God's own definition found in His Word. It is God's own story, not ours. I didn't define Him; He defined Himself in the pages of the Bible and in the person of Jesus Christ—and when we get away from that, we misrepresent Him, taking His name in vain. Now to be clear, I certainly don't believe that Mr. Young is a New Age globalist secretly attempting to deceive us all into taking the mark of the beast. I genuinely believe his heart is sincerely bent toward reaching people for Jesus Christ; I just believe he is genuinely wrong about who God is compared to how He defines Himself in the Scriptures. In our culture, people have come to regard art and opinion as the very definition of reality; and so I am concerned that people will take this book and place it above the Bible (some already have). When someone is looking for God in The Shack, they come across a very different paradigm than what they would find meeting Him face to face.
So what are the specific things I found that led me to this conclusion?
The first real problem that I found with The Shack is that, despite the author's specific statements to the contrary, he represents God in a completely tritheistic way. This god is not the God of the Bible—Mack is interacting with three separate individuals: Elousia1, Jesus, and Sarayu2. In William Young's defense, the language of the Christian Church with regard to the Trinity lends itself to this kind of thinking; but it's a non-biblical concept nonetheless. He then tries to cement the concept with a lot of metaphysical gobbledygook about unity. I will for the moment ignore that William represented two of the Trinity's persons as female, because I would otherwise spend the rest of my article on this subject alone. While the Bible is clear that man, both male and female, are created in the image of God, and therefore God has both male and female qualities, I will remind the reader that for the 4,100 years of history during which the Bible was written, God only defined Himself as male, and the only bodily manifestation He has ever had was that of a Jewish man named Yeshua from Nazareth. And don't tell me it's because of some ancient patriarchal bias against women: every one of the societies surrounding Israel at the time—who treated women far worse by our standards than the Israelites did, I might add—had goddesses as part of their pantheon. Only Israel's God defined Himself as male. So suddenly, now, God needs to define Himself as female? This is William's opinion—Elousia said that God represented Himself as male during that time because the world needed a father more then. I think we need fathers even more than ever now! A genderless God may be politically correct—but it is not how God defines Himself.
Another hangup is the idea that there is no hierarchy in the Trinity. We need to be clear about this: from the standpoint of equality, authority, substance, etc., this is true. However, the author depicts the unity between the members of the Godhead as a 'circle of relationship' instead of a chain of command. (pp. 122-123) Throughout the Bible, though, it is clear that EVERYTHING God does originates with the Father and is accomplished through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Always. So while this does not indicate 'rank', there is a hierarchy—a linear order to the roles that they have chosen. An interesting observation that I made in my own book is that we as humans are created as one being with three basic parts—a soul, a body, and a spirit; and that we are in the image of God. Everything we do originates in our soul and is accomplished by our body through the energy of life from our spirit. In my view, this is a composite picture of what the Trinity looks like and how God acts in the world.
The problem is not hierarchy itself; it is what man does with hierarchy. If hierarchy is completely bad, which Mr. Young asserts, does that not also mean that God's higher position from us is evil as well? Amazingly, as we'll see in a moment, William believes it means exactly that. I don't think he thought that one through…
A further related point of contention is an all too common misrepresentation of the nature of Jesus brought on by the adoption of dyophysitism at Chalcedon. Dyophysitism is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is both human and God, but as completely separate experiences; the outcome of which is that Jesus is painted as having done nothing as deity while in human form—and in The Shack, Jesus has limited Himself to only His experience of humanity in our current state forever.
I agree that in many ways, God has chosen to limit Himself for the sake of agape love (i.e. He chooses to work with us inside our experience of time because He created us to live within that context, and He allows us true choice within His predestination); but the nature of Jesus is such that his deity and his humanity are both fully expressed from the moment of His Incarnation through eternity (the ancient Oriental Orthodox concept of miaphysitism). Jesus is fully God and fully man at the same time in the same way that God is the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit at the same time. So conversely, God does not choose to be the Father or the Son or the Spirit; neither does Jesus choose to be human or divine. God is all these, and Jesus is both human and divine simultaneously.
There will forever be a mystery to the complex unity of God that we cannot comprehend with mental gymnastics. We may never understand how this works; but the definitions that God gives for Himself are fairly clear:
- God is echad.3 This a complex but indivisible unity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Not three individual people, but one God whose three sentient and distinct parts do not exist apart from one another.
- Everything God does flows from the Father through the Son by the Spirit.
- The Son was incarnated for us men and our salvation using the DNA of the line of King David according to God's decree in the Tanakh, and was placed in the womb of Miriam (Mary), a young Jewish virgin, as the Jewish Messiah—our perfect sacrifice for sin and our Eternal High Priest—and so His deity and His humanity became united forever.
Where was I? Oh, yes—sin, holiness, obedience, and the Law of Moses. William Young's loathing of hierarchy naturally predisposes him to a negative bent on these topics. The author's perspective produces a logical trail taking us to a destination far away from God's intent, and this conclusion is exponentially more dangerous than his characterization of the Trinity. From the moment Mack leaves 'Papa' to meet Sarayu in the garden, things take a downward spiral.
On pp.134-138, Sarayu has a discourse with Mack about good and evil. She rightly acknowledges the perils of moral relativism and correctly identifies the self as the errant center of our moral sliding scale; furthermore, she agrees that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a real event and the place where mankind was separated from God. But then, instead of declaring the reason of man's corruption as being his disobedience to God's instruction, she says the real tragedy was that the …spiritual was…torn…from the …physical…? Yeah, I don't get how that relates, either. This difficult explanation is very quickly abandoned with a discussion on what must be done about this; Sarayu simply says we have to "know God enough to trust 'God' (not sure if He's a he, a she, or an it at this point) and learn to rest in God's inherent goodness—which, rather than being defined by the Law of Moses and the person of Jesus Christ according to the Bible, was instead represented by the loosey-goosey values of love and light. Even where these concepts are valid in the Scriptures, they have to be to be further defined—they CANNOT be understood outside of God's definition of righteousness in His Word. Nowhere in this discussion was mentioned the necessity of sacrifice—and certainly not priesthood, because the author believes that hierarchy and therefore law are evil results of our 'seeking independence'; the logical trap of his error refuses to allow him to mention the word obedience in any positive fashion. Sarayu says that we define good and evil, not God. There is only relationship, no rules, no 'performance' we must make.
In fact, we apparently should not bother emulating Jesus. When Mack next has a conversation with Jesus in Chapter 10, Jesus instructs Mack about the concept of asking, 'What Would Jesus Do?':
Good intentions, bad idea. Let me know how it works out for you, if that's the way you choose to go…Seriously, my life was not meant to be an example to copy. Being my follower is not trying to 'be like Jesus', it means for your independence to be killed. I came to give you life, real life, my life. We will come and live our life inside of you, so that you begin to see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, and touch with our hands, and think like we do. But we will never force that union on you. If you want to do your thing, have at it. Time is on our side."
Now I understand what William is getting at here in terms of abandoning self-worship to allow God to live His life in us—but 'being like Christ' is exactly that—so I am not following the logic here. Whatever happened to Philippians 2:3-13?
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.Or Ephesians 5:1-2:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.Or 1 Corinthians 11:1:
And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.
At best, this discourse is a very poor way to explain what God's desire is for us here; but it is not surprising, since expectations for our obedience are taboo in the author's worldview.
In the next chapter, Mack is confronted by the personification of Wisdom4, a beautiful Hispanic woman who essentially puts Mack on trial for the inner judgmental thoughts he has about everyone else, forcing him to admit he is not fit to judge anyone. This sets up Mack to forgive everyone, and to ask forgiveness for his own sins. Overall, this is not a bad sequence in the book. However, the Bible declares that there is only "one Lawgiver and Judge", and that is God Himself, not Wisdom; again, our author would never be able to place God Himself in this role, because he is committed to the idea that God requires no obedience, and therefore does not judge anyone.
Sin and hell are concepts that are dealt with here; William surprisingly has good insight into the concept that sin is declaring independence from God (self-worship); and hell is simply be the consequence of one's own choice to remain in that independence as a self-worshiper. But the author does us an injustice here; the Bible is clear that God decrees a time where grace and the rescue from self-worship will end. At the Great White Throne Judgment—the fulfillment of the Jewish Levitical 'appointed time' called Yom Kippur—every person ever created from Adam and Eve to the last human being to be born will be bodily resurrected to stand in judgment for their deeds—whether they are Christian or not. (Rev. 20:11-13) ALL will be found guilty, for we "all have sinned, and have fallen short of the glory of God." (Rom. 3:23) THEN, another book is opened—the Lamb's Book of Life. The sentences of those whose names are found within are commuted to Jesus' punishment that He endured on our behalf. All those who are not found in the Book of Life are cast into the lake of fire, their self-worship continuously and eternally consuming them as flames that are never quenched and like worms that never die. (Rev. 20:14-15, Mark 9:47-48) In The Shack, Wisdom says that "judgment isn't about destruction, but about setting things right." The Bible says it differently: the Greek of John 3:16 ends with, "…that they may not be [violently] destroyed, but have life forever." The destruction of evil is required—it is demanded—in order to set things right. That's why Jesus had to die in the first place: if any of God's creation was to survive the destruction that God must pour out on all evil, a ransom had to take place!
With this notion, we come to the source of the problem, the controversy over which has been raging since the Apostle Paul preached the Gospel to the Gentiles. Starting on p. 201 and going to p. 208, Mack is back eating with the three deities, and asks the question, "What do You expect of me now?" This prompts a shocked silence from the group, as expectations of obedience are the cardinal sin in our author's world. Sarayu senses another teachable moment here and says,
"…Humans have a tendency to restructure language according to their independence and need to perform. So when I hear language abused in favor of rules over sharing life with us, it is difficult for me to remain silent. […] why do you think we came up with the Ten Commandments?" Mack responds, "I suppose, at least I have been taught, but it's a set of rules that you expected humans to obey order to live righteously in your good graces." Sarayu countered, "if that were true, which it is not, then how many do you think live righteously enough to enter our good graces?"Of course, the true answer to the obviously rhetorical question is, "no one except Jesus." Sarayu goes on to provide an answer that I myself even teach in my own book—but she's only half right in the telling:
"Actually, we wanted you to give up trying to be righteous on your own. It was a mirror to reveal just how filthy your face gets when you live independently." [Mack says,] "but as I'm sure you know there are many who think they are made righteous by following the rules." [Sarayau's reply] "But can you clean your face with the same mirror that shows how dirty you are? There is no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake. That's why Jesus fulfilled all of that for you—so that it no longer has jurisdiction over you. And the Law that once contained impossible demands —Thou shall not… —actually becomes a promise we fulfill in you."This is 95% right so far; but the conversation yet to continue is the most dangerous and deceptive idea that has ever been allowed to creep into the Christian credosphere. And it is not new; this idea stems from a misrepresentation of the Apostle Paul's writings and has been going on from the moment he wrote them. (Those of you who know me know exactly where I'm headed with this…)
"But keep in mind that if you live your life alone and independently, the promise is empty. Jesus laid the demand of the law to rest; it no longer has any power to accuse or command. Jesus is both the promise and the fulfillment." [Mack's reply] "Are you saying I don't have to follow the rules?" "Yes. In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful." "You can't be serious! You're messing with me again," moaned Mack. "Child," interrupted Papa, "you ain't heard nuthin' yet."
"MacKenzie," Sarayu continued, "those who are afraid of freedom are those who cannot trust us to live in them. Trying to keep the law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control." "Is that why we like the law so much – to give us some control?" asked Mack.
"It is much worse than that," resumed Sarayu. "It grants you the power to judge others and feel superior to them. You believe you are living to a higher standard than those you judge. Enforcing this, especially in its more subtle expressions like responsibility and expectation, is a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty. And contrary to what you might think, I have a great fondness for uncertainty. Rules cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse."
"Whoa!" Mac suddenly realized what Sarayu had said. "Are you telling me that responsibility and expectation are just another form of rules we are no longer under? Did I hear you right?" "Yup," Papa interjected again.
There is a whole basket of half-truths, false accusations, and mischaracterizations of motive in here; and the conflict over this paradigm marks the greatest divide of the Christian Church today. Our author is half right in stating that the Law was originally given as a mirror; but the Law is also God's definition and the eternal standard of His own righteousness—again, none of us defined this for God—He defined these things for Himself in His Word. Over and over again in the Scriptures—both 'Old' Testament and 'New'—we are told that we are expected to be holy as He is holy.
Leviticus 20:26 [after a list of specific things revealed as sin] You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.
Eccl. 12:13 Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.
Micah 6:8 He has shown you, O Man, what is good and what the LORD requires of you: to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Romans 8:12-13 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
1 Peter 1:15-16 …just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do, for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
I'm already on my way to writing a book with this post (which was not my intention), but let me unpack this basket by presenting some Biblical truths that may be news to many people:
- Just because the law serves as a mirror to reveal our sinfulness to ourselves in order to drive us to God does not mean that God never meant for us to obey the law. The Scriptures teach us that the Holy Spirit moves us to obey the Law through the process of sanctification, which is a partnership: God has provided us with His standard of holiness in the Law of Moses and the person of Jesus Christ; when we encounter a situation where there is conflict, we say, “Yes, LORD”, and that self-worship nature—that rebellious spirit against God, which our author is calling ‘independence’, dies just a little bit more. That promise and fulfillment can't happen outside of God's standards and His expectations of us. This is why the Law is still needed.
- God's righteous standards by which He has defined himself have not changed—and will never change—from eternity past to eternity future. When Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law, he was talking about the requirements for sacrifice, penalty, and priesthood. Hebrews 7 tells us that when the priest is changed the law had to be changed also; this was not an elimination of the whole Law, but of the priesthood, as he himself is the perfect eternal sacrifice and eternal High Priest.
- The words of the Apostle Paul in the New Covenant Scriptures stating that we are no longer under the Law are specifically directed toward a widespread 1st-century error where He was countering teaching that demanded full proselyte conversion of Gentiles to a Pharisaic order in order for them to be saved. Read my article on this issue in order to gain more understanding.
- The automatic assumption of our author's worldview is that a person attempting to obey the Law is looking to obtain salvation by the Law, or that they are using the Law as a bludgeon to make themselves look better than other people. This is not necessarily the case. If a person is a self-worshiper, then yes—they will attempt to use the Law as a method of self-justification; and this is what Jesus reacted so strongly to with the Pharisees who opposed Him. But a God-worshiper will allow the Law to do its job—to drive us to God not only for forgiveness when we blow it, but for the strength to do what He asks us to do. And He always asks us to do what is impossible for us.
- Truth and love are not opposites. Insisting on the truth of God's Word does not mean that one is opposed to God's love. What does 1 Corinthians 13 say about the relationship between the truth and love? "Love rejoices with the truth..." Love doesn't ignore the truth for the sake of acceptance, convenience, or compromise.
- Yes, there can be personal and even subjective elements of our relationship with God; indeed, if a personal dimension is missing from one's relationship with God, this is a sign that something is wrong. However, our relationship with God can only be founded on the bedrock of definition he gave himself—a relationship only based on His terms, which are the same for everyone, universally expressed in the Bible.
The answer to our longing is not to create a god who is a genderless, multicultural buddy who eliminates every moral goalpost when we miss a kick. No god outside of YHVH, the God of the Bible, is suitable for us to have a relationship with, no matter how warm, loving, and accepting that god of our making might be.
Recently, a student asked a question to Ravi Zacharias (a Christian apologist and speaker with perhaps the most genius of any Christian thinker in our day),
Do you think it's a fundamental necessity for one to call oneself a Christian, or to subscribe to any other religion if they do live a life that Jesus proposed—if one lives with love; if one lives personally ego-less and loves God and loves their neighbor, must one have to call themselves a Christian or ascribe to the dogmatic Christian "proper" beliefs in order to live such a good life?" Ravi replied, "[...] There is a sequence in the Christian faith that is very unique; the sequence is this: redemption, righteousness, and worship. It's not just logical, it's chronological. You cannot alter that sequence. In other words, righteousness is never talked about until one is first redeemed; and worship is never enjoined until one is redeemed and righteous—for who shall ascend to the hill of the LORD but he who has clean hands and a pure heart? (Psalm 24:3-34) [...] So I say to you, your desire to lead a good life, to love, to be benevolent, and all of that is wonderful; but the source of that is in the person of God Himself who gives you that absolute; and it always starts by forgiveness—and that's what leads to redemption, then to righteousness, and then to worship That's the chronological sequence and the logical sequence of the answers of Christ."
I would change this slightly, based on my understanding of worship, which is that worship is our response (composed of faith and obedience) to the recognition of our position with relationship to God motivated by His love for us. So when we see God's love for us, we respond in worship by accepting His great sacrifice on our behalf, which produces our redemption; our continued desire for relationship with Him motivates us to enter a partnership with Him that produces righteousness in us. The point is, there is a sequence—redemption leads to righteousness, and true God-worship is the driving factor for both.
Redemption does not eliminate righteousness—it upholds it and produces it in us. Rather than removing the moral goalpost, God works with us, strengthening our kick and increasing our aim—and loving us in the process. I am fond of saying that God does love us no matter who we are, and no matter what we've done; but He also loves you too much to leave you there.
This matters because rightoeusness is who God is; it is the very fabric of His character. If we are unconcerned with righteousness, we can have no fellowship with God who is righteousness. This is what the Apostle John was getting at in His first general epistle:
We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. —1 John 2:3-6
Jesus paid the penalty for our breaking of God's Law; He did not destroy the Law with His death. Furthermore, even though the penalty is satisfied in Jesus' death, this does not mean God no longer cares about His Law. Even Paul says in Romans 6, "should we go on sinning that grace may abound? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" And the writer of Hebrews tells us, "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God." (Hebrews 10:26-27) That's scary—but it describes the attitude of the theology contained in The Shack. If we believe that somehow God erased His expectations of us defined in His law, this leads to relativism (the belief that morality is relative to circumstance), which then leads to universalism (that all moral paths are equally valid). While I don't believe William Paul Young is a universalist, his beliefs are taking him—and his readers—down that path. Far from being hateful toward those that subscribe to this paradigm; it breaks my heart to see someone deceived into believing that God is ok with an unrepentant heart—I don't want to see anyone stand before God thinking that He was unconcerned about their sin. Our attitude needs to be one of reverence for God's holiness and worship of who He is.
I'm not going to sway anyone from reading this book, watching this movie, or accepting every teaching within its pages as a good representation of the Gospel. It is, after all, a fictional book. And again, my concern has nothing to do with how the author shows that God loves us, and how He meets us right at the source of our need; if I had been creative enough to come up with the plot for this story, but used good theology about God and His holiness instead, the story would have come out not much differently (Jesus would have been the one to meet Mack face-to-face, and there would have been discussion about how holiness, sacrifice, obedience and forgiveness interact). But I have written this commentary to provide you with some answers when someone says, "Oh, hey—have you read The Shack? It revolutionized my life and the way I think about God!" I pray that far from lobbing grenades, we'll have the opportunity to discuss the subject matter honestly according to God's Word.
1Taken from El, the generic Hebrew word for deity, and ousia, the Greek word for 'essence' or 'substance'. So Elousia would be a slapped-together hybrid term for 'God-substance'.
2Sarayu is a Hindi word meaning 'wind' or 'holy river'. It is also another name for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity. She is the wife and energy of Vishnu, a main Hindu deity.
3The cardinal number 1 in Hebrew; though as in English, the word is often used to describe a collective, like one bunch of grapes, the choir sang with one voice, etc. It is in contrast to yachid, which denotes absolute singularity.
4Wiliam wisely tiptoed around the controversy surrounding the personification of Wisdom being equivalent to the Holy Spirit; Wisdom is referred to in the feminine, but says she was 'among the first of God's created works'—which, if taken literally, would exclude her from the Godhead, given that God is not created; the Holy Spirit was already present at creation. Unlike her portrayal in The Shack, however, she is not the Judge—only God holds that right.