THE SHACK: The Book and the Movie
by Bob Wheeler
The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity
Wm. Paul Young
Windblown Media, 2007
248 pp., pb.
Currently there is playing in movie theaters around the country the motion picture version of The Shack, a novel by Wm. Paul Young. The book is largely a treatise on theology set in the form of a novel. It has stirred controversy largely because the theology is unorthodox, to say the least.
The central figure in the book is Mackenzie Allen Phillips, or “Mack” as he is more generally known. Mack experiences an unbearable tragedy when his youngest daughter Missy is murdered by a serial killer while on a camping trip. Mack is overcome with grief and bitterness, until one day he receives a mysterious note in the mail inviting him to return to the shack in the woods near the place where Missy disappeared. There he has an encounter with God, although not in the sense in which we would normally think of it. And this is where the theological problems begin.
What Mack encounters in the shack are the members of the Trinity. But God the Father is presented as an African American woman, generally referred to in the book as “Papa,” while the Holy Spirit is represented as a woman of Asian descent. Jesus, however, is more accurately portrayed as a Middle Eastern male.
Strictly speaking, of course, God is neither male nor female. But the Second Commandment’s prohibition against graven images is intended to prevent just such an attempt to portrait God in human form (Dt. 4:15-19,23,24). Young, however, makes the various members of the Trinity out to be all too human – they are a bunch of chummy pals instead of an exalted Deity.
Much of what Young goes on to say in the book is a justifiable reaction against dead orthodoxy. Church membership is a poor substitute for a real relationship with Christ, and knowing theology is not the same thing as knowing God himself. But Young does not just reject dead orthodoxy; he rejects orthodoxy itself. And instead of taking a fresh look at what the Bible actually says, he pretty much ignores the Bible altogether. Young characterizes conservative theology as saying that “God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects” (pp. 65-66).
The main theme of the book is the age old question of how a good and loving God can allow evil into the universe. To answer this question Young has recourse to the idea of human free will. God is a God of love. Love does not force or coerce anyone. Evil is the result of man’s free will decisions. At one point “Papa” tells Mack, “All evil flows from independence, and independence is your choice. If I were simply to revoke all choices of independence, the world as you know it would cease to exist and love would have no meaning. This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil . . . If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love. Love that is forced is not love at all” (p. 190).
Young insists that God calls us to have a personal relationship with Himself, and of course he is quite right on that. But the basic flaw in Young’s argument is the assumption that love precludes the exercise of authority. Young has Jesus telling Mack, “Have you noticed that even though you call me Lord and King, I have never really acted in that capacity with you? . . .To force my will on you . . .is exactly what love does not do . . .” (p. 145). At another point Young has “Papa” telling Mack, “I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love. And I do love you” (p. 126). “True love never forces” (p. 190).
This, in turn, leads Young to two patently unbiblical conclusions. The first is that God has already forgiven the entire human race. At one point in the book “Papa” tells Mack that through the death and resurrection of Christ “I am now fully reconciled to the world.” Mack asks in disbelief, “The whole world? You mean those that believe in you, right?” Papa replies, “The whole world . . .I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way” (p. 192). At another point in the book Christ is pictured as saying that those who love Him come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but “I have no desire to make them Christian” (p. 182). But the apostle John, who certainly knew the historical Jesus better than Wm. Young, said that personal faith in Christ was a necessary condition of salvation. “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36; NKJV). And faith in Christ ordinarily requires that we publicly identify ourselves with Him in baptism (Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:26,27; I Pet. 3:21).
The other major problem with Young’s theology is his conclusion that in a genuine relationship with Christ there are no rules which one must obey. Young has the Holy Spirit telling Mack, “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules” (p. 197). “There is no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake. That’s why Jesus fulfilled all of it for you – so that it no longer has jurisdiction over you” (p. 202). “In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful” (p. 203). Then “Papa” adds, “Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else” (p. 206). But the real Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15; cf. vv. 21,23,24; 15:10).
A film adaption of a book, of course, will focus on action as opposed to dialogue, and as a result the film version of The Shack only briefly touches on the more controversial points of theology. The film comes across as a deeply moving story of tragedy, love and redemption. But beneath the surface are the more disturbing implications that are explicit in the book.
In the final analysis Young has left us with a universe in which there is no final justice – in the end God punishes no one and forgives everyone, regardless of what they have done. We are to forgive and not to judge because God forgives and does not judge. Evil is an unavoidable consequence of man’s free will. But the apostle Paul tells us that we are not to retaliate against those who have done us wrong precisely because God will judge. “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give placed to wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19; quoting Dt. 32:35).
Young pretty much sets aside practically everything that the Bible says about God’s transcendence, sovereignty, holiness, justice and wrath, not to mention the Last Judgment and eternal punishment. Yet our theology must be based on what the Bible actually says. While we may be able to infer certain things about God from His creation, and while we possess within ourselves a certain knowledge of right and wrong, the only way we can really know about God is through the written revelation which He has given us. He himself must tell us what He is like and what He expects from us. We have no other way of knowing about His attributes or His will, let alone the plan of salvation. Hence our theology must be based on a careful study of Scripture. Anything else is pure fantasy and self-delusion.
Yes, it is certainly true that a genuine relationship with God is a relationship of love. God loves us, and we are called upon to love Him with all our heart, soul and might. And at the practical level salvation involves the Holy Spirit living within our hearts and transforming us from the inside out. But it also remains true that in a genuine relationship with Christ He is our Lord and Master and we are His servants. And to that end the Bible is filled with commandments and exhortations to obey God.
It is easy to see why so many people find The Shack appealing. It comes across as an invitation to a warm, loving and forgiving relationship with God. But it is a siren call into the mire of false teaching, and should be avoided by anyone desiring a genuine relationship with Christ.