Reformed Baptist Fellowship

The Faulty Foundations of The Shack – Part 1

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on August 11, 2008 at 11:11 am

If you haven’t heard of The Shack, you will.  Its author, William Young, is getting a lot of exposure in Christian media as sales of The Shack skyrocket.  There is even talk of a forthcoming movie.  When “Christian” juggernauts sweep through our culture, I am compelled to ask, “What brand of ‘Christianity’ is getting all this attention?”  Does Young express biblical Christianity in The Shack?  What should be my response to those who either read this book or see the expected movie?  So, to make up for not having read Left Behind nor seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, I read The Shack. I’ll try not to reveal too much of the story for those of you who might yet read the book.

I first read about The Shack in the June 28 — July 5, 2008, WORLD magazine.  I’ve since watched Young give several TV interviews: on The 700 Club at www.cbn.com/700club/guests/bios/Paul_Young_030708.aspx ; on Atlanta Alive at www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsOeILVa3wQ ;and I especially recommend his most candid interview with James Robison at http://www.lifetoday.org/ (see the archives for July 14 & 15, 2008).  These interviews divulge a lot about Young that the reader would otherwise not know.  William Young is in his midfifties.  He is the son of Christian Missionary Alliance missionaries.  He went to Bible School and Seminary and then went into the Christian ministry.  His religious activity, sadly, proved to be a mask that his wife removed in 1994 when she discovered that Young was having an affair with her best friend.  With the help of a therapist, he spent the next decade rebuilding his marriage and his faith.  The Shack is a condensation of the lessons Young learned during that time.  He wrote it for his six kids to give them perspective on all that they no doubt witnessed growing up in the Young household.  The Shack is a metaphor for the place where we “get stuck” in life, where we “hide our failures and our shame.”  Young’s “shack” was his failure to live up to the rules of his “legalistic religion” and the shame of his marital infidelity.  The Shack is about how Young came to reject his pharisaic upbringing, to resolve his shame, and to restore his relationships with his wife and his God.  Young expresses a desire to tell his readers that God is good.  In his TV interviews, Young says that his message is simple: “God is good and He is involved.”  Evangelicals are applauding this message which is resonating with readers as evidenced by soaring sales and glowing testimonials.

Whenever professing Christians get the public spotlight as writers, entertainers, politicians, or preachers, I find myself asking: “Are they true Christians?  Do they clearly express the gospel of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone?”  So, does Young clearly articulate the gospel in The Shack?  Sadly, he does not.  Nevertheless, I want to put the best possible construction that I can on his novel.  Of the many scenes in which Young discusses doctrines related to the gospel, there is one scene where he uses explicit gospel terms, although even then with a characteristic lack of clarity.  Components of the gospel can be deciphered in the climactic scene where God compels Mack, the protagonist, to forgive the story’s central criminal (Young 224-228).  In this scene, Mack discusses forgiveness with “Papa” (the character depicting God the Father).  Readers who already know the gospel will recognize a reference to the work of Christ as having solved the sin problem: “because of Jesus, there is now no law demanding that I bring your sins back to mind,” says “Papa.”  A clear presentation of the atoning work of Christ, His resurrection, and the essential issues of justification by faith is not given.  The theological terms “law,” “sin,” “confess,” “repent,” “forgive,” and “redeem” are uncharacteristically employed in this scene.  Such precise terms have been conspicuously absent in previous scenes.  If you’re looking for the gospel, you can decipher its faint outline submerged beneath this dialogue.  The presentation is not clear, but you can graciously give Young the benefit of the doubt, and determine that what is lurking beneath it all is the biblical gospel.  So, there it is – kinda: the gospel.  I think.  As I proceed, I will accept Young as my brother in Christ, but his characteristic lack of doctrinal clarity and his emphasis on certain errors are troublesome.  Because of these weaknesses, I fear that The Shack will do more harm than good.

So what good does The Shack do?  First, The Shack rightly identifies the Triune Godhead as the source of love.  Second, Young repeatedly appeals to us to have a vital, loving relationship with God, and not to settle for a religion consisting of perfunctory engagements in external legalisms.  Third, Young also wrestles with theodicy: defending God’s goodness in the face of sin and suffering.  He wants the reader to know that “God is good and He is involved.”  He presents God as being in control and working all things for good.  Fourth, I am impacted by the way The Shack is affecting readers.  The Shack‘s success is due, in large measure, to Young’s emphasis on God’s compassionate goodness and love.  Seeing the public’s reaction to Young has caused me to wonder whether I, as a son of the Most High, sufficiently emphasize my Father’s kindness and mercy to ungrateful and evil men (Luke 6:35,36).  I fear that I too often come across as a son of thunder, ready to call down the fire of judgment, forgetting that the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them (Luke 9:53).

So now that you know that I’m eager to recognize the grace of God in Young (Acts 11:23) and receptive to the good that I can derive from The Shack, you’ll perhaps hear my critique in the spirit in which I give it.  There are real and serious problems with the theology propounded in The Shack.  I hope that I can speak to these deficiencies as Priscilla and Aquilla spoke to Apollos in the hope that Young  might mature in the way of God more accurately (Acts 18:26).  Young is perhaps just that: young – a younger brother in Christ who has genuinely experienced real restoration and discovered the kindness of God in a very powerful, life-transforming way.  However, his experience of God is held within the context of doctrinal deficiency and some of what he espouses is actually dangerous.  Young has obtained some very poignant and penetrating insights into God’s love but has expressed them in some jarring (can I say juvenile?) ways.  His depictions of the interactions of the Persons of the Godhead, for example, are sometimes silly and even verge on the sacrilegious.  This is childish.  In his TV interviews, Young says he wants to be a child and to enjoy the childhood he never had.  He would also likely remind us that we are to be like children to come to Christ.  True.  But too many biblical injunctions urge us to mature in doctrinal and experiential knowledge of Christ to justify remaining culpably immature like children, tossed about by every wind and wave of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14).  That is what I fear for the readers of The Shack: that many immature, doctrinally untaught and undiscerning readers will be blown out to doctrinal sea by the emotive power of Young’s book.  I want to validate what appears to be Young’s genuine personal  transformation by God’s grace, but I fear that The Shack will produce yet more doctrinally confused professing Christians who are trusting in a defective gospel.  I hope this critique will alert you not to become one of them.

Alan Dunn, Pastor
Grace Covenant Baptist Church
Flemington, NJ
  1. […] to be the beginning of a review, but reads like a short review in its own right, Alan Dunn provides an irenic but penetrating perspective on The Shack by William Young.  It does look like there is more to come, and I imagine that you will […]

  2. Pastor Dunn,

    Thank you for reviewing this book! I have run across even seminary students who have read this, so it shows how popular this book is becoming.

    I was also thankful that you said this: “Seeing the public’s reaction to Young has caused me to wonder whether I, as a son of the Most High, sufficiently emphasize my Father’s kindness and mercy to ungrateful and evil men (Luke 6:35,36). I fear that I too often come across as a son of thunder, ready to call down the fire of judgment, forgetting that the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them (Luke 9:53).”

    AMEN! This has been on my heart and mind lately as well. And last night, my brother Rick Kelley preached on how Jesus dealt with the Samaritan woman in John 4, a sermon that was really thought-provoking: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=810081928301

  3. As someone who has read this book and loved it, I think what is most important is to stress that the book is fiction. However, with that being said, there were many times in reading the story that I could so clearly see the God that I have a relationship with. I’ve known so many Christians who have a condemning attitude and want to tell people that for specific sins they are going to hell and that has never been what I thought God wanted from us. Young’s portrayal of a loving God, who loves all his children, flaws and all, I found to be so touching and so true to my beliefs. The book also gave me a way to think of and to try to understand the Trinity, which is a confusing concept. Again, while what Young presents is fiction, it still gave me things to think about.

    No Christian should ever take a work of fiction and try to live their lives by it, but The Shack did make me long for an even closer relationship with my Lord and Savior.

  4. I like the book as well… I am almost done. A few sections don’t ring true though. In the part where Jesus says, “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslim… 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…” After that explanation, Mack asks, “Does that mean… that all roads will lead to you?” Then Jesus says “no”, but doesn’t explain himself. He conveniently has to get some things finished up in his shop. That is a huge cop out to me. Those are HUGE questions, and I don’t think Young addressed them well. That is the question everyone wants to know, and the question that causes wars… and Jesus was a little too busy to answer. Hmmmm. Maybe it will be explained later on in the book. Like I said, I’m only on page 220. Great fiction though. Jane Nicklas

  5. Thank you for speaking the Truth. This may be a dividing line between the Body of Christ and the rising apostate church.

  6. Pastor Dunn, a well written review of The Shack” but you are too generous. Young’s depictions of the interactions of the Persons of the Godhead do not just “verge on the sacrilegious” they are outright blasphemous and insulting mockery of the Living God. In one scene Young has his false “Jesus” accidently drop a bowl of food on his false Papa/Mama god. As “Jesus” sheepishly cleans up the mess, he is rudely addressed as “old greasy fingers” by “Papa” and is called “clumsy” by the false UN-holy spirit godess. Young tries to cover all this over with a giggly playfulness but in several scenes like this and the one where “jesus” repeatedly fails to catch a fish, Young appears to have absolutely no reverant fear of God and I fail to see how anyone who claims a loving relationship with Jesus could treat Him in such a way. Satan’s goal is to drag Jesus down from His glory. The Holy Spirit’s desire is to exalt Him. It is clear whose agenda Young is aligned with.

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