Reformed Baptist Fellowship

The Faulty Foundations of The Shack – Part 2

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on August 18, 2008 at 12:11 pm

Having watched William Young’s TV interviews, I find myself empathizing with his background and experience.  I desire to put the best construction on the theology of The Shack.  I hope my critique is both gracious to Young and honest with The Shack.  I am compelled to be incisive in my assessment and to sound a warning as this Christian juggernaut is presently sweeping across the publishing landscape and looming on the horizon of your own experience.  You may read The Shack.  You will likely meet someone who has read The Shack.  It appears probable that a movie about The Shack will soon be showing at a theater near you.  We must theologically critique The Shack.

Advocates of The Shack demur negative theological criticism.  Young tells WORLD that “theological criticisms are overkill: ‘it’s a work of fiction that’s really focused on the journey of a human being to deal with the junk in his life that includes his misunderstanding of the character and nature of God.'”  Wayne Jacobsen, editor and publisher, defends The Shack against negative criticisms at http://lifestream.org/blog/2008/03/04/is-the-shack-heresy/ .  We are told that we should not criticize The Shack because it is just a story.  Certainly we must remember why it was written and acknowledge some legitimacy to Young’s defense that it is a work of fiction steeped in metaphor.  But The Shack must be analyzed with discernment because, in our Postmodern age, people no longer get their theology from doctrinal confessions, but from stories.  Postmoderns are suspicious of abstract principles and propositional assertions.  They would tell us that systematic theology is passé, a relic of the Enlightenment with all its logic and institutionalized authority; with all its arrogant presumption that one can actually know the truth.  God cannot be comprehended, because He is enshrouded in mystery.  What is commendable is not doctrinal certainty, but sincere seeking in one’s quest for spirituality.  What matters is the journey.  Young presents his theology as narrative, not doctrine.  He values “relationship” over “religion.”  The Shack tells a story of healing to a generation convinced that it needs therapy more than it needs theology. The Shack suits the appetite of our Postmodern age.  Eugene Peterson says “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.  It is that good.”  Like Pilgrim’s Progress, The Shack is an allegory. Young’s theology is taught by characters who represent the Trinity as they dialogue with Mack, the protagonist.  The question is “Is Young’s theology as sound as Bunyan’s?”  The promotions, interviews, everything about The Shack says “You’ve not understood who God is and you need to learn about Him from this book!”  How can such a theological allegory not be theologically critiqued?

Tim Challies gives a most helpful critique at http://www.challies.com/archives/book-reviews/a-review-of-the-shack-download-it-here.php .  Had I space, I would insert his critique into this analysis at this juncture.  You would do well to read Challies’s article.  Be aware that he, however, gives the story away.  Along with Challies’s concerns for Young’s deficient views of Scripture, the Trinity, and the work of Christ, I want to point particularly to what Challies calls “subversion” in The Shack.  The faulty foundation of The Shack is Young’s rebellious rejection of divine authority. 

Here is my critique of the Shack’s faulty theological foundations.  First, Young misunderstands the Fall.  Second, he consequently misunderstands God.  Third, he fails to give a clear expression of justification and hence presents a deficient gospel.  Fourth, his view of the Christian life is infected with antinomianism.  Young’s theology is simply too one-sided.  He emphasizes God’s goodness but neglects, even disdains, the notion of God’s holy righteousness.  His emphasis on “relationship” over “religion” brings to mind Jesus’ words I desire compassion and not sacrifice (Mt 12:7).  But the Lord also says in Proverbs 21:3 that to do righteousness and justice is desired by the Lord rather than sacrifice.  Indeed, compassion is preferred over religious ritual, but compassion must be characterized as being righteous and just.  Without righteousness and justice, there is no compassion.  Young neglects and even obscures God’s justice as the necessary foundation of God’s compassion.  The Shack is built on faulty foundations.

First, Young misunderstands the Fall (Gen 3:1-7).  Satan’s attack upon the first couple was an enticement to doubt God’s word: Indeed, has God said?  Satan advocated unbelief by arousing suspicion of God’s character in two ways.  First, Satan enticed the couple to suspect God’s kindness and goodness with the question You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?  The implication is that God is unkind having commanded them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Second, Satan enticed the couple to suspect God’s righteousness and justice in his bold assertion You surely shall not die!  This is a verbatim denial of God’s threatened punishment for violation of His law (Gen 2:16,17).  We see that Satan slanders God’s character in two ways: God is neither good nor kind, and God is neither righteous nor just.  Young has discovered God’s goodness and he wants to defend God’s character against the first aspect of Satan’s slander.  In his TV interviews, he says that God’s behavior may appear unpredictable, but His character is certain: He is essentially good.  “God is good and He is involved.”  Young, however, fails to defend God against the second aspect of Satan’s slander: that He is unjust.  Satan denies that violators of God’s law will be punished.  Young does not merely ignore this slander, he often advocates it.  Satan says in effect, “God is not concerned with commands and laws.  God will not judge you.  You can sin and not be punished.”  In many places in The Shack, Young articulates this line of reasoning.  But God’s relationship with man clearly has a legal component at its very foundation.  Our Creator God is also our Lawgiver and Judge.  We are accountable to Him to obey His commands.  He is totally just to condemn and punish us for our rebellious disobedience to His Law.  Yet this aspect of God as being righteous and just is obscured and distorted in The Shack.  This, no doubt, is no small part of The Shack’s appeal.  Fallen men have always wanted God’s blessing while denying Him His righteous prerogative to judge.  Like fallen Adam, men fashion religious fig leaves to hide from God’s judgment.  They use religion to deflect God’s judgment, praying as in Psalm 10:13, He (the wicked) has said to himself, “Thou wilt not require it.”  These words are mouthed as a prayer in which the wicked religiously deny God His right to judge.  Such fig-leaf religion is a psychological Band-Aid therapeutically placed over a convicted conscience.  The Shack is constructed on this kind of faulty fig-leave foundation.  

Secondly, Young consequently misunderstands God.  I am compelled to ask whether Young has succumbed to Satan’s second ploy to doubt God’s righteousness and justice.  On p.120 “Papa” (God the Father) tells Mack: “I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie.  I don’t need to punish people for sin.  Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside.  It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”  These words echoes Satan’s You shall not surely die!  If God is denied His authority to issue commands and to punish disobedience, then He appears to be a God other than the One revealed in Scripture.  To say that God does not punish but only cures sin, is to misrepresent God’s righteous response to sin and to misunderstand the utter sinfulness of sin (Romans 7:13).  Young’s god is The Great Therapist, not The Judge of all the earth who does right (Genesis 18:25).  To misrepresent God is to violate the second commandment.  I have a serious concern that the God presented in The Shack is a false image made by Young.  Young’s “Papa” is not about law or punishment.  He is all about love and relationship.  But Young fails to make it clear that the perpetually promoted “relationship” that “Papa” seeks with men is a reconciliation that has a forensic foundation.  For fallen sinners to have “relationship” with God, God must resolve our legal condemnation and guilt.  Young suggests that we can “return to relationship” with God but shows little concern for our sin, God’s violated law, or our exposure to His righteous wrath.  Young glosses over these legal concerns of God’s courtroom and thus builds his “shack” on yet another faulty foundation.

We’ll look at the third and fourth faulty foundations in the next article.

Alan Dunn, Pastor
Grace Covenant Baptist Church
Flemington, NJ
  1. I appreciated your review of “The Shack”. I must admit that I did chuckle at the quote of Eugene Peterson comparing “The Shack” to Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”. While they are both allegories, there are some critical distinctions which I think flow from the point of your review – “The Shack” uses allegory to tell the author’s personal story revealing his own weak doctrinal commitments. On the contrary, Bunyan used allegory and his personal story to reveal sound doctrinal gospel truth. It would seem that the only true comparison of these two books is by mens of contrast not likeness.

  2. […] 18 August 2008 by Jeremy Walker Alan Dunn provides part two of three in his critical review of The […]

  3. Even Paul Young can’t defend his poor theology, as he reveals in the latest radio interview
    http://carmpodcasting.blogspot.com/2008/07/matt-interviews-author-of-shack.html

  4. Pastor Dunn,

    This is totally off topic, but are you familiar with Frank Viola and his book Pagan Christianity? He basically asserts that modern church practices like the preaching of sermons, the church building, a professional pastorate, etc. are taken from pagan culture and not the NT. He asserts that while there are elders among local churches, a church gathering should be an open forum for every-member participation (much like what is described in 1 Cor. 12-14). Any thoughts?

    Thanks!

  5. Unique review. I wrote a lengthy review on “The Shack” addressing the controversies.

    http://tinyurl.com/56garc

    Bottom line- If the focus of your faith is a relationship with God The Shack will be wonderful. If your focus is on legalism, then The Shack will disappoint.

    I like the over all theme that takes God out of the box–Don’t worry about yesterday or fret over tomorrow. Enjoy God now. He has it all in control. Surrender and walk in joy.

  6. Dear G.C. Berkley,
    I have not read “Pagan Christianity.” Since you asked me about it, I looked it up on Amazon.com and read through several of the comments to get the gist of what the book is about. It appears to call for the rejection of what we would recognize as “traditional” church-life. I found it interesting that those who read Viola’s books also recommended “The Shack” and other books by Wayne Jacobsen (The Shack’s editor and publisher), who evidently advocates a dismantling of traditional approaches to being the church as well.
    Certainly we must always be open to constructive criticism and ready to reform when we discover that our practices do not conform to Scripture. I understand that Viola bases a lot of his arguments on church history. We can learn a lot from church history, but history is not normative, Scripture is. As to the things you’ve mentioned: I can justify the preaching of sermons from Scripture. I can justify the practical use of a building that is designated as a place of worship in Scripture. That such buildings were initially private homes does not negate that fact that the building served as a meeting place for the gathered church. To say that a congregation must have a building in order to be a church is unbiblical, but to say that it is unbiblical for a congregation to own a building for its meeting place is unbiblical. I’m aware of the house church movement and I can imagine that certain deficiencies of traditional church life could be addressed in such small intimate gatherings. I understand that many are attracted to the house church movement so as to free up funds for benevolence and missions. Fellowship and financial stewardship are matters of legitimate concern. However, getting rid of the church building may not be the only legitimate response to those concerns. I can biblically justify a “professional pastorate” if by that you mean remunerating pastors for their labors. As to the “every-member participation” of 1 Cor 14, I rather see Paul curtailing the Corinthian chaos and charging those men gifted as prophets to control themselves and to give two or perhaps three prophetic messages at each gathering. These men knew that they had prophetic gifts, the congregations recognized them as being so gifted. Their meetings were to be orderly and decent so as to promote the message proclaimed for the edification of the church as a whole. Sounds like “sermons” to me. I’m not sure how Viola envisions the ministry of the elders in the local church, but I would expect that he would have them function in a less “authoritarian” manner than commonly conceived in the more “traditional” church.
    Authority. It seems that authority is “evil.” If authority is evil, then rebellion is good. Traditional church, of course, is the “authorized” conveyor of authority, so to dismantle its tradition is a good thing. My major concern with the message of “The Shack” has to do with Young’s antiauthority antimoniamism. How liable we are to intellectual indigestion. It seems that ever since Adam ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, men applaud so-called “advances” in knowledge that are impelled by rebellion, by an overthrow of the status quo, by a renunciation of the existing “authorized” structures, institutions, traditions. So much of the Enlightenment was reason commandeered by rebellion to get rid of religion, you know, that authority institution called “the church” and that authority book, the Bible. So too “postmodernity is deeply antiauthoritarian” (D.A. Carson, “The Gagging of God,” p.134). Words now are themselves seen a instruments of tyranny. To the postmodern, as soon as you give an objective definition to a word, you are abusing power and authoritatively manipulating the reader. This antiauthority mindset is found in “The Shack” and appeals to a pervasive misguided view of “freedom” which is extant in our Boston-Tea-Party-Post-Watergate Americanism that, sadly, influences Western Evangelicalism. We naively confuse freedom with a rebellious overthrow of authority structures. This rebellious postmodern penchant can be found in the Emergent Church, and although William Young says he is not Emergent, many have seen similarities in “The Shack” with Emergent perspectives. The Emergent Church attempts to Christianize Postmodernism. Not all of postmodernism is bad, but it is intriguing that some of the advocates of postmoderism are philosophical heirs to Nietzsche whose so-called freedom issues into full-blown nihilism. Perhaps this is the kind of thing that Paul warns against when he speaks of “the lust of the mind” (Eph 2:3) – a sinful compulsion to rebellion that energizes our reason and concocts rationalizations for self-destruction.
    It is scary to see professed Christians promote rationalizations for the dismantling of sermons and elders – both of which, interestingly, function with authority in the church. To be rid of such authority may feel like freedom in our rebellious zeitgeist, but I fear that despite its feel, it will be a path to church-destruction. In Jer 3:15, the Lord promises “I will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding.” Jesus was concerned for the multitudes because they were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). Satan attacked the band of disciples with this strategy: “smite the shepherd and scatter the flock” (Mk 14:27). Paul tells Titus that his first order of business in Crete is “to appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Tit 1:5). The recognition and reception of spiritually qualified men as elders is among the “trustworthy statements” of the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 3:1). I cannot be convinced that were the church to become a flock without shepherds and their feeding-teaching ministries that we’d thereby be better off.
    That said, I’ll likely not read “Pagan Christianity.” I’m a tad too busy writing and preaching sermons and being a shepherd among Christ’s flock to be told that being an elder and preaching is, in fact, pagan!

  7. Pastor Dunn,

    I haven’t checked in for a while. Well said. Viola would say there are elders, but not “professional paid pastors” in the Bible who preach week in and week out. If you get a chance, check out the book reviews for this one at christianbook.com. People are tripping over themselves to praise this book and it’s alarming. Thanks for your thoughts…

  8. […] The Faulty Foundations of The Shack – Part 2 Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Faulty Foundations of The Shack – Part 1 […]

  9. Thanks for the articles, yet rather surprised. I was interested to note for example, you say “The faulty foundation of The Shack is Young’s rebellious rejection of divine authority”, and yet in Part 1, you are prepared to call him “brother” in the faith! I understand Saving Faith to have as its essence, a disposition of subjection to divine authority. I dont see how “rebellious rejection of divine authority” is compatible with “saving faith in Christ”. I am sorry. I would warn people not to read this book. The Scriptures tell us not to have anything to do with the unfruitful works of darkness. Jesus Christ said, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent”. To embrace a caricature, a god who takes a different view of sin from the true God of Scripture, is to embrace delusion, and sadly, that is what I fear many will do as they are influenced by this book.

  10. It is amazing the number of people who have told me to not worry about Mr. Youngs heretical wanderings because “it is just fiction”. My admittedly shock-value reply is often to mention the demonically blasphemous play Corpus Christi. In this play, there is a “Christ figure” who is a promiscuous homosexual and the town drunk. But not to worry- IT”S JUST FICTION!
    Whatever happened to discernment? One after another satanic unbiblical fad is trotted out and Chistian leaders, (not just sheep but shepherds who will give acount one day the the OverShepherd) lap it up like milk.

  11. You wrote that “Young consequently misunderstands God.”,”On p.120 “Papa” tells Mack: I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it. These words echoes Satan’s You shall not surely die!”… To say that God does not punish but only cures sin, is to misrepresent God’s righteous response to sin… Young’s god is The Great Therapist”
    Didnt CS Lewis write something similar (Great Divorse & elsewhere) about how sin is its own punishment? That Hells ‘fires’ could consist of the torment of eternal solitary confinement, of having your lifelong wish of not having God in your life fulfilled, and how especially horrible that would be after having glimpsed Gods Glory at the judgement. The Bible dosnt say that God Himself ‘stokes the fires of Hell’ – it dosnt say He activly punishes those who are in Hell. Hell is the absence of God and that is its greatest pain.
    I think this book is written primarilly for the saved, who have a good understanding of doctrine from which to understand Youngs emphasis on relationship with God. To the saved, God IS ‘a therapist’ – not that words alone can heal, but that God works in our spirits along with His Words to heal us – which of us dosnt need healing? Mack isnt just ‘fixed’, he repents. The book does NOT say ‘that God does not punish but only cures sin’. He cures the saved of their hurts, to some extent in this life, and finally, completely in Heaven. The book dosnt say that God will cure the unsaved, that no one will die or anything like that.

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