William Young’s The Shack is built on four faulty theological foundations: a misunderstanding of the Fall; a misunderstanding of God; a deficient view of justification; and a pervasive anti-authority antinomianism. Young also builds a defective theological superstructure on this faulty foundation of anti-authority antinomianism. We considered the first defective superstructure: his view of God, and thus his understanding of the work of Christ on the cross. There are two more dangers that stem from Young’s anti-authority antinomianism.
Second, Young’s anti-authority antinomianism not surprisingly obliterates male headship. Young suggests that the notion of authority in marriage is a result of the Fall, not something established in Creation (147). There is a theme of male incompetence in the book from Mack’s drunken Bible-quoting child-abusing father, to Mack himself, to Young’s maternalistic presentation of God. “Jesus” says, “The world, in many ways, would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled.” (147,148) “Jesus” then goes on to advocate an egalitarian view of the genders in which both are equally submissive to each other. When Mack asks “Jesus” about why He came “in the form of a man” (as in male), “Jesus” does not explain the two federal headships of Adam and Christ as Paul does in Romans 5:12ff, but launches off into more relations-speak. “Jesus” tells Mack that Adam had to be created first so that Eve could be taken from him so that they would exist in relationship. Here is an allusion to 1 Corinthians 11:12, but Young ignores the context of that verse which concerns the exercise of and submission to God-constituted headship (authority). He thus mishandles the Word of God again and proves himself to be an unsafe guide. Sadly, Young’s theological building does resemble a shack!
Third, Young’s anti-authority antinomianism wrecks havoc upon the Scriptures and the church. A biblically informed reader will recognize allusions to biblical texts and themes, but The Shack betrays a low view of Scripture. “Sarayu” encourages us to think that we can receive revelation from the Spirit in our own thoughts or “in a piece of art, or music, or silence, or through people, or in Creation, or in your joy and sorrow. My ability to communicate is limitless, living and transforming, and it will always be tuned to Papa’s goodness and love. And you will hear and see me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship- a way of coming to be with us” (198). The church is not at all respected in The Shack. It is profoundly disconcerting that, according to WORLD, neither Young, nor his publishers Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings (all former pastors) are not members of any church. Why? What could have happened that has caused these three former shepherds to detach themselves from the church? I cannot speculate, but this matter is highly troublesome. Yet the last meal that Mack has with “Papa,” although eaten “without any ritual, without any ceremony,” consists of bread and wine – an obvious allusion to the Lord’s Supper. That Supper, however, is a church ordinance, not a private meal. Young individualizes the intimacy that Christ has with His Body the church and in so doing he does not judge the body rightly (1 Corinthians 11:29). Christ has given the keys of the Kingdom to His church and to slight the church is to slight the rule of Christ. I suspect that “rule of Christ” would be a discomforting phrase to Young. With all of Young’s sentiment and sweetness, there is a strain of real rebellion (note my repeated use of the prefix “anti”).
Indeed The Shack is replete with evidence of Young’s anti-authority antinomianism. An aversion to anything that even looks like a command can be found in almost every conversation Mack has with the characters depicting the Trinity. Indeed, it would appear that God Himself, who is not at all adverse to using the imperative mood in Scripture (think “Ten Commandments”), is The Antinomian of all antinomians. I appreciate that on p.202,203 Sarayu refutes the idea that men can be “made righteous by following rules.” However how one is “made righteous,” that is justified, is not adequately treated in The Shack. We just kinda suppose that Mack is a Christian and that his problem has more to do with what we would call “progressive sanctification.” Commendably, Sarayu also states that Jesus alone succeeded in obeying the law completely. This would have been an opportune moment for Young to inject instruction on justification and imputed righteousness. He does not. Sarayu then goes on to articulate the classic antinomian interpretation of Romans 6:14 – the law “no longer has jurisdiction for you.” The envisioned Christian is not told that Jesus says If you love Me, you will keep My commandments (Jn 14:15). “Papa,” however, says, “Rules cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse.” But David says, I will walk at liberty, for I seek Thy precepts. And I shall delight in Thy commandments, which I love. And I shall lift up my hands to Thy commandments, which I love (Psalm 199:45,47,48). Whereas Young can’t bring himself to use the words “love” and “commandment” in the same sentence, David is not so inhibited. David knows that if you are spiritually alive, you will love God and you will express that love by obeying His commands. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome (1 Jn 5:2,3).
It is ironic, given Young’s antinomian aversion to the law, that the central tension of The Shack centers on the violation of the sixth commandment (as well as the ninth commandment). It is satisfying to the reader to have the matters of injustice resolved at the end of the book: the bad guy gets caught and justice is served. So it appears that justice is essential to “relationship” after all. This should alert us to the fact that we need more than some sentimental “relationship” with a nice therapeutic god. We need resolution in the theater of our conscience and in the courtroom of God. The issues of God’s law, our standing before God as our Judge, the concerns of God’s wrath and His just punishment of sin must be foundational to our understanding and proclamation of the gospel. The gospel must include the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection declared as the basis of our acceptance with God. We need our sins to be forgiven on the basis on His curse-bearing. We need His righteous obedience imputed to our account so that by repentance and faith, we then stand in God’s courtroom in Christ, having passed from judgment into life. These essential forensic concerns are far too foreign to Young’s gospel in The Shack. Without the material of God’s holy justice and righteousness, The Shack is built on a faulty foundation.
Well, have I succeeded in pointing out Young’s theological flaws while treating Young as a brother in Christ? It is not easy to speak to real dangers in a man’s theology and to address them as serious concerns without slipping into something that sounds ad hominem. Young is obviously Arminian whereas I’m Reformed. Those theological differences are significant and they drive a lot of my concerns about The Shack. Nevertheless, as much as I am compelled to make a polemic response to Arminian antinomian theology, I want to relate to my Arminian brethren as brethren.
My rejection of The Shack‘s theology is moderated by my desire to embrace Young as a brother in Christ. Had I not watched Young being interviewed on TV, my perspective of The Shack would have been less ambivalent. Young strikes me as being sincere in both his struggles and his faith. The crisis out of which he wrote The Shack, no doubt, goes a long way to explain the theological imbalance and emphases made in The Shack. But I find myself asking questions even about Young’s depiction of himself as “Mack,” an association which Young makes in his interviews. Young’s “shack” and Mack’s “shack” are not the same. In Young’s “shack,” he victimized his wife by his infidelity. In Mack’s “shack,” Mack was the one who was victimized. I don’t know what to do with this disparity. It is one thing to come to terms with the evil done to me and another with the evil I do to others. If The Shack is Young’s gift to his kids to explain how God’s grace enabled him to recover from fatally wounding his marriage, one would expect that The Shack would more explicitly express the gospel given to victimizers. Perhaps Young was writing from the vantage point of his wife and children, attempting to instruct them as the victims as to how to forgive him?
Again I remind myself of what The Shack‘s defenders demur: The Shack is an allegorical metaphor and, we are told, that genre ought not to be theologically critiqued as critically as, say, an essay. Yes, after all, an author must be allowed to emphasize what he wants to emphasize. But deflecting theological analysis because the work is an allegory only goes so far. The Shack may be a metaphor, but it contains extensive dialogue and that with God! It is not unreasonable for us to expect that a Christian writer who is attempting to explain forgiveness and “relationship” with God, to be explicit in expressing justification through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone. Instead of finding clarity, the biblically informed reader is challenged to decipher just a faint outline of an evasive gospel that lies far too distant from the more prominent presentation of ardent anti-authority antinomianism. Sadly, Young’s refusal to give place to God’s Law cripples, if not murders, the orthodoxy of his gospel.
I want to be graciously accepting of William Young, but too much about The Shack is problematic. Theologically astute readers will be frustrated by The Shack. Unconverted and uninstructed Christians will be misled by The Shack. It is a powerful book that addresses powerful issues. People are obviously being moved by its message that “God is good and He is involved.” I fear, however, that the good that The Shack does is a “good” severed from God’s essential holy justice. The Shack is built on faulty foundations and, theologically speaking, like a shack, it is an undesirable dwelling place. Those who build their theological shack on such sand, are liable to find in the Day of God’s Judgment that they built (their shack) upon the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that (shack) was great (Luke 6:49).Alan Dunn, Pastor Grace Covenant Baptist Church Flemington, NJ