Pastor's Blog
Over the past few months a number of people have asked me about William P. Young’s book “The Shack”.  The title didn’t whet my appetite, so I never bothered reading it.  Recently a friend put it in my hands and asked me to read and express my opinion on it.  There are some GREAT things about “The Shack” – and that’s why it was #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list – but there are also some inadequacies

“The Shack” is presenting theological ideas through the story of Mack Philips.  The story is so well told that it’s easy to forget that you’re reading theology.  I have no critique of the story itself – it kept me interested and turning pages – and I don’t want to give out too many details lest I spoil the book.  So let’s touch on the theology presented.

The reviews that I’ve read of “The Shack” all remark about the “fresh take” on Christian theology that it presents.  I found the work refreshing, but not a particularly fresh take.  There is nothing new here – just a teasing out in narrative form of several traditional orthodox doctrines --  of God as Trinity, God as love, God as the ground of all being, the existence of evil in the presence of a good God, and the importance of relationship with God over dead formal religious ritual.  This is what evangelicals have always believed and taught – at least I certainly have -- although if so many people are finding this approach “fresh”, perhaps we haven’t been teaching it as well or as effectively as we could have.  The scene where Mackenzie is called upon to sit in God’s seat and have to play “judge” I found to be very effective in explaining the heart of Christ.  And on the whole, I found Young’s narrative approach very refreshing and I would expect that any true believer in Christ will come away with a better perspective on and desiring a closer relationship with a truly compassionate loving Father.

Just remember that you’re reading FICTION.  Take some of the initial discomforts that you feel in stride and keep reading.  You’ll be blessed in the end.

The overall theological perspective I found not untrue to the Bible, but I do note a number of inadequacies.  Most of the inadequacies are not about what Young powerfully asserts about God’s goodness, but about what he subtly implies or about what he leaves out or seems to sidestep altogether.  In that regard I don’t want to make strong accusations or condemnations;  it may be that in speaking to our world Young focused heavily on some things that the world can receive and let some troublesome things that the world has trouble swallowing go unsaid.  We shouldn’t assert what he believes from his silence or the vague aspects of his presentation.  Below are a few examples of what I mean.

Mack brings up in one conversation with God the Father the fact that the God of the Bible is a God of wrath, the God who casts people into the lake of fire.  God responds:  “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.”  It is important to note both what is said and what is not said.  First, everything in God’s response is TRUE.  Mackenzie sees God as primarily a wrathful being lacking love, and this is certainly NOT how the God of the Bible presents Himself (Exodus 34:6-7) – so God is NOT who Mackenzie (or many of us) think He is.  We have gotten Him somewhat out of context, like the child who only remembers his spankings and forgets all of the meals provided, the goodnight kisses, and the Christmas gifts received.  Likewise, God doesn’t NEED to punish people for their sin – first because sin is its own punishment, and second (not stated in this passage but definitely made clear elsewhere) because Christ bore that punishment already.  And finally according to John 3:17 God’s PURPOSE isn’t to condemn the world, but to save it – to “cure it”.  So everything that is said is true, and the true things expressed are so often overlooked and misunderstood that the author’s tactic is to focus on those neglected truths.  In this response, however, God never really answers Mackenzie’s question, does He?  He never explains the place of His wrath or the reality of the lake of fire.  Of course, neither does God DENY any of those things in the passage.  He simply implies that Mackenzie has gotten the picture wrong and tries to correct Mackenzie’s focus on the MAIN truths about God.  That doesn’t need to be taken to mean that our author denies God’s wrath or the reality of eternal hell.  My gut feeling is that William P. Young wouldn’t deny those truths;  He would simply say that you need to understand those things about God in light of the “good things” about God, and it’s the “good news” that needs to be presented.  If that’s what Young is saying, then I agree with him;  if he’s going further and by his silence denying the reality of God’s wrath or the existence of eternal hell, then I think he’s strayed from the Scriptures and a long history of Christian theology.

A second theological issue comes up in a conversation between Mackenzie and Jesus.  In speaking about those who love God, Jesus says that it has nothing to do with being a Christian.  He goes on: 

”Those who love me come from every system that exists.  They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions.  I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous.  Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians.  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, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”
    “Does that mean,” asked Mack, “that all roads will lead to you?”
    “Not at all,” smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop.  “Most roads don’t lead anywhere.  What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”


Once again, it is crucial to note what is being said and what is not being said.  When you first read the paragraph about all of the different groups “loving God”, it is very easy to quickly conclude that William Young is propounding that all roads lead to God.  But Young has Jesus expressly deny this notion.  So when Young has Jesus say “I have no desire to make [people from other religions] Christian”, he is NOT saying that salvation is not in Christ alone.  He is using “Christian” here, not to mean “truly Christian – a true believer in Christ”, but someone who follows some form of Christianity for the sake of merely following the form.  Young’s point is that many people love God or the things of God (goodness).  Jesus is saying in the terms used here:  “I don’t want to turn them into people who follow a form of religion, but I want to see them transformed into true children of God, into TRUE Christians.”  By saying that he wants to see them transformed, Young is acknowledging that the other religions – along with empty and merely formal Christianity – are not enough to be right with God.  One must experience a personal relationship with God through Christ.  Again, instead of focusing on negative concepts, Young puts the focus on positives, including the image of Christ, the shepherd who goes to all lengths to seek the lost, and he lets the negatives off to the side.  We are unaccustomed to this, especially if we come from a fundamentalist Christian background where the focus almost always seems to be on the negative aspects of our faith.

A third issue is the chapter entitled “A Festival of Friends”.  For as much as I liked most of the book, I found this chapter quite odd.  I think that the writer is simply trying to bring closure to the theme of the conflict between Mackenzie and the abusive father of his childhood, but Young uses weird imagery to do it.  If we take him to be trying to teach theology here, Young certainly seems to be suggesting that people have a second chance at salvation after death.  If that’s the case, Young is entertaining wishful rather than biblical thinking.  I choose, however, to give the author the benefit of the doubt;  I don’t think he’s trying to make that theological point so much as he is trying to illustrate the importance of forgiveness and the disruption that sin creates not only in one life, but in the lives of all around it.

The only real place where I had serious problems with Young was in his treatment of Jesus’ view of organized religion.  Throwing a bone to our anti-religious society, Young depicts his main character, Mackenzie Philips, disillusioned with organized religion both before and after his experience with God.  A little more disturbing to me, the author paints Jesus the same way.
    [Mack]:  “I really do want to understand.  I mean, I find the way you are so different from all the well-intentioned religious stuff I’m familiar with.”
    “As well-intentioned as it might be, you know religious machinery can chew up people!” Jesus said with a bite of his own.  “An awful lot of what is done in my name has nothing to do with me and is often, even if unintentional, very contrary to my purposes.”
    “You’re not too fond of religion and institutions?” Mack said, not sure if he was asking a question or making an observation.
    “I don’t create institutions – never have, never will.”
    “What about the institution of marriage?”
    “Marriage is not an institution.  It’s a relationship.”  Jesus paused, his voice steady and patient.  “Like I said, I don’t create institutions; that’s an occupation for those who want to play God.  So no, I’m not too big on religion,” Jesus said a little sarcastically, “and not very fond of politics or economics either.”  Jesus’ visage darkened noticeably.  “And why should I be?  They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about.  What mental turmoil and anxiety does any human face that is not related to one of those three?”
    Mack hesitated.  He wasn’t sure what to say.  This all felt a little over his head.  Noticing that Mack’s eyes were glazing over, Jesus downshifted.  “Put simply, these terrors are tools that many use to prop up their illusions of security and control.  People are afraid of uncertainty, afraid of the future.  These institutions, these structures and ideologies, are all a vain effort to create some sense of certainty and security where there isn’t any.  It’s all false.  Systems cannot provide you security, only I can…I don’t have an agenda here, Mack.  Just the opposite,” Jesus interjected.  “I came to give you Life to the fullest.  My life…The simplicity and purity of enjoying a growing friendship?”


For me, these few paragraphs were full of the tired clichés of disappointed utopians.  The author does a phenomenal job in the rest of the book presenting the importance of relationship with God in the ordinary everyday circumstances of life.  Then he goes on a tirade here belittling some of the things that make up the normal circumstances of life – organized religion, politics, business.  Can we really escape these things?  Can we live apart from them?  Young seems to be inferring that you need to foster relationship with God APART from these terrors – an almost monastic view of spiritual life.  I would propose that it is more accurate and more biblical to say that a relationship with God must be fostered in the context of all of these things which are a part of the real fallen world.  That is what a walk with God by faith is.
    If it is true that God is not too big on religion, the Old Testament is pretty hard to explain, as it’s built on a religious system given to the people by God through Moses.  And if we’re talking about organized churches, Jesus’ apostles established them at His command – full of fallen people living in fallen situations, yes – but his bride nonetheless, working out her sanctification in a fallen world.  If there had been no churches full of fallen people, we wouldn’t have much of a New Testament, would we?
    Likewise, if God isn’t big on politics, why did He ordain it???  Why did He reveal Himself as the one who raises up and takes down kings?  Why does He refer to them as “his ministers” in Romans 13?  Why are His followers told to obey them?  God is certainly VERY involved with politics all throughout the Scriptures.
    And finally, why is economics such a terroristic boogeyman?  Many of the laws given to the Israelites have to do with proper execution of economic realities.  Experiments in avoiding the seemingly harsh realities of economics usually end up in ruins.
    These things can be used as tools to prop up our security and sense of control, but that is not what they are.  All I could think of as I read this section was John Lennon’s song “Imagine”…and I sighed.  Oh well, even William P. Young is only human.  History has taught us that utopians often end up being the most brutal people in the world, and some young naïf could easily misunderstand Young in an idealistic utopian manner and go quite astray.  Young seems to believe: “If we were all in a perfect relationship with God and each other everything would be all right.”  Well, yes, of course – but that’s the whole point, isn’t it?  Perfection is not attainable;  that’s why we need grace and God’s constant forgiveness, isn’t it?  Even those who know God and believe ever so firmly in Jesus Christ cannot completely escape sin in this world.  It simply can’t be done.  The answer is not to condemn and avoid politics and economics and religion as man-made terrors, going out of church grumbling about the imperfection of religious people and failure to find perfect relationship, but to join with our fallen neighbors, encouraging each other to live godly in this world, fleshing out my relationship with God in my imperfect church, my imperfect nation, my imperfect world, constantly applying truth to situations moral and political and economic and religious.

Those are my major complaints with Young’s book.  I think if we adjust our reading accordingly, Young’s powerful portrayal of the workings of the Trinity, his explanation of how to view God and the presence of evil, and the importance of right relationship to God through Christ can be a very powerful voice that people in our pluralistic society will have no trouble understanding, and with those qualifications, I would recommend William P. Young’s “The Shack” as very insightful and mind-stretching reading.

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