I had resisted doing so for months. That is, reading The Shack, the New York Times best seller, written by William P. Young. I had originally intended not to tackle this book because I had read a number of reviews of it and was convinced it was not worthy of my time. The severest criticisms of it had come from people whose opinions I respect. And the endorsement blurbs on the cover were from people who are not my opinion leaders. They include a well known theologian, secular media types, and entertainers, among others who had found “great inspiration” within the pages.
Beyond that, I am not an avid reader. So, I try to force myself to read those books that really do offer something of substance. Fiction rarely finds its way onto my reading list. However, several of my (much) younger friends have been reading The Shack and are rating it as one of their favorite books. One said it was the greatest book she had ever read. So, I decided I needed to be better informed about how and why this book has gained so much traction. The way to do that was to read it.
After having having done so, I can say that I am glad that I did. But not for the reason that its fans and supporters might assume.
On the upside, The Shack is a relatively fast and simple read. No one will need to invest a great deal of time or effort between its covers. I am not sure I would call it a “page turner,” at least as I understand the term, but the story did draw me in and kept me interested. I commend Young for producing a genuinely sweet story, cleverly conceived and presented. And I make that comment with total sincerity. The book really does have a “feel good” quality that accompanies the story of a deeply troubled and conflicted man who faces both his demons and his sorrows, and finds restoration. I can say, without reservation, that it was worth the time I invested in reading it. In part because I needed to be better equipped to discuss it with my young friends, but also because it was sort of an entertaining diversion. And I would disagree with some reviews I have read who regard the book as poorly written. Oh sure, there might be places where Young could have articulated something more clearly, or structured the unfolding of the story more effectively. But whatever those deficiencies might be, they would fall into the category of splitting hairs.
That said, the criticisms of the book that I saw before reading it, coming from a theological perspective, are completely valid. In fact, I would say that the concerns that have been raised were not in the least bit overstated. The danger of people embracing the theology that is formulated and advanced in this book is legitimate and should be cause for concern. A couple of those who have spoken effectively and authoritatively about the heretical qualities of Young’s theology in The Shack speak for themselves here and here.
It is not possible to know Young’s mindset, or what his intentions might have been when he wrote the book, particularly as it relates to his unusual portrayal of The Trinity. It is not even possible to know with complete certainty now, as he speaks out about his bestseller. But even as a layman, I am struck by the ease with which Young moved between orthodoxy and something quite different. Whether that “something quite different” falls into the category of heresy, I will leave to the experts. On one hand, it is abundantly clear that Young’s theology is Trinitarian. Although his introductions and exaltation of the wisdom goddess Sophia might call that into question. It seems that he has a profound sense of appreciation for God’s restorative power through forgiveness. That aspect of God’s character is really the essence of the storyline of The Shack. And is developed most explicitly through the reminder of our need to set aside judgment and forgive those who hurt us, even when those offenses are as serious as a battered childhood, and the abduction and murder of a daughter.
While Young seems to have this appreciation for God’s power to restore, his writing suggests to me that he is void of any appreciation for God’s holiness. Scripture is clear that God the Father is spirit (John 4: 24), as is, obviously, the Holy Spirit. Assigning them human form, ANY human form, but particularly in the manner utilized by Young, is the height of irreverence. Furthermore, to simply say that the conversations and comments made by Young’s trinity cross the line into being inappropriate and unnecessary would be an understatement. For example, I struggle to imagine a Holy God saying these words: “don’t stand there gawking with your mouth open like your pants are full” (opening lines of chapter 6). And to suggest that either God, or the Holy Spirit would find it necessary to carry on conversations regarding bowel movements is both off-putting and off base (pgs. 121, 129). What in the world was Young thinking when he decided to include that dialogue in the story? It was so completely tangential and unnecessary. And when, Young’s “Papa” declares that “Men are such idiots” (pg. 192) I think we are being taken by Young to a place that betrays the nature and character of God, or at least as I understand Him presented in Scripture.
Young’s outrageous portrayal of the persons of The Trinity is remarkable and stunning. It seems to me that Young has taken a legitimate understanding of “a personal God” to an illogical extreme. For me, Young moves beyond the orthodoxy of familiarity with God, even intimacy with God, to a place of informality and irreverence. This divine informality apparently embraced by Young, and the resulting characters of his trinity, does violence to the historic view of God’s perfection and holiness as it is conveyed in scripture. Is it possible that Young has such a diminished view of God that he can so easily impart human qualities to the Creator? It seems to me that he has trivilaized the divine.
Where is the worship of God’s holiness? Where is the fall-on-your-face reverence for the Father when one is cast into His presence? This diminished view of God is the most profound impression I am left with by The Shack. Is it even possible to imagine picking up the dishes from the dinner table, taking them to the kitchen and leaving them for God to wash? Is that the way you imagine your relationship would be if you had a face-to-face encounter with God? That is apparently the way it goes down, in Young’s mind.
Michael W. Smith is one of the endorsers on the cover of the book. He says that The Shack will leave you “craving for the presence of God.” I hope it does. But I hope that craving is for the God of the Bible and not the one that is a product William P. Young’s imagination. The God of the Bible is in heaven, seated on His throne, worthy of honor and praise and glory. William P. Young’s god is in the kitchen washing our dishes, and cooking up a batch of greens that SHE says, in HER words will “give you the trots.” What an astoundingly low view of God!
I think The Shack is worthy of being read with a spirit of discernment. As Christians, we need to be aware of books such as this. Especially when they are regarded as being so helpful for spiritual awakening and renewal. In spite of its shortcomings, I am glad I read it. If you have not read it and intend to do so, my only suggestion is this, pray up before you dive in.