What’s in The Shack?
By: Jeff Pallansch
With this week’s theatrical release of The New York Times bestseller The Shack, many will be wondering what to make of its unconventional presentation of God. [Spoiler Alert!] The book opens with Mack, a salesman from Oregon, receiving a note from God requesting to meet him at the abandoned shack where his six-year-old daughter was brutally murdered. Not sure what to make of it, Mack goes. There he encounters the Trinity who all appear to him in human form: the Father, mostly called “Papa,” appears as a “large beaming African-American woman” (p. 82); the Son appears as Jesus, a Middle Eastern carpenter; and the Holy Spirit is depicted as a small, eclectic, Asian woman who goes by “Sarayu.” Although Mack enters the shack burdened by “The Great Sadness,” full of questions and animosity towards God, he leaves forever changed. While not all of his questions are overtly answered, resolution and healing come as his view of God becomes radically adjusted. Over the weekend, Mack begins to trust once again that God is good. [END Spoiler Alert]
One of the most moving elements of the story is its tangible portrayal of being personally known and loved by God. It reminds many that God is not apathetic or aloof to our pain and suffering. As Psalm 34:18 assures us, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” Perhaps this picture of God’s nearness is what draws so many to the story.
Though The Shack draws upon a number of Christian elements, the story needs to be engaged with much discernment as it radically alters many of the Bible’s core teachings. A few examples of this include its omission of God’s holiness, the gravity of our sin, and that salvation can only be found through faith in Jesus Christ.
When God appears to people in Scripture, it is never a light or flippant event. Even when John, the beloved disciple who writes “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), encountered Jesus, he “fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17). For Mack, however, the whole encounter is rather nonchalant. The author even comments that Mack was just not “in the mood” to fall down and worship God (p. 82). Furthermore, Mack repeatedly snaps at God, speaks sarcastically to him, and uses explicative language around him. This is a stark departure from what we see with the prophet Isaiah who cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). It appears that Young does exactly what he has Papa warn against,
I am what some would say “holy, and wholly other than you.” The problem is that many folks try to grasp some sense of who I am by taking the best version of themselves, projecting that to the nth degree, factoring in all the goodness they can perceive, which often isn’t much, and then call that God. And while it may seem like a noble effort, the truth is that it falls pitifully short of who I really am (p. 98).
The goodness that that gets projected to the nth degree is captured well in Mack’s statement, “I would say that something is good when I like it—when it makes me feel good or gives me a sense of security” (p. 134).
The Gravity of Our Sin
To maintain a feel-good sense of security, The Shack also erases the offensiveness and gravity of our sin. Papa tells Mack, “‘because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me.’ ‘What? You’ve never been disappointed in me?’ Mack was trying to digest this. ‘Never!’ Papa stated emphatically” (p. 206). Since sin presents no offense, judgement is deemed unnecessary.
Papa says, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it” (p. 120). Here the true meaning and power of the cross becomes diluted. Though Young suggests that “the cross [is] where mercy triumphs over justice” (p. 164; emphasis added), according to Scripture, the cross is where mercy triumphs through justice (Romans 3:26). On the cross, Jesus did not dismiss the offensiveness of sin; he paid for it. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (NIV).
Salvation Comes Only through Faith in Christ
Against the clear teaching of Scripture that salvation is received only through faith in Christ, The Shack repeatedly intimates that all will be saved. While believing in Jesus is a good thing, it is not necessary in The Shack. For example, the author changes Jesus’ words in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” to, “I am the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu” (p. 110). Later the author has Jesus state,
I’m not a Christian. . . . those who love me come from every system that exists. They are [present tense] Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims . . . 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 (p. 182; emphasis added).
In contrast, Scripture is explicit, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 NIV).
While The Shack may help awaken people to God’s personal care, it does so at the expense of his holiness. It includes a number of elements which significantly depart from the Bible’s teaching. As such, it needs to be engaged with much discernment.
For further study: