Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In My Father's House There Are Many SHACKS?

A Critical Essay of William Paul Young's THE SHACK

By Pastor Jeffrey Whittaker

Part 1

It is my desire to undertake this brief essay in order to discuss some of the pertinent elements found within the best-selling book that is the center of so many discussions amongst sincere Christians, as well as prominent pop-culture figures. William Paul Young’s therapeutic fable may be well-intentioned, but I intend to demonstrate that its end-result is not the constructing of either SHACKS or mansions, but rather the deconstructing (in typical post-modern/Emergent fashion) of the concept of the church, the authority of the Word of God, and just about anything else the reader thought they knew about God as revealed in Holy Scripture; something Young’s “god” constantly refers to as “religious conditioning.”

Jesus said in the Gospel of John 14:1-2: “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” It is my prayer that no one who happens to read this work will give in to the temptation to exchange the glory of God’s Mansions for Mr. Young’s existential SHACK.

First of all, the cover itself yields our first point. What is this book? Is it testimony, mystery, theology, Christology… or does it make any such assertions at all? Eugene Peterson (of The Message Bible paraphrase fame), at the very bottom of the book’s cover, makes the statement:

“This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good.”

Let me simply say that after reading it I sincerely hope that it does not. John Bunyan wrote his truly Christian classic Pilgrim's Progress while in prison for the sake of the Gospel, and every word was rooted in the Scriptures. Each person and place represented within the story was an archetype of orthodox Christian doctrines rooted in the revelation of God that we call The Bible. “Pilgrim” becomes “Christian” at the foot of the Cross of Jesus Christ and begins his journey towards “the Celestial City” -- his ultimate goal. On his way he encounters much temptation, personified in his detour into places such as “Vanity Fair.” Pilgrim’s Progress remains one of the most profound allegory/parables in the history of the church. However, Bunyan never took concrete, propositional truths of Scripture and morphed them into hip, existential discussions between a questioning man and a godhead consisting of two women and a Middle-Eastern carpenter.


During the DaVinci Code furor a few years ago, I discovered a new word that encapsulated that particular debate perfectly; the word was “faction.”[1] Dan Brown used places like Rome and Paris, names such as Leonardo DaVinci and the Pope, as well as historic works of art to frame a “fiction” book that made serious accusations against the identity of the Lord Jesus Christ, the integrity of the Apostles, and the veracity of the Bible. Since Brown employed literal people and places, his “fictional” thesis became entwined with them, thus creating “faction;” an indistinguishable blend of truth and untruth.

This is what I believe William Paul Young has done within the story line of The Shack. On page 14, he begins by setting the wintry scene by describing how “A cold front out of Canada then descended and was held in place by a swirling wind that roared down the Gorge from eastern Oregon.” Later on in chapter two, the reader is told about the last trip made by the family to their favorite Labor Day camping area. He recounts, “Nan (headed) north up Interstate 205 to Washington, and Mack and the three amigos east on Interstate 84” (p.27). In the next paragraph he mentions the natural beauty of the Columbia River Gorge.

Why is this important? Simply because Young purposes to give us an inspirational story that is intertwined with actual reality. However, when authors of such “faction” novels make substantive theological assertions within their stories, they cannot simply retreat into the magical forest of make-believe, hoping to sidestep the scrutiny of Scripture.

One sincere believer recently told me that they thought the book was just like The Wizard of Oz; meant only to encourage and entertain people. I am so glad that analogy was raised! Let’s take a look at it for a moment before going any further with our discussion. In “Oz” we find a real little girl on a farm somewhere in the state of Kansas in the world of black and white. However, after encountering a massive twister, she is struck on the head by a window sill, rendering her unconscious. When she awakens and opens the door of her “mobile home,” she finds that she is “not in Kansas anymore,” but rather a magical kingdom (not to mention a Technicolor one!) inhabited by munchkins, witches, and three special friends that embody the human quest for a brain, a heart, and courage. Down the yellow brick road they go, encountering and overcoming untold challenges on their way to see the Wizard in The Emerald City. When they ultimately discover the Wizard to be simply smoke and mirrors, they are told that they already possessed and exhibited the very character traits for which they were questing! The little girl then wakes up in her bed back in black and white world with the revelation that “there’s no place like home.”

Why do I risk boring you with a summary of a story that you all already know? BECAUSE I WANT TO DEMONSTRATE TO YOU THAT IT IS JUST THAT… A STORY! If the writer of “OZ” had been a Christian attempting to write the new “Pilgrim’s Progress” for his generation, he would have faced the same questions we are asking Mr. Young."Is Dorothy a type of the church?" one might say. Someone else may ask, "Hey, if you meant the Wizard is meant to be a type of God, are you saying that He’s all smoke and mirrors?" Or, "Is the Cowardly Lion a picture of Christ?"[2]

The Shack, however, is not couched in a land far, far away with a princess longing for her prince to come and take her to his kingdom; Mr. Young hides behind the rules of fiction while dabbling in the dangerous issues of the REAL WORLD of God, man, sin, suffering and redemption. If one takes Mack’s path of subjective, existential self-discovery, I fear they will find themselves “over the rainbow” in a land from which no amount of heel-clicking can ever return them.


This post-modern/Emergent fantasy’s first stumble takes place on page 27. Right after setting a very real picture of the Columbia River Gorge, Mack’s family stops off at Multnomah Falls for crayons and refreshments. After their respite, Missy, Mack’s daughter, who would eventually be horribly killed by a violent criminal, asked for her daddy to tell her the tragic story of the Indian Princess of the Multnomah tribe who died at the falls. The story (in brief) was that there was a plague that came to the Indians that began to wipe them out. An old prophecy recounted by a medicine man stated that the beloved daughter of a chief must give her life to stem the advance of the wasting plague. Eventually (“After praying and giving herself to the Great Spirit…”), the selfless princess threw herself to her death on the rocks below (p.28). Young reflects that the story “had all the elements of a true redemption story, not unlike the story of Jesus” (Ibid).

Much later after arriving at their campsite, Missy asks Mack: “Daddy, how come she had to die?” The surprised Mack answers, “Honey, she didn’t have to die. She chose to die to save her people. They were very sick and she wanted them to be healed” (p.30). Mack’s inquisitive children go on to ask, “So, it [the story of the princess] didn’t really happen?” Mack answers, “It might have sweetie. Sometimes legends are built from real stories, things that really happen.”

“So is Jesus dying a legend?” she asks. “No honey, that’s a true story; and do you know what? I think the Indian princess story is probably true too,” her daddy answers back. At the end of the exchange, we hear Mack summing up the discussion by stating, “Jesus chose to die because he and his daddy love you and me and everyone in the world. He saved us from our sickness, just like the princess” (p.31).

JUST LIKE THE PRINCESS??? A Native American legend of a girl’s ritual human sacrifice/suicide is now validated and elevated to the same level of the atoning death of Jesus Christ! Not only that, but when Missy asked earlier, “Is the Great Spirit another name for God—you know, Jesus’ papa?” her befuddled dad answered, “I would suppose so. It’s a good name for God because he is a Spirit and he is Great” (Ibid). Native American spirituality is now equal to that of Biblical Christianity! What wonderful news! We don’t need to send any more missionaries to the far-flung tribes of the world… they’re doing just fine without Jesus![3]

This passage should stop the Biblical Berean dead in his steps (you remember them, the ones who searched the Scriptures daily? [Acts 17]). If Young was trying to communicate Christian theology, he could have simply written, “Well sweetie, God has revealed Himself in Jesus, who died even for the American Indians. That’s why we need to tell them the true story of how Jesus died on the cross so God could forgive them so that they can go to heaven; even if they happen to die from a sickness like in the fable of the princess!” Instead, we find Young’s “jesus” proclaiming on page 182: “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian.”

“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 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 by Beloved.”

By "transformation," is this “jesus” referring to the new birth as stated in John 3? Or is he simply referring to an endless cycle of self-discovery via New Age spiritual meditation, astral projection, and inner healing? Once again, the Scriptures help us understand that:

“But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God"
(John 1:12-13).

To be continued.....

1. This definition of "faction" is, according to http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/faction, "a form of writing or filmmaking that treats real people or events as if they were fictional or uses them as an integral part of a fictional account" or "a novel, film, play, or other presentation in this form."
2. Actually, some have postulated that Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was doing just that -- creating an allegory for Theosophy, in which he became involved later in life. See http://www.crossroad.to/News/oz.html for some fascinating details and links. There are also those who suggest that the Oz fantasy had readily identifiable political characters from the 1890s (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wonderful_Wizard_of_Oz). Regardless of the difficulties in this example, The Shack has been openly marketed as a literary allegory to the Scripture, in which case it is neither a simple fairy tale, nor a basic work of fiction such as, for example, Jane Eyre (Bronte) or David Copperfield (Dickens).
3. This is an example of the heresy of contextualization that was developed at Fuller Theological Seminary through the Perspectives course taught to a generation of missionaries. For a thorough reading on this issue, see the book Idolatry in their Hearts by Mike Oppenheimer and Sandy Simpson, which we also reviewed on Herescope in a series of posts in July 2007.