The Shack: A Critique, Part 1: An Introduction

For those who are yet acquainted with The Shack, The Shack is a fictitious, Christian novel written by author William Paul Young. The Shack has, in its short time on the market, garnered for itself such accolades as being listed among the New York Times Best Sellers, and has been endorsed by such popularly reputable, Christian persons as singer Michael W. Smith and author and translator of the version of the Bible known as the The Message Eugene Peterson. The Shack has been raved about by both Christians and non-Christians and by theologians and lay-persons, and has such potential, according to Peterson, “to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!”

However, such attention has not come without its scrutiny. In spite of The Shack’s popular acceptance due to that what Young claims to be “a God thing,” many critics have risen up against the book, primarily from those whom align themselves with those who are commonly labeled as “fundamentalists” or “conservative evangelicals.” These who have risen against Young’s work do so on the basis of the God who is portrayed in the book. To these, the God in the book and the book’s depiction of the Christian doctrine of the trinity is unorthodox and even heretical. To these, Young’s novel has crossed the seemingly unbreakable and elastic line which has been lain for the genre known as “Christian fiction.”

In spite of these concerns, LifeWay Christian Stores, an entity of the conservative Christian denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has welcomed selling the novel in its stores, leaving some perplexed due to the store’s frequent and unapologetic policy of not selling literature or merchandise which it deems unorthodox or inappropriate. However, the store does offer this disclaimer on its website, further blurring the appropriate bounds to which “Christian fiction” is accountable:

It is important to remember that The Shack is a work of Christian fiction. Christian fiction may be defined as a story or fantasy written within a Christian context. As such, this title is not a teaching or doctrinal book since, by nature of the genre, more creative license is expected in Christian fiction than nonfiction. As with other Christian fiction, this book is not a treatise on the Trinity, salvation or other Christian doctrines, and it would be unwise for people to develop their theological positions based on works of fiction rather than on the Bible itself.

In spite of this disclaimer and in spite of the “creative license” which is supposedly naturally granted to such works, many Christians have read the The Shack claiming illumination and clarification with regards to the doctrine of the trinity which, prior to their reading of The Shack, had been a great mystery to them.

Young, also contrary to LifeWay’s disclaimer, does not find his work to be one that exists for mere entertainment purposes, saying in an online chat session, “I absolutely am convinced that this [referring to his book’s “best sellers” status] is a God-thing that God is the One stirring this all up, challenging us to rethink and entertain growing deeper in a relationship with Him rather than pursuing our independence.” Therefore, Young, like most of his readers and unlike LifeWay’s claim for the genre of “Christian fiction,” views his work as one that is meant to challenge people’s real views of the Christian God and to cause them to think of God in the manner that he portrays in his novel.

Because of its popularity among a broad range of people, from conservative evangelicals to those who would not claim to be Christians, The Shack is a book that must be addressed and dealt with. And this I plan to do in short order.

Next: The Shack: A Critique, Part 2: Literary Considerations

Categories: Criticism

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10 replies

  1. "…many Christians have read the The Shack claiming illumination and clarification with regards to the doctrine of the trinity which, prior to their reading of The Shack, had been a great mystery to them."

    It is simply incredible to me that Lifeway fails to realize how much teaching power is wielded by fiction. There's a member of my extended family who, after reading The Shack, said, "My paradigm shift has affected both my prayer and worship times with the Lord." Yikes.

    By the way, you flatter The Message too much by calling Peterson a "translator." 😛


  2. I know. I figured I'd pick a bone with him another day.:-P


  3. I have never heard of this book, but I have a random question. What exactly is the Baptist belief about the trinity? Is that the belief that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are the same? I'm not very familiar with it, since my church's belief is that they are 3 separate. Sorry to keep asking random questions, I am just interested in others' beliefs. You can tell me to pipe down and I won't be offended:)


  4. @Lynn

    I suppose the orthodox Baptist belief on the trinity is that of any other orthodox denomination. Most would hold to Nicene Creed, which can be found <a target="_blank" href="; rel="nofollow">here. Which to sum it up is to say that the Three are each distinct Persons and eternally existing as Three Persons and are yet One. Quite a bit of mystery involved, of course. Though within Baptists, especially nowadays, there is no telling what real people believe about the trinity, because the trinity isn't taught in churches. I will address this in much more detail in the third post in this critique on the theology of The Shack.

    And no apologies are necessary.:) I am a Baptist, and I would say that any thing on that you find on this site is a Baptist's beliefs, but, I must admit, I do not line up with most Baptists on many issues. God bless.


  5. Matt's right about the mystery. 😛 I find it's easier to think about the Trinity by describing what it's *not*:

    1. It's *not* 3 different manifestations of one Person, like ice, liquid water, and steam are just water in 3 different forms (this is the heresy called Modalism/Sabellianism).

    2. It's *not* 3 different gods.

    So…it's somewhere in between. 🙂 I'll leave the rest for Matt's 3rd post.


  6. Thanks! I always thought when other churches talked about the trinity, they meant that they believed that they were all the same person. It always confused me. Thanks for clearing that up!


  7. The Three Persons are co-eternal: Each has existed since eternity past and will continue to exist into eternity future. The Father did not "create" the Son and the Holy Spirit, as Arians (Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, among others) would teach. John 1 clearly teaches that "the Word was with God and the Word was God (showing that the Word is both God and distinct from God in a uniquely Trinitarian way)" before anything was created, therefore He is not a created being but the uncreated Creator, a distinction that only belongs to God.

    The Three Persons are co-substantial: Each Person of the Trinity is fully divine. God the Father is not "more God" than the Son or the Spirit; all share the fullness of Deity, and each can be rightfully called God. For the sake of simplicity, there are places in Scripture where "God" refers only to the Father (such as "The Word was with God and the Word was God"), but Christ is called God several times, and the Spirit is often referred to as the "Spirit of God."

    The Three Persons are distinct: The Father has the authority to send the Son into the world (John 3) and to make Him a propitiation (wrath-bearer) for all who believe in Him (2 Cor. 5:21), the Spirit's role is to regenerate the elect to faith in the Son (John 3:1-8) and to equip the church with the gifts necessary to preach the Gospel (1 Cor. 12). He is probably the most intimate of the Three to us in our earthly existence, as it is by Him that we are born again (John 3), and it is by Him that we grow into godliness and bear fruit (Galatians 5). The distinction of roles within the Trinity does not diminish the Deity of any Person, but rather magnifies the glory of God's full nature expressed in the interaction between the three Persons.

    I'm sure I missed something, but this is all I could think of for now. It certainly is a beautiful mystery. Much of the error in church history has come from faulty Trinitarianism, so I'm sure there may be some mistakes in my assessment, but instead of dismissing it as something "I just can't get," I try to discern what the Lord has revealed concerning His threeness in the Scriptures, and rejoice when my worship is enhanced by it. To Him be all the glory!


  8. Err, in the second part I didn't mean "God only refers to the Father" as in "alone" but more as "specifically"


  9. "Therefore, Young, like most of his readers and unlike LifeWay’s claim for the genre of “Christian fiction,” views his work as one that is meant to challenge people’s real views of the Christian God and to cause them to think of God in the manner that he portrays in his novel."

    Most good fiction challenges one's reality. This is just like the C.S. Lewis issue you had – there's not a 1:1 correspondance between things in Narnia and here on earth because it's an entirely different land, a fictitious place. Granted, he's writing about the "real world" (whatever that might mean), but isn't trying to define his views on the Trinity, etc (as stated above). If someone gets their Trinitarian theology from this, or their eschatology from "Left Behind", or anything like that, they are foolish. One should receive their instruction from the Church, who is the pillar and foundation of Truth (1 Tim 3:15), and Her exposition of the Scriptures (which is, as Pope Benedict XVI has said, what Dogma basically is).


  10. "Most good fiction challenges one’s reality."

    Josh, I will assume that you have not read The Shack, for if you did, I do not believe that you would call it "good fiction" or compare it with anything that Lewis wrote.

    And unlike Lewis and Narnia, The Shack is not a supposal, as Lewis termed it, but it deals with the God of Scripture. The God of The Shack repeatedly refers to herself/himself as the God of the Bible, and Mack asks most of his questions of this god according to what the Scriptures say. There is the clear intention within the book to explain the real God of real Scripture, and that cannot be ignored for the sake of fiction, nor can the author's intent of a 1:1 correlation be ignored.

    That said, I agree wholeheartedly that no one should get their theology from a work of fiction, be it The Shack or the Left Behind books. The people who write this fictional works are usually horrible theologians for some reason.

    My end, which I will make clear at the end of my critique, is not to condemn William Young (though I will), but it is to condemn pastors and teachers in the Church who have for decades neglected their office by not teaching their people. They are to blame for the acceptance of the theology in this book, not William Young.


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