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1.0 out of 5 stars A false god, January 7, 2009
This review is from: The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity (Paperback)
The Christian community today desperately needs a literary talent to convey the Christian faith in a compelling way such as C. S. Lewis or John Bunyan did for previous generations. Unfortunately Wm. Paul Young is not that man. I am not qualified to judge its literary quality but by training and vocation I am qualified to speak of its theological content. Unfortunately from that standpoint the book is simply dreadful - and on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to begin.

What Young attempts is rather audacious. He presumes to put words in the mouth of God - not mere snippets that relate commonly accepted proverbial truths but whole chapters of dialogue in which God tries enlighten a modern day Job (whose name is Mack) who has experienced an awful tragedy (his young daughter has been abducted and murdered by a sexual predator) regarding the mysterious ways of God. In short, Young attempts to answer Job-like questions - something God Himself refused to do for Job in the Bible - by putting his own speculations into the book's dialogue as Mack has weekend long encounter with God in the very shack where his daughter was murdered.

The result is rather predictable and disappointing. The god of The Shack looks far more like a wish-fulfillment of a postmodern western intellectual than the God revealed in the pages of the Bible. Politically correct sensitivities are duly observed as the trinity revealed in the Shack appears to Mack as `Papa,' a "large beaming African American woman," (p. 82) `Jesus' a Jewish carpenter and `Sarayu' a spirit-like Asian female. Other left wing sensitivities emerge. `Papa' is clearly anti-gun holding Mack's at arm's length between two fingers while disposing of it (pp. 84, 88) and religiously active patriotic Christians are portrayed as sincere but sadly misguided (p. 181). Careful readers will note too that `Jesus' informs Mack that "Marriage is not an institution. It is a relationship.... I don't create institutions; that's an occupation for those who want to play God." (p. 179) Of course, if marriage is not an institution, then we are not bound by the rules of the one who instituted it and if relationship is its essence then logically it would seem that any type of relationship would qualify. Whether he intended it or not, Young's depiction lends itself to our culture's attempt to redefine marriage. Whatever else may be said of the god of The Shack, she is up to date - which also means that she will soon be out of date.

More importantly, Sarayu, in true postmodern fashion, is careful to inform Mack that relationships are never about exercising the will to power over others (p. 106). Indeed, `Papa' is reticent to impose her will on anyone, repeatedly insisting to Mack that he is free to do whatever he likes (pp. 89,182) and that she will proceed on his "terms and time." (p. 83) In fact, The Shack god takes offense when Mack asks what she expects of him (p. 201). The idea that God might have expectations is even treated as an insult. If this is the same God who spoke through the Old Testament prophets (who had just a few expectations of his people and let them know it) or of the Apostles (who commanded all men everywhere to repent in Acts 17:30) then he has undergone a radical transformation over the centuries. The Shack `Jesus' goes so far as to inform Mack that it would be contrary to love if he were to force his will on him (p. 145) - again, a stark contrast to the Jesus of the Gospels who had no such qualms saying, "If you love me you will obey what I command." (John 14:15) In fact, biblical love is defined bluntly in terms of obedience. "This is love for God: to obey his commands" (I John 5:3; cf I John 2:3-5). But Sarayu insists that Mack has no rules to follow, is under no law and has no responsibility or expectations (p. 203). In fact, she assures Mack that "I've never placed an expectation on you or anyone else... And beyond that, because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me." (p. 206) Such an all-affirming god may soothe the self-esteem of postmoderns but she bears little resemblance to the God who spoke through Jeremiah or John the Baptist.

It is true that the New Testament does tell us that we are no longer under the Law of Moses, but it also insists that we are "not free from God's law but (are) under Christ's law." (I Cor. 9:21) And while it is certainly true that we cannot earn God's favor by keeping rules, it is simply false to say that God has no rules or expectations of His people. A much more accurate representation is to say that when we are transformed by God's grace, we become a people who desire to do his will, his commands are no longer `burdensome" (I John 5:3) because His law is "written on our hearts." (Jer. 31:33) This kind of careless theology is dangerous in a culture that is all too eager to cast off any and all restraints and justify its autonomy.

It should not surprise us then to find that `hierarchy' and `authority' are bad words to the god of The Shack. "Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you." So the `Jesus' of The Shack informs us (pp. 122-3). But they are words that are hard to reconcile with the real Jesus of the Bible who was not embarrassed to speak in hierarchical terms of his relationship with the Father: "the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father commands." (John 14:31) Unlike the biblical Trinity (I Cor. 11:3), there is no hierarchy among the members of The Shack's trinity who find such a concept incomprehensible (pp. 121-122, 124). In a perfect world, we are told, "there would be no need for hierarchy." (p. 124) Again, this flies in the face of the biblical depiction of the perfect world God created in the garden of Eden where He commanded Adam and Eve not to take of the fruit of the tree of life. In fact, the fall in Scripture is portrayed as a violation of the hierarchical order that God had established. And paradise in Scripture is only restored when "every knee will bow and ever tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." (Phil. 2:10-11) It all sounds rather `hierarchical' to me.

This is no small error but one that goes to the very heart of true biblical faith. Salvation occurs when the heart of an individual is brought back into loving submission to its proper Master. C.S. Lewis captured the beauty of that concept well when he said that "Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live." (Weight of Glory, p. 170) But The Shack is so enamored with postmodern fads that it cannot perceive even the most basic spiritual realities. Significantly, the biblical metaphors for God are all authority figures to whom submission is appropriate and necessary: Father, Shepherd, King, Judge, etc. It is certainly not coincidental that the god of the Shack is portrayed in far more effeminate terms.

Since authority is jettisoned as unworthy of God, the concept of sin likewise is all but absent. How can we violate the will of a God who has no expectations and is never disappointed? The book speaks much of `brokenness' and of `horrendous and destructive choices' (p. 190) but little about human rebellion and wickedness - even though the story revolves around a horrific crime. The Bible tells us plainly that God "hates" and "abhors" wicked men and judges them accordingly (Ps 5:5-6; 11:5-6; Prov. 3:32-33). Sinners may come to experience the grace of God, but not because they are lovable but in spite of the fact that they are not, because of the sheer greatness of God's love, not our inherent value or worth (II Kings 17:15). Only one human has ever been truly worthy of God's love and that is Jesus. God's grace is dispensed freely to unworthy sinners only by virtue of the fact that they are in the Beloved One (Eph 1:6). But the god of the Shack repeatedly informs Mack that she is `especially fond of' everyone (pp. 118-119) and that as humans, we are "deserving of respect for what you inherently are..." (p. 190) "Guilt'll never help you find freedom in me" she tells Mack (p. 187) nor does she "do humiliation, or guilt, or condemnation." (p. 223) She certainly doesn't "need to punish people for sin" (p. 120 - the only reference to sin that I can remember in the book). In contrast, the God of the Bible, though "slow to anger...will not leave the guilty unpunished." (Nahum 1:3) He is a god who "will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction...." (II Thess. 1:8-9)

Since sin is marginalized, the atoning work of Christ is downplayed as well. We are informed significantly by `Papa' that when Christ cried out on the cross `My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' he was actually never forsaken at all. He only "felt" abandoned. (p. 96) This subtly drains the cross of its meaning. It implies that Jesus was not actually taking the punishment for our sin which truly does alienate us from God and required that the Father turn His back on the Savior as He bore that sin on the cross. Instead, the meaning of the cross is reduced to Christ's own subjective spiritual growth - "He found his way through it to put himself completely in my hands. Oh what a moment that was!" says `Papa' (p. 96). When Mack asks specifically what the significance of Christ's death is, `Papa's' explanation says nothing of sin, or of God's wrath (Rom 1:18; Eph 2:3), or of the shedding of blood as an atonement in our place (pp. 191-193). The discussion predictably emphasizes reconciliation since that has to do with relationship and relationship is where its at among postmoderns. But there is no indication that our alienation is due to our real guilt - our violation of God's Law - i.e. - His expectations of us. The impression we get is that reconciliation is needed not because the holiness of God has been offended but because Mack is "really scared of emotions." (p. 192) In other words the barrier to relationship is not his guilt, but his own psychological frailty and fear that keeps himself from opening himself up to God's love.

Since sin and judgment are underplayed, conversion is not very important to the `Jesus' of The Shack either. Those who love Christ, we are told, come from every religious system that exists including Buddhists, Mormons and Muslims and `Jesus' has "no desire to make them Christian" though he does "want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into brothers and sisters, into my beloved." (p. 182) We are not told how to reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements. At one point, Sophia, a personification of wisdom whom Mack encounters, seems to imply that even the murderer of Mack's daughter is a child of God and exempt from judgment (pp. 161-2). Admittedly, the dialogue is somewhat cryptic but it implies that God is above condemning sinners. This is certainly a far cry from the clarity of Scripture which warns not to be deceived into thinking that the wicked will inherit the kingdom of God (I Cor 6:9). Sophia's words at best open us up to just that sort of deception.

In short, the god of The Shack is a god that is very comfortable and very human (even having accidents in the kitchen!) - Mack feels right at home in their company from the start. In contrast, every human-divine encounter recorded in the Bible leaves the human recipient trembling in awesome fear. This alone should alert the reader that something is seriously amiss in Young's presentation.

I have just scratched the surface regarding the errors that I encountered in this book but this review is too long already. I have tried to limit myself to the most egregious offenses. Time and space forbid me from addressing numerous problems with regard to his portrayal of the Trinity and the incarnation. Whatever merits the book may have are clearly overshadowed by these serious deficiencies.

Young's aim in trying to lead the reader into an encounter with the living God is admirable. And his portrayal is no doubt appealing to people of our generation. Many hearts will be stirred by his sympathetic identification with those suffering from pain and doubts arising from tragedy. But unfortunately the god that Mack meets in The Shack is not the God of the Bible. They are two very different gods and in the end we are forced to choose whether we will submit to the authority of the one true God on His terms as expressed in the very first of the ten commandments: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Ex 20:3) or cast our lot with appealing figment of Young's imagination.
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Tracked by 9 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 36 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 23, 2009 5:49:11 PM PST
C. A. J. says:
Thank you Keith, that is well put.

Posted on Mar 27, 2009 5:18:59 AM PDT
1-eighty says:
I would have to say the same as C.A. Johnson, well put. I would like to put it in my reviews on my site.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 29, 2009 2:25:29 PM PDT
PK says:
Feel free. You have my permission.

PK

Posted on Apr 3, 2009 2:05:08 PM PDT
This review spells out so clearly the problems with this book. Thank you for taking the time to write it and share it.

Posted on Apr 13, 2009 7:43:49 AM PDT
Chaz says:
Excellent review, thank you. By contrast, all the 5 star reviews make me shutter at what is being attributed to the true God. It hurts to think about it. Why is it not a saving thought, a glorious thought, a thought that draws out intense praise that God's wrath is as great as the fear that is due Him? (Ps 90:11)

Posted on Apr 15, 2009 5:39:07 PM PDT
Thank you for pointing out the several flaws with this book. I was sorely disappointed...but then I remembered that it is a New York Times bestseller...that should have told me from the beginning what to expect. But I do like to read with an open mind...wanted to put it down several times.

Posted on Apr 25, 2009 5:29:34 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Apr 25, 2009 5:31:51 AM PDT]

Posted on Apr 25, 2009 5:31:04 AM PDT
V. Smith says:
When I read a review like this, it makes me wonder if the bible is actually beneficial or detrimental to "knowing" God.
I can only find 2 "laws" in the new testament as (supposedly) stated by Jesus. Love God with all your heart (emotion and desire) and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.
From what I have read, it appears that the "word of God" is a person and not a collection of writings.
While your (re)view is consistent with a widely accepted view of christianity, it sounds like one foot in the law and one foot in grace.

Posted on May 19, 2009 2:27:20 PM PDT
L. Peters says:
"He presumes to put words in the mouth of God"
With all due respect, I find this accusation absurd. The men who wrote the books of the Bible also presumed to put words in the mouth of God. If someone reads the Shack and finds comfort in it, finds a god they can live with, then more power to them. By all means, warn the religionists. But just because you don't like this version of God, doesn't make it a bad book. Maybe it's meant more for those of us who believe in God, but not in religion.

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2009 1:38:05 PM PDT
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