What's So Bad About 'The Shack?'
By Belinda Elliott
When the novel, The Shack, was released last year by author William Paul Young it created quite a controversy. Everyone, it seemed, had a strong opinion to offer about the book. Some embraced the story as a creative depiction of how God works in our lives, while others dismissed it as “heresy”.
All of the debate piqued my interest, so I was very excited when I received the book as a Christmas present. I quickly devoured it keeping an eye out for any ‘heretical’ teachings. As a novel, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the story quickly pulled me in and kept me turning pages. It is a quite heartwarming and satisfying work of fiction.
As a work of heresy, however, I was sorely disappointed. I just couldn’t find much in the book that I would consider heretical.
If you haven’t read the book, let me catch you up with a quick synopsis (beware: spoilers ahead). The book’s central character, Mack, receives a mysterious note signed by “Papa” inviting him to come to “the shack.” Papa is the name Mack’s wife affectionately uses for God, and the shack is a deserted cabin located deep in the wilderness.
This location is the site where immense tragedy invaded Mack’s life. While on a camping trip, his youngest daughter, Missy, was kidnapped and brutally killed inside the run-down shack. Mack doesn’t know if the mysterious note could be from the killer who is taunting him, or if it could perhaps be a note from God. He goes to the shack to investigate, and this is where most of the story takes place.
It turns out the note is from God and Mack soon comes face to face with The Trinity. He spends a weekend with these three interesting characters trying to make sense of all the painful events of his life and hoping to get some answers for the questions that have haunted him in the years following Missy’s death.
The author portrays the Trinity in a unique way. I understand that some readers will be uncomfortable with this portrayal, especially with God The Father as an African American woman and the Holy Spirit as a mysterious Asian woman named Sarayu. This depiction is one of the things that many critics have deemed heretical. Some have gone as far as to cite these two characters as the promotion of “goddess worship” or a feminist God. But I found these to be not only interesting artistic choices, but actually enlightening in a spiritual sense as well.
Mack, too, is a bit surprised when he first meets them.
“Thoughts tumbled over each other as Mack struggled to figure out what to do. Was one of these people God? … Since there were three of them, maybe this was a Trinity sort of thing. But two women and a man and none of them white? Then again, why had he naturally assumed that God would be white? He knew his mind was rambling, so he focused on the one question he most wanted answered.
“Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “which one of you is God?”
“I am,” said all three in unison. Mack looked from one to the next, and even though he couldn’t begin to grasp what he was seeing and hearing, he somehow believed them.” (The Shack, p. 87)
Why should we be concerned whether God is portrayed as male or female when, in fact, Scripture tells us that He is neither? God is Spirit and has no gender, even though the Bible often uses the pronoun "He" for God and describes him as a Father-figure. Young offers a detailed explanation of this in the book.
The problem is that the author is attempting to describe the indescribable. Scripture tells us that God’s thoughts are higher than ours, so I don’t expect that humans will ever be able to fully understand heavenly things. How should one depict The Trinity? Where would one even begin to describe a God that is three in one? I certainly wouldn’t know where to start, which is why I find Young’s depiction of them so fascinating. Observing how these three characters interact gives readers a better understanding of some aspects of God’s nature.
The Shack 's depiction of God is an interesting portrait that isn’t meant to be taken literally as much as it is meant to capture many of the attributes of God that we read about in the Bible. These characters’ interactions with Mack show that God is compassionate, loving, and that He desires a close relationship with each of us.
God relates to us in the ways that we will best be able to hear Him. Because of Mack’s painful childhood memories of an abusive dad, perhaps he would not have embraced God the way we typically see Him portrayed, as a Father-figure.
Wayne Jacobsen, an author who consulted on the writing of the novel and formed the company that would later publish it, wrote a blog last year to answer some of the accusations from critics of The Shack. He assures readers that the team of writers who helped shape the story are all committed Christians and that they strived to keep the ideas presented in the book true to Scripture.
“Just because we didn’t put Scriptural addresses with their numbers and colons at every allusion in the story, does not mean that the Bible isn’t the key source in virtually every conversation Mack has with God,” Jacobsen said. “Scriptural teaching and references appear on almost every page. They are reworded in ways to be relevant to those reading the story, but at every point we sought to be true to the way God has revealed himself in the Bible except for the literary characterizations that move the story forward. At its core the book is one long Bible study as Mack seeks to resolve his anger at God.”
Another issue he addressed in his blog is the author’s choice to portray God, or “Papa,” as a woman.
“The book uses some characterizations of God to mess with the religious stereotypes only to get people to consider God as he really is, not how we have reconstituted him as a white, male autocrat bent on religious conformity,” Jacobsen said. “There are important reasons in the story why God takes the expressions he does for Mack, which underlines his nature to meet us where we are, to lead us to where he is.”
Later in the book, after Mack has dealt with the painful past regarding his father, “Papa” is no longer seen as a woman. Instead, he appears as a man who lends incredible strength and guidance as Mack completes the hardest part of his emotional journey.
Young’s depiction of the Holy Spirit is also very interesting. The name Sarayu, the author explains, means “wind” just as the Holy Spirit is compared to wind in John 3:8. Young does an incredible job of capturing an air of mystery in this character.
“As she stepped back, Mack found himself involuntarily squinting in her direction, as if doing so would allow his eyes to see her better. But strangely, he still had a difficult time focusing on her; she seemed almost to shimmer in the light and her hair blew in all directions even though there was hardly a breeze. It was almost easier to see her out of the corner of his eye than it was to look at her directly.” (The Shack, pg.84)
This characterization, too, has raised red flags for some critics. Some have even suggested that the name the author chose promotes Hinduism or New Age beliefs in some way.
“When you hear how Paul (Young) selected the names he did it wasn’t to make veiled references to Hinduism, black Madonnas, or anything else," Jacobsen said. "It was to uncover facets of God’s character that are clear in the Scriptures.”
Again, I ask, how should the Holy Spirit be portrayed? Would critics feel better if this character were portrayed as a man? A ghost? A voice with no form or body? Who’s to say? I think Young’s description works quite well.
In his book, Finding God in ‘The Shack,’ author Randal Rauser examines this portrayal of the Holy Spirit. He concludes that Young successfully captures some of the Holy Spirit’s attributes when he depicts Sarayu as compassionate, creative, mysterious, intangible, empowering, and always in motion.
In addition to the depiction of the Trinity, Rauser also examines other theological positions in the book including, the problem of evil, the atoning work of Christ, how a relationship with Christ can bring hope and healing in the midst of our pain. One would do well to read Rauser’s book whether they have a particular interest in The Shack or not. He does an excellent job of taking theological doctrines from the halls of seminaries and explaining them to those of us not prone to study theology.
Because this novel has sparked such enthusiastic dialogue in coffee shops and around water coolers across the country, it offers the perfect opportunity for Christians to join in the conversations with their non-Christian friends and co-workers. Rauser’s book provides an excellent crash-course in the theology behind some of the more difficult questions that are sure to arise while discussing The Shack.
He agrees that the author’s depiction of God may not be perfect, but he says that it does beautifully illustrate God’s concern for us and the ways He desires to work in our lives if we will let Him.
“Perhaps the most we can hope for is to attain glimpses of the beauty, harmony, and unconditional love at the heart of God,” Rauser said.
According to Jacobsen, that was Young's real intent. “Our hope was to help people see how the Loving Creator can penetrate our defenses and lead us to healing,” he said.
Jesus told parables and used metaphors to grab the attention of his listeners, explain spiritual concepts, and sometimes shock people out of their comfort zones. Why would we think that God would be offended by people in our culture using the art of storytelling in much the same way to explain God’s love and how He wants to be involved in our lives?
Many of our friends and neighbors would never dare to pick up a Bible to read in their free time. Nor would they attend a church service where they could learn more about God. But many of them would be quick to grab a copy of the latest New York Times bestseller, especially when they hear so much buzz about it in the media. That’s why storytelling is a useful method of sharing the Gospel, and that’s why The Shack is such an incredible book.
I believe Rauser says it best in his examination of the novel: “There is nothing so profound as the concept of God, and few things as shocking as the notion that the creator of all things would stoop to our level and reveal himself to us in a most personal and intimate way. … The Shack will not answer all our questions, nor does it aspire to. But we can be thankful that it has started a great conversation.”
To learn more about the theological positions found in The Shack, check out Rauser’s book, Finding God in the Shack.
Read Jacobsen’s full blog where he answers criticisms about the novel.
Purchase your copy of William Paul Young’s novel, The Shack.
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