The Shack

by MW Cook

I just finished an interesting book called The Shack. I’ve heard that it’s very popular in Christian circles these days. Eugene Peterson says that The Shack has the potential to become the Pilgrim’s Progress for this generation. If you haven’t read it, here’s a synopsis (spoilers!). A young girl is brutally murdered. Her father, Mack, sinks into depression and loses touch with God. Three or four years later he gets a note in the mail that seems to be from God inviting him to spend the weekend with him at the shack in which his daughter was killed. He goes and spends a weekend with the triune God, manifested in a black lady (the Father), a middle-eastern carpenter (Jesus) and an oriental woman (the Spirit). Together they work through Mack’s depression, try to answer the question of evil and justice and God in the world, and generally have a good time doing it.

I want to talk about this book.

First I’ll tell you what I don’t have a problem with. I don’t have a problem with this book being wildly popular. We conservative, reformed, ‘capital B’ folks tend to be antagonistic to popular things. But I don’t have a problem with the book being popular. Popularity does not make something bad. The Bible is still the most popular book in the world.
I don’t have a problem with God meeting with a man in this story. God has done things like that before and, besides, this is a work of fiction and it should be understood in that way.
I don’t even have a problem, really, with God taking the appearance of a woman. I appreciate what he was trying to do with that. He was trying to show that our traditional views of God are off. Like Mack we view God as a white-haired old man in the sky. By showing God as a black woman the author is trying to show that God is above all that. God is neither male nor female. He is God. Asking whether God is a man or woman is like a block of wood asking if a human is oak or pine. The answer is ‘no’. If anyone thinks that God being represented as a woman is blasphemous they will need to admit that it’s just as blasphemous, except in the case of Christ, to represent him as a man.

And there are some things that I really appreciated about the book. I appreciated, like I said, the author’s attempt to show that God is not what we picture him as.
I appreciated how he made a sharp distinction between true faith in God and religion.
I really appreciated the fact that the author is a very skilled writer. It has been a long, long time since I’ve read a novel with Christian foundations that didn’t feel like a cheesy soap opera. This author has a lot of potential to bring Christian literature and thought back to the mainstream.

But, in spite of his obvious skill, I don’t think he will bring high quality evangelical literature back to the public eye. This is because the book’s foundation is built on a philosophy that does not mesh with the Biblical view of God.
The main foundation of this book, as I understand it, is God’s attitude and relationship to the evil that happens in the world. Evil, says the book, is the result of the choices humans make. This includes both social and environmental evils like earthquakes and such. God knows that these evils will happen, but he does not cause them and he gets offended at the accusation. At the same time God refuses to stop them from happening because in doing so he would violate the free will of his ‘children’. And love is never forced. God says that when you love someone you never, ever, try to get them to do something against their will because that is unloving. Our power of free volition is the greatest thing we have and worth all the evils of the world. Thus says The Shack.
I say that’s crap. Lots of it. And if you think about it for a minute you will probably come to the same conclusion. Picture this: My wife suddenly decides that it would be a good idea to run into a busy street. What do I do? Do I try to reason with her that it’s not a good idea? Do I beg and plead and command her not to do it? Probably. But what if she doesn’t listen? Shall I say ‘I love her, and therefore I will let her do this thing that she wants to do.’? Of course not! I will use all my physical strength to restrain her and stop her from doing it! Even if she cries out that she desperately wants to run out into the streets I will not listen to her. Even if I have to physically hurt her, I will stop her. She stays on the side of the road, period. Not because I delight in having authority over her, but because I love her. I think, then, the most loving thing God could do if I am doing something destructive, is to take control of my will, melt my frozen heart and cause me to love him. Which is, by the way, exactly what he does.
So the foundation and core of the book is bad. Very, very bad. It makes God into a weak father who wrings his hands saying ‘if only, if only.’ It also makes God primarily a responder. God is not so much the mover in the universe as he is the one who is moved. He doesn’t weave the history of the cosmos into a beautiful tapestry, rather he cleans up the mess we’ve made as best he can. It makes God into a lifeguard who will only go so far into the water to save you, because he wants you to swim just a little bit to him so you can take part in saving yourself. This is not the God of the Bible, though.
Another interesting thing I noticed was when Mack’s first day with God ended. He went into his room and found a Gideon’s Bible sitting on the table by the bed. He started to read it but fell asleep after a few minutes. This was one of the only times the Bible is mentioned at all in the book. And it puts Mack to sleep. The book follows the trend that considers dreams, visions and emotional experiences more solid and real and encouraging than the Bible. I think this is very dangerous because dreams, visions and emotional experiences come and go. And when our faith is based on these things we will, I think, fall into a false comfort that will fade away as soon as we get off our high. I mean, I get emotional experiences when I listen to 80s rock.
His view of sin is also, I think, damaging. Mack, at one point, asks God what he expects of him. God basically says ‘nothing’. There is no law, there is no guilt. Guilt is always bad and never leads to a right relationship with God. This, also, is dangerous. Morality becomes subjective because the only sin is being away from God. But the only test for being close to God is our emotional experiences so I could be living in utter sin and still be convinced that I have a right relationship with the Father. In this book God never rebukes Mack for his sin. He never encourages him to take up a cross and follow him. God does not act, he reacts. He does not take the initiative in the relationship, he waits for Mack to do it.

Free will does not exist. There, I said it. But I probably don’t mean what you think I mean. From birth we are slaves to sin. Our will is bound to sin. Just try to stop and you’ll see what I mean. There’s something in us that just wants to go after suicidal desires. God takes the initiative to deal with that, because left to ourselves we neither would be able or willing to deal with it. I’m not saying we are not responsible, I’m just saying we’re so weak we can’t do it on our own! So God does it for us. The analogy of God throwing us a lift jacket and us having the choice to put it on is not accurate. Rather, God dives in the water, with the incarnation, grabs us and carries us to shore, then pumps the water out of our dead lungs and pulls us into life. The heavy emphasis being put on the gloriousness of free will in this book (and in the church in general) is dangerous and simply wrong.

Has anyone read this book?