Arts and Culture

A Review of The Shack by William P. Young

Author Melinda Penner Published on 03/22/2013

You’re going to be surprised. I was. I liked it. It does reveal some things about God well and things I’ve never really seen attempted in literature before.

You’re not going to be surprised. I wasn’t. I didn’t like it. I have some serious concerns about it.

I can’t recommend it. I can’t condemn it.

The Trinity is a core doctrine of Christianity because it tells us about the very nature of God as revealed in Scripture. The Trinity isn’t hard to define, but it is hard to understand because it is so wholly other than anything in the created world. We can never fully comprehend it, though it’s worth studying the Trinity because there is much we can understand and it leaves you in awe of how unique beautiful our God is.

But there’s no way to illustrate the Trinity without leaning toward one misunderstanding or another, if not falling into outright heresy, because there is nothing else like the Trinity. Literature, or any other form of expression, that compares the Trinity to or represents the Trinity as something we’re familiar will necessarily not fully and accurately accomplish that since there is nothing else comparable. Any depiction of the Trinity in isolation will be a distortion, problematic if it shapes a misunderstanding of God. So granted at the outset there’s no way to represent the Trinity without representing a misunderstanding of the Trinity. That may be a serious enough liability that nothing warrants doing that. I’m open to that argument.

The reason I’m open to that argument, though, isn’t really because of the inherent limitations of our ability to represent the Trinity accurately in any medium; it’s because most Christians don’t really have a basic operating understanding of the Trinity to have the discernment to recognize the limitation. My main concern about The Shack is that I fear that the average Christian with no basic knowledge of the Trinity will form their idea of the Trinity from the book, which will be a serious misunderstanding of this very basic and important doctrine of Christianity. That’s why I can’t recommend the book. But I’m not sure that’s really a fault of the book, but a fault of the church in educating Christians about Christianity.

I am disturbed that most of the time I hear Christians say, “I love the book.” Period. Nothing more. Nothing troubled them about the book because some things should. And there are things to appreciate about the book. It needs to be read with discernment as do all books, and I’m afraid theological discernment is not a virtue and skill developed by the average church experience. Every Christian who reads The Shack should be troubled; but I think every Christian can also appreciate aspects of the book while recognizing it’s weaknesses.

The polls of what Christians believe are troubling. They show that many Christians, especially young ones, are moral relativists. Recent polls indicate that a majority of evangelicals believe that many paths lead to salvation. Christians don’t know Christianity. Christians put a lot of emphasis on experiences with God to the detriment, I think, of knowing God. Consequently, The Shack will mislead them.

The Trinity is three persons in one divine substance. Any accurate understanding of the Trinity cannot overemphasize the plurality or the unity of God. Those result in heresies. The book represents the persons of God to the detriment of the unity of the substance of God. There is no way to represent that accurately in literature. But I think it’s possible to read The Shack and gain the good it has to offer and recognize the inherent liability of the medium. But the prerequisite is a decent understanding of the Trinity.

For the discerning reader, which it’s possible every Christian could and should be, I think there are some very sweet and beautiful aspects of The Shack. God’s love is communicated in a very palpable way, for us and for the persons of the Trinity toward each other. The Father is depicted as a black woman and simultaneously called Papa, which I guess is an attempt to avoid assigning God a sex one way or the other, but successfully conveys an enveloping love and tenderness. Now, I’m concerned about even representing the Father as a woman because I take very seriously the way God has revealed Himself to us in Scripture and the words matter verbal inspiration. And God chose male pronouns. However, we do know that God is not male or female, and the Psalm depict God as a hen gathering her chicks. And Papa’s love is palpable in The Shack, which is one of the book’s virtues. The comfort of the Holy Spirit is also very emotional the way it’s depicted in the book.

Mack, the main character, weeds out the garden with Sarayu, the Holy Spirit. The overgrown garden turns out to be his soul and character that Sarayu is tending. That’s a graphic picture of the Holy Spirit’s work with each of us.

A scene that really affected me was the Trinity having devotion after dinner. It was an image of the persons of the Trinity adoring each other, which is a true fact about God that I’ve never read depicted. That was something accurate about God that I’ve never apprehended in the way I did reading it in The Shack.

Since these truths about God are so uniquely well done in the book, those alone for me were worth reading it.

The book tries to work out some other doctrinal issues about God with varying success. There are some details about the social Trinity, the hierarchy of the Trinity within the substance, that I don’t agree with, but it was an intelligent attempt.

There are some troubling doctrinal issues. Papa has the marks of the crucifixion as a way of depicting the unity of purpose and perhaps substance with Jesus at His death. But that, I thought, was mixing the persons of the Trinity in a troubling way. Jesus is the one who died, not the Father, and it comes pretty close to a heresy about the crucifixion. Jesus is also said, in The Shack, to still be in the kenosis, His limited human capabilities. That troubled me.

Some common religious preconceptions are skewered and that’s good. But some of these I disagree with. Papa says in the book that it’s not His purpose to punish sin, but the Bible actually does tell us that God judges sin, hates sinners (Ps. 5), and will judge us all at The Great White Throne of Judgment. I also think the book seems to convey universalism and no Hell, but that isn’t explicit so I’m not sure.

The quality of the literature as fiction was average. The story had some cheesy parts. I got the feeling sometimes that the author enjoys being iconoclastic, but I admit that I am on the alert for that and may see that when it’s not intended. And let’s face it, some stereotypes should be shattered. But what is attempted to be communicated about God through the story is pretty unique and monumental, and more successful than I expected. However, as I said, I can’t recommend the book outright. I’d have to know the individual and their knowledge of basic Christianity before I felt comfortable doing that. And for Christians who don’t have the basics about the Trinity, I might suggest the book if I also could discuss with them what the Bible teaches about the Trinity. I would never recommend the book to someone whose idea of the Trinity is going to be shaped by this fictional depiction.

Fred Sanders, a theologian who specializes in the doctrine of the Trinity, has studied the history of artistic depictions of the Trinity. He’s lectured for STR on this topic. What he illustrates in the art are the truths communicated about God, and he also points out the inaccuracies. Sanders’ idea is that there is inherent merit in art about God despite the intrinsic limitations of depicting God accurately. But that requires an understanding to glean the good from the way that art can convey truths in a way that definitions and dogma do not and recognize what it cannot and does not depict well. I think The Shack falls within that realm.

If you’re going to read The Shack, I think you should also be willing to spend more time than you spend on the book studying the Trinity so you have the discernment necessary to appreciate the book for what it is. Here are some resources I suggest that are suitable for any Christianity from college-age up.