How can I give heresy three stars? Read and find out.
The Shack is a fictional story written as a way for the author to illustrate his own spiritual journey and finding healing from sexual abuse, addiction, hidden sins, and suffering loss through the Gospel. It emerged initially from compiling 15 years worth of devotionals and journal writing and personal experiences. Rather than write an autobiography, the author chose to use fictional characters and to write a story he could give to his kids for Christmas. The sensation came later when others read the book and wanted more copies.
Tim Challies has written one of the most-read critiques of the book, calling it subversive heresy (PDF here), not just for its portrayal of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as physical characters but for its "bad theology" and criticisms of the contemporary American church. The accusations of bad theology include universalism, modalism, and a poor or incomplete picture of the Gospel and the authority of Scripture. I will address those accusations in this review. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary writes: "The obvious question is this: How is it that so many evangelical Christians seem to be drawn not only to this story, but to the theology presented in the narrative — a theology at so many points in conflict with evangelical convictions?" Mohler concludes: "The popularity of this book among evangelicals can only be explained by a lack of basic theological knowledge among us — a failure even to understand the Gospel of Christ." http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/01/27/the-shack-the-missing-art-of-evangelical-discernment/ (Mark Driscoll preached a brief piece accusing the book of modalist heresy, but I think that accusation has been fairly well debunked. Driscoll later admitted he'd never read the book. I am fairly certain from the ease I had of finding counterpoints to his criticisms that Tim Challies has never actually read the entire book either.)
I agree with Mohler's conclusion, but we differ in that I believe the Gospel presentation in the book is what is attracting people to the book and not some false hope created by bad theology. Challies, Mohler, and myself essentially play on the same "team," as Reformed Southern Baptists, though I cannot claim their theological credentials. In this review I will show how the Gospel is described in the book and explain why I think Challies and Mohler are missing the forest because of the trees. I also believe Challies is hypocritical in his criticism of this book relative to the more positive reviews he gives non-fiction books that arguably contain greater error by his own judgement. The criticisms also beg the question: What should Christian fiction look like? I'll also try to address that question at the end. Nonetheless, Challies and Mohler raise some valid points and I have some areas of agreement with them.
I'm not sure why Mohler did not bother asking any of his fellow church members (of which I'm sure there were some) why they liked the book, instead of accusing everyone of being biblically ignorant. People I know who love this book are not unintelligent. They are also well-versed in Scripture and were raised in Bible-teaching churches. To better answer Mohler's question about why people are attracted to the book, let's look at the main character (Mackenzie).
Despite having a childhood with an abusive alcoholic father and abandoning his family at an early age, he is now a "nice" man who tries to be a good husband and father. His wife is the spiritual one, has a closer relationship with God than he can understand, but he admires her for it. He suffers a parent's worst nightmare, losing his young daughter in the woods to a serial killer. He is left with a "Great Sadness," personal guilt, and pent up anger against God for allowing it to happen. Mack's seminary training taught him that God no longer communicated with man outside of Scripture which requires experts to interpret properly. He had also been taught that the Genesis stories of creation and the garden of Eden were not literally true but merely legends containing some truths. His experience with church life was mostly one of dull routines and programs, legalism, judgement, and American patriotism. His understanding of God's love was that it was conditional upon him keeping the rules and doing good works. He did not see God as someone he could trust or love like a dad, in part because his own dad had been very abusive. The shack is the deep inward place that contains all of the guilt, pain, and unforgiveness and has to be dealt with. In the course of the story, Mack learns that his "preconceived notions" about God's love and sovereignty were false, and he reaches a better understanding of the Gospel and finds healing and forgiveness for himself and his family.
Everyone at some point asks "if God is good and love, how could he let such evil happen?" Everyone is wounded deeply at some point in their life (men most often by their fathers, see Eldridge's Wild at Heart) and struggles with forgiveness as a result. For those experiencing tragedy such as the loss of a child there is often a sense of guilt "Is God punishing me for something?" We all desperately want healing, forgiveness, and to make sense of what has happened. THAT, Dr. Mohler, is why people are attracted to this book. The underlying theme of the Shack is that forgiveness is essential to healing. That is a deeply biblical message rooted in the Gospel. Young dedicates it to those with "grief, broken dreams and damaged hearts...unique losses, our own 'shack.'" I might rather everyone read non-fiction like McGee's Search for Significance or Piper's Future Grace to find answers to these questions, but most people find it easier to read light fiction (that I argue says the same things), which is The Shack.
Challies contends the book is "subversive" for criticizing "many aspects of the church and contemporary Christianity" and demeaning of Scripture and seminary education because of Mack's background and how his theological training failed him. I do not see God helping Mack work through his false beliefs and errant "preconceived notions" as subversive of Scripture, rather it is Scripture that is confronting his false beliefs. If we admit it, even though we know that God is Spirit, we Americans picture him as a white Gandalf-like figure, with a booming voice like we saw in the movie The Ten Commandments. My Southern Baptist churches have always been made up predominantly of white, middle class Americans who overwhelmingly vote Republican. These are more of Mack's "preconceived notions," and I don't find God's criticism of them in the book subversive. Perhaps it would be subversive if Mack were told that his new understanding gives him superiority. But observe what Young writes instead:
“Mack, the world system is what it is. Institutions, systems, ideologies, and all the vain, futile efforts of humanity that go with them are everywhere, and interaction with all of it is unavoidable. But I can give you freedom to overcome any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social, or political. You will grow in the freedom to be inside or outside all kinds of systems and to move freely between and among them. Together, you and I can be in it and not of it.”
“But so many of the people I care about seem to be both in it and of it!” Mack was thinking of his friends, church people who had expressed love to him and his family. He knew they loved Jesus, but were also sold out to religious activity and patriotism.
“Mack, I love them. And you wrongly judge many of them. For those who are both in it and of it, we must find ways to love and serve them, don’t you think?” asked Jesus. “Remember, the people who know me are the ones who are free to live and love without any agenda.”
In the book, Jesus says "Who said anything about being a Christian? I'm not a Christian...I have no desire to make (my followers) Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved." Many point to this passage as overtly subversive and problematic. However, I read somewhere that a recent surveys in America have suggested that the word "Christian" is associated with being politically active, anti-abortion, and for lower taxes and nothing to do with the Gospel. This coincides with Mack's background and "preconceived notions" that I have explained above. If you have ever lived in a Muslim country (I have) you know how politically charged the word "Christian" is when the native associates it with an enemy nation next door rather than by what YOU mean by the word and the struggle to find the right word to identify yourself.
I believe that Challies and Mohler know plenty like Mack who have been hurt or disappointed by the church, not actually found Jesus or understood the Gospel there, and fallen into legalism. Also, most seminaries in the U.S. do not teach the Bible as literal. The book affirms the truth of stories like Genesis, much to Mack's surprise, so I find it hard to believe it's undermining Scripture in the way Challies claims. Many of the truths in the book could have come from the pages of Search for Significance, Piper's Desiring God, C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, or Tozer's The Pursuit of God (Tozer and Lewis are cited by Young as influences). Those are all books that helped me work through the same issues that Mack works through. Search for Significance, in particular, taught me Romans 8 and the meaning of propitiation in a way I had never heard growing up in a prominent Southern Baptist church and having exposure to the teachings of Mohler and others in great churches. Is my criticism of the church "subversive?" I don't think so. If so, then Challies ought to heavily criticize David Platt's book Radical, rather than praising it, for its critique of contemporary American church.
Many of the explanations God gives Mack about his sovereignty, salvation, and love are also straight from Romans 8. There are emotionally powerful scenes where Mack wrestles to accept the entire Gospel and to forgive others as he's been forgiven. Those of us who have been through Christian counseling can relate to this, so I find Challies and Mohler's insensitivity and dismissals somewhat concerning. Challies asks: "A question worth asking is this one: does The Shack point Christians to the unfailing standard of Scripture or does it point them to new and fresh revelation?" In my experience there are many cessationists out there, particularly in the evangelical Reformed (ie: Calvinist) world, who believe that the canon was the end of the miraculous. Perhaps Challies and Mohler are among those. I am one who believes that Scripture is God-breathed and inerrant, and that all other revelations and "spirits" are to be judged in light of Scripture, but Scripture itself tells us that God speaks in ways other than the written word (1 Corinthians 12,13). (Matt Chandler, a Reformed Southern Baptist, recently preached a great sermon critiquing cessationists, check it out).
Many of the critical reviews of this book are, unfortunately, by those who run in more cessationist circles. I think that makes their critiques at least appear biased, even if they themselves are not cessationists. The difference between this book and, say, Search for Significance is that it's fiction and does not directly cite Scripture that is being quoted and paraphrased. This does not mean that Scripture is not the standard. On the contrary, I found it easy to think of parallel passages or the exact passages being referenced by the characters in the book (in that sense it's similar to Pilgrim's Progress). I will agree that to the biblically illiterate this may look to hold up a "fresh revelation" but Challies should recognize the lessons presented to Mack come straight from Scripture and do not supercede it. Those Scriptures, like the Search for Significance or Radical examples above, are not taught clearly in many churches (that's why they were written). I would have liked the book more if God had said "Haven't you read what is written...?" more often. But since the truths essential to the narrative presented and accepted by Mack are backed by Scripture, I think it behooves Challies and others to point that out instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
For example, The Shack affirms a literal Garden of Eden and the consequences of sin as described in Genesis 3 and Romans 1 (something that ran contrary to Mack's seminary education). It affirms the descriptions we have in Scripture of Jesus' relationship with the Father (John 14:8-12, 16:25-32, Philippians 2:5-11, etc.), the sovereignty of God in all of our circumstances (Romans 8), God's redemptive plan for all of creation, etc. It also affirms Jesus as "fully man and fully God" in accordance with orthodoxy and contrary to the modalism claimed by critics.
What about the Gospel and the cross, are they presented clearly in the book? Challies contends that the Cross is only "hinted at." There is some validity to this, the Passion narrative and resurrection are not clearly recounted. But at one point Mack is broken by the sin of the world:
Mack struggled for the words to tell her (God) what was in his heart. “I’m so sorry that you, that Jesus, had to die.”
She walked around the table and gave Mack another big hug. “I know you are, and thank you. But you need to know that we aren’t sorry at all. It was worth it. Isn’t that right, son?” She turned to ask her question of Jesus, who had just entered the cabin.
“Absolutely!” He paused and then looked at Mack. “And I would have done it even if it were only for you, but it wasn’t!” he said with an inviting grin.
This scene may look hokey but the message is not much different than what was taught in my conservative Southern Baptist Sunday school classes as a child. There is another chapter where Mack learns that salvation is not based on works but was accomplished on the cross and is available by grace:
Holy Spirit: “Why do you think we came up with the Ten Commandments?” ...
Mack: “I suppose, at least I have been taught, that it’s a set of rules that you expected humans to obey in order to live righteously in your good graces.”
“If that were true, which it is not,” Sarayu countered, “then how many do you think lived righteously enough to enter our good graces?...only one succeeded—Jesus. He not only obeyed the letter of the law but fulfilled the spirit of it completely. But understand this, Mackenzie—to do that he had to rest fully and dependently upon me.” (my note, see: Luke 22:39-44)
“Then why did you give us those commandments?” asked Mack.
“Actually, we wanted you to give up trying to be righteous on your own. It was a mirror to reveal just how filthy your face gets when you live independently.”
“But as I’m sure you know there are many,” responded Mack, “who think they are made righteous by following the rules.”
“But can you clean your face with the same mirror that shows you how dirty you are? There is no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake. That’s why Jesus fulfilled all of it for you—so that it no longer has jurisdiction over you. And the Law that once contained impossible demands—Thou Shall Not . . .—actually becomes a promise we fulfill in you.” She was on a roll now, her countenance billowing and moving. “But keep in mind that if you live your life alone and independently, the promise is empty. Jesus laid the demand of the law to rest; it no longer has any power to accuse or command. Jesus is both the promise and its fulfillment.”
... “Mackenzie,” Sarayu continued, “those who are afraid of freedom are those who cannot trust us to live in them. Trying to keep the law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control.”
“Is that why we like the law so much—to give us some control?” asked Mack. “It is much worse than that,” resumed Sarayu. “It grants you the power to judge others and feel superior to them. You believe you are living to a higher standard than those you judge. Enforcing rules, especially in its more subtle expressions like responsibility and expectation, is a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty. And contrary to what you might think, I have a great fondness for uncertainty. Rules cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse.”
Is that not a good partial explanation of Jesus' substitutionary atonement, and how we're saved by grace rather than works?
"The Shack also muddles the concept of redemption," writes Challies. "(T)he Bible makes it clear that redemption has already been accomplished."
If that is so, then why does Jesus speak of redemption as an event beyond the time after his ascension (Luke 21:28)? Why does Paul use the word redemption in describing an event that will occur in the future (Romans 8:22-23, Ephesians 4:30)? There seems to be a semantic issue where Challies would prefer Young have used "salvation" or another term instead of "redemption." I do not think this is grounds for claiming heresy. For example, Challies critiques young for writing that God would want to "redeem" the man that killed Mack's daughter. "“[H]e too is my son. I want to redeem him.” In this passage, God is imploring Mack to forgive the killer and release him to God; that this is essential to Mack's healing. What if God instead said "I desire for that killer to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," would that not be 1 Timothy 2:4? Is that radically different from saying "I want to redeem him?" Also, see Ezekiel 18:21-23. I'm not a theologian, so perhaps Young muddies the difference between Challies' definitions of salvation and redemption. Young is not likely Reformed so the critique seems more like a family matter than one of heresy. If Challies is arguing from an Augustinian view that if Mack's killer is elect then God already knows that and knows his redemption has already been accomplished, then okay, but he logically must conclude semi-Pelagian points of view are also heresy (which he might believe, I don't know).
In the book, Mack sees a redeemed version of the shack. Instead of a dilapidated old cabin that served as a place of evil, he sees a pristine log cabin in its place. That is symbolism of God's plan for the redemption of all creation. I do, however, take issue with Young's calling everyone a "child" when we know that " to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:12). We are all created in God's image but not "all God's children." I think the use of that language opens Young up to the universalism critique, which I address later.
There are some good dialogs with the Holy Spirit where Mack gains greater understanding of the sovereignty of God which is essential to him being able to understand forgiveness. Romans 8:28 tells us that God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Many times in Scripture we see evil acts ultimately for God's good. Joseph told his brothers "What you intended for evil, God intended for good" (Genesis 50:20). Why, then, do we as Christians complain and act as God has abandoned us when something befalls us that is hurtful? Why don't we thank God in these moments and trust what He is doing? I find this to be relatively unaddressed from pulpits, but it is illustrated well in the book in this conversation between Mack and the Holy Spirit (sounds a lot like this Andy Stanley sermon):
(Holy Spirit:) When something happens to you, how do you determine whether it is good or evil?” Mack thought for a moment before answering. “Well, I haven’t really thought about that. I guess I would say that something is good when I like it—when it makes me feel good or gives me a sense of security. Conversely, I’d call something evil that causes me pain or costs me something I want.”
“So it is pretty subjective then?”
“I guess it is.”
“And how confident are you in your ability to discern what indeed is good for you, or what is evil?” “To be honest,” said Mack, “I tend to sound justifiably angry when somebody is threatening my ‘good,’ you know, what I think I deserve. But I’m not really sure I have any logical ground for deciding what is actually good or evil, except how something or someone affects me...my track record isn’t very encouraging either. Some things I initially thought were good turned out to be horribly destructive, and some things that I thought were evil, well, they turned out . . .”
(Holy Spirit:) "Both evil and darkness can only be understood in relation to Light and Good; they do not have any actual existence. I am Light and I am Good. I am Love and there is no darkness in me. Light and Good actually exist. So, removing yourself from me will plunge you into darkness. Declaring independence will result in evil because apart from me, you can only draw upon yourself. That is death because you have separated yourself from me: Life.”
“Wow,” Mack exclaimed, sitting back for a moment. “That really helps. But, I can also see that giving up my independent right is not going to be an easy process. It could mean that . . .”
Sarayu interrupted his sentence again. “. . . that in one instance, the good may be the presence of cancer or the loss of income—or even a life.”
“Yeah, but tell that to the person with cancer or the father whose daughter is dead,” Mack postured, a little more sarcastically than he had intended.
“Oh, Mackenzie,” reassured Sarayu. “Don’t you think we have them in mind as well? Each of them was the center of another story that is untold.”
A character identified as Wisdom from Proverbs, who seems like the Holy Spirit, engages in a logical conversation in which Mack gets convicted for having judged others, something he knew God warned against:
"What right did he have to judge anyone? Sure, in some measure he probably was guilty of judging almost everyone he had met and many that he had not. Mack knew he was thoroughly guilty for being self-centered. How dare he judge anyone else? All his judgments had been superficial, based on appearance and actions, things easily interpreted by whatever state of mind or prejudice that supported the need to exalt himself, or to feel safe, or to belong. He also knew that he was starting to panic."
Even with this conviction, Mack still condemns certain people:
Wisdom: “And what about the man who preys on innocent little girls? What about him, Mackenzie? Is that man guilty? Should he be judged?”
“Yes!” screamed Mack. “Damn him to hell!” ...
“How far do we go back, Mackenzie? This legacy of brokenness goes all the way back to Adam, what about him? But why stop there? What about God? God started this whole thing. Is God to blame?” Mack was reeling. He didn’t feel like a judge at all, but rather the one on trial. The woman was unrelenting. “Isn’t this where you are stuck, Mackenzie? Isn’t this what fuels The Great Sadness? That God cannot be trusted? Surely, a father like you can judge the Father!” Again his anger rose like a towering flame. He wanted to lash out, but she was right and there was no point in denying it. She continued, “Isn’t that your just complaint, Mackenzie? That God has failed you, that he failed Missy? That before the Creation, God knew that one day your Missy would be brutalized, and still he created? And then he allowed that twisted soul to snatch her from your loving arms when he had the power to stop him. Isn’t God to blame, Mackenzie?” Mack was looking at the floor, a flurry of images pulling his emotions in every direction. Finally, he said it, louder than he intended, and pointed his finger right at her.
“Yes! God is to blame!” The accusation hung in the room as the gavel fell in his heart.
This is powerful. Mack has four people to forgive in order to gain healing:
3. His father
4. His daughter's killer
Once he understands God's sovereignty and that everyone (and all creation) suffers the consequences of sin like Mack does because of Adam & Eve's sin in the garden, and that God is working all things together for good and His glory (Romans 8), he can start to trust and love God. Then, Mack needs to know that Missy wasn't killed for his own sins and faults. Another powerful scene:
“Is that who your God is, Mackenzie? It is no wonder you are drowning in your sorrow. Papa isn’t like that, Mackenzie. She’s not punishing you, or Missy, or Nan. This was not his doing.”
“But he didn’t stop it.”
“No, he didn’t. He doesn’t stop a lot of things that cause him pain. Your world is severely broken. You demanded your independence, and now you are angry with the one who loved you enough to give it to you. Nothing is as it should be, as Papa desires it to be, and as it will be one day. Right now your world is lost in darkness and chaos, and horrible things happen to those that he is especially fond of.”
“Then why doesn’t he do something about it?”
“He already has . . .”
“You mean what Jesus did?”
“Haven’t you seen the wounds on Papa too?”
“I didn’t understand them. How could he . . .”
“For love. He chose the way of the cross where mercy triumphs over justice because of love. Would you instead prefer he’d chosen justice for everyone?" ... Return from your independence, Mackenzie. Give up being his judge and know Papa for who he is. Then you will be able to embrace his love in the midst of your pain, instead of pushing him away with your self-centered perception of how you think the universe should be. Papa has crawled inside of your world to be with you, to be with Missy.”
Mack stood up from the chair. “I don’t want to be a judge any more. I really do want to trust Papa.”
This reminds of a recent Andy Stanley sermon which drew from Lewis' Mere Christianity. When Mack is honest with himself, he confesses that he has judged God to be unjust and to blame. So, the Spirit invites him to judge the whole world and choose which among his children will spend eternity in heaven, and which in hell:
"I can’t. I can’t. I won’t!” he screamed, and now the words and emotions came tumbling out. The woman just stood watching and waiting. Finally he looked at her, pleading with his eyes. “Could I go instead? If you need someone to torture for eternity, I’ll go in their place. Would that work? Could I do that?” He fell at her feet, crying and begging now. “Please let me go for my children, please, I would be happy to . . . Please, I am begging you. Please . . . Please . . .”
“Mackenzie, Mackenzie,” she whispered, and her words came like a splash of cool water on a brutally hot day. Her hands gently touched his cheeks as she lifted him to his feet. Looking at her through blurring tears, he could see that her smile was radiant. “Now you sound like Jesus. You have judged well, Mackenzie. I am so proud of you!”
“But I haven’t judged anything,” Mack offered in confusion.
“Oh, but you have. You have judged them worthy of love, even if it cost you everything. That is how Jesus loves.” When he heard the words he thought of his new friend waiting by the lake. “And now you know Papa’s heart,” she added, “who loves all his children perfectly.”
Mack is later told that there is now no condemnation for him (Romans 8:1) because of what Jesus did. Mack is then given a vision of his daughter in heaven, enjoying it. He's reminded that what we experience on this earth is a momentary, light affliction compared to the glory that is to come (2 Cor. 4:17). He is later given a vision of his earthly dad, and is allowed to tell his dad how sorry he was for abandoning the family. He is able to both forgive his dad and himself. Forgiveness is essential to healing, and that's the appealing message of The Shack.
His daughter's killer is a bit more difficult to forgive.
“Mack, for you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him.” “Redeem him?” Again Mack felt the fire of anger and hurt. “I don’t want you to redeem him! I want you to hurt him, to punish him, to put him in hell . . .” His voice trailed off. Papa waited patiently for the emotions to ease. “I’m stuck, Papa. I just can’t forget what he did, can I?” Mack implored. “Forgiveness is not about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.”
“But I thought you forget our sins?”
“Mack, I am God. I forget nothing. I know everything. So forgetting for me is the choice to limit myself. Son,” Papa’s voice got quiet and Mack looked up at him, directly into his deep brown eyes, “because of Jesus, there is now no law demanding that I bring your sins back to mind. They are gone when it comes to you and me, and they run no interference in our relationship.”
How a perfect, infinite God can "remember their sins no more" (Hebrews 10) is a great mystery that Young is trying to describe here. Some may take issue with the words "choice to limit myself" but I do not think it's grounds for heresy. The entire passage is an exhortation that we must forgive others as Christ forgave us, and it's only through the cross that God will "remember their sins no more." There are other helpful biblically-based statements in this book that have meant a lot to those who liked it.
"The person who lives by their fears will not find freedom in my love. I am not talking about rational fears regarding legitimate dangers, but imagined fears, and especially the projection of those into the future. To the degree that those fears have a place in your life, you neither believe I am good nor know deep in your heart that I love you. You sing about it; you talk about it, but you don’t know it."
There is a critique of relativism:
"The world is broken because in Eden you abandoned relationship with us to assert your own independence. Most men have expressed it by turning to the work of their hands and the sweat of their brow to find their identity, value, and security. By choosing to declare what’s good and evil you seek to determine your own destiny. It was this turning that has caused so much pain.”
There is affirmation that all we do as children of God is for God's glory:
Mack: "Let me ask you something. Is what I do back home important? Does it matter? I really don’t do much other than working and caring for my family and friends . . . “
Holy Spirit: “Mack, if anything matters then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes; with every kindness and service, seen or unseen, my purposes are accomplished and nothing will ever be the same again.”
Back to the accusation of the heresy of universalism: Jesus being described in The Shack as the best way instead of, correctly, as the only way (John 3:3). As I mentioned above, calling everyone "child" is scripturally incorrect. However, the passage that Mohler and Challies point to as being universal is as follows: Jesus says:
"Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”
As I mentioned above, the "system" Mack is from is American cultural Christianity. Jesus is saying that that definition of "Christian" doesn't fit, people come from all different backgrounds. Note it says they WERE Buddhists, murderers, they self-righteous--past tense! Those who are such now have no place in the Kingdom. Mack then asks for clarification:
“Does that mean,” asked Mack, “that all roads will lead to you?” “Not at all,” smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”
Note the "not at all" (Mohler conspicuously omits it from the passage he quotes from). That seems to contradict the alleged universalism. Jesus traveling "any road" to find me is no different then saying God extends grace to us where we are-- not of our own works or merit. I know of a pastor in Turkey who came to faith in Christ while on hajj to Mecca, he would use similar language to describe his experience. Look again at the passage about forgiving Mack's daughter's murderer. God says that he wants to "redeem" him (which I argue is just 2 Timothy 2:4), but does not say that he will be or is already redeemed.
"Believe me, the last thing this man is, is free. And you have no duty to justice in this. I will handle that."
From the same section:
"In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship."
Now, this is obviously not Augustinian thought but I would contend it could be semi-Pelagian and still be within orthodoxy (I know plenty of Arminians who love the Lord even though I believe them to be in error). Mohler writes that a long-time friend of Young states that Young embraces “Christian universalism.” "The Shack, he concludes, 'rests on the foundation of universal reconciliation.'” If so, that is unfortunate, but I contend that it's not overtly in the book based on the evidence above. Someone who is weaker in their faith or more biblically illiterate may reach a conclusion of universalism, which is problematic. But it is not grounds for discounting the entire message of the book and the various correct Gospel illustrations it provides, as I've documented.
Mohler heavily critiques the portrayal of the trinity in a human form and Challies contends that making God in man's image is likewise a violation of the Ten Commandments. In C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, Jesus is portrayed as the lion Aslan. Is that not a violation purely because Lewis doesn't overtly write "Jesus is Aslan"? I grew up watching Superbook, The Flying House, and other cartoons that retold Bible stories, usually not with 100% accuracy. Jesus, God, angels, etc. were portrayed in these cartoons-- are they also in violation of the Ten Commandments?
In my opinion, The Shack is a modern fictional remake of the Book of Job. In Job, we see God's interaction with Satan and in conversation with humans in a way unique in Scripture. Job is, in the words of John Piper, a book "filled with bad theology." God corrects much of it at the end of the book, redeems Job from his circumstances, and blesses him. There was little developed thought of a trinity prior to Pentecost, and if you're writing a modern Job you need all three persons of the Godhead. Young is not clever enough to write an elaborate work like Lewis or Tolkein. But both Lewis' and Tolkein's works are filled with allusions that scholars have deciphered over the years-- I contend that neither Lewis nor Tolkein's stated theology line up exactly with Challies and Mohler, but I don't see them criticizing their works in the same way as The Shack.
What should Christian fiction look like? In the 1800s, biblical fiction was much more commonplace and more like science fiction than today's Christian fiction, which mostly looks like stories about pioneer women and the Amish (judging from covers I see at Lifeway). How many imperfect illustrations and allusions and analogies do I read in non-fiction books and sermons that don't get criticized? The Shack is allegory, not an actual description of how God works or physically looks like. The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings are similarly allegory, but much more veiled (and entertaining) than The Shack. Many theologians disagree strongly with the premise in the Left Behind series of a pretribulation rapture, but those books were not widely removed from church library shelves. Those books do not have crusades against them as we see with The Shack, and I find this odd.
There is one disturbing passage that Mohler rightly points out:
"Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.”
Mack was surprised. “How can that be? Why would the God of the universe want to be submitted to me?”
“Because we want you to join us in our circle of relationship. I don’t want slaves to my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me.”
“And that’s how you want us to love each other, I suppose? I mean between husbands and wives, parents and children. I guess in any relationship?”
“Exactly! When I am your life, submission is the most natural expression of my character and nature, and it will be the most natural expression of your new nature within relationships.”
Mohler writes: "The theorized submission of the Trinity to a human being — or to all human beings — is a theological innovation of the most extreme and dangerous sort. The essence of idolatry is self-worship, and this notion of the Trinity submitted (in any sense) to humanity is inescapably idolatrous." When Jesus was on earth, he submitted to his father and gave us that example. Further, he washed the disciples feet, saying "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Is it possible that is what Young is referring to? It is not clear. In the entirety of The Shack, however, Mack is exhorted by God to submit to God and to trust God-- not the other way around. God is constantly held up as sovereign and in control, whereas Mack is finite. So, it's not a book that would seem to invoke the self-worship Mohler contends. But the lack of clarity on this point is admittedly problematic, as is Young's decision not to cite any scripture in his text.
My own criticism of this book are many. It's not great fiction. The passages I've quoted above look pretty hokey. It does not cite Scripture, nor does it encourage a new believer to pick up their Bible and find out if what God says in the Shack jives with Scripture. Upon their departure, the characters tell Mack:
"And you will hear and see me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship—a way of coming to be with us.”
That's not exactly motivation to read, but it does assume that Bible reading is an essential part of knowing and understanding God. In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. I would recommend a host of non-fiction books like Search for Significance over it. A mature believer might find the Gospel truths in the book to be illustrated well such that it speaks to his/her heart-- that is the case among the Christians I know to have read it multiple times. The majority of people I know who love this book are God-fearing people who hold up the authority of Scripture and find what they gleaned from this book to be found in Scripture. These truths can perhaps never be conveyed adequately in fiction.