Wm. Paul Young. The Shack. Los Angeles: Windblown Media,
2007. 256 pp.
Reveiwed by Scott Horrell, Professor of Theological Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary.
AUTHOR AND PUBLISHING BACKGROUND
AUTHOR (b. 1955): Son of Canadian evangelical missionaries
and raised in Papua New Guinea, Paul Young claims to have
been sexually abused by people of a primitive tribe by the age
of four. At age six he became a predator himself at a missionary
boarding school where that abuse continued. Young later
went to school in Canada to prepare for ministry. He married
his wife Kim and moved to the United States and now resides
in Happy Valley, Oregon, father of six children and a growing
brood of grandchildren. Young claims to have suffered significant
loss in his childhood and early adult years, and the book
is generally taken to reflect his own pilgrimage. He drifted
through life with his secrets, helped a lot by his wife. At 38 he
bottomed out, having a three-month affair with one of his wife’s best friends. That blew
“[my] careful little religious world apart. I either had to get on my knees and deal with
my wife’s pain and anger or kill myself.” (Macleans, Aug 2008, 6). The work was written
over a decade later by a, then, 53-year old father to his children. In one interview, he said
Mack is basically me. This is essentially a parable (Derek Keefe, “Reading in Good
Faith,” Christianity Today, Aug 2008, 44). “Frustrated by the demands of legalism and
suffering from the pain of the abuse he experienced as a child, Young came to the conclusion
that the institutional church was doing much unnecessary harm to people and
[he] abandoned the ministry” (Macleans, 6). For some time Young was no longer a member
of a church, and claims that the legalism of the institutional church does not reflect
PUBLISHING BACKGROUND. Young initially wrote his book for his children at
Christmas in 2005. He made 15 bound copies at Kinkos. The Shack is said to have been rejected
by 26 publishers. Together with Young, a former pastor turned publisher Wayne
Jacobsen and a co-publisher Brad Cummings formed Windblown Media in 2007. Yet
word-of-mouth referrals pushed this to Number One on the New York Times paperback
fiction best-seller list in June 2008 where it continued into 2010. It has been a consistent
top-seller at Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and elsewhere. With the movie The Shack
in theatres, the book itself is #2 on the Amazon Bestseller list (March 6, 2017) and has
been awarded an impressive number of 5 star ratings, now having sold over 25 million
copies. Young has also produced other works including a devotional companion The
Shack: Reflections for Every Day of the Year (Windblown, 2012), The Shack Study Guide: Healing
for Your Journey Through Loss, Trauma, and Pain (Windblown, 2016) and Lies We Believe
About God (Atria, 2017), and additional ventures into Christian fiction with Cross Roads
(FaithWords, 2012), and Eve (Howard, 2015).
The Shack, Review Guidelines, Horrell 2
Along with thousands of reviews, several books have attempted to evaluate Young’s
work (chronologically listed):
Randal Rauser [Assoc Prof of Historical Theology, Taylor Seminary, Edmonton], Finding
God in the Shack: Conversations on an Unforgettable Weekend (Authentic, 2008), 161pp.
Roger Olson, Finding God in the Shack: Seeking Truth in a Story of Evil and Redemption
(InterVarsity Press, 2009) 160pp. [Prof Theology Baylor Univ.] Fairly favorable. Scot
McKnight puffs this review.
Gary and Cathy Deddo, God, the Bible and The Shack (InterVarsity Press, 2010), 32pp
booklet [Deddo is a senior editor at IVP]. Gentle balance.
James B. De Young, Burning Down the Shack: How the ‘Christian’ Bestseller Is Deceiving
Millions (WND Books, 2010) 288pp. [Prof NT at Western Seminary, Portland] Would
you guess “Unfavorable”?
C. Baxter Kruger, The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going on Here than You Ever Dared
to Dream, foreword by Wm. Paul Young (FaithWords, 2012), 288pp. [Devotionals built
on the original; Kruger has a Ph.D. from Aberdeen]. Favorable.
Endorsements include Eugene Peterson, Michael W. Smith, Kent Burgess (former DTS
TS prof), David Gregory (one of our own recent DTS grads), and Derek Keefe (assistant
ed. and reviewer Christianity Today, Aug 2008, 44. Keefe raises certain theological critiques
and their importance but he opines “in order to give a work a fair hearing, we have
an obligation to engage it on its own terms. A ‘good faith’ reading of The Shack involves,
among other things, attending to Young’s reasons for writing, his intended audience, and
its particular literary form.” (44)
[Back cover] “Mackenzie Allen Philip’s youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted
during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is
found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later, in the
midst of his “Great Sadness,” Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting
him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the
shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare.
As the shack transforms into an immediate summer paradise, Mack meets the Trinity,
each disarmingly different from traditional Christian conceptions (excepting the Son, a
Middle-Eastern carpenter). Most of the dialogue takes place with “Papa,” The Father, a
large Black woman; the Holy Spirit, Sarayu, is a lithe, effervescent Asian woman.
The story evolves around Mack’s bitterness and deadness toward God and life, and
his succumbing to the Great Sadness. He travels on a journey that takes him deep into his
own feelings and to the mystery of how Missy died. Mack comes to recognize God’s great
love and grace toward him (and Missy)—misconceptions and barriers now corrected. His
life is transformed by the love of God over this weekend as he then returns to his wife
Kate (a lot like descriptions of Young’s wife Kim). In the end there comes reconciliation
and awakened love for God, and this pours into his relationships with his wife, older
daughter, and others.
The Shack, Review Guidelines, Horrell 3
BRIEF LITERARY CRITIQUE
From the outset I found the work rather poorly written. At some points there is little literary
finesse. Some words are repeated repeatedly!! “sarcastically,” “awesome,” etc.--
where a simple thesaurus would have helped. The reader is latched onto the protagonist
Mack through a veritable waterslide of emotions, as he falls from groaning to weeping to
melting in God’s love, to laughter, all in one page (156-57; 227-28); Mack’s emotional stability
feels more like that of a ten-year old than a forty-year old man.
But the broader storyline has the reader by the heart. Who does not dread the possibility
of something horrific marring their lives forever? Clearly this story delves deeply into
the way large numbers of people feel. Though it is not well-crafted in the literary particulars,
the main story line is extremely powerful: horrific tragedy, resentment and depression,
the meeting of God and experience of his love, and steps to healing.
POSITIVE THEOLOGICAL EVALUATION
1. FICTION. It does seem appropriate in fiction to approach God through creative metaphors.
One has noted that a Black woman (truly human) may be more appropriate than a
huge animal named Aslan, although Aslan represents the Son not the Father. The image
surely disarms by circumventing stereotypical representations of the Father. As the book
proceeds we come to understand that the visual representations of God are not ontological,
rather God is something far more.
2. TRINITY. The word-pictures of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are sometimes quite
beautifully portrayed (especially Sarayu the Spirit). Young’s analogy draws to the fore a
relational model of the Trinity in loving, caring, remarkable unity (87). To his credit,
while the narrative slides around a bit in describing the Godhead, he tries to hold together
the unity and threeness of God in dynamic personal terms. And they are as ethnically
diverse as the human race. Nice.
As the book continues, we are reminded that, in one sense, as God is in community
we too are designed in such a way. Our own human relatedness and love is possible because
it is grounded in the triune God.
At one point Papa declares, “Mackenzie, I am neither male nor female, even though
both genders derive from my nature. If I choose to appear as a man or a woman, it’s because
I love you” (93). Later we see Papa appear as a dignified, silver-haired, pony-tailed
man, with a mustache and goatee ready to take Mack hiking (218ff; Gandalf at last!!). And
again, “I am not a human being, not in my very nature, despite how we have chosen to be
with you this weekend. I am truly human, in Jesus, but I am totally separate other in nature.”
(201) These are largely correct observations.
3. HARD QUESTIONS. The dialogue between Mack and the Trinity is “bold and brutally
honest” and God does not always look too good. As Keefe puts it, “Theologically attuned
readers of all confessional stripes are likely to find themselves cringing on occasion”
(44). Young tries to respond to the negative and traditional conceptions of the
Christian God that often are barriers to faith—apparently these resonate with millions of
The Shack, Review Guidelines, Horrell 4
4. EVIL. Particularly Young addresses head on the problem of evil in a joltingly human
way. We encounter evil that we do not understand and which implies that God condones
or ignores evil. Missy asks, “Why is God so mean?” (31) God is not the first cause of evil.
Indeed, Young makes very clear in the story that agential freewill is the source of moral
5. ANTHROPOLOGY: Humanity is experientially fallen. I think that Young rightly puts
significant emphasis on human freewill, as do the Scriptures. He wrongly renounces the
Augustinian complementarity of both divine sovereignty and human free will (something
other recent Trinitarian theologies do as well), but he does stress the reality of human
6. RECONCILIATION. The Shack stresses God’s grace and love to humanity. As Young
puts it in an interview with Servant magazine, “So often we paint God as demanding perfection
and setting the bar so high we can’t reach it and then being disgusted at our inability”
(Servant, no.80, 2008, 10). Don Zimmerman, an evangelical pastor in Phoenix, says
“Most people live and feel unloved… This book is changing their relationships with their
families, at work, everywhere.” (Lisa Miller, “A Close Encounter with God,” Newsweek,
Sept 8, 2008, 15). Rather God extends his love and reconciliation to all humanity. God is
not viewed as holy Judge of sinful humanity but the Lover of humankind, sin having
been judged in Jesus Christ. And there seems to be the hope not only of heaven but a future
world when all is made right.
7. CHRISTIAN LIFE. What does God want with us? The Shack clearly exhorts the believer
to trust God’s love and to walk in the Trinitarian relationship. “Is trusting God all
sweetness and light?” (R. Olson/McKnight) Young elsewhere responds: “My identify is
in Jesus. I know I walk with a limp. I know where I’ve come from. I know every breath is
grace.” (Servant, 11)
8. SHAKES OUR UNDERSTANDINGS. The Shack helps break our thinking about God
out of the box. With innovative suggestions and fictional dialogue, the reader is forced to
backup and clarify what she or he really does believe about God and why. That in itself is
not reason to read Watch Tower material or study the Mormon Pearl of Great Price. But
here we listen to a fellow evangelical who has struggled along the way like most of us.
That the book has spoken deeply to so many readers helps us to think more deeply as
well. The work should lead us back to the Bible itself.
NEGATIVE THEOLOGICAL EVALUATION
1. AMBIGUITY AS TO FICTION OR FACT. The author in interviews has drawn significant
parallels between Mack’s life and his own. Did God speak to him? How much of this
is to be taken as real. This is partially a literary ploy for many. But when speaking of the
book, Young has crossed the line, especially in interviews as to the reality of the book in
comparison to his own history.
2. POTPOURRI OF THEOLOGY. Both Mack and his author Wm. Paul Young are said to
have some Bible and/or seminary training. The book is not uninformed, but neither is it
well-informed. It’s agenda is subversive to traditional thinking on several levels, but subThe
Shack, Review Guidelines, Horrell 5
versive in a personalistic way. Mack becomes the all-absorbing center of the Trinity’s revelation
and love. It’s all about me and God.
Ben Witherington notes how The Shack fits postmodern spirituality. People do not
want the church and traditional religion in general. Arminians have typically been more
favorable toward the work with its high view of human free will and divine grace to all.
At various points in the book classical stereotypes of the Holy Trinity are confronted.
After all, Mack was a seminary student who supposedly was told that all God did was
drop a book (the Bible) down for us today, and that the Book was only to be interpreted
by experts (65-66). Likely this is how some people think.
On the other hand, Al Mohler declared The Shack incoherent if not heretical. In June of
2008 LifeWay Christian Books pulled it off its shelves but within two weeks replaced the
books with the label “READ WITH DISCRETION” (Miller, Newsweek, 15). Some pastors
have forbidden their congregations to read the work, others encourage it. Ironically, and
sadly, LifeWay is closing its stores while the movie The Shack opened with a box office
take of $16 million.
3. SCRIPTURE. While a few biblical illusions are scattered throughout, the narrative of
The Shack is God’s direct revelation to Mack. It does not point back toward the Word of
God itself, not explicitly at all.
4. REVELATION. Some of the things put in God’s (Papa’s) mouth leave one uneasy.
Glenn Kreider [Insight for Living, Book Reviews online] notes that in one interview
Young says that these are real conversations between God and himself the author. How
seriously and how literally Young meant such a statement might be questioned (no other
review has made such an accusation). Nevertheless, some of the statements appear simply
wrong or downright goofy. Papa has lots of Dr. Phil one-liners. If The Shack were ever to
be read as evenly partly God’s Word then it would have to be categorically rejected.
a. While love gushes all over in The Shack, many other attributes of God get little or
no attention, especially the transcendent majesty of God and the absolute holiness and
justice of God. Mack’s vision is categorically different from the rightly terrifying visions
of heaven and of God throughout the Bible. The Holy, Holy, Holy is consciously avoided.
b. Moreover we are informed by Jesus, “To force my will on you is exactly what love
does not do.” (145) Much of the God-concept in The Shack parallels Process Theology and
Open Theism’s strong emphasis on human freedom, historical contingency, and that a
God of love would never force anyone to do what they did not want to. But how does one
dead in transgression and sin turn to embrace God? Is not God sovereign in his drawing
near to Mack? The book would say no.
6. THE TRINITY. As noted above, The Shack gets the message of the Trinity fairly right--
that is, the work is usually within the box of Nicaea: “We are not three gods, and we are
not talking about one god with three attitudes… I am one God and I am three persons,
and each of the three is fully and entirely one.”(101) Even this statement is not quite
clear—fully one what? One essence (ousia)? Young’s is a social model of the Godhead. But
the work is not always consistent and confuses:
a. If the work sometimes looks like tri-theism, other times it veers toward modalism.
Papa makes the astounding statement that he (she?), the Spirit, and the Son “spoke ourself
into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human” (99). The Father
The Shack, Review Guidelines, Horrell 6
(the Black mother Papa) has the nailprints of the cross on her hands (96, 222). Something
is skewed here. Roger Olson declares that this is classical modalistic patripassionism. I’m
not so sure. Paul Young’s point is the intense unity of the Godhead, even at the cross--
that the Father suffered together with the Son (as Moltmann’s The Crucified God). But
Young blurs the personal distinctions: taken alone the statement above is modalism (like
the Jesus Only Pentecostals). Biblically and historically, the Father does not have nail
marks. Here Young’s amateurish theologizing gets in trouble. His parable becomes confusing
b. Non-Gendered. As noted above, the closest we get to God in biblical revelation is
God as Father and Jesus as Son. To say God is neither male nor female (93) echoes Gregory
of Nazianzus, but to take away any semblance of gender may go too far in light of God’s
own self-revelation. Is God’s masculine image all about our needing a Father-figure
(more than mother) as alleged? What do angels perceive? The anthropomorphic argument
bumps up against the ultimate revelation of the Bible.
c. No Taxis. The Shack allows there is differences of roles in the Godhead, but absolutely
no hierarchy or order whatsoever—even within salvation history. “Chain of command?
That sounds ghastly!” Jesus says. Papa adds, “we have no concept of final authority
among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship…Hierarchy would make no
sense among us” (122). Equality of deity for Young (as for other evangelicals as Kevin
Giles) seems to necessarily erase any place of authority. The historical confession of eternal
begottenness and procession are ignored. And of course, if God is egalitarian then
human relations should be the same in marriage (148), family, and the church.
7. CHRISTOLOGY. The Son seems to get short shrift or interest in the over all flow of
The Shack. There seems the least artistic creativity here, but then Jesus as the Middle-
Eastern Carpenter anchors the work in the historicity of the Incarnation. Nevertheless, I
find problematic the theology that the Son (apparently whether during or after the Incarnation
and Ascension) does nothing of his own accord: “Although he is fully God, he has
never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything.” (99). Young gets the hypostatic union
essentially right (112). But he argues that the Incarnation is such that the Son only acts
through his human nature trusting in the Father and the Spirit. This is often termed Spirit
Christology (albeit some evangelicals likewise affirm the same). It fails to see that sometimes
the Lord Jesus does seem to act by his innate deity, and this is the point of the gospels.
In the mystery of the two natures in one person, Jesus is our human example yet
other times his innate power and authority transcend humanity: he calms the sea (and is
worshipped), he forgives sin, he declares that he is the I AM.
And would Jesus drop a bowl to smash in pieces? (104), that is, have an accident?
8. ANTHROPOLOGY & SIN. Whereas humanity is “free” and driven almost entirely by
its own choices, Young makes almost no reference to human depravity and sin before holy
God. The inability of a person to turn to God and to obey God is largely ignored. The
theology of The Shack is almost entirely semi-Pelagian. Human choice of God seems almost
as free as God’s love to humanity. This is a serious flaw.
Chummy-ness. It’s a parable. But Mack is way too easy in the presence of God. Isaiah,
Ezekiel, Daniel, and John the Revelator were astonished, fearful, and overwhelmed. In
contrast Mack’s “sarcasm” toward God is mentioned a dozen times or more. And we
have Papa informing him “We are especially fond of you, you know” (234). Anthropology
gets an A+, God maybe a B.
The Shack, Review Guidelines, Horrell 7
9. SALVATION. “In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only
some choose relationship… When Jesus forgave those who nailed him on the cross they
were not longer in his debt, nor mine… I will never bring up what they did, or shame
them, or embarrass them.” (225) Earlier Papa declares, “I don’t do humiliation, or guilt, or
condemnation… they were nailed into Jesus on the cross.” (223) Papa chooses to forget
The gospel itself is not clear. I suppose The Shack is an invitation to believe. Art that
preaches ceases to be art. The audience seems to have been his believing family. Yet the
basic nature of the atonement and the need for faith is at best veiled.
Many theological critiques have wondered if The Shack affirms universal atonement.
The book certainly affirms unlimited atonement and suggests a broad inclusivism:
“Those who love me come from every system that exists… ‘Does that mean, asked Mack,
‘that all roads will lead to you?’ ‘Not at all…Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it
does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” (182). Later asked for clarification,
Young responded by saying the path narrows to one man, the second Adam, Jesus
Christ… God knows how lost we are. And He will be the one who bridges the gap. He
expressed His love first before we even had the capacity to respond…He’ll go down any
road to find us but that doesn’t mean that any particular road we’re on is The Way.”
(Servant, 2008, 11) But just what that entails is not clear. In one interview a co-editor stated
that Young was a universalist when he wrote the book and only through conversations
with the editors did he come to a more traditional view of the extent of the atonement.
10. ECCLESIOLOGY. None other than Jesus himself informs Mack, “you’re only seeing
the institution, a man-made system. That’s not what I came to build. What I see are people
and their lives, a living breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings
and programs… I don’t create institutions. Never have, never will.” (178-79) I suppose for
an older generation of hippy counter-culturalists, this all sounds familiar—perhaps most
of all in the doggedly independent Pacific NW (my home too). This does get at the point
of the local church: huge organizations can regress to exist for themselves, much as Judaism
did the time of Jesus. However, in the OT by God’s decree Israel was remarkably ordered.
Likewise the early church by divine direction was given structure and form for the
community. Young’s emphasis on Christian autonomy and small circles of fellowship has
created a door through which many are exiting the local church. Young’s publisher and
co-editor Wayne Jacobsen’s So You Don’t Want to Go to Church (Windblown, 2006) feeds
and strengthens the same persuasion; Jacobsen is said to have been a former pastor. What
will become of the children of those who leave a greater community for the freedom of
Christian friendships? What kind of mutual serving, loving, self-sacrifice, for all ages and
all capacities does this laisse-faire relationality really engender. These men may not like
the church they’ve known, but to abandon the church is to tell the Groom they don’t want
anything to do with His Bride. This is individualism, elitism, and disobedience to the NT
I tend to concur with Derek Keefe’s conclusion in his Christianity Today review of The
The Shack, Review Guidelines, Horrell 8
Showing good faith to Young and his empathetic readers means demonstrating
pastoral as well as prophetic concern in engaging the book. If all we do is pounce on
theological errors without first taking the time to understand the story behind them,
we will only confirm the opinions of the church and its representatives that Young
and fans of his book already hold.
Reading between the lines, I see a formerly troubled soul who’s made peace with
God about his past, but is still not at peace with the church. I’d love to see the book
become an occasion for open conversation with ‘spiritual but not religious’ folks
burned out by church experience. Here’s an opportunity to show good faith—to
Christ, his church, and her teachings; to authors and their work; and to readers who
rejoice in learning they are not alone. (44)
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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