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The Shack: re-inventing God

Revisiting William Paul Young’s book as the story comes to the cinema


Figure Image
Image from the film’s promotional material| image: www.imdb.com

Back in 2007 when the book by William Paul Young came out I can remember reading in the end-notes a rather impassioned plea from the author that his readers should pray that one day his story would be made into a movie.

Ten years later here we are, with the release of the film in June accompanied by promotional and study materials for use in churches and small groups. My heart sinks.

Though there appear to be minor changes in the plot, as far as I am concerned this piece of work is one of the most dangerous and blatant works of heresy that you are ever likely to encounter. I do not question the author’s motives. I am sure they are well-intentioned. But I believe he has (either consciously or unconsciously) bought into the whole postmodern therapy culture, which makes human fulfillment and well-being the top priority above all else, in such a way as to completely re-invent the God of the Bible. And, with the greatest respect to William Paul Young and whatever his personal life experience may have been, I would rather trust Moses, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, etc., than him with regard to what to believe about the living and true God.

Victims and agents?

The Shack is a fictional story, set in the US, that revolves around Mack (Mackenzie) Philips. Four years previously Mack’s young daughter, Missy, was abducted during a family holiday and brutally murdered in an isolated shack by a notorious serial killer. But Mack, who has been living in the shadow of his ‘Great Sadness’ receives a note from God (known in the story as Papa). Papa invites Mack to return to the shack to meet up. Mack visits the scene of the crime and there experiences a weekend-long encounter with God.

The main thing to keep in mind is that Mack is a hurt person, a victim. The whole of our politically-correct, therapy culture encourages us to see ourselves first of all as victims. Whereas the biblical, moral view of life (seeing ourselves as rebel sinners in need of grace), tells us we are agents as well as victims, this outlook plays up our self-pity and plays down most everything else. The ‘victim status’ of the main character is the way the connection to the audience is facilitated.

The idol factory of the imagination

Each of the members of the Trinity is present and each appears in bodily form. The Father, Papa (whose actual name is Elousia – Greek for ‘tenderness’) takes the form of a large, matronly African-American woman (though near the book’s end, because Mack by then requires a Father figure, she turns into a pony-tailed, grey-haired man). Jesus is a young-to-middle-aged man from the Middle East, while the Holy Spirit is depicted by Sarayu (Sanskrit for ‘air’ or ‘wind’), a small Asian woman. (Apart from the blasphemy of portraying God any way that appeals to us and which his Word does not authorise, I can hear John Calvin saying: ‘I told you the heart is a factory of idols’). Mack has been given this opportunity to meet with God in order to learn to deal with his overwhelming pain and anger resulting from the murder of his daughter. As expected, after long discussions – hey presto! – he leaves the shack greatly changed.

There are two positive aspects to the story. First, it takes very seriously the depth of human suffering and seeks to show great compassion. Secondly, it rightly tells us that our deepest sufferings and heartaches can only be healed ultimately through meeting and knowing God. I definitely want to agree here. But, apart from that, the whole thing is a vehement attack upon biblical Christianity. It is in fact a rewriting of the gospel and a re-imagining of God to suit the victim mindset of the therapy culture of our day.

A manipulative story

The author pulls out all the stops to get us firmly on the side of his hero Mack and against the ordinary evangelical congregation. Remember this is a work of fiction. Mack’s father was an overly-strict church elder with a secret drinking problem who beat his wife. As a distressed youngster Mack shared that with another church leader, only for it to get back to his father who beat him mercilessly ‘with a belt and Bible verses’.

Church is portrayed as being loveless and composed of ‘endless meetings staring at the back of other people’s heads’. The Bible is God’s voice reduced to paper only understandable to experts, producing a ‘stoic and unfeeling faith’. No church is perfect, and some need closing, but this is all simply a device to manoeuvre us away from church and Scripture and into a state of mind laid open to Mr Young’s ideas.

This ploy of grabbing our emotions with sympathy for Mack is the classic move of false teachers to get us to shut down our critical faculties in case we might spot the lie. But God gave us our minds, and true Christianity gives reasons and goes to the heart via the head.

How God speaks

How does God reveal himself? The answer of Scripture is that, though God has given revelation of himself in creation which leaves men without excuse before him, this revelation cannot bring salvation. Also, although our emotions play a large role in who we are as human beings, because we are fallen sinners, our emotions cannot be trusted to lead us to God. Nor can our fallen minds, unaided by the Holy Spirit. Thus it pleased God to give us his inerrant book, the Bible, and to come in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, to reveal himself to us.

Yet, consistently, The Shack downplays the place of the Bible and replaces it with personal experience as the touchstone of everything. This is a classic adoption of the therapy culture/experience centred/ ‘do what feels right for you’/ approach to life. In the novel, God says: ‘You may see me in a piece of art, or music, or silence, or through people, or in Creation, or in your joy or sorrow.’

This could not be more different from the stance of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms: ‘My conscience is captive to the Word of God … to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.’

What is salvation?

Though the cross is central to Scripture, with the four Gospels majoring on Christ’s sacrifice, it appears only sparingly in The Shack. The reason for this seems to be that the author does not believe in a God for whom holiness is a pre-eminent characteristic. He is a God for whom sin is not so much of a problem.

In the book, William Paul Young has God saying: ‘I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.’ Of course, as with all the best heresies this is half true, but only half. This is a ‘God’ invented for the needs of our therapeutic age, not the true holy God of Scripture who is coming to judge the world.

In this area too, therefore, the story has bought into the great cultural shift which has occurred in the Western world over the last 60 years, from a moral outlook to the priority of ‘feel good’. This is precisely what Scripture describes will happen as the true God is sidelined. Losing sensitivity to God, people give themselves over to sensuality (Ephesians 4.18, 19).

The cross is predicated upon the fact that because God is holy, this world is a moral world. Sin is our biggest problem – even before suffering because it is sin which introduced suffering into our world. Thus the cross, the great atonement for sin is front and centre of the biblical gospel. But The Shack does not take this view.

Further, according to The Shack personal faith in Christ is unnecessary for salvation. In the book, ‘Jesus’ is quoted as saying, ‘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.’ In an attempt to tick the politically correct ‘inclusiveness’ box the classic mission of the church is dismissed. The Great Commission is declared redundant.

It hit the screens in June. Church leaders – are you ready to guard the flock?