A Christian movie is coming out in March 2017 that, I predict, will have a domestic total gross income of well over $100 million. Thousands upon thousands of Christians will flock to the theaters to see it. After all, the movie is based upon a book (originally published – May 2007) that began as a self-published work but eventually sold 18 million copies. So, yes, the movie is bound to be a block-buster.
The book caused a great divide among Christians, even conservative evangelicals. Some loved it and some despised it. Why was it scorned by many? The accusation was that it was saturated with false, even bizarre theology.
A confession: As popular as it was, I had not read this book until I purchased it one week ago. I realized that it was going to hit the big screen so I wanted to inform myself firsthand. I downloaded a copy of the book to my kindle app and devoured it.
After reading the book, I could easily write another book with all of my thoughts. Yet, for the purposes of this post, I will greatly limit all that I could say about this book, positive and negative.
Here are my thoughts:
It is well written
The vivid (yet not overdone) language and writing style pulls you into the story. The storyline is compelling and believable. And (no spoiler here) it will take you to a very dark place from which the true purpose of the book arises. Most readers will have trouble putting the book down.
It is very relevant
The author tackles some of the toughest of human questions.
Why does God allow pain?
How can I forgive someone who has horribly wronged me?
What is God like?
What does God think of me?
These questions and more like them are addressed in this book. For this reason, too, the reader will have difficulty putting the book down.
It is filled with tidbits of great wisdom
In my journey through The Shack, I underlined many sentences. The author, while misguided in a multitude of areas (I’ll get to that momentarily), provided many principles that brought clarity to biblical truth. At other times, he gave helpful advice to those who struggle with many of the same problems as the lead character.
OK, there are a few other positive things that I could say about the book but I will spend the remainder of my time addressing my serious concerns. It is my belief that the negatives essentially trump the positives rendering this a book that Christians should read (if they so choose) with great caution and much skepticism.
But, in bringing some of the negatives to light, I realize that some Jesus-followers will get very upset. Why? Because they have found much comfort in this book (there is much to be enjoyed). However, some of the “comforting truths” in this book are unbiblical. Some are clearly heretical. And when something that has provided us insight and comfort is shown (or alleged) to be false, we naturally take offense.
Yet, if Jesus-followers are to enjoy our God more fully and follow Him more knowledgeably, we must be sure that our beliefs are in line with Scripture. After all, Jesus said that God’s Word is truth (John 17:17). It is not simply true. It is the essence and standard of truth whereby we determine what else in life is true.
So, here are some areas of concern where I believe the author has horribly erred in regard to Scripture. I will sprinkle some Bible references along the way.
It questions the relevancy of Scripture
In chapter 4, the main character (Mack) has experienced a horrible loss. He receives an unstamped letter in his mailbox inviting him to the shack for a meeting. It’s signed “Papa.” (This is the name that Mack’s wife uses for God.)
On page 62, the author invites the reader into Mack’s thought process. Mack wonders if the letter really is from God and whether or not God will visibly show up to speak with him.
But, to set up the narrative between Papa and Mack in the remainder of the book, the writer must reveal that it is possible for God to show up physically and speak audibly. So, how does he do this? He discredits Scripture, the written Word. The sarcastic tone is fairly obvious as we momentarily enter Mack’s mind…
From page 62-63: “In seminary we had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?”
Clearly, the author is mocking the notion that God primarily speaks through the Bible. He discredits it in his main character’s mind. And, as he wipes his hands clean of any restrictions the Bible may have placed on him, he now feels free to send Mack to the shack where he will engage in a face-to-face narrative with the Trinity (in bodily form).
As if this were not enough, the author makes it clear just how irrelevant the written Word of God really is. How so? I was not able to find a single biblical verse quoted in the whole book! If you read through the Gospels, you will see that Jesus quoted the Old Testament Scriptures generously. Yet, the three persons who represented God (Papa), Jesus, and the Holy Spirit (Sarayu) never quote a single verse from the Bible.
Which is another problem I have with this book – the author puts words (not found in the Bible) in God’s mouth. The characters of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit speaks thousands of words. They make truth claims (many of which are clearly false). Yet, the author feels no obligation to make sure that what they say aligns with Scripture. The author simply puts words into each member of the Trinity’s mouth and desires that the reader embrace those words as truth (again, even though not a single Bible verse was cited in the entire book). This is unspeakably wrong in my estimation.
This is a theology book
By this, I mean that the primary purpose of this book is not to tell a story. It is to inform and influence the biblical beliefs of the reader.
If you doubt my previous statements, simply ask someone who has read the book what they liked most about it. Almost certainly, they will not refer to the story line. They will say things like:
“It helped me to understand how much God loves me.”
“It helped me to understand the Trinity.”
“It helped me to understand mankind’s freedom and God’s control over His Creation.”
All of these statements point to the fact that Christians are going to this book and coming away with a change in their belief system. They are treating it like a theology book.
And this is horribly frightening given the previous point – that not a single Scripture is referenced in the whole book.
God is presented as a Public Relations Officer would present Him
By this, I mean that the God found on the pages of Scripture is very different than the “God” presented in this book.
The God of the Bible is love but also gets angry.
The God of the Bible is merciful but also judges.
The God of the Bible is forgiving but also condemns.
But, the God (Papa) in this book got cleaned up. He’s much more presentable to a culture that wants none of His justice, none of His discipline, none of the talk about sin. They only want Him for His therapeutic value. They want to hear of nothing but His love and grace. In fact, they want to deny that He ever gets upset at sin, disciplines the wayward, and condemns the unrepentant sinner.
Let me provide a word count from The Shack to show what I mean. Notice how the “positive” words of God’s character and work are generously used while the “negative words of God’s character and work are rarely used at all.
Love – 100
Grace/mercy – 22
Forgive – 46
Relationship – 89
Sin – 7
Repent – 6
Hell – 6
Salvation – 0
There are a multitude of unbiblical statements and principles
The author is seeking to influence the reader’s mind. He wants to change the way they see God. He wants to change the way they understand who God is and what God does. And in doing so, he makes many truth claims that are clearly wrong.
Let me give you three examples:
– 1. The author claims that there is no authority structure in the Trinity
Listen to this conversation that takes place between Mack and the members of the Trinity on pages 126-127:
“Well, I know that you are one and all, and that there are three of you. But you respond with such graciousness to each other. Isn’t one of you more the boss than the other two?” The three looked at one another as if they had never thought of such a question. “I mean,” Mack hurried on, “I have always thought of God the Father as sort of being the boss and Jesus as the one following orders, you know, being obedient. I’m not sure how the Holy Spirit fits in exactly. He… I mean, she… uh…” Mack tried not to look at Sarayu as he stumbled for words. “Whatever— the Spirit always seemed kind of a… uh…” “A free spirit?” offered Papa. “Exactly— a free spirit, but still under the direction of the Father. Does that make sense?” Jesus looked over at Papa, obviously trying with some difficulty to maintain the perception of a very serious exterior. “Does that make sense to you, Abba? Frankly, I haven’t a clue what this man is talking about.” Papa scrunched up her face as if exerting great concentration. “Nope, I have been trying to make head or tail out of it, but sorry, he’s got me lost.” “You know what I am talking about.” Mack was a little frustrated. “I am talking about who’s in charge. Don’t you have a chain of command?” “Chain of command? That sounds ghastly!” Jesus said.
Is this what the Bible teaches? Nope. Not even close. Simply investigate the following verses to see that Jesus has willingly submitted Himself to the authority of the Father: 1 Corinthians 15:28; Luke 2:49; Matthew 26:39; John 6:38; etc.
– 2. The author claims that God is essentially anti-authority
In the following conversation between Mack and the Trinity, Mack is beginning to think that God is not fond of an organized church (religion) or government. Listen as they interact on pages 193-194:
“I really do want to understand. I mean, I find you so different from all the well-intentioned religious stuff I’m familiar with.” “As well-intentioned as it might be, you know that religious machinery can chew up people!” Jesus said with a bite of his own. “An awful lot of what is done in my name has nothing to do with me and is often, even if unintentional, very contrary to my purposes.” “You’re not too fond of religion and institutions?” Mack said, not sure if he was asking a question or making an observation. “I don’t create institutions— never have, never will.” “What about the institution of marriage?” “Marriage is not an institution. It’s a relationship.” Jesus paused, his voice steady and patient. “Like I said, I don’t create institutions; that’s an occupation for those who want to play God. So no, I’m not too big on religion, and not very fond of politics or economics either.” Jesus’ visage darkened noticeably. “And why should I be? They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about. What mental turmoil and anxiety does any human face that is not related to one of those three?”
Did you get that? The author put words in God’s mouth and made Him state that He has nothing to do with institutions. In fact, he calls religion, politics, and economics “the man-created trinity of terrors.”
Is this true? Is it biblical? Of course not.
Jesus started the church and promises to continue building it (Matthew 16:18). Yes, it is about relationship with the Father and relationship with each other. But, there are also plenty of ground rules in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament to make it clear that the church is an organized “institution” given the assignment of glorifying God, equipping the saints for ministry, and spreading the fame of His name.
As far as government, God clearly instituted it. Just read Romans 13:1-7. God set up government and oversees it and demands that Christians submit to it. The language on this topic in The Shack is foreign to Scripture.
But, get this point – the author continues, over and over, to have God (Papa) say things that are clearly in violation of Scripture. He is making the “God” character in this book make claims that are directly opposed to what God has clearly said in His Word.
And the result – Christians are reading it and are saying that it is giving them so much comfort and insight – that apparently they weren’t getting from their encounters with God’s actual Book.
– 3. The author is a universalist (he believes that no one will go to Hell)
Listen to these two references:
This first one is a conversation between Mack and God (Papa). It begins with a claim from God on page 210.
“Maybe for you, but not for me. There has never been a question that what I wanted from the beginning, I will get.” Papa sat forward and crossed her arms on the table. “Honey, you asked me what Jesus accomplished on the cross, so now listen to me carefully: through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world.” “The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?” “The whole world, Mack. All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two-way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship, but it is the nature of love to open the way.”
Did you get that? God (Papa) says that he has reconciled the whole world to himself. The immediate question would be, “What does he mean by that?” Well, if we look to the Bible to see how the word “reconciled” is used in the New Testament, it always speaks of bringing two opposing parties into a state of peace. In regard to God, who is at odds with the sinner (John 3:36), this means that He has provided terms of peace.
The previous section from the book is inconclusive in regard to whether or not the author is stating that every person will end up in Heaven (even if they aren’t followers of Jesus, or have never heard of Jesus). We need some more information.
Well, we get that information on page 247. A conversation between God (Papa) and Mack has been taking place. One line that is attributed to God is the following:
“In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship.”
Here the author, through Papa, claims that not only have the terms for reconciliation been prepared by God, He has also “forgiven all humans for their sins,” a statement clearly in violation to the principles of the New Testament. (If everyone’s sins were paid for by Jesus on the cross, then God is guilty of double-jeopardy by holding those sins against the sinner on the Day of Judgment [see Revelation 20:11-15]. Jesus would also be misinformed when He said that compared to the narrow road that leads to life, most people will travel the broad road and end up in Hell [see Matthew 7:13-14]).
I have many more notes and reflections that would enable me to continue adding to the length of the post. Yet, I’ve brought enough concerns about The Shack to give even the most nominal of Christians reason to read each line of the book (should they choose to read it) with a critical eye and another eye on Scripture.
If I could be so bold, I will end with a few lines from a discussion that Jesus had with Mack on page 196. It seems to fit how I feel about the book in which these lines appear:
Mack: “I have been told so many lies,” he admitted. Jesus looked at him and then with one arm pulled Mack in and hugged him. “I know, Mack, so have I. I just didn’t believe them.”