"You Asked for It" 2009 part 5
A Visit to "The Shack"
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
September 6, 2009



Back in May of 2007, an office manager and hotel night clerk by the name of William Paul Young… who also happens to be Canadian… published a book that he had originally written as a gift for his six daughters. He had never intended to actually publish it, but after handing it around to several friends and family members, he was encouraged to make it available for the general public.

Which turned out not to be so easy. The book was turned down by several publishing companies, so Young and a couple friends formed their own company for the sole purpose of publishing this one book.

And let me tell you, they did a terrible job marketing it. All they did was pay $300.00 for a website, and that was the extent of their marketing for the first five months. But word of mouth did it’s job, and about a year later – in the summer of 2008 – the book took off and on June 8, 2008 it debuted at number one on the New York Times paperback fiction best sellers list, where it stayed right on into 2009. 5 million copies and a couple translations later, The Shack remains a very popular book in both Christian and non-Christian circles.

The book has received some high-profile endorsements. Eugene Peterson who wrote “The Message” paraphrase of the Bible says…

“This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress' did for his. It's that good!”
~ Eugene Peterson

That may be a little over the top, but Michael W. Smith throws in his endorsement as well…

“The Shack is the most absorbing work of fiction I’ve read in many years. My wife & I laughed, cried and repented of our own lack of faith along the way. The Shack will leave you craving for the presence of God.”
~ Michael W. Smith

The actor Will Smith and his family love the book. And there’s even talk about turning The Shack into a major motion picture.

So The Shack has really become quite popular. In fact, at the PEI library there’s a list of 71 people waiting for a copy of the book. But the book has also drawn some heat. There’s a bit of controversy surrounding this book. And there are Christ-followers on both sides… some saying that this book is terrific, and there are those who will advise you to avoid this book at all costs.

Well, today we’re going to finish up our “You Asked for It” series of messages. We do this series every summer, when we take requests from you about what we’re going to talk about here on Sundays. And many of you have asked me about this book.

So I’ve read the book, and I’ve read many of the articles and opinions about it. A lot of people really love this book, but I’ve also read a lot of antagonistic reviews against the Shack and against Paul Young. Some of the criticisms are valid, and we’ll get to those. But what I’ve discovered is that a lot of the complaints people have are taken out of context and not really what the book is saying.

For example, some people warn that The Shack teaches Modalism, which denies the Trinity and is a false theological concept that was a problem even in the early centuries of the Christianity… And it is basically the belief that God simply appears in different roles or wears different masks. For example, there was God the Father in the Old Testament who masqueraded as Jesus the Son in the New Testament and today exists as the Holy Spirit. There’s just this one kind of shape-shifter who appears as different people.

But that’s not what the Bible teaches about the nature of God and it’s not our understanding of the Trinity. Our understanding of the Trinity is that there is only One God… that part’s true… but that He has three centers of personhood. It’s not one person wearing different masks; it’s three distinct Persons who exist as One God. We’ve talked about that in detail here before.

But I think The Shack actually does a pretty good job of representing God as three distinct Persons and at the same time showing their interconnectedness as One God. This claim that it teaches Modalism… well, it just isn’t there. If anything, I think the danger lies at the opposite end of the spectrum with polytheism.

There are also claims that the book promotes goddess-worship. In case you haven’t read the book, The Shack portrays God the Father as a rather large African-American woman. And I do think there’s a problem with this, and we’re going to get to what that is. But goddess-worship? No, The Shack doesn’t actually teach that God is an African-American woman. God just chose to reveal Himself to the main character, Mack, that way in order to tear down some of his stereotypes. I don’t really think the book promotes goddess-worship.

In fact, I think the book has a lot to offer, because we do have a lot of stereotypes about God… about His nature and about how He works… and we do have our ideas about what it means to be a Christian and about the role of the Church… that just aren’t Biblical, and The Shack does a pretty good job of helping us move past them.

Plus, the book is really about experiencing God’s love in the midst of our pain. So if you’ve experienced a great loss or have endured what the book calls a Great Sadness… if you can’t understand why God allowed it to happen, or if you blame God for it… then this book is actually pretty good therapy.

But there are some difficulties, and there are things that the book says that can be taken in different ways. And I think that’s really where the controversy is really coming from… people misreading and misinterpreting what the author was trying to say. So I would say this book is better to read if you already have a pretty good understanding of what the Bible teaches. But if you’re not that familiar with what the Bible says, then you might become confused and pull out some rather strange doctrines. Don’t use The Shack as your source of theology.

So let’s talk about this book. Without giving away too much, let me try to explain the premise. The main character Mack, or Mackenzie Phillips… and no, I don’t know if he can sing or act – that’s a different Mackenzie Phillips. This Mackenzie Phillips takes his three youngest children on a camping trip during which the youngest daughter, Missy, is abducted and murdered by a serial killer known as the Little Ladykiller. The police track the killer to an abandoned shack in the woods where Missy was taken, but her body was never found and the killer was never caught.

Several years later, after his life has sunk into The Great Sadness, Mack goes out to check the mailbox one day where he discovers a note from someone named Papa inviting Mack to join Him at the shack. Well, Mack’s wife always calls God “Papa”, so Mack wonders if the note could actually be from God. So after debating it a while, he decides to go to the Shack to see if it could be true.

Well, he gets there and discovers nothing, but then as he was leaving, the shack and everything around him is transformed into a beautiful place. So he goes back inside and he meets God the Father who is portrayed as this African American woman named Papa, there’s Jesus who is a middle-eastern carpenter, and there’s the Holy Spirit who is manifested as an Asian woman named Sarayu. And Mack spends the weekend with them, with all kinds of conversations and experiences.

There, I don’t think I gave away too much. There are some powerful scenes in the book, and I think it does a pretty good job of working through some pretty tough subjects. So if you want to read the book, go ahead and read it. But if you do, I want you to be aware that there are some problems, too. So let’s talk about those…


Potential Problems with The Shack:

1.    It diminishes God

Who here has been to Mount Rushmore? I lived in South Dakota where Mount Rushmore is located for a couple of years and had the opportunity to see it three or four times. You’re familiar with Mount Rushmore… The hill with faces carved out of rock… the faces of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Al Gore. Just making sure you’re paying attention. Theodore Roosevelt, actually. Mount Rushmore is probably the most magnificent human creation I’ve ever seen. We’re talking about recognizable faces carved out of rock over the course of 14 years using dynamite, faces that are 60 feet high, 500 feet up, looking out over a setting of pine, spruce, birch and aspen with the Black Hills of South Dakota as a backdrop.

Now, I have a piece of bubble gum here. Could someone who’s been there take this bubble gum, chew it up real good, and then using your fingers shape it into a representation of Mount Rushmore for all of us to see and marvel at its majesty? You say, “Greg, that’s nuts! You can’t make a fair representation of Mount Rushmore with a piece of bubble gum. It’d be easier to describe it with words than to do that. As a matter of fact it would be better to have no image of the Mount Rushmore at all than to try to portray it in such a limited way.” And that is exactly the point.

Any attempt at all to portray God using human means would reduce Him… because we would never ever be able to portray God in all of His splendor and all of His majesty. The scope and majesty, the splendor and the character of God could never be captured by an image of any kind. That’s the point behind the second of the Ten Commandments…

Exodus 20:4-5 (NIV)
“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…”

Why? Because any idol that we produce to represent God would fall far short and would reduce God. God the Father is Spirit. He has no physical form. And no one has ever seen Him take a physical form. In fact, the Bible warns that anyone who does look upon God in all His glory will be overcome by the experience and will die. God warned Moses…

Exodus 33:20 (NLT)
“But you may not look directly at my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Besides, no physical representation of God could ever do Him justice, whether you imagine Him as a grandfatherly old man, a drill sergeant, or a large African-American woman.

Isaiah 40:18 (NLT)
To whom, then, can we compare God? What image might we find to resemble him?

So that’s a valid concern about this book… that any physical portrayal of God automatically reduces Him.


2.    It puts words in God’s mouth

Now, I realize that The Shack is essentially a work of fiction. But it can’t just be dismissed as fiction, because it does make some pretty bold and sweeping theological claims. Huge sections of the book are pretty much preaching at us. And a lot of that is done through the words of God, or of Papa.

The author has God explain about the nature of the Trinity, about the implications of the incarnation and the crucifixion, about what it means to really love and forgive, about all kinds of things. If there were another character talking, fine. But to put words into God’s mouth? Wow. That’s pretty dangerous ground. Paul Young had better be glad we don’t live in Old Testament times…

Deuteronomy 18:20 (NIV)
“But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death."

It seems to me to be a little presumptuous and a little dangerous to portray God as a character in a book and to put words in His mouth.
 

3.    It minimizes community

Mack is a loner in this book. He’s been dissatisfied with the Church, he doesn’t feel he fits in, and he’s been disillusioned about the whole idea of Church.

And what happens at the Shack? He’s pretty much encouraged to go it alone. There’s nothing in story that leads Mack toward a sense of community with the Body of Christ.

But that’s not God’s design at all. His desire is for us to live in a Biblically functioning community with other believers, supporting each other and encouraging each other, lifting each other up, praying for each other, worshipping together, learning together and growing together.

Jesus Himself established the Church…

Matthew 16:16-18 (NLT)
“…Upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.”

Jesus seems to say His Church is pretty important…but The Shack seems to say that it’s not all that important.

Now, I understand that this community of the Church may take different forms… some are more formal, others are pretty casual. Some are pretty structured, others are unstructured. Some meet Sunday mornings in dedicated church buildings, others meet in malls, and even living room through the week… I think there’s some flexibility there. But we are designed for community.

Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…

And the classic passage in Acts chapter 2 when the believers were first coming together in community…

Acts 2:42-46 (NLT)
All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.
A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity…

Since the very beginning, of the Church, community has been essential.

But The Shack basically omits this, and instead gives the impresses that everyone’s on their own.


4.    It dismisses God’s justice

Now, I really appreciated the emphasis on the love of God that permeates throughout the book. I think that may be the greatest contribution of The Shack. But in doing so, it dismisses the justice of God.

Specifically, Papa in the book says that He/She doesn’t punish people for sin; they cure it. And that’s a pretty nice sentiment. Except that the Bible does teaches that while God is a God of love, He is also a God of justice.

Psalm 94:1-2 (NLT)
O Lord, the God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, let your glorious justice shine forth! Arise, O judge of the earth. Give the proud what they deserve.

Romans 12:19-20 (NLT)
Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord.

And remember, God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sin. And He threatened to do the same to Nineveh. So much for God not punishing sin. Now, I don’t think God takes pleasure in punishing sin… I think the book got that right. And He is very patient and forgiving. But He does punish it, nonetheless.


5.    It denies God’s expectations of us

Papa in the book says that God has no expectations on us… that expectations are basically chains that we humans place on each other. Really? If that’s true, what’s the point of the moral laws and principles in the Bible… both the Old and New Testaments?

Micah 3:8 (NLT)
…The Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Ephesians 4:17,21-24 (NLT)
With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. … Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.

Obviously, God does have expectations for us. Now, it’s true that God does not require us to live up to certain expectations to earn salvation… Salvation is a free gift of God’s grace that we receive through faith. We don’t earn it. But as Christ-followers, He does have expectations for us. He does call us to become more Christlike in our character and our conduct.


6.    It misrepresents the birth and death of Jesus

In trying to reinforce the unity of the Trinity, the book says, “When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human,” telling us that all three Persons of the Trinity were incarnate. And then Mack sees wounds from the crucifixion on the hands of Papa, telling us that God the Father died on the cross.

This belief actually has a name… it’s called Patripassianism. And it is wrong. Only Jesus took on a human nature. God the Father didn’t, and the Holy Spirit didn’t. It was only Jesus. And only Jesus suffered the pain of the spikes nailing Him to the cross. God the Father didn’t, and the Holy Spirit didn’t.

John 1:14 (NLT)
So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.

“The Word” is a reference to Jesus. God the Father is also mentioned, but only The Word became flesh. So only He could have died on the cross. That’s what the Bible teaches.


7.    It recognizes other paths to God

Again, I don’t think this was the intent of the book. So I'm not putting this on the author. In fact, I think he says just the opposite. But depending on how you interpret some of the book, it can be understood to say that there are more ways to God the Father than just Jesus. So let’s first of all remember what Jesus said…

John 14:6 (NLT)
Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”

Jesus claimed to be the One and only way to God the Father; there are no other ways. But that’s not the impression some people get from The Shack. For one thing, in the book Jesus is recognized as being the best way to relate to the Father. But being “best” is not the same as being “the only”.

Plus, there’s a whole section of the book where Mack asks Papa about other paths… other religions… and asks if they are paths to God, too. Well, Papa explains that that’s not necessarily so, but that God “will travel any road to find you.” Which some people take to mean that other religions are just different options that are just as valid.

The actually intent of the book is to say that God can find you even in the midst of alcoholism, or an abusive relationship, or a deceptive religion, or anything else. I’ve heard Paul Young express that in interviews. So the book is not really saying that there are other paths to God. But it can give that impression. But the Bible says…

1 Timothy 2:5 (NLT)
For there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus.

Acts 4:12 (NLT)
“There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”

So if you’re looking for another way to God the Father, then you’re going to be disappointed. Jesus is the only way.


8.    It teaches that faith is not rational

Now, this is something we’ve spent a lot of time addressing here at Sunrise. We often look at the logical, rational reasons we believe what we believe. The old movie “Miracle on 34th Street” had someone say, “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.” But that’s a terrible understanding faith. But that’s not what faith is at all. No, we understand faith to be examining the evidence, seeing where it points, and then going in that direction.

Bu this is what The Shack says:

“There are times when you choose to believe something that would normally be considered absolutely irrational. It doesn’t mean that it is actually irrational, but it is surely not rational.”
~ The Shack, page 64

But if it were not rational, then there would be no reason for the Bible to say…

Isaiah 1:18 (NIV)
“Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD.

1 Peter 3:15 (NLT)
And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it.

Logic and reason are not enemies of faith; they are partners with it. Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The Christian parallel would be, “The unexamined faith is not worth believing.” Faith has its reasons. It is rational.


So that’s my review of The Shack. If you’ve already read it or you want to read it, fine. It does have a lot to offer. But just don’t count on it for all your theology. Read with your eyes open. The Bible says…

1 Timothy 4:16 (NIV)
Watch your life and doctrine closely.

And this is important, because we are bombarded by messages every day. The media in particular... TV, movies, books... they all present a message. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not so good. And that's why you need to watch your life and doctrine closely. Use a filter in regards to what you accept as truth. Because if you're not careful, it's easy to be deceived.

So "The Shack"... my opinion is that it's a compelling book that deals with some tough subjects and does it pretty well. It has a lot to offer. But there are a few problems as well, so be aware of that. Let's pray...

 

 

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