The Shack: A Lutheran Review

The Shack The Shack by William P. Young

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
It is frankly unusual for me to like a bestseller that is a religious book. Most of the religious books out there are hype and non-sense, and are quite anti-Christian.

I haven’t decided about this one yet.

My initial read was that I liked it in some respects, but that there were elements that left me uncomfortable. The book (which has been reviewed a bazillion times elsewhere) is the story of a man whose daughter was brutally murdered, and about an encounter that this man (whose name is Mack) had with God at the place of his daughter’s murder. God is personified as three people: The Father (Papa) is an elderly black woman; the Son (Jesus) is a non-descript man; and the Holy Spirit (Sarayu) as a small oriental woman. There are some fairly obvious Trinitarian problems where, which I don’t think need to be belabored.

This is what I liked about the book. The book does a good job of describing the all encompassing love of God for us fallen sinners. There is a strong sense of redemption in the book, which I found to be powerful and kind of addictive.

Here’s what I didn’t like.

1. It’s hard to pin down difficulties when you talk about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I think that for the most part the book was okay. I did feel, however, that there was a sort of residual modalism that crept in every once in a while. I’ll try and look through it again to see what else that might mean.

2. More problematic, though, was the confusion of Law and Gospel. It wasn’t that bad, but you could easily take from this point a complete sense of anti-nomianism. As a Lutheran, I kind of run things through the Law/Gospel filter when I read them. Sometimes the Law is presented as virtually man made, institutional, and that the Law is really a reflection of our human falleness. The Law is the perfect will of God, and is fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ. That is a problem.

3. Even more confusing and potentially dangerous is the view of the atonement set forth in the book. While there is a general sense of redemption put forth in the book, it is unclear to me whether the author sees the death of Jesus as the payment for sin. I didn’t see much justification talk, and I worry that the really point of the author’s view of the atonement is that Jesus died so that we can see how much the Father loves us. It’s hard to pin down.

4. There is also a problem with the means of grace. God is personified as three people, which I can understand from a literary point of view. However, there is very little sense that the way that God speaks to us today is through His Word. Certainly there is no sense of the Sacraments at all. It is clearly Reformed in orientation. You get the sense, too, that God “speaks” through lots of different ways, even through other religions. While I wouldn’t call the book universalistic, there is enough problem there to give me pause.

Finally, I didn’t think the writing was really that good. The dialogue was unrealistic, and he uses the word “sarcastic” way way to much. The book could have used another good edit to fix some of that. But then again, since it has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, what do I know?

All in all, an enjoyable read with a beautiful story of redemption and forgiveness. I can’t recommend it because of the theological problems, but it does have some merit.

Todd A. Peperkorn, STM


Messiah Lutheran Church

Kenosha, Wisconsin

View all my reviews.

10 thoughts on “The Shack: A Lutheran Review

  1. Thanks for the review. I just finished the book a couple of days ago, and I too enjoyed reading the book while being completely unsure of where it left off theologically.

    There was a point toward the end where Papa is discussing major religions as all being roads that people are traveling, and how this is a good thing. But then says that the only way to Papa is through Jesus? God definitely speaks through His Word and Sacraments, and you can’t say that what happens in the book isn’t possible, but it does leave me with an uncomfortable, unsettled feeling. I did think the book accurately described the pain a human being has in the struggle of forgiving fellow men.

    Anyway, good review. I think you helped me finally figure out why I was so uncomfortable reading it.

  2. I agree completely with Pr. Peperkorn’s assessment of The Shack. I wrote a review of it myself a few months ago and received quite a bit of flack (that is ongoing) at Wittenburg Trail for my opinions.

    I really liked the way that Young handled the relationship aspects all around – between Mack and God and God and Himself. Some of the Trintarian stuff is subtle and I can see where some of the modalism conclusions have come from, but I think Young very creatively tiptoes around it by simply changing pronouns mid-sentence here and there. And if you don’t assume that when Papa is speaking, she is only speaking for the Father but is also occasionally speaking as the Godhead, things work out just fine.

    There is an unmistakably strong anti-institutional sentiment in this book. But since Young himself is anti-institutional church, that’s hardly surprising to see. Also, since he’s not Lutheran he’s going to miss the sacramental theology and Law/Gospel way of interpreting the text. That’s sad, because those things are precisely the solutions that would pull everything back together under the Cross. As it stands, everything ends up being about personal opinions and feelings and interpretations. It’s all very emergent. But then again, the emergent movement has correctly identified the disillusionment many have with the institutional church (which, IMO is more commonly seen today as the typical American protestant mega-type CW church these days than the traditional, liturgical church it is often assumed to be). Unfortunately, the emergent movement seems to be a pitiful attempt to “traditionalize” and “historicize” churches and denominations that are precisely lacking in actual tradition and history.

  3. I humbly submit the following evaluation:

    An Evaluation of The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

    False teachings in the Shack:

    • p. 31 that the Great Spirit and God are the same

    • p. 65 pejoratively speaks of God’s voice “reduced to paper”

    • p. 66 enthusiasm- seeking direct communication from God, apart from His Word and Sacraments- “Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book”

    • p. 95, 164, 222 scars on Papa’s wrists- “we were there together”- heresy that the Father, too suffered (Patropacianism)

    • p. 96 that the Father did not leave (abandon) Jesus on the cross, but that Jesus only felt that way or lost sight of Him (cf. Ps 22; Mt 27:46)

    • p. 99 “We became fully human”- only the Son is incarnate, not the Father and the Spirit

    • p. 99 Jesus’ miracles did not draw upon His nature or God to do anything—Jesus miracles are proof of Jesus’ divinity and things He can do only because He is God

    • p. 120 God says that it is not His purpose to punish sin and that He does not need to punish people for sin- “sin is its own punishment”— contradicts Exodus 20:5

    • p. 134 to think of the Garden of Eden as a myth is “not fatal”—all false teaching is poisonous to our faith

    • p. 136 evil and darkness “do not have any actual existence”— This is a teaching of Neoplatonism, that evil is a privation (lack) of being. This makes evil a necessary part of nature, just by being a creature and not the creator. Evil does exist.

    • p. 171 female character Sophia personification of Father’s Wisdom. The Father’s Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) is Christ. Sophia as a female figure is a Greek goddess of wisdom.

    • p. 179 marriage not an institution—God indeed instituted marriage in Genesis 2:24.

    • p. 182 “those who love me come from every system that exists… I will travel any road to find you”- This is universalism, that all paths lead to God.

    • p. 201 Father: “I am truly human in Jesus and a totally separate other in my nature”—Actually Jesus is of “one substance” or “essence” with the Father and they are two different persons.

    • p. 203 “law no longer has any power to accuse or demand”—The law always accuses. It continues this function in the lives of Christians, leading us to daily repent of our sin.
    • p. 225 that we choose relationship with God. Jesus says we do not choose Him but He chooses us (Jn 15:16)

    Good points:
    • p. 192 Through Jesus’ death and resurrection God is reconciled to the world

    • p. 197 “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules; it is a picture of Jesus”—This gets to the main point of the Bible, namely Christ.

    • pp. 197-198 cannot do what God wants on your own, cannot live the righteousness of God on your own

    • pp. 198 The Holy Spirit- “you will hear and see me in the Bible”

    • p. 202 Only Jesus fulfilled the law

    • p. 202 ten commandments a mirror to show how filthy our faces became when we try to live independently from God

    • p. 203 people misuse the law by trying to keep it to feel control and to judge others; rules cannot bring freedom, they only have the power to accuse

    • p. 203 God doesn’t purpose evil but uses it for good

    • p. 224 “for you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him”—whatever we bind on earth is bound in heaven, whatever we loose on earth is loosed in heaven (Mt 16:19)

    • p. 224 Because of Jesus, no law demanding that God brings our sins to mind.

    • p. 225 In Jesus, God has forgiven all humans of their sins against Him.

    • p. 225 “when you forgive someone, you certainly release them from judgment”—see Mt. 16:19.

    Prepared by Pastor Shawn D. Stafford
    January 17, 2009

  4. Thought from a layperson:

    I just read this book because a friend loaned it to me an said she thought it contained errors and was concerned so many people are enamored of it. I generally don’t read Christian fiction, but I found this book interesting because it asks so many of the questions that people today hold up as accusations against God, the biggest being if you love us why do you allow these things to happen. I found the answers in chapters 8 & 9 to be good ones, especially with regard to original sin and God’s love and plans for each of us individually. I liked the message of the power of and necessity for forgiveness, and the need to walk with Christ.

    The depictions of the Trinity are far out (thank you Pastor Stafford for your assessments) they did not really upset me, it is fiction and I wrote that off to a figment of the author’s imagination and an attempt to be “politically correct”. I do believe that people’s perceptions of God are heavily influenced by the treatment they have recieved from “Christian” parents or authority figures. ( Another brokeness which we have inherited from sin being in the world.)

    I wasn’t sure what the author intended when he said that “those who love me come from every system that exists… I will travel any road to find you” Did he mean that all who profess to believe in “God” or a supreme being of some kind are in the same fellowship? I was confused about his meaning, because then when the character Mack asks if that meant that all roads lead to God, God says “no, some roads don’t lead anywhere at all”. He does not however expand on that to explain that God loves all people in every system, but that faith in Christ is the only road that TRULY leads to Him. That fogginess did not leave me with a good feeling.

    The part I found most disturbing was the ambiguous implication that since Jesus had died and reconciled God to the world, now everyone will be in heaven, and there will be no judgement. A great many people like to embrace that kind of belief, because it’s a lot easier to reconcile with our sentimental veiws of God that because He is Love, how could he do otherwise.

    Of course there was no reference to the study of the Word, or any sacraments as a means of recieving this “walk with Christ” that was talked about.

    I also picked up on the false teachings that Jesus did not have divine power, and that God did not abandon Christ on the cross. That very abandonment is in part what made possible our salvation through faith in that sacrifice.

    The book had many good things to say to those who are looking for answers to why bad things happen, and why it is essential to forgive others, but I would not recommned it to anyone if I did not know they had a thoughroughly grounded Biblical faith, and would not be mislead by this “New Age feel good version of the Gospel” in which no one talks about sin or evil or Hell.

  5. Christian Fiction is in and of itself a conundrum. I've read some good and some bad. I find that I cannot always apply Lutheran theology to the storyline because most writers today (unlike Bo Giertz) are from the American Evangelical experience. The only writer I have been able to really get into has been Ted Dekker. I have been somewhat disappointed in his movie adaptations, but the books I have read have been good stories.

    Most Christian writers outside of Lutheran circles have no concept of the proper distinction of Law and Gospel. My wife has a book she's waiting to hear on from some publishers her agent has sent the book to. It is a mystery and stays away from doctrinal issues which for her is good because she is more about the story than the doctrine.

    I think I will pass on "The Shack" for now. Maybe after I am ordained I will take some time to read fiction again, but for right now, passing vicarage is my most pressing task.

  6. As a life-long orthodox Lutheran, and a graduate of Concordia, River Forest, years ago (it's possible to stay orthodox and be a graduate of RF!), when a good friend recommended The Shack to me, I read it. I really enjoyed the book. And I was comforted by the book. I over-looked the obvious theological problems. I don't think the author intended it to be a theological discourse. What I took from the book was that life sometimes is horribly painful, but that for believers, there is hope, there is forgiveness, and there is the wonderful comfort of God's all embracing love.

    I also told the ladies at my Bible class that I would not recommend the book to someone who was not a knowledgeable Christian. Unfortunately, many unbelievers are reading the book. If they are getting their theology form The Shack, they are going down many wrong paths.

    But for those of us Lutherans who want a comforting parable, I would not hesitate to recommend the book.

  7. How do I judge it? Worth the read, and worth the struggle to read on when it gets difficult. Theologically? It is not the bible and it is a work of fiction. It is an allegory and it challenged me to think outside the box, so I grew in my understanding of God through reading it. Most exciting to me however, was that my non-Christian friends were happy to read it and to speak openly with me about my faith because of it. One dear friend came to faith as a result of that. So how could I not love it? Perhaps sometimes we need to look beyond the means and see God’s work through things that we might not understand.

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