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Enlightenment: A Critical Look at the Theology of The Shack

  • Helen Ensley Student, U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado
  • 2011 4 May
Enlightenment: A Critical Look at the Theology of <i>The Shack</i>

The Shack is a 100-page book, written by William Young. Young is the father of six children, and he wrote The Shack for his children at his wife's behest. Mrs. Young watched her husband wrestle with his inner demons for years before he finally committed adultery. Rather than give up on him and leave, Mrs. Young instead bade her husband write down his perspectives on God because he thought "outside the box" (Darlington). Young did so, with an incredibly unorthodox portrayal of the Holy Trinity.

In the story, God is an excitable black woman, Jesus is a large-nosed carpenter, and the Holy Spirit is small Asian woman named Sarayu (Zukeran). The main character, Mack, is at war within himself after losing his little daughter to a serial killer. Mack cannot understand why a being such as God would allow such a terrible thing to happen. He struggles with his belief and faith in the Lord until he receives a letter from Papa, his wife's name for God. The letter is an invitation to return to the shack where his daughter was killed so that his spiritual and emotional wounds might be healed. After some deliberation, Mack accepts the invitation, and embarks on the journey of a lifetime. However, Young's portrayal of the characters Mack meets tends to rub religious critics and preachers the wrong way. These people are horrified at the message that The Shack sends to readers: "…you can just discover Jesus' love inside yourself, turn your life over to him, and you're on your way to heaven. No need to put in time in the pews or know theology" (Grossman). Whatever would the religious zealots of this world do if their followers figured out how to connect with God by themselves?!

Besides my own pronounced distaste for those who believe it is their mission in life to foist their beliefs onto other people, there is factual reason to back my assertion that Patrick Zukeran, in his critique of The Shack, does a poor job of connecting his view of the story with the reader's. Zukeran supports his claims with all kinds of quotes from the Bible and from The Shack, but he is critiquing the story from a theological scholar's point of view. The book was not written to be biblically correct; rather, it was written to challenge our preconceived notions of who God is.

Criticism Summary
Zukeran argues that Young has made critical errors in his portrayal of the Holy Trinity. If Young were writing a textbook, this would be perfectly true. According to Zukeran, the Bible tells its readers that "God has chosen to reveal Himself as Father and never in the feminine gender" (Zukeran). Zukeran also strikes down Young's decision to depict God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in human form, saying, "Young teaches that all three members of the Trinity became human. However, Scripture teaches that only the Son, not all members of the Trinity, became human" (Zukeran). This is entirely untrue, but I'll get to that later. He believes that Young teaches incorrectly, in contrast with the Bible; and this he supports with a great number of quotes from Young's book and from the Bible. Zukeran also feels "the message [of the book] appears to teach that Jesus will reveal Himself to people no matter their road or religion. Jesus does not ask them to leave that road and follow the narrow path of salvation" (Zukeran). Zukeran has apparently sided with those aforementioned religious critics in the conviction that one cannot find salvation any other way than through a religion that specifically teaches of the Holy Trinity through hours in the pews and plenty of theological study, led (of course) by theological scholars.

Zukeran is reading too much into the story. He is critiquing The Shack from the wrong level. The book was not meant to be religious teaching material, as he suggests. It was written as an alternative perspective on who God is, not as a teaching of who God is. The average reader is not going to be a theological scholar and is not going to study each sentence in the book, looking for inconsistencies with the Bible. Human beings cannot comprehend an entity that exists in the manner that God does, as described in the Bible. It is beyond human ability to understand the concepts of infinity, eternity and total omniscience. Zukeran appears to have missed a major point of the story: that God is not what our simple human minds perceive Him to be. As Papa (God) says, "The problem is that many folks try to grasp some sense of who I am by taking the best version of themselves, projecting that to the nth degree, factoring in all the goodness they can perceive, which often isn't much, and then call that God. And while it may seem like a noble effort, it falls pitifully short of who I really am. I'm not merely the best version of you that you can think of. I am far more than that, above and beyond all that you can ask or think" (Young, 98). Because people are incapable of understanding God, and because God has the power to do literally anything, He could take any form He wishes in order to interact with a human if He so chooses. Just because the Bible describes Him as the Father does not mean He could not take feminine form in order to shepherd a wayward follower.

Zukeran also appears to believe that he is a leading authority on who God is and how people should be learning about Him. This is apparent in his very detailed descriptions of the Holy Trinity, supported by Scripture. Granted, Zukeran is a theological scholar, which is supposed to mean he knows all about the Word and the teachings in the Bible. However, I say again, Zukeran missed a critical point of the book. The Shack was not written to be biblically correct for a reason. Young was trying to get his readers to challenge their stereotypical image of God. If he was trying to tell us anything, it is that we don't need to understand God; we need only to put our faith in Him, and He will take care of us. Yes, there are things we should know, such as the Ten Commandments. However, Young argues that people do not need to spend hours on their knees in the pews and studying the Bible to earn God's forgiveness and understanding. They need to open their hearts to His guidance, and by doing so will gain an understanding and a connection with God that runs deeper than words. Young isn't worried about presenting God, the Son and the Holy Spirit in "the proper manner" because he is not writing a textbook! He is writing from the heart in order to present to people who have suffered in a manner similar to his own a perception of God that is easier for the human mind to comprehend. Furthermore, who is Zukeran to say that portraying the Holy Trinity in human form is inappropriate? Zukeran says in his article, "Scripture teaches that only the Son, not all members of the Trinity, became human" (Zukeran). In fact, he is wrong. Genesis 18:1-10 in the New American Standard Bible states specifically that three men came to speak with Abraham about his wife Sarah and about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. One of these three men is inarguably God Himself. On that evidence, Young is well within his rights to write God into a human character in The Shack.

Essentially, Zukeran neither can connect with his readers because he completely missed the point of the book, nor can he keep his facts straight. He is a theological scholar, so one would think he would know better than to try and rebut Young's characters by misquoting Scripture. When a person as lacking in biblical knowledge as I am has no trouble finding evidence to debunk Zukeran's assertion, we have a problem. Zukeran couldn't see the point of The Shack for what it was: a different way of perceiving the Lord God. He simply tore it apart for its lack of theological accuracy. As a result, he gained only his reader's incredulous disgust and forced the reader further toward Young's way of thinking…which is the opposite way of thinking from what so many religious zealots would have readers do.

Works Cited
Darlington, C.J., Miriam Parker, Deena Peterson, Melissa J. Carswell. "William P. Young  Interview." 02 April 2011.

Grossman, Cathy Lynn. "Shack Opens Doors, but Critics Call Book Scripturally Incorrect."  29 May 2008. USA Today. 03 April 2011.

Zukeran, Patrick. "Critique of The Shack." 03 April 2011.