On Sunday, I posted a one-sentence review of The Shack and promised to return with a couple more posts: the first critiquing its teaching on authority, and the second examining why it seems to be so popular and emotionally powerful.
So…the first. If you haven’t read Gerald Hiestand’s review, do that first; then come back here. Before I had read The Shack, I read his review, and it sounded over-the-top to me. After reading the book, I’m convinced that, far from exaggerating the problem, Hiestand has put his finger on the single most dangerous theme of the book—that authority is a human construct brought about by the Fall, that God considers it “ghastly” (p. 122), and that it is incompatible with true relationship. Though there are many serious errors in the book, this is one that Young relentlessly pursues throughout the course of his story. He lays it all out explicitly on pp. 121-124 in a conversation among Mack and the members of the Trinity. During the course of the dialogue, Jesus explains:
Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you.
One possible response to this is to engage in an imagined philosophical debate with Young over whether authority or hierarchy really is incompatible with relationship. Instead, I simply want to appeal to God himself—to the words given to us by God, not merely by William P. Young. The true God reveals himself primarily through the holy and precious scriptures “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). The inherent goodness of God’s authority is stunningly obvious throughout the pages of the Bible. The first recorded words of God to man reflect his authority in an unbroken, sinless love relationship with his creature; in a rapid series of commands, he tells the man and the woman, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion…” (Genesis 1:28). That last one, especially, reminds us that man was created as part of a hierarchy, as God’s vice-regent over the creation. Throughout the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2, prior to the Fall, God commands all things into being, and he commands Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:16). Throughout the rest of the Bible he issues commands and decrees, and one day he will return to rule the nations “with a rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15). The one true God is not afraid of authority; he is not afraid to reign.
Because Young is familiar with the Bible, he can’t help but slip back into hierarchical terminology when referring to God, describing Jesus as “Lord of Creation” (p. 176) and “king of the universe” (p. 216). But otherwise, he’s pretty consistent in applying this principle because he proceeds to denigrate the authority of the Bible, of the church, and of men.
The only time Young mentions the Bible with more than a passing reference is when he attempts to devalue it. This takes place on pp. 65-66, where he portrays it as God’s words “reduced to paper.” It is not “overt” or “direct” communication by God. It is “moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects…the intelligentsia.” It limits God: “No one wanted God in a box, just in a book.”
While Young uses biblical terminology throughout much of the book, he feels free to supplement the teachings of scripture with his own ideas about God, even going so far as to contradict the Bible if necessary to suit his agenda (as we have already seen). He does not respect the authority of scripture as Jesus Christ did (Matthew 5:17-19). He does not treasure its words as the psalmist did (Psalm 119).
Once again, every mention of the church as an institution is negative. Using Jesus as his spokesman, Young explains that the church “is all about people and life is all about relationships” (p. 178). It’s hard to argue with that…until we remember that to him, relationships are incompatible with authority. Young’s Jesus insists, “I don’t create institutions—never have, never will” (p. 179). This is utterly absurd; Christ did institute his church. He gave it the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism. He established procedures for church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20). His apostles, sent with his authority, affirmed the offices of elder and deacon (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9). They laid out rules and guidelines for proper conduct in the church (1 Corinthians 14) and care for the widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16), among other things. The Holy Spirit equipped the people of the church with spiritual gifts “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7)—including the gifts of leadership (Romans 12:8) and administration (1 Corinthians 12:28)!
If the church—local and universal—is not an institution, I don’t know what is. Institutions are not inherently bad; in keeping with his response to the concept of authority itself, Young is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Just because the church can be twisted and imperfect doesn’t mean that structure and hierarchy are themselves evil. In the church, they are the structure on which relationships grow and flourish.
Hiestand came down hard on this one, and after reading the book, I understand why. Let’s set aside the jarring fact that God the Father appears as a woman (Young insists on veering from the almost exclusively male depiction of God in the Bible). Beyond that, the author undermines male headship and strongly implies that women are superior to men. As a result of pitting relationship against authority, Young ends up rightly affirming feminine virtues while criticizing a caricature of masculine virtues. His Jesus explains to Mack, “Like most men you find what you think of as fulfillment in your achievements, and Nan [Mack’s wife], like most women, find [sic] it in relationships. It’s more naturally her language” (p. 146). It’s not hard to figure out where this is leading. Young spends the entire book rejoicing in relationships, so of course women, who are apparently better than men at this, end up being naturally superior to men.
Young’s Jesus goes on to say, “The world, in many ways, would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled. There would have been far fewer children sacrificed to the gods of greed and power” (p. 148). When Mack speculates that perhaps it would have been better if women were given the role of authority, Jesus responds, “Better, maybe, but it still wouldn’t have been enough.” Then he goes on to insist that power in human hands always corrupts and is inherently bad. So the damage has been done to masculinity; perhaps the world wouldn’t be a perfect place if women were in charge, but it would be better.
The Shack is all about a love relationship. This would be a great thing if Young left room for other perspectives offered by the Bible, which talks about our spiritual journey as fearing the Lord (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14), as a sacrifice to God (Philippians 2:17), as slavery to a new master (Romans 6:15-19), as a battle “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12; tellingly, The Shack never once mentions the devil or demonic forces). But rather than leaving room for these and many other perspectives, he excludes them.
God has and will use The Shack to remind people that he loves them and longs for a deeper relationship with them. For that, I praise God and marvel at his use of flawed instruments to accomplish his perfect will. Yet I am afraid that this book will not only lead people astray with blatantly false teaching but encourage people to become fatally unbalanced in their understanding of masculinity, of the church, of the Bible, and ultimately of God himself.