Shabernacle (or, The Shack and the Tabernacle)


How would you like to have your appendix removed with a rusty scalpel?

Sorry, that’s kind of a weird question.  But it’s not random.  In a sense, I think that something similar is going on among American Christians today, particularly those who are reading the ultra-popular book The Shack.  Many people are raving about how this book has deepened their relationship with God.  I don’t doubt that this is happening; this book has a lot of truth in it that is cutting out infection in people’s lives.  However, it is also riddled through and through with severe errors, and I am afraid that these errors will be unconsciously absorbed by those who read it, until over time a newer and more severe problem will develop.  A rusty scalpel may cure an immediate illness, but it will introduce a more severe infection that may ruin the whole body.

So why am I writing about this book again?  Didn’t I already cover it a few months ago?

The ShackTrue, I wrote a three-part series of posts on The Shack.  To be honest, though, I never really felt like I had a total grasp on what I liked and didn’t like about the book.  That changed earlier this year after I finished studying the tabernacle for seminary (my two earlier posts on the tabernacle can be found here and here).  I found that the tabernacle was a helpful lens through which to view The Shack.  This is because The Shack is, in effect, a sort of tabernacle; the book is all about our relationship with God.  So let’s line The Shack and the tabernacle up next to each other and see what they tell us about God.  Where do they agree (the good points of the back) and where do they disagree (the bad points of the book)?  We’ll do this by asking several key questions.

1.  Does God love people?

The Tabernacle: Yes!  The tabernacle was the means by which a holy God could dwell with the people whom he loved.  After being delivered from Egypt, as they prepared to meet this God, Moses wrote a song with these lines:  “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode” (Exod 15:13).  God loves people—and in particular, the people whom he has chosen for his own!

The Shack: Yes!  This is a point that is beaten to death, and that’s a good thing.  Papa (the Father) tells Mack that he is “smack dab in the center of my love” (p. 98).  However, there is a question as to what William Young thinks love is.  For example, he claims that the people who know God are “the ones who are free to live and love without any agenda” (p. 181).  Love without an agenda is no love at all!  Love always has an agenda—to see others conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.

2.  Does God want to be in relationship with people?

The Tabernacle: Yes!  The whole point of the tabernacle is that it is the dwelling place of God among his people.  God could have remained aloof, observing the world from afar.  Instead, he chose to be closely involved, meeting and talking with his people in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:22).

The Shack: Yes!  In fact, the book is focused on the idea of relationships—between God and man as well as between man and his fellow man.  Papa tells Mack, “I desire to be in relationship with every human being” (p. 100).  Now, there are strong indications that Young’s idea of relationship is markedly different from the biblical idea of relationship (that is, God’s idea of relationship).  But we’ll get to that later.

3.  Is God holy?

The Tabernacle: Yes!  You can’t miss this theme; it’s the single reason for the entire book of Leviticus.  Throughout Exodus 26–31, God insists that the place where he dwells and the people to whom he ministers be holy as well.  Holiness means “set apart”—particularly in a moral sense, in which God command us to be holy as well (Leviticus 11:44–45).

The Shack: Yes.  Papa tells Mack, “I am what some would say ‘holy, and wholly other than you'” (p. 98).  However, beyond this concept of being something other, there is hardly any mention of holiness in the book.  There seems to be almost no concept of holiness as moral purity, and Mack is never told that he must be holy.  While The Shack focuses on the love of God, it almost totally ignores his holiness.

4.  Is there any obstacle between man and God (i.e. sin)?

The Tabernacle: Yes!  The unholiness of man due to his sin is what separates man from God.  Leviticus emphasizes the defilement of sin that hinders the close communion that God wants with his people.  In Exodus 32, the people build a golden calf as an alternative worship system; God nearly wipes them out in his wrath because they have “sinned a great sin” (Exodus 32:30).  Sin in the Bible damages our relationship with God; it is identified as breaking his law, as failing to love him, as being morally twisted and corrupted, and ultimately as rebelling against his authority.

The Shack: Yes.  The Shack emphasizes many things that stand between us and God; essentially, Young views “sin” as anything that hinders our relationship with God.  Throughout the book, he places particular emphasis on fear, a lack of trust in him, and independence from him.  All well and good!  However, he also adds hierarchy and institutions to the list.  In other words, authority and institutions (whatever he means by that) are inherently sinful.  This flies in the face of what God really teaches in the Bible; the authority of God is a great thing, and he gives authority to people as well.  He also institutes marriage, human government, and the church, among other examples.  Young’s idea of relationship has more in common with hippie communes than with the love relationship that the true God wants us to have with him.

5.  How does God handle sin?

The Tabernacle: Ultimately, there are two ways that God handles sin.  One is to punish the sinner.  In the Second Commandment, forbidding idolatry, he declares, “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5–6).  That God punishes evildoers is an inescapable theme of both the Old and New Testaments.  Yet there is hope for us in a second way!  In the Old Testament, the Lord offered atonement for sins through a ritual known as the Day of Atonement, in which the people’s sins were paid for by the death of an animal as a substitute (Leviticus 16).  Ultimately, this prefigured the atonement offered by Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9–10).

The Shack: The Shack has two things to say about sin.  One is that sin must be forgiven by God (p. 225).  The second is that God does not intend to punish sin.  Papa tells Mack, “I don’t need to punish people for sin.  Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside.  It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”  This is only a half-truth.  It is true that sin itself can be a punishment (Romans 1:24–31).  However, the Bible is crystal clear that God actually does punish sin, both in this life and (more importantly and finally) in the next.

6.  Why did Jesus Christ have to die?

The Tabernacle: As we just saw—prefigured by the tabernacle—Jesus Christ had to die to bear the penalty of our sin, satisfying the absolutely just wrath of God against our sin by serving as a substitute for us.  And that is just one aspect of the crucifixion!  It is because of his sacrifice that we are forgiven of our sins.  And it is because of his righteousness that is made ours that we can now boldly come before the God who loves us, in relationship with him (Hebrews 10:19–22).

The Shack: First, Jesus provided the example of a servant who gave up his rights (p. 137); this agrees with the Bible (Philippians 2:5–8).  Second, in some sense, what Jesus did allows God to forgive people of their sins (pp. 224–225); obviously, this is true as well.  Third, Jesus accomplished the reconciliation of the entire world—meaning every last person on earth—to God (p. 192).  Here’s where we run into problems, because first of all, this is nonsense; reconciliation is not possible between a willing party and an unwilling party.  In fact, those who do not believe in Jesus Christ “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18).  Fourth, and even more troubling, Jesus did not die to bear the penalty of our sins as a substitute for us.  On p. 96, Young (using God the Father as his mouthpiece) insists that God did not forsake his Son at the cross (Jesus was just really whiny in Matthew 27:46, I guess).  If he was not forsaken, then we who should be forsaken for our sins have no confidence that Jesus Christ has received this affliction in our place (Isaiah 53).  If you think I am reading too much into this, Young himself has explicitly denied that Jesus Christ died as a substitute for us, bearing the penalty for our sins.

Bottom line?  It would appear that the God of The Shack is a God of love (sort of), but he/she is not particularly holy.  This is not the true God that we are called to worship!  I encourage you, if you plan to read this book (or already have), read it with exceptional discernment and caution.  Be careful about surgery done with a rusty scalpel.

Why is The Shack so successful?

The ShackAfter posting a one-sentence review of The Shack last Sunday, I followed up on Wednesday with a critique of William P. Young’s perspective on authority which he lays out in the book.  Today, I want to end with a few thoughts on why I think The Shack has become so popular and why it has had such a powerful effect on many who read it.  While this is not an exhaustive list, here are seven reasons why I think this book has enjoyed such great success:

1.  Story time

The Shack is a story.  Narrative—fiction or non-fiction—is a very powerful means of communication, and it is very effective at getting across an agenda.  We could turn to the Bible itself as a prime example of this; throughout much of the Bible, theology is given legs through pictures of God actually at work through the course of history.  I have read several people who try to deflect criticism from The Shack by appealing to its nature as a fictional work, but even fiction can have an agenda (good or bad), and this book certainly does.  Young’s writing style varies from passable to cringe-worthy (the “gilt edges”/“guilt edges” pun about the Bible from p. 66 comes to mind); his chapter titles are incredibly corny; he can’t seem to decide whether or not to give God the Father a consistent sassy-black-woman accent.  Yet the fact remains that the story is at times emotionally moving, and Young is just good enough as a narrator not to get in the way of what he is narrating.

2.  God the mouthpiece

Young’s primary means of revelation is through the members of the Trinity.  Nearly all of the important teaching comes from the mouths of Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  The result is that these three become Young’s spokesmen (or spokeswomen?).  As his mouthpieces, they say what he wants them to say.  In a sense, this is an inversion of the biblical pattern where the authors of scripture became God’s spokesmen, saying what he wanted them to say.  Now, The Shack is meant to be read as fiction; however, there is a certain air of authority when it is God himself saying the things Young wants us to believe.

3.  Mack the claqueur

Lest I appear more well-cultured than I really am, I’ll admit that I didn’t know what a claqueur was until last night.  I actually found out while looking at the Wikipedia entry for “laugh track.”  And that’s one of the major roles of Mack’s character—to provide the response to the Trinity’s teaching that Young wants the audience to have.  It is remarkable how many times, after a member of the Godhead finishes pontificating on a topic, that Mack is said to feel like he wants to laugh and cry at the same time, or is said to feel a great burden lifted from his shoulders, or is said to feel excited and bewildered.  Mack’s emotional responses are a sort of hint that Young provides us as readers; they are a subtle suggestion that we, too, should be feeling the same way, just like laugh tracks in sitcoms inform the audience that a joke has been told and that it is funny (unless the sitcom is That ’70s Show or Friends).

4.  Emotional buzz

I’m not sure whether to be comforted or not by the fact that many people don’t seem to be reading The Shack for theology.  I find it comforting because it means that much of the false doctrine taught in this book will be ignored.  But I find it disconcerting because it means that these people are not reading this book to know God more.  Anyone who is seeking to know God more is seeking good theology (the knowledge of God).  Rather than striving for “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8), many Christians are content to use books like this as a cheap drug, a means to getting an emotional buzz—a pseudo-spiritual “high”—that will get them through tough times.  The bad news is that while the God of The Shack may make them feel better for a little while, the “high” won’t last because Young’s God is so meager in comparison to the God of the Bible.

5.  Itching ears

There are others who are reading this book to know God more, and they are swallowing Young’s teaching hook, line, and sinker.  In my initial review, I referred to his God as “a Trinity invented by a 21st-century American.”  I doubt that this book would appeal to people outside of a modern Western audience.  It is grounded so firmly in the perceived needs and worldview of our culture.  We don’t want authority; we don’t want structure; we don’t want a sovereign God.  We want relationship without responsibility and blessing without being broken.  We want an idol carved out of God, where all his “rough edges” are sanded off and a newer, harmless deity is made for us to worship.  The Shack offers us this version of God, and it is no surprise that it has become so popular.  Paul warned Timothy that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

6.  A vein of truth

Despite all these failures, The Shack does teach a lot of true things about God.  It does portray God as caring for his people, as a God of unconditional love, as a God who isn’t a tyrant over his own.  It reminds us that he is immanent—God with us.  It admits that we live in a broken world, full of anguish, sorrow, and hurt.  And it tells us that God wants to restore his creation to the full beauty and harmony that it was meant to display.

7.  The salt has lost its saltiness

Finally, let me be blunt.  This book should not have been written.  By this, I mean that the above truths should be so obvious to people within the church that they do not need a fatally flawed book such as The Shack to remind them.  Moreover, people outside the church should see the love of God manifested in his people and their love for one another (John 13:35).  You and I—we have failed to show others the one true God by the way we conduct our lives.

As long as we refuse to give ourselves up as living sacrifices to God, as long as we hold ourselves back, we will no longer be shining “as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).  Let us live in such a way that no one around us is interested in reading The Shack because they see in us something resembling the true God.  It is certainly our responsibility to refute false doctrine (Titus 1:9).  But above all, let us remember Jesus’ commandment:  “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Authority in The Shack

The ShackOn 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 Bible

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).

The Church

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.

Dave reviews The Shack in one sentence

The ShackThe Shack is what happens when a Trinity invented by a 21st-century Westerner attempts to solve the problem of evil by pontificating on relationships, disdaining authority, and baking scones.

Check out a few more helpful reviews:

  • Walter Henegar:  “Good fiction has the potential to illuminate biblical truth, but not when it effectively supplants it. We need the Bible, not The Shack.”
  • Gerald Hiestand:  “The net result is a God who rejects—indeed is repulsed by—the use of power.”
  • Paul Grimmond:  “If western Christianity had spent more time in ‘the shack’ with the true and living creator, and less time wallowing around in our felt needs, then, just maybe, less people would have been fooled. We might have recognized The Shack for the empty shell that it is.”

My goal is to reflect on the book a couple more times on this blog—first, to expand on Hiestand’s observation, and second, to examine why The Shack has had such a powerful effect on people.