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The Shack is a novel written by William P. Young, and published in 2007. Before turning his hand to writing, Young did many jobs to pay the bills, including being a janitor, office manager and construction worker. He even appeared on the American version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire in 2000, where he won $250,000.00. However, having already been through bankruptcy in 2004, the father of six was working three jobs at the time of The Shack first being published. He says it was originally just intended as a private gift for his children at a time when they could not afford to buy presents; a book he started writing to express to his children his feelings about God. He says he only expected the book to be read by his immediate family, and perhaps a few close friends. He scraped together enough money to get just 15 copies published, giving one to his wife, one to each of his six children, and the rest to close friends. But when his friends shared it with their friends, word (and demand) spread, and he began getting emails from people who wanted to discuss how the book had affected them. Seeking a way to handle the increasing demand for copies of his book, he approached an author he knew called Wayne Jacobson, who quickly became enchanted by Young’s novel. He in turn involved a friend called Brad Cummings, and between them agreed the novel would make an excellent movie. A plan was therefore hatched in order to make this happen. The beginning of the plan was for Jacobson to help Young rewrite The Shack with the hope and intention of it selling 100,000 copies and capture the attention of Hollywood. Young claims that when hatching this plan, none of them had any idea just how difficult it was for a book to sell that number of copies, and that the average novel sells between 3,000 and 5,000 copies during its lifetime.

After 18 months of editing and rewriting with the help of Jacobson, the finished novel was sent to 26 publishers – half “religious” and half secular - none of which were initially interested, with Young saying of that time: Neither group could figure out what genre it was. The faith-based people thought it was too edgy, and the secular people thought it had too much Jesus in it. I got caught between edgy and Jesus.

As a result of the lack of interest from established publishers, Jacobson and Cummings formed their own publishing company (called Windblown Media) just to publish; they were determined it would be a success and would be made into a movie. They initially ordered 10,000 copies and sold them from Cumming’s home. Mainly thanks to its heavy promotion by Jacobson and Cummings on a religious podcast they hosted, book sales grew and grew and grew, with it selling 1.1 million copies between May 2007 and June 2008.

In February 2008, Young quit his day jobs and agreed to a deal with publisher Hachette to sell The Shack globally. The rest, as they say, is history. It hit the number one spot on the New York Times best seller list in June 2008 and stayed there for 49 consecutive weeks. It has been on the best seller list for 136 weeks and was awarded the “Diamond Award” for sales over 10 million copies by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. To date it is reported to have sold over 20 million copies worldwide and has been translated into no less than 48 languages, making William P. Young a multi-millionaire. In 2013, Lionsgate Entertainment obtained the rights to turn the book into a film, thus accomplishing the long-term plan of Young, Jacobson and Cumming. The film is due to be released in cinemas in March 2017, with Sam Worthington (star of Avatar, Terminator Salvation, Clash of the Titans and Hacksaw Ridge) taking the lead role; it is big-budget. Due to the lack of a valid written agreement between the three men, a legal battle is said to have resulted in Young giving up any rights to the film in exchange for complete freedom and ownership of his work moving forward.

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Author of The Shack, William P. Young

Born in Grand Prairie, Alberta, Canada, Young was only a year old when he moved with his missionary parents to New Guinea. He was cared for during the day by members of the local Dani tribe in an area of New Guinea Young describes as Cannibal Valley. “They were spirit worshipping, warring and heavily family-systemed. They had some dark sides”, says Young in an interview. “They practised ritual cannibalism, elderly euthanasia, things like that”. Young recounts how members of the tribe sexually abused him, and was then subjected to the same abuse when sent to a boarding school in West Papua.

In an interview originally published in the New York Post, Young explains, “Writing was the only way for my inside world to come out... I was writing [The Shack] really after a massive amount of work trying to deal with my own brokenness... Sexual abuse became part of the tearing apart of my own the fabric of the soul”. He explains the title of his book was a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain”.

The Shack tells the traumatic story of a father of five named MacKenzie “Mack” Phillips who faces every parent’s worst nightmare during a family holiday, when his youngest daughter Missy is abducted and brutally murdered in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon woods. Sounds like a horror movie so far, but that is hardly surprising when you consider the personal experiences Young drew his influence from for writing The Shack.

The testimony of countless professing Christians is that Young’s novel has given them a deeper knowledge, understanding and appreciation of God...

Four years after Missy is murdered, Mack is understandably still grieving for the loss of his youngest daughter and his life in freefall. But then he receives a note from “Papa”, who tells Mack that it’ has “been a while” and to meet him at the shack where Missy was so brutally murdered; Papa is the name Mack’s wife affectionately uses for God. Mack wonders if the note could be from his daughter’s killer, trying to taunt him, but curiosity gets the better of him, so he goes to the shack to investigate, and this is where most of the story takes place.

Upon returning to where his daughter was so brutally taken from him, he realises the note is from God and Mack soon comes face to face with The Trinity. The shabby shack disappears and is replaced by a lush wonderland where he spends a weekend with the three persons of the Holy Trinity, trying to make sense of all the painful events of his life and hoping to get some answers to the questions that have haunted him in the years following Missy’s death; questions that any grieving parent would naturally want answers to, such as: How could God allow something like this to happen? Where was God in all this? Answers to questions that William P. Young was obviously searching for in his own life.

To get an idea of the scale of the impact The Shack has had on people all you have to do is read a couple of the many reviews posted on Amazon:

This book is truly amazing. Grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. You go through a rollercoaster of emotions and learn a lot about the trinity along the way.

I’ve read many many books but this one is very special. It was so special that I bought my daughter a copy and ] [it] has changed her life for the better as much as mine. Life changing!

This is well worth reading. It has helped me to view the trinity in a better way. A must read for those who need confirmation that God loves us all.

Amazingly written book that’s brought me closer to understanding God’s amazing love and grace and how he works in our lives.

An amazing exploration of adult faith and belief.

I truly believe this book was inspired. Young’s captivating description of what God is and expects from those who love Him has changed my conception and understanding of what I thought God wants from me.

LOVED IT – bought multiple copies to give as gifts. A fresh perspective on building a relationship with and understanding our relationship with Jesus. Strangely enough some of the descriptions in the book made me think of the Matrix.

Bear Grylls described The Shack as: Brilliant! One of the most faith- enhancing books I have ever read.

The Church Times review of The Shack declared: Bunyanesque...bold, imaginative, humane and funny.

The Church Times was not the only review to draw a parallel with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The front cover of The Shack has the following endorsement from Eugene Peterson, author of the best-selling Bible interpretation [1] , The Message: This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!

Is it really as good as Peterson claims? Is it fair to compare The Shack with Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrim’s Progress?

As the above copy of the first edition cover confirms, the original title of the book was The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. Not the catchiest of titles, so it became known simply as Pilgrim’s Progress.

Pilgrim's Progress first edition 1678Originally published in 1678, Pilgrim’s Progress is a fictional novel written by John Bunyan. It is regarded as one of the most significant works of religious English literature, has been translated into more than 200 languages, and has never been out of print.

Bunyan began writing Pilgrim’s Progress while in the Bedfordshire county prison for violations of the Conventicle Act, which prohibited the holding of religious services outside the auspices of the established Church of England; he suffered persecution at the hands of the Church of England. The story is one long allegory for the Christian’s journey through life. Bunyan tells the story of the main character (called “Christian”) travelling from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City (heaven). Along the way he meets different characters such as Evangelist, Obstinate, Pliable, Help, Mr Worldly Wiseman, and many more, all of whom represent an aspect of what a Christian will typically experience through their life. On his journey, Christian visits such locations as the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, the Doubting Castle, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

In Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan very skilfully uses a fictional story to convey his theology and beliefs about the world, humanity, God and our relationship with Him. Bunyan’s theology and beliefs on these vitally important issues are very solidly founded on the truth of Scripture, so what his fictional story illustrates and communicates is Biblical truth; so much so that I believe every Christian household should own both a copy of the adult and child version of Pilgrim’s Progress.

In The Shack, William P. Young also uses a fictional story to convey his theology and beliefs about the world, humanity, God and our relationship with Him. The question is: Is Young’s theology founded on the truth of Scripture; does his fictional story illustrate and communicate Biblical truth?

The testimony of countless professing Christians is that Young’s novel has given them a deeper knowledge, understanding and appreciation of God, so surely the answer to the above question is yes; I know dozens of decent and sincere Christians who have a copy of The Shack on their bookshelf, even though they do not own a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress!

However, rather than take anyone’s word for it, we should perhaps do what the apostle Paul commended the Bereans for doing (Acts 17:10), and search the Scriptures for ourselves to examine how Young’s teaching in The Shack compares with the Word of God; we should “test all things; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), and we test all things against God’s perfect, inerrant and eternal truth. As followers of Christ, we are to “walk in the truth” (3 John 3), love the truth and believe the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12). We are to speak the truth, in contrast to “the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). We are to speak the truth “in love” (Ephesians 4:32).

Truth is far more than a moral guide. Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Jesus came full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Jesus is truth personified. He is the source of all truth, the embodiment of truth, and should therefore be our reference point for evaluating all claims of truth. Jesus takes truth personally. The phrase “I tell you the truth” appears 79 times in Scripture; spoken 78 times by Jesus. The Holy Spirit guides men into all truth (John 16:13). Christ’s disciples know the truth (John 8:32), do the truth (John 3:21), and abide in the truth (John 8:44). We are commanded to handle the truth accurately (2 Timothy 2:25), and avoid doctrinal untruths (2 Timothy 2:18). The “belt of truth” holds together our spiritual armour (Ephesians 6:14).

God “does not lie” (Titus 1:2). He is “the God of truth” (Psalm 31:5). “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that He should change His mind. Does He speak and then not act? Does He promise and not fulfil?” (Numbers 23:19).

It is clear that God takes truth very seriously, and particularly truth about Himself and His gospel message, even if it is conveyed through a fictional story, and therefore we should treat it as seriously as God does. We should carefully test the truth of the theology William P. Young communicates in The Shack . The thing that has seemingly given countless Christians a better knowledge, understanding and appreciation of God is the way in which William P. Young portrays God in The Shack . An examination of this is therefore the appropriate place to start.

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In The Shack, William P. Young depicts the three persons of the Holy Trinity as follows: God the Father - a large African American black woman called Papa. Jesus - a Middle-Eastern looking man who runs around in dungarees and a tool-belt round his waist. Holy Spirit - an Asian woman called Sarayu.

God the Father

Firstly, the Word of God teaches that God the Father never takes on physical form, so for William P. Young to provide any physical representation of Him automatically goes beyond the realms of Biblical truth. John 4:24 teaches that God is spirit. 1 Timothy 6:15-16 describes God as ...the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honour and everlasting power.

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Secondly, not only does William P. Young portray God the Father in physical form, but he portrays Him as a woman. It is true that God is neither male nor female in the way humans are, and both feminine and masculine attributes are found in God. However, in the Bible God has chosen to reveal Himself as Father and never in the feminine gender. The gender distortion by Young confuses the nature of God. When the feminine attributes of God are described in the Bible, they are described in the context of God being like something, not actually being something. For example: God comforts his people like a mother comforts her child. (Isaiah 66:13).

Like a woman would never forget her nursing child, God will not forget his children (Isaiah 49:15).

God is like a mother eagle hovering over her young (Deuteronomy 32:11).

God seeks the lost like a housekeeper, trying to find her lost coin. (Luke 15:8-10).

God cares for his people like a midwife that cares for the child she just delivered (Psalm 22:9-10, Psalm 71:6, Isaiah 66:9).

God experiences fury like that of a mother bear robbed of her cubs (Hosea 13:8).

In addition to the many references to God being a husband (e.g. Isaiah 54:5; 62:3-5; Hosea 2:14-17, 19, 20; 2 Corinthians 11:2 and Revelation 19:7- 9), Scripture contains approximately 170 references to God as the “Father.” By necessity, one cannot be a husband or father unless one is male. If God had chosen to be revealed to humanity in a female form, then the word “mother” would have occurred in these places, not “father.” In the Old and New Testaments, masculine pronouns are used over and over again in reference to God. Therefore, Young’s depiction of God the Father as a woman does not provide a deeper insight into His nature and identity, it utterly confuses it.

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But there is more confusion...

In the story, God the Father has scars on His wrists (page 95). This is contrary to Biblical teaching in which only Jesus became human and only Jesus died on the cross.

On page 96, Papa says to Mack: Don’t ever think that what my son chose to do didn’t cost us dearly. Love always leaves a significant mark... we were there together (emphasis added).

It is true the Father shared in the pain of Christ’s suffering, but God stood as the judge of sin, not the one who suffered on the cross. Christ bore the burden of our sins; God the Father was the judge who had to render His judgment on His Son.

On page 99 of The Shack, God the Father says: When we three spoke ourselves into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human... we now became flesh and blood.

Young teaches that all three members of the Trinity became human, but the Word of God teaches that only the Son, not all members of the Trinity, became human. This distorts the uniqueness and teaching of the incarnation. It is the ancient heresy of modalism [2] , which claims that God is not three persons, but one who “manifests” Himself in three modes or “personas”. God plays the role of Father at times, Son at times and Holy Spirit at times. Tertullian stood against this heresy back in the third century. He created the term “Patripassianism,” from the Latin words patris for “father”, and passus for “to suffer” because it implied that the Father suffered on the Cross. In Against Praxeas he wrote:

“By this Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome; he drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy; he put to f light the Paraclete [Holy Spirit], and he crucified the Father. (emphasis added).”

This is precisely what Young does to the Father in The Shack by giving Papa scars on her wrists.

Young’s modalistic view of God is further illustrated by how Papa’s “persona” changes later in the book from a slightly overweight black woman to a man with “silver white hair pulled back into a ponytail, matched by a grey splashed moustache and goatee” (page 218).

God the Son

The first thing that is very telling is what is absent from The Shack, because nowhere in it will you find the word “Christ”. In the Bible, Jesus appears as a humble servant veiling His glory (Philippians 2). After the resurrection, Jesus retains His human nature and body but is revealed in a glorified state. He appears in his glorified and resurrected body and His glory is unveiled (Revelation 1).

As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus retained His divine nature and attributes. His incarnation involved the addition of humanity, but not by subtracting His deity. During His incarnation He chose to restrict His use of His divine attributes, but there were occasions in which He exercised His divine attributes to demonstrate His authority over creation. However, in the Shack, “God” says to Mack:

“Although he is also fully God, he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being. He is just the first to do it to the uttermost – the first to absolutely trust my life within him, the first to believe in my love and my goodness without regard for appearance or consequence.”

“So when He healed the blind?”

“He did so as a dependent, limited human being trusting in my life and power to be at work within him and through him. Jesus as a human being had no power within himself to heal anyone” (page 99-100).

It is simply not true that Jesus “had no power within himself to heal anyone.” Jesus, as the incarnate Son of God, never ceased being God. He continued to possess full and complete deity before, during, and after the incarnation (Colossians 2:9). As an act of ultimate sacrifice and obedience, Jesus chose to submit Himself to the will and authority of the Father while fulfilling His ministry on earth. In contrast however, through the words of Young’s version of God, he teaches that Christ gave up His deity, or aspects of it, when He became human. This is a dangerous denial of a fundamental Christian doctrine regarding Jesus’ two natures: God and man. He is not half God and half man. He is 100% God and 100% man. Jesus never lost His divinity. The theological term for this doctrine is the Hypostatic Union, derived from the Greek word hupostasis, meaning “giving substance or reality to”.

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Jesus Christ referred to God as the Father several times and in other cases used masculine pronouns in reference to God. In the Gospels alone, Christ uses the term “Father” in direct reference to God nearly 160 times. Of particular interest is Christ’s statement in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” Clearly Jesus Christ came in the form of a human man to die on the cross as payment for the sins of the world. Like God the Father, Jesus was revealed to humanity in a male form. Scripture records numerous other instances where Christ utilised masculine nouns and pronouns in reference to God.

God the Holy Spirit

In The Shack, the Holy Spirit appears as an Asian woman named Sarayu. In contrast, the Holy Spirit never appears as a person in the Bible; there is one time when the Holy Spirit appears in physical form as a dove at the baptism of Jesus, but never as a person, and certainly not female. The Holy Spirit is never addressed in the feminine, but is always addressed with the masculine pronoun.

The New Testament Epistles (from Acts to Revelation) contain nearly 900 verses where the word theos —a masculine noun in the Greek—is used in direct reference to God. In countless references to the three persons of the Godhead in Scripture, there is clearly a consistent pattern of His being referred to with masculine titles, nouns, and pronouns, yet Young portrays only Jesus as being male.

While God is not a man, He chose a masculine form in order to reveal Himself to humanity. Likewise, Jesus Christ, who is constantly referred to with masculine titles, nouns, and pronouns, took a male form while He walked on the earth. The prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament refer to both God and Jesus Christ with masculine names and titles. God chose to be revealed in this form in order for man to more easily grasp who He is, yet countless professing Christians claim that Young has provided deeper insight into the nature and character of God by depicting two of the three persons of the trinity as female. At what point does something cross the line from appearing to be blasphemous to actually being blasphemous?

Part 2 continued next issue

Endnotes:

[1] I deliberately use the term “interpretation” instead of translation, because Eugene Peterson’s Message Bible is not a translation, nor can it strictly be said to even be a paraphrase of the original languages of the Bible. Peterson has detoured so far away from the original Biblical text in so many ways, it is nothing more than an interpretation of what Eugene Peterson would like the Bible to say. It is such a perversion that I would openly describe it as being even more corrupted than the Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation (NWT). Why? Because no Christian would dream of using a NWT, but millions and millions of Christians readily use the Message every day as their main source of reading God’s Word.

In an interview with Christianity Today, Peterson described the beginning of the creative process that produced The Message:

I just kind of let go and became playful. And that was when the Sermon on the Mount started. I remember I was down in my basement study, and I did the Beatitudes in about ten minutes. And all of a sudden I realized this could work.”

Aside from the impossibility of doing justice to the Sermon on the Mount in ten minutes, one wonders whether playfulness is the appropriate attitude for anyone sincerely attempting to “rightly divide the word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Awe and reverence for a holy God and His holy Word, yes. Playfulness? No.

One of the main (but by no means only) perversions in the Message is Peterson’s very deliberate insertion of New Age terms, motifs and philosophies. For further detail on this please refer to my article titled: Bible Versions: All Preaching the Same Message?

[2] Modalism was an early heretical Christian movement beginning in the mid-second century, named after its founder, Montanus. The Montanists believed that their founder, together with the two prophetesses Priscilla and Maximilla, were in special and direct communion with the Holy Spirit in a ministry intended to purify the Church in preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ. Montanus himself claimed to be the Paraclete (return of the Holy Spirit) prophesied in John 14:26. The Montanist movement flourished in and around the region of Phrygia in contemporary Turkey, and also spread to other regions in the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries. The movement was also recognised for its practice of ecstatic worship in which its prophets channelled messages from God.

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