Burning Down “The Shack:”
How the “Christian” Bestseller is Deceiving Millions
(NY: WordNetDaily, 2010)
James B. De Young
William Paul Young’s self-published novel The Shack (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007) grabbed the attention of the masses, and became a “#1 New York Times Bestseller.” The story’s about a fellow named Mackenzie Allen Philips (Mack), who comes to grips with his “great sadness” as the result of a peculiar meeting with God inside a shack located in the Oregon wilderness. The book narrative conveys Young’s theodicy on the tension between God’s goodness and the existence of evil. Many Christians were impressed with Young’s story. Eugene Peterson, for example, declared, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.” Other Christians rightly raised concerns about the book’s theology. One notable critique is Burning Down “The Shack” (NY: WorldNetDaily, 2010) by James B. De Young.
What sets Burning Down “The Shack” apart from the rest is the fact that James De Young and William Paul Young are well acquainted with one another. In fact, together they co-founded a Portland, Oregon based Christian think tank in 1997 called the M3 Forum (p. xiii). Burning Down “The Shack” thus offers an assessment from a capable Christian thinker with unique insights into the heart and mind of The Shack creator.
De Young’s book confirms the same theological problems others have observed. Namely, The Shack errs in personifying the Trinity as a Black female housekeeper, a big nosed Jewish man, and a mysterious Asian woman (13–22). It errs in depicting Papa (the first person of the Trinity) with crucifixion scars, implying the Father suffered on the cross (patripassianism), which is a way modalism distorts the distinctions of the persons in the Godhead (25–28). It errs again in suggesting the incarnate Christ never drew upon his divine nature to do anything (22–25). It errs, moreover, in its teaching on the salvation of sinners (135–139). It is on this last point that De Young’s close association with Young proves most valuable.
In April of 2004 Young presented the M3 Forum a 103-page single-spaced paper on his embracement of universal reconciliation, which is a form of universalism that holds all must come to God through Jesus Christ either before or after they die (xiv). Two years later, while still holding this heresy, he completed the manuscript for The Shack. Young’s friends saw potential in the story and encouraged him to have it published, but since they opposed the universalism embedded in it, they spent a little over a year trying to remove it. When the manuscript was rejected by mainline Christian publishers, Young started Windblown Media to distribute the book (xviii–xix). De Young notes, “in 2008, [Young] claimed that he has moved away from this position by stating that he does not want to be pinned down, that he is a person in flux, that he is not ‘a universalist,’” but maintains that “many of the beliefs of universal reconciliation remain in the novel” (xx).
De Young offers clarity to statements in The Shack suggesting universalism. For example, when the Jesus of The Shack says, “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims…I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa,” and “I’ll travel any road to find you,” Young can still honestly say The Shack does not teach universalism—that is, universalism in the form of religious pluralism, albeit not universal reconciliation. De Young observes, therefore, that these statements “may reflect universalism’s teaching that Jesus may even go a thousand times to hell to bring out the wicked who repent there” (139). When The Shack was written, Young did not believe all religions would lead to heaven (religious pluralism); rather, he believed Jesus Christ would eventually save everyone, even souls already in hell (universal reconciliation). Universal reconciliation, therefore, is another form of universalism.
Storytelling is a powerful medium of communication, and Young’s book capitalizes on this principle. So when The Shack portrays God as saying, “I am not who you think I am,” one must understand, “Young is seeking to have Mack (and all readers of The Shack) question his understanding of God, to ‘change the way we think about God forever’” (57). However, Young ultimately “skates along the edge of the precipice of heresy but denies that he is indulging in it” (145). Since there are many Christian readers who have read or plan to read The Shack, my challenge would be for readers of The Shack to also interact with Burning Down “The Shack,” which offers helpful insights into the ideas being communicated.
— Warren Nozaki