The Shack — The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment By Al Mohler

The publishing world sees very few books reach blockbuster status, but William Paul Young’s The Shack has now exceeded even that. The book, originally self-published by Young and two friends, has now sold more than 10 million copies and has been translated into over thirty languages. It is now one of the best-selling paperback books of all time, and its readers are enthusiastic.

According to Young, the book was originally written for his own children. In essence, it can be described as a narrative theodicy — an attempt to answer the question of evil and the character of God by means of a story. In this story, the main character is grieving the brutal kidnapping and murder of his seven-year-old daughter when he receives what turns out to be a summons from God to meet him in the very shack where the man’s daughter had been murdered.

In the shack, “Mack” meets the divine Trinity as “Papa,” an African-American woman; Jesus, a Jewish carpenter; and “Sarayu,” an Asian woman who is revealed to be the Holy Spirit. The book is mainly a series of dialogues between Mack, Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu. Those conversations reveal God to be very different than the God of the Bible. “Papa” is absolutely non-judgmental, and seems most determined to affirm that all humanity is already redeemed.

The theology of The Shack is not incidental to the story. Indeed, at most points the narrative seems mainly to serve as a structure for the dialogues. And the dialogues reveal a theology that is unconventional at best, and undoubtedly heretical in certain respects.

While the literary device of an unconventional “trinity” of divine persons is itself sub-biblical and dangerous, the theological explanations are worse. “Papa” tells Mack of the time when the three persons of the Trinity “spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God.” Nowhere in the Bible is the Father or the Spirit described as taking on human existence. The Christology of the book is likewise confused. “Papa” tells Mack that, though Jesus is 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.” When Jesus healed the blind, “He did so only 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.”

While there is ample theological confusion to unpack there, suffice it to say that the Christian church has struggled for centuries to come to a faithful understanding of the Trinity in order to avoid just this kind of confusion — understanding that the Christian faith is itself at stake.

Jesus tells Mack that he is “the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu.” Not the only way, but merely the best way.

In another chapter, “Papa” corrects Mack’s theology by asserting, “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.” Without doubt, God’s joy is in the atonement accomplished by the Son. Nevertheless, the Bible consistently reveals God to be the holy and righteous Judge, who will indeed punish sinners. The idea that sin is merely “its own punishment” fits the Eastern concept of karma, but not the Christian Gospel.

The relationship of the Father to the Son, revealed in a text like John 17, is rejected in favor of an absolute equality of authority among the persons of the Trinity. “Papa” explains that “we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity.” In one of the most bizarre paragraphs of the book, Jesus tells Mack: “Papa is as much submitted to me as I am to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.”

The theorized submission of the Trinity to a human being — or to all human beings — is a theological innovation of the most extreme and dangerous sort. The essence of idolatry is self-worship, and this notion of the Trinity submitted (in any sense) to humanity is inescapably idolatrous.

The most controversial aspects of The Shack‘s message have revolved around questions of universalism, universal redemption, and ultimate reconciliation. Jesus tells Mack: “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions.” Jesus adds, “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, into my brothers and sisters, my Beloved.”

Mack then asks the obvious question — do all roads lead to Christ? Jesus responds, “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”

Given the context, it is impossible not to draw essentially universalistic or inclusivistic conclusions about Young’s meaning. “Papa” chides Mack that he is now reconciled to the whole world. Mack retorts, “The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?” “Papa” responds, “The whole world, Mack.”

Put together, all this implies something very close to the doctrine of reconciliation proposed by Karl Barth. And, even as Young’s collaborator Wayne Jacobson has lamented the “self-appointed doctrine police” who have charged the book with teaching ultimate reconciliation, he acknowledges that the first editions of the manuscript were unduly influenced by Young’s “partiality at the time” to ultimate reconciliation — the belief that the cross and resurrection of Christ accomplished then and there a unilateral reconciliation of all sinners (and even all creation) to God.

James B. DeYoung of Western Theological Seminary, a New Testament scholar who has known William Young for years, documents Young’s embrace of a form of “Christian universalism.” The Shack, he concludes, “rests on the foundation of universal reconciliation.”

Even as Wayne Jacobson and others complain of those who identify heresy within The Shack, the fact is that the Christian church has explicitly identified these teachings as just that — heresy. The obvious question is this: How is it that so many evangelical Christians seem to be drawn not only to this story, but to the theology presented in the narrative — a theology at so many points in conflict with evangelical convictions?

Evangelical observers have not been alone in asking this question. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Timothy Beal of Case Western University argues that the popularity of The Shack suggests that evangelicals might be shifting their theology. He cites the “nonbiblical metaphorical models of God” in the book, as well as its “nonhierarchical” model of the Trinity and, most importantly, “its theology of universal salvation.”

Beal asserts that none of this theology is part of “mainstream evangelical theology,” then explains: “In fact, all three are rooted in liberal and radical academic theological discourse from the 1970s and 80s — work that has profoundly influenced contemporary feminist and liberation theology but, until now, had very little impact on the theological imaginations of nonacademics, especially within the religious mainstream.”

He then asks: “What are these progressive theological ideas doing in this evangelical pulp-fiction phenomenon?” He answers: “Unbeknownst to most of us, they have been present on the liberal margins of evangelical thought for decades.” Now, he explains, The Shack has introduced and popularized these liberal concepts even among mainstream evangelicals.

Timothy Beal cannot be dismissed as a conservative “heresy-hunter.” He is thrilled that these “progressive theological ideas” are now “trickling into popular culture by way of The Shack.”

Similarly, writing at Books & Culture, Katherine Jeffrey concludes that The Shack “offers a postmodern, post-biblical theodicy.” While her main concern is the book’s place “in a Christian literary landscape,” she cannot avoid dealing with its theological message.

In evaluating the book, it must be kept in mind that The Shack is a work of fiction. But it is also a sustained theological argument, and this simply cannot be denied. Any number of notable novels and works of literature have contained aberrant theology, and even heresy. The crucial question is whether the aberrant doctrines are features of the story or the message of the work. When it comes to The Shack, the really troubling fact is that so many readers are drawn to the theological message of the book, and fail to see how it conflicts with the Bible at so many crucial points.

All this reveals a disastrous failure of evangelical discernment. It is hard not to conclude that theological discernment is now a lost art among American evangelicals — and this loss can only lead to theological catastrophe.

The answer is not to ban The Shack or yank it out of the hands of readers. We need not fear books — we must be ready to answer them. We desperately need a theological recovery that can only come from practicing biblical discernment. This will require us to identify the doctrinal dangers of The Shack, to be sure. But our real task is to reacquaint evangelicals with the Bible’s teachings on these very questions and to foster a doctrinal rearmament of Christian believers.

The Shack is a wake-up call for evangelical Christianity. An assessment like that offered by Timothy Beal is telling. The popularity of this book among evangelicals can only be explained by a lack of basic theological knowledge among us — a failure even to understand the Gospel of Christ. The tragedy that evangelicals have lost the art of biblical discernment must be traced to a disastrous loss of biblical knowledge. Discernment cannot survive without doctrine.

This article was based on the novel and was originally published in 2010.

Article Citations

Timothy Beal, “Theology for Everyone,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 15, 2010), pages B16-17. [subscription required]

Katherine Jeffrey, “‘I Am Not Who You Think I Am’ — Situating The Shack in a Christian Literary Landscape,” Books & Culture (January/February 2010), pages 33-34.

An important and helpful review of The Shack is offered by Tim Challies, “A Reader’s Review of The Shack,”

For documentation, see also:

James B. DeYoung, “Book Review: The Shack by William Paul Young,” [pdf file].

Wayne Jacobson, “Is The Shack Heresy?,”

I discussed The Shack on the April 11, 2008 edition of The Albert Mohler Program. [Listen here].

Posted: March 17,2017


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This Court Case Proves Why the Oxford Comma is Valuable By Zamira Rahim

Never again should the Oxford Comma’s power be doubted.

The comma is an optional one that is used before an ‘and’ or ‘or’ at the end of a list. It’s surprisingly controversial online, with its uses or lack of them being vociferously debated, but a labor court case has now settled the argument, CNN reports.

A group of dairy drivers in the dispute argued that they deserved overtime pay and the appeals court agreed with them. Why?

Because the guidelines setting out the types of work that don’t require overtime pay lacked clarity. The case turned on one particular extract:

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”

The lack of an Oxford comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution of” meant that it was unclear whether the guidelines meant distribution and packing for shipment were separate things, or whether the exemption applied to jobs involving either packing for shipment or packing for distribution.

According to the court, the dairy drivers in question only distributed but didn’t pack perishable food, so weren’t necessarily covered by the clause. The judge added that where such rules are unclear, labor laws are structured to benefit employees, so the dairy drivers won.

“For want of a comma, we have this case,” the judge wrote.

Sorry Internet, you’ll have to find another piece of punctuation to argue over.

Posted: March 16,2017

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Monday’s Church/State Battle By Craig Parshall

On Monday, March 20th, federal Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court, is slated to face questioning from the U.S. Senate during his confirmation hearing. Among other topics, his views on religious liberty are certain to be challenged. No wonder. Not only is that issue an atom-splitter, dividing the political right from the political left down to their very core, but it’s an area where Gorsuch has already made his mark: he authored the Court of Appeals decision that upheld the religious rights of the faith-based business owners in the Hobby Lobby case, a decision applying the Religious Freedom Restoration Act [RFRA] that was ultimately affirmed by the Supreme Court.

Contrast that with another judicial opinion – namely, the ill-conceived reasoning of a Hawaii federal judge who just ruled that President Trump’s second Executive Order (EO) that temporarily suspends a flood tide of undocumented refugees from 6 terror-ridden states from entering the U.S. until a proper vetting system is in place, somehow violates the Establishment Clause. Why? Because the EO supposedly is hostile to the Muslim religion; even though the President’s written Order never mentions religion or Islam, leaves untouched the majority of nations where Islam rules, and the 6 nations specified were also on the disfavored list created by President Obama.

In light of that, I decided to post below the concluding remarks on the subject of religious liberty from my prepared testimony that I delivered a while back before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, in my role as Special Counsel to the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ).

For someone like me, wearing the hats of lawyer as well as fiction writer, the comments I quoted below from law professor Cox about the relationship between spiritual freedom and creative expression were personally impacting. But even more importantly, Cox harkened back to the Founders in order to put religious freedom into context, a necessity if we are ever going to breathe reason and history, rather than social engineering and political correctness, into the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment. Religious liberty was meant to be a sturdy, logical structure of protection, not some faux decoration that serves only to satisfy political agendas.

So, here were my final remarks to the House Subcommittee:

Those of us who have ever attended a religious liberty rally, or visited a church function have benefited from freedom of religion protections under the First Amendment, as well as the Congressionally-enacted RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act]. But in truth, we have also benefited from the remaining provisions of the First Amendment at the same time: free speech for the opinions voiced at such a rally or gathering; the free press rights of publicity and media coverage for the event, and freedom of assembly and freedom of association protecting the rights of like-minded persons to gather together for a common cause.

The Bill of Rights may have enumerated those First Amendment rights separately, thus causing our Supreme Court to analyze them individually, but they all pour out of a common well of liberty. As Law Professor and former Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox once noted, at the Founding, in order “[f]or the genius of American constitutionalism to develop, the [Supreme] Court had first to assert, and then win, the people’s support for the Court’s power of interpretation ‘according to law.’ ”

Our task today is similar: to “win the people’s support” for an understanding of the true value of fundamental rights, beginning with the cornerstone – religious liberty, whether the protection comes from Congress in the form of RFRA, or through the First Amendment decisions of the Supreme Court. If we accomplish that, our citizenry is bound to gain a greater understanding of the entire Bill of Rights as well as the principles of constitutional governance. Religious liberty was at the very core of the Bill of Rights, and bore a relationship to all other rights. As Professor Cox goes on to write:

“Concern for a broader spiritual liberty [at the Founding] expanded from the religious core. The thinking man or woman, the man or woman of feeling, the novelist, the poet or dramatist, the artist, like the evangelist, can experience no greater affront to his or her humanity than denial of freedom of expression.”

Religious freedom should not only be viewed as a preeminent right; it must also be viewed as part of an organic whole with other liberties. The first ten Amendments to our Constitution were drafted at the same time by the same men who, despite a diversity of political leanings, shared a similar vision of America’s new Republic, and of the various freedoms that needed to be secured to the people. Fortifying religious liberty, the “core” of America’s founding, will help us today fortify the whole of all those other rights and privileges envisioned by the Founders, while also reaping to our nation the blessings that accompany a wise respect for religious conscience.


Posted: March 16, 2017

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Who Was Saint Patrick and Should Christians Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? By Stephen Nichols

from Mar 16, 2017

When it comes to Saint Patrick, the true story is even more exciting than the legend and the myth. The facts are far better than the fable. This day that belongs to St. Patrick has become about leprechauns, shamrocks, pots of gold, and green—green everywhere. Famously, the City of Chicago dumps forty pounds of its top-secret dye into the river. A green racing stripe courses through the city. But long before there was the St. Patrick of myth, there was the Patrick of history. Who was Patrick?

Patrick was born in 385 in Roman Britannia in the modern-day town of Dumbarton, Scotland. Patrick opens his autobiographical St. Patrick’s Confession with these opening lines:

My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time.

Patrick skips over much of his first sixteen years. But who can blame him? At sixteen and being captured by barbarian Irish pirates is a pretty exciting place to begin a story. When the pirates landed on the Irish coast, they took Patrick about 200 miles inland where he was a shepherd and farm laborer. Six years passed and Patrick had either a vivid dream or a vision in which he was shown an escape route. Emboldened, Patrick made his break form his captors, traveling back over the 200 miles to the shoreline. As he approached the docks, a British ship stood waiting. The sails unfurled and Patrick was home. But he didn’t stay long.

Before he was a prisoner, Patrick’s Christian faith meant little to him. That changed during his captivity. His previously ambivalent faith galvanized and served to buoy him through those long, dark days. Now that he was back in his homeland he committed to his faith in earnest. He became a priest and soon felt a tremendous burden for the people that had kidnapped him. So he returned to Ireland with a mission.

Patrick had no less of a goal than seeing pagan Ireland converted. These efforts did not set well with Loegaire (or Leoghaire), the pagan king of pagan Ireland. Patrick faced danger and even threats on his life. He took to carrying a dagger. Yet, despite these setbacks, Patrick persisted. Eventually the king converted and was baptized by Patrick and much of the people of Ireland followed suit. A later legend would have it that Patrick rid all of Ireland of snakes. Snakes were not native to Ireland at the time. Instead, Patrick rid Ireland of marauding ways and a cultural and civil barbarianism by bringing not only Christianity to Ireland, but by bringing a whole new ethic. It was not too long ago that a New York Times’ bestselling book argued that St. Patrick and his Ireland saved civilization.

Patrick would come to be known as the “Apostle of Ireland.” He planted churches, the first one likely at a place called Saul, in Northern Ireland, a bit inland from the coast and just below Belfast. Patrick planted more churches as he crisscrossed Ireland. The challenge with Patrick is sifting through the legend. Take the shamrock for instance. Some biographers claim definitively that Patrick used the shamrock as an object lesson to teach pagans about the Trinity, that God is one in essence and three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no evidence, however, for such a claim.

Curiously, like most of his legend, St. Patrick is not even truly a saint. He has never been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Patrick himself told us he was a sinner, not a saint.

Legend further has it that Patrick died on March 17, 461. He likely died in Saul, where he planted his first church. A significant monument stands atop the hill overlooking the town. Panels depicting scenes from Patrick’s life surround the monument’s base.

What casts a far greater shadow than his monument, however, is St. Patrick’s Day. And that day in the middle of March raises a significant question: Should Christians celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? If you do, you might want to consider wearing orange. Orange? Here’s why. After 1798 the color of green was closely associated with Roman Catholicism and orange with Protestantism—after William of Orange, the Protestant king. The holiday is certainly not to be used as means for excessive partying and celebration. But wearing orange and trying to tell people who St. Patrick really was might be a good way to celebrate.

So we remember Patrick best not in the legends and fables and not in the ways his holiday tends to be celebrated. Perhaps we remember him best by reflecting on the “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” which has traditionally been attributed to him. The word breastplate is a translation of the Latin word lorica, a prayer, especially for protection. These prayers would be written out and at times placed on shields of soldiers and knights as they went out to battle. St. Patrick’s Lorica points beyond himself and his adventurous life. It points to Christ, the one he proclaimed to the people who had taken him captive:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Dr. Stephen Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and the host of the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.




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Overdue Library Book Returned 75 Years Later

An overdue library book was returned 75 years later. The children’s book, Val Rides the Oregon Trail by Sanford Tousey, was checked out from the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1941.

The Citizens’ Voice reports that the book was checked out by Robert Lockman Sr. when he was nine years old. It was his son that returned the book to the library after he found it in the basement of his home. The late fees were waived by the library. The fine of 2 cents per day since 1941 would have been about $554.

Robert Lockman Jr. told The Citizens’ Voice, “I thought it would be the right thing to do. My dad was an honest guy. That’s what he would have done.”


Posted:February 17, 2017


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1 and 2 Kings–The Bible Project

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Why Arizona doesn’t observe daylight saving time Scott Craven

As the nation moves clocks forward Sunday, Arizona stands pat. That means more time to check out daylight-saving trivia


On Sunday, March 12, America moves its clocks forward in an effort to save daylight.

But not here in Arizona. Clocks will remain untouched as daylight-saving time officially starts. The Grand Canyon State is just fine where it is as the nation springs ahead.

That’s because we already have plenty of daylight. And when temperatures climb above 100, we’ll wish there was daylight-spending time, urging the world to spin faster and return to the more comfortable dark side of Earth.

For a half century, Arizona (not including the Navajo reservation) has refused to perform the standard-to-daylight-saving-and-back-again dance. In 1968, the state Legislature decided it was best for Arizona to opt out of the Uniform Time Act of 1966, which mandated the saving of daylight.

The move meant that on 115-degree days in July, the sun would set at 7:40 p.m. rather than 8:40 p.m., avoiding nightly pleas from your kids to stay up later because it’s too bright (and hot) to go to bed.

Most of Arizona has remained a loyal Mountain Standard Time state ever since. As a result, it’s singled out on the time-setting sub-menus for phones and other smart devices. While the rest of the 48 contiguous states are lumped into time zones, the Grand Canyon State stands alone. #locktheclock

Daylight-saving facts

Daylight saving was ostensibly started to save energy, but it turned out people enjoyed having an extra hour of daylight after work. But not in Arizona, where sunlight only extends the heat-related misery.

• The Navajo Reservation observes daylight saving time, the Hopi Reservation does not. The Navajo Reservation surrounds the Hopi Reservation, so if on Monday you drive from Flagstaff to Gallup through Tuba City and Ganado, you’ll change time on four occasions.

Western Indiana used to be even more confusing as some counties and cities observed daylight saving while others did not. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 put an end to that foolishness, leaving Arizona as the only two-timing state, so to speak.

• Be happy that in 1905, the British roundly ignored builder William Willett’s proposal to push clocks ahead 20 minutes each Sunday in April and roll them back in similar increments in September.

The first use of daylight saving dates to July 1908 in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), Canada. Despite the commercial possibilities, the city holds no daylight-saving parades nor sells “Birthplace of DST” shot glasses.

The U.S. first adopted daylight-saving time, called “Fast Time,” in 1918 in support of the war effort. It was repealed seven months later.

• On Feb. 9, 1942, Americans set their clocks an hour ahead and kept them there until Sept. 30, 1945. It was officially War Time, with zones reflecting the change (Arizona, for example, was on Mountain War Time).

• China may or may not manipulate its currency, but it does mess with the clock. Though spread over five time zones, China recognizes only one, Beijing time. It is supposed to promote unity, but tell that to those who live in the far west when the summer sun sets as late as midnight.

• If the U.S. observed the one-time-zone policy (Washington D.C. time, of course), the summer sun would set as late as 10:42 p.m. and weather-related crankiness would hit an all-time high.

• In 1991 and again in 2014, a few lawmakers floated the idea of having Arizona join the daylight-saving parade. Republicans and Democrats were united in their rejection of such a proposal, offering brief and shining moments of true bipartisanship.

• In 2016, California legislators were nearly unanimous against a measure stopping the move to daylight-saving time. One reason cited: Those in the financial industry didn’t want to be four hours behind New York. But don’t most New Yorkers think everybody else is at least four hours behind?

• A Nebraska legislator recently introduced a bill to end daylight saving time, citing health problems caused by setting the clock ahead. The state’s golf industry teed off, saying the loss of post-work daylight would put it in the weeds.

• More than 70 countries observe daylight-saving time. No one is sure just how much daylight is saved, globally, each year, though physics suggests none.

It is daylight-saving time, not daylight-savings time. So it is decreed by those who spend inordinate amounts of time policing words.

Published: March 6, 2017



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