I really didn’t want to read The Shack. I only have so much time in a day.
But a number of people have asked me to make some comments on the popular novel by William Young. And because church members eventually started asking, I decided to give it a go.
I have heard people rave about this book (in a good way), and I have heard others rave about this book (in a bad way). Some described it as the best book in the past 50 years. Others described it as the worst heresy to ever hit the Christian bookstore.
In the end, I found that The Shack wasn’t nearly as good as some had said, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as others had charged. It has everything positive about contemporary evangelicalism, and yet it has all the drawbacks of current evangelical expression too.
Before we get started, let me deal with (by far) the biggest objection I have gotten when offering a critique of The Shack…
“Don’t you realize that The Shack is fiction?”
Some Shack enthusiasts dismiss the very notion that one can critique fiction. When theologians and pastors critique the portrayal of God in this book, Shack fans quickly revert to the idea that one can’t properly judge fiction. Dan Brown has made a similar case regarding the factual errors of The Da Vinci Code. (I am not putting Brown and Young’s books in the same category, only pointing out that both authors have questioned the legitimacy of critiquing fiction.)
Of course, no one is suggesting that The Shack and The Da Vinci Code are works of non-fiction. However, fiction forms us. Violent entertainment can be labeled “fantasy.” The same with romance novels. But we would be silly to think that this type of fictitious entertainment has no formative influence upon us. Fictional stories can exert a great deal of influence on how we see the world.
Fiction is not off limits from critique. Brown speaks of actual historical figures. Young delivers a memorable portrayal of true Persons (the Trinity). When you deal with non-fictional characters, you inevitably open yourself up to criticism.
Let’s say you meet an author who wants to use your grandparents as the main characters in a novel. The author tells you that the narrative will be fictional, but that your grandparents will have the starring roles. Sounds great! you think.
But when the manuscript arrives in your hands, you discover that the story does not accurately represent the personalities of your grandparents. The relationship between them is all wrong too. Grandma berates Grandpa. Early on, they run off and elope (which is totally out of character). At one point, they contemplate divorce.
When you complain, the author responds, “Remember? I told you it would be fictional.”
“Yes,” you say, somewhat exasperated, “I knew the story would be fictional, but I thought you would get my grandparents right. The grandparents in your story aren’t anything like my grandparents.”
“Who cares?” the author responds. “It’s a work of fiction.”
“Well, I care,” you say, “because people will put down this book thinking that my grandparents were like the way you portrayed them.”
My biggest problem with The Shack is its portrayal of God. I understand that the book is a work of fiction, not a theological treatise, and therefore should be treated as fiction. But the main characters are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are actual Persons. To portray God in a manner inconsistent with his revelation to us in Scripture (and primarily in Jesus) is to misrepresent living Persons.
When people put down The Shack, they will not have a better understanding of the Trinity (despite the glowing blurbs on the back cover). They will probably have a more distorted view of God in three Persons.
To be fair, I found a few things I liked about The Shack. Here are the positives:
- The story doesn’t sugarcoat evil. It takes sin and suffering seriously.
- The book focuses upon God meeting us in our suffering. God is not absent in our pain. When someone is in the deepest of grief and despair, God often makes himself most present.
- The book shows the need for a personal encounter with God. Christianity is about communion with a personal, relational God.
Now to the negative aspects of The Shack:
A very low view of the institutional church.
Jesus claims to not recognize the institution of the church as something he started. I understand the intense pain of being burned by a local church. Some readers will resonate with Young’s description of local church imperfections. But evangelicalism is already plagued with solutions to suffering that emphasize “me and Jesus” or “me and God.” We need community! The Shack compounds the problems of individualism and makes the institutional church unnecessary and irrelevant.
A low view of the Bible.
The Shack so emphasizes the personal encounter with God in Mack’s mystical experience that the Scriptures become irrelevant. The Bible is reduced to words on paper that need to be decoded by those with theological training. Instead, “you will learn to hear my thoughts in yours,” says Sarayu (the Holy Spirit). “You might see me in a piece of art, or music, or silence, or through people, or in Creation, or in your joy and sorrow…” In other words, look everywhere else but the Bible to find God. Oprah would be pleased.
The distorted view of the Trinity.
There is absolutely no sense of transcendence and holiness. It is the “God is my buddy” perspective on steroids. Compare (better yet, contrast!) Mack’s encounter with God to the final chapters of Job or the stunning vision of God that Isaiah witnesses in the temple. One can hardly imagine Young’s “Papa” eliciting the same kind of response. The God of the Bible cares deeply how he is portrayed. To tamper with the way God has revealed himself is to put forth a false picture of God.
Why is this book popular?
We should never let a cultural phenomenon go by without wondering about the reasons for its popularity. Here are a few reasons I think The Shack is so popular:
- Missing fathers. So many people have grown up with absent daddies or abusive father figures. For many, the mother is the rock of the home. To portray God the Father as a matriarch is bound to resonate with a good number of people.
- The anti-authoritarian tendency of our culture. At one point in the book, God speaks of there being no roles of hierarchy in the Trinity. God even submits to humans. This resonates with a culture that already eschews traditional understandings of role and authority. (I can picture my Romanian friends rolling their eyes at The Shack and saying, “That’s so American!”)
- The immanence of God. Evangelicals too often bring God down to the level of understanding, faithful friend. Ultimately, this view of God is shrunken and reductionist. Just like it is misrepresenting God to make him so other that he is virtually unknowable, it is misrepresenting him to make him so close and human that his God-ness is absent.
The Challenge for Evangelicals
It is easy to sit back and critique The Shack. (There is so much to critique!) But perhaps evangelicals who can see the problems with The Shack should instead invest some creative energy in writing stories that resonate with people in a similar way. As I have written elsewhere:
Do you ever wonder why stories often have a greater impact than debating the theological minutia of Bible interpretation?
C.S. Lewis could have written a fine theological treatise on what the world would have been like had Adam and Eve never sinned. But Perelandra worked much better. Lewis could have (and sometimes did) describe in colorful theological language the nature of the atonement, but Aslan sacrificing his life for rebellious Edmund fired up our imaginations. In his advice to aspiring writers, Lewis reminded them to describe truths vividly – not merely multiplying adjectives, but working hard to help people feel the beauty of the truths presented.
When I consider the phenomenal success of The Shack, the seminarian in me rises up and wants to make a detailed list of the book’s many theological aberrations. But perhaps the greater challenge for someone like me is to recognize the power of a good story and then to take a bestseller like The Shack as an incentive to write better stories.