Saturday, July 12, 2008

Book Review: The Shack

"The Shack": What God Should Have Said?

http://byfaithonline.com/
Walter Henegar, Issue Number 20, June 2008

If no one has handed you a tear-stained copy yet, The Shack is a work of Christian fiction penned by first-time novelist William P. Young. The story centers on family man Mack Phillips, whose seven-year-old daughter is kidnapped and murdered in the opening chapters. After three and a half years of understandably “Great Sadness,” a mysterious note invites Mack to the site of her murder, a shack in the woods. There he spends a healing weekend with the three persons of the Trinity, who manifest primarily as an African-American woman called Papa, a middle-aged Jewish Jesus, and a wispy Asian woman named Sarayu. Literary criticism aside, give the brother credit for guts: Young attempts to answer the problem of evil and the nature of the Trinity in 248 pages.

Sales of The Shack have skyrocketed since it was first published in May 2007, garnering rapturous praise from readers (“life-changing,” “joyfully giving away copies by the case”) and glowing endorsements by the likes of Eugene Peterson—who, inexplicably, compares it to Pilgrim’s Progress.

Writing an unfavorable review of The Shack, then, is like criticizing your Aunt Martha’s macaroni casserole. Sure, it’s fattening, but everyone else in the family loves it, so why not just shut up and eat your Waldorf salad? Any critic risks stumbling directly into the book’s own well-worn stereotype: a strident religious nitpick. God the Father, as portrayed in The Shack, oughta cluck her tongue and give you a talkin’ to.

Of course, not every detail is worth dissecting; a novel is not systematic theology. Yet it’s clearly more than just fiction. Mack’s conversations with Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu make up the bulk of the book, with his questions serving as little more than prompts for their extended divine speeches. Though never citing Scripture directly, the characters make enough allusions to biblical content to imply fidelity to orthodox Christianity. Combined with chapter-heading quotes by thoughtful Christians like C.S. Lewis and Marilynne Robinson, the effect is prophet-like: not quite “Thus saith the Lord,” but not far from it.

And therein hides the book’s gravest, and most subtle, problem. Though some parts roughly align with biblical teaching (and many others explicitly contradict it), the book’s overall attitude toward Scripture is persistently dismissive. Mack’s own disdain is conveyed early on: “God’s voice had been reduced to paper. … Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?” (p. 65-67).

More significant, when Mack mentions biblical events or concepts (often in gross caricature), “God” promptly brushes them off and glibly explains how it really is. Unlike the biblical Jesus, who constantly quoted the Old Testament and spent many post-resurrection hours “opening their minds to understand the scriptures,” The Shack’s Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu turn Mack’s attention away from Scripture, coaxing him to trust instead their simplistic lessons set in idyllic, Thomas Kinkade-like scenes and delivered in the familiar therapeutic language of our age.

That’s not to say it’s all bad. Positively, The Shack’s God-figures emphasize the full divinity of each person of the Trinity, the superiority of divine wisdom over human understanding, and the absolute necessity of grace over the illusion of human merit. Those are great points to emphasize, and there are a few pithy insights on lesser matters as well.

Negatively, however—that is, in clear opposition to Scripture—they explicitly teach that there is no authority or hierarchy within the Trinity, and that God is never willing to violate human free will. There’s also a paragraph that seems to imply universal salvation, and a chapter about judgment that stubbornly avoids pronouncement about the fate of the wicked. In fact, there’s little reason to believe that The Shack’s God ever judges anyone. By the end of the book, even the daughter’s serial killer appears to be, conveniently, on the road to redemption.

Despite regular jabs at organized religion, there is something systematic about Young’s theology. Apparently, the essence of sin is our fearful desire to control God’s messy-by-design world, and thus all rules, expectations, hierarchies, or positions of authority are merely human inventions servicing this vain desire. Salvation, then—or healing, at least—is found by surrendering these misguided ideas and embracing the mystery of relationship. As Papa explains to Mack: “Submission is not about authority and it is not about obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way… we want you to join us in our circle of relationship” (p. 145-146).

Young’s diagnosis of sin as “control” has some merit, but his prescription of an entirely flat, circular relationship between us and God ultimately violates a fundamental truth of biblical anthropology: God is the Creator, and we are His creatures. Even after we have been redeemed by Christ, our relationship to God is rightly characterized by obedience and one-way submission to Him.

The result? To the extent that you trust The Shack, you will distrust your Bible—including huge chunks of the Old Testament and at least half of the red letters. Few errors are more corrosive to vigorous Christian faith. Some will plead that there is enough meat for careful readers to spit out the bones, but sadly, this yeast leavens the whole loaf.

In the end, The Shack is spiritual comfort food loaded with theological trans fat. Though not without some nutritional value, its effect on the body of Christ is more harmful than healthy. Even if you love it, and even if it makes you cry. Junk food and bad movies can do the same.

Good fiction has the potential to illuminate biblical truth, but not when it effectively supplants it. We need the Bible, not The Shack. The true Word takes more work to understand, and it won’t always tell us what we want to hear, but we can trust it to reveal a greater, wiser, more loving, and more gloriously Triune God than any novelist could conceive.





http://byfaithonline.com/page/arts-culture/the-shack-what-god-should-have-said

9 comments:

Phil said...

I imagine that the reviewer is writing from an evangelical point of view, so it's understandable that the review focuses on the book's deviance from Scripture. Equally as disturbing is the way "The Shack" stands in contradiction to the writings of the church fathers and 2000 plus years of church tradition.

Good fiction (key word "good") can certainly shed light on Christian truths. But I'd rather try to get spiritual insight from studying the Shaq that plays in Phoenix than try again to wade through the unreadable swill of that book.

CraigD2599 said...

Maybe thats what you actually read...Shaq's autobiography.
it both amazes me and bothers me that people can read a great work of fiction and not get even the most basic points being made. This book is not a theological textbook. it is written from the perspective of a man who has been abused by alleged Christian people and then loses his daughter to a monsterous horrible act. It's not written from the standpoint of a monk in Loretto.
Mack is angry, bitter, hurting, and he hates God. God takes extravagant steps to reach him IN THAT CONDITION. The theologically correctness can come later. I found NOT ONE contradiction in this book. The author of this article misquotes Macks statement concerning "God on paper". That was how Mack FELT after years of phony legalistic bumpersticker theology.
Once again a book that brings freedom to thousands is riddled with bullets by those who fear freedom most of all.
I read all the same criticisms of Brennan Mannings "Ragamuffin Gospel" a book so chock full of freedoms that it literally saved my life. I wonder if this critic has ever actually written a book.

CraigD2599 said...

I was really angry about this guys review until I went to the website and found out it was written by a reviewer for the PCA. That explains it! He's so pissed that nobody in his *ahem* denomination has the creativity or the courage to let the Spirit of God so inspire them that they could produce something in even the same LEAGUE as The Shack.
Of course compared to the works of that braintrust John Calvin, it pales, but then nobody could use foul language with quite the gifted pen as that Great Ruiner of souls. Maybe if the PCA had more of the heart of The Shack they wouldn't be hemorrhaging membership like a hemophiliac.

Phil said...

CraigD2599 said...

"Maybe thats what you actually read...Shaq's autobiography.
it both amazes me and bothers me that people can read a great work of fiction and not get even the most basic points being made. This book is not a theological textbook."

To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: "I know great fiction. I read great fiction. Great fiction (English literature) was my major in college. This is not great fiction." Tolkien, Lewis, O'Connor, and Dubus write great fiction.

The Shack consists of a series of preachments rendered in some of the clunkiest prose this side of an IRS instruction manual. (I ran across a sentence toward the beginning of the book where he changed tenses WITHIN THE BODY OF THE SENTENCE.)

Hey, if people get helped by this book or by reading Oprah magazine, more power to them. But when they represent it as bearing any relationship to Christ or his teachings as presented in the Bible or by the historic church, the book needs to be called out for the heresy that it is.

"The theologically correctness can come later. I found NOT ONE contradiction in this book."

If you mean not one contradiction of classic Christian teaching, what about this one example from the review? “Submission is not about authority and it is not about obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way… we want you to join us in our circle of relationship” (p. 145-146).

That's not just contradictory to Biblical and church teaching. It's nonsense on stilts.

"I was really angry about this guys review until I went to the website and found out it was written by a reviewer for the PCA. That explains it! He's so pissed that nobody in his *ahem* denomination has the creativity or the courage to let the Spirit of God so inspire them that they could produce something in even the same LEAGUE as The Shack."

Well, he's not still alive and didn't write fiction, but Francis Schaeffer on his worst day is better than The Shack.

Of course compared to the works of that braintrust John Calvin, it pales, but then nobody could use foul language with quite the gifted pen as that Great Ruiner of souls. Maybe if the PCA had more of the heart of The Shack they wouldn't be hemorrhaging membership like a hemophiliac."

A quick Google search shows the following PCA membership figures:

2002-311,817

2003-320,400

2004-330,182

2005-331,126

2006-338,873

Those are the most recent figures I could locate, showing a steady increase of 8.5% from 02-06. Not a huge increase, but not exactly hemorrhaging membership there. From that trend, I seriously doubt there was a mass exodus of PCA members the next year.

CraigD2599 said...

I suppose you tore out "Christ IN YOU the hope of Glory" Not Christ the hope of Glory...Christ IN YOU. It is relational. Francis Schaeffer was a genius at apologetics but I doubt he'd ever even come close to the talent it took to write a book that so wonderfully relates the love of God in the way The Shack did.
As with virtually every other orthodoxy worshipper and / or Presbyterian...you're God is too small. You have Him all figured out and that keeps Him nicely controlable. The whole "election" thing has always rendered Presbyterians very country-club-esqu in their attitudes. "We're in...you aren't and it's because God doesn't want you" The air of intellectual and spiritual superiority is amazing.
Those membership roles look pretty stagnant to me. However your noticing the change of tenses within one sentence was terrific. When Calvin was instructing the local prebyters to insert themselves into local politics to increase the power base of the church, was he grammatically correct?
What a joke! It's too bad you will never experience a God of wonder and awe like an A-L-L-E-G-O-R-Y like The Shack represents.
Read Revelation 3...that's Jesus knocking...you corrected His Grammer and he can't seem to get back in.

CraigD2599 said...

Phil...
my apologies for becoming personal in our disagreement. I have been burned more than once by orthodx / presbyterian thinking. That is no reason to make this about YOU.
I read The Shack with a cautinary eye because in general, I don't really like fiction to begin with, and I am very suspicious of religious writing that renders God "too easy" to attain. I can honestly tell you that EVERY TIME Paul Young (who is seminary trained by the way) seemed to be venturing down the path of overselling Grace, he made his evangelical point quite well. The critic who authored this review made mention of the one paragraph that gave me pause...unitil I read the last sentence. Mack questions Jesus because Jesus seems to be pointing to a wide-road ultra-universality of salvation. Mack asks, "So all paths leade to you?" and jesus responds.."No, but I will venture down any path to find you". That is Christ in a nutshell. That is Jesus sitting on a well on the outside of town in clear sight of the accusing eyes of the townsfolk, ministering to the village whore.
THAT is universally missing from reformed / presbyterian/ orthodox teachings.

ivan said...

I fully agree with the original review. The Shack belongs in the shack. This is theological drivel masquerading as fiction. There is no doubt in my mind that the author intends the book to be taken theologically. He is using fiction because if he tried to say the things he says using the medium of non fiction, he would be branded a heretic. People write books to make points, to change views, to instruct etc. (c.f. the parables of Jesus) They don't just write for no point. It is clear to me that the Shack represents the author's view of God and the Bible and he wants us all to know it and to embrace it. Unfortunately, it is heresy. And it is time to call it what it is. I have found that the people who rave about this book are the ones who either have little to no theological foundation laid in their lives, and/or they have had some 'issue' with God and this book gives them a god they can embrace. Sorry to be so direct, but that is what I have observed.

Christina said...

I get what you're saying, simply put, you have some valid points. I believe the Shack is a door opener, not the end all doctrine. I think God will use any foothold into a heart he can get, he got one in mine.

tracysbooknook.com said...

I have to say that "The Shack" by William P. Young was a very thought provoking read.

After reading the book, I was left pondering several things about it – which is a true testament to the book's worth. I had several questions on the validity of some of the descriptions of God but I had to humbly admit that there may be no answers this side of heaven for how God presents Himself to each individual.

I posted a more in-depth review of this book on my own blog www.tracysbooknook.com.

-Tracy