First, here is Ben Witherington’s review of The Shack (pretty sharp guy).
Ben Witherington is a worthy critic who gives a mostly positive but cautious review of the book. If you have read the book and are not theologically trained, I would almost insist that you follow up your reading with a healthy critique like the one from Witherington.
The Shack is a book by William Paul Young, I enjoyed the book, for the most part. It is a good read, hardly a classic like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (sorry Eugene), in fact some parts are downright embarrassingly trite. At one point Young has Jesus mouth the words “True that” like some beer commercial “I want to sound cool” guy saying “what’s up?” for “wassup?” Young has God saying the same trite things that some pastors say when people are confronted with the devastation of sin and evil. God is recreated in his pastoral image. When I hear my words, frail human pastor, in the mouth of God, I am disappointed. The picture painted of the divine in the Shack is often simply a reflection of the author’s theological position, and often not a very good position at that. And that is where the huge challenge lies in the undertaking of a book like The Shack. His vision of God ultimately disappoints. It is like watching your favorite book put into movie form; that isn’t how I pictured it. The Shack does engage some great topics that Christians don’t normally talk about, like the Trinity, and addresses some heart tugging issues like the real problem of evil in the life of the main character, Mack.
I was going to write a point by point critique of the book, as you can see, I have marked many passages. Some of those markings were exclamation points, most of them were question marks and challenges. Hard and harsh challenges. But Witherington covered many of them so I won’t rehash them here.
The thing I want to add to the review by Witherington is to ask the question: Can we really benefit from a book that misses the mark on so many theological points?
Many have said to me, “it’s just a work of fiction, you can’t criticize it as if it were a work of theology.” That is a legitimate caution. Yet not many Christians read works of theology. Many Christians cannot define the doctrine of the Trinity nor can they spot harmful variations from the orthodox statement of the triune God. Many form their theological framework from the anecdotal, sermonic, or lay teaching to which they are exposed.
The Shack is not a subtle allegory. It is not an obtuse work of fiction that makes allusions to the spiritual realm by means of parabolic or metaphoric figures of speech. It is a blatant theological treatise written in a fictional context. In fact, I have run across many who believe that the introduction and after words imply that this is not a work of fiction but a recounting of a true story, names changed to protect the innocent. Their misunderstanding further solidifies my concern.
As such, The Shack needs a harsher critique. It does not deserve an oblique “pass” based on its “genre” as if that protective foil grants freedom for the unchallenged critique of the Christian faith and the church. William Paul Young’s statements about the Trinity are not simply fuzzy, or not “quite right.” They are unabashedly and blatantly non-Orthodox. But to the uninitiated the picture feels good and tugs at an emotional place that brings a comfort, and an answer to difficult questions. So it is received uncritically, and unchallenged. We so want to understand the mysterious that sometimes we will settle for something we can understand or relate to, even if it is inadequate. I also have concerns about his views of revelation, authority and order within the church.
So the question can be asked this way: “If the answer makes me feel better, does it matter if it is accurate?” The answer to that question is that it does matter.
True comfort is rooted in truth.
Modern mythology is rampant in the church and in the minds of many Christians. I regularly hear at Christian funerals sentiments and beliefs that are un-Biblical; ideas that have their roots in popular presentations of eternal issues. We have learned about death from “The Sixth Sense.” We have learned about Satan from “The Exorcist.” We have learned the story of the Exodus from the movie “The Ten Commandments.” On and on we could go. Many have substandard views of the Christian faith because their source for faith is in songs, works of fiction, movies and the media. Since many pastors have conceded to culture and never step into the rarefied air of theology from the pulpit, most Christians are left with little of substance to ground their theological journey.
Should you read The Shack? I am not recommending the book. There are too many downsides to make up for the value I might gain from reading it. It is seriously flawed theologically, and this is not a minor detail, nor can I chalk it up to “its just fiction.”
One final thought. The second commandment is:”You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.”You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
The second commandment prohibits the fashioning of idols. Jewish understanding of this passage extended into the arts, and the prohibition extended to the artistic representations even of human subjects as the image of God. This sensitivity is reflected in the work of Chaim Potok in the book “My Name is Asher Lev.” Marc Chagall is a famous Jewish artist whose artwork reflects this challenge as he portrayed his human subjects in a way that he felt absolved him from the prohibition; he painted people with four fingers for instance as a way to “get around” the commandment. Later in his career, he abandoned such practices.
In the Shack, there is an attempt to paint a picture of the Trinity. It is a literary picture, but a vivid one. We rightly avoid the analogies (the egg as shell, yolk and white; water in its states of steam, liquid, ice) commonly raised to attempt an explanation for the trinity. The analogies from nature are inadequate to explain the mystery of the divine. They don’t explain the trinity, and they sometimes affirm non-trinitarian ideas. The Shack seems to stand smack dab in the middle of the reason for the prohibition of commandment #2. The image painted of God is amorphous, mutable, conformed to the need of the moment like a shape shifter. All three persons in the Shack take the form of humanity, and characteristics of humanity. These pictures could classically fall into the criticism of painting God in our image to suit our needs and desires. Could it be that Young has violated the second commandment?
It would be different if Young had written a work of fantasy, or was more subtle with his references. But he didn’t and he isn’t. He writes as if the story were a true account encased in fiction. He writes explicit theological concepts, not allusions or suggestions. This is his explanation of the Godhead, his sermon. Much of it is appealing and accurate theologically. But much of it is alarming, and quite simply mistaken.
The Shack is full of dangerous theological ideas, that in times past were labeled heresy. If you are comfortable wading in the mire of theological waste for a few nuggets of truth, jump into The Shack.
Should you read the Shack? I have a list to recommend before this book.