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Shack Attack

Paul Young, author of The Shack, spoke at our church Sunday. So many questions…

the-shackBut first, the obvious — his message was pretty good. Of course, it was more like a testimony than a message, which is in keeping with the spirit of the book.  Let’s say I can see why The Shack is so popular. Young’s demeanor was low-key, approachable, and rather whimsical. He appeared genuine and was very easy to listen to. And the story about the book’s conception, publication, and rise to best-seller status, is fairly compelling. When he concluded, Mr. Young received a standing ovation from many members of the congregation. I was not one of them. In fact, it was what happened after the service that most interested me.

We met up with two groups of friends in the foyer. I simply asked how many of them had read The Shack, and three of them began gushing. Words like great, life-changing, and eye-opening were thrown around, as well as multiple copies purchased and distributed to friends and relatives. Typical Shack testimonials. Of course, their question to me was, “Have you read it?” I said I hadn’t and probably wouldn’t. But what interested me even more than the book was the controversy surrounding it.

That’s when the fun began.

My concerns were two-fold, I said. One was the exuberant, almost rabid, seemingly uncritical response to The Shack. For instance, there are currently 2,896 Amazon reviews. 1,900 of them are five star. 452 of them are 1 star. And there is little in between. Why the discrepancy? Most of the positive Amazon reviews sound more like testimonials. Readers praise the book for opening their eyes to the real nature of God and for gently healing old wounds. It changed their life, they said. But after a couple hundred of these tracts, the elation gets kind of barfy.

I’m sorry, but I’m deeply skeptical of anything that large segments of the American public swoon after. Standing there in the lobby last Sunday, my zealous friends were, unwittingly, mirroring my fears.

My second concern, I said, was theological. Not only is the concept of the Trinity explored, rather unconventionally, in The Shack, the author has come under fire for other seemingly unorthodox positions, most recently, the charge of denying the Atonement and penal substitution.

My friends’ responses to these objections actually reinforced my concerns. The two main prongs of their defense were 1.) The book’s emotive power and 2.) It’s fictional (read: non-theological) platform.

One of the common defenses of The Shack is the experiences it evokes in its readers. Several times during his message, Mr. Young referenced heartwarming testimonials about how people had read the book and surrendered to God, returned after years of backsliding, or overcome deep-seated pain. I don’t doubt this has happened. But people have many religious experiences, some mild and some weird. At what point does an emotional / religious experience become invalid? I mean, the devil disguises himself as an angel of light, right? And since when can emotions be trusted? Furthermore, how many of The Shack clan are being steered toward the God of the Bible? When Oprah and various New Age proponents can endorse the book, I have some questions about it’s theological integrity.

Which leads to the second rebuttal: The Shack is not a theological treatise, it’s fiction. Hey, I get this. Fiction cannot be expected to encapsulate theology in a tidy, systematic way. Even biblical narratives, stories about the prophets, apostles and the early church, do not neatly summarize doctrinal themes. Sometimes, in fact, they obscure them. But on the other hand, a book that so obviously addresses a biblical concept like the Trinity and whose author is so openly appealing to Scripture (not to mention doing the guest speaker circuit in churches around the world), should be carefully critiqued by Christians. At some point, it is inappropriate to attach the label “Christian” to a work of fiction.  I’m not exactly sure where that line should be drawn. But simply saying a book is “fiction not theology” does not let it off the hook — especially when it addresses theology and it’s author is a professing Christian.

Suffice it to say, after hearing the author speak and conversing with his “clan,” I have as many concerns about The Shack as I did before.

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{ 16 comments… add one }
  • John March 31, 2009, 9:45 AM

    Thank you. May He bless you and use you to speak out against this thing that is infesting the Body of Christ. Through this novel (which really is a theological teaching), we have the beginning of goddess worship, a false “christ” and a denial of the purpose of the cross.

  • Elaina Avalos March 31, 2009, 12:06 PM

    Is it snarky of me to say that I started having doubts about the book when Demi Moore said on Twitter that The Shack changed her life?

    I hadn’t read it at that point. A family friend had given me a copy. I intended to read it at some point. Someone that I follow, I don’t even know who now, posted a link to Demi’s statement. That’s when I kinda barfed a little.

    I’m not a big fan of bandwagon stuff in Christianity anyway. And there’s a lot more of that than people want to admit. I won’t list the “popular” topics, movements, books that Christians throw themselves into that really need closer examination. Frankly, there are even some movements out there that claim to be cutting edge that are fast becoming just another noisy, clanging mess of crap.

    I’m thinking this book may be in that list for me.

  • Xdpaul March 31, 2009, 1:55 PM

    My main problem with it is that it is allegedly “fiction” but no one ever talks about the story.

    What is the plot of the story?

    The protagonist goes to a shack to meet God. He meets God, in three persons. They help him to better understand God.

    [Hope I didn’t spoil it.]

    That is an allegory. Whether its contents are theologically sound or not is for another day, but I can tell you what it isn’t: fiction, at least from my perspective.

    Who is the antagonist? What are the subplots? Most importantly, are there any shootouts?

    Everyone knows that one of the hallmarks of fiction is a good shootout.

    Otherwise, you’ve written an encyclopedia or ad copy for trousers.

  • Mark H. April 1, 2009, 10:21 AM

    Would the “It’s fiction, not theology” defense work better if it comes from the author himself? In my mind, it would. In that case, you’d have an author saying that he’s probably made mistakes in the theology and accepting responsibility for errors. He’d also be making the statement that he was not attempting to replace the Bible as the authority on God. I think it’s only the author himself that can make that defense.

  • alayna April 1, 2009, 4:07 PM

    I agree with everything your saying dad, I have questions about this book. At church saturday night there was a whole clan that came to see the author which kind of turned me off. However, I had already started reading the book so I have continued too. The beginning of the book I would say was well written, sad, and intriguing. But, I’ve got to the point were the main character meets “god” in the shack represneted by a african american lady. I am currently on pause….

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller April 1, 2009, 5:12 PM

    Well, I broke down and checked it out of the library because I want to voice my opinion without people discounting what I have to say because I haven’t read it.

    Here’s the thing, Mark. It isn’t that Young accidentally put in something that wasn’t theologically sound. He intentionally portrayed God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit in ways that are antithetical to how the Bible reveals Him.

    Since the Bible is true, fictionalizing the God of the Bible leads to false teaching. Even writing Biblical fiction (fiction set in Biblical times) should be done with utmost care and research.

    And xpaul, The Shack is clearly not allegory, though Eugene Peterson said it was the equivalent of Pilgrim’s Progress. Allegory is ” a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself.” But Young wrote the god figure in The Shack as if she/he were God. He’s not comparing Papa to God, which would be a metaphor. Instead, Young wrote the the book with God being a character in it (not a metaphor).

    I almost forgot why I came to comment. Mike, you’ve made a good point about “Christian fiction.” I don’t know if you caught my post some time ago when I said we should call a lot of what passes as Christian fiction “clean fiction” because there is no intent to show God or even a Biblical worldview.

    But here you have a book that … calls into question some of the core tenants of Christianity and it is still embraced as Christian fiction.

    Perhaps the term has lost any meaning in the process of trying to expand its significance.


  • Mark H. April 2, 2009, 6:26 AM


    My comment was meant in a more general sense. To my knowledge, I don’t believe Mr. Young has made the “it’s fiction, not theology” defense.

  • Xdpaul April 2, 2009, 8:41 AM

    Becky, point taken on it not being allegory (although I think that’s somewhat debatable: I’m pretty certain neither Eugene Peterson nor the author consider Jehovah to actually be a woman, and that the portrayal of the father as a human woman is, therefore a metaphor. A very poor one, but nonetheless a metaphor).

    Regardless, it still doesn’t make it fiction, at least not good fiction. If I were to write a historical novel about George Washington, except that George Washington is portrayed as a talking beaver with a limp who wholeheartedly supports King George’s desire to retain control of the colonies, would it be included in the genre?

    The Shack, were it fiction, would have a descriptor like “Mack, a grieving father meets God and declares war on Him. Mack doesn’t have a prayer.”

    Instead, its back cover blurb is this: “In a world where religion grows increasingly irrelevant, The Shack wrestles with the timeless question “Where Is God in a World Filled with Such Unspeakable Pain?” The answers Mack gets will astound you and perhaps transform you as it did him. You’ll want everyone you know to read this book!”

    So, the book itself “wrestles.” The main character is overtly portrayed as a surrogate for the reader. There’s an appeal to popularity, and a promise of transformation.

    All nice things, I suppose. None of them, however, define the book as fiction. Charles Dickens’ tales may have had an impact on society, but people read them today for the stories. Moby Dick may be “a meditation on death” but we read to see the fireworks between Ahab and the whale.

    The Shack is structured and promoted as the latest Prayer of Jabez phenomenon. At least the Left Behind series carried with it the undeniable arcs, structure, purpose and outcomes of fiction. The Shack is a word-picture about the author’s concept of God in a painful world.

    But it ain’t fiction. Can we call it something else? How about an “idealized meditation” or a “experimental parable” or something that at least indicates it isn’t fiction. It isn’t like books like this haven’t been written before: The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ or The Magick Bookshop.

    These sort of “Eat Your Peas” morality tales are all kind of schlocky, a strange hybrid of the worst elements of fiction with the worst elements of instruction. So, even in the rare, rare instance where the teaching/thinking behind the “non-fiction” part of the books is sound, it is very likely to run aground through shoddy fiction writting, or vice versa.

    There are cases where this hybrid CAN work, but even then, it isn’t fiction, any more than “infotainment” would ever be classified as “comedy” “drama” or “documentary” in a conventional setting.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller April 2, 2009, 2:01 PM

    I see what you’re saying xpaul.

    I think you described it in your own words: “The Shack is a word-picture about the author’s concept of God in a painful world.”

    It’s a word picture, which is similar to an allegory, I’ll agree. But probably closer to a parable.

    Don’t be too quick to assume that Mr. Young thinks of God as you do, btw. There are people who call themselves Christians, yet refer to god as “she.”

    Does Mr. Young believe God is a woman? The real issue, from my viewpoint is, does Mr. Young believe God is who He reveals Himself to be in the Bible? As a matter of fact, God the Father does not reveal Himself in the flesh at all. Jesus is God Incarnate. Somehow was Jesus’s incarnation not enough? Inadequate? Incomplete?

    It’s a fine line, I think. I’ve had to think about this long and hard because I have hopes for causing readers to think about the Trinity if my fantasy quatrain ever gets published. I had to ask if I was in any way doing what Mr. Young did.

    But there’s a real difference in portraying a character as a type for God or Christ and actually saying the character is God or Christ. At least, I believe so.


  • sally apokedak April 3, 2009, 1:18 AM

    Great thoughts.

    I read the book.

    Hated it.

    It’s fiction. It’s just bad fiction. It’s bad fiction because there is no story, no plot, sure. But it’s also bad fiction because it fictionalizes God. That can’t be right. It can’t be right to put words in the mouth of God. Scripture tells us that God frowns on that kind of stuff.

  • Deborah April 4, 2009, 10:24 AM

    The “fiction” argument reminds me of the whole DaVinci Code madness. How many people read that book, and took it’s “beliefs” to heart and felt they were truth? How critical were we Christians of those folks? The only book that can truly transform us is the “Living Word”. The rest can inspire us and help us move toward change. We need to be wise about what we allow to influences us.

  • Kristen February 15, 2011, 9:46 AM

    I’m going to be the odd woman out here, but I really enjoyed the book and as cliche and terrifying (to some) as it may be to say, it did open my eyes. I’m 23 and I’ve attended and been involved in church since I was able to do so of my own choosing. And while I enjoy the fellowship and the worship, something always fell flat for me when it came to scripture and sermons. I never left church feeling “better” or “closer” to God unless the service ended with a really great song that got my spiritual juices flowing.
    I’d never heard of The Shack until a few days ago when my best friend suggested I read it. I didn’t know it had such rave reviews from people like Oprah or Demi Moore, though I don’t see why their positive opinion on it would automatically make one skeptical.
    I was pulled into this book immediately. Yes, it was a bit hard to grasp the “physical” appearance of the Trinity, but I feel as if the author was taking a literal approach to maybe guide along those that are not so firm in their beliefs. This is not me; I know my faith, I know the path I walk, but I have often been told that my path is wrong because I am “too liberal” in my faith. This book did not bring me back to God and to my faith, it solidified what I’ve always imagined God and faith to be about. This book makes more sense to me, rings more true to me that any sermon or scripture ever has.
    It’s not for everyone, I will admit that; I would never suggest it to anyone at my church, but I don’t think that makes it any less. Different strokes for different folks, and while some may not think this saying applies to God and Faith and religion, I think it does.

  • Carradee June 13, 2011, 6:06 AM

    “[S]ince when can emotions be trusted?”

    I think that might be the crux of the issue. A large number of folks place their trust in their emotions; does it feel right?

    Dependence on the intellect—particularly when it makes you feel bad—isn’t too popular, right now.

    Take all that argument over what the fear of God referenced throughout Scripture actually means, as in Philippians 2:12 “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. Fear isn’t a pleasant sensation, and it’s therefore unpopular.

  • Katherine Coble June 13, 2011, 8:05 AM

    My mother’s reading group at her church read this afterThe Message guy said it was a great book.

    She raved about it for months and begged my father and me to read it.

    I did read it (in exchange for her reading a Harry Potter book).

    When I pointed out all of the theological failings she said over and over that she either didnt remember that part or that she hadnt thought about it.

    Someone she trusted said it was good and so she failed to read it with any discernment.

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