God and Fiction – A Look at The Shack, Part 1

The Shack by William P. Young might be the perfect book to discuss at A Christian Worldview of Fiction because it is a novel, and it’s all about God. I still have three chapters to read, but already I have lots to say—so much that I feel it’s safe to call this post Part 1.

Overall Reaction. I have to admit, I had some preconceived ideas about The Shack going in. I’d read and heard what others had to say, and I’d even entered into some discussions on the topic. I was prepared to hate the book, quite frankly. I’d heard it was poorly written and that the theology was borderline heresy.

First, I was pleasantly surprised that the writing, while far from high quality, did not make the book painful to read. In addition, I discovered some common theological ground with the author. I guess I had expected there would be none.

This common-ground fact actually strengthens my resolve to preach the need for discernment in reading. Books that are total lies are easy to spot and easy to refute. Books that dip into murk while purporting to shine the light of God’s love into the lives of suffering, disillusioned people … well, those are harder to handle.

General Observations. More than a week ago, in God and Fiction, Part 3 I quoted Doroteos2 who said The Shack was a spiritual Twinkie—spiritual fluff lacking in any nutritional value.

I don’t think I will go that far because hundreds of thousands of people will testify that the book fed their souls. Are they all liars? I don’t think so. However, what I’ve seen in The Shack I believe is pop theology. Like “pop culture” pop theology is based more on popular taste than it is on study. Could this be why The Shack became a best-seller?

One evidence of “pop” anything seems to be a lack of depth. Catch phrases summarize all that a presidential candidate believes or that a beverage or fast food restaurant stands for. The Shack goes beyond catch phrases, but not by much.

I began cataloguing the different subjects the protagonist Mack discusses with one of the God-head personas. The list includes the trinity, good vs. evil, ecology, man/woman relationships, Jesus’s humanity/divinity, guilt, free will, emotions, legalism, God’s goodness, judgmentalism, the road to salvation, heaven, church, the Bible … and I haven’t finished reading it.

The point is, this novel is a slim 248 pages, and that list of topics contains some humdingers. Books, volumes of books, have been written exploring just one of those serious subjects. Yet Mr. Young manages to deal with all of them in 18 chapters of fiction. Not a lot of depth in the treatment of each, I’d say. But there’s a more serious reason to call this pop theology, I think, one I’ll take up in another post.

Continued in Part 2.

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15 Comments

  1. Nice observations, Rebecca. Most of my concerns about The Shack are addressed in discussion groups with good, solid leadership. Where the book is theologically in error, and where a skewed or confused presentation of biblical concepts is evident, there is a great opportunity to educate and inform. A problem I see — and feel is important — is where people accept what is in The Shack as fact. I met a young pastor not long ago who is reading passages from The Shack in place of scripture in her church and preaching a sermon series on it. Another woman told me that she doesn’t read the Bible because it confuses her, so she has decided to read and reread The Shack instead. She joyfully told me of opportunities she has had to “witness” using The Shack — telling a young couple not to worry too much about their terminally ill daughter because her pain is an illusion that she won’t remember. Too many people I talk to argue with me that this is a “true” story that helps them understand how God really operates in human affairs. It is a product of “pop culture” and without some perspective grounded in good theology, I feel it does more harm than good (even though many people seem helped and encouraged by it). Keep up the thoughtful work!

    Dan Dick (Doroteos)

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  2. My mom loves this book, and she’s been after me to read it. In recent weeks, she loaned me her copy, and it’s now in the growing stack of books in my office.

    I admit, I’m not eager to read The Shack. I will, but only because it’s so important to her. Perhaps I’ll be as pleasantly surprised as you were, Becky, but — gotta be honest — I’m not holding out much hope.

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  3. Without trying to raise anyone’s hackles, those who stick to a more ritualistic and, yes, legalistic approach to Christianity will most likely be offended by The Shack. I found it less offensive than I thought it would be to me. I read a load of CBA fiction and I keep repeating this comment ad nauseam because it floors me when people say the purported “doctrines” in The Shack are heretical–the reason I say this is because I disagree with some of the “doctrines” written into Christian fiction as spiritual “fact” within the story, but I don’t proclaim them to be heretical. I would agree that the two examples provided by Dan leave me shaking my head–who are these people?!
    I think it’s a valid assessment to call it “pop theology”, but Paul Young is anything but a surface guy. And this is one novel where I think it’s fairly important for the readers to know the background and reason for the novel’s existence. I think it actually makes a difference in this case as to how it’s approached. But for those who are building their “religion” from the book, I suspect if it wasn’t The Shack, it would be some other cult favorite.

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  4. OH, I look forward to hearing more.

    I didn’t care for the book and that’s probably the understatement of the year.

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  5. I’m wrestling through it after about 3 weeks, even though it is a “short read”. I do find the writing very distracting. There are some pleasant insights, but there are other things that make me squeamish.

    It reminds me of the Dan Brown school of fiction: write it as a “novel” then put a statement about how things in it are factual or real. The endorsements from prominent people like Michael W. Smith is frustrating as well. I don’t think the general church population is discerning or knowledgeable enough to see it as “fiction”. Not to sound elitist, but American Christianity tends to be wide but shallow. I’m also reminded of the spiritual warfare teachings that came out of Peretti’s This Present Darkness. Good story, high drama, but still fiction.

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  6. Dan, thanks for stopping by. Your article gave me a good handle on the issues even before I’d read much of the book for myself.

    Today, as I was looking over additional bloggers’ views, I found several who said their pastor was preaching about The Shack or their Bible study was discussing The Shack. Certainly this disturbs me. Ought not the pastor preach from God’s Word and ought not a Bible study actually study the Bible? 😮

    The other problem, the one I want to begin addressing tomorrow, is the obfuscation of truth. Because of the “user friendly” approach, many people may think Young is making straight-forward claims, but a careful, discerning read shows he rarely does so.

    So, harmful? Unfortunately, I think there might be harm in this book. Not for the people pointing out the error. They see what’s false in the book. But those hundreds of thousands of readers who are jumping on the bandwagon without checking The Shack‘s philosophy against Scripture.

    Becky

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  7. Keanan, I was only pleasantly surprised that the writing wasn’t as bad as I expected. Though I wasn’t expecting to find any common theological ground, I did, but the error kept that from being a pleasant surprise.

    I hope you do read it and find a way to talk it over with your mom. I think one of the hardest things is discussing something containing error with another person who has a positive take on it. You might want to have your mom watch this video that deals with Young’s views regarding penal substitution.

    Becky

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  8. But for those who are building their “religion” from the book, I suspect if it wasn’t The Shack, it would be some other cult favorite. Nicole, I think that’s a good point. There are people who find the image of Christ in a Cheeto or a smear on a window pane or a tortilla chip or a tree stump. Goodness! Perhaps such sightings show the hungry hearts of man or perhaps the willingness to run to the next Messiah sighting as to the next American Idol.

    As to the issue of heresy, there are some doctrines that are not central to what it means to be a Christian. If a novel expresses a view contrary to the one I believe Scripture teaches on those issues, I’m not going to call the book heresy. However, there are doctrines that reside at the center of what it means to be a Christian. If those don’t square with the Bible, then the teaching is heresy. Many critics believe it is in this latter category that Mr. Young errors.

    That’s going to be the subject of my next few blog posts, so you’ll have to stay tuned if you want to find out what I think. 😉

    Becky

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  9. Sally, I hope my comments don’t disappoint!

    It reminds me of the Dan Brown school of fiction Good line, Jason! 😀

    The problem I have with the “it’s only fiction” cry is that God is real. I’ve said before, I think we need to treat all real character alike, including God. So an historical shouldn’t have George Washington secretly taking pay from the British to throw the Revolutionary War or bribing others to elect him as president or fighting to stay in office a third term. None of those are true and they aren’t true to his character.

    A novel (a la Dan Brown’s work) that does this, would besmirch the historical person. Intentionally, because it flies in the face of known reality.

    When an author includes God in her story, she has the same standard to show Him accurately as she has to show George Washington accurately. A Dan Brown who doesn’t believe the Bible can be “forgiven” because he’s not operating from a truthful vantage point—he doesn’t see God as real or know how He’s revealed Himself.

    It would be as if someone wrote about George Washington after reading a picture book about him or hearing a children’s poem tucked in an early reader. “Filling in the blanks” would mean imagining things that could have (and should have) been known, had the writer done honest research.

    I don’t think I ever say this as clearly as it is in my mind. But here’s the point. God revealed Himself in Scripture. Should we then have Him show up in our fiction and be other than who He has revealed Himself to be?

    If we want to show an aspect of His character, then yes, we can have a symbolic character who differs from God in other regards, or we can have a type of Him, as Joseph was of Jesus. But if we have Him as Himself in the story, I think we better adhere to truth to the best of our ability.

    Young didn’t adhere to the Biblical view of God … apparently didn’t even try to do that.

    But more on that in the posts over the next few days.

    Becky

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  10. It is good to write true theology even in fiction. I wrote a christian novel which I intended to use a true view of God in, because I think that that gives the novel so much more purpose. It is meant to give people a better understanding of the truth who is God and bring them closer to Him, rather than simply satisfy boredom… although a good writer can do both!

    Thanks for the review.

    God Bless,

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  11. I tend to agree with that last post. If, let’s say, the story revolved around a group of young Christians in Corinth before and after a visit from Paul, I would totally expect the character of Paul to show through in the writing. The circumstances would also have to adhere to actual events and times as depicted in the Bible, as long as Paul was a part of the narrative. But if the characters are completely original otherwise, then you could do as you please as long as you don’t step on God’s toes either. This would be difficult anyhow, I think, since we will all be held accountable for what we say and do, and I would hate to see too much worldliness added in just for authenticity.

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  12. […] She’s much kinder and more patient and more logical than I am, as well as being a much more careful reader. So if you have friends who love the book and you are wondering why you feel a little bothered by it, or if you love the book and are wondering why some people are dissing it, it would be worth your time to read her posts. The first one is here. […]

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  13. So glad to see others who have ears to hear what’s whispered–and sometimes shouted–through the pages of The Shack. I only got 30 pages in before I put it down in disgust–and had it taken off my church’s library shelf. God as a cartoon character? I only found out later the amount of false “preaching” going on in the story. It was one of the reasons why I took my sister’s suggestion and started a blog recently in preparation for my book’s release this fall. I love the church. I love God’s people, and I think we need a serious wake-up call, to start confronting each other on the main issues at least. Good, bible-centered fiction is one way.
    The Shack open on the pulpit instead of the Bible? Sheesh!

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  14. David, Hubie, thanks for your comments. Since God is real, I see no reason why a writer should put Him in a story and not show Him as He has revealed Himself.

    K.T., I’m glad my church had the book in the library because that’s how I got to read it. I wasn’t going to buy it. I have no problem with people reading the book as long as they think about what it says and measure it against Scripture. That’s the discernment I continue to advocate. I think we’re losing our ability to do this. Instead we want others to tell us this or that is safe or not. I would much rather hear about people reading the book and writing their own reviews identifying the ways the book does or doesn’t connect with Scripture.

    I should have held a Shack contest with that question. 😉

    Becky

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  15. […] C. S. Lewis used a lion to represent God in the fantasy world he created. I know and understand that God is not an actual lion, even though the Bible calls Him a lion (and Jesus a Lamb). These are metaphoric representations. Why can’t Paul Young use a metaphoric representation of God as a big black woman, if he sees similarities? (If you’d like to know my complete thoughts about The Shack, you can find my ten-part series at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, starting with this one.) […]

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