God and Fiction – A Look at The Shack, Part 8

Regarding theology in The Shack by William P. Young, Lizard Eater, a blogger who describes herself as one who had been “on the journey to ministerial life (to be a Unitarian Universalist minister)” says the following:

I was expecting a fictional depiction of standard Protestant dogma — think Godspell, not Jesus Christ Superstar — and instead … huh, he’s talking about universal salvation. Huh, that’s pretty panentheist. Hmmm.

So my question is, How is it that a universalist has no problem identifying Mr. Young’s theology but so many evangelical Christians seem blind to it?

I already identified other possible reasons this story resonates with some Christians in Part 3 of this series, but that still doesn’t explain why so many are missing the parts of the book that contradict Scripture.

In part I think the answer lies in the fact that readers read expecting to find what they are looking for. A few months back, for instance, I mentioned in my review of Blaggard’s Moon that I thought a certain character in a certain part of the book served as a type of Christ. Great … except when the author, George Bryan Polivka, commented, saying he never intended that character to serve as a type of Christ. Why did I see it? Because I was looking for it. In the reverse, I think we can miss things we are not looking for.

However, I think the other part of the answer lies with what and how Mr. Young wrote. One technique he used is Character Shock. I described this earlier in one of my comments. It works like this. At statementss that seem plainly in conflict with truth, the main character of the story, Mack, reacts as the reader might be reacting, but he reasons that his thinking is a result of his religious conditioning. Essentially he’s talked himself—and at the same time, the reader—into keeping an open mind.

Here’s the example I used in the comment:

“Jesus, as a human being, had no power within himself to heal anyone.”

That came as a shock to Mack’s religious system.

Another technique is to embed truth with error and vice versa. Here’s an example of this:

[Jesus is talking] “I am the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu.” (p. 110)

If Jesus is the best way, by implication there are other ways, though not as good.

Compare that to the Bible:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” (John 14:6)

The implied lie in The Shack is of itself harder to recognize than a boldface lie (e.g. There are more ways to God than through Jesus). But when the line is couched in a paragraph that contains apparent explanation or clarification, then it becomes even harder to recognize. Here’s the rest of that paragraph:

“I am the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu. To see me is to see them. The love you sense from me is no different from how they love you. And believe me, Papa and Sarayu are just as real as I am, though as you’ve seen in far different ways.”

While the first line contradicts Scripture, clearly the rest of the paragraph does not.

So how do we know we’re to understand Mr. Young as saying there are other ways to God when he says Jesus is the best way as opposed to the only way? Mr. Young makes the same point using different words in other places in the book. Here’s the part that our universalist friend quoted that gave her an understanding of his theology.

[Jesus talking] “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.” (p. 182, emphasis mine)

Once again this speech contradicts what Jesus says in John about no one seeing or knowing the Father apart from the Son—there is no transformation into sons and daughters of God apart from Christ.

Another technique Mr. Young uses to blur the lines between truth and error is to introduce a contradictory thought, then change the subject. Here’s one example:

[Jesus is talking] “Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.”

Mack was surprised. “How can that be? Why would the God of the universe want to be submitted to me?”

“Because we want you to join us in our circle of relationship. I don’t want slaves to my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me.”

“And that’s how you want us to love each other, I suppose? I mean between husbands and wives, parents and children. I guess in any relationship? (pp. 145-146)”

And the conversation continues about human relationships before moving on to the nature of good and evil, with no other discussion about God submitting to man.

Well, what about that line? Does God submit to man? What does Scripture have to say?

That’s the question we have to continually ask if we are to be discerning readers. If we are to sort through the hodge-podge of ideas Mr. Young presents as true and dodge the techniques that obfuscate more than illuminate. Which statements are true, and which aren’t? Only the discerning reader knows for sure! 😉

Series continued in Part 9.

Published in: on June 4, 2009 at 12:59 pm  Comments (8)  
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  1. You know, Becky, truth be known: I didn’t really care for The Shack, didn’t expect to, and wasn’t disappointed as a result. But as I’ve read through your extensive analysis/breakdown of the novel–and without a doubt it’s a novel–I decided that one of the reasons this little book was such a huge hit is because a lot of people want a shortcut to their relationships, not only with the Lord, but with everyone. They want something plausible and digestible, something to make it all much “easier” so they can devote their efforts to earning money or raising kids or studying for tests. This little book demonstrates a God so loving that He requires NOTHING from them. He takes all the effort out of relationship with Him and replaces it with this I-love-you-anyway mentality, no matter what you do or what you believe. It’s all good. Convenience. I know that some true Christians have gleaned some meaningful things from The Shack. I thought the flaws were fairly evident, but I think your analysis is good for those who perhaps have been blinded from them and need to go to the one true God to discern fact from fiction and Paul’s “opinions” as to who the real God is.


  2. You are speaking truth, Becky!! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!


  3. thanks for the real clear review,hey,you’re good.


  4. Thanks, Nicole, I think there’s a lot of validity in what you say. Some like The Shack because it presents a god who isn’t going to ask them to change or obey or do church.

    I think there’s also a group that feels like they understand forgiveness in a new way, especially people who have experienced deep hurt (though most everyone could claim deep hurt on some level, I suppose—I’m thinking of people who have experienced abuse or rape or had someone they love killed). Honestly, if The Shack pointed those people to Scripture or to the Church, I’d be happy and think the book was sowing a needed seed. But instead, it claims things about God that aren’t true and casts aspersions on the Bible and church, leaving a hurting person to seek truth from this relationship The Shack talked so much about.

    The problem is, the relationship God wants with us develops as we read His word and obey, as we worship in communion with other believers, as we sit under the teaching of Scripture.

    In other words, by advocating relationship in isolation, The Shack is basically leading readers away from the very avenues that foster relationship with God.

    Dave, Kim, thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you’re finding something worthwhile in these posts.



  5. I’ve never read the book, though I’ve been suspicious because of things I’ve heard. Also, if it’s promoted by Opera that should be a big red flag there since she promotes so much new-age stuff.

    I agree with Nicole that people want an easy spirituality, they find what feels most comfortable, which usually isn’t the truth.


  6. […] more one-track minded that I wanted to admit. I’ve been slogging out a series over at A Christian Worldview of Fiction that dissects The Shack, which has left me with no time to carry on the rebuttal to the […]


  7. I found this because I was reading your Speculative Faith blog, which I always try to do, although I don’t comment as much as I should.

    Thanks for doing this. Perhaps it isn’t possible, but I wonder if, when you do a series, you could put in links to the previous, and (after the fact, of course) next, posts? Maybe you did, but, if so, I missed them.


  8. Hi, Martin, thanks for coming over and checking out these posts. Generally when I do a series I write on consecutive days (though not on Saturday and Sunday) so I was hoping anyone interested would know where to look. But I should have mentioned that in the article or at least given the link to the last one of the series too.

    I did think as I was posting that link that I wish I had the series bundled. I do have “The Shack” as one of my categories, but that includes other posts besides the series.

    Anyway, I appreciate you digging them out, Martin. If I reference a series in the future, I’ll figure something out to help readers access all the articles more easily.



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