The Shack: Reposted
I realise I am way behind the curve on this one, but I have just read The Shack.
I didn’t have any particular desire to read it, but in the end felt compelled to because of the number of other people who have. It is difficult to comment intelligently on something I haven’t read. So read it I have, along with hundreds of thousands of others. And now I am adding my comments to the thousands of reviews others have already posted.
Firstly, on the positive side, there are moments in the book that I found quite powerful and moving. These were in chapters 11 and 16 when a picture is painted of the new creation. I felt the writing came alive at these points, and it was a fairly helpful picture of what we can look forward to.
I can also understand why this book is so appealing to so many. It does appear to provide a lot of answers to difficult questions, and to do so in a style that is easy reading. So I can understand why people find it is satisfying. But this is where my first criticism comes in – our need is for something that is not merely satisfying, but true.
Buddhism can be satisfying. Mormonism can be satisfying. Atheistic materialism can be satisfying. But they are not true. And neither is The Shack.
The points at which The Shack is not true have been well dissected (probably the most thorough of such reviews is that by Tim Challies) so I won’t bother to run through all the arguments again here – I’ll just give a quick overview.
For the benefit of the handful of people who haven’t read The Shack the main characters in the book are:
Mack – the chief protagonist, who’s story this is.
Missy – Mack’s daughter.
Papa – God the Father.
Jesus – that would be, um, Jesus.
Sarayu – God the Spirit.
There is a long list of things I do not like about The Shack but here I will focus on the bigger picture issues which make me very uncomfortable with this book.
The first is that while many people find The Shack deeply emotionally satisfying, we need not only to be satisfied but to hear the truth. If all we have is satisfaction without truth we have fallen victim to the placebo effect. Imagine you have cancer. You go to your doctor and rather than giving you appropriate chemo he gives you a chalk pill, which he tells you is the appropriate chemo. You might begin to feel better – mentally at least – but you are not going to get better; in fact you will die. I fear that The Shack offers a placebo effect.
My next big picture concern is the number of people who have said to me, “You read this for the story, not for theology.” I really cannot understand this sentiment. More than half of the book is taken up with a dialogue between Mack and God, with God explaining to Mack many massively important areas (the nature of God, judgement, reconciliation, and so on) which by definition make this a work of theology. The Shack is deeply theological. And it is deeply theologically flawed. If The Shack is what shapes your thinking your thinking will be warped.
Following on from the, “You read this for the story, not for theology” comment, people tend to say, “Its no different from Narnia, or Pilgrim’s Progress.” No, it is massively different from those books! Both are entirely different literary forms.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of the Christian life. And it does not represent God in ways that are counter to biblical revelation. The Narnia stories are set in an imagined world and Lewis seeks to imagine how redemption would work in such a world. In a world that has flying horses and talking beavers how would the Saviour appear? In such a world it is appropriate to imagine the saviour in the form of a lion, because to do so is consistent with the narrative form. And – importantly – even that imagining is biblically faithful as Jesus is described in the Bible as a lion!
My next complaint, and this might be the most serious one, is that The Shack undermines biblical revelation because a central theme of the book is that biblical revelation is insufficient. Papa explains to Mack that she appears to him as a woman because that is how Mack needs God to appear. But this is entirely contrary to biblical revelation is which God always reveals himself as Father! In effect Young is saying that the Biblical revelation of God as Father is inadequate, so lets create another revelation.
Related to this is the books total disregard for the Bible’s warnings against creating a graven image. I think we struggle to grasp the importance of this as we live in a visual culture in which we assume that everything can and should be represented visually. But God the Father cannot be represented visually! At the end of the book, in a section titled, “the Missy project,” there is a stated aim to produce a film of the book. When this happens (as it undoubtedly will) we will have a false representation of God on our screens – false because God will be an Oprah Winfrey type figure, and blasphemous because it will be a graven image.
You might not get that, but you should!
To wrap all these concerns up, I fear that Young has fallen into the same trap as did Philip, who said, “Lord, show us the Father and it is enough for us” (John 14:8). Jesus’ rebuke of Philip was strong, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The point is, we are not meant to see the Father, except in the light of Jesus Christ, which is why Paul describes God as, “He who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” (1 Timothy 6:16) We cannot see him! He is not an African-American woman!
Clearly there is a subjective response that we all make when reading a book – “Do I like this?” Any review of The Shack needs to take this subjective element into account – and I admit that my dislike of it is definitely deepened by the fact that I think it is appallingly written. However, unlike me, many people clearly find it delightfully written and a compelling page turner, and such people are far more likely than me to find other merit in the book.
But, as well as a subjective response there needs to be an objective one – “Is the message it is communicating a good one?” The fact that something satisfies is not sufficient – to be good it must also do good.
The Bible often uses metaphor to help us get a picture of the character of God. E.g., We all recognize that when the Bible says that God is our rock it does not mean God is the result of volcanic or sedimentary activity – it is a metaphor for the constancy and reliability of God. So metaphor is good – actually it is vital. Without metaphor we would be stumped in trying to put words to something that is beyond words. But The Shack is not metaphor. In the foreword the conceit is sown that this is a true story – we are encouraged to read it as if it were a true account of real events. And the story is not a string of metaphors saying, “God is in someway like X” but a narrative description of the Trinity which explicitly says, “This is God.” The Shack is wrong in its description of the Trinity, and this is very dangerous ground.