The Shack

The Shack

In the book of Judges, chapter 6, the angel of the Lord comes to Gideon as he is threshing wheat, hiding from the enemy Midianites.  The angel tells Gideon that the Lord is with him.  Gideon’s reply:  "But sir, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us…”  (6:13, emphasis mine)

C.S. Lewis called it “the problem of pain”.   Rabbi Harold Kushner talked about “when bad things happen to good people.”  Gideon makes it clear: crummy stuff is happening, so God must not be here, or at least He is not a God whose character and attributes match our expectations.  Like countless authors, both Christian and non-Christian, before him, William P. Young tries to answer the question of suffering.  At the beginning of The Shack, the protagonist, Mack, suffers an unbearable tragedy, from which he sinks into a “Great Sadness”.  The bulk of the book details his encounter with the anthropomorphic Father (a large black woman), Son (a carpenter), and Holy Spirit (an Asian woman) as he wrestles with the same question Gideon asked:  why has all this happened to us?

So here’s my two cent review:

Though the story of
tragedy is compelling, the book isn’t particularly well written, with
the result that the reader has little real investment in the
characters.  The theological dialogue is sometimes cumbersome,
sometimes confusing.  If 2,000,000 people all around me were not
reading it (latest count of books sold, through August), I wouldn’t
bother….and in fact I got bored at the end and would have put it aside,
unfinished, except that I knew we’d be discussing it at the women’s
book group.  Not that I only read deep theological texts and the great
classics of English literature.  I have read my share of Nicholas
Sparks novels, and more than my share of princess stories (I do have
two daughters, after all). But wordcrafting is a big part of the story,
and Young’s story needs some significant tweaks.  Others who attended
the book group a couple of weeks ago enjoyed the story and found it
comforting at various points, though none of us was ready to purchase
multiple copies and give them to all our friends.   We had a great
discussion about theological problems as well as about Young’s subject,
the problem of suffering.

There are, quite literally, thousands of complete reviews (including
one in the PCA magazine, ByFaith),
as well as discussion groups, forums, art groups, and an author blog,
available online.  Read a few.  It seems that there are two extreme
camps.  The Shack is either life-changing and inspirational, or it is
an heretical attack on orthodox Christianity.  Is there a middle
ground?  How do we interact with a book that has had, and continues to
have, significant influence on the culture around us?

First, we need to read it.  While the theological inconsistencies and
errors in The Shack are well documented, if my neighbor is moved to
tears and to consider the love of God by reading it, that’s a
God-provided opening for further conversation about the gospel. 
Likewise if fellow believers are encouraged or comforted by Young’s
words, those words provide a place where we can come alongside them in
suffering and in hope.  Of course there is a place to seek, with
wisdom, to bring the truth to bear where it is missing.  But not if we
haven’t read the book, because of academic arrogance or theological

Second, we need to ask some questions.  Why has this book hit such a
chord?  What is it that people find attractive in this “warmer, more
approachable” God?  How do we communicate the truth of God (including
holiness as well as mercy)?  How do we respond to Young’s evident
distaste for institutions and organized religion (his own web site
proclaims, “I am not connected, or a part, or a member of, or involved
inside any sort of organization or movement anywhere.”)?  How do we
offer comfort and hope to the suffering?

Finally, we need to practice discernment.  There are 19 shades of blue
in the giant Crayola box with the sharpener on the back.  A quick
glance says “these are all blue”, but the artist discerns the
differences between Blue, Blue Bell, Blue-Green, and Blue-Violet, not
to mention Cadet Blue, Robin’s Egg Blue, Pacific Blue, and the rest.
Read The Shack. But read it with your Bible nearby—like the color
chart, it can distinguish “true” from “almost true” (or is that “Blue”
from “Actually Not Blue”?).  C.H. Spurgeon, 19th century British
pastor, reminds us:

"Dear reader, in these times there are thousands of bad books published,
and herds of bad teachers sent forth to deceive the unwary; you must be
on your guard, lest you be led into error. Take nothing for granted,
enquire into things for yourself, and try every new doctrine, and
professedly old doctrine too, by the Word of God. You may take
contraband goods on board before you are aware of it; keep both eyes
open, watch and examine, and when a thing is pressed upon you, find out
what’s in it. Do not believe all a man says because he is a clergyman,
or eloquent, or learned, or even because he is kind and generous. Bring
all to the bar of Holy Scripture, and if they cannot stand the test,
receive them not, whatever their bold pretences."

If you don’t feel equipped to find and understand the finer theological
points, dozens of reviews online will point out scriptural problems for
you (some accurately and fairly, some not so much so….discernment is
necessary in review reading, too!).  Enjoy the story, and give thanks
for the opportunities it affords you not only to enter into the lives
of others, but to think through and understand the truth. Human
suffering is not going away, this side of eternity.  If your own life
circumstances, or those of the people you love, have not yet prompted
you to ask Gideon’s question, they will, someday.  It is a valid
question that needs to be kept in the framework of God’s truth.  With
the frame intact, there is freedom for imagination, creativity, and
empathy, all of which The Shack offers.