REVIEWING ‘THE SHACK’

You may have heard of William Paul Young’s ‘The Shack’; the US-bestselling phenomenon which has ‘cut through the clichés of both religion and bad writing to reveal something compelling and beautiful about life’s integral dance with the divine’ (Mike Morrell). In the eyes of some it has almost become a religious text in itself, worthy of evangelising through schemes such as ‘The Missy Project’, set up by ‘a team of us who have read and been touched by The Shack (and) are convinced this book deserves a reading across the broadest reaches of our culture’. Some churches, such as Grace Chapel in Tennessee are ‘joyfully giving copies away by the case’.

 

The Shack is an inexpertly crafted tale of a man angrily grieving the tragic death of his daughter at the hands of a serial killer. Receiving a mysterious note from ‘Papa’, he returns to the scene of his greatest loss to find waiting for him his maker in three persons. A weekend of conversation and revelation ensues, leading him to better understand and deal with his loss. The book was lent to me by my brother, albeit in the weary expectation that I would find plenty wrong with it. Is he right? Well, yes, there is a huge amount ‘wrong with it’ theologically. It plays to every subtle liberalising distortion of biblical truth that characterises so much of our Christianity. It places little stock in the value of church or Bible (probably why few who so campaign for the book seem to give that dusty old tome so much as a mention), and campaigns hard for a ‘God is Love’ reading of the universe, whilst entirely neglecting that God is also Just, Righteous and promises Judgement, a terrifying prospect for most. It sets enormous stall in free will, insisting that ‘true love never forces’, and firmly endorses that there are many paths up the mountain to God, stating that ‘Those who love me (Jesus) come from every system that exists… Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslim’. It denies that Jesus was ‘forsaken’ or punished on the cross (‘Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I (God) never left him’), assures us of our great freedom in Christian conduct (‘that is why you won’t find the word responsibility in the Scriptures’) and sees great worth in a man ultimately acting ‘like a child’, criticising any suggestion of hierarchy or authority in human relationships, particularly in those between men and women.

 

I do intend to say nice things about the book as well. But add these reservations together and you do have something potentially dangerous, particularly if put into the hands of a non-believer. Anybody signing up to faith as a result of exposure to this God, as opposed to the biblical model, may well end up considerably startled when they read of God turning from Saul because he refused to slaughter every Amalekite, or may blanch when they read Joel’s analogy of sinners trampled in a winepress. It is not that these passages undermine the fact God is good or loving. It is because God is good, and pure, and holy, that He cannot abide sin and cannot leave it unpunished. It is then because God is loving that He gave His only son to take this punishment in our place. But it remains the case that, for those who reject God’s gift of salvation by His son, punishment remains upon the eternal agenda. If the unbeliever never understands the danger he is in then he will never understand his true need for Jesus. The Shack never alerts us to the scale of our predicament; instead it hints at salvation for each sinner mentioned within the book without ever setting out the requirement for faith and repentance on their part. Indeed, the worst single line in the whole book is as follows, issued from the mouth of God: ‘I don’t need to punish people for sin’. I understand I do the line a disservice by starving it of context, but it should still never have been put on paper.

 

But for me, bearing in mind my last post, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the book was simply how, for want of a better word, wussy the depiction was of all three members of the Trinity – but of Jesus in particular. Here is our very model of manhood. Here is the greatest of leaders, who stilled the winds with a word, who physically threw the money-lenders from the temple, who faced down the leaders of the day as ‘hypocrites’ and as a ‘brood of vipers’, who all but wordlessly faced one of history’s cruellest deaths and inspired thousands to die for his name. Yet, alongside the woman God and the female Holy Spirit, we have here the tamest depiction of the Son of Man – male yes, but constantly kissing, hugging, crying and laughing at things that really aren’t at all funny (a constant failing of the book). Let Jesus be a man! Let him have a real sense of humour! Let us not neuter the Bible and its template for humanity.

 

Ha! That’s over 700 words of criticism. I’m not sure this is going to be an entirely even-handed depiction of pros and cons. But then I’m not sure it deserves to be. Yet I didn’t regret reading it. Really I didn’t. There were times when I was very glad I did. It does certainly connect on an emotional level, reminding us that the Christian walk is a relationship with a God who cares. It reminded me of a line from an old Adrian Plass book – ‘God is nice and he likes me’. I’m not sure I agree that God is ‘nice’; Switzerland is ‘nice’, orchids are ‘nice’, whereas God is something rather more awe-inspiring… However, there is some value in hearing it said once in a while – pricking the cold bubble of doctrine I occasionally tend to stand within. There is also true wisdom about God to be found amidst the Shack. For example I love the idea that ‘He embraces even the darker shades of life as part of some incredibly rich and profound tapestry; crafted masterfully by invisible hands of love’. More than anything, it inspired in me a genuine excitement, a thrill at the thought of heaven and of meeting my saviour. Young conjures a sense of wonder and certainly keeps you turning the pages to see what other treasures lie in store for Mack, the central character.

 

Even so, by way of conclusion, I repeat again; push this into the hands of the undiscerning unbeliever, and they may find it difficult to filter out the good from the misleading. Therefore I would recommend it only sparingly. Read the Shack as you would any other work – taking what is helpful and remaining wary of that which is contrary to God’s Word (eg The Bible!). Resist strongly the idea that this is some new revelation bringing Western culture to an enhanced version of the truth and enjoy it simply as an interesting and flawed work of fiction.

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4 comments so far

  1. Phil C on

    I read half the book a couple of years ago. I enjoyed it because it reminded me that God is personal, and we can have a relationship with him; but beyond that I found it frustrating for pretty much all the reasons you list.

    The Guardian’s digested read on it is fun:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jul/29/fiction1

  2. Tom Stanbury on

    This is a strong critique and would encourage others to read it. In fact will send it to a few people.

  3. Pete Matthew on

    I agree wholeheartedly with your critique of this book. If you read it with critical eyes it does have some elements that are helpful; some of the imagery is alright too. The biggest problem i have with this book is what you talk about in your 1st paragraph. Some are using it evangelistically, the Shack communitiy, the Missy project. It does not portray the God of the Bible and it does not show the uniqueness of the salvation on offer through Jesus Christ.

  4. Lynda on

    I enjoyed it. It has many failings, but it did remind me that as part of God’s creation, He loves and delights in me rather than see me as the pathetic, sinful being I am. However any book you can read in a weekend shouldn’t be taken seriously in my opinion…


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