Every time I’ve boarded an airplane in the past year, it seems I’ve spotted at least one person with a copy of The Shack by William Paul Young. As of this writing, it is in its 44th week on the New York Times best seller list. One woman’s effort to get a copy at the local library reported a waiting list with 140 names.
I don’t gravitate to best sellers, but was asked about it enough times by the people of my Faith Church family that I decided I should read it. It is a captivating story, fiction, but clearly the author’s personal journey to wholeness from his own “great sadness” parallel to the story line of The Shack.
Opinions about The Shack are rarely passive. Eugene Peterson of The Message (Scripture paraphrase) declares, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!”
Some of you love it and credit it with helping you come to grips with “the great sadness” of your life as Mack’s trip to the Shack did for him. A long time dear friend, who has experienced a series of painful crises that in some ways seems to surpass Job’s troubles, commented that The Shack helped her process some of that pain. “As I look back over my life and realize all the losses I’ve had and my spiritual journey through them, this book really kind of put it all together for me.” Yet, she expressed concern about some of the theology in this book and requested my evaluation.
Others see The Shack as dangerous, sated with bad theology, and to be avoided. A woman with a solid track record in teaching the Bible wrote to me, “I personally was appalled … and have tried to discourage others from reading it.”
I have to agree that The Shack is filled with theological heresy, that is, false teaching about God and our relationship to Him that is contradictory to Scripture. I could list the 15 or 20 key examples that I noted on an index card as I read the book and make an effort to categorize the main problems, but that would be duplicating the good work of others. Issues of great concern include the Trinity, the basis of salvation, eternal judgment, and Scripture, not exactly peripheral theological issues. The best review that I have seen of The Shack is by Tim Challies. I highly recommend his detailed summary and analysis. http://www.challies.com/media/The_Shack.pdf
The major objection to theological critiques of such books is, “Come on, it’s fiction! Why do we need to be so concerned about theology in a work of fiction?” That follows the reasoning over the hubbub of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Why can’t we just enjoy a good story and not be uptight about it?
That’s what I want to address – What does it matter if a work of fiction has bad theology? Fiction is written with various motivations. If you are good and can crank out books like John Grisham, you can make a lot of money. But as much as the profit motive is there, I don’t believe that was Wm. Paul Young’s motivation as I don’t believe he expected it to be the publishing smash hit that it is. He wrote The Shack in an effort to make sense of his own painful past, growing up in a strict fundamentalist Christian home on a distant mission field, and the ongoing negative impact on his wife and children. This story comes out of eleven years of processing his own adulterous affair and what he believed God was saying to him to bring him to wholeness.
Even more effective than non-fiction, works of fiction are powerful tools to communicate great truth. The simple but powerful parables of Jesus are the most notable examples. Great novels such as Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (which I confess I have not read, but saw the Broadway stage production as it toured the nation) and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (which I was forced to read in high school, but immensely enjoyed my second time through a few years ago) are powerful stories that illustrate the Gospel, particularly the substitutionary atonement of Jesus.
Thus, it seems to me that bad theology in works of fiction is not harmless and in fact could be more damaging because of the heart pulling impact of a great story. The great danger and the great divide among evangelicals today is based on a softening of interest and commitment to robust biblical and systematic theology. Sound theology is foundational to all other disciplines and must not be cast aside as optional. But that is putting the best spin possible on current realities. Far more concerning is the spread of emerging theologies into the evangelical world that are really warmed over liberalism from the 19th and 20th centuries tweaked for a post-modern instead of a modern world.
Among the plethora of endorsements for The Shack, I found the comment by Kathie Lee Gifford disturbing, “The Shack will change the way you think about God forever.” Acknowledging that such comments are often exaggerated, yet if that were true, we have reason to be greatly alarmed by the impact of this book. I don’t wish to discourage Wm. Paul Young or any of his readers from finding restoration from painful life experiences, but if it is based on distortions about God and other crucial biblical doctrines, it will fail to sustain him. As I wrestle with the great challenges of suffering and injustice in our world, I prefer to enter the struggle of Job and Habakkuk in the Old Testament or Paul in 2 Corinthians.
This brief article has not been easy to write because I hate to interfere with what you have found to be a source of healing. But I’d rather challenge your thinking with a hard look at Scripture, which I believe you will ultimately find far more satisfying and healing. And in the sovereignty and goodness of God, perhaps God has even used an unusual book to open up the pain of your heart so that you can take your experience, not to the false God of The Shack, but to the God of the Bible.