Controversy sells books. That is certainly the case for William P. Young’s The Shack Novels are by definition fiction are stories invented in the mind of the author sometimes for entertainment, sometimes to teach something the author believes is interesting or important, occasionally for both. Tim Challies in his lengthy review calls The Shack by William P. Young “theological fiction.” That is certainly an apt description and coming from the position of someone concerned about sound doctrine and theological accuracy he writes:
Because of the sheer volume of error and because of the importance of the doctrines reinvented by the author, I would encourage Christians, and especially young Christians, to decline this invitation to meet with God in The Shack. It is not worth reading for the story and certainly not worth reading for the theology.
On the other side, Emerging blogger Michael Spencer started his review on his Internetmonk website with:
Tim Challies and I couldn’t disagree more on this review. He really disliked the book, and I – and my family so far- have been deeply moved and helped by it. That’s the way it goes.
These two reviews can both be the “poster child” for their respective ideologies a point not missed by Spencer:
The Shack is a book that can generate much conversation among anyone with thoughts of God and sure controversy among the rigidly certain.
The “rigidly certain” of course are those who sift teachings and claims through the grid of the already revealed Word of God rather than how something makes us feel. Challies warns against reading the book due to the “sheer volume of error and because of the importance of the doctrines reinvented by the author,” and Spencer admits this is the case for those who are concerned about such things:
Those inclined to look for emerging church error or general heresy won’t be disappointed, and I am sure Young enjoys some of this theological and traditional mischief.
But rather than warn his readers what the errors, general heresy and theological mischief might be Spencer advises:
I’d recommend putting up the doctrine gun for the duration of this book, and letting the story entertain and explore. This isn’t a confession or a catechism, but it is something a lot of people will read and absorb.
I am certainly not opposed to controversy, in fact, a friend once pointed out that in apologetics and discernment controversy is not a job hazard but a job description. With that in mind my next questions will be controversial. Would the Internet Monk be consistent with the attitude he conveys in his recommendation if he took a youth group or his children on a camping trip? “Sure there are dangerous things in these woods but the trip is just for enjoyment so we wouldn’t really want to cause anyone to worry so we won’t tell them what the dangers are but just let them go out and discover on their own.” After little Johnny or Suzie are discovered lying in the woods dead or dying after having “absorbed” a poisonous berry while being entertained and exploring would the response be “oops”?
At the urging of a good friend I ordered a copy of The Shack. Spencer is right, it is generating interest and discussion. Some love it and buy cases of it to give to friends. Others, such as Tim Challies, have stated that it is not worth reading for the story or theology. He addresses some of the doctrinal issues in his lengthy review. Many are simply not sure what to think.
I was reading it while I was at a speaking engagement and a few asked my opinion of the book and I let them know that I thought the author, William P. Young, seems to be trying to do a good thing in attempting to help readers grapple with deeper theological questions. He does spend time developing the main character and giving the reader points of connection and a reason to care. The pervading question of the book is why does God allow evil? It is relatively easy, if someone has experienced a deep personal loss or can imagine losing someone or something very close to them to identify with the main character grappling with the question of how the all good, all loving, all powerful God allows evil to wreak havoc in the lives of humans that God supposedly loves? That is perhaps the biggest draw of the book and a question most if not all of us have asked or will ask at some point in our lives. We even find this question in Scripture. For example, Psalm 43:
Vindicate me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation;
O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man! For You are the God of my strength; why have You rejected me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
David, the man after God’s heart, struggled with this issue just like the rest of us, asked himself why his soul was in despair (v:5) and reminded himself to trust in God (v:5).
Although Young is attempting to answer difficult questions in this work, novels by their very nature take creative liberties in the process of telling a story that can lead to false and dangerous theology. The story keys in on emotions and as Tim Challies points out, because of these emotional connections the reader tends to drop critical thinking skills and discernment practices, something Michael Spencer advocates. Adopting and embracing false teaching is an inherent danger of the book. However, unlike Tim Challies I don’t advocate not reading the book and unlike Spencer I don’t advocate venturing in to dangerous territory blinded to the hazards in order to be more experiential. Instead I recommend reading Tim Challies’ book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment and practicing the principles he outlines while reading this book.
Secondly, while discussing it with the questioners, I pointed out some of the issues. For example, there appears to be a bit of pantheism, or the idea that everything is god, in the book. On page 112, God tells the main character, Mack (MacKenzie):
God, who is the ground of all being, dwells in, around and through all things – ultimately emerging as the real – and any appearances that mask that reality will fall away.
There also appears to be some “Open Theism” or the idea that God chooses to not be all knowing, on page 106:
We have limited ourselves out of respect for you. We are not bringing to mind, as it were, our knowledge of your children. As we listen to you, it is as if this is the first time we have known about them, and we take great delight in seeing them through your eyes.”
Although perhaps well intentioned this does damage to our understanding of the nature of God. For example, my grandson Zach just began playing Teeball. In first practice he hit not one but two homeruns. My being excited with him afterwards and enjoying his telling of this monumental event in his life did not require that I banish the knowledge of the event from my mind in order to do so.
The story works so hard at emphasizing God’s relationship to His creation that it comes across as universalist and all humans have to do is walk in the way of Jesus within their religious traditions to be embraced by God. It does so by laying out something that is true but has no bearing on the question of salvation. Mack asks Jesus a question on page 182:
”Is that what it means to be a Christian?” Is sounded kind of stupid as Mack said it, but it was how he was trying to sum everything up in his mind.
“Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian”
Since a Christian is one who has accepted His claims of being fully God, fully human and that He would raise Himself from the dead and did and is therefore a disciple or follower of Christ it is true that Christ was not and is not a Christian. Then the Jesus of the Shack goes on to say:
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 Christians, 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.”
Young seems to realize where this conversation leaves him and has Jesus saying that all roads don’t lead to Him and leaves the reader scratching their head. The Jesus of the Shack has no desire to make people Christians (followers/disciples) but although all roads don’t lead to Him He has followers in all religions.
Michael Spencer was correct:
Those inclined to look for emerging church error or general heresy won’t be disappointed
The Shack is indeed shaky. However, hiding from it or trying to censor it won’t diminish and in fact may add to its impact. Instead we can use it as a starting point to correct false teaching and answer difficult questions. But then that requires being a prepared workman that doesn’t need to be ashamed (2 Timothy 2:15). Effort will be required and caring enough about others to move out of our comfort zones.