Mining Grace

…the more happiness you have, the more I shall count myself glorified

My Thoughts on The Shack

I just finished reading The Shack.  To be honest, I really didn’t want to read it.  But I decided to read it for two reasons.  First, people in my congregation were reading it.  Second, men that I respect are divided on the merit of the book. I knew that if I was going to speak about it, I should read it myself and make an informed judgment.

To be both blunt and clear, I do not recommend The Shack.  I agree with the assessment and reviews of Tim Challies.  Tim–an avid reader, reviewer, and author–has spent a good bit of time in dialog with people who both appreciate and do not appreciate The Shack.  The result of these dialogs can be found at his site and on amazon.com.  I will not repeat what Tim has written, so please follow the links below for his helpful analysis on The Shack.

Because Tim has done such a thorough job, I’m only going to add my own particular thoughts on The Shack.

The Dangers of Fiction

The common retort to negative reviews of The Shack is, “But it is only fiction.”  The assumption behind this plea for unconditional grace is that fiction 1) can’t be that bad and 2) should be judged by different standards than other written media.  I disagree.  My disagreement was further solidified by a quote from CS Lewis I heard this past Thursday night.  Lewis said,

…any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance [romantic, imaginative literature, fiction] without their knowing it.

Lewis saw that an author could “smuggle” truth into people’s heads and hearts through fiction.  He sought to use this profoundly influential genre of literature–theological fiction–to introduce hundreds of thousands of people to Christian themes.

Lewis was not perfect and had his faults just like any other author.  My purpose is not to compare Aslan to Papa.  My purpose in quoting Lewis is simply to convince you that when you read theological fiction you should be more discerning and not less.  The response to The Shack should be, “Hey, this is theological fiction, we really need to read this carefully and be discerning about what is being ‘smuggled’ into the minds of those who read this book.”

What is the author saying

I have yet to see a good summary of The Shack from the point of authorial intention.  A plot summary and the intention of the author are two parallel but different things.  Theological fiction–especially of the more allegorical ilk–takes an incredible amount of forethought and planning.  To some degree authorial intent is only inerrantly found in the author’s own skull.  But reading as a medium exists as a conversation between author and reader.  At the end of a book, a reader should be able to answer the question, “What is the author saying.”  So what exactly is the author of The Shack intending to do with his characters and plot line?  The following is what this reader saw in the book.

Mack is a sporadic church attender who despite seminary training is disillusioned about Christianity and particularly the church.  Haunted by an alcoholic and abusive father he has difficulty in conceiving of God as a loving Father.  He undergoes a tragic event that causes his apathy toward God to turn into profound anger.  God enters into Mack’s life inviting him through a written note in his mailbox to meet him at the very heart of his tragedy–The Shack.

The time Mack spends with God at The Shack serves the author’s purpose of challenging the reader’s view of God by bringing into question orthodox teaching on various biblical themes–especially Trinitarian theology.  Some of these include…

  • Should God the Father always be thought of in masculine terms? (personal properties of the persons in the Trinity)
  • Did God the Father and the Holy Spirit suffer on the cross?  (perichoretic union and the communicatio idiomata)
  • Does God really judge anyone?  (God’s justice and a theology of Hell)
  • What is the relation between Jesus’s manhood and divinity?  (hypostatic union)
  • How does someone come into a saving relationship with God?  (soteriology)
  • What happened on the cross?  (penal substitutionary atonement)
  • How does God communicate to men?  (authority and inspiration of the Bible)
  • What is the church and should someone be a part of a local church?  (eccleisiology)

These are just a few of the questions that the author wants you to ask.  I included applicable orthodox doctrines in parenthesis so that you see the range of fundamental truths this book attempts to address.  None of these questions are answered clearly.  Because they are not answered clearly, they obviously are not the content the author wants you to remember.  A good author is clear about what he wants you to take away from his work.  Instead, in light of questioning biblical orthodoxy a few other themes develop with more clarity:

  1. Hierarchy is a sinful human creation designed solely for power plays
  2. Human suffering must be allowed by God because God’s intervention in suffering would violate man’s free will
  3. Man’s free will is important because it is the potential to enter into a forgiving relationship with others
  4. The cross is how God forgave all men, leaving the potential for them to respond to God with a desire for relationship
  5. The church is fundamentally flawed and Christians should instead gather in groups built solely on relationship

If you consider carefully these five themes, you shouldn’t have any doubt why people are flocking to The Shack.  Anit-theology, anti-authority, forgiveness and relationship without addressing sin–these are seductive but sinful themes.  It is also shouldn’t be any wonder that people are scooping up a similar book published by the same publisher of The Shack entitled, So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore.

The author intentionally questions major theological doctrines without providing clear answers.  He also posits several unhelpful views of biblical hierarchy (ie elders and deacons), God’s sovereignty in suffering, salvation, the cross, and the church.

I now ask the questions, “If you were writing a book trying to help people understand God’s character in the midst of intense suffering, would you write The Shack?”  I wouldn’t.

Its not what you write its what people read

The question of orthodox theology in The Shack is appropriate and entirely merited.  People respond to this by saying that the author has clearly denied–in internet posted interviews–any supposed heresies associated with the book.  That is good to hear.  But….art is not what the author would like to communicate but rather what the reader actually reads.  Why hasn’t the author issued a retraction or apology at being unclear about important biblical truths?  Readers are confused.  Readers–this one included–find themselves at multiple points in the book questioning the author’s orthodoxy.

Impractical

What does this book make a reader want to do?  This book has struck a nerve among readers because so many people have undergone tremendous tragedies in their own lives that have lead them to doubt God’s goodness or sovereignty or both.  As a pastor, I hurt for these people.  I talk to these people week in and week out.  I am one of these people.

But what is our counsel? Basic biblical counsel would lead us to say to someone in Mack’s position,

  1. Open your Bible and remind yourself of the truth of God’s character even when circumstances don’t make sense.
  2. Go to the Psalms and use the language of the psalmists to give a prayerful voice to your sorrow and suffering.
  3. Think about the cross.  Remember that Jesus has accomplished what sinners cannot.  He has suffered for their sins to cancel their debt with God and bring to them a righteousness not their own.
  4. Respond to the truth of the cross in faith and repentance, confessing that you deserve even more than your current suffering for all the ways that you have sinned against God. Yet God in his mercy has given you boundless grace instead.
  5. Remember that God brings suffering into the lives of his children so that they can be more like Jesus and be sanctified.
  6. Remember that all things work for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
  7. Seek out Christian community to support and encourage you in this time of suffering.
  8. Seek out the help of an elder in your church to help shepherd and guide you through this hard time.

These are the things that someone in Mack’s situation needs to hear.

Now I realize that The Shack is fiction.  The author is not suggesting that anyone should try to find the God of The Shack or in the way that Mack finds the God of The Shack.  But if it doesn’t encourage the hurting reader to do anything listed above then what good is it in the end–even as fiction?

Comparisons to Pilgrim’s Progress

Finally, with all due respect to Eugene Peterson, can we please stop comparing The Shack to Pilgrim’s Progress.  Ignoring the chronological snobbery of such a comparision, it is grossly offensive to one of the greatest works of English/Christian literature.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then go read Pilgrim’s Progress.  Now that is a work of theological fiction I can heartily recommend.

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Written by Joe Holland

September 9, 2008 at 10:57 am

17 Responses

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  1. I agree with the assessment and reviews of Tim Challies

    I guess that says all you needed to say from my perspective.

    Jeff_R

    September 9, 2008 at 2:44 pm

  2. Joe –

    An “alternative” re-writing of your review:

    The author ostensibly wrote the book as a way of expressing his viewpoint and ideas about life and God to his children. Rather than writing a list of beliefs or ideas, however, the author chose to try to express his beliefs about life and God in the form of a novel that has as its primary plot device, a lengthy conversation/series of dialogues between the protagonist (Mack) and the three members of the Trinity.

    It is fair to say that while the book is clearly fiction and not a theological textbook, the author is clearly trying to convey his ideas about who God is and how God relates to humanity. So in that sense, it is fair to say it is seeking to teach theology – at least at a lay-level.

    The protagonist, Mack, is a sporadic church attender who, despite seminary training, is disillusioned about Christianity and particularly the church. He is haunted by an alcoholic and abusive father and as a result has difficulty in conceiving of God as a loving Father. He undergoes a tragic event that causes his apathy toward God to turn into profound anger. God enters into Mack’s life inviting him through a written note in his mailbox to meet him at the very heart of his tragedy–The Shack.

    In the person of Mack, the author “tees up” various traditional ideas about God that are often held or taught by fundamentalist and legalist Christians (and even theists of other kinds). In response, the persons of the Trinity challenge these “commonly held” viewpoints and offer alternative perspectives, interpretations and opinions on the nature and character of God, humanity, life and existence. Some of the ideas discussed include…

    1. How we see God – including ideas of the gender of God
    2. The nature of the Trinity in terms of Jesus’ incarnation and sacrificial death
    3. God’s judgment of humanity and sin
    4. The nature of the incarnation
    5. What it means to be saved
    6. What happened at the cross
    7. Revelation and communication from God to humanity
    8. The purpose and formation of the church

    None of these questions are answered clearly in the sense that the author provides a concise answer. In fact, the author raises the questions because the common ideas need to be challenged – and the responses are sufficiently vague not because the author has no hard opinions on these matters, but because the author is intending to convey that God is “big” and in many ways “beyond our comprehension” and that too often, we worship our own liturgy and “knowledge” rather than remaining humbly in awe of God’s immeasurable love, grace, mercy and power.

    Some of the ideas that are directly challenged through the book are:

    1. Domination and control as fundamental elements of hierarchy in human thinking are broken concepts not in keeping with God’s character or nature
    2. Human suffering occurs first because of the brokenness of creation resulting from humanity’s free decision to separate from God – God allows evil and suffering because to do otherwise would violate man’s free will
    3. Man’s free will is important because it is the potential to enter into a forgiving relationship with others
    4. The cross is how God creates the capacity to forgive all humanity, leaving the potential for them to respond to God with a desire for relationship
    5. The church as a religious institution is fundamentally flawed because of the ideas of control and domination that naturally manifest in ego-based hierarchies – Christians should instead seek to form communities of faith based primarily and gather in groups built solely on relationship, sacrifice, service and burden-bearing

    While the author raises questions about fundamental theological issues, the conclusions of the book are entirely and completely orthodox and fall clearly within the mainstream of historic Christian faith. It should be said that those still holding to radical Calvinism will grapple with the issue of free will, but that’s nothing new (and their position is no more sound now than when Calvin first codified the erroneous ideas of radical sovereignty).

    This book has struck a nerve among readers because so many people have undergone tremendous tragedies in their own lives that have lead them to doubt God’s goodness or sovereignty or both.

    Many detractors claim that instead of positing a fictitious conversation between a man and God as a way of dealing with the problem of suffering and evil and loss in human experience, the author should have simply referred folks to the Bible.

    This is an ill-conceived criticism given that the intent of the author was to express his opinions and views on how God might respond to such question in the clear context of biblical learning and understanding. Further, why isn’t this response appropriate on any topic of Christian writing? Why write commentaries – just refer people to the text!

    It’s also interesting to note that many of the critics of The Shack would heartily recommend the fictional writing of C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, George Macdonald or others – though all these men held, espoused and wove into their writings ideas and theology that is suspect (at least to the same radical Calvinists so incensed by The Shack). Further, all of these writers’ fictional works raised controversy because of the way some of their fiction could be misconstrued as heretical theology.

    What’s the difference? Time. Give the fundamentalists a few years, and The Shack will fall in among other works of Christian fiction as a heartfelt, moving and meaningful work alongside those and other Christian writers expressing orthodox theology through their creative imaginations.

    Note that some have offered stern warnings to folks to avoid the book and not read it. Why? Because is may include difficult, confusing or hard-to-interpret ideas that could be misinterpreted.

    I would challenge all of these naysayers to guess which book in human history deserves this warning above all other books?

    The Bible.

    Just food for thought.

    Jeff_R

    September 9, 2008 at 3:28 pm

  3. Jeff_R,

    Welcome to my blog. I had “seen” you on twitter a while back and then came across you again in all of your comments on Tim’s blog.

    Like most of the movies I watch, I prefer the original version to the alternate ending.

    Thanks for reading my post and offering some food for thought.

    Joe Holland

    September 9, 2008 at 6:47 pm

  4. Joe –

    Just making the point that much is in the eye of the beholder – our presuppositions often dictate what we believe to be our “free intrepretations”. I avoid telling people what they should and shouldn’t read since doing so seems to be an act of arrogance and pride in my own intellect.

    jeff_r

    September 10, 2008 at 6:57 am

  5. […] the more implausible it becomes that it all could have happened without the work of a divine hand. Joe Holland on The Shack Joe Holland writes a review of The Shack. He uses this great quote from C.S. Lewis: “…any amount […]

  6. […] Review of “The Shack” by Joe Holland Another thoughtful review. You can reach it here. […]

  7. Jeff – I don’t know what you do in life, but as a pastor I have to say that Joe is completely within his rights to publicly denounce a book like The Shack to his congregation. It is his responsibility before God as an under-shepherd to guard the flock, and that is exactly what he is doing. Without attacking William P. Young personally, Joe, and other critics, have produced well thought out warnings against the Universalist spiritual mush that is offered up in the book. To be sure, they’re more gracious than I would be, but then this is not my blog. Take the time when you have it to search out the Scriptures for the admonitions we’re given to be discerning and to guard sound doctrine. You may be surprised by the sheer volume of them.

    msatty

    September 10, 2008 at 8:39 am

  8. Msatty – Thanks for the encouragement.

    Joe Holland

    September 10, 2008 at 1:53 pm

  9. […] spent the past few days reading The Shack (more on that later, but for some insights on it read this).  I know, it’s been out for a while, but I am sometimes behind the learning curve with pop […]

  10. […] Holland has posted an altogether excellent review of The Shack (hat tip: Tim Challies). Meanwhile, my blog has attracted a couple comments on the topic. Granted, […]

  11. Thank you for a clear and concise review. We had previously read Tim’s review and found your comments to be just as helpful as his were. Our daughter, Kelsey, is a member of your church and we are thankful God has called you to address the numerous points of theological confusion in The Shack. Coram Deo.

    Drew

    September 12, 2008 at 6:04 pm

  12. Drew,
    Good to hear from you. I’m glad you found my review helpful. Kelsey is a joy to our congregation. Looking forward to seeing you next time your in town.

    Joe Holland

    September 12, 2008 at 8:13 pm

  13. […] My Thoughts on The Shack « Mining Grace (tags: mining grace review thoughts the shack) Share and Enjoy: […]

  14. […] Pastor Joe Holland, pastor and blogger has provided two posts which are worthy to read. His first post provides his thoughts on the book, The Shack. His second post provides suggestions as to what […]

  15. I found the book very enjoying and it drew me to a deeper relationship with G-d. The revelation knowledge that I experienced was spirit quickening, as well as, enlightening. If you are grounded and rooted in the word, then you should have no problem with this book, because it is just fiction. If you know the truth, then the truth shall keep you free of all deception. Also, if you truly know G-d, this book should not distort your view of Him. The author never said that this was a replacement to the Bible. It is a Fiction novel, not non-fiction. Additionally, the author never stated that this book was the core of Christianity or any other religion. I found compassion, brokeness, forgiveness, love, grace, and mercy to abound in this novel. I believe that we all need something or someone to challenge us, during our spiritual walk, and draw us closer to Him. The Shack will prompt you to experience an encounter with the “true” living G-d and cry out to Papa. Shalom!

    If you are looking for theology in a fiction novel, this book is not for you. READ YOUR BIBLE!

    CJ

    October 13, 2008 at 2:00 pm

  16. CJ, don’t be decieved. The Shack is theological fiction. The author is making theological points throughout the book. The “its just fiction” argument doesn’t fly. I suggest you read the book again and wrestle with some of the issues that critical reviews of The Shack have brought out.

    Joe Holland

    October 16, 2008 at 12:37 pm

  17. I haven’t finished the book yet, but will soon. The idea that it is fictional or theological doesn’t matter, if you have forgotten about faith. It’s a great read, but it doesn’t make me question the bible and what I learned when I was younger. It has sparked a flame in me to somehow believe again. Maybe this will set people back to the church, bible, and things they have lost faith in. The controversy has set people back on the trail to God, jesus, and the holy spirit. It’s a great read, maybe it’s just a sign on the road back, one step at a time. It has left me wanting to know again, and just maybe find my faith again. I know the answers are in the bible, not this book.

    G

    October 23, 2008 at 10:08 pm


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