William P. Young’s runaway bestseller The Shack is compelling and controversial. I have heard about many members of our church who have read the book and I too have read it. The internet is filled with reactions to this book so I thought I would weigh in here with some thoughts after having read the book several months ago.
Over the last several years, there have been several products which have captured the imagination of the evangelical world. It all started in my mind with the “Left Behind” series of books, a set of runaway bestsellers about the end-times. Along the way, The Prayer of Jabez became wildly popular, The Purpose-Driven Life flew off the shelves and several movies, including The Passion of the Christ and Facing the Giants, became cornerstones of evangelical entertainment. I believe The Shack falls into this category of faddish products that have struck a nerve within evangelicalism. Years from now many people will probably look back at The Shack and wonder why it was so popular (perhaps like people of my age wonder how people of the early 1970′s could have possibly taken Jonathan Livingston Seagull seriously). The Shack is not particularly well-written fiction and in many places it is particularly badly-written theology. Yet the book touches people, primarily because people really are hurting and are looking for comfort in a world filled with suffering and seemingly senseless evil. The greatest redeeming quality of The Shack is that it powerfully affirms the love of God. It may prove to be a helpful book to those who have been through deep valleys of suffering.
With that said, the problem with Young’s novel is that it does away with or diminishes the value of so many key elements of our faith as it seeks to communicate about God’s love. Many people have objected to the portrayal of God in The Shack (let me just say it is unconventional) but to me the greater problems with the book are found in what it is missing. There are three key elements in our faith that are missing from The Shack which give me pause in recommending the book to others.
1. The holiness of God was missing. It is true, I think, that the love of God, now so precious, will be overpowering to us when we are fully in His presence, and I think this was well-portrayed. But it is also true that we will be overpowered by His holiness. This I think is lacking in The Shack. He is full of grace and truth.
2. The Church was missing. Admittedly, the Church has often brutalized people and many churches are spiritually dead and so stifle the faith of those who attend. But the Church is intended to be a place of nurture and blessing to believers. Life is not only about our individual faith journey but also about living life together for God’s glory with a group of fellow disciples. There are churches where this is happening. The main character, Mack, not only needed connection to God, he needed connection to other believers.
3. The Bible was missing. Why must authors so often make the mistake of pitting the Bible against authentic relationship with God? By his absence of focus on biblical truth and his occasional swipes at seminaries and Bible knowledge, Young seems to fall into this mistake. The Bible is a gateway, the best gateway, to authentic relationship with God! The special revelation of Scripture is what tells us there is a Savior. God’s unique revelation, the Bible, tells us how to be saved. The Bible tells us how to live. The Bible tells us about eternal life. We can’t find these truth inside us. We can’t find much about these truths in any specific way in the creation. I don’t worship a book. But I do connect with God there. Again, I know there are people who twist Scripture and use it to abuse others. But let’s not allow the misuse of Scripture keep it from its proper place in our lives. The choice is not between worshiping the Bible or worshiping God. The choice is between loving God through the means he has given (Scripture being very high on the list) or not loving God.
So I would encourage all who wish to go to The Shack to proceed with caution. Remember that it is a work of fiction and as such will give an incomplete picture of reality. I do not think the book is a Pilgrim’s Progress for this generation. Neither do I think it is the most dangerous thing to hit the evangelical world in years. As with any book, we need to read with care, always holding what the author has written against what God has inspired and revealed through the Scriptures.