This week, Christians are asking all over again why a good God would allow people to suffer. Fifteen years ago in the summer of 2008, many debated the same topic after a little indie book hit it big. The Shack by William P. Young (and guests) followed a man called Mack who sought spiritual healing from fictional versions of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This did and did not go over well. What now do we think of The Shack and its deconstruction of evangelical ideas, and arguably Bible doctrine itself?
- Enclave Publishing: Estuary by Lisa T. Bergren
- The Author Conservatory
- Lorehaven Summer Reading Challenge
Quotes and notes:
- Six Lies Christians Believe About ‘The Shack’
- Seven More Lies Christians Believe About ‘The Shack’
- 69. How Can Faithful Stories Best Show Backslidden Heroes?
The Shack went largely unnoticed for over a year after its initial publication, but suddenly became a very popular seller in mid-2008, when it debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times paperback fiction best seller list on June 8 (“Christian Novel Is Surprise Best Seller,” The New York Times, June 24, 2008). Its success was the result of a “word-of-mouth, church-to-church, blog-to-blog campaign” by Young, Jacobsen and Cummings in churches and Christian-themed radio, websites, and blogs.
- God and Fiction – A Look at The Shack, Part 1, Rebecca LuAlla Miller, May 25, 2009
- “The Shack Impressions,” Timothy Keller, Jan. 27, 2010
- “What Does ‘The Shack’ Say About Your Pain?”, David Mathis at Desiring God, March 2, 2017
- “The Shack: Biblical Discernment Is Key in Evaluating Any Book or Movie, Plus Concerns about Paul Young’s New Book Lies We Believe About God,” Randy Alcorn, Feb. 20, 2017
- We’ll assume certain ideas are heresy, and yes, we’ll use the H-word.
- Heresy doesn’t mean denomination ideas about secondary issues.
- Heresy does mean ideas that directly challenge God’s nature and gospel.
- Many people loved The Shack. As we’ll see, we won’t pick on those folks.
- Lots of other people critiqued The Shack. We’ll not pick on them either.
- It’s healthy for Christians to debate the themes and styles of fiction.
- But you’ve got to meet the book on its own terms. That’s what we seek.
- For more about respecting yet challenging Christian authors, see ep. 96.
1. What was The Shack book really all about?
- Recap of the book’s plot after Stephen read this book in 2017.
- The book counts as fantastical, but is heavily didactic in nature.
- Imagine a crime story turned devotional turned “fictional dialogue.”
- In this case, the authors imagined conversations with all the Trinity.
- They tried to resolve “why do bad things happen to good people” issue.
- William P. Young is the credited author, but there was a whole lawsuit …
- Turns out he had a lot of editorial help from arguable coauthors.
Young continues to identify as the sole author of The Shack. The book’s actual authorship is a bit more complicated. There was even a lawsuit about it. In the end, author and publisher Wayne Jacobsen also speaks as the book’s coauthor (with Brad Cummings), stating flatly, “Paul isn’t the only author of this story.” So the book was written/edited by committee, and only later picked up for larger distribution by Hachette Book Group.
This joint authorship, like with some written-by-committee blockbuster movies, may help explain some of the clashing tones and ideas within the story. It helps explain why The Shack sounds so biblical at one moment … but then The Shack offers clashing notions such as that although God always gets what s(he) wants, s(he) either does want to allow evil and suffering for good reasons, and/or is helpless when an evildoer abducts and kills a child.
Moreover, if one author (Jacobsen) says he does reject universalism, but another author (Young) very clearly accepts it, that puts a crucial religious divide at the heart of the story. Unlike the unified God the authors wish to explore, this trinity of human authors is not very well unified. Thus the book’s narrative voice(s) become unreliable and self-conflicting.
2. Which biblical truths did The Shack book reflect?
- Jesus “chose to die” and “saved us from our sickness.”
- God isn’t an old white-bearded man in the sky (actual lingering myth?).
- “The truth shall set you free and the truth has a name; he’s over in the woodshop right now covered in sawdust.” (The Shack authors rightfully understand that John 8:32 is a reference to Jesus, not knowledge.)
- God isn’t like us, and is not simply “the best version” of man.
- Our triune God exists as love because His Persons are in relationship.
- God is not evil, and has good reasons to allow evil and suffering.
- Jesus promises to renew the universe; Heaven will come to New Earth.
- Our desire for independence from God is the root of all evil. We really have no absolute “rights,” not even to speak uninterrupted by God!
- Despite all The Shack’s protests against power as if this is always bad, it shows a God who rightly exercises power over his created beings.
- God’s free will overrules man’s free will. God has the right to remain silent while humans suffer, despite having foreknowledge of events. God even has the right to exercise power by withholding revelation.
3. How did The Shack deconstruct biblical doctrine?
- The Shack’s author(s) don’t seem to appreciate the written word so much.
- Seems pretty clear this is a late-2000s example of Church Back Home.
In seminary [Mack] had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. … Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?
—The Shack, pages 67-68
- The story wants to tackle tough questions, even the rape of a small child.
In a world where religion seems to grow increasingly irrelevant The Shack wrestles with the timeless question: “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?”
—The Shack, back cover
- But with all due respect, this is a bluff the story cannot make good on.
Its ill treatment begins with a writing style that hovers over characters and does not go inside. We do not truly feel Mack’s sadness. Verbiage adds distance, not intimacy. His emotions even have their own distinct title, like an album: The Great Sadness.
Mack’s denial of emotions is also bashed into our heads with sentences like, “With every effort he could muster, he kept himself from falling back into this black hole of emotions.” (Really? So not confronting these negative emotions is bad? Or could this be a bit clearer?)
Perhaps worst of all: Any real impact of these terrible events—that Mack’s daughter is abducted, presumably raped, and murdered—is blunted by the story’s gross assurances: it’s not as bad as we think, God manifested to Missy to lessen her terror, and spoke to her heart, and Missy even prayed right then for her father’s peace. Here and elsewhere, The Shack refuses to show human evil and suffering closer to their realistic worst. Even as the authors teach us that Mack’s denial of emotions = bad, weeping = good, they deny us real reasons to weep. This is The Shack at its most sticky and saccharine, and I felt offended by its entire implication.
- Critics said The Shack shows God is a woman. That part is complicated.
- More accurately, the book stereotypes “female” virtues > “male” virtues.
- I’m not even egalitarian, and this book made me feel strongly that way.
- People criticized The Shack for playing at universalism. Yes, it does.
- One coauthor Wayne Jacobsen says he’s not a universalist.
- But the named cover author, William P. Young, later affirmed this heresy.
- Finally, the story as fiction is burdened by cliches and purple prose.
- Honestly, this makes The Shack a strange case of bad Christian fiction.
- It’s strange because other bad Christian fiction is at least orthodox!
- This doesn’t mean you’re a bad Christian for reading or liking it.
- But the story as fiction is at best a saccharine, unsatisfying homily.
- And the story ultimately deconstructs the complexity of gospel truth.
- When evil things happen to people God has made good, that’s terrible.
- Yet our great God promises to avenge the wrong—or pay this in Christ.
- For all wrongs done to you, or in the world, our Author will resolve them.
David replied about episode 166:
Hey guys, great show yet again! I just wanted to point out that the Jesus actor in the Gospel of John, Henry Ian Cusick, is half Peruvian and half Scottish.
Scott Kelly replied to episode 167:
AND… Instill a respect, appreciation, and application of the arts into your local churches and Christian communities. If a Christian sees the church shy away or outright avoid artistic expressions, it’s guaranteed they’re going to flock elsewhere. The church should be a bastion for the arts, not a “white-washed tomb.” (And I say that as a member of a church that primarily has – unfortunately so – undecorated white walls.)
I’ll be listening to this episode for sure. Love your podcast, as always.
… I’ll add that even though my church has a long way to go with this, I’m working with a handful of Christians to create and sustain an artists support group for our local area that is based in truth and beauty, (only) understood through the lens of Christianity. We’re hoping that over time it will help influence the culture in our region, including our churches. Gotta make sure your heart and hands match your mind and words after all.
Next on Fantastical Truth
Most people think “Christian fiction” avoids “unclean” content like sex, violence, and bad language. But in fact, many of these stories have often pushed these limits. We know of a few books now that are experimenting. Just in time for Independence Day in the United States, we will ask—should these stories make very free to show their characters cussin’ and fightin’?
Explore the best Christian-made fantasy, sci-fi, and beyond, and apply these stories' meanings in the real world Jesus calls us to serve.