More Thoughts on The Shack

Joe 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, there are not too many comments, but they contain themes worth a little discussion.

First, there is this comment (unedited) by Ray Stone:

I browsed the pages of The Shack and ended up reading about three and a half chapters, plus the ending. Voom! Powerful. Despite some awkward sentencing and obivous theological loopholes, the book is creatively absorbing. Clearly is does not line up one hundred percent with scripture (no book does), but this is why it is FICTION. Does it dishonors God? I think not. Is is leaven and heresy? That is debatable. It simply is what it is. Let the reader beware. An equally intriguing and controversial work is A Step Into Deliverance by T. Pugh. It is a riveting autobiography about a pastor’s amazing journey down the road to the deliverance ministry. It’s a real page-turner

To start with, I think there is a real problem with forming an opinion of a book based on so little text. The Shack comprises eighteen chapters, a foreword, “After Words,” acknowledgments, and a plug for The Missy Project. I think it’s unfair to an author and to the reader to write a review based on anything less than the core text at a minimum, preferably the core text plus all the “extras.” Much of the danger I see in the book comes in the vast middle, which Mr. Stone apparently skipped.

Mr. Stone’s point about fiction, though, goes to the heart of what I have said, as well as what Mr. Holland and Mr. Challies have said. Mr. Holland reminds us of a great quote from C.S. Lewis:

[A]ny amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance [romantic, imaginative literature, fiction] without their knowing it. (Letters 167).

This is precisely the danger. Many books engage in theology, philosophy, historical inquiry, or other intellectual pursuits under cover of fictional writing. Just because something is fictional does not mean it does not also make profound claims or fall subject to criticism of those claims. This actually seems to be the fundamental difference in mindset fueling most discussions of The Shack. Like Mr. Stone says, “Let the reader beware.”

A Bryce Andrews also chimed in on this blog with this comment (unedited except to correct for formatting problems):

For you shall know them by there fruits. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness. The book The Shack, fictional as it may be, is a love story. Just as the bible is the love story of Christ. Religious people will not accept this book, for they are still eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Those who eat from the tree of life will see the fruits. The author has simply expressed himself and his love for god. And just as Jesus was persecuted for doing so, So will be the author of The Shack. Aside from the bible itself, This is the best book I’ve ever read.

Mr. Andrews references the New Testament, specifically Galatians 5:22-23 (“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”). I do not debate this, of course, nor do Mr. Challies and Mr. Holland. Perhaps more importantly, however, he also references Matthew 7:15-20:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Jesus warned that there would be false teachers who came in his name. So did Paul and Peter. It is a real concern. Christians owe it to themselves and the world to inquire who is right and who is wrong; the fact that many people find a book helpful or uplifting is not a definitive answer.

Mr. Andrews makes an additional, but common, mistake in labeling those who disagree with the book’s message or presentation (or at least some of these people) as “religious people.” What does this mean, exactly? It is popular in many Christian circles these days to use “religious” as an epithet, an insult, a way to dismiss a person’s point of view without further discussion. Everyone is religious, in some sense; nobody except for the very young and those impaired by old age or mental illness holds to no beliefs at all about ultimate things. Even those who claim agnosticism must pick one or at most a couple of belief systems by which to structure their lives; attempt to be a devout atheist, deist, theist, polytheist, pantheist, naturalist, and humanist simultaneously, and you will rapidly suffer a heart attack or a mental breakdown. Further, do “religious people” really have one mindset about this? Some of the most “religious” (by any definition) people I know are raving fans of The Shack; others consider it destructive heresy. These people go to the same churches, live remarkably similar lives, and talk to the same friends; there is no “religious” mindset that can be clearly identified here, much less used as a broad brush to sweep away criticism of a controversial book.

As a final point on what Mr. Andrews has said, nobody (that I’m aware of) is persecuting Bill Young. To my knowledge, he has not been threatened, stalked, harassed, imprisoned, beaten, assaulted, or in any way abused; he has merely been criticized. All authors are either criticized or totally ignored; no author ever gains more than a few readers without gaining a number of harsh critics, as well.

Finally, someone named Miriam posted this comment (unedited):

Well said, Bryce!

This book is not the Bible. The Bible is open to interpretation by all who read it. If this were not so, why would we have so many denominations of christian religions who can’t agree on most of the Bible? I see absolutely nothing it this book that disputes the teachings in the Bible.

Perhaps with the christian religious folks it all comes down to power and control over people by focusing on sin and repentance and this book threatens that control. The christian religious church would not have power and control to maintain their congregations if the power of God’s love were taught more than the power of God’s wrath.

As a result of reading The Shack, may the followers of Christ rise up in hope, encouragement, and build stronger relationships with The Father, The Son, The Spirit, and the humans with whom they have contact. Perhaps this book will encourage enough followers of Christ to act as such and Christians will then become known for their love and respect for all mankind rather than for their arrogance, intolerance, and their need to be “right”.

Most of what I could say on this I have already said. As for the “power and control” comments, I don’t know who she’s referring to. Anyone who really wants power and control over people’s thoughts would tap into the power of such a popular book, not fight it. In any case, the power to control another person’s thoughts is a terrible, awful burden, one I would never want to bear. The freedom to discuss and challenge each other to deeper faith and deeper understanding: that is something else, entirely. My sincere hope regarding The Shack is, has been, and will remain that people use these discussions to learn from each other and respectfully engage with the differences of opinion they find. The simple fact is that good, God-fearing people honestly disagree over whether or not The Shack presents a deity that can be reconciled with – not to mention found in – Scripture. That does not mean that those who found the book theologically disturbing can or should be dismissed as “the christian religious folks” or that those who find nothing of concern in it can be dismissed as unenlightened, ignorant, or intellectually careless. People just disagree: honestly, sincerely, and hopefully fairly and respectfully.

Finally, I confess I am not sure if Miriam means that my review and the comments of people who feel the way I do about The Shack were arrogant or intolerant. I hope not. I am simply expressing my concerns about the book here, on my personal website. It is a blog, so I do allow people to discuss what I have to say with me and with each other, including the commenters mentioned above. Intolerance, on the other hand, is an “unwilling[ness] to tolerate differences in opinions, practices, or beliefs, especially religious beliefs.” I am perfectly happy to provide a forum, through this blog, for discussion of topics like The Shack (or anything else I post on). I do hope people will use it in a manner that is respectful toward each other (I demand that much – if things get too intense, I reserve the right to lock comments on a post) and toward me (though I don’t demand that – criticism, even unhelpful and unfair criticism, I will allow).

Earlier: