Last week I finished The Shack. I did this because it seemed like everyone, EVERYONE, had read and was talking about it. I know people who read it and loved it and people who threw it across the room. So, I took the plunge to see what I think personally so I can have my own fresh thoughts about it.
I only read one helpful review of this book at Resurgence.com. You can find it here. I also listened to Al Mohler's radio program back in April before I even really knew what The Shack was. From what I remember, Mohler had some helpful things to say. You can find that audio here. Overall, I "limited myself" (no pun intended--you'll see what I mean later) to as little commentary on the book as possible. I wanted to go in as unbiased as I could so that I could actually read the book fairly, willing to acknowledge its strengths and weaknesses. So, here's what I came up with:
What is This Book For?
Ok, is this book fact or fiction? The "Forward" and the "After Words" to the book set the reader up to view this as more than just fiction. Mack is portrayed as a actual friend of William Young who wrote The Shack as the product of their friendship. Though he acknowledges that Mack's memory of the events might be unclear and lead to some inaccuracies, they are real memories nonetheless. The reader is thus encouraged to not take Mack's recollections too seriously, but to "cut him a little slack" (13)--not something you say about a work that is fictitious. Yet, everyone, including those who endorsed the work on the back cover, seem to take this as fiction all the way. In fact, the number one response to all the controversy surrounding The Shack is, "Well, it's just fiction you know" (more on that later). Yet, in the forward and afterword, the author doesn't seem to explain it as fiction. Maybe it's just me.
Also, people who like The Shack, when faced with critiques on the book, play one of two cards. First is the, "Well, it's just an allegory," card. Maybe it's just me, again, but my understanding of the definition of "allegory" is one that involves finding a deeper meaning than what is read on the surface. In other words, an allegory would cause Mack to represent something other than Mack (like, the human heart), or the wooden shack as something that stood for something more than just a wooden shack (like, my greatest fears that are unconquered), or Missy's blood-stained dress as something like the cross. With allegory nothing is taken at face value, but there is always a deeper, alternate meaning. So, though there were some occasional allegorical aspects to some of what Mack saw (like his encounter with Sophia), he had a straight-up, real vision of literal things that leave no room for alternate meanings. Pilgrim's Progress, allegory. The Shack, though having occasional allegorical pieces, for the most part it is a literal, real experience that can be taken at face value. I don't know.
The second card is the one mentioned above: "Well, you know it's just fiction." (For the record, there is a difference between allegory and fiction.) I think this is the weaker of the two responses. All "fiction" means is that the events didn't happen and the characters are not real, but just because something is fiction doesn't mean the ideas that it communicates don't have an impact or are excused from being evaluated. To put it this way, I wonder how many people who have read The Shack would say the same thing about The DaVinci Code, a book that many skeptics have erroneously used as ammo against the Christian faith. My guess is few. The same could be said of movies. It takes no time to admit that the very heart of much American (anti-Christian) ideology is birthed and nurtured by fictitous stories created by liberal Hollywood. What Christian would finish watching Brokeback Mountain and excuse its message by saying, "Well, it was just fiction?" None. Interestingly, those who play the fiction card will immediately turn around and begin telling you what they learned from the book, saying things like, "It really makes you think about how we've put God in a box." Hmm. It takes only a few seconds of reflection to realize that world history itself has been largely shaped and molded by the ideas communicated in famous plays, books, and movies--fiction has the has the powerful ability to inspire, enamor, and educate. Though The Shack overall might be fiction, the ideas it communicates are not. There is clearly a non-fictional theological system that underlies all that God says to Mack. Yet, those who love the book will be tempted to read it uncritically, praising only the good while scowling at those who point out its legitimate weaknesses.
An Answer to the Problem of Evil
Well, ultimately, this book is designed to help people think about God's relationship to great human suffering. Regardless if one walks away saying, "Oh, it's just fiction," this work is an attempt to give an answer to the problem of evil--and it's shallow to think it doesn't have an influence over how people will be inclined to give that answer. That is the main point of the book, so that's what the reviews and critiques need to focus on the most. I will say upfront that if you get caught up in scowling that the Trinity is portrayed as a big black woman, a Jewish carpenter, and a translucent, phantom-like Asian woman, you will miss the point--though I do things can be said about that arrangement. Ultimately, it is not so much how God appears as much as what God says to Mack. Too many people will be prone to making premature judgements about peripheral matters (by the way, I am not saying issues of the Trinity are a peripheral matter) and will seriously limit their ability to help people think through it's central message. So, without further ado...
What I Liked:
Some might shun me if I include what I liked about The Shack. But, I think there are some legitimate strengths about the book. Namely, the story is gripping. This is a book that you never look to see what page you are on or how far you have left to go. The opening chapters that introduce you to Mack's situation will keep you glued to the pages. Young is a good writer. Though he uses imagery that sometimes gets annoying (like, "delicious joy," 211), he's a good storyteller and knows how to build suspense. Also, I identified with Mack in his suffering. When he goes back to the shack for the first time since his daughter was killed there, he has a response that is moving. Mack is portrayed as a father who has a deep sense of guilt for not protecting his daughter, something that seems to be an easy and realistic mindset of one in his situation. Nevertheless, the book is a page-turner. Unfortunately, it seems to be so good that it has the ability to cause people to think lightly of the questionable message it sends about God's relationship to suffering. Nevertheless, I can see why this book is on the New York Times Bestseller List.
There were other things that were good about The Shack. For instance, the book does well at affirming that one can trust a loving God during confusing times of intense hardship and pain. Also, Mack encounters "Sophia," a personification of God's wisdom where he learns not to sit in judgment of how God handles an evil world. Both of these biblical principles are constantly affirmed in The Shack and are worth acknowledging as a legitimate strengths.
Also, one can walk away from The Shack with the affirmation that God cares deeply about human suffering and will never turn his back on a hurting, hating, confused, doubting, and angry individual. That's a great thing and it's communicated clearly.
There are more things that could be said, but overall I didn't find the book as appalling as some. It was a book with legitimate strengths and weaknesses. Though I wouldn't necessarily recommend a suffering Christian to read The Shack (see below), it was worth reading for the sake of knowing what all the hype is about.
God's Relationship to Evil:
Though every book has strengths and weaknesses, there are sometimes certain weaknesses that are of such significance that they eclipse the legitimate strengths that might be present. Unfortunately, I think this is the case with The Shack. Let me explain.
My biggest concern with the Shack is it's theodicy (explanation of the problem of evil in relation to God).
Here are some answers given by "Papa" about evil and suffering:
Mack asks: "But I still don't understand why Missy had to die."
Response: "She didn't have to Mackenzie. This was no plan of Papa's. Papa has never needed evil to accomplish his good purposes. It is you humans who have embraced evil and Papa has responded with goodness" (165)
Also, Papa says,
"Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn't mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don't ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions of me" (185).
Now, if I am reading Scripture rightly, Job would disagree. All 10 of Job's children were killed and his response was, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21). The author says that Job did not sin by acknowledging this. Also, after Job is covered in boils from head to toe he says, "Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?" (2:10). The narrator of the account furthermore reveals that, though Satan was the immediate agent responsible for Job's affliction, God takes credit (2:3). The end of the narrative refers to "all the adversities that the Lord had brought upon [Job]" (42:11). Though God is not evil and does not rejoice when His creatures experience major suffering, He does orchestrate evil and suffering to accomplish His purposes. Contrary to The Shack, the true God is not a cosmic custodian, merely cleaning up evil as it occurs. God did not just "work good" out of the Genesis flood, He caused it to happen. In other places, He is explicitly said to will suffering (1 Pet. 3:17) and grant it (Phil. 1:29). Most of all, God is said to have ordained the most heinous sin the world has ever seen: the murder of His own Son (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). Yet, God does not do this out of tyrannical cruelty. He does it in wisdom and love, orchestrating all events for the glory of Christ. Unlike "Papa," the God of Scripture would not lift up His (or her) hands in complete denial.
Joseph would agree (Gen. 50:20)
See some good quotes on suffering and the sovereignty of God here.
A Low Perspective on the Perspicuity (Clarity) of Scripture:
The second biggest problem I have with The Shack is that it would just take what I said and affirm that I am "putting God in a box," forcing Him into my preconceived, thus unreliable, seminary influenced notions. Let me explain.
Mack is portrayed as a seminary alum (9). So, according to Young, he has a decent knowledge of the Bible and theology. So, was his seminary education helpful to Mack during all this? Not so much.
When Mack shockingly meets Papa as an African-American woman, he is taken aback. When he observes her with headphones listening to secular "funk" and sees her dancing and clapping, he is all the more confused. The narrator remarks, "Mack struggled to keep up with her, to make sense of what was happening. None of his old seminary training was helpful in the least" (91). Statements like this are made throughout the book.
This casts a shadow on the ability of Scripture to communicate clearly about who God is. The reason I know is because the typical "lesson" that people learn from The Shack is how they have unknowingly put God in a box--the unavoidable implication is that they have done so by letting Scripture determine their view of God. Worrying that Scripture may be a hindrance to your relationship with God will have unfortunate affects to your spiritual walk. I want to be open to what Young is trying to convey. Yes, God can do anything and can't be contained "in a box." Yes, when we see Him face to face we will be in awe in so many unimaginable ways--even realizing we were wrong about some stuff. There is no doubt that many use theological systems to do harm and disfigure the true nature of God. Yet, Jesus' (the biblical Jesus) view is nothing short of full blown confidence in the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. The Jesus of Scripture would encourage us to use the Bible to discern who God is. My fear is that many who read "Papa's" comments will take them as formative to their own spiritual walk, seeing any appeal to Scripture as something that confines and limits God's ability to be God.
Here is a list of other things that I consider minor concerns. By "minor concern" I simply mean that these things do not make up the main point of the book. I still take them seriously, but they are not something to expound on at this time.
Borderline universalism and/or pluralism - 162, 182
View of sin and judgment (God does not punish sin, he only lets sin punish us) - 119-20
Missy's killer is a "child of God" - 224
Hypothetical atonement - 191-92, 225
The explanation for why God is depicted as the father in Scripture - 94
God the Father suffered at the cross? - 95
"Limiting" language - 106, 224
Trinitarian hierarchy - 121-123
A giggly, rock-skipping, boyish Jesus (168-69) who you can playfully "push aside" (175) and "scowl" at (204).
Mack begins to love Jesus more for his playfulness and light sense of humor rather than His lordship - 176
"Especially fond of you" language - 91, 118-119
Satan? The Shack attributes all evil in the world to the independence of mankind - 190, 165
In the end, an interesting statement comes on page 98:
"The problem is that many folks try to grasp some sense of who I am by taking the best version of themselves, projecting that to the nth degree, factoring in all the goodness they can perceive, which often isn't much, and then call that God."
Hmmm, I agree, a little too much. Again, I can see what is being said, but I can't help but think that this is the most ironic statement in the entire book.
In the end, I don't think I would reach for The Shack to give someone as I look for literature to help them understand God's relation to suffering and evil. No matter how passionate you are about the love of God, it is better for your spiritual growth to believe in a sovereign God who lovingly ordains spectacular evil for the glory of Christ. God's sovereignty does not contradict God's love, it magnifies it.
For a more biblical view of God's relation to evil and suffering, there is no better book in my opinion than Jerry Bridges Trusting God. Next to that would be John Piper's Spectacular Sins. For a robust articulation of the glory of the person and being of God, see Piper's The Pleasures of God, or J.I. Packer's Knowing God.
So, there you have it. The next Pilgrim's Progress? I think that is a bit of an overstatement by Eugene Peterson (see front cover of the book). My challenge to all who have read and love The Shack is to read Pilgrim's Progress next to see allegory at it's best and most biblical.
Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Let me know.