Saturday, January 31, 2009

Some Thoughts on The Shack

As of today, The Shack has been #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List for 36 straight weeks. At the time of this writing, The Shack was the #6 best-selling book of all categories on

I cannot remember when I've finished a book and then promptly began it a second time the very next day, but that's exactly what I did with The Shack a couple of weeks ago. I finished my second reading of the book a few days ago.

I found the book to be quite powerful. Realizing that the book is controversial, I nevertheless am giving the book a qualified recommendation and am encouraging my friends to read it discerningly.

Some of the critiques that one reads of Young's work are theological. I do not believe it's invalid to criticize the theology behind a creative piece of fiction, but I do think it's unrealistic to expect comprehensive systematic theology from such a work. Some things are simply not addressed in a work of fiction that we would expect to be addressed in systematics. And so I'm hesitant to agree with those critiques that have foundation in a charge of incompleteness. Nevertheless, I did find theological shortcomings in the book though I also appreciated other aspects of the work.

I did not agree with all of the comments in the book regarding authority and hierarchy. I got the impression from reading The Shack that all hierarchy is an unmitigated wrong. I, on the other hand, believe loving authority is not only legitimate on earth but that we also see it in the Godhead (in distinction from what Sarayu claims on p. 122).

I also was not sure what Young was getting at when he had Jesus say that He did not wish for folks to become Christians (p. 182). I have no problem with anyone saying that organized Christianity does not always equal true Christianity, but Jesus comments here seemed to be overstatement.

One critique of The Shack is that it promotes Ultimate Reconciliation (UR). When I read the book, I wondered about this myself. My feeling is that the book had the flavor of Ultimate Reconciliation. Moreoever, Young's story collaborator Wayne Jacobsen in his article Is THE SHACK Heresy? asserts earlier drafts of the the book did reflect William P. Young's leanings toward Ultimate Reconciliation at that time.

However, Jacobsen writes, "While some of that was in earlier versions because of the author’s partiality at the time to some aspects of what people call UR, I made it clear at the outset that I didn’t embrace UR as sound teaching and didn’t want to be involved in a project that promoted it." However, Jacobsen also implies in his article that the collaborative process itself had an affect on Young's theological views including, it would see, any predispositions Young had toward UR. And I believe Young when I have heard him say emphatically in subsequent interviews that he believes in Hell.

Regarding the critique that the book does not accurately convey the Trinity, for myself I was not looking for it to definitively portray the Trinity. It's a work of creative fiction and clearly the author took some liberties. When I have taught theology I have told my students that the day that I explain the Trinity to them in such a way that they go, "Ok, now I get it! That makes perfect sense" that is the day that they can be assured that I have no idea what I'm talking about. We should not be shocked that our finite minds cannot completely comprehend the One Who is infinite. And I felt that there was a definite tension in Young's portrayal of the Trinity that was consistent with the mystery of "God in three persons." But do I think Young got it right? No, of course not. But I do feel that he gave an interesting portrait of God.

One aspect of the book I appreciated was the honest treatment of the most difficult theological question encapsulated in Mackenzie's terrible tragedy: Why would a loving, all-powerful being allow six-year-old Missy to be brutally murdered? I was satisfied that Young did not attempt to provide a definitive theodicy but that in the book the author gave some hints toward an answer that had to do with humanity's freedom to choose. I personally believe that a completely satisfying theodicy is not possible this side of the Jordan. I appreciated that Young did not wrap this theological problem up in a artificially contrived bow.

But perhaps the aspect of the book I appreciated the most was the portrayal of God's personal involvement with Mack. I do believe that God's omnipotence implies his ability to deal with each of his creatures with loving individuality. It was moving to see Young's portrayal of this.

And so I found the book helpfully provocative but I am sensitive to, and in some cases sympathetic with, those who might critique its theology in places. I am also open to being shown that I have missed theological deficiencies in the book that should be highlighted.

But all these concerns expressed, I cautiously recommend The Shack as one way to helpfully challenge our paradigm of God in a way that might lead to a fuller understanding of Him.

Other Information Available Online About The Shack:


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Wulf said...

I think that's a very good and balanced review... mind you, I would, as it pretty much reflects my own feelings about the book. Thanks for taking the time to write it down in a coherent fashion.

Shari said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book, Stephen. I agree with you that, because it's *fiction* there's room for the author to take creative liberties. It's a novel not a textbook. I've been stuck at the midpoint for about a year. I just don't care for the writing style, and haven't felt motivated to continue. BUT, I definitely appreciate the themes that the author expresses.

actionsub said...

Your responses to "The Shack" were similar to mine on reading McLaren's
"The Last Word", where Casey composed a fact sheet for Pastor Dan on different commentators on Hell. McLaren created one of the quotes himself, then had Casey comment "This is what Neo believes and so do I." In the context of the NKOC series where this author has constantly urged his readers to think for themselves; to imbue his particular view with a distinct authority in the manner he did came across a bit heavy-handed.
And I felt the same way about "The Shack". Between the hype of many readers claiming it was "THE most life-changing thing I ever read!" and a writing style which made it less of a parable and more of a polemic, I was really quite under-whelmed.

Allan said...

Since I'm about to read The Shack, thanks for the review. Also, thanks for the link to UR ... I didn't know what it was ...

Andrew said...

Ha! I read the shack the first time and then promptly picked it up for the second time TWO HOURS LATER!

Take that!

Also, I can't believe I've only just now found your blog. You're now on my blogroll, friend!


Stephen said...


You've got me beat!

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks, Stephen, for this helpful post!
Stephen Shields, in another of his very helpful reviews and compendiums of what other people are saying on the internet, offers Some Thoughts on The Shack]]