Two New eBooks at Amazon Kindle!

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The Shack, by William P. Young, has taken the country by storm – to date selling more than one million copies largely on the strength of word-of-mouth marketing. It’s a novel about a man’s encounter with God while he attempts to deal with “The Great Sadness” that has entered his life. The sadness is the loss of his child.

The Shack is a publishing phenomenon (beginning with a $200 marketing budget and books shipped from a friend’s garage) and has so far generated more than one thousand book reviews on Amazon’s website, and probably as many critiques, both positive and negative. The latter range from reviews citing a few questions about the book to reviews alleging new age conspiracies, or worse. Clearly, many evangelical theologians are genuinely concerned about whether the book promotes universalism in terms of salvation, false views of the Trinity, under-developed views of God, and several other theological issues.

I’ll offer a few comments, but first, a reminder. Remember that the act of publishing is an act inviting response. You may write and never publish, so your writing remains private and personal. But to publish is by definition to make known, to share, to broadcast, and to invite readers and responders. So if you’re thin-skinned, don’t publish.

In a lofty but important sense, the opportunity to publish is an exercise of freedom of speech. We live, God be praised, in a free country, so we may speak openly, freely, and often. In addition, The Shack is a publication dealing with religious ideas, so the author not only benefits from freedom of speech but also freedom of religion.

Consequently, to discuss or even possibly to disagree with content in The Shack is not a threatening or unwarranted action. To discuss The Shack is an opportunity to participate in the exercise of the most precious ideals of a free, pluralistic, and democratic society. This we should celebrate even as we critique not the person but the merits of his ideas.

Comment One: Now, what do I think of The Shack? I was not offended by the book, but I didn’t like it much either. This admission says more about my reading preferences than it does the merits of this book. Though my reading habits are eclectic this kind of fiction is not what I typically enjoy reading.

Comment Two: The book is an allegory, a fictional metaphor, like Aesop’s Fables, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s an attempt to help people understand something about God via a story written from an angle and featuring characters that are, to say the least, not traditional, common, or expected.

Since this book is fiction, and unlike authors of The DaVinci Code or The Celestine Prophecy, Young never claims The Shack is anything other than fiction, we might try to lighten up. In other words, jeremiads are not in order. A number of Christians are over-reacting. The Shack will follow a pattern, here for a little while then fade. Certainly The Shack is less spiritually or theologically threatening than books like Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which is spiritual mumbo-jumbo.

Comment Three: The Shack is a theodicy, an examination of the problem of evil, an attempt to convey a theology of pain and suffering relative to the existence of a just God, like the Old Testament Book of Job. One of the reasons Young’s book has sold so many copies is that it strikes a chord with people who’ve suffered loss – and who, if they’ve lived long enough, hasn’t suffered loss? The book also strikes a chord via its interesting and engaging story in a time when people are looking for something soothing in the face of global terror, economic volatility, and numerous social pathologies, from random violence to rampant substance abuse and more.

Comment Four: But I have some quibbles with the book, for example, the legend of the beautiful Indian maid, the Multnomah Princess (pp. 27-31). In the book you’ll find the following (slightly abridged here) dialogue:

“Is the story true?”

“I don’t know, Kate. It’s a legend and sometimes legends are stories that teach a lesson.”

“So, it didn’t really happen?”

“It might have sweetie. Sometimes legends are built on real stories, things that really happen.”

“So is Jesus dying a legend?”

“No, honey, that’s a true story; and do you know what? I think the Indian princess story is probably true too.”

I know this book is fiction, but I do not like the fact that the author equates the redemption story of Scripture with pagan ideas about human sacrifice. No human being, no matter his or her noble motive, can sacrifice himself or herself for the sins of others. To believe this is to embrace paganism.

Sure, we know many stories of heroic self-sacrifice, to the point of giving life for one’s loved ones, but these stories do not result in someone’s eternal soul salvation. And they only involve physical healing in the sense that the hero was able to reach some form of essential medical help necessary to spare the afflicted.

No, human beings cannot sacrifice themselves for the sins of others and to place the Bible’s redemptive story on an equivalent level with a legend is not accurate or wise. This is one reason The Shack is not a good book for the theologically uninitiated, for new Christians, or for non-believers seeking spiritual truth. Young’s portrayal of Christ and of God is incomplete and at best inconsistent.

Comment Five: I also did not agree with characterization of politics, economics, religion, religious activity, and patriotism as just so many humanly-devised systems that control and trap us (thus bad, evil, or to be avoided?), while freedom in Christ liberates us from all these things (pp. 179-181). This is the author’s way of explaining “in the world, not of the world,” but he offers the old sacred/secular dichotomy. A biblical worldview encompasses all these systems, which God ordained and which are no more evil in themselves than money is evil. People’s sin is what taints these systems. People’s right actions before God are what can develop them for God’s glory. Young’s perspective sounds like the traditional-but-theologically erroneous campfire song, “This world is not my home. I’m just a passin’ through…”

Comment Six: I especially did not like the Jesus character’s rejection of the word “Christian” (p. 182). This is problematic at best and makes no sense to me. It is confusing, biblically askew in its conjecture, and simply unnecessary. The followers of Christ were first called Christians at Antioch and it is a worthy and still-accurate term.

Comment Seven: The Shack is questionable in other ways as well. It suggests we can see the afterlife and talk with the dead, that uncertainty is preferable to certainty (a key element of postmodern thought but one human beings simply cannot live with or live by), that what really matters is God loves everyone—not who God is, what he expects of us, who we are in sin, how we must confess, and how we may be redeemed. In the end, the story is warm and fuzzy but it’s not biblical Christianity, not genuine theodicy, and not an allegory worthy of listing alongside Pilgrim’s Progress or The Chronicles of Narnia.

Concluding Comment: All this said, I am not apoplectic about this book. You can find compelling thoughts about God and humanity in this book, ones from which we can learn. But this book is not one I’d recommend to a person unfamiliar with the Bible, at least not implying this book presents a full or accurate picture of God or biblical Christianity.

I do think that people who have criticized book stores for carrying The Shack are off-base. Conservative Christians too often look for someone else to do their thinking for them. A Christian book store, just like a Christian university or a church, is not and cannot be held accountable (though some may try) for the fact that individual Christians too often abrogate their own responsibility before God to do their own thinking and make spiritually discerning moral choices. Just like with the rest of life, you and I must decide what it means to be “In the World, Not of the World.”


© Dr. Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2008

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