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Monday, July 7, 2008

The Shack

OK, after about two months of marination, I'm finally ready to articulate a few thoughts I had about this book. This entry is a little long, so I hope you can stay with me to the end.

If anyone doesn't know, The Shack is one of the top-selling books in America right now. As of July 7th at 3:20 p.m. it is #4 on amazon, and has 738 reviews, 564 of them 5 stars. It is #1 on the New York Times Book Review Bestseller list, and a movie deal is in the offing. William Young has accomplished a truly extraordinary feat, especially for a self-published author who has written a "Christian" novel.

What's the fuss about?

The plot of the book is simple. A guy named Mack leaves an abusive father, marries a girl, and they have a few kids. One weekend he takes the kids camping, and his youngest daughter is kidnapped. Although her body is never found, the evidence is pretty conclusive that she's dead. Mack slips into what he calls "The Great Sadness," interrupted four years later by a mysterious letter in his mailbox signed "Papa" -- his wife's special name for God. Papa invites Mack to meet him in a cabin that weekend, and he agrees. Mack meets three people: an African-American woman named "Papa," a Semitic man named "Jesus," and a wifty Asian woman named "Sarayu." These are apparently the three persons of the Trinity (respectively Father, Son, Holy Spirit), and for the rest of the book Mack learns that God loves him and can bring good results out of bad circumstances. At the end of the book "Papa" (as a man) shows Mack where his daughter is buried.

People love this book. I've combed review sites and comments, asked my friends what they thought, then sat back and listened. Most answers range something along the lines of, "I finally understand God's love. I understand the Trinity. This book moves beyond religion to explain a personal relationship with the Almighty."

I have to tell you, my dear friends, that I am NOT enamored of this book. I bought it in May because I'd heard it was a successful self-published novel, but knew nothing about the book beyond that. I was a little nervous starting something so sad, but took a deep breath and dove in. The writing, I felt, was pretty good. I read up to the part where "Jesus" accidently spills soup over "Papa," and they and Sarayu laugh as they mop it up. I was so offended I threw the book down. I couldn't help thinking of the Great God of the Universe who spins galaxies and quarks and everything in between, who designed atoms and solar systems and the human body in such exquisite detail that we scientists understand virtually nothing -- nothing -- and yet, Young's "Jesus" couldn't even carry a bowl of soup without problems. How disrespectful is that?

I've since read synopses of the plot, as well as some doctrine within the book that doesn't quite square with Orthodox Christian views (there are many reviews of these; I've pasted a few links at the bottom of this entry). There are many aspects of the book that are troubling. One was the book's emphasis on humanity rather than God. For example, on page 235, Sarayu ("Holy Spirit") says to Mack,“Because you are important, everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes; with every kindness and service, seen or unseen, my purposes are accomplished and nothing will ever be the same."

I'll quote the following passage from this review:

"A number of times, God praises Mack, but not once does Mack praise God. Instead, Mack speaks to God in profanity, with sarcasm, and in disrespectful tones, which are all approved of, and even encouraged by God. In the midst of it all, God pursues one thing, a journey with Mack. The theology of The Shack presents a God who is concerned above all else with Mack’s well-being, Mack’s happiness, and Mack’s recovery. Even in forgiveness, the God of The Shack is preoccupied with the effect it will have on Mack. Encouraging Mack to forgive his daughter’s killer, Papa says, 'I want you to. Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver, to release you from something that will eat you alive; that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly.' (page 225) At one point, Mack is encouraged to talk to Papa only if he wants to (page 89) and on the day Mack is to forgive his daughter’s killer, Papa transforms into a male stating 'this morning, you’re going to need a father.'(page 219) In fact, God’s preoccupation with and
service to Mack is so great that it is to the neglect of the rest of the world and His own glory. Truly, throughout the story, God expresses concern for no one other than Mack. It is as if Mack has acquired the undivided attention of God, as if he is the only man on earth."

In my opinion, this emphasis on Man rather than God is natural for us humans, but when developing a relationship with the Lord it must be recognized and defeated. I often think of it like this: I love giving my children presents. However, if they only loved the presents I gave to them, rather than loving me, I would be very sad. I would still love them, of course, but it would be painful that my love was not returned. Similarly, God wants us to value Him, not His gifts. He doesn't want us so self-focused that we can only say "How does God make me feel? How wonderful does He think I am? What is He going to give me now?"

There is an excellent book, Bob Sjogren's Cat and Dog Theology, that explains this dichotomy very clearly.

I used to think (forgive me dear friends; I'm in a "Fools Rush In" moment) that maybe God was self-centered to insist that we focus on Him, instead of the other way around. But no. You see, God is perfect in every way, including not having any need for accolades. Rather, He recognizes that since all good things come from Him, we must focus on Him in order to have any good in our lives. This is a big theological area that I don't want to go into right now, except to say that focusing on Him is the only way that we can become fulfilled.

Aargh. Why do I always put myself in such deep waters?


Let me just finish up with this thought. The Shack packs in some heavy emotional events that make its message easier to penetrate into the mind. In fact, I just wrote about this here, although I promise I was simply explaining what I'd learned about story in general, wasn't even thinking about this book. Be that as it may, The Shack has a great deal of orthodox views mingled with small bits of "new" doctrine. Young's overlying message is Biblical: Yes, God loves us. No, He doesn't want bad things to happen. Yes, He still brings good things out of bad (Romans 8:28). However, this doesn't excuse the disrespectful portrayal of the great I AM or searching for new revelations that don't jibe with Scripture.

I fought hard for my faith, and take Scripture seriously because I'm convinced it's true. We as Christians need to "contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints." (Jude 1:3) This spring, I saw on display a Bible splattered with the blood of its owner who died defending what was within its pages. We are free to not believe what is written here, but we don't have the right to change or add new truths for a new generation.

Just my thought.


Note: here are a few reviews of The Shack that are cautionary. There are many positive reviews also available.

Chuck Colson writes about The Shack with some links at the bottom:

For a bit of a balance, here's a blog entry from someone who worked with the author to develop the manuscript:


Margo Carmichael said...

The Creator spills soup, huh? Oookaaaay.

Well, I, too, used to wonder why God would want all the praise and glory, then turn around and tell us not to have pride.

Then I saw a verse that said God created all things for His pleasure.

And the light came on. When *we* failed to please Him, He went to the cross to take away our sin so that we could please Him as we were created to do *in the first place.*

I can praise a God like that.

And capitalize His H's. LOL

I also object to what I read about _The Shack_. No, I haven't read it, either.

And I don't intend to read every attractive counterfeit of the truth that comes down the pike.

But I have read excerpts, and I read that on page 110, Jesus says He is not the only way.

But according to John 14:6, He is the only way to the Father. To Heaven.

So, _The Shack_ presents "another Jesus," which Paul strongly warns about in Galatians 1.

Good job, Amy.

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Good review, Amy. I like to hear individual reactions to the book, and I really appreciate the fact that you took so long to consider it.

Thanks for linking my blog! I'm going to link yours from my blog as well. Those who enjoy my blog will probably like yours too, give the similarity in content.

Rita said...


It sounds like you've done your homework, but you might check out this review at
The Discerning Reader, too. I found it to be very insightful, as well.

Amy Deardon said...

Rita --

I'll post that site also. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Very well done Amy. I especially liked the reference to "Cat and Dog Theology"

Krista Phillips said...


I haven't read it, but intend to at some point. I think it isn't *all* bad, and can be used as a great stepping stone for conversations (I think we've talked about that before). I guess if you can't beat it, use it:-) If anything, I think it should bring into light a new viewpoint that we need to realize is out there, and educate us on how God wants us to respond.

Loved your post!!


Leo said...

Interesting review...sounds like the author is creating a God in His own image. One can only hope that he comes to understand the True God. At least as much as is humanly possible.