Thursday, July 24, 2008

Book Review: The Shack

The Shack is a book I was peripherally aware of but never intended reading. It is one of those "inspiring" Christian novels that seem to be always floating out there in conversation and on blogs. I rarely am interested in them as they usually have both sloppy writing and sloppy theology. (Hey, let's tell it like it is ... we hoe a Catholic row 'round here!)

Then a friend told me how much she liked it and lent me her copy.

Essentially, The Shack is the story of a family that has suffered the tragedy of having their six-year-old daughter kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer. They are suffering from all the reactions one can imagine, from intense sadness and guilt to extreme anger with God for allowing this to happen. Mack, the father, finds a mysterious card in the mailbox one day. It appears to be from God and invites him to come to the shack where the last evidence was found of his daughter, a blood-stained dress. When Mack gets there he encounters the Trinity in a Narnia-style adventure that strives to inform about God and our relationship to Him.

With one eye open for things that would lead me away from Church teachings, I plunged in. This is clearly a book written by someone who has not studied the craft, but who is passionate about how we can better be in a relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I found much to praise, inspire, and ponder in the first two-thirds of the book. The author's own obvious enthusiasm is communicated to the reader in an imaginative setting that helps the reader to grasp a bit better the Trinitarian God, Jesus as fully human and fully God, and our relationship to God as humans. At times this dips far enough into sentimentality while making a point that it leaves the reader wincing. However, overall I was intrigued and swept up in the way that love and relationship with God were being expressed and explained to Mack. I especially enjoyed the personification of the Trinity and that of Wisdom. (On a side note, I would be very curious to hear from any well-catechized Catholics who have read this and could comment on how this view of the Trinity falls into line with Catholic teachings.)

There were some glaring problems in the last third of the book, however. One such problem is in the author's lack of honesty in story telling when Mack finally asks Jesus about his daughter's fear and suffering at her kidnapper's hand. In a story that is supposedly about how one deals with true evil in the world, the answer glossed over any semblance of reality in a fashion that practically screamed "I can't answer this so let's just not deal with it." The author lost a golden opportunity to do some real good in giving people a chance to wrestle with this issue.

Additionally, when Mack leaves the shack and reenters reality, the family's story is sped to a satisfactory conclusion a la, "a shot rang out and everyone fell dead." As the essence of the book is found in the shack this can be understood but it left a somewhat unfinished feeling for this reader.

However, as I was not expecting much literary virtue from the author in the first place, my main problems came from the divergences between his representation of Christianity and mine as a faithful Catholic. The book suddenly takes a turn into an almost New Age mentality and I'm not just talking about the night scene where Mack is given the gift of "true sight." There is a repeated disdain expressed especially by Jesus for churches and religion as "institutions" and "buildings." Jesus tells Mack at one point of his love for his bride, the Church. He then explains that he isn't talking about what people call "church" but about every person who believes and has a relationship with him ... including Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus. While I am on board with the idea that other faiths have relationships with God (as is the Catholic Church), as a Catholic I know that we have Jesus present with us in the Eucharist. This is not simply symbolism but true presence, body and blood, soul and divinity. That is the entire reason for the Church and for any Catholic church building in the first place ... as a meeting place with Jesus in physical form. Even taken from the Protestant understanding (as I am aware of it) this is a clear disdain for the church as "community," which is what God has been talking about for a good portion of the book. Despite the "broken world" explanations given to Mack, one winds up with the feeling that if we would all waft through life just loving God and being all that we can be, then eventually we'd all wind up holding hands and singing together.

Once I read The Internet Monk's review and discovered that the author is of the "emergent church" persuasion much more about the problems I had became clear. I encourage you to read the Internet Monk's review which reflects much of my own reaction to the book. Here's a bit, but please go read it all.
Young is not a master of elegant prose (though his descriptions of the indescribable are well done), but he is wonderfully passionate about the love of God. This is a book that will leave certain aspects of the Gospel indelible impressed on the reader: the nature of the Trinity, God’s personal love for us, the meaning of trust and forgiveness, and the constant creative presence of the Holy Spirit. Young takes many chances, and while not all of them pay off equally, those that do are pretty magnificent. ( I can’t remember setting in a classroom and being moved to tears by a novel before, certainly not one in the “Christian” market.)

Those inclined to look for emerging church error or general heresy won’t be disappointed, and I am sure Young enjoys some of this theological and traditional mischief. I’d recommend putting up the doctrine gun for the duration of this book, and letting the story entertain and explore. This isn’t a confession or a catechism, but it is something a lot of people will read and absorb. It is difficult to not be drawn into the central character’s “Great Sadness,” and the transforming experience that sends him back into the world a changed man is one all readers will find themselves envying. If you can read this book as what it was meant to be, and not as a chapter of someone’s Systematics, it will work on the level we most need such a story: our own sense of intimacy with God.
I did enjoy this book and definitely am going to reread it, if for no other reason than many of the things in it are true and inspiring. However, this is a work of fiction and the reader is warned not to swallow the author's occasionally dubious theology whole and adapt it as their own. As the Internet Monk says, it is a work that can help inspire our own intimate relationship with God. If we take that message and actually use it in our prayer and daily life, not merely read it and feel good, then The Shack can be of great use to any Christian.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

The first time I read "The Shack" I was so offended that it went against Biblical truth that I wrote a 19 page review on it. (And believe me it could have been longer) I never posted it, just sent it to friends and family to warn them. Since so many people loved the book I read it again, thinking that maybe my understanding of the book was incorrect. After reading it the second time I was even more offended. How people can call themselves followers of Christ and then turn their backs on Him and His Words so easily has dumbfounded me.

I have been an avid reader of Christian Fiction for over 25 years. This book is by far the worst and most blasphemous I have ever read.

Red flags go up when people say "it's only fiction" or "it takes God out of a box". For starters it's not only fiction. It's a thesis on the character and definition of God. If it were just a novel no one would read it because it's not a good story and it's poorly written. Remember Jesus used stories to convey Truth and "The Shack" attempts to do the same thing but of course falls very short. Secondly God has never been in a box. People are in a box when they choose to follow religion instead of Jesus Christ. God is way above our ability to to be humanized and placed within the confines of natural thought as William Young tries to do. This, of course, is nothing new. Satan has been preaching this same message for six thousand years.

Young is no doubt an Anarchist and has a great disdain for order and authority. The topic appears quite often throughout the book so the point is not vague or glossed over. His respect for Jacques Ellul confirms this.

Here are a few things you'll confront when reading The Shack. I've made them brief so this won't take up the rest of your day.

Everyone goes to heaven even if you're not a follower of Christ. (That alone is enough reason to reject the book)

You do not have to be born-again to have a relationship with Christ.

You can be Mormon, Jehovah Witness, Buddhist, Muslim or whatever. It doesn't matter to God. He doesn't want to make anyone a Christian.

The god of The Shack is not the God of The Bible.

Oprha would love it.

God does not want us to serve Him.

God is our servant.

There is no evil. (The book contradicts this at times)

Satan and demons do not exist.

The husband is not the head in marriage.

Hierarchy is man-made and God does not approve.

God does not desire for us to be obedient to Him.

Guilt is bad and does not direct a person to Christ.

Universalists would love it.

Although the Father is always given the male attribute in Scripture, The Shack makes Him female.

Jesus does not live in His glorified state but as fully human.

Wisdom is an actual person.

God does not have a miraculous way to relieve you of your pain.

The Holy Spirit has a body.

The Holy Spirit does not empower us to live holy lives.

Papa (Father God) has scars on his wrists just like Jesus does because He was crucified too.

When Mack started reading the Bible in bed God came and took it from him. (Hmmm?)

Freedom is an incremental process, not immediate.

During an entire weekend with Mack, God never once quoted or referred to Scripture in a positive light.

God does not want us to fully comprehend Him.

The Father did not grieve when Jesus went to the cross.

God is afraid of guns and anti-war. (Throw out the Old Testament).

God is an environmentalist. (Throw out both Testaments, especially the book of Revelation)

The New Jerusalem is not literal even though the Bible gives its measurements.

The Emergent church would fall for this book easily.

God lives in us and we in Him (literally).

God is not to be feared.

God does not find more pleasure in those who love Him then those who do not.

God does not punish or discipline anyone for sin.

God is not a God of wrath.

Jesus is not under the Fathers authority.

God is not a God of order.

We are not in a spiritual battle.

We are to keep our eyes on the present and not on eternity.

Jesus thinks it's amusing when we curse.

The awesome God of the universe is submissive to us.

We are not called to be like Jesus. He was not intended to be our example.

There is no final judgment.

Sophia (Wisdom) uses human thought to teach that there are no judgments.

Sophia is part of the mystery of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus did not come to build the church.

"Religious folk" don't understand the Trinity.

We don't need to ask forgiveness when we sin. Once on the cross was enough.

God is reconciled to the whole earth, even those who don't believe and/or reject His Lordship.

The Ten Commandments were not given to help us live righteously.

The Law does not point out our sin anymore.

The Commands of God are evil and if used causes man to feel superior.

God does not have any expectations for us therefore He is never displeased with us.

God does not want us to put Him first. (or make Him Lord)

Humans respond to one another in colors.

God "messes" with us.

God does not forget our sins.

No evangelism is required, just relationships.

I think that's enough. Some of these you may agree with and some you may not. I find these views of God to be unbiblical and not of God. You don't have to be a great theologian to see this. The Shack feeds on people's emotions and hurts. It creates a big problem (the murder of a child and the dissatisfaction with organized church) so it can preach a message that sounds and feels good therefore making it easy for the ignorant to fall for it easily. It is not based on Truth. Are there problems in the church today? Of course. But don't you think God would know that was going to happen when He started the church. All human institutions are flawed because they have people in them. The Shack is not the answer to these problems. Read The Word and find a church that adheres to it. Eventually the dead churches will die off and the living ones will flourish. Eventually we will all stand before the Father and give account, each one individually. Don't let The Shack be your guide.

I quote Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14 "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."

Do yourself a favor and skip this book. Look at some of my reviews if you're looking for good Christian fiction. May I suggest "Safely Home" by Randy Alcorn if you want a good book on the church and what God has called us to.

Anonymous said...

Re: Anonymous "the first time..."
Bottom line: your legalistic self-styled othodoxy is at least as bad as the theological loosy goosiness of The Shack - but at least the latter presents itself as fiction. If you want to caution others against extreme liberalism, avoid the extreme reaction - otherwise it just doesn't work and you've wasted yoru words.

Anonymous said...

The Shack is not the Bible, but it is an inspiring story that will impress many people. The story is indeed affecting, well-thought out, but it is ultimately too short to fully flesh out and philosophize about the grand topics that it addresses. In the end, the work serves three main purposes:

1) inspire readers to a closer relationship through God using the vehicle of the perennial question "why do bad things happen to good and innocent people and children?";

2) argue that the degree to which our relationships with one another mirror Christ's love and commandment to "love one another as I have loved you" is more important to God and one's eternal soul than a) our worldly accomplishments and sucesses and b) our degree of adherence to church "doctrine", rules, and rituals;

3) court controversy by some (perhaps) deliberately provacative commentary directed at the so-called church "establishment".

This novel is not a bible unto itself and does not address the universe of Christ's teachings and message. However, if it succeeds in bringing someone back to a church after tragedy and inspires them to seek a closer walk with God, it will be a success.

jojobearlane@gmail.com said...

You don't understand what the aurthor of the shack is trying to say at all he is not saying that god is male or female he is no tsaying that god is human. he is trying to give you a veiw of a family in pain at loosing a child that they loved and that god is unfair and why is he unfair so in this veiw god has decided that his child needs him and that he can no longer stand by while people suffer and lay blame he decide's to show himself to mack in human form to try and explain why life love and the world is the way it is he shows himself to mack as a woman not because he is trying to say god is a woman but because at that moment in time mack needed the image of a woman to help him deal with his pain and hatred of a world and a god who had stole his childs life so early he then shows himself as a man he does this because mack now needs a father to help him understand the final sequences of life. i believe in god very much but i do believe that god made us as a vision of himself and if he made us as a vision of himself then in that fact then god is both male and female. it seems there are so many people who believe that god is only male but if he made us all in his image then how did he come up with the idea of woman if we were not also made in his image making god both the mother and the father and making the virgin mary only the human vessile to give life to his son

Anonymous said...

You should not have said anything even remotely positive about a book that has an anti-Catholic view of the trintity, a bizarre christology and is hostile to the hierarchical church and organized religion in general.

It is a horrible book that will take people away from the community and sacraments that the church provides and replace it with so much fluff and mumbo jumbo.

It is just one more primer and apologia for "do it yourself" new age religion.

Anonymous said...

I am a Catholic, and I find it really sad when I read such angry, judgemental, divisive and cold commentaries on behalf of what is thought to be orthodoxy. It's enought to put anyone off! What matters is not cleaning your own house and discussing it self-righteously with your house mates, but reaching out humbly to other people who may not 'get it' and are drawn by human warmth and humour and humility. Faith is a gift to be shared gently and in knowledge of our own lack of understanding.

Anonymous said...

I am also a Catholic and agree with the previous comment. I loved this book. I thought the theme of the breadth of God's love was such an important reminder. For me, it answered so many questions, as well as opening up new ways of thinking of things. Another book I recently read builds on this: Gita Nazareth's Forgiving Ararat. This book too explores themes of judgment and forgiveness and love in the face of violence. As a fan and publicist for this book, I'm interested to see what parallels are drawn between the two.

Missy Allets said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I felt the story could start many people talking about God and prayer but I never forgot it was intended to be just a story. When we as fallible humans start judging things as if we have the power and knowledge God does on how things will be used, then we are limiting God to those things we can think of.
I don't necessary mean that I am a big fan of The Shack, rather I would suggest people to read with an open mind.
Like the commenter above, I too have read Forgiving Ararat and loved it. Forgiving Ararat is an intelligent read that delves into the matter of religion, history, politics as well as the emotional struggle. For me, what Nazareth did was providing the room and seeds for debate, prompting readers to ponder and question long after the last pages. And that was what struck all the right notes for me.

Anonymous said...

Doctrinal issues (of which there are many) aside, my main problem with the book is that it simply does not do what it promises to--that is, "wrestle with the timeless question, 'Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?'" It dances around the issue, certainly. But ultimately the only answer we are given is "[actively interfering in your circumstances] was not an option for reasons you cannot possibly understand now."

Bluntly, reading this book is a waste of time.

Anonymous said...

Really, I am shocked that people are talking church doctrine and stuff. The book wasn't written to be a bible or the catechism, it's FICTION! Really, people??!!

I guess different people get different things out of the book. For me, it helped me understand terrible tragedies in our world. It also painted a pretty good picture of God's love for us. I never once thought about it changing my faith, so if you are strong in your beliefs than you will only get the good from in. I am no book critic, so I never once picked up on themes that some people picked up on, such as that satan and demons don't exist. If anything, it helped me to love God even more because it helped me realize just how much he loves all of us. God is mysterious, so it's impossible for a person to know what he is thinking. Why would people take this author's words as the truth, I don't know??? Read the bible, people, if you are looking for God's word!

myrna said...

I think people have a way of understanding the book. . as for me it helped me love God ever more. . God really works in a mysterious ways. . .

Anonymous said...

This was a great book. If you are fine with your belief and looking for an entertaining read - this is it.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and it did not shake my ideas or understanding of the Catholic Church teaching on the trinity. I thought there were a lot of beautiful touches.

The people above who seem soooo angry should just relax. It is a fictional book that probably has helped many people think more about their faith, God, injustice, pain and suffering. Is that a bad thing?

I recommend the book to anyone. Don't try to disect every little thing. It is a good story. It is not trying to change everything you ever thought.

Peace!!!

Anonymous said...

I think if you want to deal with tragedy and pain and the question of "why to horrible things happen to us" - they you might want to pick up a copy of "Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence" - sure, it's almost 500 years old, and it's not "light" reading, or fiction, and it's more like reading Shakespeare - but it's got more Truth in a tiny volume than I've ever found in any book I've ever found before in my life! The big problem with this book was, as other said, it totally tap-danced around the Big Question - that Rabbi Kushner asked so poignently, "Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People?" - and what Divine Providence says is because God allows them - and not because He is a mean, or vengeful god - but because He loves us - so much, that He will allow us to suffer - just as He allowed His own Son to suffer and die - because it is better than the alternative - everlasting suffering - that suffering we experience saves us from something worse - either it teaches us something, or brings us closer to Him, or strengthes us, or sanctifies, us, or removes something from our lives that would have destroyed us, or even if it is the death of a child - we don't know - maybe that child is saved from perditions unimaginable - and is now in Heaven - because of that suffering - that was really an act of mercy. We have to trust that God knows what He is doing. And the book asks - how can you trust a doctor or a dentist with your flesh - but not God, who actually made your flesh, and the whole of Creation? It's a great book... If you get a chance, try to find it.

Anonymous said...

I read it in a day...then read it again the next day. I loved the book. I especially liked they way he used Sophia to show Papa's love for his children by making Mack choose between his own children...
Everyone in my family has read it and we all have said that this is a book that profoundly moved us to a better understanding of God...
ANd thats what is suppose to be all about, isn't it?

Julie D. said...

UNLESS it leads us to a false understanding of God, which is why we must read with discernment. And why I had the objections that I did. :-)

Anonymous said...

If you like “The Shack” and “The Secret” You will love this New and upcoming books making a stir. The best one I have heard about and I pre-ordered it already is a book by a unknown author titled THE TRUTH “The Illumination of Conscience” the title itself stirs up a sense of intrigue. The one chapter that the author has available on his website http://www.thetruthbooksite.com seems very thought provoking and gives you a profound sense of understanding of how our world works. I look forward to getting the book and reading the rest. In anycase it is well worth checking out for yourself.

The Big KC said...

Why is the first person posting as Anonymous....Anonymous? Wm. Paul Young penned a fine tale that has made many people think more about God (The Holy Trinity)and their religious beliefs. The book has made some readers question the need for an organized "religion" at all.
Aren't we all simply the human manifestation of God? Why must we organize ourselves into groups that publish the rules which they believe we must follow. If we open our hearts, our creator will reveal all that is needed. Anonymous....please take your anger, and rechannel that energy to reflect on what is in your own heart. God is you, and you are God. Thinking and acting otherwise is disrespectful of all that is.

Unknown said...

1st Anonymous, thank you for your review. I will definitely not bother with this book. People who have a problem with the hierarchy of the Church (the one started by Jesus Christ, himself 2000 years ago), are ignorant or just defiant to the history of the Church, and the traditions handed down. I've come across many books that sound, for the most part, fine, but every so often they insert a line/paragraph that is not in line with Church teaching. It may be a fictional book, but why put ideas other that what Church teaches into our heads. I will not see the DaVinci Code for this reason- no matter how good the story may be. Thanks, again, for the time you took to put your reasons for not liking the book down.

utdes said...

This was a subtle New Age indoctrination book for all the reasons listed by the first anonymous blogger. I read the first several chapters with complete boredom hoping it would get better. The style of writing was very base and the story itself quite predictable.

As a devout and prayerful Catholic, my first response, without having had a chance to refer to the Bible or to the Catechism, is to rely on my gut and the quiet nudges of the Holy Spirit to set my path aright. The road to "The Shack" is NOT "aright". I scanned the rest of the book and found error after error and a sense of the New Age watering down in its theology. Contrary to the claim that the book is fiction, which of course it is, it is written as a Christian parable by a person who claims a Christian leadership title and therefore making Mr. young accountable to leading his followers astray.
Yes, Oprah, the heretical Christian would love this book, so does Satan! Every good lie contains some truth which is what makes it seductive and plausible.
The subtle untruths entwined in this tale are what make it especially troublesome even if it does claim to be fiction it imparts a false theology that is best avoided.

Anonymous said...

This book is a work of fiction. I am a catholic and read it with an open mind. I had my issues as many of you did but it is not a theological text.

Anonymous said...

I read the Shack and read the reviews posted here. Interesting! I think there is a fine line between righteous and self-righteous. Jesus was considered a blasphemer in his day preaching and extending his word beyond Jews. The Jewish leaders were self righteous rather than righteous. Jesus said he came not to take away the law but to fulfill it. When asked what was the most important commandment he said Love God above all and your neighbor as yourself. I think this book might lead people to God but is understandably fiction. Perhaps it is not dictrube but it is filled with love God and neighbor. Lets save the harsh reviews for books that condemn love and faith. I have never been asked to church by anyone. A good book but not intended to be a substitute for THE good book.

Jeanie Kenkel said...

I'm reviewing The Shack for my own blog! I found your site searching for Catholic books written about it. I'm so glad I did. I'll be following you now! (By the way, I'm waiting til after I read and review the book to read yours.) ;-)

Anonymous said...

My comment will be brief. Faith is not about the dogma of rigit othodoxical beliefs of a church whose own history is riddles with its own set of short comings from murder, betrayal to hypocrazy and genecide while I remain a faithful Catholic myself it is important that people understand there is a clear different between how the church as the body of Christ may be perceived by our Father and what actually matters our personal relationship with Him. As for those of you Catholics who remain brainwashed by the centuries old Ritualistic and Othordoxically correct behavior you may just find yourself to be on the wide side of the very gate you proport others to be on.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous dated January 6 at 2:52AM.

'Spell Check' is available in most applications. I recommend that you utilize it.