Book Review: The Shack

shack1I only read the first six chapters of The Shack, and I won’t be reading any more.  Author William P. Young uses a story about a man who loses a young daughter to violence, and then accepts an invitation from God to meet with Him at the scene of the crime, as a vehicle for his own pseudo-theological pontificating.  I’d call it the philosophy of men mingled with scripture, but Young never quotes any scripture.

He’s a competent enough writer but, like too many I’ve read, he makes his protagonist have thoughts and feelings that are too easy just to move the story along.

Mack: “I’m angry about the death of my daughter.”

God: “Let’s talk about something else.”

Mack: “Okay!”

That’s my next problem with The Shack: as soon as Mack comes to the cabin to commune with God, God proceeds to welcome him with…a lecture about the nature of the Trinity.  And it goes on for the rest of the chapter.  I’m not sure which bothered me more: that Mack would so calmly go along with the plan, or that Young would have the audacity to use his character’s pain as a vehicle for selling his own ideas about religion.

And make no mistake about it, that’s what The Shack is for.  Young has an axe to grind with anyone who “limits” God by suggesting that he has any kind of concrete church, truths, salvation system, or other such apparently trivial nonsense like that.  You know, the little things that religion doesn’t really need.  No, the God of The Shack is a stereotypical, multicultural, I’m-OK-you’re-OK, let’s-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya kind of God, exactly the sort of silly, watered down, narcissistic Baby Boomer fantasy that gets made fun of with things like “Buddy Christ” statues. 

Will anybody find comfort from The Shack?  Its popularity says so, but that hardly means much: plenty of people are comforted when a farmer’s wife finds a potato that looks like Jesus.  The Shack carries about that much spiritual gravitas.  It’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull meets Mister Rogers’  Neighborhood

The one thing that really made me sit up and pay attention, and that set me up for a huge disappointment soon afterward, was this passage at the end of chapter 4:

In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course.  God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects.  It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia.  Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book.

On the surface, this is a great observation.  It certainly gels well with a Latter-day Saint’s perspective on personal revelation and an open canon of scripture (James 1:5), but it sets Young up as something of a hypocrite.  After all, isn’t he denouncing authoritative religious leaders and then proceeding to lay down his own subjectively invented interpretations of Christianity? 

That’s the biggest issue I have with exegesis: the subjectivity.  The only way to really know truth about God is to receive it directly from God.  Anything else is what we see in the world today: whoever has the most clever ideas and can present them in the most convincing way gets to say what is doctrine.  Any conservative Christian who blanches at the radical lack of structure in Young’s theology shouldn’t be surprised: a few generations of stripping anything difficult away from society, including from religion, can only result in people being taken in by a religion that doesn’t require anyone to do anything other than feel good. 

And that’s definitely what’s happening here: Young has taken his own feelings about God and given them satisfying words, which he then puts into God’s mouth.  I’d call that being a false prophet any day.

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4 comments on “Book Review: The Shack

  1. I would wholly agree with everything you said if I had also stopped reading at chapter 6. The whole premise of the book really did not interest me. I only read out of curiosity because everyone is talking about the book and I wanted to see for myself.

    But, it definitely gets better after chapter 6! The bulk of the book’s message comes much later. There are many profound ideas that resonated deep in my soul, and I am a fairly conservative, orthodox Christian. I can appreciate the author’s creativity and the fresh approach to relationship with God that the story’s imagery invokes.

    I think you should finish reading before critiquing, anyway! You may enjoy it more, as I did, if you stick with it. And please remember, it is fiction, so maybe you needn’t be so quick to judge the author as a “false prophet.”

  2. Jan, thanks for the charitable words and diplomatic approach. I’m glad the story has better parts than those I read, but the more I think about it now, the stronger I think my point is: the things that Young wants us to consider about God are either true or false, and if they’re false, then it needs to be said.

    Whether or not a writer’s approach to our relationship to God is “fresh” or not is irrelevant; what matters is whether or not it’s true. Young might be creative, and his tale might be profound, but is his depiction of the nature of God accurate? Is his dismissal of organized religion something Jesus would endorse? Other writers have shown how Young’s theology contradicts the Bible: http://www.challies.com/archives/book-reviews/the-shack-by-william-p-young.php

    Now, there are ideas in The Shack that I do know are true (for example, God does still reveal His will directly to people), but how does Young come about his ideas? Experience plus imagination? That’s hardly a recipe for sound doctrine. It’s been said that the devil will let you have some truth if he can just also get you to believe some error; is that the case here?

    Young wants to do far more than just help people deal with the problem of suffering (which he appears to do in a sensitive and constructive way), because so much of the theology in The Shack is extraneous to that goal. Cloaking his anarchic diatribe in the guise of fiction doesn’t change the fact that people are really going to base their beliefs on this (as the reviews at Amazon.com show).

    I’m glad people are enjoying a well written religious story, but it worries me that so many might “feel” closer to God because of one man’s invented doctrine; such “doctrine” is ultimatelty counterproductive, in the worst way…it will keep us from truly coming closer to God. I have to be sad about that.

  3. I didn’t critique the whole book; I critiqued the chapters I read and the portions cited in reviews of it that I read. The rest of the book may well be inspiring and beautifully written, but is it true doctrine? If the rest of Young’s book radically departs from the philosphies of men displayed in what I’ve read so far, then please correct me and I’ll gladly withdraw my criticism and finish the book.

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