January 15, 2021

Difficult Concept Workshop: Repeat After Me…”The Shack Is A Story”

Well here we are again, talking about The Shack. (Original Review. Follow Up. Driscoll. Witherington.) I’m going to start and finish this post with the same encouragement: TELL YOUR STORY. WRITE YOUR STORIES. TELL THEM YOUR WAY. IN YOUR WORDS. Don’t be afraid or intimidated. The story matters. Some will NEVER see it, but it’s no less true. Keep putting your journey into a story. Keep writing. Be an artist. Be a creator. Mess up some lines. Mix up some colors. Offend some know it alls. Don’t stop until your story is out there.

I just finished doing another interview about my writing on The Shack. My posts on The Shack have attracted a lot of readers, which is good, because if nothing else, The Shack is a phenomenon that needs to be discussed and better understood.

It seems that a willingness to denounce The Shack has become the latest indicator of orthodoxy among those evangelicals who are keeping an eye on the rest of us. It’s a lot less trouble than checking out someone’s views on limited atonement, that’s for sure.

Hear me loud and clear: it’s every pastor and Christian’s duty to speak up if they feel The Shack is spirtually harmful. I’d only add one point: it’s equally the right of those who find The Shack helpful to say so.

Obviously, The Shack isn’t for everyone. Like a lot of Christian fiction, it has a certain amount of gawky awkwardness. No one will ever call William Young a skilled wordsmith. I wouldn’t teach The Shack in a theology class, even though I find Young’s willingness to explore the Tritnity commendable and personally helpful.

(Oh….I probably would use The Shack to discuss whether the Trinity is a hierarchy, a belief that critics of The Shack seem to hold as essential.)

It’s the presentation of God in The Shack that creates the controversy with the critics and the buzz with the fans, but the longer I’ve talked about this story with other Christians, I have to wonder if all the focus on Young’s “Trinity” isn’t missing the larger point of the book- a point that many theological watchblogs don’t seem to see at all.

The Shack is a pilgrimage. It’s an allegorical account of one person’s history with God; a history deeply affected by the theme of “The Great Sadness.” It’s a journey, and overlooking what’s going on in Mack’s journey is a certain prescription of seeing The Shack as a failed critique of Knowing God.

I’ve come to believe that the most significant reason for The Shack’s early success- certainly the reason I picked it up- is the endorsement from Eugene Peterson on the cover, an endorsement where Peterson refers to Young’s book as another “Pilgrim’s Progress.” That’s not a random compliment.

The Knights of Reformed Orthodoxy like to talk about Pilgrim’s Progress as if it is Calvin’s Institutes made into a movie. In reality, Bunyan’s Book is a personal pilgrimage, one that illustrated his version of Christian experience and retold his own experiences.

Even Spurgeon realized that Bunyan’s theology wasn’t completely dependable. The loss of the “burden” comes after a long search for relief, a storyline that reflected Bunyan’s own struggles with assurance and obsessive subjectivity. Few pastors today would endorse a version of the Gospel that left people wandering in advanced states of conviction, unable to find any way to receive forgiveness. Bunyan’s particular personality has too much influence on his presentation of belief and assurance.

But what Bunyan does illustrate is valuable in a manner much different than a theological outline. He tells the story of a journey from guilt to forgiveness, the confrontation with worldly powers, spiritual conflict, imperfect fellow believers and the inertia and resistence within ourselves. We can measure Bunyan’s book by measurements of correct theology, but I believe most of us know that this isn’t the proper measurement for Pilgrim’s Progress. We should measure it as a presentation of one Christian’s life.

It’ a story of a journey.

The same could be said of many other books. Take C.S. Lewis’s “Grief Observed.” It’s the journey of grieving the death of a spouse. Along the way, God’s appearances are all over the map because the “pilgrim” is moving in his journey through “the Great Sadness.”

Be clear: I agree with Ben Witherington III that Young’s book could use a theological revision, but I believe his adventurous exploration of God’s character is set against “the Great Sadness,” not “the Great Theological Examination.” When someone analyzes The Shack and finds 13 major heresies, I’d suggest you look very closely at the list. Some are legitimate concerns. Some are brutal victims of context and some are not heresies at all, but the critic’s discomfort with the medium.

Young is talking about a God who draws you out of your hiding place. If I understand Young’s own journey, this is the primary image in the book: A God who invites you and meets in the the very place where “the Great Sadness” entered your experience in a way that you understand the love that comes to you from the Trinity.

This journey is what should capture the reader. In one sense, The Shack is a bit of Rorschach test, and if you put it in front of someone and what they see is “emerging church heresy!” and “God is a black woman,” then you’ve learned what that person was most looking for in the book: a familiar and historically orthodox affirmation of God and a similar affirmation of who are the good guys.

But what about those who look at the book and see Mack’s journey? The Great Sadness? The God who draws you out and meets you in the place of your greatest loss? What if that reader sees the theological awkwardness and occasional imprecision, but sees those problems in balance alongside Mack’s journey to self-forgiveness, resolution and renewed intimacy with God? Maybe that’s why so many people who know good theology STILL like The Shack?

There is enough in The Shack to give all of us plenty to blog about, so don’t expect posts to end anytime soon. But I’m wondering if anyone is understanding that The Shack isn’t selling because there’s such a hunger for theological junk food. No, there’s a hunger for someone to compellingly narrate the central mystery of God, the Trinity. There’s a hunger for a God who is reconciling toward those who have believed and then turned away because they can no longer understand a God who allowed “The Great Sadness.” There is a hunger for a God who comes into our life story and walks with us to the places that are the most hurtful.

In other words, the theological fact checkers are probably missing what is so appealing to readers of The Shack, even as they see some crimes in progress. It is a contemporary Pilgrim’s Progress, but the pilgrim is a not a 17th century puritan, but a 21st century evangelical. The burden isn’t sin, but the hurtful events of the past. The journey is not the way to heaven, but the way back to believing in a God of goodness, kindness and love.

If Paul Young writes a book of theology, it should be better than The Shack. But if he writes his story, it is The Shack. I don’t buy it all, and most people I’ve talked to don’t either. But that’s not the point. It’s Young’s journey that he’s recounting and we’re reading, and that’s how we’re reading it: a story.

[Note to writers: When it comes to fiction, don’t listen to the critics who want to take you down for your theology. Tell the story that’s in you, whether it passes the orthodoxy test or not. This isn’t Puritan Massachusetts yet. WRITE THE STORY. The people who read stories as theology lectures are NEVER going to approve.]


  1. Why hasn’t anyone commented on Young’s foreword where he claims that the things that take place in the book actually happened. This is my major qualm with the book and the wrench in the argument that it is “only a story.” Please someone respond to this.

  2. In interviews, Young says the book is an allegorical account of his years in counseling and subsequent healing from his own great sadness. That’s what he means about “really happening.”

  3. Hmm– creating God in your own image. Let’s at least admit that we all do it in one way or another. EG God as a male deity. The problem is with the English 3d person singular, not with the Hebrew and Greek text. Also interesting that “El Shaddai,” the “More than sufficient Breast,” never gets translated that way….

    I am one of those who expected to be bothered by the “Christian mediocrity” issue, because I do get frustrated by it. However, God used the Shack to get me to reexamine my subconscious, visceral attitudes toward God, and I found a lot of things that were holding me back.

    I grew up in a church with a solid theological emphasis, and I value my heritage. However, repeated emphasis can cause things to become “old hat.” Moreover, it’s not an issue so much of what is in the Bible as how we’ve taken the wine and turned it back into water because we are threatened by the mysterium tremendum, or the extravagance of grace and love. We all see things in the Bible differently. It is unfortunate that we polarize and question each other’s orthodoxy rather than being relaxed enough to engage in stimulating dialogue and begin to see God in a new way. God is big enough that no one can see all of divinity. What are we really so afraid of, that we have to keep “biting and devouring ” each other? God doesn’t need me to defend Godself.

    The Shack helped me see how, in spite of the best theology, certain things get distorted by quoting texts and Bible beatings. It helped me see my own distrust of God and my own judgement of God.
    My own “Great Sadness” has to do with spiritual abuse suffered at the hands of the “righteous”– the way some Christian subcultures seek to fit everyone into a particular, “scriptural” mold, with the result that people are dehumanized, not allowed to be genuine, and feel they have to defend their holiness by judging others, or being so absorbed in their praise and worship that there is no real communication, much less communion. I bear scars from those who claim to hear from God issuing their divine judgements about me because I do not fit their molds. I told God, “no thanks. if those who are so close to you are like that, I don’t want any. Why do your people become so mean and nasty and downright weird?”

    I think it is the spirit, and not the letter, of the book that got to me, reminding me of God’s patience, compassion, kindness, lack of disappointment, pathos, creativity, playfulness, humor, delightfulness, desire to be with the kids, and affection, all of which tends to get overlooked in theological discourse. It also gave me hope for my own journey, and melted something on the visceral level that released my barriers toward God. I am grateful for that.

  4. Linda Smith says

    If you didn’t get STORY out of this work, you read the book with the wrong attitude. For my money, any book, script, or speech which can move me to treat my fellow man with love, nonjudgment and respect AND bring me closer to God simply by the way GOD is explained, is a treasure. I have given the book to my dear friends and siblings and hope that they will take from it those kernels of truth which they find therein. Who is to say that this man’s experience and explanation of God/Trinity is wrong? Afterall, man developed theology. As a lifelong Catholic, I value my religion, but the constant dogma and inaccessibility are not only defeating, but off-putting. Aren’t we simply here to love, live as the best humans we are capable of being and then go home to our God?

  5. Thanks for the post Michael. I have to admit that I read the book about 3/4’s of the way through and haven’t finished it yet…I simply got kind of bored. I had heard there was a major twist and surprise, which I am assuming was the portrayal of the trinity. I don’t have any problem with the literary way he chose to do this…I just immediately found it very cliche and hollywood…shock everybody by taking a preconceived notion of God the Father as a bearded Santa Clause like elderly man of wisdom and make him into Queen Latifah. Pardon me if I have seen this plotline in so many movies it seemed like a lack of imagination to me.

    The book is clearly story, not systematic theology, for me the imagination was lacking and trying to explain the mystery of the trinity…well, perhaps it is best left a mystery…maybe it is meant to be that way for us.
    The part of the story that is very interesting and I think relates to everybody is the simple question that all of our “great sadnesses” bring us to…How can God love me if He lets this happen to me? The only real answer is that our search to answer it can only drive us to the cross in my opinion which, at least for me, has been my pilgrimmage.

  6. Trish Pickard says

    I was set not to like the book, The Shack but after reading it, I thought it was really good and thought provoking. All the time I reaad it, I kept thinking it needs a study to go along with it. I finally decided God was urging me to write a study which I did. If anyone would like it, email me at prayerdigm.bookstudy@yahoo.com. I would be glad to send you the study. You are welcome to use it and copy it for others.
    Trish Pickard

  7. Chuck Waterman says

    Hey James F, I think you’re referring to the Introduction. In this case, the “Willie” of the Introduction is also a **fictional character**. Therefore, the fictional character of Willie is relating that the fictional character of Mac actually had this experience happen to him. It’s a literary device.

    Chuck Waterman

  8. Trish Pickard says

    I was set not to like the book, The Shack but after reading it, I thought it was really good and thought provoking. All the time I read it, I kept thinking it needs a study to go along with it. I finally decided God was urging me to write a study which I did. If anyone would like it, email me at prayerdigm.bookstudy@yahoo.com. I would be glad to send you the study. You are welcome to use it and copy it for others.
    Trish Pickard

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