January 22, 2021

Shack Attack!!

This post is my opinion, and your opinion is welcome in the comments if you can talk about The Shack instead of talking about what a jerk I am. I WELCOME differing opinions in regard to the book. Reading it and making up your own mind is what we should all do.

Well, well, well….it’s the little book that could. With about $300 of big-time promotion, William P. Young’s little novel, The Shack, is a multi-hundred thousand selling publishing phenomenon, with no sign of losing its momentum as it heads for the rare air of a million sales.

And along the way, Young’s imaginative, playfully serious account of one man’s weekend with the Trinity has apparently made a lot of doctrine policing sit up and pay attention. Attention, as in, “heresy alert.”

According to its various critics, The Shack promotes the New Age movement, worshiping God as a woman, various major and minor heresies, and outright denial of the Gospel. Especially irritating to the critics is Eugene Peterson’s comparison of The Shack to Pilgrim’s Progress, a comparison that’s unavoidable to any literate reader, no matter what their theology. The rights to comparison of anything to Pilgrim’s Progress apparently have been misplaced.

I’ve been wondering recently why the doctrinal conformity enforcement contingent is so interested in the emerging church. One answer has intrigued me: It appears that many of those identifying with some aspect of the Calvinistic resurgence in evangelicalism are also tuned in, with at least one sympathetic ear, to the emerging conversation.

How many people listen to and read John Piper, but also think Blue Like Jazz is a helpful and useful book?

How many people listen to Mark Driscoll because they believe he is both reformed AND emerging?

How many bloggers have a sidebar that’s full of the reformed, but also visit the Tall Skinny Kiwi, Scot McKnight and various emergers?

How many people who treasure the classic Christian doctrine of the Trinity were captivated and drawn in by Young’s portrayal of a Trinitarian God in The Shack? Some of us were more invigorated in our Trinitarianism by Young’s book than by a shelf of theological explanations. When Mack opens the door to the shack and sees the Father, I wept. It may be cheesy and off base, but it was a marvelous moment where all kinds of things came together. It didn’t make me new age or a worshiper of a feminine deity. It made me a better Trinitarian Christian.

How many of us find the insistence that emerging voices are heretical and dangerous an exaggerated claim that goes too far?

How many Christians who have a reformation Gospel believe there is a lot of value in the emerging church conversation, even if it is flawed- deeply- in places?

In my review of The Shack, I made it clear that this is not a systematic theology, and that those looking for errors could easily find them. But it’s important to remember that Young was writing a theological parable of sorts, for his children, not for a seminary faculty. This was never the last word in theology, and it was, from the outset, an experiment in literary playfulness. If the folks who applaud the removal of Peter Enns want to go after The Shack, I’m sure it will be a short meeting.

Listening to Young in interviews, such as his two Drew Marshall interviews, the recent Tal Prince Live interview or his God Journey podcasts, it’s easy to see that this is not an emerging version of Phil Johnson. Young is about as agenda-less as anyone I’ve ever heard. He’s not trying to start anything or rescue evangelicalism. He’s reporting on the God he’s come to know and love. Like most people who dream of writing a novel, it’s full of his own journey to understand life’s most important realities. In his case, that takes us back to the shack for a journey of forgiveness and rediscovering God.

The critics are right to notice that this isn’t a polemical, contentious book at all. It is a book written to say that if we could see life from God’s perspective, life’s tragedies would not erase God’s love and reconciliation. It’s a book that says God is good, even if inscrutable. It’s a book that magnifies the wonder of Father, Son and Spirit.

The critics are correct that this isn’t a book about God’s wrath towards sinners, and if it errs, it does err in ignoring some of God’s character and going too far toward universalism. But if we are going to err, better to err on the side of grace. Young believes God is good, gracious and confidently, endlessly loving.

I’m sure the critics would strongly disagree with such a one-sided presentation.

When critics say that the book promotes worshiping God as a woman, they’ve completely missed the point. They might be a tad overenthusiastic. Young’s choice of imagery isn’t teaching theology or inviting worship. It’s trying to prod us, even shock us a bit, out of thinking of God as a set of handouts and into seeing God in surprisingly personal terms. Young isn’™t trying to start a church. He’s wanting you to rediscover the God who loves you. He HAS left out some of the points and subpoints of systematic theology. Tweak your setting accordingly.

And that leads to a final point. Young is a writer of fiction; a story-teller. The prodigalâ’s father, the unjust judge, the owner of the vineyard, the mother hen, the Rock, the lamb……all of these are literary explorations of God in the context of story, not pure theology. None of them can be taken beyond the boundaries of legitimate literary use. Pressed too far, they become– hang on — heretical. And they are all in scripture.

I’m not saying that we should excuse William Young of literary or theological error. I am saying that when theologians critique The Shack, they are likely working one genre against another and the results may be of limited help.

If you believe Young wants to tell you that you can walk on water, then it’s heresy. If you want to enter into an experience with Jesus that reminds us of his identity and power in a creative way, then it;s legitimate. If you think it’s corny, that’s fine.

Similarly, if you believe Young wants you to worship the Holy Spirit in the form of a small Asian woman, then he’s a heretic. If he wants you to think of the Holy Spirit in a way that emphasizes, on another level, what we all believe scripture teaches about the Holy Spirit, then he’s on legitimate ground.

You may find Young’s theology of the resolution of good and evil to be unconvincing. That’s fair, but it’s also fair that Young gets to play the game we’re all playing on that issue. It’s not like there’s a simple answer and no one is still trying to articulate something that speaks to us where we are.

Sometimes I think some of the doctrinal police are about a foot away from saying any book that doesn’t just copy large swaths of scripture verbatim has no reason for existence. The mixture of art and theological truth must be nerve wracking to those whose view of inerrancy and authority makes literary explorations of theology almost automatically heretical.

Sometimes it seems that rewording scripture into a few almost-identical-to-scripture lyrics is about all some Christians can take in the literary arts. Past that and they are talking heresy.

Frankly, tha’s ridiculous. Whether it’s literary, visual or musical, the arts should be evaluated artistically, not just theologically. I know this may hurt someone’s head, but there’s more going on than just fidelity to scripture. And if you judge everything by some standards of understanding scripture, then we’re going to have the same artistic culture as Calvin’s Geneva. In other words, get out the whitewash.

I will never praise The Shack in the terms some are using. I see many flaws at the level of writing and story-telling, as well as theology. But a disciple of Jesus who wants to write a novel for his children with the goal of opening their eyes to a possible life-altering relationship with the Trinitarian God of the Bible gets the green light from me. We should see the book for what it is and that’s all.

If certain conservative Christians are annoyed that someone out there is reading a book they don’t like, then here’s a suggestion: Write a better book. Starting a parade to tell us all we shouldn’t read this one is probably a good reason it’s going to pass a million copies soon. If you haven’t noticed, readers don’t like to be told what they should and shouldn’t read, but they have surprising affection and loyalty to authors who deliver a compelling and involving story.


  1. Ron,

    If you are making a job threat to me, let me suggest a few helpful hints.

    1) Get a last name.
    2) Come by my house and introduce yourself.
    3) We can go see my administrator together and you can make your specific complaints to him with me there.

    thanks for stopping by.


    P.S. You are now spam and won’t be appearing in the comments.

  2. Young is presenting a refreshing aspect of God which could heal many who deem Him as an old, insensative, judgmental, mean tyrant with a big stick-divorced from our pain and in some cases, causing it. Despite some awkward sentences and obvious theological loopholes, the work is riveting. I love the message of forgiveness which I believe is a universal problem with most people-save and unsaved alike. It is FICTION so that covers the many Biblical misinterpretation, and vastly creative. Young really kicks down our sacred cows in this work. A work of equal value is “A Step Into Deliverance” by Toni Pugh. Its autobiographical content about a pastor’s spiritual journey with God is a real page-turner!

  3. I will confess from the get-go that I am new to the “Shack scene” and to this blog, but I am quite intrigued by both. I got here by way of “twenty two words” – my mom loves that site and got me started…She’s pretty much a lover of anything beginning or ending with “Piper.” 🙂 Anyway! I haven’t read “The Shack” yet but it has piqued my interest several times, most recently by way of a discussion with my mom where she voiced her passionate criticism of it based on criticism found from a reformed website. She has not read the book either, and I doubt she will. Her biggest concern was with “The Shack” being handed out to non-Christians, people without any theology or sound belief.
    Is it “safe” for them to read it?
    What responsibility as Christians do we have, if any, in encouraging them to read it?
    Should we encourage them to read it?
    I’m posing these questions out of pure curiosity to any of you who have read it.
    Thanks for the blog entry and for all the comments – I’ve been enlightened.

  4. I’ve never given this a try, but I think it’s about time I do.

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