Saturday 18 April 2009

The theology of William Young, The Shack

A reader emailed me to ask about the theology of William Young’s bestselling novel The Shack – which I see has been reviewed nearly 3,000 times at Amazon!

I haven’t read the novel, so I have no opinion about the story or its theology. (I actually tried thumbing through a copy some time last year, but I found it hard to muster any interest in a character named Mack.)

But if you’ve read the book and have any thoughts about it, please feel free to comment here.


Aaron R. said...

It just so happens that Michael Patton at Parchment & Pen just posted his review yesterday.

kim fabricius said...

I felt obliged to buy it and read it. As a novel, as a piece of writing, it is airport pulp - soapy characters, contrived scenes, self-consciously cool style. Theologically, it has its moments, but press them and many are fleeting. On the other hand, cries of heresy make a mountain out of a molehill. The best that can be said for it is that it is accessible and opens up areas of discussion in a church member- and missionary-friendly way - and that is no small thing. But Eugene Peterson has surely taken leave of his senses when (in the blurb on the cover) he writes, "This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress did for his. It's that good!"

Remember John Robinson's Honest to God? This is a fictional analogy.

Andy Goodliff said...

I read it earlier this week. I agree with Kim that is airport pulp. What I didn't like was the way it seemed to be anti-church, anti-ritual, anti-government and putting this into the mouth of God. See John Stackhouse's review here:

Terry Wright said...

I read it and (mostly) enjoyed it once I got into it. A friend has posted three times on the book from various angles:

Anonymous said...

Dan Dick calls it a spiritual Twinkie in his review in March.

Read it here.

Jane said...

I read it and have just sent my copy to be recycled at the local sencond hand shop.
There's more profundity in most crime novels, but what do I know. It does seem to generate some excitement among some evangeliclas because it gives some latitude for allowing the feminine into the godhead.
How do , how can liberals interact and generate similar excitement about faith and belief? Maybe I'm just jealous I've not written anything so popular.
Probably I'm just a prissy intellectual type who is too difficult to please (I'm not even excited by Susan Boyle). So perhaps if I don't like the Shack it's my problem ...
Anyway thanks to Faith and Theology I walked the plank with Kim Fabricius and that was a much more satisfying read for my faith.
Thanks guys - dare I hope for similar sales for Kim's book - it's just got another great review in Reform.

Rick+ said...

A parishioner pressed a copy into my hands saying it "changed his whole life." I read it skeptically, yet generally enjoyed it. It deals with the basic theodicy of God, who created all and is all good, allowing evil to occur or continue. To someone who had never put much thought into theology, this book makes such thinking accessible and probably comes as an incredible revelation. I walked away, however, feeling like I had just been through a Pop Theology 101 refresher course.

My dislike of the book came from what seemed a shallow main character. His daughter is brutally murdered, and he certainly suffers, but he meets up with God and is all of a sudden shy about bringing up the subject, and with minimal explanation, is okey dokey with it all. I thought it was just too simple a resolution to the kind of heart-rending pain such a parent would suffer.

So, I guess my complaint about the book is more literary than theological. I hear some reactionary Christians have problems with the book. Theologically, God as a black woman makes so much more sense to me.

d. w. horstkoetter said...

I've put my own thoughts on the book here:

A friend of mine has put his thoughts on here -- I recommend it:

John Hartley said...

Dear Ben,

My wife bought the book and I had seen the way it had caught attention, in particular Eugene Petersen's review (referred to by Kim above) so I resolved to read it while on holiday in February.

Here's the story. "Mack" whose daughter is abducted and presumed murdered by a serial child-killer, gets a note three or four years later inviting him to come to "The Shack" to hang out for the weekend - and the note is signed by God. So he decides to go and see what’s cooking.

I wasn’t that struck by "Pilgrim’s Progress" when I read it, many years ago, but I could immediately see what Eugene was getting at. It’s a fairly direct book, not least by the way that Mack explains to a couple he meets on a campsite what his wife does: "She’s a nurse and works with cancer patients who are terminal: she helps people think through their relationship with God in the face of their own death." You’d never say that to a casual contact in England!

I don’t know how much to say without giving away the story? God turns out to be three people staying together, and by putting Mack into face-to-face conversa-tions with the three of them, we get to think about where God is in suffering, what the Trinity is and why, what mercy is all about and how justice works, and so on and so forth. I thought there was a particularly good discussion of what forgiveness is all about when the person who has offended you is quite convinced s/he’s in the right and wouldn’t dream of saying sorry. There are some bits which are just in for a laugh, like how God says grace before meals(!), or when Mack gets dared to walk across the lake - and there are some bits which are a bit fishy, like when he asks God whether God is a Christian or not, and what about people of other religions?

Definitely it’s a novel rather than a systematic theology, and the author freely admits he wrote it as a piece of self-therapy. But I’d go along with Eugene Petersen's "If you only read one Christian book this year, read this one!" Of course, Ben, Eugene's comment doesn't apply to theologians (although the question of whether theologians read Christian books is another can of worms!).

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Anonymous said...

Kim has said it well. For what it's worth, I posted on it sometime back:

roger flyer said...

What! No tears after Susan Boyle?

And thanks for placing Walking the Plank and The Shack in the same comment. I've read them both, too.
One juiced my left brain and the other goosed my right. Now I've really 'left behind' my mind.

Anonymous said...

With the high sales and subsequent speaking tour by the author that this book has been able to generate, it will be interesting to see if and how this book affects the religious landscape of North America or whether it is a manifestation of current trends in North American evangelicalism.

While the book does promise to offer some comfort to those who are struggling, I suspect that in the end it amounts to no more than a kind of moralizing wag-of-the finger to stone-hearted traditionalists who just don't get it. In other words, I think Young engages in a kind of theological pissing match with the fundamentalism he grew up with to see whose God is bigger when it comes to dealing with personal tragedy. While I appreciate Young's boldness in attempting this, I doubt he will be able to change any minds, which, to be fair, was not his original intent in writing the book (it was never meant to be published).

In the end, Young comes out on the side of a kind of therapeutic gospel that one finds all too easily in today's culture. The Shack does for theology what the DaVinci Code does for history (or, alternatively, what "Left Behind" does for either).

That being said, surprisingly, I did enjoy reading "the Shack", despite its obvious literary and theological deficiencies. I take a kind of twisted pleasure in recommending it to my biblicist friends just to hear about their reaction to Young's portrayal of God the Father, a portrayal for which Young deserves applause.

Michael J. Pailthorpe said...

I had the chance to meet the author last year and he is just as surprised as anyone at the popularity of his book.

David W. Congdon said...

I've been slowly working on a theological analysis of the book for some time. I hope to finish it this summer sometime.

In short, I don't even know if reaches the literary level of "airport pulp." While the theology is bad enough — and there's a lot to complain about in that department — it is a poor witness to Christ simply on artistic terms. Even if it were theologically brilliant (and it most certainly is not), I could not recommend it to anyone because of it's literary demerits.

Lerin said...

I read this awhile back and found an online study that made it more meaningful for me from a religious publisher. This week they came out with another study on the book. They've been really helpful! Here are the links:
Study one on the general themes:
Study two on the theology of the book that just came out this week:
Everyone should check them out. They're 5 bucks, but really worth it. I love this site!

Phil Sumpter said...

It made me cry and smile at the same time. In the light of the comments here, I guess that makes me pretty shallow.

I don't quite get the strongly negative reviews here. Although it may not be high literature and sophisticated theology, as a work of popular fiction it can do an aweful lot of good, can't it? Its starting point is the immanent trinity, a doctrine thoroughly overlooked in many Evangelical circles, at it portrays this in a way unusual in such churches: an intrinsically beautiful relationship into which we are invited to participate and pass on in our own relationships, one which takes place in the holistic context of (new) creation. Whether Peterson has overstepped the mark or not, surely this book is a positive contribution - despite (always inevitable) theological weaknesses - to the development of a more adequate theology amongst the laity of the church at large? The fact that it is so widely read says something about the impact its having.

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