July 11, 2008

The Shack - followup review

So I finished reading William Young's "The Shack" and thought I'd give my overall review of it. There are plenty of blogs out there that have raked it over the coals, theologically...as well as plenty that have praised it as the greatest piece of Christian fiction ever written. I find myself somewhere in the middle of these extremes. I'll give my thoughts on it in three areas: Theologically, Literarily, and Pastorally.

Theological review

The overall theology of "The Shack" would generally be considered a form of Arminian theology. There is a high emphasis placed on humanity's choices and responsibilities as well as a reticence on God's behalf to intervene directly in human decisions for the sake of preserving their ability to live freely--something necessary for genuine love between humanity and God to exist.
The problem of evil and suffering being reconciled with the notion of a Just and Loving God is handled via a form of the "freewill defense", put forth by Christian philosophers and theologians such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. However, there is no attempt to answer every question regarding exactly why God allows such evil to occur. This is the most commendable aspect of the book in my opinion because it follows Scripture's relative silence on God's motives and instead focuses on God's self-revelation as Good and Just (For a much most solid theological treatment of this issue I can't recommend strongly enough N.T. Wright's fantastic little book "Evil and the Justice of God"...which people can check out in both print and audio format from my office!).
One area where The Shack has been criticized for being theologically out of line is in its almost non-existent treatment of the nature of Sin. Sin is never really presented according to the Biblical standard and shown in all its horror or ugliness. Instead it is almost ignored or brushed aside via euphamism. This critique is one that I agree with. When I think about, for example, how the reality of sin and its insideousness is treated by C.S. Lewis' portrayal of the "Un-Man" in his classic "Perelandra", I can't help but recognize the failure by Young to address this topic which should be at the heart of any discussion of evil and suffering.
The other area that the book was criticized for is its teaching on salvation; particularly the passage where Jesus tells Mack that though all paths do not lead to Him, there is no path that He will not travel down to get to us (my lame paraphrase). This seems to many to be advocating a type of universalism whereby Jesus saves people regardless of whether or not they follow other faiths or belief systems. On this point, I can sympathize with the critics because Young's treatment of this was woefully short and ambiguous. However, I'm curious as to whether or not the same critics level such charges against C.S. Lewis' "The Last Battle" wherein a Calormene soldier who worshipped Tash all his life finds at his death that he was actually worshipping Aslan and is part of the renewed creation at the end.
With any presentation of theological issues, particularly in a popular-level format, there will always be areas of disagreement or dissatisfication among theologically-minded believers. However, the alarmism over the theology of "The Shack" is, in my opinion, simply unjustified (as is the near-canonization of it by many of its fans!). If I were Reformed or Calvinist in my theological leanings, I would certainly find much in it that I vehemently disagreed with. But as someone who does not hold this system of theology, I have considerably less objections to the theology of "The Shack".

Literary review

My strongest critique of the book lies in its literary quality. Simply put, I felt that "The Shack" was just not a well-written book. I thought the dialogue seemed very artificial and there was almost no attempt to veil the theological teachings of the book literarily. It was as if the dialogues were pre-conceived lectures put in the mouths of talking heads. I felt that the amount of time leading up to Mack's entry into the shack (where the story really gets going) was disproportionate to the amount of story contained within the rest of the book. Aside from Mack, the characters were very flat and undeveloped.
"The Shack" seems to be unable to decide whether or not to be a full-blown story (such as "The Pilgrim's Progress" or "Redeeming Love") or a theological treatise in dialogue format (such as "The Lotus and the Cross" or "The Screwtape Letters"). If it had leaned one way or the other, it would have been a much better book in my opinion.
On a much more subjective front, I found the depiction of idyllic conditions throughout the book to be simply too...well...Thomas Kinkade-ish. It seemed to reinforce the stereotype of Christian fiction as shmaltzy pablam that consists of pastel colors and cross-stitching. If you're having trouble visualizing what I'm talking about, just stroll through any Lifeway Christian store and you'll immediately see what I mean! As someone who has an innate aversion to cheesy Christianity, "The Shack" was much too close to that line than I would have liked it to be. (My apologies to anyone who is a precious-moments-christian-contemporary-radio-station-Kinkade-owning-bumper-sticker Christian. Wait! This is the Dojo! I don't need to apologize for that! lol!)

Pastoral review

As a pastor and teacher, would I recommend "The Shack" to those I serve and teach? Well, that depends. If someone was hungry for deeper theological understanding of God or a firmer grasp of Scripture, then I would not recommend "The Shack" as anything other than peripheral reading. They would be much better served by such books as the afore-mentioned "Evil and the Justice of God" or John Stackhouse's "Can God Be Trusted?" If they wanted a fictional/dialogical treatment of such issues, Peter Kreeft has written a number of fictional conversations of theological issues, as has Ravi Zacharias.
However, I would recommend "The Shack" to those who have questions about what a relationship with God might look like and how God might answer some of their questions if they were to get a chance to ask Him. I think this is the strongest aspect of the book. It depicts the full personhood of the Trinity in a way that does not fall into heresy--as is so often the case with any description of God's triune nature! I would also recommend the book to non-Christians, particularly those who believe the God of the Bible to be the folk-religion "Old man in the sky" depiction. "The Shack" would (and hopefully is!) serve to raise questions in the mind of the reader which would then spur him/her on in their desire to know more about the God we Christians claim to be in relationship with. After all, God's used talking donkeys, gigantic fish, false prophets, and enemies of the church to speak to people and lead them to Himself...I'm sure He's not sweating "The Shack"'s influence in our rapidly-approaching-post-Christian culture.

My 2 cents. Comments and/or criticisms always welcomed!

JMS

7 comments:

JMH said...

I definitely agree that universalism is no more ok in The Last Battle than it is in The Shack. And there are a lot of huge C.S. Lewis fans (of which I'm one) who I've heard say the same.

I'll admit I get more hot & bothered about it in The Shack, for two reasons:

1) I don't see it as a serious problem in the middle of an otherwise excellent work, but just one more thing to add to the list of things wrong with The Shack.

2) It's not just an element in a story, but words actually being put into the mouth of Jesus, saying something that clearly contradicts the teaching of Jesus. It's outwardly-stated false teaching, as opposed to a plot element that implies or endorses false teaching.

I just got my copy yesterday, so I'm diving in and we'll see where it goes.

JMS said...

Cool man, I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on it.

Holla!

Sean said...

Very interesting thoughts James Michael. My original "issues" with the shack were exactly what jmh stated. When ideologies are being explained or espoused by Jesus himself, even in a work of fiction, there is a very real danger in creating a God in our own image. That is near damnable, not to be over-dramatic. It is one of the reasons I have a very difficult time with movies such as "Bruce Almighty". The very image or person of God is being toyed with as though he were not El Elyon Himself. Could you picture the Israelites at the bottom of Mt. Sinai putting on plays or writing stories that so lightly portrayed Jehovah?
Anyway, because of the tremendous emphasis on Christ's work on the cross, and the need for "relationship" with God through that work, I didn't see universalism as pronounced. However, I have heard other unbelievers who have liked the shack in its acceptance of humanity because of the overwhelming love of God. Although I've often said, "God Loves you" is not the gospel message. All that He has done on behalf of that love IS... and THAT gospel does make requirement of us. From the actual words of Jesus, He never said He was making the way, but that He was the only way.

Caroline N said...

I appreciate the depth of intellect on your review and on your posters' comments. However, I think, for what it is, The Shack does a great job of illustrating how we try, as humans, to put God into a form that we can fully understand. (sorry for the long sentence)+ I also think that, while I do not agree with everything theologically in the book, it is very thought provoking when the issue of God's love for us is brought up again and again. It has been my own personal experience, as well as people I know, that we often judge ourselves rather harshly,even when we are believers. We have a hard time seeing God as the definition of Love and this book is a great illustrator of that love. While I am not a "fanatic" of the book, I would recommend it to people who have been Christians for at least 5 years who may be struggling with God's acceptance of them as they struggle with a particular burden. There are better books out there, but this one does just as well of a job. And, by the way, I do believe it could have been written better but maybe that is why it has such a mass appeal!? Just my 2 cents worth.

Hunter said...

A large misconception from your review is that you view the book as a work of fiction rather than a biography from the best of one's memory. The dialogue feels artificial because it wasn't made up nor changed to sound better, but was how Mack remembered it. Young explains this in his foreword. He wrote the book as Mack told him from memory and shouldn't been seen as biography that isn't meant to be perfectly entertaining, but as honest to the event as possible.

JMS said...

Hunter, are you saying that you believe Mack to be a real person whom Young actually interviewed? It is my understanding, based on Young's own words (such as his interview at Catalyst this year), that the book was written as a fictional memoir. In other words, the "account" by "Mack" was part of the literary device he used to set the book up.

Am I missing something??

AbominableAmie said...

JM,
I think your critique of the literary side of The Shack was spot on.
And I must commend your ability to speak honestly about the lack of literary finesse without being overly negative. (I, for instance, have only been able to explain it to people like this: 'It sucked.')

BUT, I will say this: As fake, fluffy Christian-y as it was I enjoyed seeing a person (Mack) interact with God in the most real, natural and relational ways... eating, laughing, gardening etc.

Also I love the blog Stuff Christians Like by Jon Acuff. He does a book review-type-thing of The Shack as well: http://stufffchristianslike.blogspot.com/2008/07/remix-92-shack.html

: ) Amie

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