Thursday, June 4, 2009

The One Benefit of The Shack

My tongue-in-cheek (but still totally serious) review of The Shack notwithstanding, I should follow up with one important positive payoff of the book.

Despite that the story teaches terrible theology, The Shack implicitly teaches that theology really matters.

One commenter on my previous post was apparently frustrated by my analysis of the book because it's "just a story." It's not a theological book, she said, so why submit it to the standards of theological non-fiction?

Because, in fact, it is a theological book. Make no mistake: Young's best-seller is meant to teach theology.

If you haven't read it, the book revolves around a man dealing with the horrific abduction and murder of his youngest daughter. The semi-religious, seminary-trained main character (Mac) spends a weekend with God in the middle-of-nowhere shack where much of that tragedy took place. Naturally, the always-present, fundamental question is, "Where were you in the rape and murder of my daughter?"

That is to say, The Shack centers on the problem of evil, or perhaps more accurately, the problem of pain. Where is God when something so unquestionably evil happens? How can He possibly be really good and really omnipotent when such heinous acts are committed against my own daughter?

So the main character talks with God about exactly that question. These theological discussions make up the heart of the book. We are not nit-picking when we critique the book's theological conclusions, because so much of the book is so obviously about theology.

Of course, it's not really God. It's Young's idea of God, which is mostly wrong. Still, it's a discussion about who God is and why He allows things like that. Because when personal tragedy abounds for people who believe in God, so do questions about the nature of God. Just because it is practical does not mean it isn't theological.

And yet, so many Christians I know don't seem too interested in thinking seriously about God (that's a strange thing to say, isn't it?). It is hard to convince them that theology really matters. They haven't thought seriously enough to realize that while The Shack's answers may seem reasonable, they sure aren't biblical.

In any case, if you feel any concern for Mac, you will want to know what God has to say about all of the tragedy. And hopefully you will realize that the question of what God is like is by no means reserved for academics and their libraries. Mac's most pertinent, practical questions are directly theological. Theology will change his life.

Even if you don't face that kind of tragedy, theological convictions are the most important ones that you have. I reminded my church the last time I preached to them that it is not a question of whether or not we will be theologians, but a question of whether or not we will be good theologians. Tozer was right: "The most important thing about a man is what comes to his mind when he thinks about God."

Now if only Young's best-seller wasn't such bad theology...


Anonymous said...

Thank you-
It is theology, as witnessed by the number of members of my congregation who refer to it now when talking about the Godhead. They may not realize it but it has influenced how many people think about God, and that by definition is theology.

Johnnie said...

Two exellent posts on this book, Andrew. And while I don't want to sound overly cynical, I think we might want to unpack that word you use to describe the book: "best-seller." Say I'm writing a mass market paperback and I want to sell a lot of copies--nothing wrong with that, right?--how do I go about appealing to the masses? Even if I've decided my book will be marketed primarily to a Christian audience...I probably write a theology that is unlikely to make anyone uncomfortable, right? Again, I don't want to say that The Shack was written as a totally cynical marketing ploy, in the manner of so many pop culture products. But I do think there's always special reason to take note of such "bestsellers" and examine them critically, as you do so well here. The "market" part of "mass market" is too important an element to ignore.

Andrew Faris said...

Just couldn't stay away, could ya Johnnie?

Johnnie said...

Was I supposed to?

Ryan said...

"Of course, it's not really God. It's Young's idea of God, which is mostly wrong."

Wow. I think it's this kind of objective reasoning that prevents Christians from engaging with anyone these days. While you may not agree with his theology, I find it ironic that he has a best-seller which has reached millions. I doubt we'll see a website like this have that kind of a reach anytime soon.

Andrew Faris said...


I don't understand what the problem is, especially with "objective reasoning". And by the way, how is your objection not "objective reasoning"?

And are you suggesting that what we really need to do is not argue for what we think is true so that we can have a wider reach? I'm not trying to be condescending by reading your statement that way, by the way- that's really how it comes off.

Reaching a lot of people is no end in itself. And despite my commitment to objective truth and reasoning, I've not found it especially difficult to engage with lots of different folks.


Andrew Faris said...

Oh, and Johnnie, you weren't supposed to stay away- you just mentioned that you were considering it in the homosexuality discussion.

Ryan said...

No, it's not that I have a problem with you arguing what you "think" to be true. That's commendable. But to suggest with such arrogance that Young's idea of God "is mostly wrong," just seems to be unnecessarily "superior".

I have no doubt that you believe his idea to be wrong, but the way in which you approach it is the reason why I don't go to church today.

Where is this "true" idea of God found? How do you have a better idea of God than Young? Granted, I have never read the book, so perhaps he believes God is a puppy we stick in our bag, and then I may disagree with him as well, but to throw the word "wrong" as if you decided such things just strikes me as presumptuous.

I realize that reaching people isn't an end in itself. I was merely commenting on the approach. Again, I haven't read the book, but the comments seem to suggest a simple "story" which aims to answer the question of pain. It's an uneducated read from what I can tell.

I guess I was just noticing how a book like that can have a broader affect on the population as a whole than "high theology" can. Does it have to be "Theology" as this website puts it to be truthful? It speaks to the human experience in ways which the theologians of this site may never be able to do. I mean, after all, Jesus may have been divine, but he was also human, and he made a habit of focusing on the uneducated masses. Turning his words into some kind of Ivy League rhetoric just seems inapt.

Andrew Faris said...


That is helpful clarification.

I actually struggled with whether to write that Young's idea is "mostly wrong" because he is still Trinitarian (even if his understanding of the Trinity is screwy) and explicitly Christian. So he's not a polytheist or anything- he's not that wrong- but I was assuming a Christian understanding.

In that sense, I don't think it's arrogant to say that he's mostly wrong. And where do we get that from? I think you know the answer: the Bible. If we believe that the Bible is authoritative and actually does reveal God (for that matter, if we believe that it is written by God for the very purpose of revealing himself, which I do), then we have to be willing to make some real, objective statements based on that.

By no means does that mean that I'm right about everything. Nor does it mean that I even think I'm right about everything. But what would you have me say? Would you rather me right, "I think that Young is mostly wrong about God?" or maybe even add, "But you can disagree with me if you like"? You know, qualify it like crazy so that I allow for disagreement?

But that would be redundant. The very fact that I'm the one writing it assumes that it is my opinion and you have the freedom to disagree if you like.

So go ahead. Disagree if you like. But don't call me arrogant for strongly expressing my opinion. Frankly, it comes off like more than anything else, you have an axe to grind about church and all-us-who-think-we're-so-right-and-smart.

And as I've tried to make clear (indeed, as is the very purpose of this post!), The Shack is definitely a theological book. What frustrates me the most about people's analysis of this book is the, "He's not writing theology, so don't submit it to theological judgment" objection.

As I said in the post, the heart of the book is a series of theological discussions getting at what God is like, specifically in reference to Mac's pain. So Young spends considerable time arguing that there is no hierarchy in the Trinity, that God limits His foreknowledge to allow us to have real choices, and so on. It's theology. Make no mistake.

But when we say it's not, then we allow Young to speak his theological view but no one is allowed to respond to it. That doesn't seem quite right, does it?

And you know, I think you're generally right about a novel versus theology in terms of its affect on the wider population. Consider that for a long time, The Pilgrim's Progress was the second highest selling book of all time, behind only the Bible. But this is a theology blog. It says it right there in the title. You don't go to a Mongolian BBQ and say, "You know, I'm not sure about the merits of this place- I think burgers would appeal to more people."

In my strong disagreement with you, I should add that I mean no disrespect or condescension. Seriously. You argued something. I responded. Nothing more, nothing less.


Ryan said...

I feel no disrespect nor condescension. That was a respectful response, overall.

And, yes... in general I have more of an axe to grind with the Christian community as whole as opposed to you or your blog in particular. I apologize if you feel that you received more frustration from me than you deserved. It wasn't personal.

I guess I don't understand how a fiction novel somehow deserves a theological run-down, but a theological blog can't handle the same scrutiny. You are criticizing Young's book for not being theology adept, and I am criticizing your blog at not being practically adept.

So, I guess I believe when the Mongolian BBQ decides to tell the burger joint how to run a burger joint, it seems as if it opens itself up to the similar criticism of said burger joint. Or at least it is now open to be criticized on its merits for criticism.

This blog is entitled, "from orthodoxy to orthopraxy." The title is the reason I became interested in the blog in the first place. Yet, I find this post to be less focused on orthopracticalities and more on orthodoxy. I wonder if a discussion with those whom the book has affected may be more productive than criticizing a fictional book on its view of God.

Finally, the Bible lends itself to many interpretations. And I am certain that Young would defend his own views on God the very same way you do, by appealing to scripture. When I asked where this "truth" about God is to be found, what I meant was, which "Scriptural" truth is correct? And who decides this?

Bill Faris said...


To answer your last question about who decides which scriptural truth is correct: I do (just kidding -- sort of).

Let's suppose for a minute that I was the guy who was somehow entrusted with the role of deciding "correct scriptural truth". We would still have a situtation in which some people would sgree with me and others wouldn't. So, ultimately, we wouldn't be in any better position than we are now vis-a-vis the Bible's claim to correctly reveal the truth about God, eternity, the cosmos, etc.

That's why (to borrow my son's phrase), theology matters. Because theology is your and my thoughtful and heartfelt endeavor to understand the correct interpretation of scripture for ourselves. It is part of the command to "love God with your...mind...".

Once considered "the Queen of the Sciences", theology has been cast aside by many folks who simply don't want to exercise the mental/spritual/communitarian muscle to actual work stuff out (accepting, of course, that we can honestly disagree on some matters while asserting that there are other matters that are non-negotiable -- see I Cor.15, for example).

I am a banter weight theologian compared to many (including my son), but even a weenie like me respects theology and theologians (including the ones whose interpretations I question) because they try to think hard about God, the Bible and the like and make application (I think thats what orthodoxy and orthopraxy are about).

And, respectfully, if you haven't found this website (which pays me nothing to say this) doesn't tackle issues of the practice of the faith, I challenge you to dig a little deeper than you apparently have.

And one more thing: Johnnie -- get that chip off your shoulder and keep reading and writing here, dude, lest the rest of us grow bored!

Ryan said...


I absolutely agree with you. I'll be honest, I've had an answer to that question myself, I was just interested in other thoughts.

I guess for me, interpretation comes down to experience. Maybe you disagree, but from your comment, it doesn't seem like you do. Wrestling, grappling, and continuing to ask hard questions is what theology is all about. And different interpretations are formed by experience.

My comments here were just an attempt to add another perspective to the debate. Young has had a unique experience with God and has interpreted the Bible in a way different than this blog. Is his any less of a heartfelt endeavor than those who write this blog? Or those who read his book?

There is a reason why so many people are talking about this book. What is it? What has this book touched on that this website has not?

I don't think a book with this much of a response can be flippantly thrown out as "wrong" without a deeper conversation.

That's all...

Charity Leslie said...

This is a departure from the most recent comments to this post, but I feel compelled to write something about The Shack. So far, everyone I've spoken with about this book feels deeply impressed by its content. When it was first given to me, I was extremely skeptical about a writer taking on the voice of the trinity. Because so many people were coming to me with questions about the book's take on the Trinity, I eventually began to read The Shack for the sake of discussion.

When I came to the introduction of the Trinity, I was as deeply disturbed as I'd anticipated. Nothing in the character of God that inspires my life was present to me in those three representations. And here's why:

1) I am truly blessed to have an emotionally healthy father. That's a rare gift in this age. Many of my friends who have painful relationships with their fathers expressed to me that once the masculine nature of the Father was out of the way, they could truly connect with God. My soul aches over that! It would be like a man proposing to a woman by saying, "Once I was able to look past the nuisance of your femininity, I decided I could spend my life with you." The Father is a father, a man with masculine traits, and He has the power to rise up with healing in His wings to restore faith in fatherhood to an orphaned generation.

2) As a student of literature with aspirations to write as a career, I am struck by the audacity of writing in the voice of the Trinity. I grew up non-denominational without a lot of legalism in my spiritual diet. But, I have clear boundaries when it comes to the Trinity. Some things should not be done, and speaking on behalf of God in a non-prophetic manner is one of those things. It is way across the line. How does one compose a sentence on God's behalf without cringing? I rarely lean on the side of conservativism when it comes to art (I'll just admit that openly), but I could not be pressed upon to write as God.

It is very upsetting when people casually declare literature to be "just stories." Story-telling is one of the most powerful forms of expression, hence God's own use of it through Scripture. A friend of mine had an unbelieving co-worker ask her if they could read The Shack together so they could discuss its content. It's a lot more than a story and it is attempting explicitly to communicate the nature of the Trinity.

I just finally had to say all of that to someone somewhere.