Wm. Paul Young: The Shack
A friend persisted in asking me to read The Shack. Although it has been a "#1 New York Times Bestseller", it came on the radar when I was in a busy season, so I'm not sure I would have read it or even noticed it-- without Jeff's encouragement.
I'm really glad I read it. Beyond enhancing my "cultural relevancy" (LOL!), The Shack was thought-provoking. Although I wouldn't say that I agree with everything in it-- especially where one must speculate a good bit to draw inferences-- I'm a wheat and chaff guy. And for whatever chaff Young delivers, he brings a lot of wheat to the table as well.
Young's book is well-crafted and an easy read. On occasion, the conversations come off as stilted, but that's difficult to avoid in a book so dominated by dialogue. And the book might not be easy to handle emotionally or theologically for some people-- an important point to which I'll return shortly.
In a nutshell, comparing it to some other relatively famous books, I'd say it's:
1.) 50% The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis;
2.) 30% The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee or The Saving Life of Christ by Ian Thomas; and
3.) 20% Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen.
1.) The Shack is a cousin of Lewis' book on Heaven and Hell in that it speculates on biblical topics that are vital but not clearly delineated in the Scriptures. (In the subject of his speculation, Young's work is more closely related to Joseph Girzone's "parable", Joshua-- a book I read and remember liking a long time ago. But Young's view is also Lewis-like in that "the real world" is much more real than our world.) The Bible provides principles and pictures on the subject described by Young and Lewis. But trying to get "more concrete" requires speculation. One might argue that we should not move beyond what is laid out explicitly. But I don't see the harm in wrestling with the possibilities-- as long as we avoid heresy. And I see the potential for great gain in such wrestling.
As Tim Challies points out in his decision not to review the subsequent film, it is potentially much more bothersome to see God in flesh, rather than merely to read about it. Alcorn also quotes Challies on a similar concern-- that Mack's responses are far too tame when he encounters God. Then again, was it a sin to see George Burns ("Oh God" and its sequel) and Morgan Freeman (Bruce/Evan Almighty) in the role of God?! (h/t: Dave Carlsen) Was it a sin when people could stand in the presence of George and Morgan? Why is it different if the take on God is humorous rather than serious?
In fact, at some level, we are commanded to do this. For example, we cannot "know" God. As A.W. Tozer notes, we limit Him every time we describe Him-- even with words like "infinity" (since we don't know what that means). And yet, we are called to deeper relationship, to understand Him better, and to explain Him more effectively to others.
Like Lewis, Young works (effectively) to give himself wiggle room within his artistic portrayal. (Young uses basic literary devices at the beginning and the end of the book.) This is absolutely key because it indicates the speculative nature of his work-- and it signals that Young does not take himself or the details of his picture too seriously. (This panel discussion from City on a Hill emphasizes this important point.)
2.) The Shack points to the importance of the "Spirit-filled life" within "sanctification". I benefited tremendously from more traditional, straight-forward works like Nee and Thomas. But Young is trying to communicate some of the same principles through narrative/fiction.
This is both vital and vastly under-sold within the Church. Too often, people try to "live out the Chistian life" in their own power-- "the flesh". The result is sub-optimal in terms of outcomes, motives, perseverance, energy, and so on. But it isn't meant to be that way. Christ himself said that it was for our own good that He would leave the Earth-- so that the Spirit would come to empower believers to live that life through us (Jn 14:26, 16:7).
The analogy I learned from my pastor in Texas is helpful here: Would you have a better chance to win a golf tournament with 20 lessons from Tiger Woods (assuming he's as good a teacher as he is a player)-- or if Tiger played from within you?
The result? Christ promised: "anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (Jn 14:12). Not greater in terms of quality, but in terms of quantity. Christ, in human form, limited himself in time and space. The Spirit living through innumerable believers can accomplish far more. And Christ could not accomplish as much as an external teacher-- compared to the Spirit who can teach, inspire, and empower from within.
Young writes: "Religion is about having the right answers, and some of their answers are right. But I am about the process that takes you to the living answer and once you get to him, he will change you from the inside."
This may sound like mumbo-jumbo to non-believers-- and even to believers who see their faith as more rules than relationship, more external than internal, more duty than opportunity. But it is actually at the heart of Christian living and discipleship to Christ.
3.) Young's work is like Osteen's in that it can be misread by some-- and is, at the same time, especially relevant for certain audiences. I've already argued this in my review of Osteen's book. I would recommend both books to most people who have been "wounded" by circumstances, a church, or the Church-- especially if they can read it alongside a mature believer. (The catalyst for the book's premise is a profoundly sad/tragic event and how it impacts the main character's view of God and life.) In the City on a Hill video, Tim Byron sees the appeal of The Shack to those who can believe in God, but "can't believe in a God who did (not)..." Beyond that, Young's book will also appeal to many "seekers".
That said, the book could easily be misunderstood and misapplied by those who tend to read things (too) literally. Despite the ample praise the book has received, I think that's the reason for the bulk of the criticism launched at it. In particular, Hank Hanegraaff's (surprisingly and perhaps tellingly brief) critique is a bit perplexing in that he often emphasizes the importance of literary type in understanding Scripture (especially Revelation), but he doesn't extend the same principle to Young's book. (The CRJ review of the movie is balanced.)
Randy Alcorn has a really balanced piece-- helped, in (large?) part by his ability to sit down and talk with Paul Young. (There's a lesson there!) Derek Keefe provides a nice overview of the debate on the Christianity Today blog. (In this Books and Culture article, Katherine Jeffrey works to "situate" the book in the "Christian literary landscape".) He opens by citing two articles by Cathy Lynn Grossman in USA Today-- here and here-- as well as critiques by "several conservative Protestant heavyweights" (Al Mohler, Chuck Colson, Mark Driscoll, and influential blogger Tim Challies). Keefe also notes Eugene Peterson's "over-the-top endorsement" on the book's back cover. (I would also point you to a defense by those closely involved in the project.)
Challies (h/t: Shawn Loy) also has a useful piece on Young's non-fiction theological effort-- much more problematic, given the literary approach. By tipping his hand with argument vs. allegory, we see the various faults in his work. (This is akin to moving from Tim LaHaye's lousy fiction to his incoherent eschatology as developed in his non-fiction.)
I also enjoyed this FT review of the film which notes The Shack's connection to (arguably) one of the two dominant American deities these days-- what Christian Smith labeled "moral therapeutic deism"-- with the god of The Shack as the ultimate therapist.