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March 12, 2009

‘The Shack’

A Helpful Review

Over the last few months, I have been asked numerous times if I have read The Shack by William P. Young.  My initial reaction is the same as whenever someone asks about the latest, greatest book: "No, I don't read most new books, especially those that are considered the latest and greatest by the most recent Christian celebrity author." 

I know, I know, that sounds quite critical. It's just that I have found most of these books to be a complete waste of time, frankly. A waste of time to read, and a waste of time to critique.  Typically, they are either mushy foolishness (i.e. Your Best Life Now), theologically bankrupt (i.e. Your Best Life Now), or literally inept (i.e. Your Best Life Now). I know a lot of Christian thinkers really get worked up about these various books. Sometimes they have very good reason to get worked up (i.e. A New Kind of Christian), and sometimes they are reducing years off their life for a book that isn't going to make much of an impact a year from now (i.e. Your Best Life Now).

Personally, I am much more concerned about how we are reading than what we reading. Most of the students I work with, in high school and college, show just an utter lack of discernment in both their reading choices and their reading practice. Not that we should just read anything - that is actually my point. When the average Christian cannot tell the difference between good books and bad ones, the bigger problem is with the Christian who is reading and not the book being read.

I offer you two great quotes, and one great book, on this way of thinking: 

(1) "For every new book, read three old ones." (C.S. Lewis)

(2) "If you still buy the books at the front of the Christian bookstore, stop it." (Kevin Bywater)

(3) Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Penguin Books, 1985).

So, due to this, I have happily avoided the Shack. My review of it is simply, "Seriously, have you already read all the really good books out there? Have you made it through all of C.S. Lewis, Augustine's Confessions, the four books by David Wells on theology and culture, and Noebel's Understanding the Times?"

At the same time, I know that for many of the folks asking about it, they need to know because a colleague, friend or family member has been reading it and asking them about it. So, thankfully, a good friend of mine and colleague at Bryan College was confronted with the need to read the book and has written a review.  Dr. Kenneth Turner is an Old Testament scholar and an instructor for the Summit in Tennessee and Virginia. He is also Biblically and theologically astute, a discerning reader, thoughtful, and only alarmist if necessary. 

So, I offer you, with his permission, his take on the book, which I find thoughtful and thorough and a good example of discernment without resorting to mere disdain or embrace. It is not in an official "article" format, but I trust you will be able to navigate it. 

Thoughts on The Shack by Dr. Kenneth Turner

Why I (finally) read it:

Its general popularity among Christians and mixed reviews by people I respect (I've heard both claims and ecstasy and charges of heresy!) put this book in the "should-read-someday" category. But two recent things made me read it: (1) My wife's best friend's church is actually doing their Sunday morning services based on this book, and she wanted to converse with her about it; (2) in our Sunday school class we're discussing the doctrine of God, and I knew this book interacted in that area.

As a piece of literature:
I found it just okay. The 1st half was better than the 2nd, which got a bit choppy for my taste. A few moments were riveting, even tear-jerking, but not my cup of tea over all. Preference, I guess, whatever. I tend to be disappointed after hearing the "hype" of a movie or book.

Theological Errors:

These are things that come to mind immediately, and even those who like the book admit these. I will reflect on the significance of these below.

(1) God and Trinity - despite the orthodox statements (one God, three Persons), the portrayal is often modalistic, among other errors (and I'm not just talking about characterization - see below)

- Is "love" God's most basic attribute? - I only remember holiness mentioned one time

- Jesus - only pictured in his state of humiliation (and extended to the Father and Spirit), not in his state of exaltation [this may just be due to characterization, so it's not as big a deal to me]

(2) Faulty view of God's Providence, Sovereignty, Governance

(3) For all the talk of "love" (and "relationship")--which is so central to the book--it is ill-defined at best; I certainly did not see it consistent with a biblical understanding of love

(4) Faulty view of the Gospel - all flowing from the author's embrace of Christian Universalism (you can research both the term itself and the author's explicit embrace of it)

Denial of God's wrath - no hell for anyone

God's (same) love for all men without distinction - all are God's children; and we are asked to think of God's relationship to his children in the exact same way as we relate to our children

Inclusivist - along the lines of Christian Universalism, not universalism in general

(5) Rejection of all "authority" and "institutions" - it's sneaky b/c it starts out rejecting wrong views/applications of these (e.g., power plays, programs, abuse), but then rejects them outright as not part of God's design at all (even the Trinity has no hierarchy; neither does marriage nor the church; in fact, the church seems slighted throughout)

(6) The Bible - not sure how the Bible functions really; I liked the jab at WWJD and other parts, but couldn't grasp a consistent picture

More could be said, but these come to mind immediately. Having said all this, I thought the book did a great job at getting to the essence of sin as independence.* This is consistent with the book's emphasis on relationship (not all of which I agree with, but I liked most of it). Of all the theological categories, this one was most positive to me, and I hope I learned something from it.
On the Significance of Errors: 

(1) I've heard many say, in response to some of these objections, "It's fiction; it's just a story!" Yes, it is fiction. No, it is certainly not "just a story."

Fiction - as a piece of fiction, I am willing to allow for some license. For instance, I had no problem with most of the characterization, such as Papa being a Black woman. Despite what I said about Jesus above, I can live with the focused and limited portrayal. I enjoyed the Spirit's character the best.
Just a Story -  here's my biggest beef, b/c it's where I think the book is most dangerous. Because it's a story, many Xns will be drawn into its plot. Because it has enough connections to orthodox Xty (using much of the same lingo; rejecting much of the abuse we all have experienced in church and life), many will be drawn to its appeal against the status quo. But this book is highly theological in intent; so it cannot be "just" a story. That is, the author is intentionally (by his own admission) seeking to teach his readers about God and God's relationship to his creation. Therefore, examination of its theological claims is mandatory in my mind.

(2) This may not be the best comparison/contrast, but consider how we evaluate the theological truth of music.  A country music song often speaks of God or Jesus or the devil or prayer. If the song gets the theology wrong, I'm not offended, b/c God (etc.) is usually being brought in as an add-on to another point. But I would examine a hymn or praise song differently b/c it is intended to teach theological truth.  To me, the intent governs how much weight I must give to evaluation and scrutiny.  Since The Shack is explicitly and intentionally theological, it merits the criticism.

(3) In doing some research, I found it interesting that the original version of the book was more overt about its universalistic claims. The editors cut the most blatant statements out, though I think it is still evident. This goes to show the author's intent.

Final Thoughts: I am all for Christians discussing a book like this. I am glad for the "help"** some have gotten from it for their relationship with God. I myself (despite all these negatives) was moved at times--b/c I never had a good father-figure and especially now that I have three little girls. But I am fearful that many Christians are not able to be discerning enough to sift the wheat from the chaff.***  I am fearful that many will actually embrace the book's portrayal of God en toto, and the church will suffer the consequences.

Editor's (i.e. Stonestreet) Notes: 

* For more on sin, including sin as independence, see Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It Is Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1985)

** I appreciate that Kenneth put "help" in quotes in his final paragraph. In my view, it is somewhat helpful, but not ultimately helpful, to process past hurts. This book has been a catalyst for this, I think. However, evil is only dealt with via redemption, and it is important then to have a correct view of God's offense by evil and God's suffering by evil. If this review is correct, "help" is not fully available in this book;

*** I share Kenneth's skepticism with the ability of the church to discern well, as we lack real Biblically literacy.

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