Christmas Break Reading, Part 1: “The Shack”

the-shack.jpgIt seems to me that one of the things a good pastor does (not that I presume to be one) is that he reads a few books he may not really want to read, but reads because a lot of people are reading them and figures he should be aware of what people in his flock are reading and be ready to have some useful things to say about it.

That was the motivation behind me reading The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, which was mostly boring and wildly misleading.  And that was the motivation behind me reading The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren and Velvet Elvis, by Rob Bell, which were both pretty decent.  Honestly, I’m just not a good enough pastor to have read Your Best Life Now, by Joel Osteen.  I knew it would make me want to break commandments, not to mention windows, coffee mugs, bookstore displays, highlighters, etc., so I just avoided it.

But this was the motivation behind me reading a few other books I finished over Christmas break, none of which fit exactly into either the “mostly boring” or “pretty decent” category.  One of them is in the “really-pretty-bad-but-not-entirely-worthless” category, and one—to my delighted surprise—has made the “this book may change my life forever” category. (Its review will follow this one.)

The popularity of the The Shack, by William P. Young, is really quite amazing—having sold over 2 million copies since it’s 7/1/08 release.  Admirably, most of the sales have been word-of-mouth driven and have not over-relied on high-power advertising and PR campaigns.  Almost as popular as the book itself, however, is the new pastime of Shack-bashing that has largely been led by reformed evangelicals (see Mark Driscoll’s [mostly correct] rant here).  For whatever reason, I have a built-in inclination to come to the defense of the “team” that’s getting bashed on, even when the bashing seems mainly to be coming from my own team.  So, when I sat down to read The Shack, I was predisposed to extend a great deal of sympathy in hopes of offering a bit more of an even and charitable review.

Quite honestly, The Shack has made that endeavor very, very difficult for me.  Several times I wanted to quit reading and get on to something less… well… lame, but I wanted to be fair and be sure to be charitable before I was sharply critical.  So, here’s my best crack at that.

On a positive note: The Shack is a mildly entertaining and sometimes thoughtful book.  Young tries to explain what God is like, and where he (or, in this case, “she”) is in the midst of tragedy in ways that are narratival and easy to understand for the average Joe.  The interesting introductory story snaps along at an enjoyable and engaging clip for the first 80 pages (before it trainwrecks).  And at a few points Young explains the God of the Bible in interesting and provocative ways.

He gets right to the heart of human distrust of, and faithlessness toward, God at one point: “The real underlying flaw in your life…is that you don’t think that I am good.  If you knew I was good and that everything—the means, the ends, and all the processes of individual lives—is all covered by my goodness, then while you might not always understand what I am doing, you would trust me.  But you don’t” (126).

He offers a piercing and spot-on critique of American evangelicalism at one point: [God speaking] “I’m not too big on religion…and I’m not very fond of politics or economics either….  And why should I be?  They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceived those I care about.  What mental turmoil and anxiety does any human face that is not related to one of those three?” (179).

And there are a few other useful things said well in the book.

Unfortunately, this book that is being read by millions of people is often times wildly deceiving.  And it would take a much longer post than this to detail and discuss every place where it goes wrong.  So, I’ll just explain my main concern that encompasses all other concerns about the book: My main concern with people reading The Shack is that biblical illiteracy is at an all time high.  Evangelicals on the whole (particularly those 50 and under) really do not have a good grasp on what the Bible teaches as a whole.  The problem is particularly acute among evangelicals 25 and under—a generation among whom the book has enjoyed great popularity.

Into this environment of evangelical biblical illiteracy, then, comes The Shack, a book that paints a picture of a God that is happy, kind, wise, nice, loving, comforting, fair, funny, and friendly, but who is entirely domesticated.  The God of The Shack is a God that nobody would have a problem with, whether they have been transformed by Christ or not.  He is a God that displays everything everyone loves about God and none of the things that people struggle with.  He is a God made in the image of what we might like God to be like.  In short, He/She is not the God of the Bible.

So, my biggest concern is that people who have not read the Bible much are going to read The Shack and find a God that they really like, who makes complete sense to them, who doesn’t require much faith to trust, who is easy to deal with, and who doesn’t offend anyone.  And then these same people will come to the Bible and find a God that they just don’t like as much as the God of The Shack: A God who speaks powerfully in and through the Scriptures (contra p. 65), who has a Son that is completely original (contra p. 99-100 [Here, by the way, Young is particularly sloppy—his understanding of Christ’s nature sometimes sounds Mormonistic]); who does not love everyone exactly the same but who, in some sense, hates sinners (see Ps. 26:5, 31:6; Rom. 9:13, contra p.119); who punishes people for their sin and punishes Christ for the sin of those who belong to him (contra p. 120); who exists in a hierarchy of Father, Son, and Spirit (contra p. 122-23); who is not “submitted” to us (contra p. 145); who does call us to be his “slaves” or “bondservants” (contra p. 146); who does want women to seek provision and protection from worthy men (contra p. 147); who does want us to take Christ as our literal example of how to live (contra p. 149); who judges people and sends them to Hell for their sin and for rejecting Christ (contra p. 162-63); who plans and brings to pass even tragic events (contra p. 164-65); who does have rules and commands that he expects us to follow (contra p. 198); who does not remove any and all laws from us, but places us under the “law of Christ” (see 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2, contra p. 203); who does call us to responsibility (contra p. 205); who is grieved, frustrated, and disappointed with the disobedience of his people (contra p. 206); who does bring “godly guilt” to us when we have sinned (see 2 Cor. 7:9-11, contra p. 223); who does not think of everyone as a “son” or “daughter” of God if they are not in Christ (see 1 John 3:1, contra p. 224); and who has not forgiven all people (contra p. 225).

I love the God of the Bible—even when he is difficult to understand or isn’t what I, with my corrupted heart, might prefer him to be. In the end, I fear that this book will do significant damage to the American evangelical church and should not be read by anyone who does not already have a firm, biblical understanding of God in place.  On a personal note, and in illustration of this, before I finished The Shack, I had purchased a copy for my mom for Christmas because I enjoyed the first 80-100 pages and thought she might benefit from it. But I finished the book on Christmas Eve and, on the way to my parents’ house on the 26th, stopped by a book store and returned it because I thought it would be harmful for her to read.  Instead, I bought her a copy of Crazy Love, by Francis Chan—one of the best books I’ve ever read (see forthcoming review).


15 thoughts on “Christmas Break Reading, Part 1: “The Shack””

  1. Of the 75 “best books Bryan’s ever read” where does Crazy Love fall?

    I read the editorial reviews and it looks good. I am looking forward to your review.

    P.S. Can you also give advice on how we can convince our wives to let us buy yet another book you have recommended?

  2. Thank you Bryan for your thoughtfulness. I am
    enjoying and benefiting from your decison of Crazy Love as I have from your other choices in
    books for me.

  3. It would be tough to think that every time I shared my experiences with God’s grace in my life, people would be so caught up in judging my words that they would miss my heart. I believe that this is what William Young was trying to do. I was encouraged by the book. I think your mother would be too.

  4. The author will be speaking at Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley in January if anyone is interested in a first hand account. It might be interesting to hear how he responds to some of the things he put in print.

  5. Eric,

    Young is sharing his “heart” through his words. How else do I have access to his heart but through what he has put down on paper? When you write a book you are responsible for the words you use to convey your message, not just the “heart” behind it.

    And my hope in what I have written is that I have placed God’s Word in judgment of Young’s words and heart, not myself. I don’t have any right to judge Young’s words, of course, but, insofar as it is God’s Word, Scripture certainly does.

  6. It is posts like this that give me one more reason to attend Fusion. It is becoming too rare for a church leader to mix biblical capacity with a willingness to see through other’s eyes, without becoming diluted.

    You said, “biblical illiteracy is at an all time high”. I would like to add to that – (unfortunately) biblical illiteracy behind the pulpit is also at an all time high.

    Thank you for dipping your toe in the pool with The Shack. While I try to not judge a thing before I have had a chance to see it for myself, there is simply not enough time to taste and touch everything passing through the Christian world’s yard. Your review seems balanced and sane.

  7. interestingly enough my brother who attends Calvary Lutheran Church in GV asked me if I had heard of this book and that they were being asked about it in the congregation at Calvary. Thanks Bryan, I am going to share this with him because like Lyle, I don’t have the time to read it.

    It does make me wonder why so many people buy and read Osteen, Dan Brown, and now this book but don’t read the Bible.

    Hence the reaction so many have had to your anecdote of Pastor Steve Goold and his well worn Bibles…..

  8. Hey Bryan,
    Great review. I am particualrly interested in your thoughts on biblical illiteracy, the subject I have been dwelling on in the last couple of weeks. I am saddened by the research results I’ve seen on biblical illiteracy within the church. I am not surprised though, since I’m a guy who grew up “going to church” but left for college never having read the Bible. I talked to my Dad about biblical illiteracy over Christmas, and he amazed me with his candor when he, a 61-year-old man who is both a leader in his church and a lifetime “church-attender,” looked at me and said “I wish I was biblically literate.”
    I have undertaken a 90 day Bible reading program I am calling Immersion. I’m documenting the journey online in order to open discussion on the subject of biblical illiteracy. At the risk of imposing, if anyone is interested in following along, or even joining me, you can read and comment on my blog
    I’m curious, Bryan. What would you say are the 2-3 things churches/pastors can do to combat biblical illiteracy in the church?

  9. Kyle,

    I know you asked Bryan how to combat biblical illiteracy. And I’m no Pastor Bryan!! But here’s my stab at it:

    Good teaching.

    I think good teaching needs to take into account the learning level of the student. So, enough with these Sunday School classes and Bible Studies where everyone pretends to know what is going on.

    Instead, come at every topic fresh as if the learners don’t really understand it yet. Not condesceningly. Just complete, organized, and with a purpose. Plus, most learners need multiple access points such as audio, visual, graphical, charts etc.

    And, we learners need to get an ounce of humility and pipe up when we are lost. (Which is probably most of the time at a certain level).

    This is not unique to Bible teaching. All teaching suffers from it. I’m exposed to graduate/PhD level teaching all the time and it is frankly terrible!

    We assume that we all know what is going on. In fact, we’re all slightly lost! Why: Because we are lazy learners and our teachers aren’t really meeting us where we are at.

    So, my answer to Biblical Illiteracy (and all advanced literacy, for that matter), is:

    Good teachers, Humble Learners.

    I’m sure Bryan has a better answer but this is a start!


  10. And by the way PB, thanks for being such a great Learner, because that is what makes you a great teacher. And thanks for reading all these books and taking the Time and Effort to tell us about them!

  11. I think one thing which would help those who want to know the bible more but feel intimidated by it, would be a chronological overview of the bible story. It would start at the logical place, creation. Then it would progress through the story of what was going on with Israel, from the exodus to their various captivities. Then on to the gospel period and the acts period. That way, when someone wants to read a book, say for example the book of Ezra, they would have a sense of where it fits into the whole picture.

  12. I just returned from vacation. I took the book along and read it as I had promised my daughter I would. I can see where some of the thinking could come from in the book, but it does not fit my own beliefs about God.

    Thanks for your review.

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