It 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).