The Shack, a Christian Book Review

March 16, 2017

I write this book review of The Shack -- from a Christian perspective. I cannot bring myself to see the motion picture because...

A pastor friend of mine met, and interviewed, the author of "The Shack." The conversation went something like this: Pastor: "Are you Mack?" Answer: "Well, yes and no; my name is not Mack, but I am the Mack in the book." Pastor: "Did those things actually happen to you?" Answer: "No." Pastor: "Then it is all fictional?" Answer: "Yes."

The author obviously has had seminary training (91,) evidenced by his use of certain biblical/theological words, names, and concepts ("the eternal chain of being," etc), and his theological bent, which often reflects Biblical truth, but leans towards the theological left.

Everybody associated with the book says it is fiction. Fictional writing has the specific purpose (among its many objectives) of reflecting reality by making up a story in what is, actually, an extended metaphor or allegory. It is, thereby, essentially hyperbolic---it stretches, exaggerates, even creates "truth" for effect. "Fiction" covers a wide range of literature from, say, a historical novel, much of which might be true (say, James Michener's "Texas,") to pure fantasy (as for instance, C. S. Lewis' "Perelandra," which is beautiful, but totally fantastical).

Obviously, the author desires to deal with some of the key issues of human experience: why is there pain and suffering in the world---especially for the innocent, how do we deal with such events, how do we forgive those who have hurt us, what is the nature of God, how do the three members of the Godhead relate to each other, how important are we humans to God, how shall we even conceive of God, what is heaven's resolution of such conundrums, etc.

If one comes away from the book knowing more about God, loving Him and His creation more, caring more deeply for others, being kinder in the face of the fallibilities (and sins!) of others, being less attached to this life and more attached to the one to come, more able to deal constructively with life's anomalies and tragedies, how to be more loving and patient, then the book can be a help, as all good parables are.

Fictional literature, however, presents certain dangers. It can only be made to say so much, and no more. It has limits. It can tell some truth but can never tell all the truth. It can be abused and be made to say more than the author/teller intended, or more than truth itself allows. (Theologians call that "making a parable walk on all-fours.") It may even come to trivialize the very truth the author intended to convey. (I am not sure anyone appreciates Jesus' humanity more by knowing he dropped the pancake batter!) Most important, the fiction may come to be truth to the reader rather than representing it. The theological truth which lies behind the parable---substantive reality---is, alone, what one can trust. And that is what one has in the Bible, and, ultimately, only there.

Much that the "God" of "Shack" tells us does express some truths about the one true and living God of the Bible, but much there is questionable:

(a) Against God's wishes, man took "power over the woman" at creation, violating His original intent in marriage (147-8),

(b) "Jesus" tells us that there would be fewer wars if women were "in charge" on earth (147),

(c) The author's (Jesus'?) gratuitous criticism of the "institutional" church is to be expected, as in common in much "Christian" fiction. There is much that is wrong in today's churches, but there is much that is right. And to say, as he does, that neither marriage nor the church is an institution, but a relationship is puerile; they are, if biblical, relationships---organisms, not organizations---but they exhibit characteristics of all earthly institutions, positive and negative. If the "institutional" church is so bad, why did the NT writers never counsel people to leave any of the obviously troubled churches in their day?

(d) The author leaves himself open to the charge of universalism, that is, that everybody will someday be saved. He admits that everybody's path "does not lead to heaven," but promises that God will never relent in seeking all men. Again, he does not answer the crucial question: does God finally "catch" every man? Is there, for anybody on the planet, a painful eternity? (161-167, 182)

(e) The God of "Shack" might be a pacifist who labels those who "send their little ones off to war" as sinners. (160)

(f) "Judgment" is so re-interpreted as to take it out of God's hands---which is obviously contrary to what the Bible everywhere explicitly teaches.

(g) He (again, the author or Jesus?) wants us to know that the child-molester was himself molested by someone, who was in turn molested by someone, who was in turn molested, etc., all the way back to Adam---and that, apparently, seriously (if not entirely) mitigates all guilt. (Classic theological liberals have a line: "To understand all is to forgive all," which, alas, does not pass the biblical test of personal responsibility. Let us admit that in many situations ameliorating circumstances must be considered, but that does not, cannot, relieve us from accepting responsibility for our own actions.)

(h) One of "God's" weakest attempts to alleviate Mack's pain in the loss of his child to a bestial pedophile is to assure Mack that, in her last desperate hours, his daughter knew God was with her, and her deepest concern was not for herself but for her parents and siblings and their suffering in her loss. To suggest such a thought on the part of a six-year-old would evoke horror from a loving father, and calls into question the seriousness of the writer. It is impossible to imagine any pastor offering such a "consolation" to a grieving parent in such a circumstance. That sort of theological psycho-babble may well be heard at some funerals, which in turn, causes honorable people to walk out of churches in disgust.

John Milton once famously said that he wished to "assert eternal Providence, and justify the ways of God to man." In the light of the admittedly incalculable difficulty of that challenge, our author has given a valiant attempt on the "providence" issue, but he has done much less than a stellar performance in justifying the ways of God to man.

Perhaps the essential truth which Mack means to convey is that knowing God intimately, and the importance of walking with Him in that relationship, is the greatest good, the ultimate goal, of human existence. Well and good, if that experience is defined by what, again, is substantive---God's objective word as illuminated by the Holy Spirit---and not by an emotional experience. Readers should ponder, carefully, what the author says in the foreword: "It's a little,, it is a lot on the fantastic side. Whether some parts of it are actually true or not, I won't be the judge." (12) Later he says, "Do I think that it's true? I want all of it to be true. (Emphasis mine.) Perhaps if some of it is not actually true in one sense, it is still true nonetheless---if you know what I mean." ("After Words") That's leftist intellectual hocus-pocus. And reminiscent of Alice in her Wonderland who said she tried to believe six impossible things every morning before breakfast. Jesus walked among us and died and rose again to give us something more substantive than that!

Bill Anderson
Grapevine, Texas