The Shack 4: Some Celebrations

Having defended the genre of The Shack, and having offered some theological demurrals, let’s conclude with some delight in the good things Brother Young brings us in this book.

First, The Shack brings us pictures of the triune God that seem to me to convey a great deal of Biblical truth. Like any picture, they are partial. But they convey God’s love, God’s goodness, God’s patience, God’s forgiveness, God’s seriousness, God’s pragmatism, God’s industry, God’s understanding, God’s humour, and God’s creativity, among other divine virtues. The Shack also helps us see those qualities come out in the three members of the Trinity.

Now, that’s a lot to convey (!), and to do so in good proportion and combination is a remarkable achievement and a significant gift.

(Some critics fret that Brother Young has broken the commandment against graven images—which would be true if he had, in fact, produced a graven image and if he had done so as an ancient Israelite giving in to the lure of idolatry. Since he didn’t, and he didn’t, then we can put the stones down and let him be on his way. The Bible itself gives us verbal descriptions of God—from the visions of a number of Old Testament prophets to the Revelation given to John. Brother Young is simply following their lead.)

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu. I found them convincing and therefore inspirational. I encourage you to spend time in their company also.

Second, I think The Shack handles well some difficult and important theological issues, such as the way Jesus depends on the Holy Spirit in his earthly career (a topic that in academic theology is known as kenosis); the way forgiveness is taught as something we do, regardless of the offender’s behaviour, and how liberating it is; and the idea that God can, and just might, use extraordinary means to communicate with us, while he generally works through the usual means of grace. (Protagonist Mack is the only one in the book depicted as having had this sort of experience, particularly in distinction to his godly wife Nan who apparently doesn’t need it.)

And this brings me to my third and last issue: revelational accommodation. The Shack is Brother Young’s attempt to speak of God, and it depicts God’s attempt to speak of God to Mack. The central rhetorical issue here is accommodation: How does God speak in such a way as to communicate well with the audience in view?

God decides to speak to an Oregonian middle-aged twenty-first century white man, and God thus adopts forms, uses concepts and vocabulary, creates tableaux, and acts all in such a way as to make sense to the object of his loving communication.

Does this communication of God say everything? Of course not: how could it? More to the point, does it say all that might be said on its topics in perfect proportion? Why should it? God is communicating to this audience at this time in order to achieve these purposes. God is not speaking to everyone everywhere. When he did that, he had to put together a very complicated book with a very complicated person, Jesus Christ, at its centre.

Furthermore, we appreciate the accommodational limitations of William P. Young’s book itself. It, too, can’t say everything, nor can it say what it says for the ages and for everyone.

(So the critics who accuse Brother Young of fomenting goddess worship [!] really do need to calm down and look again at what he’s trying to do: write a novel of how God might have met a particular person in such a way as to help him at that particular moment. Criticisms such as these give the literal reading of Scripture—the time-honoured principle of submitting to the Bible’s authority according to its various literary forms—the bad name of genre-deaf “literalism.” Sheesh.)

No, let’s take the experience of reading The Shack the way the book’s protagonist took the experience of visiting it: as a necessarily limited accommodation to his capacities and needs, the thing he needed to receive right then.

If a book can be that, it’s a good book indeed . . .

. . . as I think The Shack truly is.

0 Responses to “The Shack 4: Some Celebrations”

  1. Jen

    I think books like The Shack, and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity? are changing the way Christians think about God by challening deeply held traditional assumptions that are not biblical. Both books changed my life for the positive. I’d recommend them both for that reason.

  2. Ferg

    Thank you so much for the reviews. after reading so much criticism, which i thought was unfair, it’s great to see some perspective and encouragement about the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  3. Jason Goroncy

    Professor Stackhouse,

    Many thanks for posting these four reflections which I’ve thoroughly appreciated reading.

  4. dangoldfinch

    Professor,

    Thank you for these posts. I have been encouraged greatly by this book, The Shack, and your posts have enhanced my reading and understanding. Thank you.

    jerry

  5. Jerry M

    Thanks for the book reviews!

    I visited our local Christian bookstore and one of the ladies said I really ought to read this as a pastor – So I did figuring I really don’t read much Christian fiction.

    My overall impression was not positive for a couple reasons. Eugene Peterson’s comparison of the Shack to Pilgrim’s Progress was way over the top. Also I felt the focus drifted quite a bit. The book seemed to move in the direction of dealing with the problem of evil and next thing you know God the Father is showing up as an African American woman. This struck me as simply bizarre and over imaginative and left me with little hope of finding anything of value in the book. In fact, If I hadn’t been on vacation with just a couple books I probably wouldn’t have finished it. My wife has scolded me for already exchanging ‘The Shack’ at Half Price Books because of the poor price they give you for your used stuff. However, I knew I wouldn’t be referring to it in a sermon or loaning it to anyone for edification. What else can you do with your used copy of the Shack?

  6. Bob

    I read the book based on Eugene’s high recommendation. It didn’t seem like a Pilgrims Progress but more suited for a spot on Oprah W’s show. I respected Peterson immensely and don’t understand his review.

  7. Doug

    Professor,

    Thank you for your thoughtful look at The Shack. I appreciate the fact that you always seem to “bend over backwards” to be fair when you are critiquing and criticizing. We need much more of this in the evangelical world!

    As for the book, I confess that I stoppped half-way through and put it down. I felt emotionally mugged by the story-line. It was as if the author was saying to me, “you WILL become emotionally involved and in order to MAKE SURE that you do, I will use a small child in a sundress getting abducted by a crazed killer (every parent’s worst nightmare).

    If this had been a work of non-fiction, I would have been interested to see how a person of faith deals with such a horrifying trial. But as a work of fiction, I felt like I had been blackmailed.

    But…for what it’s worth…my wife enjoyed it. ‘

    Blessings on you.

  8. John Stackhouse

    I don’t know what Eugene Peterson meant by his reference to “Pilgrim’s Progress” in his cover blurb for this book. Let’s be clear that he doesn’t equate the books, but instead speaks of the effect of this book on the current generation being similar to that of “Pilgrim’s Progress” on a previous one. That said, I confess I still scratch my head over the blurb and if anyone knows what Brother Peterson meant, do tell.

    I maintain that Brothers Jerry, Bob, and Doug are abandoning something worthwhile. I understand their various resistances. I have registered more than a few concerns myself.

    But I think that if you allow for this book not being a work of sophisticated fiction by an experienced writer and if you allow for the fact that it is parabolic, and therefore employs vivid images to make certain particular points (and not offer comprehensive and universal depictions), then the book offers some deeply encouraging stuff. Read it through a theological and literary filter, yes, but let that filter take away what you find upsetting and let what is nourishing and soothing and inspiring get through.

    Having said all that, however, we will agree, I’m sure, that some people won’t like the book because they just won’t like it, and we fans must allow our friends refuge in “chacun à son goût”!

  9. RonW

    I read The Shack this weekend. It reminded me of Brennan Manning’s writing, specifically The Ragamuffin Gospel. I agree with you, Dr. Stackhouse, on the theological points of discussion and I think, as you point out, there are ways around them. I’m rather cynical when it comes to products that are marketed by the Christian book industry so it was surprising to me that this book threw such an emotional punch. Granted the writing is a little awkward at time and it could have benefited with a sharper edit but it is an engaging story that leads the reader into thinking about how they encounter God and respond to the call of God in their life.

    As I was reading the book, I kept thinking of this quote from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

    “The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. …

    “Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.”

    • bethany

      In response to RonW’s last paragraph above:
      As a Christian and a Physics Teacher, I see the opposite to be true. The definition of “centrifugal” is a false force. It is fake, fictitious, and not true. Literal translation: center-fleeing. It is a feeling that one experiences when traveling in a circular path. It is the objects desire to fly tangent to the curve but can’t because it is held in place by a force pulling it to the center. This, in my opinion, would be an example of Buddhism. On the other hand, “centripetal” is a true force; one that literally means: center-seeking, which is what we as Christians should do daily, moment by moment, seek Christ who is our center. The circle size changes infinite times as the One controlling the force so chooses but we will always be drawn to the center.

  10. ianwayne

    As a twenty-year-old going to school at a Nazarene university, I can say that I understand kind of understand the “Pilgrims Promise” comment. PP has helped to define the christian walk for certain generations. “The Shack” is helping to define that walk for my generation.

    I know that to some, the image of “father” God as a woman (not to mention a black woman) is a bit jarring. But to my generation it fits. We don’t tend to see god as Michaelangelo’s big old man, we see God as something too big to define. The black woman is simply one aspect of God. (and with this, comes the understanding that nothing could possibly give us a perfectly complete picture of God, because God is too big for our human understanding)

    Secondly, to those who put the book down because they don’t think it is worth while I say this: pick it back up. While it may not represent your view of religion, it does represent the new wave of christian thought.

    Personally, I found it to be a decent read (the plot was pretty lame, but I managed to get past that). My only problem with it was that, it wasn’t revolutionary or shocking. In fact, it paints a picture of God that was already in my head.

  11. MelS

    Thank you Prof. Stackhouse for your helpful, balanced criticisms and ‘delights’ in your four blogs on ‘The Shack’. If your own book contains the same great humor found in these blogs, I’ll have to check it out.

    ‘The Shack’ had a definite impact on me. I thought the writing was sometimes amateurish, but then I’d read a wonderfully written paragraph, like the one in Chapter 1 describing the feeling when ‘storms interrupt routine’.

    Thanks again for your treatment of the book.

  12. james parker

    I do fear for the future of this “new wave” of the “Church” (?)! If “The Shack” and “Pagan Christianity” are setting the pace, then may God help us (and He will, Matthew 16:18). Both books are patently unbiblical. “Pagan…” is an a-historical (i.e. non-historical), unbiblical rant that attacks the very heart of God, by (among other lies) calling His shepherds “thieves” who are “obstacles” to Christians functioning as Christians. The “Shack” is nothing less than a systematic repudiation of Scripture, and the religion (yes “religion”, James 1:27, for any of you who still hold Scripture as the Word of God) contained therein. Young’s satanic lie (see 2 Corinthians 4:4) that Jesus “has no desire to make anyone Christian”, says it all for those who truly are Christian. There is, indeed, “death in the pot” (2 Kings 4:40) and Stackhouse, Barna, et al are serving it up to the unwary! Beware (Hosea 4:6)!

  13. John Stackhouse

    Brother Parker, you seem to have already forgotten my warnings in posts 2 and 3, particularly in terms of your last point about “making anyone Christian.”

    And I certainly trust that “The Shack” will not be anyone’s guide to theology, since it is so confused, even incorrect, about so many things (as, indeed, I make clear in posts 2 and 3).

    At its best, it offers a lovely and loving view of the triune God, an imaginative rendering of the heart of the Gospel: that God so loved the world. That’s a message that we all need to hear, and some of us have helpfully heard it this way. Others of us don’t find Young’s way of putting it nearly so helpful, and that’s fine, of course.

    “Death in the pot”? That’s an exciting phrase, but I suggest you reserve it for a much more worthy target.

  14. Alex

    I know I’m late to the conversation, but I only just finished the book. Brother Stackhouse, thank you for your very helpful reviews. I’m a pastor and mainly read ‘The Shack’ because of the waves it’s causing. My wife didn’t particularly like it. I didn’t want to like it. But once I got past chapter 4 (I have two young daughters, a bit close to the bone), I couldn’t put it down. I literally cried and laughed. But I also had nagging concerns about some of the book’s theology.

    Your reviews have helped me to be able to shape my own response, to be able to affirm the good and critique the errors. Thank you for your gracious, balanced and truthful response.

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  16. L Tuning

    I read The Shack a couple of weeks ago because an old friend had spoken so highly of it but told me that someone else had told her that his pastor was telling his congregation not to read it. As the mother of three girls, the youngest being 5, the story line hit me hard. I had tears streaming down my face more than once while reading it. I was startled when God, the Father, appeared as a black woman, but then, knowing the man had deep issues with male authority figures I asked myself would God do that for someone in that kind of pain and I believe He would. And once the man had received healing in that area of his life God returned to a male figure, so I found that very personal. However, when I got to the part on hierarchy, scripture began to flood my mind that contradicted what the God character was saying, I believe others refer to this as some of the book’s theology. I will certainly not recommend this book to a new believer as I think it may cause confusion. I finished the book to see how the author was going to handle the topic. I found myself praying and asking God how do parents who have lost a child to such horror get through it? Mind you, a woman in my town had just had her husband and young daughter murdered a week before I started reading the book so it was tough reading. I do believe the book pointed to the answer both in a scriptural and emotional way… forgiveness. The book pointed out that Jesus did indeed die for all and desires that all come to repentance. A tough topic that is not taught in today’s “you have rights” church. I take issue with the book as a whole because I don’t believe we need a new perspective of Christianity. In this age of being seeker sensitive, far too many churches have gone to that extreme and made the scriptures watered down and impotent towards real life change. I did come away touched by the representation of God’s great care for us, however, I found the theology represented troubling, and for me, it overshadowed the good towards recommending it. I will not bash the book nor the author, but neither will I suggest it as must read material and if asked about it I will voice my concerns. I also found the comparison to Pilgrims Promise disturbing and misleading. I should have known that there would be issues with the book since Christian bookstores were showcasing it.

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