I think I have been asked one question more than any other, at least in terms of popular culture, in 2008: "Have you read The Shack yet?" The Shack, for those of you who are not paying attention, is the number one best-selling novel in America right now and it is written by a Christian author with an overtly Christian storyline. This in itself is amazing. Perhaps more amazingly, the theme of The Shack is not prophecy, or some strange speculation about the modern world, but rather it is story, a "parable" as the author describes it, about the nature of God as Trinity. Regardless of what you think about the book and whether you have read it or not, tell me, when was the last time a book dealing with the nature of God, that sought to reveal biblical truth in the process, became a number one bestseller?

Even more astounding is that The Shack is not published by a mainstream publisher. Its publishing history is a part of the story here. The story, written by William P. Young (pictured to the right), Willie
was released in 2007 by Windblown Media (Los Angeles). In its final pages, the author encourages readers to promote the book to friends by a word of mouth effort and with Internet discussion. It has apparently worked since the book is now being discussed all over the nation, by both Christians and non-Christians alike. Twice I had it in my hands in public places last week and both times people asked me, "Do you like that book? I see it everywhere and wonder if I should read it." I receive emails asking me about it almost every week.

There have been two marked responses to the book by Christians. Some love it, others hate it. I chalk up this vast divergence of responses to several factors. One is that some Christians have no imagination at all, and frankly do not even care to develop one. They do not understand allegory nor do they like it. Eugene Peterson is wired very differently and thus concludes on the cover of the book, "This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!" Now that is a little over the top, in my humble judgment, but then we are talking about a modern novel for modern readers. Bunyan’s classic is actually studied as English literature in universities. I doubt anyone will study The Shack that way now or later, especially a hundred years from now.

Having stated my reservation about some "over the top" comments praising The Shack I must say that the negative evangelical reactions against The Shack are almost all over the top as well. The reasons for these negative reactions obviously vary. Some see theological error in the book and react based on what they think is heresy. Others read "too much" into the book and thus get too much out of it. It is not a theology book. It is a novel for heaven’s sake.

I like what my friend Steve Brown said to me last week. "If I were attacking this book I would be very careful. It just might be that God is really using it. You could regret your attacks." Brown interviewed the author on his radio program. I plan to listen to it when I get time. Steve was impressed with the author and the book.

The question The Shack addresses is really this: "Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain and tragedy?" This means the book deals with the ancient question of theodicy; i.e. good and evil. It does so in a way that will not please those who look for theological flags to fly here and there. I found myself in basic agreement with the author’s overall approach, though his way of explaining divine sovereignty is not entirely filled out in an adequate way.

What I liked much more about The Shack was the way Young developed the nature of the relational Trinity and explained how all three persons are vital to our lives. I simply cannot recall reading a book on the Trinity that moved me the way this novel did. It is a simple, fast and powerful reading experience. I liked it and recommend that you read it. I would love to know what you think if you have actually read the book.

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  1. Adam S August 7, 2008 at 7:34 am

    I can’t wait for the negative comments. I liked the book. I agree it isn’t a literary masterpiece but very little in the Christian world could be considered that. But I agree it should be discussed. That is what frustrates me about some of the over the top opposition. Why could we have a discussion about Don Brown’s books and use that to be evangelistic but not have those same type of discussions with non-Christians. There have to be a ton of non-Christians reading this.

  2. Glenn August 7, 2008 at 10:40 am

    John, great review. When one knows William Young and his personal story behind The Shack, one must read this book in a generous way. Imagination is the key to understanding this book and many of his critics are lacking in imagination. Kudos for the courage to tackle a difficult subject, for laying out views to be debated while challenging readers. This is no easy task in Christian fiction! What I have taken away from The Shack is a deeper understanding of the relationship between a child of God and his “Papa” and learning to appreciate the humor, warmth and activity of the Trinity in the reality of our everyday lives. The Shack has stuck in my mind since I’ve read it, and I find myself pondering different points throghout each day. That alone is the mark of a good and effective parable!

  3. Bruce Newman August 7, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    I have bought a number of books based on your thoughts about them here and have not been sorry. The remark you made about Christians having no imagination is SO true. I grew up in a small town with a lot of time on my hands. I spent many hours reading science-fiction. As A Christian now I look back and can see a lot of false and underlying philosophies in some things I read. But I also read things that were a joy to read. And I’m glad that such reading stretched my imagination in a very wonderful way that is still with me. It’s sad that the very people who should have the most fruitful and wonderful imaginations usually are not Christians.

  4. Gene Redlin August 8, 2008 at 8:27 am

    I wrote about this fine book when I read it in April.
    It’s funny, some of my very conservative Christian Friends enjoyed it, Some not so much were critical.
    I don’t get it.
    I thought it was great.
    Here’s my take:

  5. Shane Fuller August 14, 2008 at 8:38 am

    John, thanks for being so level-headed and generous in your approach. I thought that the Divine Dance of the Trinity was beautifully portrayed. After reading the book, I long to move more in rhythm with God.

  6. james parker September 18, 2008 at 1:33 am

    Unreal, John! I think of the man I met years ago, at a “Ref/Rev.” conference: passionate, learned, dedicated to the things of God; and now, to consider what you’ve become! “The Shack”, indeed! “The Shaft”, or “The Out-house” better describes the Crap-ola that is this “book” (?) (and, yes, I have read the whole book) At this point, you still serve a positive purpose, a “sign-post” as it were, to the rest of us, stating: “Take heed, lest ye fall…”

  7. Adam S September 22, 2008 at 9:06 am

    It is comments like James Parker’s that really make me wonder about the state of modern evangelicalism. Sure there are people that question the theology of the Shack, but why have we started attacking other’s Christianity over a fiction book?

  8. Cody C. Lorance October 9, 2008 at 1:07 am

    I find it difficult to let a book “off the hook” simply because it isn’t a “theology book” or because it is fiction. I don’t understand why that matters. Imagination is one thing, but don’t we still have a responsibility to talk of God truthfully? Young’s book is theology, and perhaps the most important kind of theology — the kind that people read and are influenced by. I mean if some theological position paper written by a PhD student in an ivory tower gets something wrong it’s harmless enough. It is the popular stuff that really makes an impact. The truly influential theological library of our day consists entirely of these kinds of books- e.g. Left Behind, Jabez, Purpose-driven, etc.
    My point is that Young does indeed theologize as do his readers when they read his book. Are they theologizing well? I fear an attitude that excuses books like these simply because they are fiction. I know that many point to the values of this book. Fine. But isn’t it faulty logic to suggest that a book is basically good because value can be derived from it? Must we not consider the cost too? I am sure Mormons love their book too. I’m sure J. Smith was very creative and said some true and perhaps even insightful things. Not wanting to push Young fully that direction. But I’m really just trying to test the arguments that I hear in favor of The Shack.
    I keep thinking of film versions of Bible stories. I’ve seen so many. So many aren’t very good. However, once in a while you watch one that is well-made, well-acted, entertaining, etc. You’ll be enjoying it for a while until you come to something that’s just totally wrong. Sometimes it’s little things like Moses being 30-something when leading the people out of Egypt or Adam and Eve having blond hair and blue eyes. But sometimes it is just huge. Like the Noah movie that also has Lot portrayed not only as contemporary to Noah but as the captain of an enemy pirate ship. Look. I really, really love fiction and movies and stories. I understand imagination and hope I have one. But why not get it right? Why not try? Why shouldn’t I expect sound theology and biblical faithfulness as a Christian in the audience? Whether that’s Young or C.S. Lewis or whoever — the Christian storyteller is a teacher, preacher, theologian. In many other (more narratively inclined) cultures this is assumed. The storyteller should not get a pass. More and more in the West, as narrative becomes an increasingly important medium for teaching, the storyteller must be held to a very high standard in terms of biblical/theological orthodoxy.
    Witherington’s review is quite good and balanced. The “fine-tuning” he suggests for Young’s book should be taken very seriously.

  9. Emil October 28, 2008 at 11:51 am

    The county library has 6 copies, but I had to reserve it to get it—read it Saturday (Oct 25). It came at a good time for me to get past some anger (yeah, I have the problem).
    The message that God does reach for us regardless is most welcome. I don’t really understand those who dislike the book.
    That the Father carries the marks of the cross is important for me theologically.

  10. Talia November 28, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    I loved reading this book! I have a 5 year old daughter and sobbed when Missy was taken from her family. Throughout the book I realized that this was a book about comfort and healing for Mack. God is a loving creator and would want to do this for any of us. If you have not read the book, read it! It is a marvelous story about a marvelous God!

  11. Bev August 12, 2009 at 10:59 am

    I’ve been going through a very difficult time this past few weeks and I happened to come across “The Shack” while glancing at a catalogue…and my instinct told me to buy it. All I can say is WOW…am I ever glad I did!!! I felt as though I was meant to read it…as though a higher power personally guided me to it. I’m giving at least ten copies to family and friends, as this book has such a powerful, wonderful message.

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