After posting a one-sentence review of The Shack last Sunday, I followed up on Wednesday with a critique of William P. Young’s perspective on authority which he lays out in the book. Today, I want to end with a few thoughts on why I think The Shack has become so popular and why it has had such a powerful effect on many who read it. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are seven reasons why I think this book has enjoyed such great success:
1. Story time
The Shack is a story. Narrative—fiction or non-fiction—is a very powerful means of communication, and it is very effective at getting across an agenda. We could turn to the Bible itself as a prime example of this; throughout much of the Bible, theology is given legs through pictures of God actually at work through the course of history. I have read several people who try to deflect criticism from The Shack by appealing to its nature as a fictional work, but even fiction can have an agenda (good or bad), and this book certainly does. Young’s writing style varies from passable to cringe-worthy (the “gilt edges”/“guilt edges” pun about the Bible from p. 66 comes to mind); his chapter titles are incredibly corny; he can’t seem to decide whether or not to give God the Father a consistent sassy-black-woman accent. Yet the fact remains that the story is at times emotionally moving, and Young is just good enough as a narrator not to get in the way of what he is narrating.
2. God the mouthpiece
Young’s primary means of revelation is through the members of the Trinity. Nearly all of the important teaching comes from the mouths of Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The result is that these three become Young’s spokesmen (or spokeswomen?). As his mouthpieces, they say what he wants them to say. In a sense, this is an inversion of the biblical pattern where the authors of scripture became God’s spokesmen, saying what he wanted them to say. Now, The Shack is meant to be read as fiction; however, there is a certain air of authority when it is God himself saying the things Young wants us to believe.
3. Mack the claqueur
Lest I appear more well-cultured than I really am, I’ll admit that I didn’t know what a claqueur was until last night. I actually found out while looking at the Wikipedia entry for “laugh track.” And that’s one of the major roles of Mack’s character—to provide the response to the Trinity’s teaching that Young wants the audience to have. It is remarkable how many times, after a member of the Godhead finishes pontificating on a topic, that Mack is said to feel like he wants to laugh and cry at the same time, or is said to feel a great burden lifted from his shoulders, or is said to feel excited and bewildered. Mack’s emotional responses are a sort of hint that Young provides us as readers; they are a subtle suggestion that we, too, should be feeling the same way, just like laugh tracks in sitcoms inform the audience that a joke has been told and that it is funny (unless the sitcom is That ’70s Show or Friends).
4. Emotional buzz
I’m not sure whether to be comforted or not by the fact that many people don’t seem to be reading The Shack for theology. I find it comforting because it means that much of the false doctrine taught in this book will be ignored. But I find it disconcerting because it means that these people are not reading this book to know God more. Anyone who is seeking to know God more is seeking good theology (the knowledge of God). Rather than striving for “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8), many Christians are content to use books like this as a cheap drug, a means to getting an emotional buzz—a pseudo-spiritual “high”—that will get them through tough times. The bad news is that while the God of The Shack may make them feel better for a little while, the “high” won’t last because Young’s God is so meager in comparison to the God of the Bible.
5. Itching ears
There are others who are reading this book to know God more, and they are swallowing Young’s teaching hook, line, and sinker. In my initial review, I referred to his God as “a Trinity invented by a 21st-century American.” I doubt that this book would appeal to people outside of a modern Western audience. It is grounded so firmly in the perceived needs and worldview of our culture. We don’t want authority; we don’t want structure; we don’t want a sovereign God. We want relationship without responsibility and blessing without being broken. We want an idol carved out of God, where all his “rough edges” are sanded off and a newer, harmless deity is made for us to worship. The Shack offers us this version of God, and it is no surprise that it has become so popular. Paul warned Timothy that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
6. A vein of truth
Despite all these failures, The Shack does teach a lot of true things about God. It does portray God as caring for his people, as a God of unconditional love, as a God who isn’t a tyrant over his own. It reminds us that he is immanent—God with us. It admits that we live in a broken world, full of anguish, sorrow, and hurt. And it tells us that God wants to restore his creation to the full beauty and harmony that it was meant to display.
7. The salt has lost its saltiness
Finally, let me be blunt. This book should not have been written. By this, I mean that the above truths should be so obvious to people within the church that they do not need a fatally flawed book such as The Shack to remind them. Moreover, people outside the church should see the love of God manifested in his people and their love for one another (John 13:35). You and I—we have failed to show others the one true God by the way we conduct our lives.
As long as we refuse to give ourselves up as living sacrifices to God, as long as we hold ourselves back, we will no longer be shining “as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). Let us live in such a way that no one around us is interested in reading The Shack because they see in us something resembling the true God. It is certainly our responsibility to refute false doctrine (Titus 1:9). But above all, let us remember Jesus’ commandment: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).