Why is The Shack so successful?

The ShackAfter 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).

7 thoughts on “Why is The Shack so successful?

  1. Re “Emotional Buzz”. Memory studies show that anything experienced with a strong emotion is remembered longer and more clearly. This unfortunately means that the concepts of God in this story will be remembered for a far longer time than those presented in the Bible. And by that I mean that too many people either do not know the Bible or have the passion for its truth.

  2. Hey Dave.
    I read The Shack in the summer. So did the majority of my church… Our pastor quoted it during a sermon one Sunday. A couple of my friends met the author – who told them he wrote the book for his kids when they asked him to write them a bed time story.
    After reading the fiction story that it was, i longed for my own “shack” experience but know that full well I can spend time with God at any moment of any day, provided i dive into HIS Word and prayer.
    I differ in opinion on the book, full out. I believe you’re right, analytically so, but I’m not an analyitical person. I didn’t take the book as a supplement to the Bible, or something to replace the Bible. Rather, my soul embraced the relationship side of The Shack’s presentation. I think that some people struggle with God and/or Jesus as male figures on account of lousy male father figures (I know guys and girls who do). Less people have been damaged by their mothers and can therefore related to an all giving mother-type figure more so than they could a man. The psychology of it makes sense and I wouldn’t put it past God to reach people where they need to be reached, to use figures that people would listen to before they could authentically hear Him (I know God has with me). The authenticity of the depiction of Jesus in longing to be a friend, in being someone you WANT to be friends with as opposed to “Jesus is supposed to be your best friend” is impactful. I want my life to be full of moments where I just hang out on the edge of a dock with Jesus, time spent in conversation and truth. Whether I am literally on a dock is irrelevant, but the conversations are tangible!
    I think there IS a difference between authority as God presented it and how the world presents it — and the description in The Shack made sense. Obviously, I did not take it to the depth that you did and therefore never would have created the argument to the extent that you have. I just know that the institutional church HAS damaged some people… i have amazing friends who have left the church because of the institution side of it — while still maintaining a passion-filled relationship with Christ. There’s a growing population of young adults in Vancouver who have left the institutional church to meet in homes on account of their frustration with the legalistic side of the institutional church. – and they are all okay!
    Reading The Shack has actually led me into a deeper relationship with God — where friends and I read parts of The Shack that have been most impactful, then dive into the Bible with a greater realization of how amazing God is – a greater realization of His love for us.
    Perhaps it’s because, like I said, you’re very analytical and I’m more relational and psychologically based. Perhaps I see the potential of that book in reaching some really hurt people…. I don’t know. I just know that I have been impacted by The Shack and it’s presentation of God’s desire for relationship in EVERYONE’S life — and how that relationship can be so different for each person. Someone asked me which of the trinity – in The Shack – i related to the most and why. We shared our views and found even that to be so subjectively influenced and reflective.
    Perhaps it didn’t impact you the way it has others – the way it has needed to impact others – the way it has left grown men in tears because of the scars their human fathers left on their hearts. God’s love can defy all odds — and can use books like The Shack to truely impart in and change lives.
    . ..
    I know. Totally random. But yeah, just thot i would share from my perspective. 🙂
    Your Canadian cuz…

  3. Yikes Shar, long comment. 😉 Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I won’t reply to everything you’ve said since I don’t think a point-by-point debate will be very helpful. But here are a couple thoughts of my own.

    I’m almost certain you’re right in thinking you’re more “relational” and I’m more “analytical.” But the two shouldn’t be opposed to one another—they should complement one another. We’ve been given the example of the “noble” Bereans who carefully evaluated Paul’s teachings to see whether they lined up with scripture (Acts 17:10-12). And we see in Philippians 1:9-11 that love needs to abound “with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent.” We need both truth discernment and love relationships in order to be excellent followers of Christ.

    I’m concerned that The Shack presents a very narrow concept of God and excludes—in fact, denies—so much of the biblical picture of how we relate to him (such as the fear of the Lord, our submission to his authority, his sovereign care for us, etc.). If we get that wrong, then our relationship with him will be crippled, no matter how good it may feel to us (and those good feelings only last so long before we have plumbed the depths of a shallow relationship). So we need truth. On the other hand, we need love because all this truth simply puffs us up if we aren’t living out of love. And that’s why I’m glad for people like you who probably do a lot better job caring for others than I do…and I want to be like that too!

    Your stories of how The Shack has helped you and others are examples of how God can use a very flawed book to accomplish his purposes. If a book like The Shack can relay such powerful truth, imagine the effect that books which are more faithful to the Bible could have! I’m sure you agree that the more faithfully we represent God’s Word, the more powerful our message is to change individuals, churches, and the world. So it’s very important that we learn to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

    Thanks cuz,


  4. The Shack is written for unsophisticated midwestern housewives. It has the philosophical depth of a children’s wading pool. But then again, that describes 80% of the public, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s