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).

Authority in The Shack

The ShackOn Sunday, I posted a one-sentence review of The Shack and promised to return with a couple more posts:  the first critiquing its teaching on authority, and the second examining why it seems to be so popular and emotionally powerful.

So…the first.  If you haven’t read Gerald Hiestand’s review, do that first; then come back here.  Before I had read The Shack, I read his review, and it sounded over-the-top to me.  After reading the book, I’m convinced that, far from exaggerating the problem, Hiestand has put his finger on the single most dangerous theme of the book—that authority is a human construct brought about by the Fall, that God considers it “ghastly” (p. 122), and that it is incompatible with true relationship.  Though there are many serious errors in the book, this is one that Young relentlessly pursues throughout the course of his story.  He lays it all out explicitly on pp. 121-124 in a conversation among Mack and the members of the Trinity.  During the course of the dialogue, Jesus explains:

Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it.  You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power.  Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you.

One possible response to this is to engage in an imagined philosophical debate with Young over whether authority or hierarchy really is incompatible with relationship.  Instead, I simply want to appeal to God himself—to the words given to us by God, not merely by William P. Young.  The true God reveals himself primarily through the holy and precious scriptures “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).  The inherent goodness of God’s authority is stunningly obvious throughout the pages of the Bible.  The first recorded words of God to man reflect his authority in an unbroken, sinless love relationship with his creature; in a rapid series of commands, he tells the man and the woman, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion…” (Genesis 1:28).  That last one, especially, reminds us that man was created as part of a hierarchy, as God’s vice-regent over the creation.  Throughout the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2, prior to the Fall, God commands all things into being, and he commands Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:16).  Throughout the rest of the Bible he issues commands and decrees, and one day he will return to rule the nations “with a rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15).  The one true God is not afraid of authority; he is not afraid to reign.

Because Young is familiar with the Bible, he can’t help but slip back into hierarchical terminology when referring to God, describing Jesus as “Lord of Creation” (p. 176) and “king of the universe” (p. 216).  But otherwise, he’s pretty consistent in applying this principle because he proceeds to denigrate the authority of the Bible, of the church, and of men.

The Bible

The only time Young mentions the Bible with more than a passing reference is when he attempts to devalue it.  This takes place on pp. 65-66, where he portrays it as God’s words “reduced to paper.”  It is not “overt” or “direct” communication by God.  It is “moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects…the intelligentsia.”  It limits God:  “No one wanted God in a box, just in a book.”

While Young uses biblical terminology throughout much of the book, he feels free to supplement the teachings of scripture with his own ideas about God, even going so far as to contradict the Bible if necessary to suit his agenda (as we have already seen).  He does not respect the authority of scripture as Jesus Christ did (Matthew 5:17-19).  He does not treasure its words as the psalmist did (Psalm 119).

The Church

Once again, every mention of the church as an institution is negative.  Using Jesus as his spokesman, Young explains that the church “is all about people and life is all about relationships” (p. 178).  It’s hard to argue with that…until we remember that to him, relationships are incompatible with authority.  Young’s Jesus insists, “I don’t create institutions—never have, never will” (p. 179).  This is utterly absurd; Christ did institute his church.  He gave it the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism.  He established procedures for church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).  His apostles, sent with his authority, affirmed the offices of elder and deacon (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9).  They laid out rules and guidelines for proper conduct in the church (1 Corinthians 14) and care for the widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16), among other things.  The Holy Spirit equipped the people of the church with spiritual gifts “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7)—including the gifts of leadership (Romans 12:8) and administration (1 Corinthians 12:28)!

If the church—local and universal—is not an institution, I don’t know what is.  Institutions are not inherently bad; in keeping with his response to the concept of authority itself, Young is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Just because the church can be twisted and imperfect doesn’t mean that structure and hierarchy are themselves evil.  In the church, they are the structure on which relationships grow and flourish.


Hiestand came down hard on this one, and after reading the book, I understand why.  Let’s set aside the jarring fact that God the Father appears as a woman (Young insists on veering from the almost exclusively male depiction of God in the Bible).  Beyond that, the author undermines male headship and strongly implies that women are superior to men.  As a result of pitting relationship against authority, Young ends up rightly affirming feminine virtues while criticizing a caricature of masculine virtues.  His Jesus explains to Mack, “Like most men you find what you think of as fulfillment in your achievements, and Nan [Mack’s wife], like most women, find [sic] it in relationships.  It’s more naturally her language” (p. 146).  It’s not hard to figure out where this is leading.  Young spends the entire book rejoicing in relationships, so of course women, who are apparently better than men at this, end up being naturally superior to men.

Young’s Jesus goes on to say, “The world, in many ways, would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled.  There would have been far fewer children sacrificed to the gods of greed and power” (p. 148).  When Mack speculates that perhaps it would have been better if women were given the role of authority, Jesus responds, “Better, maybe, but it still wouldn’t have been enough.”  Then he goes on to insist that power in human hands always corrupts and is inherently bad.  So the damage has been done to masculinity; perhaps the world wouldn’t be a perfect place if women were in charge, but it would be better.

The Shack is all about a love relationship.  This would be a great thing if Young left room for other perspectives offered by the Bible, which talks about our spiritual journey as fearing the Lord (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14), as a sacrifice to God (Philippians 2:17), as slavery to a new master (Romans 6:15-19), as a battle “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12; tellingly, The Shack never once mentions the devil or demonic forces).  But rather than leaving room for these and many other perspectives, he excludes them.

God has and will use The Shack to remind people that he loves them and longs for a deeper relationship with them.  For that, I praise God and marvel at his use of flawed instruments to accomplish his perfect will.  Yet I am afraid that this book will not only lead people astray with blatantly false teaching but encourage people to become fatally unbalanced in their understanding of masculinity, of the church, of the Bible, and ultimately of God himself.

Dave reviews The Shack in one sentence

The ShackThe Shack is what happens when a Trinity invented by a 21st-century Westerner attempts to solve the problem of evil by pontificating on relationships, disdaining authority, and baking scones.

Check out a few more helpful reviews:

  • Walter Henegar:  “Good fiction has the potential to illuminate biblical truth, but not when it effectively supplants it. We need the Bible, not The Shack.”
  • Gerald Hiestand:  “The net result is a God who rejects—indeed is repulsed by—the use of power.”
  • Paul Grimmond:  “If western Christianity had spent more time in ‘the shack’ with the true and living creator, and less time wallowing around in our felt needs, then, just maybe, less people would have been fooled. We might have recognized The Shack for the empty shell that it is.”

My goal is to reflect on the book a couple more times on this blog—first, to expand on Hiestand’s observation, and second, to examine why The Shack has had such a powerful effect on people.