Do discerning Christian need to toss The Shack?  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

I received a note on my Wall on Facebook, which I thought would be worth answering here. (I received permission from Bethany.)


Subject: Discernment



I'm an avid reader of Critique and Toad Hall, and I met you once at a L'Abri conference in MN, though it was several years ago, and sufficiently brief enough that I would be shocked if you remembered.


At any rate, I've been mulling a question over in my mind, and revisiting some of the articles on Ransom Fellowship's website about discernment, but I don't see anything that really answers my question directly. So here goes...lately a lot of people in my church small group have read The Shack and loved it. I have not yet read it, but I have read about it—I plan on reading it soon. From what I understand, there are significant theological issues with the book, including deeply flawed understanding of Scripture and the nature of the Trinity. From interviews with the author, he has said himself he intends the book as a theodicy, and the whole thing is written as a Socratic dialogue, where the God characters impart knowledge to the human character.


The people from my church who love the book, when asked about its flaws, say they are rampant and if you read it analytically then you will probably throw it away, but that one shouldn't analyze it; one should simply read it for the great story it is.


While I am sympathetic to this line of reasoning, and I agree that if the story itself is truly great, if the writing style is lovely, then that is something to appreciate and praise. However, I am alarmed when the consistent response I am given from fellow believers is to “shut off” the analytical part of your mind that would throw up red flags at the portrayal of God, and simply go for an emotional ride while reading the book.


I guess my question is, how do you respond to this sort of reasoning from brothers and sisters in Christ? My other thought/question is, it seems that when someone purporting to be a Christian writes a book that is full of claims about God, we have even more cause to be discerning, to weigh its contents against Scripture, because unlike a novel written by a nonbeliever which may not make any particular claims about God, this author is putting forth theology and asking the reader to accept it.






My response:

Dear Bethany,


I checked your photo on Facebook, and do remember you (the wonders of technology!). Good questions. Questions worth considering, and that I don’t think I’ve addressed very sufficiently before now. So, I’m glad for the chance.


Like you, I have not read The Shack, but unlike you, I have no plans to do so at this point. My reason is simply that I have not heard sufficiently compelling reasons to add it to the huge pile of books I intend/need/want to read. I mention this not to suggest you not read it, but to emphasize that what I want to address here is not the book, but your friends’ badly mistaken impression of the process and purpose of Christian discernment.


The process of discernment allows us to engage a book more fully. The purpose is not to throw out books that are flawed, but to more deeply appreciate what is true and beautiful while more deeply understanding how what is less true or untrue can be made so attractive and plausible.


When I read, for example, Life of Pi, I was entranced by the story. Engaging the book critically deepened my appreciation for the craftsmanship author Yann Martel demonstrated in his prose, wit, and ability as a storyteller. The trajectory of the plot is utter fantasy—the adventure of a shipwrecked boy stranded in a lifeboat with a wild tiger—but Martel drew me in for the ride. It was delightful, and I found myself amazed that someone could tell such an unbelievable story in a way that made it deliciously plausible. This was the image of God breaking forth in brilliant creativity. Engaging Life of Pi critically also helped me unpack the two central themes of the story, namely that God exists and that the three major world religions (Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism) can be believed simultaneously. Though I agree with the first theme, I would challenge the second. This didn’t cause me to throw the book away; in fact, it did the opposite: I tried to get all my friends to read it. The novel helped me understand how this notion could be made so attractive, even though it is both untrue and dangerous.


This is not a word from the Lord, merely my opinion, but if I were you, I’d forget about The Shack, and try to find winsome ways to help your friends think about what being discerning is really about. The Shack is merely the latest cultural artifact they are consuming without being discerning, and they will soon pass on to other things. Finding ways to help them grow in discernment is more important than counteracting anything in The Shack that might need challenging. Some specific pieces on Ransom’s web site that might prove helpful in your case are “Discernment 101” (an introduction to the process); “Discernment 102” (how to disagree agreeably); “Discernment 201” (a guide to reading fiction Christianly); “Where Least Expected” (how God warned the exiled believers in Babylon to be discerning about their own spiritual leaders); and my review of Life of Pi.


Yes, we should be discerning when we read a book by a Christian, just as we should when we read one by a non-Christian. The danger is not that the second will contain more nontruth, since the opposite might be the case, but that it is easy to get lazy, assuming that if the author is a believer all is fine. (The same danger exists for students in Christian schools, but that’s another topic.)


One of the ways we have found to teach discernment skills to Christians is to lead discussions on something (a book or short story or film) in which they will be certain to find things with which to disagree. But then mention in your invitation and begin the discussion by saying the goal is not just to address the book or film, but to also deepen our skill in being discerning (rather than being reactionary). So, we will answer the discernment questions in order—no exceptions. Begin with “What is said?” (emphasizing that objectivity is required, so much so that no opinion of ours is even hinted at, and if the author was present they would say our answer to this question is correct and fair). Then ask, “With what do we agree?” and after that, “What is made attractive?” Only when those things are fully explored, can anyone address, “What might we challenge?” (and then do so in the form of creative questions we might address to a friend, Christian or non-Christian, in order to keep a winsome conversation going).


Approaching the discussion this way helps people begin to see the real process and purpose of discernment. Which is not to throw books out, but engage them with the gospel of Christ.


I hope this helps, Bethany. If I’ve missed something, or if this raises further questions, please feel free to ask away.





This entry was posted at Friday, September 05, 2008 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


LOVED your answer to this, Denis, and thank you Bethany for asking! Like everyone I've been inundated with people who've loved the book but had decided not to read it. There are so many GREAT books that are praiseworthy and GOOD that I'd rather spend time delving into them as well. Loved your explanation of developing discernment. Thanks for posting!

September 5, 2008 at 11:32 AM

Thanks for the response, Denis. I appreciate you taking the time to answer in such detail.

As I've thought more about this, I realize that the thing that frustrates me is that my friends aren't being completely undiscerning - they will readily admit that the book is riddled with untruth and flaws - but they still say one should read the book and gloss over those flaws. It's a different mindset than I am used to encountering in Christians (which generally tends toward the extreme of consuming mindless, "of course there's nothing wrong in this, it's just for fun," or the other extreme of not touching anything "secular" because it's full of worldliness), and as such, I was a bit nonplussed as to how to respond. I agree that the issue is not so much the book itself, but the mindset of how one is consuming culture.

My husband and I have actually tossed around the idea of doing some sort of movie discussion group with friends from church in order to talk about how to practice discernment. It may have to wait til next summer, but I am sure we'll be drawing heavily upon Ransom Fellowship resources when the time comes. I led one such group at our college's RUF for a year, and it was definitely an interesting exercise.

Thanks again for your response!

September 5, 2008 at 12:59 PM

I was very glad to come across this at this time. I'm in the process of reading 'The Shack' with some friends and looking forward to the discussion we'll be having in a couple of weeks. This has helped greatly in focusing my thoughts as I read.

September 26, 2008 at 8:50 AM

No doubt this is an old and tiresome topic by now, Denis, but I've only just had my copy of The Shack from the library's waiting list, and so I couldn't comment until now. I was very surprised that you dismissed it as unworthy of your time, not because I expected the content to be of importance to you personally or because it is even remotely excellent as literature, but because it is obviously tapping into a spiritual hunger in so many readers.

As was mentioned in a previous comment on your blog, The Shack is a theodicy, but I found it to be first and foremost a theodicy of the heart. While it may be a mistake to divorce analytical reasoning from the discernment process, it’s also a mistake to believe that reason can heal a broken human heart. And that healing process is the central task of the story.

The main character of The Shack – Mack -- is a seminary graduate. He knows all the theological arguments about good and evil. But when faced with the death of his child, his theology cannot staunch the pain, sorrow, and anger flooding his heart. His devastation makes it very hard to believe the most important theological truth of all – that God is love.

I think that many, many of us can empathize with Mack’s story, and let’s face it, the Church’s response to such moments in our lives is often woefully inadequate. Unlike the psalms of the Bible, which express a full range of unfiltered human emotion, churches have generally become places where it’s not safe to be so honest about our emotions toward God. Their pat-but-doctrinally-correct answers do nothing to allay the deep fear that perhaps God cannot be trusted after all. Even worse, God’s love becomes abstracted to the level of any human ruler’s “love” for the citizens of his/her country. That is small comfort to a wounded heart.

So author William (Paul) Young painstakingly crafted a story about a God who bends over backward to accommodate Mack’s need to experience a deep and abiding love, even if it means showing up as a woman to detach the image of God from Mack's experience of an abusive human father. The story makes it clear: the female personification is only a tool, not an expression of God's nature, just as a burning bush or the lion of Judah is not an exhaustive representation of God. What that female form does convey beautifully is a God who is “especially fond” of Mack.

I loved that phrase and its relentless repetitions throughout the story. It reminded me of an acquaintance who never complimented my cooking with polite remarks about “a lovely meal” but said simply, “This is yummy.” You can’t question the sincerity of “yummy.” “Especially fond” similarly cuts through any stiff notions of a remote God’s “love” to reveal a highly personal, authentic, deep-hearted affection. It strikes me as the very sort of affection that Jesus offered Zaccheus and the woman who washed his feet with her tears. It’s not fluff. It’s transformational.

For the most part, I think that Young did a decent job of creating a story to illustrate that affection. I was delighted that he also portrayed such affection within the Trinity. I enjoyed his disarmingly creative and humorous efforts to flesh out what I learned from Francis Schaeffer’s writings long ago – that love’s ultimate frame of reference is found in the relationships within the Trinity. That’s not fluff, either. In fact, it’s rather orthodox theology.

Unfortunately, Young did superimpose too many theological explanations over the story line, and that’s where some Christian readers' hackles rise. It’s too bad he didn’t have a better editor who might have pointed out that the story wasn’t enriched by dwelling on the essence of the Trinity (which will always suck a person into hopelessly deep water) or by statements that lean toward universalism. (And let’s be fair. He only leans. A true universalist would cringe over his persistent emphasis on Jesus and take offense at God’s wry comment that “most [spiritual] paths don’t lead anywhere.”) I myself am willing to allow Young some theological license (even to the point of making what I perceive to be mistakes) because in reality every writer’s theology will ruffle the feathers of some other Christian. What offends a Baptist is dogma to a Lutheran, and vice versa. As books like Across the Spectrum or The Mosaic of Christian Belief make clear, there is tremendous doctrinal diversity within the earthly kingdom of God. I sometimes suspect that Jesus promised to be present wherever two or three gather in his name because he knew we would always need a referee.

So I think there’s a balance to be struck. I'm aware that I have the luxury of granting Young some doctrinal leeway because I do have a solid doctrinal foundation for my faith. Stretching a respected boundary line is very different from having no boundaries at all. I understand how The Shack could be transformational for people who have been fed far more doctrine than love when they were most desperate for spiritual meaning (and that’s lots of people), while it could also be very misleading for someone who wants a purely experiential Christianity without any definitive doctrine (and that’s also lots of people). If that's true, I think it's very important that discerning Christians are leading groups to discuss The Shack, because what happens AFTER you read it (i.e., how it contributes to your ongoing theology) depends so much on your context.

One of the most intriguing comments I found in the Amazon customer reviews of The Shack was this question: "Has our theology become so dry that we have to invent completely new metaphors to convey a God who cares?" Obviously for many readers of The Shack, the answer is a resounding "yes!" The Church ought to be concerned about why that is so.

October 16, 2008 at 9:10 AM

Thanks so much for taking the time to write.

Beckye, I appreciate the kind words. I was glad I had the opportunity to explain some of what I mean by "discernment." It's easy to use the word and assume everyone understands it the same way, but that may not be true.

Bethany. Thanks again for starting this whole discussion. You raised excellent ideas. And I pray you might be able to find creative ways to help your friends grow in discernment--and to get past their mistaken ideas of what that entails.

Ron, glad what I wrote was helpful.

Sue, this isn't an old topic, as long as it is relevant to what people are living through and thinking about--so I'm glad you wrote.

Two brief comments on what you wrote, Sue:

First, when an author writes fiction to explore something of the nature of God and his relationship with his creation, it is proper for readers to ask whether the perspective that author develops resonates with reality/truth. Of course no metaphor fits the reality it pictures perfectly, but that doesn't mean that what metaphor is chosen is thereby up for grabs. From what you have written, it sounds as if some of the theological aspects of this book are, shall we say, sloppy. Sloppy fiction may still speak to us, and may even be a conduit for healing, but that does not excuse sloppiness. I yearn for writers who can spin stories as fantastical as Tolkien yet with a fidelity to truth and reality that takes the breath away.

And second, you expressed surprise that I "dismissed it as unworthy" of my time, which is not what I meant. I can not read all the worthy books or watch all the worthy films that are released, and must therefore be careful to select carefully. The Shack may be very worthy of my time, but it is time I believe my calling requires me to give to other things. Sorry I did not communicate more clearly.

October 19, 2008 at 7:43 PM

There is no mistaking that The Shack has had a profound and genuine impact on many in spite of the book's serious weaknesses, not the least of which is... it's just not great writing. That Eugene Peterson would liken it to Pilgrim's Progress is... well... words fail me. The best I can hope for since I love Peterson is that he endorsed it without really reading it... which got Packer into hot water when he endorsed Peter Kreeft's Ecumenical Jihad 15 years ago. All of that to say: can we respond with gratitude that God uses imperfect means? I hope so since he uses us. But recognition is not commendation -- in good conscience (with appreciation for how folks may have been brought to faith or found healing) I cannot recommend the book. I do believe I have an obligation to give an honest assessment if asked. However, I feel no need to campaign against it. Bottom line - I just don't recommend it.

However, pastorally I think The Shack offers an important object lesson that I would be wise not to overlook. I suspect that the impact of the book is not at the theological level per se (the doctrinal information it teaches) but at the personal and affective level in that readers somehow feel a connection between God and the deep hurts of their lives -- the reality, the assuring sense that God has not abandoned them and that he continues to care for them, even meeting with them in the deep hurts and inexplicable sorrows of life... is powerful and life-changing. I'm genuinely glad for folks to know that and believe it. But the object lesson is this -- am I content to teach information about God, or am I willing to wrestle with the messy realities of life with folks who struggle to believe and have hope. The impact of the incarnational character of the book should be a kick in the butt to me as a pastor to make sure I'm not living in my head if I really want people's lives to be gripped with and transformed by the Gospel.

February 17, 2009 at 10:20 AM

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