Revisiting The Shack

The most obvious question to bring up at the outset of this post is simply, “Why bring up The Shack again?” After all, Paul Young’s book was published in 2007 and the tidal wave of interest in the book has seemingly receded quite a bit.

Well, there are a couple of reasons. The first is that New Testament professor James De Young has only recently published a book-length critique of The Shack. The title of the work—Burning Down ‘The Shack’: How the ‘Christian’ Bestseller is Deceiving Millions—leaves little room for wondering what De Young ultimately thinks about his subject.

While De Young is by no means the first person to offer a substantial theological critique of the The Shack (we even had our own discussion regarding the book a couple of years ago), he does offer some additional background information that may help shed further light on some of the book’s problem areas. According to Tim Challies review (review of a review?):

James De Young writes from an interesting perspective—that of a former friend, or acquaintance at least, of Paul Young. He begins his book by providing some important but little-known background to The Shack. In April of 2004 De Young attended a Christian think tank and there Young presented a 103-page paper which presented a defense of universal reconciliation, a Christian form of universalism—the view that at some point every person will come to a right relationship with God. If they do not do this before they die, God will use the fires of hell to purge away (not punish, mind you) any unbelief. Eventually even Satan and his fallen angels will be purged of sin and all of creation will be fully and finally restored. This is to say that after death there is a second chance, and more than that, a complete inevitability, that all people will eventually repent and come to full relationship with God. De Young believes that Young’s belief in universal reconciliation is absolutely crucial to anyone who would truly wish to understand The Shack. It is the key that makes sense of the book and the theology it contains. Though far from the only theological problem with the book, it is the one that makes sense of the others.

Unfortunately, thorough reviews of widely popular but problematic books never command the audience that the initial work did. It’s hard not to agree with Challies’ subsequent observation:

Maybe I am not giving enough credit to those who read and enjoyed The Shack but it seems to me that if you read that novel and took it to be sound theology, you are not too likely to read a 250-page text refuting it….I suspect, though, that it will largely be read by people who already know of the problems with The Shack. That is too bad, really.

This leads to my second reason bringing all of this up. I think there are a few important dynamics that have contributed a great deal to The Shack’s improbable but enormous success, two of which I’ll mention briefly here. First, we live in a time and place that still bears a significant imprint of Christianity, an imprint that can be seen in both concepts and terminology that are ultimately rooted in a biblical worldview. But while the familiarity with and interest in these things is widespread, it is also shallow and incomplete. This means that discussions that somehow touch upon God, Jesus, love, redemption, salvation, heaven/the afterlife, or a host of other things often resonate a great deal in our culture. Unfortunately, however, the interest in these discussions, even among Christians, is rarely leavened with a robust knowledge of what the Bible actually says, particularly in the context of its overall narrative. The upshot is that many people, often unknowingly, find themselves attracted to or buying into ideas that don’t pass muster when held up against biblical revelation.

Secondly, there is also the power of narrative. Let it never be said that deep theological discussions, with their abstract concepts and careful reasoning, don’t have their place. But stories—engaging stories, that is—are wonderful ways to make important truths more concretely and vividly grasped. Both good and bad ideas can become very attractive when communicated through a narrative that in some way appeals to a reader/viewer.

What does this mean for the church? At least two things. First, we should always be pressing one another on to a clearer and deeper understanding of God’s word. No, we won’t be perfect and our discernment will always need refinement. But we can increasingly grow in our ability to resist being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). Secondly, we can encourage those who are able to wed a growing biblical maturity with artistic gifts to do their own storytelling, be it through literature, film, or any other medium. Not that they create with the idea of simply producing evangelistic tracts. Rather, the idea is that they’ll tell good stories that—because of who they are as authors—will in some way accurately reflect aspects of the truth and beauty found in the Great Story, the story that spans from “In the beginning…” to “It is finished” to “Behold, I am making all things new.”

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