Well, The Shack has really been a hot topic of late. I first came across the book when a reading group from our church chose the book as their current read. This small group of women are reading with a critical eye and with a bent toward apologetics. I became troubled, however, as I looked beyond this group of Bereans (Acts 17:11) to the wider popularity and response to the book in Baptist life and the evangelical community at large.
I am troubled by the number of people, even people with a good deal of influence, that have no problem with the fact that the book undermines key tenets of the faith including the nature of God, the trinity, salvation, and the exclusivity of Christ. I won’t take the time to point out all the specific problems with the book here. Multiple reviews have done that already and can be found by a quick google search. As troubling as the book and its positive reception among many evangelicals is, however, I am equally troubled by something else.
Before I get to the “something else,” let me offer a brief rebuttal of four common arguments in defense of The Shack. After that, I’ll get to the “something else” which is not being discussed to any great length and is, perhaps, the crux of the issue for us who are evangelicals. A fair warning – this is a long post. If you’re already convinced about The Shack, or if there is any danger of losing you along the way, please skip ahead to the “something else.” I have marked it with a line of asterisks in the text. In fact, go ahead and skip to that now. If you still have nothing better to do, you can come back and read the rebuttal section later.
Here are my four rebuttal points:
1. “The Shack is a work of fiction.” – So what? Fiction has always presented a particular worldview, often for the purpose of promoting that worldview. Fiction, historically, has been a means by which the author can indirectly teach his or her opinion or message under the guise of a genre that is defended as innocuous. So The Shack is fiction. So is Animal Farm, 1984, A Brave New World, Anna Karenina, and everything Karen Kingsbury has ever written. Each of those works has a worldview agenda, even though they are works of fiction. Why should The Shack get a free pass just because of its genre?
2. “The Shack is no different than the Left Behind series or the Chronicles of Narnia.” Leaving behind the fact that these two examples are different forms of fiction writing, in terms of their promotion of a worldview, The Shack is absolutely different. The Left Behind series, for instance, indeed does promote or at least fall in line with a particular theological viewpoint. The issues at stake there, however, are not “first order” issues. Rather, the point of dispute is eschatology. An area, at least in my denomination, in which there is a great degree of freedom to disagree. A similar argument could be made concerning the Narnia books. In The Shack, the issues at stake are not peripheral or denominational, they cut to the core of the Christian faith. Much of the dialogue promotes a worldview that is not inline with historic orthodox Christianity. In that sense, it is completely different than the other popular Christian works with which it is often compared.
3. “We should trust Christians to use discernment. Warning people about a book is a form of legalism.” I have put two issues into one here. First, it is not legalism to expose the contents of the book, warn people of its dangers, encourage people not to read or if they do to do so with a heavy dose of discernment. Rather, it is an act of Christian love and part of the duty of true Christian fellowship. Legalism would say “you’re sinning if you read this book.” I do think it is unwise for many to read this book. I am not, however, laying down a legalistic requirement that Christians not read it. Further, warning people about The Shack is not a matter of trust. On the one hand, I would expect Christians to warn other Christians of dangers of all kinds. More importantly for me, as a pastor, it is my duty to warn my people of danger. The Bible clearly requires pastors to “guard the flock” (Acts 20:28) and correct and protect the church from false teaching. The Shack, whatever its intent, contains false teaching. For that reason, Christians and conscientious pastors should warn others of such.
4. “The Shack has helped me understand the problem of evil.” On its surface, this is the hardest for me to answer. The reason it is hard for me is that, I have always been a “chew up the meat, spit out the bones” kind of guy. It is always been my practice to learn from others with whom I disagree, even on essential issues. That practice is not without its exception, however. When I learn from others whose worldview is different than mine, I do not do so as my primary means of discovering an issue. That is, if I am studying the problem of evil, for example, I do not go first to a liberal theologian to find an answer. After studying the Scripture, I first look to find solid orthodox and evangelical teaching on the issue. Then, after I am thoroughly grounded, I look to others outside my context to see if there is any additional insight or questions that remain unanswered. All with a heavy dose of discernment. What does that have to do with The Shack? Many Christians are treating the book as a new “first source” on the problem of evil. Thus, they read or recommend the book and take in with it all of its false teaching merely because, presumably, the book does a good job on the problem of evil. Perhaps the book does have some helpful elements. But as one parishioner asked, if I may be crude for just a moment, “How much dog poop would have to be in the recipe before you wouldn’t eat one of my brownies?” There are better and more theologically sound books, fiction and non-fiction, that do a good job addressing the problem of evil without having to resort to a book with questionable theology on primary issues.
There is something else to discuss. One important question remains – a question which those who are adamantly opposed to the book must address:
WHY IS THIS BOOK SO POPULAR?!?!?
Self-published books don’t soar to the top of best-seller lists for no reason. Obviously, there is something in this book that appeals to a large audience, both evangelical and otherwise. What is it, and why is it important for the church?
The answer may be profound. And, admittedly, I may not be right – although I think I am. The answer may even hold a wider key to many of the issues we have been discussing in the evangelical blogosphere including the decline of the SBC, the plateau in baptisms, the trend against denominationalism, and the growing bias against traditional evangelicalism. I think the answer does indeed have application for reclaiming unchurched Christians and reaching non-believers with the gospel. So, why is the book so popular?...
The Shack offers people what the church, by and large, does not – hope for and acceptance of messed up people.
Mack is a messed up person. He has real hurts. He has experienced real pain. He does not act and think the way a Christian ought to act and think. In fact, he questions and even blames God for what has happened to him. People relate to Mack. They relate to the pain and hurt and struggle and questions Mack has. And they find from Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu the kind of understanding and acceptance that is, for whatever reason, missing in the church.
Our church members are made up of mostly “respectable” people. Most churches where I live are made up of people who have been Christians and faithful followers for a long time. We have, at least in our experience, much in common with the older brother in the parable of the lost son. While we might not have his attitude, we can honestly say “these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command” (Luke 15:29, ESV). Many have never struggled with the “big” sins, or have managed to keep our struggles a secret. As a byproduct of our faithful lifelong commitment to Christ, however, we have little understanding of people who have problems and often don’t know how to respond.
Like Simon the Pharisee, we are disconcerted and often privately critical of persons who struggle with sin. We don’t get how a person can be a Christian and have depression or other emotional issues. We have no sympathy for men who battle lust and addiction to pornography, persons recovering from drug and alcohol dependence, singles who struggle with sexual abstinence, people contemplating suicide, divorce, or abortion, persons who continually make poor life choices, or persons who just have not reached our level of spiritual maturity. Even when our attitude is right, we don’t often offer people real help. Our spiritual arsenal is a list of proof texts, ought statements, and abstract moralisms. We have no real practical solutions or action steps. We do not offer ongoing emotional support and walking alongside struggling persons as a friend and brother. Our approach to sin is “don’t do it.”
Similarly, The Shack, for all its faults, communicates with people where they are. It allows Mack to be where he is in his struggle and does not condemn him for asking the big questions nor does it leave him without any direction. Our churches, however, often offer little in the way of real answers, real comfort, or ongoing care for hurting people. We are at a loss for how to deal with people who question God after the loss of loved one, people with chronic pain or conditions that are ongoing, widows and widowers who struggle with loneliness, single parents who struggle financially just to get by, persons struggling from the pain of divorce, adult victims of sexual abuse, the list goes on and on. We know instinctively that the Bible has answers for hurting, messed up people, but we struggle moving from the abstract to the concrete. Even when we have the right answers, somehow we are not communicating those answers effectively, nor approaching people with the kind of love and care that we ought to. When we are approached with real problems, our church answers can often be trite, shallow, cliché, insider language. We either grow impatient when people’s problems are not quickly resolved or we just forget that our brother or sister is hurting.
Because we tend to be program-driven rather than families of genuine koinonia, people become cogs in the machine that is church growth. People with problems, struggles, and issues don’t fit the machine. We don’t know what to do with them. They leave the church or are never reached because of sheer neglect.
We think that we are a friendly, open, and inviting community – and in our hearts, I believe we are. The perception from those on the outside, however, is that the church is a place where you can go if you have it all together or if you can hide the fact that you don’t. The lost world views us as bigots, homophobes, mysoginists, and, well, jerks. A growing number of unchurched Christians view the church as unforgiving, unaccepting, irrelevant and unhelpful for those who are dealing with deep and complex issues. We forget that we are messed up people too and are in desperate need of Jesus Christ.
I am not offering this as some kind of cynical prophet who wants to rail against the traditional church. I am part of the “traditional” church. This essay is in many ways a reflection of my own shortcomings as a Christian and minister. I offer this essay as a man who sees a disconnect in our churches and in my own ministry between the truths of the gospel we proclaim and the application of those truths to real lives. I see a disconnect between the biblical idea of koinonia and the practical outworking of relationships in the church and my own life. I desire to see the church be what it was meant to be and offer real hope for real lives.
All this means, then, that the response to The Shack needs to be two-sided. Not only must we warn of its dangers, we must seek to communicate truth in a clear and compelling way and come along side hurting messed up people. It is time for pastors, myself included, to really do the hard work of contextualization and quit using the same empty rhetoric with which we are familiar but which holds little significance for many of our hearers. Its time to reach out to people with genuine love and compassion and the investment that real relationship requires. Its time for us to see people the way God sees them. Its time to move beyond mere surface acquaintances with people who have it all together and join one another as fellow ministers of Christ on the journey that is the Christian life, with no brother or sister left behind.
I am not done thinking and writing on the issue of doctrinal fidelity or true missional Christianity and biblical koinonia. Neither will I be content to leave this issue to words on a blog rather than an earnest outworking of these concepts in my own life and ministry. In my mind, this balance is the issue of our time. We must fight for doctrinal and biblical fidelity, but we must also work hard to be bring the gospel to real people where they are and truly to grow together as followers of Jesus Christ. If there is a future for the evangelical church, we must get this right.