Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Book Review - The Shack

There has been much talk recently about a book called The Shack. As of the time this is being written, it is the #3 book on and #1 in paperback fiction on the New York Times Bestsellers List. I doubt there are many of you who haven’t heard of it. If you haven’t read it, you probably know someone who has.

It’s easy to see why the book is so appealing. In spite of the dark events underlying the book’s story, it has a sort of feel-good quality to it. It addresses questions which people everywhere are asking today: Who is God? Why does He allow tragedies and suffering? Where was He when…? The subject of the book is observably religious, but is it Christian? Who is the “god” of The Shack?

For those of you who haven’t read the book, let me give you the basics. Mack, a man who has experienced the brutal murder of his daughter, is the main character of the book. His wife and children appear in the book, but do not play a large part in the plot, and his friend Willie turns out to be the ghost-writer of the book. The other three main characters are meant to represent the Trinity. Papa (God the Father) is a large African-American woman. Jesus is a 30-some year old Middle-eastern man, and Sarayu (The Holy Spirit) is a small Asian woman. After receiving a note in his mailbox from “Papa,” Mack returns to the shack where his daughter was murdered and encounters “God” as he is portrayed by the author.

I will start out by pointing out a few areas the book handles well: It actually addresses the question of God’s identity—an often-overlooked topic in recent times. It does describe God in terms of the Trinity—a step in the right direction. It acknowledges that Jesus is the center of everything. It even recognizes our inability to please God by our good deeds or behavior.

In order to touch on the most important elements of how the book portrays God, I will move quickly past a few obvious things. There is difficulty with the way in which God communicates with Mack in the book (notes and people in a shack), but I will just assume that as a fictional element necessary to create the plot. It is obvious from the character descriptions above that any Christian should have immediate questions about the way the author portrays God the Father and the Holy Spirit. The author acknowledges that his portrayal of God in the book is metaphorical rather than literal, but it still seems unwise and dangerous to portray God in images which are different, if not opposite from the way He has revealed Himself in the Bible. (For the sake of keeping this analysis to 2 pages, I will move quickly to the most important difficulties with the book for a Christian. I am considering publishing a booklet of the full 20-30 page review for sale in light of the upcoming movie release, though.  So those seeking further details may have an outlet to read more there.  

Mack makes a few off-target statements about God in the book, but we can dismiss them as being just the opinion of the character. On the other hand, when the character making the errant statements about God is God, we can be sure that the author intends us to receive this statement as true. As Christians, we have the ability to know certain things about God. When He has told us something about Himself in Scripture, we can know it is a fact. However, when He has been silent about something in Scripture, we are just as obligated to also remain silent. This is the primary way The Shack falls short on describing God..

The author does get a couple of facts correct: There are three persons, yet one God. Jesus is fully God and fully human. However, the “God” characters in the book go on to explain the Trinity in ways which are clearly contrary to Scripture. First, Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu all bear the marks of crucifixion on their bodies, when Scripture clearly teaches that only Jesus died at the cross. Papa (and the others) say “We became fully human.” when Scripture clearly teaches that only Jesus, the Son, took on human nature. Additionally, the author confuses several important facts about Jesus by having Papa say that Jesus never acted out of His authority as God and that He is still limited in using His divine power by His human nature.

There is a recurring pattern in the book where Mack confronts one of the God characters with a Scriptural truth, only to have God respond by saying that the Bible’s words aren’t what He really meant. Not only does this devalue the Bible, it also seeks to inspire doubt about important Biblical teachings. The most obvious example of this is when Papa and Mack discuss the crucifixion. Mack asks about God the Father forsaking Jesus, and Papa responds that He did not actually forsake Jesus, but that Jesus just felt forsaken even though it was not reality. I think the most relevant contradiction in the book is when Mack and Jesus discuss salvation. The Jesus character states that there are people from all of the world’s religions who love Him, and that He does not desire that they become Christians. This clearly contradicts the Bible’s claims that there is no way to salvation except for Jesus and the commandment against having any other gods.

So, you’re probably asking, “Should I read this book?” (or “Should I have read it?”) If you are a mature Christian who is strongly rooted in the Bible’s teachings, reading this book is not going to harm you, providing you read it with the careful understanding that you are not encountering a true portrayal of God. In fact, since so many of your neighbors are reading it already, it might even be beneficial for you to be knowledgeable enough about its contents that you can help guide them around its pitfalls. On the other hand, for children, most teenagers, new Christians, or those who do not have a precise understanding of the Bible’s teachings, this book should most certainly not be on your reading list. It will only serve to obscure God’s identity for you rather than reveal it, and it could lead you to great spiritual harm. However, do consider reading my full review on the web so you can be well-informed when discussions arise with friends or neighbors about this book.

The Shack attempts to answer humanity’s questions about God’s presence in suffering, but we have much more to offer the world about this topic when we have the right God as the foundation for our answers. If you have questions about God’s place in sorrow and tragedies, I would recommend the book I reviewed in our January Messenger: Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel.