What does The Shack really mean?

Sharing is nice

It’s hard to think of a book as significant for religious publishing in recent times as The Shack. I believe a good portion of its success comes from the spiritual hunger that the public face of Christianity has forced so many believers to accept and endure. Many people believe the true cause of Christ and his love has been relegated to the background. Others—including some strong Christians—don’t always see that. But in The Shack, the love and acceptance of God comes back to bear on our human failings, answering not only our personal shortcomings, but our corporate ones as well, as part of this fractured and frustrated movement created in his name.

What most people love about it is what some people hate: it’s a deceptive little nut of a book. One of the things you notice in reading The Shack is that it’s open to interpretation. Much like the Bible. You can read it and interpret it differently by your own emphases and background. That was apparently intentional. Part of the revision process was removing any overt messages that might have taken over the story and made it into a theological argument rather than an engaging experience. The power of this book is certainly due in part to this intentional commitment. Fiction is by nature relational, not propositional, and just as grace is not a theological argument when it’s experienced in relationship, coming to The Shack as a story is intended to be incarnational truth, beyond arguments and words on a page. And however you feel about the writing itself, a lot of people are getting it.

To me, what’s most significant about The Shack is that it is meeting this great hunger for an authentic experience of God’s love, sans Christian “answers.” Many Christians believe they have all the answers and end up building pens around themselves and others, focusing on doctrine and orthodoxy instead of the real point. How many people have been looking for a book to say what they’ve been thinking for so long? How many feel vindicated by a book that points out the failure of church programs to replace personal relationship, that shows the inadequacy of “hating the sin, but loving the sinner,” and that portrays the real, humble love of God that’s bigger than any orthodoxy, right or wrong, or doctrinal superiority. How many have been waiting to hear the truth of God’s love in a way that doesn’t condemn them for it?

Some famous Christian detractors have said that The Shack is not serious enough about how we think of and worship God, one even going so far as to say that we should be “overcome with despair at our own unworthiness before God.” Overcome with despair? Really? And fretting over the too-familiar portrayal of the Trinity in the book, it is not appropriately high enough for The Godhead. Interestingly, the argument takes the same issue those who defend The Shack take: both believe the other side misses the truth of who God is, making real relationship impossible.

As an editor, what I struggle with is the fact that we live in an incredibly diverse world full of different audiences for the almost 400,000 books produced every year. Would those who encountered the truth of God’s love for the first time in The Shack ever have done so without it? I believe that unless you live in an isolated, primarily-Christian environment, you can’t make statements that relegate The Shack to “unnecessary.” In one sense, of course it’s unnecessary. God doesn’t need a fictional story to get his message across. The better question is, Is it of God? Is God using it? And if so, am I in danger of opposing God by speaking out against it? Setting the record straight about differences in theological interpretation is one thing. But to dismiss the book because you quibble with a few points of interpretation? That’s treading dangerously close to the sin of the Pharisees. And I won’t even start with those who condemn it without even having read it.

I’m not trying to defend The Shack. Or maybe, not only The Shack. All creative fiction about God is subject to the possibilities of story. No question, God is not who our creative imaginations make him to be. And yet, it’s only through imagination that some people can even begin to conceive of a God who loves so recklessly, so inappropriately, so unGodlike. At what cost do we hold to our interpretations of creative works? Is it our job to ensure that everyone interprets it “correctly?” Or do we trust love to overrule our limitations and indeed all restrictions on it but the one of our own acceptance? In this light, The Shack poses the ultimate question: Can we accept this inconceivable love or must we build barriers and intellectualizations around it? Any of that is ultimately our own choice to bring to the art, or leave off. As a story, the Bible requires interpretation. Does God’s love transcend the mistakes we make on the way to deeper understanding? And can we ignore the lessons of history when it comes to Christians demanding exclusionary control on orthodox beliefs and the damage that has caused?

I think of the kindergartener in the familiar illustration. He’s coloring and his teacher points out that he can’t really draw God because “No one knows what God looks like.” And the boy goes on drawing. “They will in a minute.”

The boy, the artist, can draw anything. He believes, reaching beyond his limitations. And God will accept him, suffering the little children to come, where his fathers saw only planks and stones.

Sharing is nice

7 thoughts on “What does The Shack really mean?”

  1. Mick, you wrote:
    One of the things you notice in reading The Shack is that it’s open to interpretation. Much like the Bible. You can read it and interpret it differently by your own emphases and background. . . The better question is, Is it of God? Is God using it? And if so, am I in danger of opposing God by speaking out against it? Setting the record straight about differences in theological interpretation is one thing. But to dismiss the book because you quibble with a few points of interpretation? That’s treading dangerously close to the sin of the Pharisees. And I won’t even start with those who condemn it without even having read it.
    While I agree it’s silly for folks who haven’t read it to vehemently disagree with it, the rest of your argument doesn’t hold up. My critique of the Shack is not about a few points of interpretation. Nor is the Shack the Bible. It is flawed, nor is it the writing of God.
    Of course everything’s open to our interpretation, but ultimately Truth is defined somewhere, and I don’t see it fully defined in the pages of the Shack. As I’ve mentioned before, Young swings wildly to one pendulum to make his point about God’s love, but swinging so far negates God’s otherness. I won’t detail my argument again.
    What I’m trying to say is that just because a thinking Christian (I hope I fall into that category) draws negative conclusions about The Shack, it doesn’t make her a Pharisee. It simply (hopefully) makes her discerning. There’s a difference between carefully handling a text, and judging it with preconceived notions and then telling everyone else they must believe the way you do about your interpretations. One way is being Berean-like, the other is Pharasaical.
    While I do value the discussions this book has brought up, I also can’t abide by simply saying, “Well, it’s having an impact, so therefore it’s of God.” Only God truly knows if it’s of Him or not. And one could make that argument for anything. Twilight is having an effect so it must be of God. Hitler’s words had an effect, so he must have the words of God. The Secret Life of Bees touched people, so it must by the hand of God. While I certainly believe God, in His sovereign ways, uses everything to His glory and plan, I can’t truly measure even my own work by how successful it is in the marketplace (and here I’m not referring to sales, but spiritual impact). Before God, I have a mandate to write what makes Him smile, no matter how folks receive it. To say, “Since something has wide spiritual impact, it must be from God,” diminishes the pilgrims who labor in obscurity, whose lives don’t touch millions.
    I still believe it’s an American idea that if God is in something, it will be successful. Sometimes things fall apart, under the sovereign, watchful eye of the Almighty.
    I’ve rambled now. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  2. “No question, God is not who our creative imaginations make him to be. And yet, it’s only through imagination that some people can even begin to conceive of a God who loves so recklessly, so inappropriately, so unGodlike.”
    I find myself in quite the ironic quandary. The very thing I have personally criticized The Shack for has become its brilliant saving grace and the thing that keeps it untouchable:
    It is fiction.
    When I read it I felt offended and betrayed by the fact that it was billed as a novel but at least 2/3 of it smacked of non-fiction, agenda-driven theology. But oh, God does offend our minds to reveal our hearts. It wasn’t necessarily the points of doctrine I had a problem with – I’m perfectly willing to disagree and still find enjoyment in a book. I can eat the meat and spit out the bones. I just felt “tricked” as a reader, but God rebuked me and I got over it.
    The Scarlet Letter shocked the people in its day. Dozens, if not hundreds of controversial novels have been published throughout history, and you can debate them all day long, and it doesn’t matter. It’s fiction. No one debated the world Tolkein created.
    The creators of The Shack created an imaginary world too. It doesn’t matter if a large percentage of the population believes experiences like that are true and possible, and another percentage believes the thought of it to be heresy. You said it yourself Mick
    – “both believe the other side misses the truth of who God is, making real relationship impossible.”
    Very astute observation. A book like this is not supposed to be able to divide our hearts or the body of Christ. But God is revealing to each of us where our own hearts lie (pun intended) and the need for repentance, lest we be crushed by the very rock we trip over.

  3. I haven’t read the Shack, but I am fascinated by your dilemma that it has probably moved many (if not, at least one person) to a greater faith in God and yet Christian mainstream publishers would not publish it because of its controversial elements and many Christians dismiss it for its flaws. This smacks of the dilemma I feel as a writer and, frankly, as a Christian. I want so desperately to show my weakness, to be honest and broken and flawed so that no one need wonder if I am good or if it is only God who lives in me. Yet, once we show our flaws other Christians are often and easily appalled – by numerous and varied details usually, I find, related to what we eat, drink, vote, or watch in movies and television – that we end up losing their respect. It seems like even non-Christians like to judge what a true Christian should look like and then dismiss us when we fail. It’s a troubling, fascinating dilemma. And suddenly, without even having read it, I feel very like The Shack.

  4. I’m not quite halfway through the book, so I’ll refrain from offering embyonic opinions… but just to nod in agreement to your comment, Mick, that our culture “hunger[s] for an authentic experience of God’s love.”
    Yes, we’re a heart hungry people, starved for more God.
    And I guess the question of writing, of publishing… of living in the Kingdom… is how do we feed famished people more of the real Jesus?
    (Has The Shack done that well?)
    Thought-provoking stuff…. thanks, Mick.

  5. I think The Shack presented the heaviest problems for Christians who are locked into ritualistic worship. But probably unlike a lot of others, I think most novels carry an agenda and somehow “preach” a message within the story. The Shack was indeed one long sermon with a little story mixed in with it, the agenda to make God seem approachable and to show Him as the source to achieve healing.
    I understand Mary’s concern for reverence and recognition of God Almighty and to not take lightly serious error, but whether it’s overt or subtle, Christian fiction dishes up doctrinal/Biblical errors frequently when specific denominational preferences are written into stories as “facts”.
    There are some good concepts in The Shack, and I believe there are some incorrect concepts, but I see it as more harmless than harmful because it is within the confines of “fiction”. In fact, after reading it, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

  6. The people I see most impacted by the Shack are those who are wounded in regards to their father and Father God.
    Raised in a dysfunctional environment and freed from the bondage of eating disorders, I know who I am in God and who He is to me – though I’m still a work in progress :-)
    The women I see clinging to the message of The Shack are looking for the love of a father.
    We must recognize God uses all things to bring mankind to true love in Him. He is capable of taking “the years the locust have eaten” and redeeming them – even in a book the Church calls heresy.
    I may not agree with all that is penned in the Shack, but a book is a work in progress. A book is an author in progress.
    We must not miss ministering to those who are deeply impacted by the Shack. They are hungry for Father love.
    We must remember that God is bigger than our notions of Him and can heal us, even when we do not know we need healing. We certainly cannot heal ourselves.
    God is sovereign. He will do all to bring a hurting soul to TRUTH via GRACE.
    If the Shack takes even one person closer to the One True God is it worth it? I think so. Jesus would have died for only one.
    For those who weep and shed tears over the Shack, remember He alone is Sovereign. He can and does redeem that which man calls trash.

Discuss...