First let me get this out of the way: no, I haven’t yet (and likely won’t anytime soon) read The Shack. This isn’t a disclaimer, or an apology, just an acknowledgement to the inevitable objections that go something like, “you haven’t read the book, so you really can’t say anything about it.”
What I’ve mostly been recently rebutting, though, have been this bestselling book’s defenders, on the Boundless webzine blog and elsewhere, who have been offering mostly emotional objections to those who (correctly) oppose the book on Biblical bases. And even for those times in which I attempt to rebut the book itself, I can do so by appealing to the “authority” of those I trust who have read it, who overall share my views and who profoundly object to the book’s contents. These include the above-mentioned blog and many others, including blogger/author Tim Challies and Don Veinot of Midwest Christian Outreach.
For those who don’t know, The Shack is a book by a guy called William Young, in which a man whose daughter has been abducted and probably killed by a murderer is summoned by God to rendezvous in the shack where the crime took place. Once there, the lead encounters the “trinity” in the form of a clichéd matronly black woman (the “Father”), a smiling Middle-Eastern guy (“Jesus”) and an Asian woman (“the Holy Spirit”). And they talk theology, or rather the author’s version of it, for several dozen pages.
Boundless blogger Tom Neven followed up his initial observations on the book with his July 1 post called “But It’s Only Fiction,” in which he specifically rebutted the idea that you can simply dismiss a story as just a story even if it contains anti-Biblical ideas. This is both bad doctrine as well as bad fiction, Neven contended:
While fiction is by definition a story that doesn’t pretend to be true, it still must adhere to certain basic rules. You can create any universe you like, but once you’ve created it, you must stick to its internal logic. If zurts are green and fly and jurts are blue and don’t fly, you cannot willy-nilly switch these “facts” around, even if they are totally products of your imagination. And if for some reason in your story we see a blue jurt that is flying, you’d better have a good narrative explanation for why or else you’ve confused the reader.
[. . .]
If you’re going to ground your fiction in the real world, then it must conform to the rules of the real world we live in. No unicorns or magic squirrels allowed. Even one of my favorite literary genres, Magical Realism, adheres to certain basic rules.
So if you’re going to have God as a character in your real-world fiction, then you must deal with God as he has revealed himself in Scripture. By using the Trinity as characters in this story set in the real world, The Shack author William P. Young is clearly indicating that he’s supposedly talking about the God of Christianity. But God has said certain things about himself in Scripture, and much of what Young does in this novel contradicts that. I don’t care if he’s trying to make God more “accessible.” He’s violated the rules of fiction.
[. . .]
To those people who have snapped up copies of The Shack to give to non-Christian friends, you are doing them no favors. You are introducing them to a false god. You are inoculating them against the claims of the True God of Scripture. And more to the point, you’re just giving them bad fiction.
Skewing Scripture and storytelling
In response to that came affirmations from several commentators, myself included (I’m Dr. Ransom on there), along with a few opposing views that fairly much repeated the same point (“it’s only fiction”) or offered overly emotional responses that didn’t contradict Neven’s logical and theological argument at all (“but you see, The Shack changed my life”).
“Many were along the lines that I should just lighten up,” Neven summarized later.
To be sure, many among Shack’s Christian critics will be the same types, God bless ‘em, who pass around email forwards talking about how J.K. Rowling performs daily goat or human sacrifices to Lucifer, or how Madalyn Murray O’Hair, back from the dead, is taking over the Federal Communications Commission and putting TBN out of business (unfortunately, no such luck). But Neven is certainly not one of them — he’s not pulpit-pounding and raging legalistically (perhaps in a southern accent) about how The Shack will send people to Hell.
As I wrote here, just like I could read Harry Potter, or view Star Trek, and sort through the non-Christian elements, I could — if I wanted to — read through The Shack and sort the good from the bad. Thanks to God and great teaching, I’m confident I wouldn’t be swayed from what I know to be true from His revealed Word in Scripture.
However, The Shack doesn’t start with a premise of God’s nonexistence, or complete noninvolvement, as do Harry Potter and Star Trek and many other stories. Instead, “God” is there — but he/she has a completely skewed nature. He/she doesn’t talk all that much about his/her holiness, or revelation in Scripture, or death on the Cross, or judgment of sin or call to repent and be redeemed. Instead, he/she is mostly love, sweet love (supposedly something that in the Church there’s always just too little of).
In response to that often comes the argument that, well, the author doesn’t really believe everyone goes to Heaven by default, or that God is a girl, or that He won’t punish sin. And perhaps it could be unfair to assume a writer is intentionally trying to deceive his readers.
However, according to what I’ve read, this Biblical balance of the Almighty receives precious little press time in The Shack. It’s a severely imbalanced view, even if the author portrayed God the Father as a male and other unorthodoxies were avoided. This won’t be at all helpful to new believers, much less so for nonbelievers. What, then, does it really matter what the author truly believes, if what he has publicly said presents imbalanced or skewed doctrine?
“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” — Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins
For your consideration
Many at this point will still be hanging onto the “it’s just a story; what’s the big deal” argument. Perhaps one cannot expect to be able to change their minds. However, one comment on the Boundless blog from a commentator named Rich makes one of the best rhetorical and sensitive arguments I’ve read on the subject.
Say I wanted to communicate to the world about God’s wrath and justice (these are two biblical character qualities of God, just like His love.), so I wrote a fiction book where I depicted God as the serial killer guy from Saw. You read the book, and (rightfully) express concern (outrage would be more appropriate): ‘Rich, I don’t think God is like the guy from Saw. Yeah, I know He’s just and He exhibits wrath on the unrepentant at the judgment seat, but the way you depict Him…well…That’s not quite biblical.’
I respond, ‘Relax. It’s only fiction! I’m not writing a theological treatise! If you read the book, you will learn about God’s justice and be blessed.’
How would you respond? No doubt, you’d respond with incredulity: even though its fiction, I’m communicating something about God, something deeply flawed. The fact that I’m writing fiction doesn’t get me off the hook.
It’s the same with The Shack. If I’m not off the hook in my flawed attempt at communicating about God’s justice, why is Young off the hook when he makes a flawed attempt at communicating about other parts of God’s nature, like His love or Immanence?
You see, we usually only express that blasé attitude when the book in question presents God in a soft light. Why the inconsistency?
I understand that fiction is a slightly more fluid genre than, say, theological papers in a professional journal. But that doesn’t mean we give fiction authors a free ticket to ride when it comes to speaking about God, truth, and reality.
Far from being the “trash heap” of the written word, fiction is an incredibly powerful and important genre. Brian McLaren and others encapsulate their theological ideals in fiction partly because they understand such ideals will be easier for the rank and file to accept if they are captured in a story. For the most part, this is all well and good, but it has a down side: we can easily let our guard down.
Therefore, we should treat fiction as it is: an important and honorable genre worthy of the utmost consideration.
So far, no one on the blog has answered this scenario with how, exactly, they could object to such a reverse-engineered fiction attempt, without facing the same objections.
However, that doesn’t mean an attempted answer doesn’t exist, per se. Any interaction here about the Shack book — or, as with me, reactions to the reactions of its defenders — is most welcome, along with discussions about what or how much, exactly, is “permitted” in Christ-honoring speculative fiction, given what we know from Scripture about God and His Truths.