Christian Fiction Must Be . . . You Know, Christian; Or The Shack Is Back

Not only have writers and readers debated what constitutes Christian fiction, and particularly Christian speculative fiction, we’ve debated the rightness of and the need for good doctrine in our fiction.
on Feb 20, 2017 · 8 comments

This past week, I saw the TV ad for the upcoming The Shack movie. I’d seen the trailer some time ago, but was dismayed that the promotion was reaching a TV audience. And in LA. We don’t often hear about “Christian” projects here.

There’s no doubt that The Shack positions itself as Christian. After all, Jesus shows up, albeit in imaginary form. But is it Christian?

What constitutes “Christian fiction”? That’s a question we here at Spec Faith have answered and revisited since our inception some ten years ago (see for example this early post by one of the founding members of Spec Faith).

Not only have writers and readers debated what constitutes Christian fiction, and particularly Christian speculative fiction, we’ve debated the rightness of and the need for good doctrine in our fiction (see for example “Reading Choices: Realism, Truth, And The Bible“). “Doctrine” encompasses both theology and beliefs concerning morality, and we’ve discussed those too (see for example “Marcher Lord Press and the Hinterlands Imprint“).

On top of these generalized discussions, we’ve also posted articles specifically about The Shack. But that was eight years ago, when the book was still on the top of best-selling lists and Christians and non-Christians alike were passing it around from one person to another and discussing it over coffee.

Now the movie version of Paul Young’s book is about to come to a theater near you, and the question no one could answer back then is bound to resurface: Is The Shack truly Christian?

There are some specific issues that came under scrutiny concerning the book.

Some people stumbled over the most glaring issue right from the gate. I mean, isn’t it blasphemous to depict God the Father as anything but a Father?

I understand how portraying God as other than how He portrays Himself, can be troublesome. At the same time, I can see how others accept “God’s” explanation: that He needed to reveal Himself to the main character in a way he could receive Him.

That being said, I suggest one of the central problems of the story surfaces within the discussion of this rather peripheral issue. The Shack has little use for the Bible. Hence, God the Father is easily replaced by the needs of the character.

There are other major issues—the attitude toward the Church and universal salvation and an understanding of the Trinity.

Yet more than one Christian has reported how life changing The Shack was for them, how they wept as they read it, how they understood God’s forgiveness in a way they never had before.

So . . . is it Christian?

Can it be Christian if it shows God in ways He does not show Himself? If it does not point people to His word or His body, the Church? If it falsely claims universal salvation?

On the other hand, how can it not be Christian if it gave many believers renewed faith and deeper love for God and a deeper understanding of forgiveness?

On one hand, The Shack may not tick all the intellectual, theological boxes, but on the other, it more than makes up for that lack by the emotional, spiritual juice it provides.

In thinking about the “what makes something Christian” question, I have to look at the object itself, not the results that may come from it.

The Apostle Paul did just the opposite when he was imprisoned in Philippi and a bunch of so-called Christian brethren started preaching. Paul identified their motives as envy and strife and selfish ambition (Phil. 1:15, 17), but he basically said, so what? As long as they preached Christ, who cared that they had bad motives?

the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. (vv 17-18a)

Paul was only concerned with the bottom line: the result. These “brethren,” false or true, were telling people about Jesus.

So, isn’t that the best test? Shouldn’t we be applauding The Shack, if the movie is successful, because it is bringing people to Christ?

I said above that I have to look at the object itself, because my question is, Is The Shack truly Christian? Lots of things can bring people to Christ. War has been known to do so. A friend of mine came to Christ by reading a novel. Others look at the heavens and know they need to find the One who made them. After 9/11, here in the US any number of people turned to God in the midst of their fear and uncertainty.

Would we say war is “Christian” because some soldiers reported coming to Christ when faced with their own mortality? No, certainly not. God can and does use whatever means He wishes, but His use of the thing does not baptize it as emblematic of His Good News.

So I reject the idea that The Shack must be Christian because people report a deeper relationship with God after having read it.

When Paul talked about those so-called brethren in Philippi, he gave no indication that they were preaching anything but what was true about Christ. Elsewhere, however, he addressed those who were not preaching the truth.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds. (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

In writing to the Galatians he also brought up the matter:

But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. (Gal 2:4)

Clearly, Paul was not hesitant to call out those who were not preaching the gospel but who were masquerading as if they were fellow believers. The same is true throughout the Bible about false teachers and false prophets. Jesus Himself made some of the strongest statements about “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” about false prophets misleading many, even about false Christs.

So determining who is and who isn’t a Christian, what is and what isn’t true Christian teaching, seems like an important aptitude.

Yet I know people will hold back for fear of judging. We aren’t supposed to judge each other, are we?

We’re not.

But that doesn’t mean we’re to put our brains on hold, either. We can still think. We can still look at the story on the screen and compare it with what the Bible says. Which is, after all, the unchanging, authoritative Truth by which we know what “Christian” means.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. it’s hard to get around ! Cor 2:15: But he who is spiritual judges all things. Yet he himself is not judged by anyone.

    I know some translations use appraises or discerns, but the meaning is pretty clear. It’s what we are expected to do. We’re not to condemn, but judge/discern/appraise? Definitely.

    • Great point, David. Thanks for adding that verse to the discussion. I also thought this morning about the appraisal of the church in Berea, commended for searching the scriptures to see if what they’d been told was true (see Acts 17:11). So it seems to me, examining, appraising, discerning, is to be our job on a regular basis as long as it is the standard of the Bible that we are using, not some many-invented PC norm.


  2. Terry Palmer says:

    There are many who would want this movie to do well for a less than ‘Christian’ motivation. Those whose world of darkness seeks to only kill, maim, and destroy. That is the outcome that I predict for this movie, that it will do very well financially, but do poor as a ‘Christian’, movie. Any other conclusion might be like saying that Fifty Shades was Christian because that was the name of the lead character.
    For Biblical Christians, this is another alarm bell, ringing out in a question of warning. How long will God hold back His hand?
    Would we not be better suited to spending our time writing very well written adventures in which sure, life is tough, but faith in Christ is tougher. Real movies where the characters have to stand up for Christ or get blown away by darkness. In these scenes, there is no compromise, no grey area of retreat. No indeed, rather than watch a movie as this is, could we as writers come up with better and better scripts which lay out in clear terms the choice between not just good and evil, or darkness and light, but to – come home. Ye who are weary – come home…
    Author Terry Palmer

    • I love the challenge, Terry, and I agree. We can and should do better. Not just at the story level but at the truth level. And you could be right that this will do well financially. It has great name recognition and obviously a marketing budget and name entertainment people associated with it. Unless God holds back the success for His purposes, it certainly looks like it should, from a human point of view, be a good box office draw.


  3. Raelene Purtill says:

    Christian or not, I just hope the Lord uses it to work in someone’s life. I read it when it first came out and it didn’t sit well with me but it was a dear fellow believer who recommended it to me.

    • That’s the thing, Raelene. I know a number of Christians who thought the book was helpful because they grasped God’s forgiveness in a new way. I wrote a series of ten posts, well, more, eventually, about the book over at my own site. Interestingly in one of my follow-up articles I said,

      So … can a book, or a way of thinking, that helps people see God in a new way be bad? I mean, shouldn’t we want to know God in a fresh, exciting way?

      Our thoughts about God can be new every morning, but I don’t believe we need to borrow from the world’s way of looking at Him to experience Him afresh. Just the opposite. Listening to the lies of the world will kill off true faith.

      If you or anyone else is interested in those posts, you can find them here:


  4. HG Ferguson says:

    Your analysis, as usual, is right, and God bless you for it. For me, when this abomination has “god-jesus” — not the true God, not the real God, not the God who said He desires all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30) and that it is His desire that all should believe in His Son Jesus (John 6:40) — declare instead that it does not desire people to become Christians — your question is answered. Let them be cursed by the God they deny (I Cor. 1:8-10). And if anybody out there says I’m being “judgmental,” weigh The Shack in the light of the Word, as we are commanded to do (I John 4:1), for God says these things, not me. Heed His Word, not The Shack.

    • And to those who point that others have drawn closer to God because of The Shack, I want to reiterate that God can use whatever means He chooses to draw people to Himself. The means are not to be praised or even to be regarded as sacred, Instead, God is to be glorified as the Almighty who can use any means He chooses.

      Why should we honor The Shack and proclaim its “truth” in light of its various departures from Scripture? Rather, God is to be more highly praised because He uses flawed and faulty ideas to bring people to the Truth of His love and forgiveness.

      My prayer is that people actually are seeing God and not some version of their own “goodness.” As I recall, one point of emphasis in The Shack was how God loves us, so that shows how truly awesome and wonderful we are. Well, that thinking is backwards! Yes, God loves us, and it shows how awesome and wonderful He is because He loves sinners like me!!


What do you think?