What You Should Know About “The Shack”

Posted on February 15, 2011



What you should know:

  • It was #1 on the NY Times paperback best seller list for more than 70 weeks.
  • With over ten million copies in print, you probably know someone that has read it.
  • If you haven’t read it, you should know what its about.
  • If you have and you like it, why can’t you shake that feeling that something’s just not quite right?

The plot goes like this:

Mack, a father of five, loses his young daughter during a camping trip in Oregon to a serial killer. The body of his little girl is never found, but her blood-stained dress is found in a shack in a remote part of the Oregon wilderness. A few years later, a guilt-ridden, embittered Mack gets a letter in the mail from God inviting him up to “the shack” for the weekend. He arrives to meet God, who appears as a large black woman (Father), a plain Middle Eastern man (Jesus), and a small Chinese woman (the Spirit). During the weekend, he has various conversations with each in his effort to answer his burning question: “Why would God allow horrible things happen to innocent people?”

What God says:

In a few sentences, here’s how I would sum up God’s message to Mack: God is good and He is loving. When you accuse God of letting bad things happen to good people, you presume to judge God and forget that the world is broken. But because God is good and loving, He uses the bad things to accomplish His good purpose which is this: He wants a relationship with you instead of a religion from you. So give up your independence from God. He wants to be one with you and build the church through your sharing your life with others.

The Good:

This book definitely breaks religious preconceptions, and that’s a good thing because many people have a lot of wrong concepts about the Bible and God. Here are some of the gold nuggets I extracted:

p. 114 “My purpose from the beginning was to live in you and you in me.” This is very good. We need to know what  God wants. He desires a mutual abode with man. Here are some good verses on that: John 17:21,23

p. 151 “Seriously, my life was not meant to be an example to copy. Being my follower is not trying to ‘be like Jesus.’ it means your independence is killed. I came to give you life, real life, my life. We will come and live our life inside of you, so that you begin to see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, and touch with our hands, and think like we do. But we will never force that union on you.” Also very good. We can only fulfill God’s law through living by the divine life, not the human life. For more on this, read my post on Treasuring the Divine Life.

The Bad:

p. 199 “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. Its a picture of Jesus.” Now, that’s a good quote and all, but unless I missed it, that is the first positive mention of the Bible in this book. And it can be found a mere 51 pages from the end. In God’s eternal purpose, the Bible is much more central than this. The Word is the God-breathed and makes “the man of God complete.”

One thing that I’m sure the average reader will appreciate when reading the book is its understandable, down-to-earth presentation of the Trinity. I mean, if there seems to be anything about God that is more counterintuitive and unnecessarily difficult to grasp than the concept of the Trinity, I don’t know what it is. But don’t be seduced by this unique, progressive take. It is neither a Biblically accurate nor balanced portrayal of the Triune God. For more on this, see Problem 4 and 8 in Norman Geisler and Bill Roach’s The Shack: Helpful or Heretical?. In summary, here are two big words that summarize the two main problems: Tritheism (overemphesizing the “three-ness” of God while neglecting the oneness of God) and Patripassionism (literally, father suffering).   I just wish I had time to talk about how wonderful and deeply enjoyable the Triune God really is, but that will be another series of posts for another time. I will just say this much: God is triune for His dispensing.

The Ugly:

So here’s what I think about it all, my ugly opium onion. I’m no literary critic, so take it with a grain of salt.

To be honest I’m not really a fan of the “Christian novel” genre as a rule. I read the first book of the “Left Behind” series and couldn’t stomach reading the next. The eschatology was bad, so so bad. But cut ’em some slack, you say. You can’t read Dr. Seuss like a science journal, and you can’t read a Christian novel like a theological treatise.

It’s true. There’s an obvious reason that most don’t read theological treatises before going to bed. They’re hard to stomach. But if an author has a message that he wants to have widespread appeal, he has to add in a lot of things to “make it taste good.”  So we end up with some important message mixed in with a bunch of other stuff.

So the real problem with this book, as with others of its genre, is one of mixture. How do you know what to keep and what to throw out? You may be really impressed by something that is wholly a contrivance of the author’s imagination, while missing the real spiritually nourishing morsels.

So my conclusions is this: If you are able to separate the valuable from the invaluable in this book, you need to move on to something more spiritually substantial and nourishing and not waste your time here. Go read The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. THAT is worth your time. And if you are not able to separate the valuable from the invaluable, you better not read this book either because you may get off track and pick up some wrong concepts that will derail your spiritual pursuit of God.

This book is a paradigmatic example of Paul’s word in Galatians 5:9, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Leaven, or yeast, makes bread easier to eat, but we want the pure, properly interpreted Word of God. That is what is really nourishing and that is what will cause us to grow up into Christ.