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Open Mind, Closed Bible

Almost eight months after my review of The Shack I continue to get daily emails about it. This is proof, I suppose, of the book’s continued success. I do not know if the novel’s popularity has peaked yet but can see that it is still at the top of its category on many of the bestseller lists. The emails I receive typically fit into one of two categories: the “thanks for the review” category or the “how dare you?” category. Today I want to address just two of the more common critiques of my critique of the book.

Here is how one reader expressed herself: “Hello Tim. I read your review after I had already read The Shack and I think your review is ridiculous. Your review reminds me of exactly why ‘stodgy old religion’ is so unappealing to masses of people.William Young wrote a novel - a story that inspired me and thousands of others to want to have a closer, more intimate relationship with God. All your theological arguments can’t erase that.” Another concerned reader told me of a professor in a conservative seminary who was untroubled by much of the book’s poor theology. “I was surprised that he seemed not as concerned due to the fact that it is a novel and so some leeway should be allowed for ‘poetic license.’ He acknowledged my concerns and said he shared them as well but said the novel did not ‘intend to do theology.’” I have received these comments, or ones like them, time and time again.

There are two broad arguments used here.

The first is pure pragmatism, implying that the book should be judged not on theological arguments, not on the basis of comparing it to Scripture, but on the basis of how people have reacted to it. Because so many people are responding positively to this book in opposition to “stodgy old religion,” we must believe that it is good. “William Young wrote a novel - a story that inspired me and thousands of others to want to have a closer, more intimate relationship with God. All your theological arguments can’t erase that.” The danger of such an argument is that it effectively places us over the Bible and over God. No longer do we judge right and wrong by what God says, but we judge right and wrong by how we feel. If the book inspires people to be intimate with God, we must judge it to be good. If it stirs emotions we like, we judge it to be good.

There are profound implications here. Pragmatism necessarily causes us to lose our focus on the absolute standard God has given us in His Word to determine right from wrong. When we lose that focus the church is placed on the slippery slope to becoming like the world. When we discard God’s standards we must depend on our own deeply flawed standards. We begin to trust in ourselves and lose our trust in God. We lose our reliance on His Word as the tool for discernment.

The second argument is that The Shack is not a work of theology and, therefore, must not be treated as such. An article at Christianity Today makes this argument. “It’s tricky to speak definitively of The Shack’s theology. Young could have written a theological treatise, a spiritual memoir, or even a long poem. Instead, he wrote what he calls a “parable” (not an allegory). That should give readers pause about confidently reading off a systematic theology from the book.” And in their review of the book they say, “Readers are talking about The Shack for its theology and its storyline, not for its faulty mechanics. Reviewers have criticized the book for hinting at universalism, as well as for feminism and a lack of hierarchy in the Trinity. Rather than slicing and dicing the novel, looking for proof of theological missteps, a better approach might be to look at significant passages as springboards for deeper discussion. The Shack is a novel, after all, not a systematic theology.”

This is a convenient argument but one we need to guard against. It creates a false, unrealistic division between works that are theological and works that are not. Surely we will admit that there are works that call for great theological precision (such as a Systematic Theology) and works that call for a more general precision, but we cannot neatly divide areas that require correct theology and areas that do not. The Shack is, by the author’s own admission, a work that seeks to change the reader’s perception of God. It is deeply theological! Read the reviews of this book and you will find readers saying how much this book impacted their understanding of God’s person and nature.

Tom Neven, writing for Boundless Line, covers this well in an article titled “But It’s Only Fiction.”

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.

More important, why does Young feel the need to change the character of God in this story? In a way, he’s saying that the God who reveals himself to us in the Bible is insufficient. Young needs to “improve” the image to make it more palatable. But as I said in the original post, God never changes himself so that we can understand Him better. He changes us so that we can see Him as he truly is. If God changed his nature, He would cease to be God.

The Shack is theological fiction. If it talks about God, it must be so! While it may not require the kind of precision we would expect from a work of formal theology, we cannot deny that the author seeks to teach what he believes to be true about God. And we cannot then deny that it teaches theology that is, in a word, false. It is not an issue of precision but of right and wrong! Fiction is a powerful medium for communicating truth and the evidence of this is in every positive review of the book; the evidence is in the fact that Jesus Himself often communicated using fiction.

The reader who complained about “stodgy old religion” exhorted me to “try to re-read the Shack with a more open mind.” But from her email and the others like it, I can see that in this case an open mind would require a closed Bible. We cannot set aside Scripture even when we read fiction. There is no such thing as only fiction.