Some Quick Thoughts About The Shack and Reading Fiction
Some may chalk this post up to the senseless musings of a pastor, who has an over-inflated view of theology. If so, please consider that everyone has a theology. If you are a Christian or not, you have a theology. We all gather up our thoughts about God, humanity, suffering, evil and life itself based upon something. Theology matters, if you turn a wrench, change diapers or write code, it matters.
Paul Young, the author of The Shack has released a new book called, The Lies We Believe About God. This release (along with the recent movie of The Shack) has stirred up even more back and forth over the validity and helpfulness of Young’s writings. For every critique of his writing, I have heard equal amounts of praise for how someone found it helpful, timely or clarifying.
So here’s the thing, fiction often gets a free pass when it comes to critique because so much interpretation is subjective. After all, you say, “how can you critique something intended to tell a story, provoke thought or float an idea? What one person reads and hears is should hold equal weight alongside what another person reads and hears.” This is why many people may read The Shack and say, “I got something out of it. I appreciated this or that aspect of it. I don’t think you can say it is misguided.”
Intent vs Observations
Here is the problem: there is a difference between the author’s intent and our own subjective gleanings. In our post-modern culture, we elevate our subjective impressions as the validation for the worth of a book, movie or experience. “I got something out of said book. Therefore, said book has purpose.”
But, my ability to get something out of a book does not erode the author’s actual intent in writing it. Intent and any subjective gleanings must be distinguished. Yes, God uses all things – even messy and broken things. But God’s grand ability to use fallible means does not negate that they are actually flawed. My concern is that we often look to our ability to glean usefulness from something as justification for its goodness, despite the intent of the author.
Let me illustrate. I can walk across my front lawn and step in a massive, steaming pile and still come away with some helpful observations and life lessons. “I should really put some shoes on if I am going to walk around out here.” Or, “I should have my son shovel these massive piles off the lawn more frequently.” Because I am a thinking person with the ability to glean observations from almost any scenario, I can find “help” in a variety of experiences. This does not remove the fact that my dog had a specific intent as he deposited the package. Intent and subjective observations are distinct.
Here’s my point. With Young’s recent release of The Lies We Believe About God, we can now read his fiction (The Shack) with the full disclosure of his greater world-view and theological framework. Illusions, images, and phrases that sounded an awful lot like universalism, unbiblical views of the Trinity, the human condition and the atonement, now have substantial weight as we read of the author’s actual views.
The Substance Behind the Fiction
Up until now, any critique of the Shack was often met with, “This is fiction, you can’t over analyze it.” But with the backstory of Young’s working theology, this fiction is illuminated with the concerns that myself and many others have had for some time.
Also, some may say that one book from an author does not take away from his or her other books. I disagree, for this is what is referred to as a person’s “body of work.” We frame up our understanding of your position or agenda based off of what you write. We have a dialogue with the author as they state their position, write their views or paint a picture with words. From this body of work, a fictional story is given shape and color by a systematic. This is what Young has done in publishing The Lies We Believe About God.
I am willing to bet that if Young released The Lies We Believe About God apart from the publishing of The Shack, it would hardly be a blip on the book selling radar. But, because millions (literally) of people are familiar with The Shack, The Lies We Believe About God has a much bigger reach. This is my concern.
From the summaries and excerpts I have read, Young’s most recent work is straight up falsehood. But it is a deceptively dangerous kind of falsehood. It contains truth, Christian ideas, and assumptions that can lead you to an alltogether distorted idea of the gospel, God himself and orthodox Christianity.
Don’t misunderstand me or the intent of this post. I am not staying awake at night, rocking in the corner, frantically chewing my fingernails, as I fret over the supposed doomsday plot of Young and his works. I write this because several people have asked my opinion and it is easier to write something here and point to it.
So, in the past, when asked about The Shack, I typically would say something along the lines of, “I appreciate his attempt to make sense of pain and suffering, but there are probably more helpful reads out there on the subject.” Now, I say, “Young has proven to be holding to doctrines that are unbiblical. He diminishes the authority of Scripture and interjects his own opinions as God’s. This is dangerous. This is false teaching.”
Anytime we try and make sense of life’s circumstances apart from Scripture, we will end up with some form of idolatry. Yes, idolatry. Every attempt to know God apart from the biblical Christ ends up in idolatry. This is my concern with Young’s writing. For this is his own admitted approach: “To understand who God really is, you can begin by looking at yourself, since you are made in God’s image.”
Yes, you can, but you will end up with a version of God that looks like yourself, not God.
For a detailed overview of The Lies We Believe About God, I found this helpful.