About 4 years ago I thought I was done. At the time, it had been five years since my critical review during a Trinitarianism class at Dallas (you can still see the cage stage). The book had been picked at from every angle, including this genius collection of reviews. But now that they decided to make a movie, we find ourselves talking about The Shack again.
At this point, I think I’ve said everything I need to about the book itself. Here, you can read the page by page breakdown in my review, but you probably don’t need to do that. With the popularity of The Shack back in the public square, I think it’s helpful to think through why it’s popular as well as divisive. People either love it, hate it, or haven’t heard of it. Maybe a small minority are in some kind of ambivalent category.
The book provides an occasion for looking into two issues. The first is why I think people like books that are less than orthodox in theological content. The other is why you may have a hard time convincing someone to look at the book differently after they’ve decided they like it. Let’s take those in turn, as I draw on some old posts.
If a person likes, no scratch that, loves a book, it comes down to this: people like books because that impact them in some significant way. People will recommend books that they simply enjoyed reading, but they will enthusiastically recommend books that impacted them personally. Often they may feel like God used the book to teach them something new, and here’s the other thing to keep in mind: He very well might have.
For a more specific take on this, consider Paul Maxwell’s thoughts. He offers one reason the book is so powerful when he says,
For those who have ears to hear, this story is a meaningful exploration of the traumatized male psyche coming face to face with a God who feels very much like his own abusive father. Ideal or not, more Christians can relate to this than would publicly admit it.
You should read his whole take/review of the movie because I think it’s an important and interesting minority report. He gives reasons why it might be useful, but never urges you to go against your inclinations or your conscience if it is already set.
In any case, if you happened to have the particular experience that Paul highlights, you would probably like The Shack in a much more intensive way than a casual reader who didn’t relate. A person will like a book in a significantly different way when it impacts them at the spiritual level (i.e. they felt like God worked through it to show them something), than if they just thought it was doctrinally accurate or practically helpful in the abstract. Very often then, I think people like a book like The Shack because it helped them personally, and in this case it has to do with questions about pain and suffering and the goodness of God.
There are unfortunate other cases where I think this can be an example of postmodern ethics sneaking in the backdoor of evangelical practice. What I mean by that is that the quality of a book is judged by its usefulness, which can be a pragmatic approach to truth and value. A purely pragmatic approach wouldn’t care whether a book is unorthodox by objective measures, so long as it is personally useful. Truth and goodness are in the mind of the reader in this case. Nietzsche would be so proud.
If that’s the case, the persuasion just got infinitely trickier. Now, you’re not only trying to convince someone the book is bad, you’re having to dismantle their latent worldview in the process. In those situations, the reason they like the book may have little to do with the book itself and more to do with a faulty approach to knowledge and ethics. Fix that and the book problem gets better. Leave it alone and nothing will ultimately change. [Side note: I think many critiques just assume this is the problem with why people liked the book and so use words like discernment in the title, expressing the need to educate the heretical inclinations out of people]
Assuming the reason someone likes a book like The Shack is more benign, it is still not easy to convince someone their view of a book is wrong. And that might not even be the best way to go about things to begin with. While not as radical as a paradigm shift, you are asking someone to dismantle an emotionally laden belief about a book. As such, you need four factors in place (I’m adapting something from this old post if you want source info):
- There must be dissatisfaction with their current opinion
- The new perspective/opinion must be make sense
- The new perspective must also resonate emotionally
- The new perspective must seem to be a more fruitful way to view things
Obviously this means you’ve got your work cut out for you at the persuasive level. It is hard to get past that first point unless you take a question based approach, which most people don’t initially do. Then, you’ve got to present the alternative in a way that resonates emotionally, which isn’t often the strong suit of the critics of a book like The Shack. You end up seeming like an insensitive jerk just because you care about orthodox theology. [Side note: You may actually be an insensitive jerk and so should address that log before dealing with the speck of poor reading choices.]
But here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be that way. Exhibit A: Tim Keller. It would be interesting to see how well The Shack did if people could have read Keller’s book on suffering around the same time. It also has narrative elements (that were maybe prompted by The Shack), but presents a much more robust and orthodox theology of pain and suffering. If we lament books like The Shack being prominent, part of the solution is for the orthodox guys to try to be more engaging writers and write for the person in the pew and not the pastor or professor. And thankfully, that’s exactly what Keller seems to be doing (endnotes aside, since those essays are for people like me I think).
Ultimately, I think we need more keen theological minds working on bringing engaging theology to the masses. Otherwise, we are stuck with books like The Shack being prominent. They fill a vacuum and are more easily understood than the bulk of books being written by theologians today. Rather than try to persuade someone that their opinion of a book like The Shack is wrong, I’d like to be able to offer a better reading alternative and open up a dialogue (to be cliche for a moment). While I spoke in generalities above about why someone might like the book, it is always better to understand why a particular person liked a particular book and then engage that person face to face if possible.
But I suppose, like Mack, one can dream at least…