Thinking Out Loud

March 5, 2009

Purpose Driven Life, Left Behind, The Shack: Ultimately, Were They Printed For Christians?

the-shack-spanishI am starting to question whether certain books, having penetrated the mainstream book market, were ever truly meant for Christians to read themselves; especially considering that all we do is dissect them to death.   Here’s how I put it recently in a comment on Tim Challies‘ blog:

When certain “Christian” titles strike a nerve in mainstream culture, like Shack, Purpose-Driven and Left Behind; I start to wonder if they were really written for “us.” They do however, become easy targets for critique, analysis and even spin-off books which do both. If someone finds Christ in these books and is intent on discerning their next steps through fellowship and Bible study and prayer; then, later on, we can do the mid-course corrections that will center their doctrine.

I have read, seen and heard so many interviews with author Wm. Paul Young; and I have heard so many stories from satisfied readers that I feel in terms of the “big picture,” this book has done more good than harm. The greatest potential for harm comes when the book becomes a vehicle for division within the body; a springboard for pro-Calvinist or anti-Calvinist sentiments; when in fact the heart of the book is about how God meets us in the middle of the tragedies of life, what lead character Mack calls “the great sadness.”

Another great sadness would be to miss all that, and get so focused on the book’s alleged theological shortcomings that we miss the sound of the angels rejoicing in heaven over souls being saved. I’ll take a flawed Shack over similar efforts that never break out of the Christian reading ghetto; or efforts that never happen at all.

I’ve just reached a point where I’ve had it with all the analysis.   Purpose Driven Life is not perfect, The Shack‘s attempt to capture the heart of a loving God has lots of rough theological edges, and the Left Behind series is…well…

But I’ve heard of people being saved through reading the LaHaye/Jenkins series, and one story of Ashley Smith’s witness after reading PDL would justify  the book’s entire print run, and the Wm. Paul Young book is producing story after story of people finding faith.

Meanwhile, the Evangelical community is constantly bickering.   Enough already.   You win.   God is not a woman.    Oh yeah, and strictly speaking, God is not a man.

…and all the other debates and arguments also.

Pictured:  The Shack Spanish edition.  The book is currently available or being translated into 23 languages.

One Link – 3 Different Things To See at Mars Hill Grand Rapids
rob_bell Sermon posts at Rob Bell’s church only stay up for a dozen weeks, so time is running out quickly to catch three great moments in time at this church in Michigan. First go to the site linked here.   Then check out

  • February 8th –  The church celebrates a ten year anniversary where they celebrate the world wide influence this church is having.
  • February 15th – Rob Bell announces a coming tour in support of his book, Drops Like Stars, releasing in April, that will take him across the U.S., to Canada, and to the U.K.; and then introduces guest speaker Jeff Manion, who has pastored in Grand Rapids for 25 years who preaches on how the love of Christ needs to manifest itself in very down-to-earth, practical situations.
  • March 1st – Rob teaches on how our culture is in denial when it comes to death — I know, not a grabber of a subject — and begins a 6-week teaching from the book of Lamentations.   Not your average sermon, but a really good one.

16 Comments »

  1. The Shack was one of the best books I have read. It lets you wander a little in your imagination. It suggests things that resonate in your inner core even though these things aren’t spelled out in theology.
    Sometimes I actually pity some Evangelicals or other Christians because they get so caught up in doctrine that they miss the real meaning. They can’t see the forest for the trees.
    Great blog Paul I enjoy reading it.

    Comment by ricksworld411 — March 6, 2009 @ 8:52 am

  2. Actually, I despair that Evangelicals are so caught up in touchy-feely Christianity that they miss the fact that Jesus and the apostles made it clear that doctrine is the real meaning. They can’t see the forest because there are no trees, because there are no roots.

    I personally have a dear friend who was genuinely saved while a leader in a cult – and then got kicked out by other leaders. However, that fact does not mean that we should either overlook the heresy of cult teachings or advocate that people take the chance of attending cult meetings because they might be saved, too.

    There’s a distinct difference between being critical and being a critical thinker – but the critics of critical thinkers generally fail to grasp this – and become more nasty in their criticisms of the critical thinkers than the critical thinkers would ever dream of being.

    Just study any NT letter at random and see if there is even one that doesn’t have right doctrine at the very core of everything that is written.

    Dave

    Comment by Dave Jems — March 6, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

  3. Dave,

    I appreciate your comment. Your friend’s story is reminiscent of so many similar ones: people finding genuine faith in the middle of drug experience, people being moved toward dedicating their lives to Jesus Christ while visiting a museum, etc.

    I’m just not sure that example maps on to this situation.

    I certainly do understand the difference between criticism and critical thinking, believe me. But what I see out there is the warmth toward God that Paul Young demonstrates in his interviews versus the lack of love among those who rip his book to shreds. (Not to mention the significant number of critics who, when pressed, admit they never did read the thing.)

    Don’t get me wrong, doctrine matters. It matters a lot. But it doesn’t matter at all to the average person on the street. He or she isn’t walking up to us and saying, “Explain your doctrines to me;” he or she is first wanting us to demonstrate Christian love.

    Doctrine comes into play as part of the maturation process. You don’t need to know it all to be part of the kingdom, but you’ll want to know it all as you come to appreciate (and worship) the One who has reached out to you.

    At that point, we can introduce a fuller understanding of sin, judgment, God’s nature and purpose and plan, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the written scriptures, the Church, the second coming, etc., etc. From there, we can go on and introduce the role of prayer, the fruit of the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, etc.

    But we don’t spread out all our doctrinal cards on first contact. I see bloggers that do this — pages and pages and pages of text that nobody is ever going to read, except for other doctrinal bloggers.

    Books like The Shack are really more like tracts. (Albeit, large ones.) Bite-sized pieces of a larger puzzle that can’t possibly measure up to the accuracy demanded by theological purists, but containing enough of the essentials that nobody who finds faith through them is coming back later to say the books totally mis-represented everything.

    It’s just us insiders that are doing that.

    Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — March 6, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

  4. Dave,

    I have read the Shack and I have read several criticisms and critiques of the books (again the difference between being critical and critical thinking).

    I am personally a Bible teacher and theologian who was saved 25 years ago out of a terrible life of sin – including alcoholism.

    It is true that doctrine is for believers (1Cor 2:14) – and part of the maturation process. But we must remember that believers share the gospel with unbelievers – and to the degree that believers have poor or wrong doctrine, to that degree they often share a deficient gospel and often to the degree that there isn’t enough truth for someone the next person to actually be saved. And what’s more, the problem becomes more significant in each subsequent iteration, until the gospel is lost.

    I agree that some criticisms (perhaps many) of books like The Shack are cynical, sarcastic, rude – lacking grace, wisdom and a whole host of other Christian virtues. These are less than unhelpful – and I personally refuse (at least by conviction, if not always in practice) to engage in this type of rhetoric.

    However, I have also read a good number of thoughtful critiques that a written with the right spirit and that do a genuine service to the Body of Christ, being faithful to the biblical example of presenting, defining, clarifying and defending doctrinal truth.

    This may not be directly helpful to unbelievers – but it is helpful in the long run. And I would say carefully, that The Shack, for example, despite Young’s intent (I’m not judging motives), he has done a far greater disservice to both believers and unbelievers than have those who have graciously pointed out the very serious theological aberrations in his book – despite the fact that some, perhaps many have been saved through it (just as my friend was saved through (or in spite of) a cult’s teachings).

    In other words, if people could be saved or helped through this book, how much more could they have been helped – and how many more could have been saved if the same writing talent – and even storyline – had been applied to producing a book that was true to the Scriptures (since the Holy Spirit acts upon the heart and mind in the context of biblical truth – and the gospel is the power of God unto salvation)?

    And as for the book being more for unbelievers, I have been tracking this personally and the fact is that it swept through the evangelical community in equal or greater proportions than it did among unbelievers. It was the top-selling Christian book (presumably mostly to believers) in 2008 at Christianbook.com (if I remember correctly).

    It’s not a matter of “not seeing the forest for the trees” it’s more a matter of possibly “winning a battle, but losing the war.” (We have a patient Enemy.)

    Dave

    Comment by Dave Jems — March 6, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

  5. he has done a far greater disservice to both believers and unbelievers than have those who have graciously pointed out the very serious theological aberrations in his book…

    How do you know that to be true? I’m very sorry, but I just can’t agree with that categorically, and I’m positive it can’t be said objectively.

    …if people could be saved or helped through this book, how much more could they have been helped – and how many more could have been saved if the same writing talent – and even storyline – had been applied to producing a book that was true to the Scriptures

    Dave, trust me, I agree with the logic of that statement 100%. On the other hand, that “other” book you envision has already been written — a hundred times over — and hardly anyone has read it. This book was just quirky enough and edgy enough that it found an audience. If the picture is “fuzzy,” there is still no doubt that it is a picture of the Jesus of the Bible. It certainly points nowhere else. As I said at the outset, doctrinal mid-course corrections are frequently made after the rocket leaves the launch pad. To me, this rocket is generally pointed in the right direction.

    I have been tracking this personally and the fact is that it swept through the evangelical community in equal or greater proportions than it did among unbelievers

    Even the people at ChristianBook don’t know who the books are being given to. When Hachette Book Group in New York jumped in, they certainly weren’t expecting to sell copies to Christians — they knew “those people” already had a copy. They have taken the book to new places that the Christian book market would never reach. I don’t think you can look at one segment of the book market and expect it to speak for the whole, and I say that as a bookseller with 33 years experience.

    So what’s your personal story? Did you have a genuine encounter with a loving God, or were you persuaded by logical propositions and systematic theological doctrines?

    Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — March 6, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

  6. “he has done a far greater disservice to both believers and unbelievers than have those who have graciously pointed out the very serious theological aberrations in his book” -Dave

    I have to chime in again, sorry. This is one of the reasons I don’t belong to organized religion. Thank You for reminding me, Dave.

    I wish there were a nicer way to put it but there’s not.
    I stare death in the face every single day of my life. I also had a father who was a Christian pastor who put a gun to his own head and ended his life. I saw firsthand what a suicide like that does to the survivors, how it tore my mother apart for years with unneccessary guilt, how it tore my 3 sisters apart.
    Explain that with theology. I don’t think you can. But for someone who has truly experienced some horrible things that makes them question the very existence of God, this book comforts and inspires in a way that theology and docrine can’t.
    I’m not calling The Shack the Bible but I do believe it has its much-place in our world.

    Comment by Rick — March 6, 2009 @ 8:48 pm

  7. Paul,

    “He has done a greater disservice” – How do I know that to be true? Because in the Bible, God has given clear, objective revelation of truth about Himself, His Son, His Spirit, the nature of man and the way of salvation. The Shack distorts that truth to the point of being obscured in some places and replaced with error in others. That is a disservice.

    At the same time, neither I nor others have said that there is no spiritual truth in the book. It touches the emotions, and I found myself challenged on numerous occasions to look deep into my heart and soul and compare my life to what I should be in light of truth that I know is in the Bible.

    Put simply, The Shack is not simply a book of fiction on the order of “The Hunt for Red October” – it delves into questions of eternal truth and consequence and God has made it clear that we need to understand and embrace rather than speculate and experiment – unless of course one holds to the Universal Reconcilation theology that underlies the message at various points (although his theological editor tried to get most of it out.)

    Concerning my story: My life was a wreck and I needed a loving God – but not devoid of objective propositions – because it was .through them that I knew I was a sinner before a holy God and the theological proposition of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice that paid the price for my sins, allowing me to have eternal life through faith.

    There is so much demand today, to try to be reductionistic and think in terms of either / or that is not helpful because it isn’t biblical.

    My observations concerning distribution was based upon far more than the statistics from one book seller. You don’t know me – but I try to avoid making claims or assertions that don’t have some basis in reality. I’m not one who tries to use statistics to prove a point or support and agenda. I don’t have a lot of hard data on distribution. However, I read a lot of blogs and get significant input from others who are in a position to know how things are impacting whole congregations. I full understand the tricky and complex nature if analyzing demographics (as I was also an engineer (in another life,))

    Comment by Dave James — March 6, 2009 @ 10:21 pm

  8. At the same time, neither I nor others have said that there is no spiritual truth in the book…

    Aha! So there is some truth, and there is some error.

    Methinks then, that the solution is to let the wheat and the tares grow side-by-side until God does the sorting.

    Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — March 6, 2009 @ 10:37 pm

  9. Paul,

    “He has done a greater disservice” – How do I know that to be true? Because in the Bible, God has given clear, objective revelation of truth about Himself, His Son, His Spirit, the nature of man and the way of salvation. The Shack distorts that truth to the point of being obscured in some places and replaced with error in others. That is a disservice.

    I don’t know that I can or should respond to your comment about organized religion – but I think you have perhaps assumed some things about me personally and why I have a responded in a certain way, that may or may not be true. Suffice it to say, that I don’t fit the mold of much of organized religion myself. I will make this observation, however, and that is that most criticisms of organized crime that I have seen almost almost inevitably involved a personal tragedy in which someone had a bad experience with some who in the ministry and missed a genuine opportunity to minister – and on the other side, in response, there are almost always some form of ad hominem or strawman arguments that do little to get to the hearrt of or deal with the issue.

    I can do nothing more than to offer my condolences and tell you that I believe that the Lord both understands your pain, and deeply desires to bring a measure of healing in your heart as well. The past cannot be undone, but it can be handled appropriately – both by the Word of God, the Spirit of God and by someone you will allow to be used by God to touch your heart.

    I truly hope that nothing I have written is inherently offensive. That is not my intent at any level. May the Lord bless you.

    Dave
    ABI
    http://www.biblicalintegrity.org

    At the same time, neither I nor others have said that there is no spiritual truth in the book. It touches the emotions, and I found myself challenged on numerous occasions to look deep into my heart and soul and compare my life to what I should be in light of truth that I know is in the Bible.

    Put simply, The Shack is not simply a book of fiction on the order of “The Hunt for Red October” – it delves into questions of eternal truth and consequence and God has made it clear that we need to understand and embrace rather than speculate and experiment – unless of course one holds to the Universal Reconcilation theology that underlies the message at various points (although his theological editor tried to get most of it out.)

    Concerning my story: My life was a wreck and I needed a loving God – but not devoid of objective propositions – because it was .through them that I knew I was a sinner before a holy God and the theological proposition of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice that paid the price for my sins, allowing me to have eternal life through faith.

    There is so much demand today, to try to be reductionistic and think in terms of either / or that is not helpful because it isn’t biblical.

    My observations concerning distribution was based upon far more than the statistics from one book seller. You don’t know me – but I try to avoid making claims or assertions that don’t have some basis in reality. I’m not one who tries to use statistics to prove a point or support and agenda. I don’t have a lot of hard data on distribution. However, I read a lot of blogs and get significant input from others who are in a position to know how things are impacting whole congregations. I full understand the tricky and complex nature if analyzing demographics (as I was also an engineer (in another life,))

    Comment by Dave James — March 6, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

  10. You are misapplying the words of Christ.

    Read 1 Timothy – and find out if your application of letting both just go was the apostolic approach to handling error.

    You have *unintentionally I assume) done a bait and switch. The bait was believers vs unbelievers who claimed to be believers. The switch was right doctrine versus false doctrine.

    These are two totally different issues.

    I’m assuming that was just an innocent (albeit a very serious) expositional / exegetical mistake.

    Dave James
    ABI
    http://www.biblicalintegrity.org

    Comment by Dave James — March 6, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

  11. The original context is prophetic, but there is also a spirit to those words. Granted, you’ll disagree, so consider Gamaliel in Acts. His approach — especially from the Pharisees’ point of view — would seem very laissez faire by some standards. No one disputes the wisdom he brings to the situation.

    But that doesn’t work in this case does it? The people who are so opposed to all the good that The Shack is doing simply won’t drop it, much like the proverbial dog who won’t let go of the bone.

    They are determined that this work of fiction pass their litmus test for Biblical accuracy, and that it score no less than 100%. I would hate to live in a Christian community that held to the same standards. What if I sinned? What if my eschatology was different? (“And they’ll know we are Christians by our doctrine…”)

    And what publishing work do they hold up as the alternative? What “successful” work of publishing — everything from Late Great Planet Earth to This Present Darkness— has ever lived up to their standards?

    The danger of this mindset is that you end up like Hank Hannegraaff — who while he does indeed fulfill an important function within the Body — ends up looking like Mikey in the Life cereal commercials: He hates everything!

    No book, no CD, no Christian film, no work of art and — dare I say it — no sermon; is ever going to be flawless as long as it is composed of human agency. And while “flawed” does not mean “containing error,” the least imperfection leads to the possibility of mis-interpretation, especially given the proclivity of English to be misunderstood.

    Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — March 6, 2009 @ 11:24 pm

  12. Come on, Paul.

    You’re creating an endless series of straw-man arguments to prove your case. If the situation were truly as you present it, you would be right. But no one is looking for perfection – and there are a lot of books that don’t get “nailed” like the Shack. It wasn’t nailed because it was successful (as some have suggested) because it was successful. It came under scrutiny because it took deeply important theological subjects and treated them with total speculation and in such a way that it ended up contrary to what God himself has said. We’re not talking about the question of the exact chronology of certain OT passages. We’re dealing with the very nature and work of God – things that have eternal context – and things which are rather explicit in Scripture. It’s one thing to speculate about what the Bible is silent about – it’s quite another to outright contradiction direct revelation. It comes down to one’s view of scripture and a biblical hermeneutic – not the debatable issues – or “old wive’s tales. You are misrepresenting the nature of the critiques and the fact that they have legitimate biblical substance. Jesus Himself and all the apostles would have taken on this kind of bad theology.

    The reason people won’t drop it is because every couple of days a new round of attempting to defend the indefensible pops up. Until historical evangelicals are willing to acknowledge that the speculative, non-biblical issues in The Shack are legitimate concerns, responsible theologians are going to deal with it to attempt to at least slow down the wholesale acceptance of heresy as broadly evangelical.

    Dave

    Comment by Dave James — March 7, 2009 @ 12:11 am

  13. theologians are going to deal with it to attempt to at least slow down the wholesale acceptance of heresy as broadly evangelical.

    You can’t slow down what’s not speeding up. To date, there’s never been another book imitating this one, no movement has formed around the book, no churches have started, and no identifiable name has been given to people who follow the book’s doctrine. (The latter of course, because nobody does; the book is a gateway to Christ-following, not the destination itself.)

    I certainly do think your arguments have substance and Biblical basis. I never said otherwise. I just don’t think they need to be made at this point in time or in this manner. Let the reader see and be touched by the heart of God, and then gently correct the doctrinal hiccups. (Or encourage them to get into the Word directly, and let the Bible gently do the same.)

    In other words, you can be 100% correct, and have all Biblical truth on your side — which I think you do — but the attack can still be wrong, and the time it has taken from both of us may not be the best stewardship of that time. (“A time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking.”)

    Beyond that, I think we’re done here. I won’t be adding anything else to this particular thread, and if you want to have the last word, that’s fine.

    I know you have other blogs and websites to seek out in order to confront error and contend for truth. I leave with the opening thoughts of my post: I don’t those books were ultimately intended for us, specifically.

    Comment by Paul Wilkinson — March 7, 2009 @ 9:47 am

  14. Given the opportunity for a last word, I’ll take it :-)

    “You can’t slow down what isn’t speeding up…” — Well, it obviously is speeding up. If it weren’t for that no one would bother with it. There are tons of other things that are being ignored in favor of dealing with this. I know of whole churches that are being significantly influenced by this. Much of what the apostle’s dealt with didn’t become movements either – precisely because they spoke up. What if all the biblical leaders remained silent today? That is tacit approval. The success of the Shack combined with the problems demanded a response. If it hadn’t been a problem, it would have received no negative critiques.

    And as for the word “attack” – if someone just suggests that someone read The Shack with some discernment, even that is being called an attack (just read the comments on Amazon.com). Not only are people not open to criticism, they are not open to either a responsible critique or even a caution. There’s this underlying assumption that if something isn’t all bad or if it produced some good – then it must be from God and must be left alone. That’s simply naive, foolish and dangerous.

    Dave

    Comment by Dave James — March 7, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

  15. Paul, I featured your comment section in my blog today…

    Comment by Rick — March 8, 2009 @ 3:23 am

  16. […] The Shack by William Paul Young.   I’m reading it again because it caused so much trouble after I read it that I decided to go through it again with a pen and mark pages that I felt were controversial.   However, I’m a few pages from the end and I have yet to underline a single line.   It’s not that the book didn’t raise a lot of debate and even anger, it’s just that the book in and of itself just isn’t as radical as the critics are making it.    I’m simply enjoying a second look at a simple story that somehow captivated readers of all stripes.   Is it a book for Christians or those seeking theological reading?  I answered that question here. […]

    Pingback by Currently Reading and Listening « Thinking Out Loud — July 9, 2010 @ 6:41 pm


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