The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Thoughts on The Shack

A decade ago or so, The Shack was a best-selling book. Millions of people read it, and many, many of those who did had strong opinions about it. For some, it was a wonder-working book, which offered healing for times of grief. For others, it was nothing short of heresy, portraying theologically dangerous ideas about the nature of God and salvation.

Fast forward ten years, and not much has changed: The Shack is now a blockbuster film, but the response to it has been largely the same: amazing or blasphemous. I have had people ask what I think about the story, and I have witnessed some of the discussion, and while I won’t try to convince you to love or hate The Shack, I would like to offer a third perspective.

My Story

I read The Shack for the first time in 2009, and when I did, I wasn’t impressed. There were some good elements to the story, and I found a few quotations that I liked, but I thought the book had major theological problems which were a big hang-up for me. If you’re interested, you can read a review I wrote back in 2009.

In the fall of 2014, I took a grad school class called Providence and Suffering, and The Shack was one of the texts that we were required to read for the class. Honestly, I was disappointed, because I had read the book before and largely dismissed it, and wasn’t thrilled to be reading it again. But I did read it again, and was surprised at what I found: the theological problems were still there, but they didn’t capture my focus in the same way. Instead, I read a powerful story of sin and suffering, and a God who loves us in spite of those things even when it feels like He doesn’t.

What changed between 2009 and 2014? It wasn’t that a new edition of the book came out that ironed out the theological difficulties; the text was the same. What changed was me.

When I read the book the first time, I was a 25 year-old minister who pretty much had it all figured out. In a lot of ways, I hadn’t experienced a whole lot in life, and I certainly hadn’t experienced any significant suffering. I “knew what the Bible taught,” was bothered by some of the finer theological points of the book, and basically, wrote it off.

When I read the book the second time, I was a 31-year old minister who had learned a lot in the intervening 5 1/2 years, and most of all, had learned that I absolutely did not have it all figured out. My wife and I had suffered through the heartbreak of miscarriage, and had been absolutely devastated by our beloved daughter’s diagnosis of a severe genetic condition that would greatly affect her life. I had learned much, much more about the Bible than I knew previously, and while my theological convictions remained (and, in fact, were deeper in many ways), I read the book in a completely different light. This time, I saw The Shack as an insightful and touching parable about suffering, and how God loves us in the midst of it.

Two Practical Considerations

Really, you can feel however you want to about The Shack, but here are some thoughts to consider:

The Shack is a parable; it is not a systematic theology. Parables are meant to make a point, but they are not meant to be pressed in their details. Even parables of Jesus can convey theologically inaccurate ideas if they are pressed in ways that they are not intended. If you go to The Shack looking for rigorous exposition of biblical theology, you are looking in the wrong place. That doesn’t mean The Shack is theologically perfect (it’s certainly not), but that’s also not its purpose.

Maybe The Shack is not for you. People are different, and that means that different things “speak” to different people differently (I wanted to see how many times I could use the word “different” in a sentence). If you are hung up on the theology, that’s fine; don’t read the book or watch the movie. But for some people, I think The Shack can be a powerful reminder that God cares for them deeply, even (especially?) in their suffering. I don’t think The Shack was for me the first time I read it; it was the second time.

So, those are my thoughts. Ultimately, I think there are a lot of more pressing issues for Christians to get riled up about than the orthodoxy of what is, in my opinion, a therapeutic parable. For my part, having read the book twice, I don’t feel a great need to see the movie (and honestly, am not eager about the emotional burden that I know will accompany my watching it), but I’ll probably catch it on Netflix in a couple years.

17 Comments

  1. Thank you for your thoughts. I read the book and rejected it immediately and had a similar reaction as you. I hesitated to see the movie but knew others would ask me about it. I must confess I reacted to the movie differently but still had serious reservations theologically but did see some redeeming qualities. Like you, it may be due to some life experiences that do reflect our view.

    • Luke

      March 16, 2017 at 8:19 AM

      Jack,
      It was surprising to me how much my attitude changed upon the second reading of the book. But you are correct: there are still some theological problems that remain.

    • Jack, this was my exact feelings. Just didn’t feel right about it even though I know it’s fiction. I very possibly won’t see the movie.

  2. The difference in reading a book and viewing a movie is you are in a different environment. More emotions, more interactions with our feelings and difficulties in life. There are many works that failed in book form but were successful in movie format. I believe people are mature enough to read or go to a movie and if need be, spit out the bones.
    Great thoughts Luke.

    • Luke

      March 16, 2017 at 8:20 AM

      Mike,
      I agree—especially if people are forewarned about some theological problems, I think they can glean what is helpful and healing without swallowing it whole.

  3. Good article Luke. Have not seen the movie yet, but as I watch the film I will be mindful that I am watching a fictional movie and enjoy it as such.

    • God said,”The world will change, but my words will never change.” Perhaps, you have changed, Sir. I read the book when it came out, and saw many problems with it concerning the God of the Bible. Also, a point I would like to make: Just because a movie has some redeeming qualities does not mean the movie is not harmful overall. I see this quite often in movies—-a strategy of propaganda. Follow offensive scenes with loads of good humor, upbeat music—-and the audience does not have time to brood on what they have just seen. I have watched many a movie use this strategy to buffer the effects of gore, explicit sex, violence,etc. But the damage is done—-the eyes have already seen. The Shack is heretical—-but lets put some feel-good stuff in there , and everyone will like it. Sorry, not falling for that old bull. So far as just remembering it is fiction—-NO movie about GOD should contain fiction. That in and of itself is heresy. We have become a “feel good” society and the effects have been terribly detrimental . Please, lets keep fiction separate from God and Truth.

      • Luke

        March 16, 2017 at 10:11 AM

        Hey Donna, thanks for your comment.

        Your opinion of The Shack is not an unusual one, and you are welcome to hold it; I won’t try to dissuade you from it.

        But I think you misread the intention of the book. To echo something I said above, if you come to The Shack looking for rigorous theology, you are looking in the wrong place. I believe the book is intended as a parable to convey a basic point, and should be read as such.

        Always, always we should stand up for biblical truth: I appreciate your passion for that and it is one that I share. I just also believe that, as discerning students of Scripture, we should be capable of appreciating the good aspects of something while rejecting the things that we disagree with or hold to be unbiblical.

        Blessings to you.

    • Luke

      March 16, 2017 at 10:04 AM

      Thanks, Jeff! I think that is a wise course of action.

  4. Luke, first, thanks for your perspective. It fits with the narrative of many others who praise, or at the least, approve of the book. I appreciate you personalizing your response(s).

    However, my issue with the book, and movie, is what you do *not* make as explicit. You have an above average grasp of Scripture, and a resulting theological acumen that allows you to *sift* more carefully than others. What you see as a “therapeutic parable” many others (most?) will see as gospel truth. I have read reviews (both formal and on Facebook) where the reader/viewer takes what the book and movie say as far more “truth” than the Bible itself.

    The Biblical truth is that God himself provided the images we need to view Him as loving and kind, hospitable, welcoming and healing – Hosea, Jonah, and Job come to mind even if the general public cannot see the love of God as demonstrated in the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. The Shack is not JUST a parable – it is a caricature of God! *IF* the general public was more literate in biblical theology, perhaps stories such as The Shack would not be so dangerous – as your experience demonstrates. I fear, however, that most who read the book or see the movie will fall far more in love with “Papa” than God. And that scares me.

    I’ve watched interviews with the author. He clearly has issues with authority, and with the images of God in Scripture that portray him as judge. Remove that image, however, and you no longer have the God of Sinai, but a “scarecrow in a cucumber patch” that does not deserve our affection, or our obedience.

    Just my two cents worth – and with inflation, probably not worth even that.

    Blessings,

    Paul

    • Luke

      March 16, 2017 at 5:55 PM

      Hey Paul, thanks for the comment.

      Your concern is noted, and, I believe, valid, and actually closely mirrors a similar conversation I have had with a good friend on the same topic.

      I was unclear as to the target audience of this post, but I confess that I had biblically-literate Christians in mind when I wrote it. I think spiritual maturity enables us to evaluate material, sift wheat from chaff, etc., and I took it for granted that it was to that crowd that I was speaking.

      However, this is a blog, available to anyone, so that was perhaps short-sighted. So, to be a little more clear: The Shack is a human product, and thus, is inherently flawed, and because of some of the theological problems, is more flawed than I would like. I would certainly not want to give it to a non-believer (or a new believer) as their only or primary exposure to who God is. Furthermore, I would strongly oppose any suggestion that the book or film provides a superior or equally valid understanding of who God is.

      Still, I believe that God can achieve great things through flawed vessels (of whom I am one), and I believe that The Shack has the potential to be such a tool, perhaps softening the hearts of some who have been long hardened by suffering in their own lives, and making them more open to a God who is present with them in their sufferings. It is not an ending point, but I think it can offer a starting place.

      Thanks again for your comment! Blessings to you.

      • Hi Luke, I think I need to apologize that my comment was a little heavy handed. I intended it to be more of a “coffee table” kind of conversation, but I see where I did not really take your intended audience into consideration. Your explanation makes sense. We were thinking of two different circles of thought. Also, I probably had other “defenders” in mind as I was responding, so you kind of caught some grief that I should have directed more specifically to others.

        I always appreciate your thoughts so please “consider the source” when I respond. I am even trying not to take myself so seriously.

        In Him!

        Paul

  5. I had trouble with The Shack. To be fair, I also had trouble reading the Narnia series by CS Lewis, even though many people say it is wonderful., and my own children loved them. I have lived a charmed life though, and can’t see what others see who have had more difficult times. I do appreciate your thoughts, and viewpoint. Hopefully I can learn from them.
    How do you get the book name to italicize in the comments on an iPad anyway?

    • Luke

      March 17, 2017 at 3:05 PM

      Candy,

      Thanks for the comment.

      If you had trouble with Narnia, then it makes sense that you would have issues with The Shack, since the latter is inferior to the former both in terms of theological depth and accuracy and also literary quality. 🙂

      Also, as I indicated and you hinted at, I just don’t think it’s for everyone, and that’s okay. It wasn’t for me the first time.

      I used HTML tags to italicize. Like this (only without the spaces between the carrots:

      < i >Sample Text< / i >

  6. Sharon Wriblewski

    March 19, 2017 at 12:01 PM

    I just finished reading The Shack. I read it at a time in my life I was grieving the loss of my husband after watching him suffer in pain for years and then be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on June 17,2016 and suffer in excruciating pain until he died on August 12. I loved this man with every inch of my being and I prayed and prayed that God would heal him or if that was not to be give him a painless and peaceful passing. He did not. I left with an anger inside me and a complete lack of understanding of what kind of God would allow this. Six months later I picked up this book and read it. I cried while reading it, mostly for myself and my personal Great Sadness. But somehow it left me in a peaceful place, no longer angry at God, still missing my sweetheart but in a loving way. I am definitely going to see this movie to see if it moves me the way the book did

    • Luke

      March 20, 2017 at 9:46 AM

      Sharon,

      Thank you for your comment, and for sharing your story. Yours is an excellent example of the therapeutic value that a lot of people have found in The Shack. I am glad that it worked in your life in a powerful way and helped you to better see the God who is present with us even in our suffering.

      Blessings to you!

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