Why I don’t recommend "The Shack"

I just got done reading The Shack by William Paul Young.  As a heads up, I am probably going to spoil the plot for you in this review.  But that it pretty well done by reading the back cover of the book, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

Any time a book is sweeping the nation and addresses spiritual issues, I feel compelled to read it, to stay on top of what the culture is producing.  Frankly, that’s the only reason I even made it all the way through this book.  It’s just not good, from a literary and artistic standpoint.  It attempts to create a strange sort of new genre somewhere at the intersection of realistic fiction, fantasy, theological non-fiction, and philosophy.  In so doing, it is completely confusing.

In trying to meet in-between genres, you lose believability and credibility in all of them.

As a work of realistic fiction, it’s laughable for it’s predictability, aggressive foreshadowing, and melodrama.  The lines are forced and heavy early on in the book, trying to set the stage for the Missy’s murder.  I felt brow-beaten by the onslaught of cliched sappy-ness juxtaposed with the impending doom.

As a work of fantasy, it’s unbearably cheesy (a guy goes for a walk with Jesus off the end of a dock and across a lake?  Really?  That’s not supposed to make me laugh?).  Personifying God as an African-American woman is not a punishable offense, on the surface.  Making her live up to multiple negative stereotypes of African American culture, from the “barefoot in the kitchen with flour on her face” to having her start every other sentence with “honey,” could very well be a crime, if you are looking to write a respectable novel.

As a work of theological non-fiction, it’s far too loose with the analogies, metaphors, and anthropomorphisms to be considered anything other than heretical by serious Christian theologians.  In fact, the book even conjures the goddess Sophia, a key player in many pseudo-christian religious movements such as Gnosticism and various other forms of cultic mysticism.  When “Papa” (the female “Father” figure of the book—which I am not going to comment on for the sake of brevity—and to avoid the hate-mail) declares her preferred name to be “Elousia,” and the “Holy Spirit” figure in the book goes by “Sarayu” both of those names have roots in Hindu scriptures.  I could spend a long time nailing down all of the things I see theologically wrong with the book, but others have done that quite well.  Click here for a thorough, fair, and sensitive approach by another blogger to the theological issues at hand.  Some of the comments after the post become heated, but the blogger himself does a great job.

As a work of philosophy it comes the closest to believable, as it does a fair job through the characters of relating philosophical truths and concepts.  But it gets too bogged down in plot and character development to really shine as a work of philosophy.

In short, please don’t read The Shack.  It’s just not good.  It sincerely frightens me when people say things like “The Shack will change the way you think about God forever,” as Kathie Lee Gifford says just inside the front cover.  Paul’s letter to the Romans or possibly Desiring God by John Piper can change the way you think about God forever.  The Shack should not do so.  It’s bad “Christian Art” at best, and dangerous heresy at worst.  And shame on Michael W. Smith for endorsing it on the back cover.

McLaren The Wolf-Shepherd.

NPR ran a story on Brian McLaren last week, so I thought I’d weigh in, as one of the “young” evangelicals the story talks about.  Here’s a line taken from the article. (read it in it’s entirety here)

Campbell adds that young believers are more flexible about Christian doctrine in general.

“We also know that — particularly within the evangelical community — the younger you are, the less likely you are to take the Bible literally, to believe that the Bible is the inerrant ‘word of God,’ as compared to a book of moral precepts,” he says.

And let me be the first to say that the article may be true.  Young people like me may be more likely to believe lies.  But, at least in my case, my mother is far closer to McLaren than I am.  It’s not a generational issue.  Mom’s not real big on commenting on blogs (she’ll likely email me). But the blanket statement that older = more theologically conservative is patently false and a lazy generalization.

Here’s what astounds me:  the article says that the main reason older folks hold to more conservative views of scripture is because the older generation is less traveled, has met fewer folks who are of other faiths, and are therefore far more comfortable condemning them to hell.  What a shocking statement about how dumb/bigoted older folks are. It’s pure academic and chronological snobbery to say that we young folks know more than our parents because we’ve experienced a more “global” classroom and life.  And it’s a direct affront to the older generation to say that they are “comfortable” condemning anyone to hell.  Many of the theologically conservative folks I’ve met are also the ones most passionate about getting the good news out to the most people.  No matter their age.

I’ve been to about 9 countries, not counting my own.  I’ve met folks that were raised Muslim, raised in various eastern faiths, and raised Atheist/Humanist.  Folks as different from my upbringing as night is from day.  Yet I am still a conservative evangelical.  I still believe that the Bible is God’s Word, and not just a book of moral precepts (in fact, take a brief look at the “moral” example set by many of the “heroes” of the faith–David, Moses, Paul, Peter, etc–before you call the Bible such a ridiculous name).  If I have changed any since my youth, it is indeed a shift from strict dogmatism to reasoned faith.  But the dogmatism of my youth was based not in any sort of reason, but rather insecurity.  I didn’t know why I believed the Bible, just that it was the linchpin holding my faith together.  So I spent a great amount of time and energy defending my linchpin.

These days, thanks in large part to some great teachers, pastors, friends, and a lot of study of history, I know many more reasons why I can trust the Bible.  But unlike McLaren might think, I have more concern for folks from other nations, cultures, and languages than I have ever had in my life.  In my pursuit of truth and a reasoned faith, I haven’t had to toss out belief in the authority of the Bible, I’ve had to cling to it.  Without a literal Savior saving me from a literal hell of self-centered “spirituality,” I would have no reason to pursue social causes like justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, and assistance to the poor and underprivileged.  Also, I wouldn’t care that people were going to hell, if it were imaginary.

The tired caricature of a bible-thumping hellfire preacher more concerned with money and “soul winning” than with loving people is one we’ve earned as conservative evangelicals.  But McLaren’s response seems like lazy ignorance of the fact it is a caricature that almost totally misrepresents those of us who hold to an authoritative Bible.  In the excerpt at the end of the above-referenced article, McLaren quotes a critic of his as saying that Jesus only came to save people from hell, not with any social agenda.  I don’t know a single one of my friends, no matter how conservative, who would agree with that statement. Not one.

What an ignorant caricature of our entire team, Rev. McLaren!  How about refute Tim Keller, DA Carson, JI Packer, Mark Driscoll, John Piper, or some other reputable representative of our team? Because they can simultaneously hold to a authoritative Bible and love/help the poor?  Yeah, you’re right.  A lot harder to take aim at folks who really work toward advancing both the gospel and social implications of a gospel-centered worldview.

As others have said, I think with this book, Brian McLaren has finally taken off his shepherd costume to reveal the wolf underneath.  Please, folks, don’t follow the wolf. He’s aiming to blow your house down.

A New Kind of The Same Old Heresy

I wish I had been wrong.  I wish I had overstated the case.  I wish this were a retraction post.

After calling Brian McLaren a “wolf-shepherd” in a previous post, I felt bad that I had dismissed him after just reading one excerpt of his new book.  After all, I was just going off of what other people said.  So I bought the book (on the fantastic Kindle app for the iPhone), and read it this past week.

It’s one of the saddest books I have ever read.  Because, like Rob Bell, McLaren is a guy who it is difficult to dislike.  He’s just so nice.  He seems to be very self-critical (in a healthy way) and looking to ensure that his motives are pure.

But to be honest, either he has never actually listened to our side of the argument (“our side” being those who hold to verbal plenary inerrancy) or he’s not interested in what we have to say, or both.

Here’s the thing: he addresses something in this book that desperately needs addressing in the conservative evangelical church.  We have earned the label of bigoted religious snobs.  We have confused capitalism with the kingdom of God.  We have abused the Scriptures, and then used those abused Scriptures to abuse and subjugate others.  We have targeted sins like homosexuality and witchcraft, while ignoring sins like racism and gluttony and greed.  All of these things are true.

And that’s about where my agreement with McLaren ends.

But like nailing jello to a wall, it is really tough to have a level-headed conversation with the guy, because in the book he’s already set the stage for how I am most likely to “attack” his position.  He’s in essence set the terms of engagement, and set them in his favor.  But here’s my three nails into the jello:

  • He has a “trajectory theology” that is impossible to support biblically (though he tries).
  • He is guilty of the worst kind of chronological snobbery.
  • Throughout the book he attacks a straw man, with no indication that he believes we on the other side of the argument have even considered the questions he raises.

I’ll address each of these issues in separate posts, because this one is already getting longer than I’d like.

The final thing I’d like to highlight about McLaren and his “new kind of Christianity” is that it is not new in the least.  Since the earliest days of Christianity there have been folks who said that the key to understanding the Bible was to see it in this “new” light of knowledge.  They too would take scriptures and wrest them from clear meaning to indicate that the point is to gain a transcendent knowledge, and then to pass that knowledge onto others.  These folks were already around during the writing of the Scriptures.  They were called “Gnostics” taken from the greek word for “knowledge.”  So while it might be new to some readers, the idea of special knowledge leading to transcendence is simply the same old heresy being repeated in a new context.

What do you think?  (Melissa, I’m surprised you haven’t weighed in yet…)

McLaren’s Baseless Trajectory

In response to my last post, a friend pointed out how McLaren came from a conservative evangelical background, and so therefore is familiar with all of the arguments we on the “inerrancy team” might use to defend our position.

But my contention remains that he has never been on my team (or even listened to the arguments made by some of the brilliant men and women on my team), because in refuting my position he doesn’t even come close to accurately portraying it.  The conservative evangelical who he paints in the book is a detestable person, concerned only with money and position, eager to condemn others to hell, from the cab of his gas guzzling SUV, while reading a pro-slavery book with a Fox News sticker on it.  I’m with him in condemning that guy.  Not sure that guy exists on a large enough scale to write a book about, but I am totally for outing that guy.

If that is what McLaren was as a conservative evangelical, I’m really glad he’s a neo-hippie post-Christian universalist these days.  Anything is better than being a smug, hate-filled Bible-thumper.

McLaren sees a “constitutional” reading of the Bible (where you are forced to abide by the rules of, say, God…) as the root problem.  And then he goes about proving how you can’t read the Bible like a constitution, using the Book of Job.  He claims that if the Bible is 100% God’s word, then you have to trust all of the words of it, even the parts that contradict each other.  Like Job’s friends, who say one thing, and God (or the “character called God” as McLaren would have it), who says something different.  Rev McLaren, if you think that my understanding the Bible to be inerrant means that I have to take the clearly wrong things (like when Satan speaks in scripture) and the clearly right things (like when Jesus speaks in scripture) with the same level of authority, it is no wonder you left our team.  Not one reputable theologian would recommend such a foolish way to read the Bible.  Wise biblical scholarship takes into account the author’s original audience and intent, the context (historical and literary), and many other factors.  To say the Bible is God’s word doesn’t mean I must stop using my brain to read it.

One root issue is that the God of the Bible doesn’t fit into Brian McLaren’s box.  He sees God as nice, pleasant, and always extending compassion and kindness.  Like a benevolent politician, God’s just here to make you the type of person you already have the capacity to be.  A perfect God who would kill his enemies for their rebellion has no place in McLaren’s paradigm.  So, in an effort to not totally throw out the Bible, he is forced to reinterpret it so that the more “primitive” views of God in the Old Testament were given because the more simple original readers couldn’t handle the gracious God who would emerge later.  In a later post I’ll talk briefly about how insulting that is to folks like John Owen, Moses, Paul, David, etc.

The problem with this “trajectory theology” where interpretation changes based on original reader’s level of understanding is that frequently in the early books we see a gracious God. (the book of Jonah, for example, or the fact that he kicked Adam out of the garden and made garments for him–from a sacrificed animal–in the FIRST book of the Bible)  And toward the end of the Bible, after the “primitive” God had revealed himself to be the pacifist Jesus, we still see that same Jesus condemning people to hell, calling people names, and affirming everything that God did in the Old Testament. Not to mention the fact that Jesus speaks of the last days in ways that make it sound an awful lot like a war that God wages against his enemies.

It is impossible to both read the Bible honestly and take away from it that God changed from Genesis to Revelation.  He’s full of grace and truth from the beginning to the end.  He kills his enemies that refuse to repent and he redeems his enemies that humbly acknowledge that they aren’t right.  He’s both gracious and violent.  And the cross is the ultimate statement of both grace (toward us, his enemies) and violence (toward his own Son!)

So yes, Rev McLaren, God revealed more and more of Himself as the pages and books of Scripture were revealed.  But far from correcting earlier errors, in every case God’s revelation clarifies and upholds all revelation before it.  Without making any mistakes.

What say you, reader?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.  Comment below.


One of the most shocking things I encountered while reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity was the subtle assertion that Moses was a superstitious idiot.  Or maybe he was throwing stones at Peter.

The thesis of the book seems to be that Christianity needs to outgrow primitive ways of understanding God and the Bible.  We need, according to Rev. McLaren, to gain a higher understanding of Scripture that shows God to be in line with our advanced understanding of concepts like peace and the basic good of humanity.

Tied up in that thesis is the thought that we know more than those ancients, and our experience of the world is vastly different from theirs.  While I agree that humans have discovered some things that are far beyond the scientific advancement of Moses, I heartily object to the fact that he would any more readily believe that a man could raise from the dead or walk on water than I would.

While he might not have had the formula for gravity figured out, you can bet the Apostle Paul would be just as surprised to see someone levitate as you or I would.  And while King David lived in a far more violent culture than contemporary America, he still could understand “more advanced” concepts like peace and non-violence.  To assert otherwise, as Rev. McLaren does, is downright astonishing.

Either he’s never read anything by “primitive” people like John Owen, or he ignored the fact that the guy was brilliant. You can’t explain away his worldview by saying that God was only showing him as much as his primitive little brain could handle. Because his brain was neither of those things.

At one point in the book, in a striking reversal of his thesis, he lumps all of contemporary Christianity in with post-300 AD Catholicism.  So, JI Packer is right on par with Pope Urban II.  Or John Owen is on the same level as Constantine.  Billy Graham actually had more in common with the crusades than just his choice of names.  Which is it, Rev McLaren? Is more education and enlightenment the key, or are the modern theologians just as lost as Augustine?

He would answer “yes” to both of those questions.  The key is advanced understanding, and we’ve been stuck in a 1500-year rut as Christians.  Now we’ve got courageous leaders like John Dominick Crossan, Brian McLaren, and Marcus Borg to lead us into true knowledge.  Pretty heady stuff.  He paints himself as a new Martin Luther in the book.  But then it reads more like he sees himself as the new Jesus, come to save us from our sins (namely, seeing our sins as sinful).

He’d like us to think he’s just being meek and mild Brian.  But his chronological snobbery asserts otherwise.  What do you think?