The Shack, Part 1: Some Preliminary Observations

Dr. Ray Pritchard
Dr. Ray Pritchard
2008 15 Jul

It isn’t often that a self-published book rises to the top of the bestseller lists. In fact it is so rare that when it does happen, we ought to stand back and take notice. Several years ago William P. Young set out to write a story for his children. Some friends found out about the story and encouraged him to publish it. After being turned down by both secular and Christian publishers, he and his friends founded their own company to publish the book. Starting with an initial advertising budget of only $300, the book took took off for the stratosphere. As of this morning, The Shack is currently #2 on the Amazon bestseller list. It is #1 in the Religion and Spirituality category (beating out Eckardt Tolle’s A New Earth at # 2), and #1 in the Christianity category, coming in ahead of Tim Keller, Gary Chapman, Rick Warren, C. S. Lewis, Jim Tressel (Ohio State football coach), Don Piper (author of 90 Minutes in Heaven), Joel Osteen, Tony Dungy, Randy Alcorn and John Eldredge. It is also #1 on the New York Times Paperback Trade Fiction bestseller list. “The Shack” has already sold over 1 million copies, and the number is rising daily. 

That’s impressive, and take it from someone who’s been in the book writing business for a while, numbers like that are what authors dream about at night. And to have this happen for what is essentially a self-published book, well, that’s just plain amazing. 

So what’s going on here? 

I finally had a chance to read “The Shack” last week on our flight home from North Carolina. I bought it in the Raleigh-Durham airport and finished it shortly after arriving in Tupelo. Before saying anything else, I should add that this book has received decidedly mixed reviews. Al Mohler, a fine author and one of our best evangelical thinkers, concludes that it contains heretical ideas. Blogger Tim Challies has written a detailed evaluation. A blog called Out of Ur offers a good survey of various evangelical opinions about the book. If you have the time, it would be enlightening to read the comments on both blog entries to get a good sense of the wide-ranging responses to The Shack.

I don’t propose to write a full-scale review, but I do want to offer some comments both on the book and its popularity. Clearly the author has touched a chord with many people. I’m wondering to myself what it all means and what we might learn from it. 

I ended up liking"The Shack” a little more than I thought I would. I know that’s in the category of damning with faint praise, but I say that because from a theological viewpoint, I agree generally with the points made by Tim Challies. With a number of reservations, I will say that I enjoyed reading it, and I can honestly say that I can’t remember reading anything quite like it. 

So for the moment, here are three preliminary observations. First, the book is mostly about the question of how to maintain your faith in God in the face of unimaginable tragedy. It’s about a father’s virtual loss of faith after his daughter is abducted and murdered on a camping trip. Second, the “shack” in the story is both a literal and a metaphorical place. The shack is the place where the daughter was killed. It is also the place where the man returns to meet God. Third, the book attempts to paint a picture of the Trinity that emphasizes God’s love. I think that message resonates with many readers, especially those who have been deeply hurt. To be told that there is a God who loves you and is in fact quite fond of you (a phrase used several times in the book) even when your heart is filled with despair and confusion gives hope to many people. And taken in and of itself, that message is true and needs to be shared.

But the way in which that message is delivered matters almost as much as the message itself. And it is for this that “The Shack” has sparked so much controversy. I want to consider some of these issues in the next several days.

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