The Appeal of The Shack

I continue to ponder the curious appeal of The Shack. What is it exactly about this book that seems to capture people? As I mentioned in the last entry, the book is not particularly well-written--it's certainly not an Anne Rice, Susan Howatch, Anne Lamott, or Walter Wangerin-style piece of fiction. It doesn't have the thoughtfulness or theological substance of C.S. Lewis or N.T. Wright or Eugene Peterson. So what's the appeal? Why do I continue to be drawn to it and why does its dialog refresh and renew me? I can think of several reasons why this book might be causing a stir.

The Power of Story
It may be a postmodern truism, but story or narrative seems to be the preferred vehicle for communication today. However, by contrast, much theological truth in contemporary pulpits and ministries comes to us in linear, logical fashion: sermons with numbered points, alliterative subpoints, and the like. I know. I've done it. The tight, reasoned logic of truth well-outlined can be very comforting and attractive--at least to the preacher! But what about to the listener? Truth at right angles, truth that matches up perfectly by number and letter, that truth can be dry and airless and uninspiring. There's no mystery, no awe, no sense of the sublime or transcendent. This truth has little power to move us. But consider Scripture: the best teaching in the Bible comes to us in story-form: parables, narrative, history. God's truth isn't revealed in an outline or a series of points delivered from on high, nor is it given as a set of theological doctrines carved in stone. Biblical truth comes to us primarily through the unfolding of a grand drama of love lost and regained. It's epic and captivating. The Shack may not be great fiction, but it is story nonetheless and it begins and evolves right where we live: in the challenges and tragedies of this life. Truth in the Bible is often sung, spun, or unfolded--not argued, reasoned, or taught. Those of us who preach and teach: let us listen!

The Reassurance of Relationship
Along with story, the Bible speaks primarily through relationship: it tells us of a God of relationship (the Trinity) who risks all in creating human beings to love and cherish. Bearing God's image, we are made for relationship, saved for relationship, and we will be resurrected for relationship: with God, with each other, and with ourselves. The time Mack spends in the Shack with God is all about a relationship renewed. We learn that it isn't airtight doctrine that's ultimately important. It's not even righteous behavior or obedience. What is emphasized in the Shack is trusting relationship: do we dare believe God loves us passionately? Will we trust this indwelling God in all we do? It's story, not systematic theology, which has the power to convey the transforming truth of relationship. And this is why many of us like The Shack. Perhaps we've made this religion thing too complicated!

Truth in Surprising Form
I don't know about you, but I find that some of my best times with God come when I don't plan for them! I build the altar of devotion in the morning, with serious Bible reading and prayer--and then the fire of God comes down somewhere else: in a bike ride, in a sunset, in a piece of music or art. When this happens, I'm reminded that I do not manage my relationship with God; I don't conjure up God with my religious ritual. Instead, God graciously meets me in all places and at all times--whether "spiritual" or not! The question is: do I have eyes to see him? Sometimes I find that I can read the Bible with teeth gritted, doing it because it's good for me, because I need it, because I should. It has all the joy and wonder of taking my daily multivitamin. But reading a novel? Hey, that's my time--I'm not on the clock. I'm relaxed, I'm kicking back...and whammo, God meets me! I think our guard can be up when we get into the routine of religious ritual: we're primed for a preconceived way of perceiving God. But when God meets us "off the clock", that's a different story. All of of a sudden, everything's changed: God is somehow bigger, more fun, more present, more real. Reading The Shack isn't easy or even necessarily pleasant; but it's fiction and our usual religious expectations may be relaxed. And then God is free to meet us in unexpected ways.

What Do YOU think?
A blog is not a one-way piece of communication. You've heard from me. Now I'd like to hear from you. If you've read The Shack, why do you think it's appealing to people? What itch does it seem to scratch? And what can we who lead in churches learn from this? How can we adjust the way we communicate to take the unchanging gospel to a changing world?


mbpbooks said...

Cheers for the power of story! I'm staking my life on it.

Carl Hofmann said...

Well said, Mitali, my story-writing friend!

Anonymous said...


I just read a detailed and thoughtful review of The Shack, which posits a tension in the novel between storytelling and theological treatise, by my friend and former PhD program colleague Lynn Clark, who blogs on Live Journal. She's a media studies professor at DU who's a leading scholar on the intersection between media, religion and culture. I know you would be interested in her analysis (I still haven't read it yet, so can't respond myself!). Here's the URL:

Wendy Redal said...

Oops -- didn't mean for my previous post to show up as 'anonymous'...I must have hit something wrong. It's me, Wendy!

Carl Hofmann said...

Thanks for that link--I look forward to reading your friend's review. I keep coming back to the blurb of Eugene Peterson, by which he endorsed this curious little novel: "This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress did for his." That piece by Bunyan was allegory, not theological treatise. A story with theology and not the other way around. I guess I'm not terribly anxious about some of the theological shortcomings of The Shack. I'm more interested in the book as a springboard to discussion, meditation, prayer--and hopefully, a closer connection with God in Christ.

Man, you're a night owl!

Thanks for visiting.

Wendy Redal said...

Yeah, I couldn't go to sleep last night. I went to a late (10:30) movie and it just had my mind so animated that I couldn't wind down! I finally had to force myself to go to bed. I think Lynn's review of The Shack actually shares a number of your perspectives. You might enjoy looking further at some of her work via that LJ link.