On the front cover of The Shack, author Eugene Peterson draws an explicit comparison to The Pilgrim's Progress:
This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress did for his. It's that good!
I already expressed my skepticism of that assertion in my review, but what fascinates me about the quote in the context of this essay is that the authors, publishers and endorsers of The Shack appear quite determined to see The Shack as a theological work. The back cover claims that "the answers Mack gets will astound you and perhaps transform you as much as it (sic) did him." This is not a mere "story" meant to entertain and inspire with some vaguely spiritual ambiance, but rather The Shack is intended to transform your life. My negative response to the book's theology has been countered with claims that "it's just a dream." Recall that The Pilgrim's Progress was a dream as well. Does setting theology within a dream render it immune for criticism? Not at all. Bad theology can transform you if you accept it, regardless of the vehicle. I've also heard from those who read The Shack as merely inspirational fiction, not looking for theology. Well, the theology exists nonetheless, and theological claims are scattered throughout the endorsements. Author David Gregory writes:
An exceptional piece of writing that ushers you directly into the heart and nature of God.Kathy Lee Gifford (NBC) adds:
The Shack will change the way you think about God forever.
These are not modest claims about an inspirational dream or story; these endorsers insist that The Shack is a work of theology. Just in case you're still skeptical about that, Gayle Erwin states:
Riveting, with twists that defy your expectations while teaching powerful theological lessons.
We've established that The Shack claims to be a theological work--the only issue is whether a work of theological fiction has a responsibility to be doctrinally orthodox. Are there boundaries that should not be crossed? The primary author of The Shack apparently believes that writing for children removes responsibility:
No, I am not a universalist!!! There is no ‘agenda’ behind my book - I wrote it for my six children. The Shack is not scripture, not a book on systematic theology, it is fiction.
Read that carefully once more, especially in light of the endorsements Young decided to use. The "I wrote it for my six children" excuse is a non sequitur at best. In an interview Young admitted that he did have an agenda in writing this story for his children:
I don’t want them to believe God is a white Zeus looking for every opportunity to blast them.
I want them to know it’s much more complex than that. It’s about a relationship with a God who is full of affection, who knows our stuff and meets us in the middle because it’s about a relationship, not about religion.
So which is it? Did he have an agenda, or didn't he? As for the universalism Young so vigorously denies, read this quote by family friend James B. De Young:
About four years ago Paul embraced Christian universalism and has defended this on several occasions. While he frequently disavows general universalism, the idea that many roads lead to God, he carefully affirms that Jesus Christ is the only way to God, and that all will be reconciled to God either this side of death or afterward.
It appears that his strong denial applies only to general universalism, but Christian universalism arrives at the same result by different means. In either case, all are saved and no humans end up in hell for eternity. Despite the documentation of Young's views and the obvious problems with the book itself, the orthodox Southern Baptists should be hanging their heads at this quote from Young's website:
After two weeks of theological review, Lifeway Bookstores (Southern Baptist) has madated (sic) that The Shack be returned to their shelves nationwide because they found nothing theologically unorthodox that would warrant the book being removed.
That's just a sad commentary on whoever Lifeway had evaluating the book. Traditional Southern Baptist doctrine conflicts with The Shack, and as we've shown, playing the "it's just fiction" card is an illegitimate defense for a book such as this. There are excellent points about God's love and our need for forgiveness in the book, but anyone who reads The Shack and thinks it's teaching orthodox evangelical theology isn't paying attention.