The book too hot for U.S. church establishment
Christian radio networks, stores run scared of ‘Shack’ critique
Making mega-millions off a novel seen by many as “heretical” wasn’t a problem for America’s Christian publishing, bookstore and broadcasting establishment, but a nonfiction book critiquing the best-seller was turned down by Christian publishers, avoided by Christian bookstores and boycotted by some of the largest Christian radio networks.
That’s the irony of “Burning Down ‘The Shack,’” a new book by New Testament scholar James De Young that examines the theology behind Paul Young’s publishing phenomenon, “The Shack,” a paperback novel that spent more than 100 weeks on the best-sellers lists in both the Christian and secular worlds.
“I believe this contrast illustrates the woeful state of discernment of the American church establishment,” says Joseph Farah, editor and chief executive officer of WND and founder of WND Books, the publisher. “This book is a thoughtful, sober work of Christian scholarship intended to alert the church to the twisted theology and wholly unorthodox precepts of ‘The Shack.’ But the reaction to it by the Christian media has been one of avoidance.”
As a seminary professor and a former colleague and neighbor of the author of “The Shack,” James De Young has a unique perspective on “The Shack,” a book that has captured the hearts of many wounded Christians and skeptics and become the topic of sermons and Bible classes in churches nationwide.
Undergirding “The Shack,” De Young said, is an age-old heresy – universal reconciliation – that diminishes the work of Jesus on the cross and the holiness and justice of God by asserting that everyone eventually will be saved from eternal damnation.
Paul Young has vigorously and repeatedly denied he is a universalist, but De Young says he was personally acquainted with Young’s spiritual journey over more than a dozen years. De Young points to a 103-page paper Young wrote that presented his embrace of universal reconciliation and rejection of the “evangelical paradigm.”
De Young’s new book, by WND Books, is his attempt to warn of the seductive theology of “The Shack” and present what he believes are the biblical answers to the questions it raises.
“I think it is very clear ‘The Shack’ is written to teach theology,” said De Young, a New Testament language and literature professor at Western Seminary in Portland, Ore. “It’s not just written to tell a mystery story.”
De Young told WND his hope is “that as the truth is known about the universalist background of the author – and how it can be found throughout ‘The Shack’ – that people will realize a good story needs to be good teaching as well.”
In 1997, De Young and Young, whose families socialized through a Christian school and youth sports, co-founded a Christian think tank called M3 Forum. For the next seven years they discussed and probed topics, doctrine and problems facing the church as it approached the new millennium. Young submitted his surprising paper embracing universal reconciliation in 2004.
Less than two years later, Young asked friends to read the early draft of a novel he was writing as a Christmas gift for his children. Though highly impressed by the manuscript’s potential, the friends were opposed to the universal reconciliation they found in it and acknowledged publicly that they spent over a year trying to remove that message. Mainstream Christian publishers initially declined interest in publishing what became “The Shack,” so Young and his friends formed their own publishing company.
Now, with 10 million copies in print, “The Shack” has been on numerous best-seller lists for more than two years and become an iconic work among enthusiastic evangelicals, with many buying multiple copies to hand out to their friends.
But De Young believes the acceptance of “The Shack” by evangelicals and their institutions is evidence of a church in need of renewal.
It is evidence of a church that needs to read their Bible so they will not follow every wind of doctrine.
“I’m really dismayed to see that Christian publishers and radio programs, TV programs have basically imbibed the feel-good spirit of ‘The Shack’ and have not critically examined the theology,” he told WND. “If you point that out to them they feel offended. They feel that you’re being overly critical. They feel something like, ‘Well, can’t you look beyond the doctrine and appreciate the story?’”
This is the same thing many of us have been told: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. In other words: We are expected to dig through garbage to find anything remotely good. If one is in the Word, they will NEVER have to dig through man-made demonically inspired garbage to find a pearl.
De Young laments “a great lack of discernment” in Christian media and publishing that is willing to “look askance at the doctrine” if a book enjoys widespread popularity and makes a lot of money.
Many evangelicals and churches have been seduced by “The Shack,” he said, because the story resonates with many who have difficult backgrounds in which they’ve been deeply wounded emotionally and spiritually.
Yes, we all have been hurt in many different ways. What is the true antidote? The Cross. Calvary. No matter the issue, the answer is the Cross. But the Church has been sucked into the world’s way: medication, anti-depressants, feel-good books, self-help books, psychiatry, etc. All of it is dung. It is the Cross and the Cross alone that delivers any of us out of/through any pain or hurt. But we have been taught not to suffer. So therefore, the church has put her trust in heretics, apostates and the world instead of God.
“There is a growing segment of our population who have a bad background, perhaps in the sense they come from a divided home, a home where divorce took place or even an abusive home on the part of one or both parents,” he said. “When they can read a story like ‘The Shack’ and find solace and encouragement from the experiences of this fictitious person and his experience and realize that God does love them, then I think that it will resonate with a lot of people.”
People who have been deeply hurt, he said, “are reaching out for a sympathetic God who they can clearly understand and who loves them.”
De Young said the book’s “Christian bearings and overtones” encourage many Christians to accept the book and its message, particularly those unaware of the teaching of universalism.
“Unless you confront people with the truth, people will not find ultimate resolution of their need,” he said. “Only there will they find freedom from their past, deliverance from that which they feel in bondage.”
De Young pointed to Jesus’ promise “you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
He said another problem is that evangelicals, in the U.S. in particular, can partake in a broad “buffet of food for their souls” outside of the guidance and discernment of local church pastors and elders, including through television, radio and the Internet.
“This explosion of information and knowledge enables people to draw on the things that they like,” he said. “Frankly, it represents a church that is increasingly indifferent to the gospel and in need of renewal and commitment.”
Churches have failed, he said, to teach the meaning of biblical inspiration and the authority of Scripture, so “people begin to form their own doctrinal positions and beliefs based upon not only the teaching of Scripture but other things they hear elsewhere.”
The great need in the American church today, he said, “is for renewal, and that will include a significant return to the authority of Scripture.”
De Young recalled an encounter on a bus to the airport in Boston about a year and a half ago that helped shape his response to “The Shack.”
He sat next to a man who turned out to be a Christian and asked him if he had read the book.
“Oh, yes,” the man replied. “I think it’s a wonderful book.”
De Young described the man as a well-taught member of a conservative Episcopal church that was breaking away from the U.S. denomination because of its stand on homosexuality.
“This is a fellow who is seeking to know the truth and was part of the movement to pursue truth, and yet he thought much of ‘The Shack,’” De Young said.
The conversation, he said, convinced him that if he were to write a meaningful response, he had to acknowledge chapter-by-chapter the book’s good points and then “bring the reader around to questioning what that chapter really is all about and the doctrinal errors in it.”
“So that’s why my book is in the form it is,” he said. “I took [the conversation in Boston] as a sign that that’s what I ought to do instead of being totally confrontive and finding no good in it.”
Other books have been critical of “The Shack,” he said, but have been “dismissed as being extreme, and, therefore, people don’t read them.”
De Young said he’s prepared for an onslaught of opposition to his book.
He noted his daughter, who has followed comment on blogs, told him of how painful it is for her to see her father attacked.
“I’ve anticipated for some time that my family may suffer more than I do,” he said. “I am trying to alert them to that and tell them not to worry. It’s part of the cost of telling the truth, frankly.”
It may not be popular, he said, “but it’s right.”
“It’s what is godly and in accord with the injunction of Scripture that we’re supposed to go into all the world teaching them all the things that Jesus commanded us,” he said. “As long as we do that, we look toward the eternal determination of things, the judgment and our faithfulness in the calling that God has given us – and that transcends all else no matter what people do.”