Why is “The Shack” so Popular?

February 22, 2009

I read “The Shack” for a second time, mainly to humor those who say I’ve been hard on it. In my Goodreads evaluation of this successful book, I gave it four stars out of five. But most of my evaluation focused on how poorly written it was, despite its mass appeal. Some friends called me a nitpick in my criticisms.

So I read it again and downgraded it further to three stars. It is so poorly written I imagine if I read it again it would go to two stars. I mentioned to someone yesterday that it could have been titled “Encyclopedia Brown talks with God”, but that sounded cruel and misses my point. I just wish William Young would have taken a few writing classes. He makes the classic mistakes of first-time authors: two many similes, metaphors and adverbs; holes in the plot; unbelievable dialogue; passive verbs and flowery descriptions. I did all of these things when I started writing and it makes it hard now to read.

So why then is the book so popular if it is so poorly written? In the heart of the story, the author connects with readers on a number of levels.

1. God comes across as approachable: Of course, on one level, God is approachable; moreso than any person. But this is not the picture of God that many people have grown up with, either in church or through listening to the experiences of others. The Shack presents God as our closest friend and someone who is “especially fond of you” as Papa says so  many times.

2. God is against religious expressions of faith and the organized church: Both subtly and overtly, Young has God criticize the church for being so full of religiosity. This resonates with the vast majority of people who no longer attend church or only sporadically go. Traditional approaches to God are no longer agreeable to many.

3. The Trinity focuses on Community: Within the relationships of the Trinity, there is a sense of oneness and communication most people never catch when reading the Bible. However, Jesus in the Gospel accounts emphasizes his relationship with God. Therefore, this tracks with the postmodern generation who values relationships above dogma.

4. Reworks the Nature of the First member of the Trinity: God, the first member, is called Father – but this can be misleading. All members of the Trinity are our Father. The Spirit gives us new life; in essence, he fathers us. Jesus calls people “my little children” on a number of occasions. The name “Father” or “Abba” is given to the first member of the Trinity by the second member to describe their relationship as father and son. After all, Jesus is not our son, even though he is called “The Son”. The Shack pictures the first member of the Trinity as another gender, and a color not traditionally connected with Theophonies, and then switches back to a more traditional viewpoint – by this literary device, we are lead away from misleading elements of God’s personality.

5. Mack has freedom: At every turn in the story, Mack is free to make up his own mind. This stands in opposition to the Calvinistic idea that the sovereign God essentially forces us to make certain decisions…or more to the point, leaves us no choice in the path we travel. This is offensive to the human heart which wants desperately to hold onto freedom of choice.

6. Hell is reconfigured: At one critical point in the story, Sophia says “which of your children would you condemn to hell Mack?” Mack cannot answer. Sophia concludes “so why would you think that God would condemn any of his children to hell?” No doctrine is more hated than the doctrine of hell. Even those who believe hell exists cannot stomach the idea of it. In fact, those who seem to enjoy the idea of hell are often shunned by other believers. Young goes to great lengths not to explicitely say that no one will go to hell. But there is little question that he delivers this book with a slant toward Universalism: The idea that there will be no hell for anyone. How could this not appeal to all of us, myself included?

7. A man deals with his personal pain of loss and unforgiveness: Which of us has not faced mounting personal grief and held others in perpetual unforgiveness? It would be a rare person who could escape these. So everyone reading the story can identify deeply with Mack.

8. A man, his wife and children: Just as videos of children win home video competitions regularly, so too we are drawn to a story involving a man and his family. Disney got it wrong in the 60s: We don’t want a barrage of single-parent families and evil step-mothers. We want to see a troubled family get put back together. This happens in the story – though I suggest it is not all that believable. He has a little too much admiration for his wife. From Mack’s perspective, Nan never does anything wrong, whether at work or home. But this won’t bother most people. Obviously it hasn’t hurt book sales.

Can you think of other reasons that the book has won people over while being so poorly crafted?



  1. I haven’t read the book yet. Should I?

    i like this review


  2. Okay Vince…that was hilarious. Nice catch with that review. It beats mine with a cudgel. I would read the book so you will know what people are alternately glowing/retching about.

  3. Number 6 reminds me of a Hindu belief that I heard lately. Basically, that there are 7 levels to Heaven which are happy and seven levels to Hell that are sad, but in the end they both end up ultimately in Heaven. Basically our ideas of Heaven and Hell are just the path we take to get to Heaven.

  4. Well, it is much easier for everyone to arrive at the same location if you’re traveling in a circle. That is what Hindu and much Eastern philosophy is based upon – a circle. Western thought is much more linear. But the problem with linear thinking is that it allows for infinite conclusions and not just one. So I believe that those who want everyone to end up the same at the end must adopt a circular philosophy. That is what we have in Hinduism.

  5. This book brought me deep, life-changing healing… The words that were “spoken by God” were the very words I needed to hear. I have never been the same since I read this book. It’s too bad it isn’t perfect, but it sure is powerful. If it wasn’t powerful, we wouldn’t all still be writing about it, would we?

  6. Carla, that’s true.

  7. I think that this book as been so successful for the same reason that many false religions have won people over. There is enough “chiristianology” included in the book, to lead people in believing that it is an accurate portrayal of who God really is. Much like we read about in Matthew chapter 7. Satan doesn’t only lead people astray through Satanism, he uses many tools; and unfortunately, some of his tools include “the church”.

    I think that if people would allow this to simply be a fictional book, it would be OK; however, people are allowing this to form their theology, and that it where it becomes un-safe.

  8. Indeed Rich. This book does have a good foundation for a story and makes for a passable novel. I think there are elements of the theology I strongly agree with and some I disagree with. Originally, I thought the book was about one man dealing with grief and pain. Now, after hearing an interview with the author, I suspect it is more about how God lead him back into a relationship. The conversations are mirrors of his conversations with God.

    I don’t agree that this is a false religious book. It definitely has enough Truth in it to qualify as biblical in what it asserts. Most people’s theological objections (like teaching Goddess worship, or four members of the Trinity) are the result of people reading things into the book

  9. what i understand from the new testament, god asks us to forgive and to love. he also gave us free will. i don’t see anything in this story that deviates from that message.

    and god is our papa! we are all his children, whether we turn our backs on him or not.

    god is love.

    and by the way, the early church was done in gatherings in peoples homes. jesus preached in the synagogue, but much of his ministry happened outside of the synagogue. he wasn’t someone who adorned himself in jewels, and pranced around a fancy church. i think that is man made – not of god. it makes perfect sense god would be in a sweet, comforting, and inviting humble home.

    that’s the jesus i know.

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