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The Shack—Eat the Meat, Throw Away the Bones

Ray Pritchard pastored in Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago. Married to Marlene for 38 years, he enjoys being a husband, a father and a grandfather, riding his bike, and playing with Dudley and Gary, beloved basset hounds.

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I never paid any attention to The Shack until a friend mentioned it to me not long ago. The book came up in the context of a prison ministry that he and his wife lead each Sunday. He said that the prisoners love the “The Shack” because almost all of them can relate to the concept of a “Great Sadness” on the inside, and many of them come from broken homes. Certainly they all struggle with issues of guilt and forgiveness. My friend said that when they read “The Shack,” they find hope for reconciliation and healing of relationships that today seem irretrievably broken.

I mention that simply to remark that I am not surprised that so many people have read the book and found hope in it. I tend to think that since it is a novel, they don’t give it any great theological weight. That is, they take from it a general message regarding a God who is “especially fond of them” and the possibility of forgiveness through Christ. The rest of it is, so to speak, just part of the “crazy dream” and doesn’t seem to matter very much. It’s like they say about eating fish. Eat the meat, throw away the bones.

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That only works up to a point. It’s the bones that give structure to the fish. Without the bones in the first place, there would be no fish at all. It’s possible to say, “This is a novel. It’s not about theology,” but every a cursory reading of the book shows that that isn’t true. Almost every word “Papa” says is a theological statement of some kind of other—except for random comments such as the warning about not eating too many greens or you will end up with the trots.

Today I ate lunch with a pastor whose theological acumen I hold in high regard. I was a bit surprised when he told me that he had no particular problems with the way the Trinity is portrayed in the book. I think he sees it as part of a dream and therefore not to be taken seriously. He said that while he would not endorse the book, he understands why so many people (including many Christians) are reading it and have found it helpful. I suppose that’s about where I come out on “The Shack." 

In any case, the reading public has spoken—loudly. This book speaks in a heart language that millions of people can understand. Do I wish it had better theology? Yes, but at the same time I am happy for those who read it and are genuinely drawn closer to God. If you read “The Shack” as a story and nothing more, you can enjoy it on its own terms, and you may even find yourself profoundly moved.

So where are we at the end of all this? Don’t believe every word that “Papa” says in “The Shack.” I would not be honest if I didn’t give that warning. Some of it—maybe even a lot of it—is good. Some is speculative. Some of it is plainly wrong. If you read the book and enjoy it, you needn’t feel guilty. It’s a novel, after all. Eat the meat, throw away the bones. Read “The Shack” with discernment. The following advice applies to every book we read, every sermon we hear, everything we find on the Internet, and every TV show or movie we watch. “Don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good. Throw out anything tainted with evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 The Message). If you want to know how to separate the meat from the bones, reading the Bible would be a good place to start.

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