But It’s Only Fiction

But It’s Only Fiction

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My recent blog post about the book The Shack generated several responses that ran along the line that we shouldn't be too hard on the book because it is, after all, only fiction. These responses show a misunderstanding of both fiction and theology.

While fiction is by definition a story that doesn't pretend to be true, it still must adhere to certain basic rules. You can create any universe you like, but once you've created it, you must stick to its internal logic. If zurts are green and fly and jurts are blue and don't fly, you cannot willy-nilly switch these "facts" around, even if they are totally products of your imagination. And if for some reason in your story we see a blue jurt that is flying, you'd better have a good narrative explanation for why or else you've confused the reader.

A good example of this rule of fiction is seen in the Star Trek universe. Many a Star Trek staple such as the transporters violates the laws of physics. Credit the show's creators for knowing this and coming up with a work-around. My favorite example is the Heisenberg Compensators. According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the transporters shouldn't work, since they could never disassemble and reassemble an object atom by atom. Hence the fictional compensators. When someone asked Star Trek technical advisor Michael Okuda how the compensators worked, he answered, "They work just fine, thank you." (For more such fun, I recommend The Physics of Star Trek.)

If you're going to ground your fiction in the real world, then it must conform to the rules of the real world we live in. No unicorns or magic squirrels allowed. Even one of my favorite literary genres, Magical Realism, adheres to certain basic rules.

So if you're going to have God as a character in your real-world fiction, then you must deal with God as he has revealed himself in Scripture. By using the Trinity as characters in this story set in the real world, The Shack author William P. Young is clearly indicating that he's supposedly talking about the God of Christianity. But God has said certain things about himself in Scripture, and much of what Young does in this novel contradicts that. I don't care if he's trying to make God more "accessible." He's violated the rules of fiction.

More important, why does Young feel the need to change the character of God in this story? In a way, he's saying that the God who reveals himself to us in the Bible is insufficient. Young needs to "improve" the image to make it more palatable. But as I said in the original post, God never changes himself so that we can understand Him better. He changes us so that we can see Him as he truly is. If God changed his nature, He would cease to be God.

If a friend had a cold, abusive father, don't make the God of your story into a warm, loving female to compensate. Show your friend what a true father is like, using the example from Scripture. If your friend is hurting, don't comfort him with soothing lies, such as The Shack's assertion that God does not judge sin. Show him the God of all comfort found in Scripture, the God who was willing to save you from that judgment by sending his Son.

To those people who have snapped up copies of The Shack to give to non-Christian friends, you are doing them no favors. You are introducing them to a false god. You are inoculating them against the claims of the True God of Scripture. And more to the point, you're just giving them bad fiction.

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  • Comment by  Ronnica:

    Thank you for this.  Every moment that I spent reading The Shack gave me the willies.  Ultimately it seemed that what Young does is make God out to be a super great human (and the relationships within the Trinity as merely the way a family is supposed to be) which was something he said he was fighting against.

  • Comment by  DrRansom:

    Excellent follow-up thoughts, Tom. From what I've heard and read, The Shack is yet another example of liberal Churchianity -- under the guise of evangelical Christianity -- offering "a different gospel -- not that there is another one," as Paul told the Galatians.

    It seems the "god(s?)" of this book isn't a "supposal" of how God might appear in a parallel world, a la Aslan, or the representations of Christ in several other Narnia-like imitators among Christian fantasy. Rather, it's an imbalanced, all-love-all-the-time, neo-Universalist perversion of God -- "god" in man's image.

    But if you're going to write fiction based in this universe, then you need to play by this universe's "rules," absolutely. Star Trek never pretended gravity didn't exist (though I think the nearly "omnipotent" Q played with physics constants from time to time) or that warp drive wasn't a nearly impossible concept -- as you pointed out, they came up with technical jargon to work around it.

    Even in Harry Potter, with its decidely un-Christian mindset, plays by the rules of this universe when it is set here -- at Hogwarts and other magical locations, of course, other rules apply, but they always apply. Consistency, continuity, is key to realistic, believable fiction.

    Yet both of these series assume an often-more-than-implied atheistic worldview. God is absent in Star Trek, and only love as an emotion is upheld as the highest virtue worth dying for in Harry Potter. Both of these fictitious worlds, though, bring me little difficulty in recommending them to others just because the stories are so good (and often reflect Christian values whether they like it or not). It's because they assume, a priori, God's nonexistence -- or absolutel non-involvement; same thing -- that they don't pose much threat to Christianity. Just as with fairy tales, such as "Cinderella" or "Peter Pan," you assume God's not involved and off you go.

    However, any fiction that would purport to be Christian, yet flagrantly skew what is clearly revealed in the Bible about God in favor of some kind of shock-jock doctrinal tricks (a la "Hee hee hee! guess what, God is a girrr-rll; yes, I said 'God is a girrr-rrlll,' what're you going to do about it?") is in the very least, not helpful to the body of Christ, and furthermore, deceiving the Church and (even worse) nonbelievers about Who God is.

    Paul and Christ before him both have strong words for those who pervert the Gospel and offer their own counterfeit (Galatians 1: 8-9). Now of course, this criticism will be inevitably be taken by many as just more pulpit-pounding legalistic fundamentalism. If so, they would be judging the Apostle who wrote this strong language, not the concerned Christ-followers who only cite this, and plead with them to stop twisting the Truth, and the image of God in others' sight, in the name of "creativity" (which is not at all "creative" anyway -- God is a girrrr-rrlll has been a hapless heretical cliché for centuries).

    True art, in fiction, music, film and otherwise, honors Christ and His Truth. Otherwise, the "art" is at best a total waste of time, at worst, an abominable lie and dishonoring to the Creator.

  • Comment by  Josh:

    Thankfully, for those of us that didn't have a problem with "The Shack" we don't have to turn to the "its just fiction" argument :D

  • Comment by  Read:

    For those of you who want to criticize this book let be direct you to the publishers response. www.windblownmedia.com/shackresponse.html

    Let me just say that you ought to read the book before you comment.  Honestly Tom, after reading your original post and then reading the book I am left to wonder if you have actually read the book for you self.  I don't see how this book is any different from C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce or Chronicles of Narnia.  It's an allegory.  Just like I don't base my theology off of The Chronicles of Narnia I wouldn't base it off the Shack either.  I base it off the Bible.  I have about as much a problem with using a black woman as an allegorical representation of God as I do using a lion. Are you going to criticize Lewis for "changing God" to make him more "palatable"? Honestly I'm not even sure what parts of the book you are basing you assertions off of.  Would you mind pointing to some specific places in the book as examples? Because really to me you are coming off and just regurgitating something one else's ideas about this book.

  • Comment by  TomNeven:

    Read (#4)

    I have read the book. I quote from it in several places. And the web site you steer us to doesn't address a single issue I raised in my original post. And indeed, part of that web site is false. They say they don't promote universalism, yet "Papa" explicitly says that Jesus is the "best" way to God. The very definition of the word best implies other ways. Not as good, but possible. The correct word would be only, which Jesus makes clear in John 14:6.

    But more to the point, The Shack is not allegory. There's no symbolism in it, no having one thing stand in for another, which is what allegory is. Anyone who says otherwise doesn't know the definition of allegory.

    Pilgrim's Progress is allegory. Some of Jesus' parables (The Prodigal Son [Luke 15:11-31], parable of the sower [Matt. 3:3-9]) are allegories.

    Even Lewis would deny that Narnia was allegorical. He called it a "supposal." And Tolkien insisted that his Lord of the Ring stories were not allegories. (He once said they were not Christian allegories, and many people seized on the words not Christian instead of allegories, implying that what Tolkien wrote was unChristian. Tolkien's intent was to refute the allegory mistake.)

    As I said, Young has set this story in the real world using a theological concept found in Christian theology and then distorted it.

    You say you wouldn't base your theology off of The Shack. Fine. But what about all those people out there who aren't as discerning as you? There are a lot of people getting a false teaching about God from this book. The fact that so many who claim the name of Christ are enthusiastically promoting this book is disturbing.

  • Comment by  JordanPeacock:

    If you want to attack it on theological grounds, fire away.

    But your attempt at guising your attack as 'protecting fiction' is pretty sketchy. Just because someone writes fiction 'based in the real world' that has strong elements of 'Christian theology' does not require them to adhere 100% to historical, theological or scientific fact in all cases. Most fiction writers don't; and that's why they're good.

    Please be honest when critiquing a work; I realize you have theological objections to it and are not keen on seeing this 'bad theology' spread around. Nevertheless, if that is your critique, keep your objections to that. Don't build up straw men simply to pull them down, it's frustrating to read, even if you've got a good point.

    Although I'll be honest; I'm not 100% sold on the bad theology angle either.

  • Comment by  DrRansom:

    Read, the differences between Narnia and this book are striking. The character of Aslan results from Lewis's supposal of "what if" Christ really did create and interact with a world called Narnia.

    But unlike Shack, apparently, Aslan wonderfully parallels what we know about the real Christ from Scripture. He is both beautiful and terrible -- a divine, perfect Paradox.

    Now, some Christians overextend on the idea of God being "terrible." But (sometimes in response to that), other people far overcorrect and present God (or a version thereof) as little more than just All Love, All the Time. Scripture doesn't leave us the option of this dichotomy. God is love, but He is also justice.

    Others' deceptions aside, I for one (as a discerning Christ-follower) simply don't find any reason to read anything that skews the real God like this. How, exactly, would I benefit spiritually from this?

    If others have learned and benefited spirituall about the real God from The Shack or something similar -- if by reading this book, God has somehow seemed bigger and more glorious -- then that would be a helpful argument to hear. Yet from what I have heard thus far, man's ideas of God, and not God Himself, is most glorified in the book.

  • Comment by  Jacob:


    The problem is that while you may not take your theology from Narnia, I have encountered people who do. One woman who thought that non-Christians go to heaven couldn't  give scriptural support for that believe, but instead dogmatically referred back to the exchange between Aslan and the Calorman at the end of The Last Battle for justification. She wasn't just anyone either. If memory serves me right, this was a college-level instructor.

  • Comment by  Rich:

    Here is an excerpt from a recent blog post I wrote on the same subject...to get the point, you do not need to read the book, since it critiques not the book itself, but the "its just fiction!" response, which people say about many, many books:

    Say I wanted to communicate to the world about God's wrath and justice (these are two biblical character qualities of God, just like His love.), so I wrote a fiction book where I depicted God as the serial killer guy from Saw. You read the book, and (rightfully) express concern (outrage would be more appropriate): 'Rich, I don't think God is like the guy from Saw. Yeah, I know He's just and He exhibits wrath on the unrepentant at the judgment seat, but the way you depict Him...well...That's not quite biblical.'

    I respond, 'Relax. It's only fiction! I'm not writing a theological treatise! If you read the book, you will learn about God's justice and be blessed.'

    How would you respond? No doubt, you'd respond with incredulity: even though its fiction, I'm communicating something about God, something deeply flawed. The fact that I'm writing fiction doesn't get me off the hook.

    It's the same with The Shack. If I'm not off the hook in my flawed attempt at communicating about God's justice, why is Young off the hook when he makes a flawed attempt at communicating about other parts of God's nature, like His love or Immanence?

    You see, we usually only express that blasé attitude when the book in question presents God in a soft light. Why the inconsistency?

    I understand that fiction is a slightly more fluid genre than, say, theological papers in a professional journal. But that doesn't mean we give fiction authors a free ticket to ride when it comes to speaking about God, truth, and reality.

    Far from being the "trash heap" of the written word, fiction is an incredibly powerful and important genre. Brian McLaren and others encapsulate their theological ideals in fiction partly because they understand such ideals will be easier for the rank and file to accept if they are captured in a story. For the most part, this is all well and good, but it has a down side: we can easily let our guard down.

    Therefore, we should treat fiction as it is: an important and honorable genre worthy of the utmost consideration.

  • Comment by  ChristinainGreen:

    I have about as much a problem with using a black woman as an allegorical representation of God as I do using a lion. Are you going to criticize Lewis for "changing God" to make him more "palatable"?

    What's so hilarious about this statement is that GOD refers to himself as a lion.  It didn't start with C.S. Lewis to depict God as a Lion.

    "Lion of Judah" has been the sign of Christ since Genesis.  And he's depicted as a Lion (among other creatures) in Revelations.  That was not a unique thing that C.S. Lewis invented.  That came from scripture.

    Using a black woman to depict God was strictly from this guy's imagination =p

  • Comment by  Anonymous:

    The book has some weaknesses because it was written by a human, someone who struggles with really difficult things.  But I have not read a book yet that doesn't have some theological weaknesses, other than the Bible, which is never interpreted 100% accurately by anyone who reads it.

    Obviously, Dr. Ransom, you have not read the book, which is why your critique is silly.  The point is not that God is a girl but that he is not who we think he is.  God is a complete mystery, even to people who think they have him all figured out.  The arguments made here are unconvincing to people who have been slapped in the face by religion and reality but have still found him to be true, although different from who they had originally assumed he was based on the traditions of men.

    I'm so thankful he is bigger than who I was always taught he was.  He never changes, but as we know him more deeply we see him more clearly and differently.  And that should not be scary.  

  • Comment by  NicolefromBoston:

    Before I say anything, let me first acknowledge that I have not read The Shack.  Thus, any criticism that I might have is based on secondhand information.  That said, I find I have no desire to read it, unless it's purely for the knowledge to discuss it intelligently.  When I read in a review that the author portrayed God as a black woman named "Papa", any desire I had to read it was immediately turned off.  The God of Scripture, the true God, is revealed as a "he" and as the Great I Am.  Is God a Father?  Yes, absolutely and wonderfully.  Because of that fact, I find any female representation of God is a huge turn-off.  

    And in response to Read (#4), in Scripture, Jesus is referred to as "The Lion of Judah" so Lewis' portrayal of God as a lion, though allegorical, is still Scriptural.  Just a thought.

  • Comment by  Nicole:

    I don't think its fair to compare two completely different works of fiction to one another in this way. Every story  and every author is creative in a different way. I also feel its very arrogant to tell authors how they should or shouldn't be writing their own work. Its fine to dislike it for whatever reason you have. Don't recommend it if you don't like it, just don't get mean about it.(There are people out there who love their opinions way too much.) Ive met the author, he's from my neck of the woods in fact. The whole story came from him telling a story to his family. It's not like he wrote it just to make you angry. so what can I say other than maybe it would be a good idea to take a breath and not take everything sooooooooo seriously. just an idea.

  • Comment by  Chris:

    Tom writes:

    If you're going to ground your fiction in the real world, then it must conform to the rules of the real world we live in. No unicorns or magic squirrels allowed.

    Actually, since no one can prove that unicorns or magic squirrels do not exist, it's quite possible to include such things in fiction and still have it "conform to the rules of the real world". After all, there may be an as yet undiscovered law of physics that we cannot see unicorns or magic squirrels with our naked eyes. Or, to use a more relevant example, these unicorns or squirrels could be the designer(s) in ID in a fictional story.

  • Comment by  Read:

    Tom, I minored in English so I feel that I am on fairly solid ground with my literary terminology.  An allegory is a figurative mode of representation conveying a meaning other than the literal.  Sounds like an apt description for The Shack. Early in the book, when Mack is speaking with Jesus, Jesus is explaining that everyone is seeking him, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and so forth.  Mack asks specifically and Jesus responds specifically that He himself is the only way to God.  I think you are arguing semantics when you say "best" implies that the author must have meant that he believes that there are other ways of reaching God. Also, realize that there may have been changes in the editing process.  The publishers ultimate goal is to sell books and make money so why shouldn't they try and appeal to the largest audience?  

    Dr. Ransom, I very much respect your opinion, but let me pose this question to you.  If you were teaching a class on a specific text and a student came to class without having read that text, do you believe he/she would have meaningful insight to add to the class discussion?

    Would I hand this book to a non-believer or someone new to the faith?  I'm not entirely sure.  I have some friends who've used it as a means of starting conversations and witnessing to co-workers.  I myself have been able to have some meaningful conversations with my book club members that have jump started a spiritual thought process they've never encountered before.  However, for those of us who have our foundation built solidly on the rock of God's Word I don't see any harm in reading this work of fiction.

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