Book Reviews: The Shack vs. Pilgrim’s Progress

A year or so ago a few people I know read the book “The Shack” as part of a book club.  It made me curious so I decided to read it a few months back.  In addition (and in truth, because of reading The Shack) I’m currently re-reading the book Pilgrims Progress (which I never actually finished last time – which may in fact be an interesting analogy for my Spiritual walk).  Both books attempt to explain elements of the Christian Faith through allegory so they make sense to contrast and compare to each other.  So I thought I’d offer my humble opinions on both works.

The Shack:

Cover of "The Shack"

Cover of The Shack

I had no preconceived notions about the book as I’d never heard of it before the book club.  So I went into it with an open mind. My overall impression of the book is that it had it’s heart in the right place but it swung and missed on some important theological issues – including one very key, very important one.  I say the heart was there because the author tried very hard to get the message across that God loves us and models his love in a number of ways.  One of which is through displaying the relationship that Jesus had with the Father (and presumably with the Holy Spirit).  Most of the book is various conversations that the lead character has with the 3 members of the Trinity and it comes across as heartfelt and sacrificially loving (if perhaps a bit too saccharine sweet).

My small problem with the book is that it reduces the person of God.  Jesus was made flesh (diminished by choice) to walk among man.  When you diminish God and the Holy Spirit as well, it takes away the magnitude and wonder of the Trinity.  But, it is an allegory, and we’re talking about trying to describe the indescribable.  So I can only fault so much here.

My big problem with the book is that it appears to promote universalism.  This quote stood out the most to me:  “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian. Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrat or Republican, and many who don’t vote or are a part of any Sunday morning religious institution.”  I suppose you could read that passage to say that “they used to be Buddhists or Mormons…” but I don’t get that feeling from the text.  In fact, there’s not much made of the narrow path to salvation that leads solely through Jesus Christ.  You know, that little thing called The Gospel.

So I can’t say that I would recommend this book for anyone.  Is it possible for Christ to use this book to help people understand the great love God has for us?  Absolutely.  But it is also possible that someone might become confused by the message and (depending on their walk with God) become disillusioned with what it takes to actually become saved.  I’ll stop well short of calling it “heresy” but I think it fails to present the Gospel clearly.

The Pilgrim’s Progress:

At the Town There Was a Vanity Fair Kept The P...

At the Town There Was a Vanity Fair Kept The Pilgrims Progress Macgregor PubJack 1907 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In stark contrast to the newer novel The Shack is the classic work of art called The Pilgrim’s Progress.  The first thing of note with this book is that it is quite old and as a result you have to get used to the olde English vernacular used.   Once past that, however, the rich imagery and straightforward allegorical tools are both informative and Biblically reliable.

The Pilgrim (and later his wife and children) suffer through hardships as landscapes such as the Slough of Despond and The Valley of the Shadow of Death.  They interact with personifications of character by speaking with people named Faithful and Truthful and Obstinate or Pliable.  All of which produces rich dialog and meaningful action.  The whole course of events is presented as a dream so while there are some logical holes in the plot, that is rationalized away much easier than in a story that is presented as “real life” (or perhaps some blend between real life and a vision as The Shack seems to take place).

Most importantly, however, is the fact that the Gospel is pure and wholly represented.  If anything it is better explained than anything that I’ve seen.  It is painted like a work of great art.  Some of the finer points are perhaps lost on some readers or over the heads of others (including myself at times) and it does take a while to plod through the journey (which is itself imagery that you can appreciate).  But standing back it isn’t hard to see the brilliance of the writing and understand why it is a beloved classic.

I’m enjoying this read through of the Progress (I’m almost done, just didn’t want to wait to write for fear of forgetting about it) and I expect I’ll be able to reference this work as an illustration aid in the future.

Conclusion:

Both books do what they can to explain the unexplainable.  Both attempt to open a window into worlds intangible in the human sense.  One of them (The Shack) makes a solid effort but ultimately falls short while the other (The Pilgrim’s Progress) hits the mark and proves why it is a classic.

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2 thoughts on “Book Reviews: The Shack vs. Pilgrim’s Progress

  1. I understand your frustration with the “universalist notions” of The Shack. There was a time where I would have seen that as a stumbling block. There is some strong orthodoxy out there for those thoughts. CS Lewis alluded to it in his writings, and it really shouldn’t be termed Univeralist. It’s a more open inclusive theology. If someone has relationship with their creator and recognize their need for a savior, whether or not they properly identify that savior as Christ or not. Is that enough? I mean, don’t get me wrong, having the assurance through of our salvation through the knowledge of Christ is amazing, but for some, the message of Christ is one of torture, murder, violence. It’s not fair to expect them to see Christ in the same light, when humans trampled the name in order to justify their sin. Paul seemed to indicate in Romans that humans have the capability of being in relationship with their Creator. Can the work that Christ performed on the cross be bigger than the labels of religion?

    BTW- I loved the Shack. I realize that it was a work of fiction, but I never felt so loved by my creator after reading it.

    I know I am screwed up and probably wrong on most things. So I won’t take it personally if you disagree.

    -Your “Universalist and Pain in the Ass” friend!

  2. Thanks Matt,

    If I recall correctly, CS Lewis made the point that we (humans) don’t know for sure that God won’t choose to save some that don’t profess Christ. However, my interpretation of Scripture is that the Gospel is very clear upon what we need to do for salvation and that if happens from Christ alone. It isn’t up to me to change that scriptural message based on the fact that God COULD change his mind if he wanted to.

    Like I said, the Shack had a sweet message and it conveyed God’s love in a very deep, emotional way. I just don’t agree with the theology.

    Of course, I could be wrong. I’m sure the Lord will straighten us all out at some point.

    cheers

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