Author Topic: Question: Is the story of The Shack fiction or true? (FAQ)  (Read 289299 times)

Offline chariszoe

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Question: Is the story of The Shack fiction or true? (FAQ)
« on: August 30, 2008, 04:51:58 PM »
Some who read the book might ask this question:  "Is this a True Story?"

Well, that depends ...

A Matter of Fiction

The genre of the book is fiction, but how do we know?  Well, first there are numerous interviews with the author that state this fact.  But beyond this, the book clearly has fiction printed on the back and it is often sold in the fiction section.  The title page says "The Shack, a novel by William P. Young in collaboration with Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings" (emphasis added).  Websters defines a novel as "an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events"

Also, consider some of the endorsements of the book:

  • Eugene Peterson: "When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertalize the result is a novel ..."
  • Jim Palmer: "captivating novel ..."
  • Mike Morrell: "A guy-meets-God novel ..."
  • Greg Albrecht: "You will be captivated by the creativity and imagination of The Shack ..."
  • Michael W. Smith: "The Shack is the most absorbing work of fiction I've read in many years."

What Type of Fiction is This?

What The Shack falls under is a genre called "Realistic Fiction."

Many realistic stories depict their protagonist growing up or coming of age. The coming-of-age stories typically trace the protagonist's growth from a self-absorbed, immature individual into an expansive, mature human being concerned with the welfare of others, and his/her place in the world scheme.

In good realistic fiction, the characters possesses a clearly defined personality and exhibits growth during the course of the story. Their growth of self-awareness usually comes with struggling, pain, and even suffering.  In children's stories, the protagonist usually reaches a higher level of maturity and a greater sense of self-awareness by the book's end, but has not achieved adulthood.  Classic example: Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" (1909).

In realistic fiction, humor is frequently used to break the tension in sensitive situations, unlike fantasies in which the humor is often the humor of the absurd. Humor is a form of self-preservation, of coping.  In realistic fiction, humor usually takes one of the three forms:

  • The humor of character. This depends on the antics of an eccentric personality.
  • The humor of situation. Surprising, awkward, or ridiculous actions or situations are among the most common sources of realistic humor.
  • The humor of language. Plays on words, verbal irony, malapropism (the misuse of words), misunderstandings, all contribute to verbal humor.

Beginning in the 1960s, a literary form called New Realism emerged that reacted against the romantic and sentimental realistic fiction books that had long dominated the market.

The New Realism literary style sought to bring more honest emotions, franker language, and bolder ideas to realistic fiction literature. It opened an entirely new range of subjects, and little remained that was taboo, including racial prejudice, teenage gangs, drug abuse, homosexuality, child abuse, mental illness, sexual abuse, parental problems, psychological disorders, and many others.

The "problem novel", focusing on a singular, hot issue that affects the protagonist, is a result of New Realism. It is always set in contemporary times and aims at a naturalistic portrayal of a problem plaguing the main character. Problem novels are directed to older children or adults and focus on the individual's emotional response to life's experience.

A Matter of Truth

However, with all this said, the book is very much true in many regards.  The experience of the author that it was based upon is "true" and many of the themes and discussions between characters include elements of Biblical Truth, Theology and Philosophy and to the extent that those issues exist outside of the story line (in the context of the discussions) -  those can be said to be "true" at least in terms of the presenting the views of the author.

So here is the thing ... this book IS TRUE.  But it is fictionalized in its account of the author's life.  Did the conversations with God really happen?  We think so, in Paul Young's life ... but this wasn't over a weekend but many years of healing.  Did a tragic thing happen to a young child?  YES!  But not in Missy, but in a young Paul Young who went through a horrible childhood.  Did a tragic thing happen to an older man who had to experience healing from God?  YES!  But not in Mack, but in an older Paul Young who went through various burnout and failure in life and came to see God in it.

So if you ask us, "The book isn't true?!" we would say, "It certainly IS true!  Just not in the way you think."

A Matter of Metaphors

C. S. Lewis, a well-known author and apologist, is best known by people of all ages for his seven volume series entitled The Chronicles of Narnia. His writings are one of the most well known in Christian circles for using metaphors and symbols to represent bigger ideas than the books represent.  As Lewis wrote about the land of Narnia, an imaginary world visited by children of this world, he had two obvious purposes: to entertain the readers and to suggest analogies of the Christian faith.

Although Christian symbolism can be found in The Chronicles, Lewis recognized the importance of getting "past those watchful dragons" which are people who are not open to the beliefs of Christianity because they were told they should believe it. But how should Lewis go about getting past those who are not open to the idea of Christianity? He believed that the best way to do this was to present it in a fictional world, a world in which it would be easier to accept. The audience grows to love Aslan and everything that he symbolizes; they begin to wish for someone like Aslan in this world. After finding this love for Aslan, they will ideally transfer that love to Christ when presented with the Gospel later in life. Even though Christian themes are present, the Chronicles are not dependent on them. Peter J. Schakel, a professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, states that a non-Christian reader can approach the book as a fictional story and "be moved by the exciting adventures and the archetypal meanings, and not find the Christian elements obtrusive or offensive". For this reason, "the Narnian stories have been so successful in getting into the bloodstream of the secular world".

Metaphors and symbols exist throughout the Bible.  For example: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27).  The Christian believer and his characteristics are described in terms of many colorful metaphors in the Bible. In this text, Christ calls us "my sheep," and has also said: "I am the good shepherd, . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:14-15). If we are truly His sheep, then we will surely follow Him, receiving safety, peace, and nourishment.

Paul Young has stated in interviews that he sees The Shack as metaphorical or a parable rather than allegorical.  The word "parable" means any fictive illustration in the form of a brief narrative. Later it came to mean a fictitious narrative, generally referring to something that might naturally occur, by which spiritual and moral matters might be conveyed.

A parable is one of the simplest of narratives. It sketches a setting, describes an action, and shows the results. It often involves a character facing a moral dilemma, or making a questionable decision and then suffering the consequences of that choice. As with a fable, a parable generally relates a single, simple, consistent action, without extraneous detail or distracting circumstances.

Many folktales could be viewed as extended parables, and many fairy tales, except for their magical settings. The prototypical parable is a realistic story that seems inherently probable and takes place in a familiar setting of life.  A parable is like a metaphor that has been extended to form a brief, coherent fiction. Christian parables are stories about ordinary men and women who find in the midst of their everyday lives surprising things happening. They are not about "giants of the faith".

Regardless of what phrase you use to describe the book, many of the "theological arguments" against the book would be moot if they would simply remember the fictional and metaphorical nature of the book.  On the other hand, people who over-allegorize the fictional nature of the work will miss out on what the story is really about: to taste, to feel, and to see something that a chart of allegorical parallels can never achieve.  See Paul Young's story in the pages of the book.  Then ... see your own.
« Last Edit: August 30, 2008, 05:02:22 PM by chariszoe »
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Offline chariszoe

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Re: Question: Is the story of The Shack fiction or true? (FAQ)
« Reply #1 on: August 30, 2008, 04:53:43 PM »

"How can someone write a book about God and let it be fiction?"

A book like The Shack might be termed metaphorical theology.  Because of its fictional nature, this makes the book an artistic approach to a Christian's relationship with God.  Christian fiction celebrates God's presence in our life. It can be narrow and didactic or broad and literal. The main character's relationship to God is the primary focus. Another definition is that these stories are about "the journey of the soul." There is considerable interest in characters "who are like the reader" in some important way.  Although the label "Christian fiction" is used here to reflect the fact that God plays a significant role in the plot and the outcome, Christian novels focus on ordinary people who are challenged to live their lives in accordance with Christian principles.  And creating a fictional story can often breathe new life into areas of thought that people assume they understand.

It may say something about our mindsets and frame of reference as Christians as to why we might have trouble with this type of writing.  Christians (especially those from Western influence) can exhibit little imagination at times.  Some are also unable to pick up subtlety because they want matters or stories to be straitlaced and literal.  They prefer this not only in books they read, but also in Biblical interpretation and life in general.  If there is some truth to this, it only shows that we have failed to educate and cultivate things such as imagination, creativity and even simple things like recognizing literary devices.

The book is not systematic theology, nor a theological treatise.  It is important to remember that Young was writing a theological parable of sorts, for his children, not for a seminary faculty. This was never the last word in theology, and it was, from the outset, an experiment in literary playfulness.  Young is a writer of fiction ... a story-teller. The prodigal’s father, the unjust judge, the owner of the vineyard, the mother hen, the Rock, the lamb ... all of these are literary explorations of God in the context of story, not pure theology. None of them can be taken beyond the boundaries of legitimate literary use. They are symbols of something bigger.  To worship the symbol is to miss the point.  To reduce the symbol to an abstract concept is to go from a large screen high definition TV to an AM radio, and is to miss the point as well.

Some who can't appreciate a work like this seem to suggest that any book that doesn’t just copy large amounts of Scripture verbatim has no reason for existence. The mixture of art and theological truth must be nerve wracking to those whose view of inerrancy and authority makes literary explorations of theology almost automatically heretical.  Sometimes it seems that rewording Scripture into a few almost-identical-to-scripture lyrics is about all some Christians can take in the literary arts. Past that and they are talking heresy.  Frankly, that’s ridiculous. Whether it’s literary, visual or musical, the arts should be evaluated artistically, not just theologically.

"Is art necessary for the Christian?"

The Christian who ignores art agrees with a secular view of art--that art has no ultimate meaning for life nor does it reveal the God who is there. We find this fact greatly disturbing.  In plain terms, the Christian church, historically the creator and guardian of great art, has abdicated its role of nurturing and appreciating great art. Meanwhile, the Bible teaches us something completely different from the modern church's attitude toward art. The question is, does the church's uneasiness with art stem from its historic faith or its modern subculture? We would argue that a chosen ignorance of art is more the result of an uninformed subculture than an informed reading of the Bible.

Psalm 19 tells us that God reveals himself to us in two major ways: his artistry ("the heavens tell the story of God") and his word ("the law of the Lord is perfect"). God speaks to us through symbol and language, art and word. He created us to delight in beauty, goodness, and truth. However, God, the Primary Artist, never intended us to find beauty and meaning within ourselves. Rather, we must look beyond ourselves for these things. According to Psalm 19, knowing God through the avenue of the written word is a necessary but incomplete part of the picture. Throughout its history, the church has known God through the word and art, truth and beauty, grace and nature.

As Christians, we need to come back to the whole truth--truth which is both rational and artistic. von Balthasar warns that the church has sacrificed beauty for exactness and in so doing it has lost an important element of the truth. He calls the church to break through a rational, propositional, exact view of God "in order to bring the truth of the whole into view again--truth as a transcendental property of Being, truth which is no abstraction".

In this sense, our answer to the question, "Is art necessary for the Christian?" is an unequivocal "yes." Art is God-ordained; it is a divine gift that we cannot live without. Without art we lose beauty, and without beauty we lose the vision of a God who is relational, not just propositional. In short, we lose a vision of God who compels awe in the hearts of those who love him. As Wendell Berry writes in his essay, "Style and Grace," "Works of art participate in our lives."

"Why did the author have to use symbols to tell his story?  Why couldn't he have just written an autobiography?"

Well, first, can you think of any autobiography that impacted you the way The Shack did?  By using more creative writing, Paul Young created a story that you can see your life in.  Thus, the book can speak to millions of people in this style, whereas a more literal story would have spoken to a lesser number.

We can worship art, or art can aid our worship. This is an important distinction. Many Christians conclude that if they love art they are in reality worshipping art. That is not necessarily true. If we worship art we are no better than the secularist who admires the work of art but fails to see God shrouded behind that work. Or worse, we are no better than the pantheist who sees the art itself as being God. In both world views, art loses any sense of transcendence. The work of art becomes an end in itself, not an avenue to knowing and loving God. Without a transcendent view of art, art becomes an idol, not a symbol.

When we speak of art in terms of understanding life, we must consider how art and language function in our lives. Simply put, art and language reflect a reality beyond themselves. We cannot talk about reality directly but must talk and live in symbols. We live in a world of symbols. Even language is symbolic. For example, it is quite strange to think that a mortal who has not seen "heaven" uses a word to symbolize "heaven."  We understand ourselves, our world, and our God through analogies (symbols)--the Scriptures, parables, metaphors, allegories, stories, sermons, music, paintings, relationships, baptism--the list is infinite. Symbols are signposts and pictures along the way.

Symbols, then, have two dimensions: the symbol itself and the reality the symbol points to. A rose is a rose, but more importantly a rose can symbolize love. The literal rose helps us to see a dimension of love we would fail to see without the rose. But the analogy of the rose does much more: it attires love with beauty, passion, vibrant color, and sensuality. Comparing love to a rose restrains love from being a cold abstraction.  And The Shack does much the same ... it challenges us to see God through the eyes of a real relationship, and not some cold abstraction trapped within the walls of dead theology.

But a symbol does more than incarnate abstractions. A symbol (i.e., art) not only brings beauty to our lives but it also brings meaning. Art is a crossing from the mundane to the beautiful and the meaningful. A transcendent view of art transforms the earthly for the purpose of disclosing a deeper reality to our existence here on earth.

An orthodox, supernatural viewpoint understands that the knowledge of God is not immediate but must be mediated--mediated through symbol, art, word. Good art says that God can be known in multiple dimensions but cannot be apprehended, controlled, or put in my own personal box--that He is not made in our mirror image. Ultimately, then, the Christian who rejects art believes earth to be more true than heaven, because he or she sees no need for symbol. And without symbol we cannot see beyond this world.

Art is an expression of God's infinite mystery and extravagant beauty. But it is also an expression of something strangely familiar. Like Lucy's sighting of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, something leaps inside us when we see art. Whether this happens when we hear the music of U2, read the novels of Flannery O'Connor, see the drawings of Blake, or read the poetry of Langston Hughes, something deep inside us leaps because we recognize the unknown known.

"I feel stupid because I thought the story was true!"

If you missed the fictional nature of the book, you shouldn't feel ashamed or mad.  You certainly shouldn't feel stupid.  It was an honest mistake because possibly you got so absorbed in the story that you didn't pay attention to the other matters listed above.

First of all, remember that the story is indeed true, but just not in the way you thought.  The TV show The Waltons was also based on true events, but the family name was not "Walton" and many of the stories on the TV show never happened.  Yet still the TV shows were inspiring to millions of people who saw their own selves and families in the show.

Also, think about this ... how many people does God show up like this to?  If this story was literally true, many of us would feel more despair from it.  Why?  Because God has never shown up in a tangible way and spent a weekend with us like this!

But, if this story is pushing us to see a reality of God that legalism keeps us far away from ... an adventure in which God is really FOR us, not against us ... then that is a message that affects our lives!  And thus, I can find MYSELF in the story, and now it applies to ME.  By seeing Mack's journey through his "shack", I see the journey through my own.

And that is the whole point of the book.

"I feel disappointed to find out this really didn't happen."

We can understand how people can read this and want it to actually be a true word-for-word account.  Earlier drafts of the book had Mack as the author and a few people made the same leap to imagine that Mack was a real person and so in the rewrites that followed, Willie was introduced as a ghost writer to make it clearer that Mack was not a real person.  Some still miss that however.

We would encourage you to realize that the book is true, just not in the way she thought.  And how exciting!  Because the truth of the book is bigger than what you originally thought!  We would encourage you to see yourself in this story!  That is the purpose.  And in that you will find even greater comfort in what the book has to say.

"Where can I find more about the author's life so I can understand what the symbolic meanings are in the book?"

One of the greatest free resources to understand the meaning behind the book is found here (especially the 2nd one, the Q&A):

An even more in depth discussion by Paul Young (with a tremendous teaching by C. Baxter Kruger on the theology of The Shack) can be found here (this is not a free resource):

The Shack is more than a great made up story.  Although it is a work of fiction, it is also a modern parable and metaphor that is based on the truth story of the author's journey of healing from issues of childhood sexual abuse, a distant father, emotional distancing, wounds inflicted by other Christians, personal sin which included adultery, and many other issues you can point to.

Most of us have experienced our own shacks, and battled with our own bondages to legalism and religion that kept us at bay from a real, personal God who is FOR us, not against us.  Read the book, and be inspired by the story.  Then, listen to some interviews with the author and see his life through this symbolic fiction book.  Then see your own life, and dare to plunge into the depths of Papa's love for you and let that love spill out to the world around you. 

He is especially fond of you.


(with sincere appreciation to Bart (Canuckster1127), Kent (kent burgess), Internet Monk, and many of Papa's "especially fond ones" on this forum who I generously borrowed ideas from in this posting)
« Last Edit: August 30, 2008, 05:13:03 PM by chariszoe »
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