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Over the past year, word-of-mouth sales of William P. Young's The Shack have made it a feel-good story of the publishing world. As of this writing, the book with an initial $300 marketing budget sits atop The New York Times list of paperback trade fiction titles. The story behind its publication and success is, by everyone's account, remarkable.

But the story between its covers has elicited strong reaction, ranging from effusive praise to trenchant critiques labeling it theologically "dangerous" and "subversive." The bulk of The Shack consists of conversations between a beat-down, middle-aged adult male named Mack(enzie) and three figures who represent the Trinity: a large African American woman named Papa, a Jewish laborer named Jesus, and an ethereal Asian woman named Sarayu (Sanskrit for "wind"). The conversations take place in a remote shack in eastern Oregon, the exact spot of the greatest tragedy in Mack's life. The "great sadness" brought on by this event still blankets Mack's existence when he receives a mysterious invitation to return there.

The Shack's most prominent critics see troubling theological claims inherent in the story. Some argue, for example, that its Trinity is modalistic, others that the book is anti-church.

If charitably conducted, this type of conversation can be helpful. Theologians' sensibilities are fine-tuned by close listening, especially to works that don't always strike the right note. Christian orthodoxy was born of attention to small but crucial differences, yea, even jots and tittles.

Yet in order to give a work a fair hearing, we have an obligation to engage ...

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August 2008

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