A conversation with a dear friend this week about the release next Friday of The Shack in the USA, reminded me of a two part review that I wrote back in 2008.
So without any comment on or knowledge about what the film will be like, here is Part 1, unchanged. Part 2 to follow.
if you have read the book, what was your take on it? How do you think the film will be received?
The Shack: a review article
Part 1: What The Shack Gets Right
Warning: if you don’t want to know the story, don’t read on …!
What sort of God do you really believe in? How do you relate to God emotionally? Do you ever consider how the three persons of the triune God interact with each other? How do you square God being an all-powerful being of infinite love with the reality of unimaginable continuous suffering and injustice in this broken world? Why does the church so often seem very unlike Jesus? How will God treat all those people who are not Christians? How can I forgive those who have done great evil to me and my family?
If these sound like questions in the syllabus of a theology course, you begin to get the picture that The Shack by William P Young is no ordinary story of fiction. Given the subject matter and that it is virtually a self-published book, it is all the more remarkable that is has become a publishing phenomenon. As I write, it is no. 6 in the Amazon bestseller list and no.1 in the New York Times Bestsellers of paperback fiction for the 24th straight week. The Shack website announces that over 4 million copies are in print and a movie is on the way. While being a very North American story, its popularity in Ireland is widespread. As I talk to students and visit churches, significant numbers of people have read it, most love it and some churches are using as the basis of discussion groups.
It is also a book that provokes strong reactions. A few minutes of ‘Googling’ will reveal an apparently endless maze of critiques, reviews, comments, debates, warnings and ardent recommendations. (This article, I guess, will add one more link to that maze). Some issue cautionary advice never to open its pages; some offer balanced assessment of its pros and cons; while comments on the book’s cover say things like ‘The Shack will leave you craving for the presence of God’ or ‘this story has blown the door wide open to my soul’ or it’s as good as Pilgrim’s Progress (Eugene Peterson). Wow.
The story is simple and is structured to facilitate one man’s encounter with God. For four years Mack has been living in his ‘great sadness’ following the kidnap and murder of his young daughter, Missy, whose body has never been found. His seminary training and former church experience have proved unable to provide answers to his anguished questioning of God. His faith has been mothballed, his life grey and without hope. In the midst of his depression he receives a mysterious invitation from God to journey back to the shack in the wilderness where Missy probably died. What follows is Mack’s life-changing meeting with God, who is astonishingly unlike anything Mack had imagined.
The attractive power of The Shack
Now The Shack is a novel, but it is novel packed with specific theological views, most expressed directly by God. So it would be fair enough at this point to begin a point by point theological assessment of the picture Young paints of God. While there are real weaknesses with what he says in places (and I’ll look at some of the reasons why the book is so controversial in part 2), a more constructive question to ask first is ‘What is it about The Shack that has so captured peoples’ hearts and minds?’ I think there are at least six things Young does remarkably well:
A personal God
In an increasingly post-Christendom and materialistic West, there is a widespread longing for ‘something more’, something spiritual. In Ireland we’ve had plenty of bad religion. Authoritarian leaders, self-interested church institutions, power games, frequent fusion of faith and politics (whether Protestant or Catholic), abuse of the weak, and lots and lots of conformity where faith in Jesus gets somehow reduced to the (often boring) routine of ‘going to church’. Mack too has struggled with an experience of Christianity that seems hollow. His meeting with God blows such religious staleness out the door because he meets a God who is ‘Good News’. Young captures something important here – something that recalls Jesus’ encounters with the religion of his day. The God of The Shack echoes the father figure in the parable of the Good Samaritan; shockingly forgiving, loving and joyful. Rightly, Young wants to remind us that the heart of the Christian faith revolves around a personal God who delights to be in relationship with those he has made in his own image.
God as a triune ‘dance’
One of the most discussed aspects of the book is Young’s depiction of God as a trinity of ‘Papa’ (a large cheerful African-American woman), Jesus (an ordinary looking guy of Jewish looks) and Sarayu (an Asian woman with a mysterious shimmering presence). Any attempt to depict the trinity is doomed to fail in some respect. However, before dismissing his attempt, he should be given real credit for taking the triune nature of God seriously. Yes, some of the dialogue and scenes between Father, Son and Spirit are cringe-worthy – but Young is on to something. He describes God as being in himself a united community of mutual perfect self-giving love. Papa tells Mack, “we want to share with you the love and joy and freedom and light that we already know within ourself. We created you … to join our circle of love” (p.124). The old Greek word for this is perichoresis – a ‘dance’ of love between the three members of the godhead – and it is into this community that Christians are welcomed by grace. Indeed, it is because God is in himself a fellowship of love that we, made in his image, are destined for love and relationship. Papa puts it this way; “If I were simply One God and only One Person … you would find yourself without something wonderful … all love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within me” (p.95). This sounds very like how Jonathan Edwards put it in The Mind, “in a being that is absolutely without any plurality, there cannot be excellence, for there can be no consent or agreement.” I suspect this is not how many Christians think of God. Young succeeds in making the reader think afresh about the remarkable wonder of God being one yet also a co-equal and co-eternal fellowship of three persons.
Hope beyond suffering
During the story, Mack undergoes a profoundly emotional journey through desperate grief. Any parent could identify with his numbing loss. I admit I cried! On meeting God, Mack is finally able to ask the deep questions that have so wracked his soul. The answers he receives are not the ones he had been conditioned to expect. He emerges changed forever. The ‘great sadness’ has been lifted and he can now live most days with a sense of profound joy, able to embrace ‘even the darker shades of life as part of some incredibly rich and profound tapestry; crafted by invisible hands of love’. What does God say and do to effect such a transformation?
It is here that Young is extremely creative in how he manages to conjure up a marvellous sense of Christian hope. This life, and all its suffering and pain, is not all there is. Mack weeps for joy not because he has intellectually grasped the free will argument (of which more below) but because of the vision given to him of Missy, alive and well with Jesus. God had never abandoned her, even in her suffering and death. Mack is transformed by this eschatological hope, that there is life beyond what Paul calls our ‘light and momentary troubles’. Young is spot on here. The gospel is such good news that it meets our deepest longings for life beyond death. The ‘really real’ world lies beyond this one – a healed new heavens and earth, of beauty, worship, justice, peace and joy. The Shack gives us a glimpse of how this powerful Christian vision of the future can transform lives in the here and now and is all the better for it.
The problem of pain
A central theme of the story is how can a good and omnipotent God can allow such evil as the kidnap and murder of a young girl? This is deep theological water that many of the greatest Christian thinkers over the centuries have tried to navigate. There are no easy answers, and The Shack is essentially is a re-statement of the ‘free-will defence’ – for our choices to be real, God allows us genuine freedom, but such freedom entails the possibility of great evil. As Papa explains to Mack; “All evil flows from independence and independence is your choice … This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil. Evil is the chaos of this age that you brought to me … all things must unfold, even though it puts all those I love in the midst of a world of horrible tragedies” (p.190-1).
What Young does exceptionally well is to hold onto a number of crucial truths about God and suffering:
i. God will overcome evil (“it will not have the final say … I purpose to work life out of death, to bring freedom out of brokenness and turn darkness into light (p.191)).
ii. He allows our broken world to exist but he is not the author of evil – in fact Mack’s real problem is disbelieving God is good (“Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes.” (p.185)).
iii. He is not distant from suffering. In fact, in Jesus he has self-sacrificially walked into the maelstrom of this world’s violence and injustice in order to overcome it.
iv. From our finite perspective, we cannot know the deeper purposes that God is working through suffering. During Mack’s encounter with Sophia (God’s wisdom personified), she invites him to sit in the judgement seat of God. His refusal is reminiscent of Job’s realisation that who is he to judge God? Overall, it is this capacity to ask questions many of us struggle with and answer them with depth and integrity that makes The Shack thought-provoking and helpful reading on the problem of pain.
The transforming power of forgiveness
Forgiveness is another deeply emotive issue that surfaces during the story. This is complex territory but I think Young strikes a compelling note of grace that resonates with the good news of the gospel. I have read some criticisms that Mack’s forgiveness of his daughter’s killer is not ‘biblical forgiveness’ because the murderer does not first repent. I could not disagree more! If we demand that the offender says sorry before offering forgiveness, then forgiveness is not of grace at all! Yes, full reconciliation is not possible without repentance, but this is a second step dependent on the response of the offender that the Christian cannot control. Christians are called to take the risky first step in forgiveness. Mack has been so transformed by God’s grace he is able to offer undeserved mercy (that is what grace is) to the killer without knowing the response in advance. Nothing describes the astonishing grace of God in Christ better. Such forgiveness is courageous, attractive and powerful – and is, I think, the most inspiring aspect of the book.
Truth in story
The final reason for the book’s popularity is, I suggest, the obvious fact that it is a compelling story. Young is not the best writer you’ll ever read, but he has created an honest, deeply human main character with whom readers can readily empathise. We are made with imaginations and emotions as well as minds. Does Jesus himself, the greatest storyteller, not remind us that truths about God, suffering, forgiveness and heaven need to be grasped at all these levels if they are to be truly known? As Lewis and Tolkien brilliantly demonstrated, Christian fiction has a unique capacity to engage the whole person with questions of faith. The Shack may not be up to their standard, but it does successfully invite the reader to become part of the story themselves, grapple with profound questions of life, death, forgiveness and redemption in an accessible way, and reflect on the wonder of a personal loving triune God in the process. Not too many systematic theology textbooks manage that!
Next Part 2: Cracks in the woodwork