By William P. Young
Windblown Media. 2007
Reviewed by Ceal McLean, Senior Writer & Editor for the CBWC
The Shack is a publishing phenomena: a self-published book promoted almost entirely by word of mouth with more than 10 million copies in print and #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 70 weeks. The book has become a theological flashpoint. Eugene Peterson, Professor Emeritus at Regent College, has compared it to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; many others have called it heresy.
How can a book so sluggishly written and so theologically trite resonate so deeply with Christians and seekers alike?
The Shack tells the story of one man’s encounter with God at the site where his deepest pain occurred: while Mack was on a family camping trip in Oregon, his daughter Missy is kidnapped and killed. Four years later, Mack receives a note from “Papa” inviting him to meet at the very same shack where Missy likely died. Eventually convinced the note is from God, Mack goes to the cabin and encounters the trinity in bodily form: the Father is an African American woman named both Eloisa and Papa, Jesus is a homely carpenter and the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman named Sarayu. Over the course of a weekend, Mack speaks with the persons of the trinity and receives bumper-sticker answers to all of his deepest theological questions.
The Shack seems to be one of those books that are important to people who read it during difficult times in life, such as the death of a loved one. With the central core of the book presented mostly as a dialogue between Mack and God, we can vicariously have a face to face conversation with God and ask all of the big questions we have, particularly those long-unanswered questions about how an all-loving, all-powerful God can allow pain and suffering. All of us can relate to Mack’s suffering and his questions. Like Job, we all want to know why.
What we get is no whirlwind; just a still, small voice that tries to knock back our preconceptions about God. For some, the novelty of presenting not only the Holy Spirit but God the father as feminine (and not white) will be an attractive relief. Similarly, The Shack portrays a God who chuckles. Incessantly. The Shack portrays a cloying God who is only what we want Him to be: all-loving, gentle, kind, ever-patient, forgiving, full of grace, sustaining us in our deepest sorrows and pain. This is a God who benefits us, hinting that even faith is not really required. Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God this definitely isn’t.
That Mack’s/our deep questions about everything from suffering to the nature of the trinity and free will get answered in a few pages or even just a few sentences seems not to matter as we move along quickly to the next quick answer. It is an easy, superficial read.
The universalist theology that minimizes the importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection and downplays the importance of biblical revelation proves very appealing to those who have experienced or bought into modern media stereotypes of Christianity as judgemental, fear-driven, exclusionary and rigid. As well, the book is attractive to readers because Mack leaves the shack a changed man. His questions answered, he can return home to quickly heal broken relationships in his family, find his daughter’s missing body, forgive his daughter’s killer and live a newly meaningful life. Everything broken gets fixed.
Anyone wishing to be challenged by literary depictions of God and theological questions is much better off reading something well written. If Milton’s Paradise Lost seems too intimidating, try the stories of C.S. Lewis or Madeleine L’Engle.