Consider this plot synopsis: Mack’s young daughter is kidnapped and murdered. Her body is never found. Life goes on, but Mack lives with “the Great Sadness,” feeling distant from God.
One day Mack receives a note from God inviting him to a weekend visit in the shack where his daughter’s blood-stained clothing had been found. There he encounters the Father as a cheerfully rotund African American woman, the Son as a plain-looking Jewish laborer, and the Spirit as a petite Asian woman. The four of them spend an intense weekend together, which leads to deep healing in Mack’s life.
This summer The Shack, by William P. Young, was the no.1 fiction paperback on the New York Times best-seller list. After picking it up, I finished it within 24 hours and began to understand what the fuss was all about.
The Shack is a good read. The event that sets the story in motion is among the most difficult of personal tragedies, but Young handles it well. His portrait of the Trinity is fresh, mostly biblical, creative, and even inspiring.
How is that possible with the Father, Son, and Spirit portrayed in such unusual ways? It is only possible if The Shack is read as it is meant to be read: as a fantasy/parable.
Young’s portrayal of the Trinity reminds us that Jesus told parables that included everyday people from his cultural context who symbolized God (for example, the father of the prodigal son), and Jesus also described himself in terms of normal societal roles (“I am the Good Shepherd”). If you can’t accept this genre, please don’t read the book.
If you can, you will find The Shack especially edifying if you read it as a foil to your assumptions about God. A foil serves to shock us, loosening our settled assumptions so that we find ourselves saying, “That doesn’t sound right—could it be? I’ve never thought of God that way before, but some of this just might make biblical sense.”
The Shack is filled with “foil” moments. As the Holy Spirit collects Mack’s tears in a bottle, the Father figure says, “We all have things we value enough to collect, don’t we? I collect tears,” reminding us of Psalm 56:8.
The discussions of the faith-weakening powers of fear ring deeply true. Each member of the Trinity combines gently patient respect with no-nonsense truth-telling in ways that are deeply moving and call to mind dozens of biblical stories and teachings.
The repeated insistence on the fundamental paradox that we are called to know a God who is ultimately unknowable is humbly liberating. I found Young’s descriptions of the Holy Spirit’s mysterious elusiveness and calm graciousness (especially chapters 9 and 14) among the strongest moments in the book. Many passages are delightfully unsettling, challenging us to reconsider the power of God’s strong, transforming grace in our lives.
But The Shack has significant weaknesses as well. Young’s attempt to describe the indescribable lapses into moments of one-sided distortion. Several times he sets up a dichotomy between relationships on the one hand and institutions, rules, power, and religion on the other, declaring that relationships are everything and the others can only function as idols (see pp. 123, 145, 179, 181, 198). This simplistic dualism diminishes the power of God and ultimately leaves no place for the church as institution.
Young’s idea that God is never disappointed with us (187, 206), that the entire Trinity entered into our humanness (192), that obligation has no place in the Christian life (89), and that there is nothing hierarchical about the Trinity (122) are all biblically questionable. Some critics believe Young preaches universal salvation (182), but he stays somewhat vague on that point.
Though it would have benefited from a good literary and theological edit, The Shack has great value as it challenges us to re-examine our assumptions, driving us back to Scripture and stimulating discussions that serve to deepen our understandings of God’s amazing grace. I hope that millions more will read this unusual novel.
- The review in The Banner suggests that “you will find The Shack especially edifying if you read it as a foil to your assumptions about God. A foil serves to shock us, loosening our settled assumptions so that we find ourselves saying, ‘That doesn’t sound right—could it be? I’ve never thought of God that way before, but some of this just might make biblical sense.’” The review further suggests that such foils usually serve a good purpose. Do you agree? What books or sermons or people or events have served as unsettling foils in your life? What effects did these “foil experiences” have on your faith? Did this novel serve as a foil for you? If so, in what ways?
- The Shack has generated a fair bit of controversy, and some Christian leaders have strongly discouraged others from reading the book. For example, Mark Driscoll, a pastor at Mars Hill in Seattle, preaches that the book’s portrayal of the Trinity sins against the second commandment (see www.youtube.com and search for “The Shack Mark Driscoll”). The Banner review took a different stance, saying that if one reads the book as a fantasy/parable, author Willilam P. Young’s portrayal provides an appropriate way to describe God. What do you think? (Note: several of Driscoll’s other criticisms are echoed in the “weaknesses” paragraph of the review in The Banner.)
- Author William P. Young creates the illusion that The Shack is describing events that actually happened by including a foreword and an afterword in which he tells how the main character (Mack) is a friend of his who shared these experiences with him and asked him to write them down for the benefit of others. The novel includes several subtle statements that make it clear this is a work of fiction, but these are so subtle that many people still wonder if the events described here actually happened. One might conclude that the fictional foreword and afterword add to the novel’s sense of realism—or that Young is attempting to manipulate the reader into giving his work more trust than it warrants. What do you think?
- The Shack lends itself well to small group discussion, which is highly recommended because discerning the foil value of the book is best done with other believers. To help focus small group discussion, it might be helpful to note the main focus of the chapters that include Mack’s conversations with the Trinity in “the shack”:
6 the Trinity
7 the place of Jesus within the Trinity
8 contrast power/authority with love/grace
9 unpacking Genesis 3; the believer’s life as a garden 10 the future; male and female and mutual submission
11 judging God, the character of judgment
12 Christianity and institutions
13 repentance; discerning the difference between truth and lies
14 the Holy Spirit and law
15 the mystery of creation; reconciling with those who hurt us
16 forgiving those who hurt us
(Note: The Shack is a novel and not a small group study book, and therefore none of the chapters focuses neatly on these topics.)