The Shack is again a topic of conversation with the opening of the movie version last weekend (as well as new publications like The Shack Revisited and The Shack Reflections). I won’t see the movie, but I did read the book. This review is adapted from my original thoughts:
“What’s up with this book?” asked the cashier at the local Borders where I bought my copy. “Everybody’s asking for it.” The Shack was a phenomenon in 2007; a self-published novel marketed by word of mouth with roughly a million copies in print. How did it happen?
In 2005, a manufacturer’s rep named William P. Young (Paul to his friends) began writing a series of “Conversations with God” to share with his six children. In the process he decided to frame the dialogues as a story that reflected something of his experience: a man scarred by tragedy and failure confronting the Almighty.
Before toting the manuscript to Kinko’s to be spiral-bound, Young showed it to Wayne Jacobson, a former pastor with a small publishing business in California. Smitten with the story, Jacobson and his partner Brad Cummings set aside $300 to market the book. Attempts to interest traditional publishers failed; it was “too Jesus-y” for secular outlets and too raw for Christian. But over the next three years, the Evangelical grapevine out-performed most professional marketing campaigns, as The Shack climbed into USA Today’s best-seller list and the top 100 at Amazon.com.
By now everybody knows the story: MacKenzie Phillips (Mack to his friends) was living the good life in Oregon with his wife and five children when tragedy body-slammed him. During a family camping trip, his youngest daughter was abducted, and though her body was never recovered it’s clear she was murdered. After four years of dwelling in “The Great Sadness,” Mack receives a note in the mail: It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. The note is signed “Papa” (his wife’s favorite designation for God) and the meeting place is the desolate cabin in the Cascades where his daughter was most likely murdered.
Mack keeps the appointment and meets none other than the Holy Trinity: “Papa” in the form of a rotund black woman who cooks up a storm (and whose speech disconcertingly wobbles between Scarlett’s Mammy and something like Paul Tillich), Jesus as a Jewish carpenter, and the Holy Spirit as an airy Asian female known as Sarayu. During their supernatural weekend retreat, Mack’s soul is healed and he emerges a changed man.
The combination of fiction and theology often produces the worst of both. The Shack is no exception to this rule.
The combination of fiction and theology often produces the worst of both.
As fiction, there’s not much in the way of plot or narrative, and so little character development that during the long conversations it’s easy to lose sight of who’s speaking (unless Papa chimes in with a “Sho’ nuff, honey”). Mack often seems less a character than a counterpoint. His chief function is to raise objections and ask questions. The writing style is often redundant (“The nearby creek seemed to be humming some sort of musical tune”), puzzling (“He grabbed a bite of nominally tasting food”), or awkward (“[She was] waiting for him to speak as if he were about to say something, which he was not at all”).
Well, I haven’t written any million-copy best-seller, so maybe my literary criticism is just sour grapes. As theology, though, the problems are a lot more serious. Young has been accused of undermining orthodoxy, and while it may not be deliberate, he is clearly challenging orthodox views of the Trinity, the Bible, the church, sin, guilt, and atonement. His focus is so broad it’s hardly a focus–one reading can’t grasp all the theological issues and one review can’t cover them all. Tim Challies has made several stabs at it, starting here. That’s part of the problem, but it may be part of the appeal, too: there’s something for everybody, both to love and to look askance at.
Some of Young’s assertions are scriptural and well-expressed: he is clear and poignant on the absolute goodness of God in the face of human tragedy, and on the helplessness of man to earn salvation. But while messing with Mack’s head, his three mentors express notions that are either outside scripture or flatly contradict it. In fact, scripture itself fades into a montage of other truth-sources such as art and experience, with no special authority of its own. In fact, the very idea of authority is a power play designed to induce guilt. In fact, guilt has been misconstrued to create a terror of judgment. And the idea of judgment is due for an overhaul, too . . .
Man’s chief transgression, according to Young’s trinity, is that he’s chosen autonomy over relationship. Every tragedy, every sorrow, every misconception is due to our lust for “independence.” This is true as far as it goes, but Young is a bit too free with the application. His approach to Law, for example, is that it’s only a mirror to show our unrighteousness, not a rule for living: “Trying to keep the law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control” (p. 203). Wait . . . what?
Other problems are hard to pin down, because expressing his ideas in a novel allows Mr. Young to be rather vague about their real implications. Some have accused him of universalism, a charge he denies. But what to make of “Jesus’s” assurance that he has no desire to make anyone Christian? “Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?” queries Mack.
“‘Not at all,’ smiled Jesus . . . ‘Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.'”
Such a statement is wide open for interpretation–does it mean that Buddhists and Muslims will be saved, or that Jesus will make sure they find him? Don’t expect a definite answer, because Papa has set us free from “religion” with its doctrines (i.e., clarity) and rules. Just be open to grace and fellowship and don’t worry about particulars. In this we have Sarayu’s support and blessing: “I have a great fondness for uncertainty,” she says in another context (page 203).
That’s convenient for the author, who comes across as a likeable, sincere believer with some interesting ideas. Fiction is an effective way to explore ideas, because a story is, by its nature, better at illuminating questions than stating answers. Every aspiring writer learns that fiction is supposed to show, not tell. But Young attempts to have it both ways, showing and telling. By framing most of the book as dialogue, he can make his characters say exactly what he’s thinking. But if challenged he can say, “Hey, it’s just a story.”
Another problem is that by assigning form to God, he skirts close to violating the second commandment. The prohibition against making images of God must extend to literary images as well, for they have the same power to affect our thinking as an idol has on a pagan. How many Shack enthusiasts, when they pray, imagine curling up to Papa’s broad bosom that smells of warm scones and strawberry jam? In the early pages of the book, Mack admits, “I’ve always sort of pictured [God] as a really big grandpa with a long white flowing beard, sort of like Gandalf in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.” “Papa” smashes that stereotype, but only by replacing it with another stereotype.
Our freedom in Christ does not extend to contradicting what He Himself said.
Even worse is putting questionable statements in the mouths of the Holy Trinity. When “Papa” himself (or herself) says, “I am truly human, in Jesus,” the author is making a claim that is contrary to biblical revelation. God is Spirit (John 4:24); Jesus became incarnate, not His Father. Our freedom in Christ does not extend to contradicting what He Himself has said.
While touted as counter-cultural, The Shack feeds our culture’s mistrust of organized religion and craving for therapy. What seeker won’t be comforted by “Papa’s” reassurance that “I don’t do humiliation or guilt or condemnation” (p. 223)? What critic won’t nod emphatically at “Jesus’s” description of religion, politics and economics as a “man-made trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about” (p. 179)? How nice to know that God’s chief goal is not to be glorified, but to cozy up to his creatures. The Shack invites readers to lay down their crosses, kick off their shoes, cozy up in return, and not grapple with the harder sayings of Scripture. Our healing is all that matters.