I’ve actually been wanting to read The Shack for a while now, for no other reason, really, than to satisfy my curiosity as to what all the fuss around the book has been about – it being labelled as brilliant on one end of the scale, and downright heretical on another.
Well, my landlord borrowed me the book and I finished it within two days. This shows that The Shack is a relatively easy read (well, for those that read a lot) and wasn’t difficult to get through at all.
My impression? Well, as usual, many of the heretical claims made against it were a little extreme, but it was pretty obvious where people may have a problem with it. Of course, a lot depends on how you approach books and art in particular, which we’ll cover in this review.
The Shack, written by William P. Young, follows the story of a certain Mack Philips whose young daughter, Missy, was abducted and killed some years prior to the book’s story. Her body was never found, but her clothes were found in a pool of blood in an old shack somewhere in Oregon’s (USA) many mountains and forests and her abductor was a known serial killer.
Philips’ anger, resentment, questions, bitterness and altogether sadness around the affair draws him away from God, and one day he receives a note in his post box beckoning for him to meet God at the shack. In desperation and anger Mack accepts the invitation, half-expecting to meet the murderer, and arrives at the shack to meet God.
The story then unfolds as God, in the form of a woman (God the Father), a carpenter (Jesus) and a small asian-looking girl (The Holy Spirit), lead Mack on a journey of healing.
Young obviously wrote the book in an answer to people who are suffering in various ways, particularly in areas of injustice. He does a pretty good job in exposing some of the deeper things of our heart, such as how we judge God as humans and how we struggle with our identity.
Young challenges some dogmatism around how God reveals himself, doing it firstly through portraying God as a black woman (challenging racist and sexist lines) and the Holy Spirit as a small asian woman. I think these are good challenges to the more fundamentalist kinds in Christian circles, who need to really deal with God more as a person than as a set of beliefs or formulas, which I feel many fundamentalists are prone to do. God cannot be boxed, and when we try and box Him we simply create religion.
Obviously, portraying God as a woman hits many nerves with many different people. I, for one, see no reason to use a different picture of God than the one already provided by the Scriptures (God as a father) as a general rule, but I appreciated how and why Young did this in the context of the story of The Shack. God is sexless, after all. Later on, when the time is right, God reveals himself to Mack as a Father again and retains this form.
Secondly, the obvious Universalist themes that come through now and again in the book would offend many people in many different ways as well. I didn’t have a problem with it in principle, since I understand what Christian Universalism looks like and it really isn’t the same as the kind of Universalism we see from other crowds.
Christian Universalism doesn’t believe that all roads lead to heaven, it simply believes Hell won’t last forever, and God will find a way to bring those in Hell back to Him. But the book never expressly gives an opinion on this subject.
To be honest, I don’t know if Young really has an idea of what he thinks of the after-life, as he refers hell in chapter 11 (“Here Come Da Judge”) as eternal torment – but this happens in a way that is left open to interpretation, as God, now in the form of Sophia, or Wisdom (referring to the book of Proverbs) seems to scold Mack for having a sharp calvinistic background, believing that God chooses who goes to hell and who doesn’t.
However, I thought that this chapter was certainly the best part of the book by far – it exposes far more in our hearts around how we judge God and see God than just the hell/calvinist/predestination question. Young exposes some really good stuff around how modern theology and also contemporary man see God, and does a brilliant job in my opinion. Naturally, though, the book represents some anti-calvinism which would get a more dogmatic crowd’s back up.
Other than that I did find the book a little bit flowery in many areas. These weren’t particularly helpful to me, but they may be for others who have a really hard view of God and need to see God differently. I still do think that Young reaffirmed contemporary sensibilities in these areas, but he never went overboard in my opinion.
The bottom line with The Shack is that it is a fictional work. It’s not even really allegory, it’s more a commentary of sorts, in the form of fiction. I felt the idea was great but the overall package had its moments in amongst a lot of “floweryness”.
Because of the nature of the book itself one must take its theological thoughts in context, but many people don’t do this – treating the work as having tremendous authority or scrutinising it too closely for its lack of dotting all of the I’s and crossing all of the T’s. Books, particularly fiction, should be read as a narrative – not as a textbook.
This book should be taken for what it is – art. This means it must be taken into context as to its original purpose, and it must be remembered that the book is full of perception and, at the same time, we often project our perceptions over what is on the page, bringing us to a ton of other conclusions. Mature readers will understand what I mean.
Eugene Peterson’s recommendation on the front cover that “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his,” is a little overboard. I didn’t think that Pilgrim’s Progress was that amazing either, to be honest, but I think The Shack falls short of far too many theological truths for it to work as well as Bunyan’s work.
Personally, I don’t think Young intended for the book to be that deep on theology anyway, and it’s done well for what it is.
Would I recommend it? Well, I really think it’s a pretty average book so I’m not going to go and tell anyone to go out of their way to buy it. If someone is also struggling with God over suffering or justice I don’t think it’s the best book to deal with that either, although it might help, depending on the person.
But is it a heretical book bordering on evil, as some Christians have thought? No, it isn’t.
I hope that Young would continue writing, though, and perhaps provide us something deeper in the future.
About Ryan Peter
Ryan Peter is a writer, journalist and ghostwriter from Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes fantasy, sci-fi, inspirational fiction, and on faith. Ryan is also part of the New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI) translocal team.