The Shack by William Paul Young is one of the most popular Christian works of our era. It is hard to ignore the impact this book is having throughout America. It is discussed in Church book clubs, discussed on Christian forums, and generally well-known. I was in Kansas this past week and my fiancée’s mom (feels awesome saying that) urged me to read it, for no other reason than to be able to engage in dialogue about it. I’m going to try to keep my review as spoiler-lite as possible, though there are spoilers scattered throughout this review. This is the only warning.
I went in with some strong biases against the book. I’d heard from others that it is pretty terrible theology and borderline (or actual) heresy. Needless to say I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, but, like any good work will do, The Shack proved my biases wrong.
The plot is fairly simple. A man, Mackenzie, has a horrific tragedy happen to his daughter; this tragedy affects his whole family in negative ways; then he receives a letter from God (?) asking him to come to the place the tragedy happened to talk about things. The rest of the narrative revolves around this discussion. One note I should make as a reviewer is that Young’s prose is fantastic. His descriptions of everyday events and locations inject a reality into the story that is necessary to get readers hooked, and he writes about the uncommon and the supernatural with stunning beauty.
The plot serves as just the background for what the book seems (to me) to be; The Shack is a stirring work of philosophical and theological investigation of the nature of God, the problem of evil, and our hope in Christ.
Readers who have read the work or read anything about it probably already know that God is portrayed in the work as three “persons” in a very literal way. The Father, “Papa”, is a motherly black woman, Jesus is a plain-looking middle-eastern workman, and the Holy Spirit changes her (?) form throughout the work. I feel it is necessary to address this, because this is perhaps the most controversial part of the book. It seems to me, at least, that the idea of God coming to people where they are should not be such a hot issue. Christ Himself describes God’s action in terms of a hen gathering chicks beneath her wings (Luke 13:34). God appeared in various forms throughout the Old and New Testaments (burning bush, still voice in the wind, incarnate Christ, etc.). I find it dubious at best to claim that God does not/can not appear otherwise to individuals–perhaps as a mother to those in need (and this would line up well with the Christian background of religious experiences, cf. Perceiving God by William Alston).
These three persons serve to drive the narrative of The Shack while also making claims about the various works of the persons of God. There are many points throughout the book where I found myself nodding as Young wrote a wonderful insight about the work of God. Young’s answers to some of the most poignant questions of humanity resound throughout the work. One of the most stirring moments is a chapter in which Mackenzie is asked to decide which of his children goes to hell. This is meant to reflect the way Mackenzie (and some Christians) seem to put God in the judgment seat, arbitrarily determining who goes to heaven and who is damned to hell. Mackenzie begs to be condemned instead of his children, and in a powerful turnabout, he is told that this is exactly how God feels. He became incarnate to die for our sins, to give the opportunity for all to be saved, loving all God’s children perfectly (p. 165). Moments like this occur throughout The Shack.
Another thing I must share is The Shack‘s answer to religious diversity. Jesus says that those who love Him come from every background, including other religions. This leads Mackenzie to ask, “Does that mean… that all roads will lead to you?” Jesus answered, “Not at all… Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you” (184). Should Christians agree with this answer? I leave it open to the reader to answer this question. Suffice to say that The Shack will challenge readers from all walks of Christian life.
I finished the book in the span of a day. I set it down late at night, realizing I couldn’t be the same Christian I was before. The Shack grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. The questions Young asks through Mackenzie are questions all Christians must face, and the answers he provides focus on one thing: the Love of God. There are definitely things that made me uncomfortable while reading The Shack, but there are other things I realized were suddenly made clear. Treating The Shack like a theological treatise is unfair. It’s not a doctrine book, it’s a work of Christian fiction, and it excels in its niche, asking questions, giving answers, and leaving it to the reader to decide whether he/she agrees or disagrees. This is a fantastic work and I highly recommend it to my readers. You don’t have to agree with what Young says in The Shack to make the book worth reading, but you should read it.
The Shack on Amazon