A good friend gave me a copy of William P. Young's novel The Shack a while back. I hadn't heard of it at the time, but since then, I have read numerous articles and blog posts about this book. Originally self-published by a first-time author, The Shack has become a sensation largely through word-of-mouth buzz, and is in the top ten sellers on Amazon. I just finished the book myself, and since you're sure to be hearing about it soon (if you haven't already), I thought I'd share my thoughts here. If you've read the book and want to comment, or have further questions, please chime in.
The Shack is the story of a middle-aged Christian named Mack, who due to abuse at the hands of his churchgoing father has grown up with some problems with God in general, and institutional religion in particular. As the story opens, it has been four years since Mack suffered an unspeakable tragedy, and he finds himself in the midst of what he calls "The Great Sadness." He receives a postcard in the mail from someone claiming to be God, inviting Mack to a meeting at the desolate shack in a State Park where his tragedy took place. Inexplicably, Mack decides to go to the Shack, where he is stunned to find God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit waiting to change his life. The rest of the book is Mack's meeting with the Holy Trinity.
The writing in the book is adequate, on par with most popular Christian fiction (which if you're familiar with the genre may be interpreted as faint praise), but because of the subject matter, this book feels more emotionally heavy than anything you'll read by Ted Dekker or Frank Peretti. Some portions of the book drag, but near the end, there are sections that I found very moving and powerful.
The Shack is intended to be more than a novel; Young says he wrote it originally for his children, to help them know God better. Essentially, it is a theology in fiction form. That's an interesting idea (although not all that new...Pilgrim's Progress has been around a few centuries). This could be the new trend in Christian writing; rather than write a book that reads like a sermon, authors are beginning to write their lessons about God and the Christian life in the form of novels (see also Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian).
So what is it Young wants us to know about God? His dominant theme is that God loves us and desires a relationship of intimacy and trust with us. Young's presentation of the godhead is very unorthodox (more on that later), but it's obvious that Father, Son and Holy Spirit love each other, and love Mack intensely. Young wants us to see that all of our problems are due to our desire for independence from God. When we choose not enjoy this relationship we were made for, our lives suffer. That is true on a worldwide level as well; the wars, pain and suffering in this world are entirely due to our stubborn yearning to live apart from God and His plan. Although Young never uses the word "sin," that's exactly what he's talking about, and he makes his point very effectively.
Forgiveness is also a major theme. At the start of his meeting with the Trinity, Mack is an angry man: Angry with himself, God, his father, and most of all with the person who caused his family tragedy. God brings Mack into a confrontation with each of these resentments, gently but relentlessly. Along the way, there are some very interesting discussions regarding the problem of pain: How could a good God allow such bad things to happen? Young's answers may not satisfy all Christians, but I thought they were well formed.
The Shack has stirred up quite a bit of controversy on the Christian blogosphere. Check out the reviews on Amazon, and you'll see that many people credit this book with changing their lives for the better. This book also has many critics. Tim Challies has written a very thoughtful, much-read critique of The Shack, which you can read here. Southern Seminary president Al Mohler also devoted a portion of his radio program to discussing the book. Both men feel that Young is skating on the edge of heresy, at best. Readers who commented on Challies' blog had many other criticisms. Both Challies and Mohler are from the Reformed/Calvinist tradition, which I respect but do not share, so I don't necessarily agree with some of the things they say, such as:
--The Shack 's presentation of God is unbiblical and irreverent. Spoiler Alert! In the book, God reveals Himself to Mack in three forms: As a large, sassy African-American woman named Papa, as a young Middle-Eastern man named Jesus, and as a small, enigmatic Asian woman named Sarayu (who is supposed to represent the Holy Spirit). Some readers had a real problem with this presentation. I didn't, since God can choose to take any form He wants. But then again, I loved Morgan Freeman's portrayal of the Lord in Bruce Almighty, so maybe I'm just lacking in discernment.
--The Shack encourages a cheap, unbiblical forgiveness. In the book, Mack is challenged to forgive a man who has hurt him deeply, and who has not repented of his sins. Challies says that there can be no real forgiveness without repentance. But didn't Jesus forgive His enemies from the cross while they spat in His face? Didn't Jesus command us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us? I believe Young's emphasis on forgiveness is a very biblical, healing thing.
On the other hand, I do share one major concern with Young's critics. At the start of the book, Mack is angry with the Church and is doubtful about what he has previously learned in Scripture. I believe if God really did meet personally with someone in this condition, He would correct both of these spiritual dysfunctions. After all, the Church is His bride; with all her warts and problems, God wants His people to love her as much as He does, and to build her up, not abandon her. And the Bible is His holy, inspired Word. He wants us to feed ourselves on it, for this is how He has revealed Himself to us. Yet in The Shack, God seems to brush all of that aside, implying that a relationship with Him is personal, something we can best experience on our own. Never does this God urge Mack to rejoin His spiritual family, or to open the Word. This is very, very troublesome to me. Although I found the book very faith-affirming, I worry that Christians and non-Christians alike will get the incorrect idea that God can be fully known apart from study of His Word and active participation in His Body. In addition, Young says some things in the book which veer perilously close to universalism.
So should you read this book? I think it's a thought-provoking book for biblically knowledgeable Christians to read, to ponder, to critique and to discuss. I would NOT recommend it to a non-Christian or someone new to the faith, for this simple reason: If you want to know who God REALLY is, He's already written the Book Himself. A fictional presentation of one man's idea of God simply cannot compare.