Saturday, July 12, 2008

Book Review: "The Shack"

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.


steve said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful and discerning comments and insights, Jeff. I have read "The Shack" twice, the second time trying to be more observant and reflective.

The portrayals of the Trinity, especially of God, the Father, caught me off guard at first. But I must admit that, as I proceeded, I was deeply stirred and emotionally compelled by the profound, personal, affirming love the members of the Trinity demonstrated for each other, and for Mack, the desperately hurting man. Could such a portrayal of laughter, teasing and affection be appropriate when dealing with God? Even with these questions, I honestly wanted to be there and bask in it with them!

Your criticisms are insightful, Jeff, and quite valid. God has chosen to reveal Himself through His church and His Word. To the extent this novel is intended as "theology" and attempts to build a wholistic framework, these shortcomings are certainly there. But since author Young's own journey of abuse as a child was actually on the mission field, likely at the hand of an active church goer and Scripture quoting person, perhaps Young eventually learned by Grace--and wanted to share--the truth that the failings of those who misuse the institutional church and Scriptures completely misrepresent the loving God of the universe. All such hyprocisy and evil done because of sin in the church do not invalidate the One whose love cannot be measured.

Jesus was harsh on the religious people of his day, for similar reasons, telling the crowds and his disciples, " must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach." (Matthew 23:3)

Maybe this novel would also be an encouragement to one who has been discouraged or hurt by church strife or legalism or by any painful event in their life. It was to me. Does it provide a well-rounded, theologically balanced presentation? Absolutely not, as you well point out, Jeff.

Jeff Berger said...

Good thoughts, Steve. I totally agree that religion often gets in the way of relationship with Christ, and that many people have been burned by hyper-religious types. That's been part of my theme in preaching this year: Let's not just be religious; instead let's follow Jesus. Certainly Mr. Young has reason to be suspicious of institutional religion, and I agree that this book will be useful, and healing, to others who have experienced abuse, hypocrisy and legalism from religious leaders or other authority figures.

If I gave the book to such a person, I would want to discuss it with them and get their viewpoint. Again, I think one part of reconciling with God (which is what salvation really is) is reconciling with His Bride, the Church. I wouldn't want a reader of The Shack to miss out on that.

David said...

I came across some comments about this book on the internet and was wondering what the story was. Thanks for the insight.

John said...

I recently lost (5 months ago) lost my wife to cancer while I was in the hospital recovering from a major heart attack. We have 8 children still at home. Needless to say my life was turned upside down and I definitely was in "a great sadness". A friend gave me this book that gave me a perspective that totally broke the bonds that therapy and grief books could not do. I am so grateful. I do appreciate the insights regarding reading the word and church life because they have been my anchors. That is why I was looking for critiques so I can discerningly recommend it to others. Thanks.

Jeff Berger said...


Thanks so much for sharing your story. I am so glad God used this book to get you through such a devastating time. Let us know if we can help you in any way!

Honor W said...

I enjoyed your review. I want to be certain I always listen and be willing to be instructed. But there's just something about the reaction to this book that is isn't sitting right with me...Christians suggesting to their congregation not to have unbelievers read it. Themes of "the emergent church", "new age philosphy", etc. It reminds me of another time in history...Jesus stepped into humanity and the people (His own) didn't like the way He came. He breaks all the ground rules and He even uses Balaam's ass to turn around and speak to the man. We have His own written word which tells us of the most magnificent scenes we would have never made up on our own. God even appears as a bush that's on fire. But He appears as a woman named "Papa" in a fiction novel and we have a problem with that. Jesus spills food on the kitchen floor and we find that blasphemous.... What if...really what if...the story actually occurred exactly the way it states...would the theology suddenly be correct? Lately I beginning to think I'm not on slippery slopes of being a closet emergent...I think I'm finally beginning to get why he rebuked the aposltes when the children wanted to jump up in His lap.

Jeff Berger said...

I appreciate your comments. I think we do need to be careful that, when we talk about God, we're being biblically accurate, and not simply projecting onto God the characteristics that makes us feel more comfortable. But at the same time, we can reject truth because it doesn't come in our little prepackaged forms. Your analogy of Jesus and the children is well-chosen. said...

I have to say that "The Shack" by William P. Young was a very thought provoking read.

After reading the book, I was left pondering several things about it – which is a true testament to the book's worth. I had several questions on the validity of some of the descriptions of God but I had to humbly admit that there may be no answers this side of heaven for how God presents Himself to each individual.

I posted a more in-depth review of this book on my own blog