The Shack

William Paul Young’s book, The Shack, has become a national phenomenon. It is a very quick read. It has been described by others as “a little clunking,” which does sort of capture the writing style. That reviewer attributed the “clunking” to it being the first book by Young and the “raw” nature of the story.

In any case, here’s the synopsis from Barnes and Noble’s bookstore site:

Mackenzie Allen Philips’ youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever.

I am writing about it because I’ve had two clients now ask if I’ve read it. They both loved the book, were moved to tears, and genuinely found it to be personally compelling for them. In one of my areas of specialization (sexual identity), clients often hold in common a very difficult struggle that is often enduring, and the struggle itself is often associated with shame. And maybe this is part of the appeal of the book: It does not try to gloss over a terrible situation. Some Christian authors of fiction seem compelled to wrap up stories in such a way that everyone feels better at the end; that everyone “gets saved” or any misunderstandings are resolved. With this kind of ending in view, it makes some authors work very hard to get there, sacrificing quality of writing for preaching.

Clients who seek mental health services for sexual identity concerns and other very difficult, complex concerns often also struggle with shame. The messages over and over again in The Shack is God as the Father (a black woman) talking about so and so and saying how fond she is of someone. The fondness is not favortism but a genuine delight and regard for a person. Of course, the antidote to shame for the Christian is to see themselves through God’s eyes, and this book provides a narrative through which that happens.

Let me say that the clunkiness may reflect a desire the author had to share an idea. My wife thought that the author had an idea for how the trinity relates to one another and that the story is a way to share those insights. The reader initially thinks its about the daughter but it turns out to be a discussion in part about the trinity, and Christians think about how the trinity relates. Some want to move beyond “water, ice, and steam” as an analogy for the trinity, and this book provides a picture of what one person thinks those exchanges might look like.

That it is “raw” and that it speaks to how God might think about individual persons as tremendously valuable is probably the tie to why people suffering from loss, hurt, and especially shame, find such comfort in acceptance and delight on God’s part with who they are.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for pointing me to the review at FOTF. I was not critiquing it at the level of theology but of almost pastoral care, although I think Tom raises some good points. And, of course, good pastoral care ought to be based on good theology. In the final analysis, however, I don’t think the author was trying to advance a systematic theology but an idea of how he conceptualizes the trinity, as difficult a concept as that is for us to understand, and to do so in a way that conveys something about what was apparently comforting to him in his own life. So I am uneasy comparing it to heresies that were articulated in a more direct manner as theological teachings. It reminds me of what I read recently in the book Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs discusses some of the criticisms J.R.R. Tolkein received in his portrayal of evil being outside of us, located in a ring that actively advances a cause (rather than a clear Augustinian view of original sin that is within us). I think this criticism is valid to a degree, but the book is not a systematic theology but a work of fiction. (Note: The Shack is no Lord of the Rings, so let’s not even go there.)

  2. That does make sense. Like you said, it has obviously had a positive impact on some individuals in having the ability to relate to deep emotional hurts in their own lives. I am more curious about the book after reading your thoughts about it.

    To sidetrack a wee bit on your point about Tolkien, was there not a belief in Satan among those who objected to a view of evil outside of ourselves? I know some individuals view demon activity as being a symbolic way of describing our personal struggle with sin, but I thought most evangelicals and Catholics believe in Satan’s existence (however, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Barna Group has statistics that show that a belief in Satan/demon activity is increasingly shrinking).

  3. I think that’s right – that the critics held to a belief in Satan and demonic activity, as do most evangelicals. The concern cited by Jacobs about Tolkein has to do with different ways in which Tolkein appears to write about evil – that there is “a deep confusion between internal and external dimensions of evil built into The Lord of the Rings, perhaps unintentionally” (p. 92). Jacobs cites a few examples on pages 92-93, if you end up picking up the book.

  4. I am nearly finished with this book and have thoroughly enjoyed it. It is not often that I experience such heightened levels of emotional responses from books, but this one has truly done me in. My first instinct when reading anything which may affect my view of God is to be extremely analytical and often down right skeptical. This book, however, has swept me up and it is nearly impossible for me to read without being unchanged. I have had to hold back my overly critical mind at times from being overly ambitious about tearing about the theology aspect of the Trinity and allow myself to become an observer of God’s interaction with His creation through the story.
    I am reading this book, without a doubt, at the perfect time in my life and have never experienced such peace from the Holy Spirit as I have the last two weeks. (I am a slow reader 🙂
    There are many tent poles in the story which have stood out to me, but one of which is a challenge in how I love and the importance of relationships.
    I am currently on our trip visiting my in-laws last week and my side of the family this week. I really think that the depth of this book has helped me to both love and be loved more during these visits.
    So, while I am unsure as to theology card (a very important card I agree) God has certainly used this book to heal my heart and mind and I am extremely grateful.

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