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19 August 2008

The Shack

The Shack

I started William Young’s book The Shack thinking that it was just going to be another work of fiction, a pleasant read hopefully, albeit with a bit of God thrown in to the storyline. In fact as I read it I realised this book is unique in the way in which the writer’s theological passions fuse with a powerful and moving story. The result is a work that has the power to potentially open the reader’s eyes afresh to learn more about the truth of man’s relationship with God and the freedom found within that. Deeply complex theological issues are explored including freedom, reality, relationships, the law, grace, heaven, evil, pain and suffering in an accessible and tangible way that moves these issues away from being just an abstract theological discussion, to connect them with the reality of life.

Mackenzie (Mack) Allen Philip’s, an ordinary American, though one with a painful past of his own, decides one weekend to take his kids on a camping trip in the mountains of Oregon. Nothing unusual – just a fun filled weekend of campfires, hiking, canoeing and enjoying the great outdoors. Until tragedy strikes in the most unexpected way. Mack’s two older kids are out canoeing when they lose control and the canoe flips over. The reader naturally expects that one or both of them drowns, but Mack succeeds in saving them. Yet while his attention is focused on saving them, a serial killer abducts his younger daughter Missy. As the search progresses, the dress she had been wearing is found torn and bloodied in a Shack, high up in the mountains, implying that she has been murdered.

What follows for Mack is a time of several years described as The Great Sadness. Mack cannot forgive himself, and perhaps understandably, he blames God for allowing such a tragedy to happen to him. His relationship with God only worsens, becoming stoic and devoid of emotion. Until, one day Mack finds a note in his post box, signed “Papa” (God) inviting him to return to the Shack. Unsure if it is a cruel joke, a trick by the killer or whether it really is God trying to speak to him, curiosity gets the better of Mack and he decides to return to the scene of his daughter’s murder.

Here the story departs from reality as we know it (and indeed where the reader may feel comfortable) and enters a world where Mack meets God – Papa (God) portrayed in the form of a black woman, Jesus as an ordinary man in jeans and t-shirt, and Sarayu (The Holy Spirit) as an Asian woman. Mack spends the weekend with them in a world where time and reality no longer exists as we know it, and during that time finds healing, peace, deeper understanding and forgiveness about life. It’s not easy, for the questions he has to face are challenging and painful, but gradually Papa, Jesus and Sarayu work to bring about healing in Mack’s life and enable him to understand what a relationship with them is supposed to be and how that reflects in his relationship with others.

The book is certainly not theology as we probably think of it and clearly Young is making assumptions about the nature and reality of God based on a human understanding of Scripture. However, I admired the way he has taken a bold step in trying to communicate something about God in such a fresh and unusual way to the reader, told through the life of Mack, even if some may initially find the idea of portraying God as a black African-American woman somewhat difficult. While I found nothing that contradicts what I believe Scripture teaches us about the nature of God, many may initially feel slightly uncomfortable about the way the material and God in particular, is portrayed. Indeed Mack feels uncomfortable about what he learns, for it blows away many of his preformed ideas that many of us may share, about the nature of God, the role of judgement, laws and rules, guilt, relationships and even the structure of the Church. Many of us probably need these ideas to be shattered, and in this way I think the book presents a far more accurate picture of how God intends us to be than we often live out. Above all, what is communicated is the depth of God’s love for humanity and his desire for relationship with us out of free choice, a relationship that is active and living and is lived every moment of every day. It is this relationship that ultimately impacts the entire way we relate to and see others.

Many of the issues explored, such as suffering, free will, forgiveness and love will not be new to the reader. The questions Mack wrestled with are probably questions we have all wrestled with at some point, in some form. Yet, explored in literature, through the eyes of a man suffering deeply from the murder of his daughter, these questions take on a new light and the answers given take on a much more real and poignant significance than I’ve ever found simply in a work of academic theology.  Furthermore, I suspect for many people addressing these highly complex and often baffling issues through fiction is probably far easier and more accessible than just reading an apologetic treaties. The explorations of these themes in the book potentially have the power to move us from head knowledge of answers to these issues, to an understanding in the heart as we relate to and think about Mack’s situation.

In particular this book would be especially relevant to anyone experiencing suffering in his or her own life. Indeed, I think The Shack has the potential to be a source of healing and encouragement. It will not be what you expect, it may be uncomfortable and it is certainly not conventional, but I would thoroughly recommend that it is well worth reading.

Susannah Clark
Public theology researcher, Evangelical Alliance

For a more in depth, theological exploration of many of the questions The Shack raises, you might find it helpful to read Christopher Wright's The God I Don't Understand. Click here to read a review of this book.