The Shack by William P. Young. I am certain that there is no other book I’ve (Tim Challis) been asked to review more times than William P. Young’s The Shack, a book that is currently well within the top-100 best-selling titles at Amazon. The book, it seems, is becoming a hit and especially so among students and among those who are part of the Emergent Church. In the past few weeks many concerned readers have written to ask if I would be willing to read it and to provide a review. Because I am always interested in books that are popular among Christians, I was glad to comply. The Amazon reader reviews for The Shack are remarkable. With 102 reviews already posted, it is maintaining a five-star rating with fully ninety three of the reviewers awarding five stars. Only two have offered one star. A search of blogs and websites turns up near-unanimous enthusiastic (and almost unbridled) praise for the book. “This book is a life-changer, a transformer.” “[The Shack] has become a favorite book OF ALL TIME.” “I am changed. I pray indelibly. My oh my!” This book, which was released in May but which has already gone into its fourth printing, is making a major impact. It has obviously struck a chord with Christians. I’ll warn in advance that this review is going to be long. My major focus will be the book’s content though I’ll pause to glance fleetingly at the book’s style as well. Because I’ve received so many questions and because the author covers so much ground in the book (and sometimes in a way that is somewhat unclear) I am going to proceed carefully and with many quotes. There are two things I would like to note about this type of book—theological fiction. First, because of the limitations of the genre, it is sometimes difficult to really know what an author means by what he says. There is often some question as to what comes from the author and what comes from the characters. The author cannot always adequately explain himself; nor can he provide footnotes or references to Scripture. It can be challenging, then, to turn to the Bible to ensure that what he teaches is true. This makes the task of discernment doubly difficult, for one must first interpret the fiction to understand what is being said and then seek to compare that to the Bible. We will do well to keep this in mind as we proceed. Second, we must also realize that, because of the emotional impact of reading good fiction, it can be easy to allow it to become manipulative and to allow the emotion of a moment to bypass our ability to discern what is true and what is not. This is another thing the reader must keep in mind. We cannot trust our laughter or our tears but must allow our powers of discernment to be trained to distinguish good from evil (see Hebrews 5:14). Discernment is primarily a Spirit-empowered discipline of the mind rather than an emotional response. So let’s look at this book together, doing the task God requires of us when he tells us to be men and women of discernment—Christians who heed God’s admonition to “test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” We’ll simply compare what Young teaches to the Bible.
The Book as a Book
First, a word about the book as it is written. William Young shows himself to be a capable writer, though I would not have believed it through the first couple of chapters. The book began with far too many awkward sentences and awkward sentence constructs (e.g. “One can almost hear a unified sigh rise from the nearby city and surrounding countryside where Nature has intervened to give respite to the weary humans slogging it out within her purview”). But as it went on and as the story took over the book became easier to read. The story itself is interesting enough, though certainly it lacks originality. The last chapter should have been left on the editing room floor and the final paragraph (before the “After Words”) was a ridiculously terse attempt to provide closure to remaining plot lines. But on the whole the book is readable and enjoyable. Never does it become boring, even after long pages of nothing but dialog. But Young did not write this book for the story. This book is all about the content and about the teaching it contains. The book’s reviews focus not on the quality of the story but on its spiritual or emotional impact. Eugene Peterson grasps this, saying in his glowing endorsement, “When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel on the order of “The Shack.” This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” did for his. It’s that good!” Could it really be that good? Is it good enough to warrant positive comparison to the English-language book that has been read more widely than any other save the Bible? Let’s turn to the book’s content and find out. What Is The Shack? The Shack revolves around Mack (Mackenzie) Philips. Four years before this story begins, Mack’s young daughter, Missy, was abducted during a family vacation. Though her body was never found, the police did find evidence in an abandoned shack to prove that she had been brutally murdered by a notorious serial killer who preyed on young girls. As the story begins, Mack, who has been living in the shadow of his Great Sadness, receives a strange note that is apparently from God. God invites Mack to return to this shack for a get together. Though uncertain, Mack visits the scene of the crime and there has a weekend-long encounter with God, or, more properly, with the godhead. What should you do when you come to the door of a house, or cabin in this case, where God might be? Should you knock? Presumably God already knew that Mack was there. Maybe he ought to simply walk in and introduce himself, but that seemed equally absurd. And how should he address him? Should he call him Father, or Almighty One, or perhaps Mr. God, and would it be best if he fell down and worshipped, not that he was really in the mood. As he tried to establish some inner mental balance, the anger that he thought had so recently died inside him began to emerge. No longer concerned or caring about what to call God and energized by his ire, he walked up to the door. Mack decided to bang loudly and see what happened, but just as he raised his fist to do so, the door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman. This large and oh-so-stereotypical matronly African-American woman is God (or at least an anthropomorphism of God she chose to take on in order to communicate with Mack). Throughout the story she is known as Papa. Near the end, because Mack requires a father figure, she turns into a pony-tailed, grey-haired man, but otherwise God is this woman. Jesus is a young to middle-aged man of Middle-Eastern (i.e. Jewish) descent with a big nose and rather plain looks while the Holy Spirit is played by Sarayu, a small, delicate and eclectic woman of Asian descent. By this point many people will choose to close the book and be done with it. But for the purposes of this review, let’s just assume you are able to get past seeing God and the Holy Spirit portrayed in this way and let’s press on. There is very little action in The Shack and the bulk of the book is dialog, mostly as the members of the Trinity communicate with Mack, though occasionally we see glimpses into their relationship with one another. The banter between the members of the Trinity, most of which is geared towards helping us understand the love that exists between them, leads to some rather bizarre dialog. Take this as a typical example: Mack was shocked at the scene in front of him. It appeared that Jesus had dropped a large bowl of some sort of batter or sauce on the floor, and it was everywhere. It must have landed close to Papa because the lower portion of her skirt and bare feet were covered in the gooey mess. All three were laughing so hard that Mack didn’t think they were breathing. Sarayu said something about humans being clumsy and all three started roaring again. Finally, Jesus brushed past Mack and returned a minute later with a large basin of water and towels. Sarayu had already started wiping the goop from the floor and cupboards, but Jesus went straight to Papa and, kneeling at her feet, began to wipe off the front of her clothes. He worked down to her feet and gently lifted one foot at a time, which he directed into the basin where he cleaned and massaged it. “Ooooh, that feels soooo good!” exclaimed Papa, as she continued her tasks at the counter. Young covers a wide variety of theological topics in this book, each of which is relevant to the theme of Mack’s suffering and his inability to trust in a God who could let his daughter be treated in such a horrifying way. The author is unafraid to tackle subjects of deep theological import—a courageous thing to do in so difficult a genre as fiction. The reader will find himself diving into deep waters as he reads this book. Much of what Young writes is good and even helpful (again, assuming that the reader can see past the human personifications of God). He affirms the absolute nature of what is good and teaches that evil exists only in relation to what is good; he challenges the reader to understand that God is inherently good and that we can only truly trust God if we believe Him to be good; he acknowledges the human tendency to create our image of God by looking at human qualities and assuming that God is simply the same but more so; he attempts to portray the loving relationships within the Trinity; and so on. For these areas I am grateful as they provided helpful correctives to many false understandings of God. But the book also raised several concerns. Young covers many topics and time would fail me to discuss each of them. Instead, I will look at concerns with some of the book’s broader themes and will do so under several theological headings.