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Winter 2008, Vol. 5

Book Review

William P. Young, The Shack
(Los Angeles: Windblown Media, 2007). 248 pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Robert Berg
Director of LifeWorks: The Center for Leadership & Life Calling, Evangel University

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“You’ve got to read this book!”

If you have read The Shack, chances are good that someone you know introduced it to you with that line. Its success is phenomenal. Written by an unknown author and distributed by an unknown publisher who has spent less than $300 on marketing, The Shack has sold millions of copies and been the #1 trade paperback fiction book on the New York Times Bestseller list for months. And this without Oprah’s imprimatur! Do I have your attention yet?

William P. Young—Paul to his friends—describes himself as “a general manager, janitor, and inside sales guy for a friend who owns a small manufacturing rep company in Milwaukie, Oregon.” That sounds pretty normal, but his upbringing was anything but normal. The child of missionaries, Young was raised in West Papua (now Indonesia) among the Dani, whom he describes as a technologically stone age tribal people. Frederick Buechner states that at its heart, “most theology, like fiction, is essentially autobiography.” The same can be said about The Shack, a work of fiction with a theology. Its main character, Mack, is essentially Young, and the events of one weekend in Mack’s life reflect the experiences of Young’s life over the course of eleven years. Young wrote the novel for his family as a gift. The Shack, then, is an unusually intimate baring of the author’s soul in the form of a novel.

The story, driven by the tragic abduction and murder of Mack’s daughter by a serial killer, deals with the questioning, pain, and despair that Mack experiences as a result of the tragic loss. By means of a written note, God invites Mack to a weekend at the shack where his daughter had been killed. The shack, then, represents the place of Mack’s greatest pain. Young states that the shack represents the human soul or heart—that deepest part of a person where one experiences the greatest hurts, keeps his or her deepest secrets, and suffers the greatest shame. During the lengthy therapy Young underwent in his own life, a therapist suggested that the fictional daughter represents what was murdered in Young as a child. Though Young avoids any detailed description of the abduction and murder, some readers will not be able to get through this portion of the narrative.

At the shack, Mack meets the Trinity. God the Father is “played by” a large African-American woman who likes to bake and listens to Eurasian funk on her ear phones; she is known as Papa, the name used by Mack’s wife to refer to the God she loves. God the Son, Jesus, appears as a Middle Eastern male dressed like a laborer, complete with tool belt and gloves. God the Holy Spirit, called Sarayu (Sanskrit for “wind”), looks to be an Asian woman who seems to shimmer. Young declared, “It was almost easier to see her out of the corner of his eye than it was to look at her directly.” The remainder of the novel consists largely of Mack’s interactions with these three persons. Since much of this involves dialogue with little action, it will be a challenge to make the projected movie version for a generation accustomed to car chases.

I first heard of The Shack in an email from a pastor to the members of the Theology Department at Evangel University. He asked for our assessment of the novel, apparently because it was being read by individuals in his congregation. Since I was clueless, I Googled The Shack (an exercise I urge upon all of you) and discovered a world unknown to me. Eugene Peterson, best known for his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, states on the novel’s cover: “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good.” Entries on various Web sites extolled it as the greatest thing since the Bible; an amazing number describe it as life-changing. Other entries denounced it as heresy. Among the most notable of its detractors is Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who averred that the book “includes undiluted heresy.”

Critics find fault with The Shack for a variety of reasons. Some charge Young with advocating goddess worship because God is depicted as a female. Others are offended by what they feel is a lack of reverence; meeting the true God, Mack would be falling speechless as does Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-5), not trading jokes and using foul language like “damn.” Some believe that the novel does not reflect a high enough view of the Bible.

I find all of these criticisms unconvincing. The charge of “goddess worship,” for example, is ludicrous. Papa explains quite clearly that the appearance as an African-American woman is to force Mack to get past his preconceptions of God, many of which are wrong. Indeed, later in the novel, Papa is an older male, with “silver white hair pulled back into a ponytail, matched by a gray-splashed mustache and goatee.” Equally ludicrous is the charge of “modalism,” based largely on the fact that Papa bears the nail marks of the cross. This, again, is to make a point: God the Father shared in the suffering of the Son and so has demonstrated that the Father is as sacrificially loving as is the Son.

Other criticisms would require a much longer response. Young reflects a less than glowing opinion of the institutional church. At least in part, this is because of his antipathy toward hierarchy. He contends that hierarchy revolves around acquisition and use of power over others, rather than genuine relationship. Thus, the Trinity and God’s original intention for human beings displays no form of hierarchy. Young can also be taken to dismiss the reality of the ultimate judgment of sin, although he has publicly denied that he is a Universalist.

The great majority of readers find that The Shack speaks to their intellectual questions and, even more, touches their hearts. Thousands testify that the book has transformed their spiritual lives by bringing them closer to God. It is especially moving for those who have suffered great pain and loss; they know the despair and anger that Young experienced. It is not only Mack (and Young) meeting God in The Shack; it is each of them. The challenge for all readers is to trust God, despite elusive answers to why dreadfully painful things happen. By the end of the novel, Mack still has questions, but he can sincerely call God “Papa” for the first time.

I think that all who do ministry in its myriad forms should read this novel. No doubt you will dislike certain elements of the narrative. (I cringed when God says “Sho’ nuff’.”) But this book is striking a chord with hordes of Christians today. At the very least, you should think about why this book has so effectively struck this chord. And, if you’re brave, you might go further and ask how and why many churches have apparently failed to strike that chord themselves.

Updated: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 8:07 AM