Though I had been encouraged to read The Shack, by William Young, I wasn’t sure what to expect from it. I suppose I assumed that a spiritual book at the top of the bestseller list and condemned by so many Christians was likely to be well-written but heretical. As it turns out, I found the book much more uneven than expected, not only in its theology but also its literary quality. The first chapter or two are badly written, and if I had known nothing else about the book, I doubt I would have continued past them. But after that, the writing suddenly improved into a genuinely enjoyable read. Despite Eugene Peterson’s comparison with Pilgrim’s Progress (which I never much liked anyway), this is no literary masterpiece, but not only was I impressed, I was at times deeply moved.
For those who don’t know, the story is pretty straightforward: Mackenzie Allen Phillips (Mack) takes three of his children on a camping trip in Eastern Oregon where Missy, the youngest, is kidnapped. Her bloodied dress is later found in an old shack in the wilderness and the police determine that she was murdered by a serial killer. Devastated and blaming himself for her death, Mack falls into depression (“The Great Sadness,” as he calls it) and withdraws from his family and God.
Then one day he finds a note in his mailbox, signed “Papa,” proposing a meeting at that old shack. Though understandably fearing it is a cruel joke, Mack has an odd suspicion that it might in fact be from God, for Papa was his wife’s name for God and no one else who knew that was likely to send such a note. Eventually curiosity (and anger) gets the better of him and he makes the trip back, where God does indeed meet him, though not as he expected. At the Shack, he finds a gregarious black woman named Papa, a willowy Asian woman named Sarayu, and a middle eastern peasant named Jesus, who all together represent the Godhead. The bulk of the book is then devoted to Mack’s conversations with these three over the course of an unbelievable weekend in which God offers loving and straightforward answers to Mack’s many questions.
The book has drawn a great deal of criticism from traditionally-minded Christians, and if judged as a piece of systematic theology, it is not without problem. I don’t agree with all of the theological objections raised against it (for instance, see Ben Witherington and Tim Challies), but at this point I’m interested in a more fundamental issue: The book’s subtle suggestions (perhaps unintentional) that if you really want to understand how and why God works, you don’t need to study and think, you don’t even need to read the Bible, all you need do is ask God and all your questions will be answered. Granted this may simply reflect the intentionally fantastic literary genre of the book, but I think it is an impression many are likely to take away from it, and I must beg to differ.
At least in my experience, those times when I have most felt the presence and promptings of God, that “still small voice” has never been a source of information or explanation (and believe me, I’ve asked) but more like a stronger form of conscience, directing towards certain choices and warning off others. It’s rather like the old metaphor that God’s word is a “lamp for my feet”: it reveals the next step or two, but rarely much more than that.
More than this, however, by locating Mack’s encounter with God in an abandoned shack, Young risks implying that it is in solitude, rather than community, that God must be sought. While solitude does indeed have a place in the Christian life, however, it should not be where we go to seek knowledge of God. If you want to understand theology, don’t hide in your prayer closet (though do pray!) or wait for your own weekend at The Shack. Read those who have gone before. Nearly everything we know about life, the world, God, and the relationships between them, is built on the thought and experience of those who have preceded us. To ignore this massive body of wisdom and expect God to call down unique answers to us alone is ignorance and foolishness. And I think Young knows this, despite the structure of his book. After all, his own acknowledgements point to folks like Kirkegaard, Tozer and Lewis as examples (though those criticizing his theology might wish he had read a bit more!), but you’ll hear nothing of these predecessors in the novel itself.
On the other hand, by putting its claims in God’s own mouth, The Shack does make them accessible and emotionally engaging in a way that no systematic theology could ever hope to be. And this, I think, goes a long way to explaining why reactions to this book—positive and negative—tend to be so strong. To those who find its claims false, this amounts to claiming divine sanction for what some perceive as heresy. But to those who accept its claims, the format is refreshing and freeing. It is one thing for a theologian or pastor to say that God is love, perfectly good, the only true judge. We are skeptical people, and pastors are fallible just like us, so we can easily dismiss them. But to hear it directly from God, in a story full of wonders and openness in which no question is refused an answer and every answer points to God’s goodness—that is much more engaging. If only we could experience such a weekend, we feel, that would be enough.
Of course, I don’t think Young expects us to believe that Mack or anyone else “literally” spent a weekend walking on water with Jesus, eating scones made by a matronly God, or gardening with the Holy Spirit. These are metaphors, pointers to the depth of relationship that we can have with God. And in fact one of the things the book gets especially right is its insistence that intimacy with God is possible, and that it begins with obedience. In the book, this is seen in Mack’s willingness to trust the note and drive to the shack. Though God could have barged himself into Mack’s life anywhere, Mack was instead offered a choice, and found God only when he responded in faith (small and angry though that faith was). I don’t know if God always acts this way (rumor has it, Paul wasn’t looking for Jesus when he got knocked off his horse), but I think it is God’s usual mode of operation, or at least it has been for me. No, God probably will not ask you to visit the Shack, but God does seem to have a knack for asking people to do things that seem equally foolhardy and pointless, and only make sense in retrospect.
To picture this mystery by telling a story in which God appears in person thus offers a nice illustration of a much deeper truth, though I do wonder if much of the book’s appeal derives from a wish for just such a literal display of openness. We imagine that if only God would give us a weekend like Mack’s, that would be enough to dispel our doubts. To treat the story as a metaphor and not a real possibility would, I suspect, rob the story of its power for many readers. In one sense, this is true of all good fantasy (and The Shack is basically a work of fantasy): We know the stories told in The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter are impossible “in the real world,” but part of the enjoyment they give lies in our wish that they were true, our desire to be there and see it. To reduce these stories to a metaphorical “explanation,” however apt, would be to cut out much of the interest. Thus, the fact that we might wish this story were true doesn’t make it illegitimate even if God never does appear in the way the book describes, any more than the fact that magic doesn’t really exist makes Harry Potter illegitimate.
And in point of fact, it is possible to have a relationship with God more like The Shack’s than like the stale religiosity so many feel. No, God doesn’t appear and make us scones, but to those who truly pursue God with faith and obedience, such experiences are possible. But they can’t be taken by force, nor do they force themselves upon us, and as Mack discovers, such an encounter with God is likely to prove more than you bargain for. It changes your life, and not just in the sense of making it more fulfilling, but also in the sense of requiring change. God isn’t content to leave us comfortable and comforted, but wants us to grow, to challenge us out of our apathy and self-serving lifestyles. Intimacy with God requires that we give over our independence and fear, and step out in faith. Ultimately, and this is perhaps the book’s best point, intimacy with God means a call to live a life of love and forgiveness.