Because The Shack has now been made into a movie, I thought I should bump this old review of the book to the top of the pile. This was first published on 8/21/08.
I had been asked by several different people what I thought of The Shack, a hot selling book by William Young. It is a book that is currently selling like crazy (I saw a great, big stack of them in an airport bookstore last week), and while it appears to be a big event centered in the broad evangelical world, there have been significant repercussions in our circles as well. So I (dutifully) got the book and read it. It is not the kind of book you can review chapter by chapter, and so this one review will have to suffice.
If you want to read the book like a novel, which it really isn’t, I suppose there will be some spoilers here. So, fair warning given. The protagonist of the book is named Mack, and a few years before the book opened, his youngest daughter named Missy had been kidnapped and presumably murdered. He himself had had a terrible childhood, and had finally run away from home as a teenager after poisoning his father. One day Mack receives a mysterious note from “Papa,” his wife’s favorite name for God, inviting him to come meet at the shack where his daughter had likely been killed. He decides to go, and after he gets there, the shack is transformed, and he finds himself on a weekend retreat with all three persons of the Trinity. Over the course of that weekend, he learns all kinds of things about himself and about the world that he had never suspected. That, in sum, is the basic set up.
I am going to say some hard things about the book in a moment, so I want to begin with this. The book is filled with numerous insights into what makes people tick, and those insights are wise, shrewd, pastoral, tender, and they deal with sins at the root. But the strength here is largely diagnostic, and unfortunately gets confused when it comes to the remedy, as will become apparent in a moment. William Young, the author, knows with profound clarity that fatherlessness is the rot that is eating away at the modern soul. The clear appeal of the book is because of the ache created by fatherlessness which, when coupled with the metaphoric solutions offered, provides us with a full explanation for the popularity of the book.
But I must make a distinction here — frequently (not always), the solutions as they are spoken are right on. They deal with honesty, confession, forgiveness, and they do so in a way that any orthodox Christian could embrace. But the problem lies with with the setting. Disembodied truth doesn’t help anyone really, and so the embodiment really matters.
Before getting to that, I should note in passing what I might call the theological problem. Since the discussions revolve around the murder of a little girl, the book is clearly about the problem of evil. And the answers that are offered are a standard sort of evangelical non-Calvinism, with the result that the texts that plainly state the nature of God’s involvement in such things are simply ignored. In other words, the theoretical answers in this book that grapple with this problem are about as detached from the Scriptures as they could be. This is a big problem, but any of you who have been in more than two discussions between Calvinists and Arminians have probably seen it. That is not the thing that sets this book apart.
And this brings me to the way in which this book was simply terrible, blasphemous. But before going on, I have to hasten to add that it is a peculiar form of evangelical blasphemy, one that is well-intentioned and naive. I remember one time I was at a conference where the group I was with was sharing the venue with another group. So one time I sat in on the chapel services of that other group, and they began singing “Spring Up, O Well,” which was fine with me. But since the song involved water, somebody had developed hand motions, and jumpy-up-and-down-motions. So there was this room full of adult Christians jumping up and down while they were singing, splish splashing along. But then they got to a verse where it was all about the blood of Christ instead of water, and they continued right on with the hand motions and the jumping, and the only thing missing was the rubber ducky, and nobody blasphemes like an evangelical can.
In a book clearly written to deal with the pain of fatherlessness, how does Young go about it? He makes God the Father, “Papa,” a large beaming African American woman (p. 82). The Holy Spirit is a shimmery Asian woman named Sarayu, mysterious and “way out there.” Jesus is simply Jesus, and is masculine after a kind, but in that unique way possessed by camp counselors and youth ministers with muscular forearms.
Here is a taste of the down home weekend retreat-like relationship that is going to fix Mack.
“Mack followed her soft humming down a short hallway and into an open kitchen-dining area, complete with a small four-seat table and wicker-backed chairs. The inside of the cabin was roomier than he had expected. Papa was working on something with her back to him, flour flying as she swayed to the music of whatever she was listening to. The song obviously came to an end, marked by a couple of last shoulder and hip shakes. Turning to face him, she took off the earphones” (p. 90).
Meet God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. Now Young is by no means of dunce — he is very clear that this is just an appearance, an accommodation. But the image, the metaphor, the feel of this whole book is warm and maternal, cozy and nonthreatening. The center of the discussions is the kitchen. The need is a deep father hunger, but this is not met by a father, but by the enveloping warmth of a comfort mama who makes a lot of comfort food. This symbolism is not incidental to the message of the book. It is the central message of the book.
And this reveals the bedrock problem with the whole thing. There is no way we can hide from ourselves that we have a need for a father, but we cannot bring ourselves to repent, and have our hearts turned back to actual fathers. We cannot bring ourselves to honor our (admittedly sinful) fathers, so that our lives might go well for us in the land that God gave to us. This means that we are stuck. We know that the problem is fatherlessness, but we have no intention of honoring real fathers, the way they should be honored. This is because the sin of fatherlessness is one that is shared by both fathers and children. And repentance, when it is given, is bestowed on both sides of the generational divide.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (Mal. 4:5-6).
This generation of evangelicals really is fatherless and adrift. They know that, they ache over it, they cannot pretend not to know it, but they have no intention of turning back to their fathers. And that means repentance has not yet been given.
The impotence of this approach comes out in this book in a couple of striking ways. Young cannot bring himself to give two characters in this book a face. One is Mack’s father. In the course of the story, they do have a heavenly reconciliation, but Mack’s father remains a faceless place-holder throughout. The other character is the murderer. The book ends with Mack resolved to meet him in order to forgive him, but the story/theology set forth in this book is not up to the task of actually showing it.
The good news for evangelicals is that they are coming to recognize their fatherlessness. The good news that they are not yet ready for is that this cannot be addressed without returning to fathers.