The Shack by William P. Young

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Where do I find God in this world of tragedy and pain?

This is a world of tragedy and pain. It is also a world of joy and fulfillment. It is my conviction that God is present to us in both worlds.

Reluctant Homage to The Shack

Reviewed by G. Lee Ramsey, Jr.

The Shack
by William. P. Young
Los Angeles: Windblown Media, 2007

I don’t usually read a novel because of its popularity. When it comes to fiction, hype frequently sends me scurrying in the opposite direction; I’m drawn to gentle recommendations, hidden treasures. Thankfully, libraries are full of them, just waiting to be discovered. But every now and then a book rockets to the top of the best-seller list, stays there, and generates too much buzz for me to ignore. Especially when the conversational buzz is sustained and comes from all across the theological spectrum. Such is the case with William Paul Young’s The Shack.

The story revolves around a middle-class family in Oregon whose six-year-old daughter, Missy, is abducted and murdered by a serial killer in a remote mountain shack.  Unhinged by grief and guilt, the father, Mack, cannot move forward with his life. What he calls The Great Sadness descends until he receives a perplexing letter inviting him to return to the scene of the crime at the shack.  The letter states: “It’s been a while.  I’ve missed you.  I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.  Papa.”  We soon learn that “Papa” is Mack’s wife, Nan’s, way of referring to God.  So Mack sets off to rendezvous with “Papa” God, to settle the score, and to try to lay down his burden of grief and vengeance towards Missy’s murderer.

Things quickly move from eerie to intriguing as Mack meets “Papa,” who turns out to be God as a loquacious and loving African American female.  The Holy Spirit is a sylph-like Asian female named Sarayu, and Jesus is a jeans-clad, Middle Eastern male carpenter.  This unusual personification of the Trinity rocks Mack’s religious world.  Over the course of a long weekend, this Trinity rearranges Mack’s understanding of faith, good, and evil. Through a series of long conversations with first one member of the Trinity and then another, Mack comes to terms with Missy’s violent death, even arriving on the verge of forgiveness of her murderer.

That’s the story of The Shack, an unlikely bestseller now months atop the lists for paperback fiction (self-published by a first-time writer).  To be candid, it is not well-written. Plot, character development, dialogue, and writing style are clunky.  Many discriminating readers do not get past the first thirty pages. But literary merit is not the point or the appeal of The Shack.

The book is not so much a work of serious fiction as a vehicle to convey religious convictions. The Shack draws scores of readers into its first spooky, then dreamlike religious world for three simple reasons: suffering, belief, and forgiveness. First, the novel tackles the age-old question of why bad things happen in the world? Second, it explores what kind of God creates such a world where unexplained suffering and evil happens in the first place?  Then it asks if forgiveness is really possible after violence and suffering occurs? 

Each of these questions falls under the formal theological category of theodicy.  The world’s greatest literature has always tackled these concerns, from the Bible’s Job to Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, from Elie Wiesel’s Night to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Stories return to these questions because they are always with us, never fully answered and always freshly provoked, whether the provocation is slavery, genocide, holocaust, hunger, disease, rape, or murder.  The Shack is simply the latest offering to this mountain of stories that wrestle with the oldest of human dilemmas.  That so many people are reading it underscores the point that many of us are troubled deeply by the question of suffering in relationship to God. We hunger for understanding. We yearn to know how to live when pain, suffering, and violence visit our own doorstep.

The Shack offers enough answers in a spirit of humility to draw readers in by the dozens.  For example, to the first question — why bad things happen in the world —we find this answer from Papa.  “Creation has been taken down a very different path than we desired.”  Explaining that corruption of human freedom lies at the root of a suffering-filled universe, she (Papa) continues, “In one form or another this lies behind every struggle for power, every prejudice, every war, and every abuse of relationship.”  When Mack protests that even a misuse of human freedom does not justify the murdering of an innocent child, Papa God responds, “We’re not justifying it.  We are redeeming it.”

When Mack presses Papa on how she, as a good God, could create a world where violence runs amuck, Papa states, “Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. . . . Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”  

Wrestling with these tough questions and answers, Mack begins to understand that he cannot hold God responsible for his daughter’s violent death.  He releases his anger at God, but he cannot let go of his anger at her murderer.  He wants vengeance, and understandably so. But God, whose nature is love, woos Mack down the path of forgiveness without forgetfulness. “Forgiveness is not about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of another’s throat.” And again, “Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver, to release you from something that will eat you alive; that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly.” When Mack gets to this place of possibility, of letting go, he is struck with wonder — of “who he would be now that he was letting all that go — to walk into each day without the guilt and despair that had sucked the colors of life out of every thing.” He is, in short, on the verge of being made new, in Christian terms — “reborn.” 

So what’s not to like about this story?  A story at heart about good and evil, about violence and redemption, hatred and forgiveness?  Why all the controversy? For there has been much debate pinging back and forth across the airwaves and the internet. Here’s just a few of the rough planks that snag readers.

Some readers are bothered by the startling personification of the Trinitarian God as male and female. As Papa explains, “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. . . . For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning.”  The God who Christians worship is not, according to the story, about reinforcing religious stereotypes.  As Mack admits with embarrassment, “All his visuals for God were very white and very male.”  Rack one very lengthy debate up regarding inclusive language for God. If you haven’t been into that debate yet, The Shack will take you there.

If you want to linger a little longer at the cabin of controversy, you will find plenty for discussion about the authority of the Bible.  For those who see the Bible as a sure path of principles for right living, The Shack beckons you into the underbrush. As Sarayu (the Spirit) says to Mack, “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. . . . You will hear and see me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship — a way of coming to be with us.”  So much for biblical literalism.

And if that isn’t enough to stir up heated discussion, we could look at how The Shack tilts towards universalism, the long debated belief that the salvation offered by Jesus Christ extends to all of humanity, not simply Christian believers.  As Jesus says to Mack, “Those who love me come from every system that exists.  They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institution.  I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. . . . American and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians.  I have no desire to make them Christians, but I do want to join them in transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”  Christian exclusivity does not feel at home in The Shack.

Exposing these religious livewires, while telling a story about human violence and divine redemption, may explain the power of this novel to generate wide-ranging discussion in coffee shops, church fellowship halls, classrooms, and carpools. Some readers find these elements far less than controversial; The Shack  feels familiar, even confirming of long- held beliefs. But for others, the theological debate coming from the cabin in the woods borders on sacrilege extending beyond acceptable Christian boundaries.  Somewhere amid all the noise emitting from The Shack just may be a singular voice, if we can listen well enough to hear it, saying something like, “It’s been awhile. I’ve missed you.”  

Copyright © 2009 G. Lee Ramsey Jr.