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by Melody Tan
When it was (self-) published 10 years ago, The Shack went largely unnoticed. Then seemingly out of nowhere, on June 8, 2008, it made its debut at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Written by William Paul Young, The Shack went on to sell more than 20 million copies and on March 12, 2017 made its reappearance on the top spot of the New York Times bestseller list.
The Shack’s four-week stint at the top of the list this year is thanks to the same-month release of the film version of the same name, starring Sam Worthington.
The basic premise of The Shack revolves around a weekend that Mack, the protagonist, spends at an isolated and abandoned shack—the same place where evidence of his young daughter’s brutal murder was found four years earlier. It’s a story of an ordinary human meeting an extraordinary God (called Papa), the Holy Spirit (named Sarayu) and Jesus, and their conversations addressing the question many of us asks: “Why does God allow bad things to happen?”
The Shack is one of those polarising books that some people absolutely love and want everybody to have a copy of it, while others would rather see it burned. Eugene Peterson, author of the highly popular The Message, a modern-day paraphrase of the Bible, says the book “has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.” Dissenters, on the other hand, have gone as far as to declare it “heretical”.
Personally, I felt there was much to like about The Shack, but at the same time, the book raised a lot of spiritual and theological questions that left me rather unsettled.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Why I liked the book
The Shack painted a beautiful picture of life with God
This story left me with a deep sense of yearning for heaven, where I would daily be in the presence of a tangible God. Young’s imagination of what it would be like to spend a weekend with God was like spending a relaxing holiday with some of your favourite family members whose only aim is to love and spoil you. Young managed to make heaven—and God—feel cosy, familiar and approachable, which can sometimes be difficult to fathom when you consider being in the presence of the King.
Prayer made more sense
From a rational point of view, praying to God can sometimes feel like a pointless exercise. Talking to an all-knowing God, who would already be aware of everything, about your problems, telling Him about your day, sharing with Him your deepest desires, seemed to lack purpose. But as Sarayu explains when Mack wonders why he should tell her, Papa, and Jesus about his children, “We have limited ourselves out of respect for you. We are not bringing to mind, as it were, our knowledge of your children. As we are listening to you, it is as if this is the first time we have known about them, and we take great delight in seeing them through your eyes.” God is always interested and constantly listens.
Trust in God is encouraged
Consistently throughout The Shack, Young makes it clear we need to trust God. Not only that, but he gives us good reason why we should. Through Mack’s conversations, you get a sense that God is always in control, always with us and always wants the best for us. Young makes a good attempt to explain where God is when tragedies happen, although it is a shame he never makes clear the connection between the devil, sin and suffering. At the end of the day, we learn that submitting our wills to God—trusting He is there for us—is the only way to successfully lead our lives.
God’s love is extremely attractive
God’s overwhelming and powerful love; His magnanimous attitude towards humans who bicker, cause each other harm and make horrendous decisions; and His easy and casual way with Mack draws you to want to get to know Him. Young writes of a God whose sole desire is to create a relationship with us and love us, and the warmth that radiated out of a God who is full of fondness for His creation made me love God even more.
God and the Holy Spirit take on female forms in the book, which, as the novel claims, is to shake up all preconceived notions we may have of God. Too often has religion skewed towards a patriarchal system, and in a world where women are still fighting for equality, I found it affirming that Young would choose to remind his readers that God can be thought of as female.
Why I didn’t like the book
Weak characterisations and voices
While the novel opened with a beautifully described setting—and Young seems to have a knack for painting distinct pictures in the reader’s mind—conversations between characters in the book often seem stilted and forced. There is a sense of awkwardness when characters talk to each other, much like a badly written script by inexperienced amateurs who have not taken the time to consider how people actually speak.
Littered throughout the novel are comments about God’s negative attitudes towards hierarchy, authority and the “religious machinery”. What these remarks have the potential to do is further encourage the popular “spiritual but not religious” attitude, building on society’s growing sense of anti-organised religion. While it is true that problems abound in any institution run by humans—legalism, egotism, nepotism and even failing to recognise God as the ultimate leader—God places an extremely high importance on the church as a community of believers. And as much as I’ve experienced the many negatives associated with spending time with a group of people, the support, spiritual guidance and love I’ve received from belonging to a church tells me we cannot embark on our Christian journey alone.
The Bible takes second place
The Bible seems almost an afterthought in the novel. What matters are conversations with God, an individual’s ability to think or rationalise with the Holy Spirit, and personal experiences. I do not doubt God communicates with us through prayer, that the Holy Spirit convicts us, and people can have very real spiritual experiences with God, but I was extremely uncomfortable with Young’s claims that “God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellect.”
Dubious theological claims
I’d like to believe years of being a Christian and studying the Bible has given me some understanding of biblical teachings, and while unable to provide an apologetic essay, I believe some of Young’s claims in The Shack are theologically problematic, claims such as:
- The consequences of sin are not the results of God’s law
- God the Father bears the same scars as Jesus because they were crucified together
- Our salvation is not solely dependent on Jesus Christ
- What happens to us after we die
While it is true I found it affirming Young would choose to portray God as a female, I found it equally disconcerting God would declare (in the novel) the world being a whole lot better if women were in charge. There is a certain amount of male-bashing in the novel, which is equally as destructive as misogyny.
If The Shack were a religious textbook, I would not hesitate to rip out its pages and feed them to a bonfire. However, that’s not what the novel is. Despite a rather confusing foreword that seems to establish the book as based on real events, it is ultimately a work of fiction. The danger in the book lies in the possibility of a reader treating it as a textbook for Christian beliefs. But as a novel, I think The Shack is effective. It makes some theological claims that may be mistaken, but it was never meant to be read as an apologetic thesis.
What The Shack has is the potential to draw people to want to know more about God and to get to know Him better, because of just how attractive He is. It encourages people to take that first step towards God, and hopefully towards a better understanding of theology from other more reliable sources.
Would I read The Shack again or purchase multiple copies for my unbelieving friends? Probably not. But I also believe God draws us to Him in many varied ways, and I think The Shack may be able to do just that for some people who may be searching for Him.
Melody Tan is an assistant editor at Signs of the Times magazine in Australia. She and her husband are the parents of baby Elliott Bell as of 22 July 2016.