The Shack

For our anniversary this year, my beloved gave me a copy of The Shack by William P. Young.  Some of you may be thinking “What, a book for an anniversary present?”  But after 33 years she knows me pretty well, and for me it was a very well-chosen gift.  I finished reading it a couple of days ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I understand from reading online reviews that this book has become very popular.   It was at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for several months and is still sitting at #2 in the Paperback Trade Fiction category.  It has also been featured on CBC News on several occasions, which gives some indication of the attention it has received.   Apparently lots of people could identify with its main theme.

I also noted from online reviews that Young’s book has garnered lots of criticism from Christians who are concerned that its theology is suspect.  So I read it with a watchful eye – because good theology is important to me – but I also endeavoured to keep an open heart and listen to the Holy Spirit along the way.

My own take?  I loved The Shack.  Through it God spoke to me at a deep level about his goodness and redemptive power.  Although in one sense it contains nothing new, it presented the kindness, generosity and creativity of God in the form of a story that has the power to get past many people’s defenses.

If you are concerned about careful theology you may find this assessment surprising.  However, as I began to read, I soon realized that what I was reading was not a theological treatise but an extended parable of God’s grace and mercy.

Not one of Jesus’ parables gives a complete or balanced presentation of all the truths of the Christian faith.  That’s not their purpose.   They are flashes of insight with a very specific focus, and their purpose is to both reveal and conceal truth.  To those whose hearts are receptive to the Kingdom, parables reveal more of the nature of God and his ways, but to those whose hearts are hardened they may seem either nonsensical or downright offensive.   The Pharisees had problems with Jesus’ parables because his powerful insights messed with their tightly-constructed systems, but those who were hungry for God’s mercy were delighted.

I believe the Shack functions in a similar way.   It’s not a book of balanced theology, but rather a brilliant attempt to convey in story form how the mercy of God is able to penetrate past our defenses, healing hearts that have been wounded by life’s pain and restoring minds that have been blinded by the Enemy’s deceptions.

Am I worried that some people might be confused about God’s true nature because the Shack portrays the Father as a black female?  Well – first of all, I wouldn’t use this book as a tool for basic discipling of a new believer.  That’s not its purpose.  I’d probably recommend it for people who have been turned off by religion or who have been so damaged by life’s pain that the idea of a loving God is hard for them to grasp.  But in Young’s defense, I’d say he makes it pretty clear that Papa reveals himself (herself?) to Mack as a maternal figure because that would be the best way to get past his defenses.  Later on, Papa shows up as a man.  As Papa himself states, God is literally neither male nor female, nor is he literally human.  Like all analogies, this one breaks down if you try to make it carry a weight that it wasn’t designed to bear, but if you understand its purpose and accept its limitations, it is very effective.

I did have some concerns about balance in a few other areas, but had to remind myself that this is a story, not a treatise.  And it’s a story that is not trying to say everything there is to be said about God or the Christian faith (can anyone do that anyway) but rather is trying to say a few things, in a way that will enable many to open up to God’s love whereas previously they might have rejected it.

My main concern with the Shack is actually not with the critics – any good work will get its share of criticism anyway – but with those who are so totally in love with it that they think it’s the last word.    So if you do read it, remember it’s only a story.  It contains some powerful and refreshing insights – but I’m still reading my Bible and listening to sermons and … you get the picture.

So – I’d be interested in comments from anyone who has read this book.  And if you haven’t read it – consider giving it a try.


13 thoughts on “The Shack”

  1. Well done Peter. You’ve said all I hoped you would say. I’m so glad you liked it. What a wonderful story and yes I too believe God presented as female first because of the wounds Mac had from his father. He knows what we need.
    Those who feel they must expose the Shack as heretical are missing the wonderful story a father wrote for his children. I knew and had more insight into the Trinity after reading it. I especially identified with the Holy Spirit. She made me smile.

    I loved it.

  2. I agree with you Peter. It spoke to my heart in many areas and gave me a greater insight into God’s grace for us as we face difficult situations in our lives.

  3. I was curious to see what you would say and am surprised to say I agree with what you said. I think everyone who read it has problems with some of the theology but as you said, it is a story. I too liked the discription of the trinity. And I agree that this is a book for people who have been hurt – when given at the right time in their lives. Some people aren’t ready for it – yet

  4. It’s interesting to hear the diverse opinions about The Shack. I think it’s unfortunate that people miss the purpose of the story for the sake of theology, but thanks to good ‘ol pharisaical reasoning people can seemingly justify their position on anything. Good review Peter!

  5. well i havn’t read it so i can’t really comment but i can tell you that on thursday we were printing a book called “finding God in the shack” .

  6. Great post, Peter.

    My thoughts on The Shack:

    -Powerful story.

    -VERY well written.

    -Would/should not be used as a Systematic Theology textbook (which, admittedly, took me a while to come to terms with).

    -Uncovered and assaulted religiosity I never knew I had.

    -Helped me remember that God is not nearly as stoic and distant as I often imagine He is.

    All in all I found The Shack to be surprisingly refreshing. After finishing it I remember feeling strongly that it was a really important book for me to have read at this stage of my walk with the Lord.

    I’m not surprised that it is as controversial as it is. What surprises me more is how many solid believers completely write off the book without even opening it and finding out for themselves…

  7. I find that people too easily use the words “pharisee” and “religious” to write off people’s opinions without considering them.

    I have thumbed through the book and was quite disturbed by the several passages I read.

    My reasons are simple. Many people, especially new believers, are not very discerning and do not differentiate very well between illustration and true biblical teaching. I am terribly sensitive to anything that could misinform/mislead a brother or sister in Christ, especially those weak in the faith.

    People, fallen as we are in our understanding as elsewhere, are often quick to seize upon error and embrace it as a correct presentation of reality.

    I have tried to refute the errors of enough people with weird ideas about God gleaned from snippets of songs, from bad sermons, from books sold in Christian bookstores, and TV preachers that I am particularly sensitive to anything with mass appeal, and their effects over the generations.

    Wrong ideas about God creates a diminished view of who God really is, and ultimately a weaker walk with God.

    Disagree with another person’s assessment if you like, but to outright dismiss it is to fail to learn from anything of value they may have to say.

  8. Wes,

    I’m not sure whose comments you are referring to, but I just want to indicate that I believe your concerns deserve a hearing and I have no desire to simply dismiss them.

    To be clear, in stating that the book uncovered hidden religiosity I was referring to my own hidden religiosity, not someone else’s. I would say that God can sometimes reach people’s hearts through an imperfect vessel and the Shack, though undoubtedly flawed, has functioned as a means of God’s grace in some lives – certainly mine. That’s why I loved it – not because it doesn’t have any apparent theological oddities, but because – in spite of them – God has used it in my life. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t also be a vehicle of confusion for some.

    I stand by my statement that it is a story – a parable – not a theological treatise. Like it or not, people will continue to write stories. I’ve learned that much of what I used to totally dismiss can have redemptive value when I allow the Holy Spirit to speak to me through it – always with the written Word, and Jesus Christ himself, as the ultimate points of reference.

  9. God, sovereignly and by His Spirit, CAN AND DOES use anyone or anything at His disposal, to suit His purposes.

    He’s used 3 missing donkeys to coronate a king, a slave trader and a famine to effect the salvation of a family of patriarchs, and 30 pieces of silver given as a bribe to a covetous betrayer to trigger a series of events that would result in the salvation of a doomed race.

    He has, even in His Word, cited “prophets of their own” for His purposes. This is not the same as giving “prophets of their own” a ringing endorsement in the wider sense.

    I personally received a divine nudge from reading Science-Fantasy fiction. It was decidedly non-Christian, and had pagan religious elements to it. Nevertheless, I was prompted to see in that character someone who was willing to walk in something like purity (by the book’s standards) and hold to the tenets of his belief even in the face of opposition.

    Even so, I would not recommend this book to anyone who I did not consider stable in their walk with God.

    The author points out that God the Father is strictly speaking neither male or female (I would add “biologically” to that sentence to make it more accurate) but I would set that against the verse where Jesus (Matt 12:50) says that whoever does the will of my FATHER in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.

    Masculinity of God the Father is relevant and central to Christ’s teaching, and set as different not only from brother/sister, but also from “Mother”.

    Words really do matter.

    It is my deep concern that this book parallels Israel’s departure from Egypt. They stopped while Moses went up Sinai, and had a little time to reflect on their deliverance. They recognized that it was God who brought them out. So they decided to worship Him. Small problem: they did it THEIR way, not His. They took their wealth and made a calf out of it.

    God did NOT react favourably to a ‘close enough’ try at representing God. He didn’t merely “straighten out wrong thinking” with a few kind and corrective words. They did not receive the encouragement that children taking their first faltering steps get from an approving parent.

    They were blaspheming, and He reacted very strongly to it.
    (Remember these people had spent 400 years with no teaching to speak of, and the Law was not yet given and STILL God was justified to react to this treason with tough judgment.) Refer: Acts 7:37-43

    We who have His Word, and yet dare to remake and repackage God in a “more appealing image”, what excuse will we offer when we “give account for every idle word”?

    I have a strong and visceral reaction to the Shack. I was grieved in my spirit for even the small portion I had read.

    [BTW: My earlier comments were relating to 6th paragraph, last sentence. It seemed you were equating objection to this book with Pharisee-ism.

    I’ve seen many in our circles attach that and/or the “religion” label — remember the dust-up on that earlier post of yours? — to criticism. If the person complaining can be discredited as a pharisee, you needn’t give their thoughts a fair hearing. If that’s not how you intended the phrase, I’ll retract that statement.]

  10. Wes,

    In the sixth paragraph of my original post, the reference to Pharisees was in the context of a discussion of how parables function. One could make the same observations about stories in general. They are not simple propositional truth statements, and neither is The Shack.

    One could infer that I am implying that anyone who objects to anything in The Shack is a Pharisee, but I didn’t say that. My point in writing the original post was not to promote The Shack, or to give comprehensive answers to all its detractors, but to give my personal response. No need to withdraw your comments however – it’s all part of the discussion, no harm done.

    You said that you wouldn’t recommend The Shack for anyone who was not stable in their walk with God. I did point out in my original post that I wouldn’t recommend the book as a discipling tool for a new Christian and that this is not how it was intended. It’s interesting that all the responses prior to yours were also from seasoned well-grounded Christians including some who are in church leadership.

    In regard to God’s “gender” it is unequivocally true that Jesus called God Father and not Mother. So does The Shack by the way (Papa is actually closer to the biblical “Abba” than our English word Father). I would distinguish between maleness and masculinity (small point – God can be masculine but not literally male), but also point out that in Genesis 1 it is clear that both male and female are made in God’s image so this implies that Father God is able to encompass attributes which we normally consider feminine (otherwise how could they be a reflection of His image). In support of this it is unmistakeably true that there are several places in Scripture where feminine imagery is used to describe aspects of God’s nature. That doesn’t mean God is female … and I didn’t understand The Shack to be saying otherwise.

    However such discussions overlook the point – already made above – that The Shack is fiction, not propositional theology. Some Christians object to the Narnia tales because C.S. Lewis included creatures from Greek mythology along with clearly Christian references. Other Christians think the Narnia tales are wonderful and find no fault in them. Who is right? Maybe it’s partly a matter of how we interpret the stories. Your strong visceral reaction does not prove that The Shack is blasphemous any more than my positive feelings prove that it is sound. I have found that the Holy Spirit does speak to me through feelings and “gut reactions” but they are not infallible. I do value your input, but in the end, we may have to agree that the suitability of The Shack as reading material for Christians is one of those “disputable matters” about which we don’t have to agree.

  11. I think no less of you for your disagreement. I simply differ from you on this issue, and it is quite natural to do so amicably.

    Strangely, fictions that do not purport to be explicitly Christian in context, but have equivalent issues (ie: science-fantasy fiction) are viewed by myself with a less jaded eye than those which are made for Christian consumption. But by now, my reasons for that are pretty obvious.


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