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.