The first thing I want to say is that this book is dangerous. Dangerous, most especially, for someone who has recently become a Christian, or whose faith might be weak. I would never recommend this to anyone unless I felt that their biblical knowledge was strong and their faith mature.
After hearing so much about this book over the past few years, and then the movie arriving earlier this year, I decided to read the book to determine what I think of it. I read it with as much of an open mind as I could, having seen opinions all over the place. So here’s what I think.
The first third of the book is a pretty good thriller story, as Mack and his family suffer a tragic loss while on a camping trip. His daughter is taken by a serial killer. Previous abductions by the same perp have never been found. All are assumed dead. The period of time following the loss is called The Great Sadness.
The story begins with Mack going to his mailbox during an ice storm. All he finds is an envelope with only his first name on it. No stamp. No postmark. No return address. Inside is a slip of paper with the following note: “Mackenzie, It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. ~ Papa.”
It is only after the discovery of the note that we get the story of what happened with his daughter. “Papa” is his wife’s name for God. The only evidence of his daughter that was found was her dress on the floor of a run-down shack in the middle of the forest where they were camping.
At first, Mack is angry, thinking that the note is a joke. Then he decides that he’s going to travel to that shack. He borrows a jeep from his friend “Willie” (we are supposed to believe that this is the author of the story) and, not telling his wife, drives to the “scene of the crime.”
What happens next is where most people begin to struggle with the story. Mack encounters the Trinity at this shack. Things are said about God throughout this entire scene, which, allegedly was all a sort of “dream/vision” while Mack was passed out on the floor of the shack. I made quite a few marks in the book from this point on.
The first thing I would say is that we must remember that this is fiction. Even though there is a foreword and afterword, in which the author tries to deceive us into thinking that he really met Mack and this is a real story, it is pure fiction. We should never try to build theology from fiction. Not even Narnia-type fiction. It is analogy for what is the author’s belief.
As the dream portion begins, the chapter titles get super-cheesy. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” “A Piece of (symbol for Pi).” “God On the Dock” (“God In the Dock” is a book of essays by C.S. Lewis). “A Breakfast of Champions.” “A Long Time Ago, In A Garden Far, Far Away.” I mean, c’mon! Enough already! “Here Come Da Judge.”
As I began marking places, the first place dealt with creation and Eden. Oh. I almost forgot. “Papa” presents as a matronly black woman. Personally, I had no issue with that, but I’m sure a lot of people went ballistic over it. Anyway, regarding the “Fall,” Papa said, “But then Adam chose to go it on his own, as we knew he would, and everything got messed up. But instead of scrapping the whole creation, we rolled up our sleeves and entered into the middle of the mess–that’s what we have done in Jesus.” In my mind, this kind of puts forth the idea (as Watchman Nee also does) that Jesus was “plan B.”
On the same page, Papa tells Mack that Jesus “has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything.” Further, when Jesus healed the blind, “He did so as a dependent, limited human being trusting in my life and power to be at work within him and through him. Jesus, as a human being, had no power within himself to heal anyone.” I can’t agree with this at all. I believe that Jesus had all the power within him while he walked the earth. How else could a woman have been healed just by touching the hem of his garment, without him knowing about it?
On page 105, is that idea that makes me cringe every time I hear it. You know the one. Jesus would have died even if you were the only one.
There are some good things in the book, even if they still fall a little short of the mark. I did enjoy the depicted relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They enjoyed each other’s company immensely, and there was perfect, untainted love between them. I have believed, for a number of years, now, that this relationship between the members of the Holy Trinity is what fuels our relationships with each other. Or at least, it should be. The Spirit, depicted as an elderly Asian woman, says, “Relationships are never about power.” This is truth. Our relationships should never be about holding power over one another. At one point, Mack’s reaction to the Trinitarian relationship is this: “He had never seen three people share with such simplicity and beauty. Each seemed totally aware of the others rather than of himself.” I like that.
At one point, Papa says, “We created you, the human, to be in face-to-face relationship with us, to join our circle of love.” And then the Spirit says, “Broken humans center their lives around things that seem good to them but will neither fill them nor free them.” Again. Good truth, here. “They are addicted to power, or the illusion of security that power offers.”
The chapter about judging, where Mack encounters the embodiment of Wisdom, is tough. There are some good things said regarding our propensity to judge others, as Mack is told to sit in the judge chair and judge God and everyone else. He hesitates, saying that he doesn’t have any ability to judge. Wisdom counters with, “Oh, that is not true. You have already proven yourself very capable, even in our short time together. And besides, you have judged many throughout your life. You have judged the actions and even the motivations of others, as if you somehow knew what those were in truth. You have judged the color of skin and body language and body odor. You have judged history and relationships. You have even judged the value of a person’s life by the quality of your concept of beauty. By all accounts, you are quite well practiced in the activity.”
And then, “Judging requires that you think yourself superior over the one you judge.”
However, then, the author makes the mistake of trying to tackle God’s thoughts on predestination. He falls far short of understanding God (who among us can, right?) and assigns purely human emotions to the concept of election. A pastor that I know said this, “When we tinker with anthropomorphizing God we diminish His true glory.” I’m not sure “anthropomorphizing” is a real word, but you get the drift. At some point, it is necessary to use anthropomorphism to help us understand God. But when it comes to something as tricky as eternal election, we dare not. At some point, we simply have to accept what Scripture tells us and not deal with it emotionally. Mr. Young has failed miserably at this point.
At the end of chapter 12 is probably the biggest thing that most people have issue with, and I have to question it, myself, as it is not quite clear what Young is trying to say. At first, it seems to say that all roads lead to God, but then he even refutes that statement. But it insinuates that all religions love Jesus equally, or at least that people from all religions love Jesus. We have to be clear, though, that Jesus, himself, said that he was the only way to God. Young never exactly speaks against that truth, but what he does write is very vague.
There are some emotional moments. But I believe that I failed to feel the emotion that I think I was supposed to feel when Mack had an opportunity to reconcile with his dead father (whom, if I read the first part of the book correctly, he murdered and was never called to account for that?). To me, the climax of the entire story is when, in a conversation with Jesus, Mack is forced to come to grips with the thought that he must forgive the killer of his daughter. In this case, I think Young did very well.
So there you have it. I could write a lot more, but that’s a good summary. Again, I believe this is a dangerous book. I came away with some food for thought about the Trinitarian relationship. I was also forced to look at my own propensity to judge unfairly, a problem that I deal with on a regular basis.
To finish up, I want to add some words that my pastor gave me, regarding how he felt about the book. “I thought in trying to deal with the ‘problem of evil’ it did a mediocre job. The relationship of the Trinity was fun and at times insightful. The depiction of the Trinity doesn’t quite do Trinitarianism justice. But it was an enjoyable and emotional read. I think the controversy over [it] is largely based on interviews the author did where he essentially claimed those were based on a ‘conversation’ with God. The author saw it as ‘more’ than a fictional story, and large numbers of readers seem to also [be] getting more theology from The Shack than Scripture and Creeds. But to me, that’s more their fault than the book’s fault.
“I agree that it’s dangerous for people who aren’t already firm in their faith and theologically trained enough to discern the heretical aspects of it. But if you can do that, it is an enjoyable book and the emotional wrestling with a very real philosophical problem that we all go through can be helpful taken with the proverbial grain of salt. I don’t recommend the book unless I’m sure the person can handle it well.”