Book Review: The Shack by William P. Young

UPDATE:  Here is an interview of The Shack‘s author William P. Young on the Steve Brown Etc. podcast.

UPDATE:  Ben Witherington has written a review of The Shack.  Witherington gets that The Shack is a work of fiction and not a personal confession of faith or doctrinal statement, yet recognizes that there are some parts of it that require theological tweaking.

UPDATE:  Here is Douglas Wilson’s review of The Shack.  Wilson argues that the main problem in the world is fatherlessness, and that Young recognizes this but his way of attempting to speak to the pain of fatherlessness is problematic.

The Shack is a book that has very quietly grown to become one of the hottest bestsellers in the country.  This is amazing, because there has been no advertising, publicity, or any attempt by any major publisher to promote it, but everywhere you look people are reading it or talking about it.  Here is what Michael Spencer has to say about it.

Not all of the attention that this book has been getting is good.  Tim Challies has some not-so-flattering things to say about it.  And here is a link to a Mark Driscoll sermon clip in which he bashes the hell out of it.

The Shack is a story about a man named Mackenzie Allen Phillips, known to all who are close to him as Mack.  He and his family live on the outskirts of Portland.  One year, during Labor Day weekend, he and his family go camping in northeast Oregon.  On the last day of their trip, the youngest daughter is abducted.  The trail of evidence leads eventually to an abandoned shack out in the middle of nowhere, where all the evidence indicates that she was brutally murdered by a notorious serial killer.  Almost four years later, Mack receives a mysterious letter claiming to be from God and inviting him back for a weekend at the very same shack which was the epicenter of all the tragedy and suffering surrounding his daughter’s disappearance.  Against his better judgment (and the better judgment of his best friend), Mack goes to the shack at the appointed time.  What he finds there…well, you’ll just have to read the book yourself to find out.

Okay, I’ll tell you.  Because this book is not about the story, it’s about what happens to Mack inside the shack.  God appears to Mack there, in the form of a matronly African-American woman named “Papa” who represents God the Father, a Middle Eastern man named Jesus, and a smallish Asian woman named Sarayu who represents the Holy Spirit.  Over the course of the weekend, Mack goes through a series of conversations and experiences with the persons who represent the three members of the Trinity.  These conversations and experiences cover a wide range of issues that believers down through the centuries have wrestled with, issues such as forgiveness, free will, judgment, why God allows evil in the world, and learning to trust God even in the midst of unspeakable suffering.

Some of the more theologically astute among you will no doubt recognize that there are some places where Young plays fast and loose with Christian doctrine.  But remember, this is a work of fiction, not a systematic theology textbook or a personal confession of faith or a denominational doctrine statement.

Some of you may object to God the Father being represented as an African-American woman, or the Holy Spirit being represented as a small Asian woman.  The point is not to assert that God is a woman or that we should worship Him as such; the point is to attempt to shock us out of whatever preconceived notions of God we may have.  If you don’t like the way Young has chosen to represent God in this story, that’s okay.  But what is your conception of God?  Is it working for you?  Okay then.

I will admit, I was not particularly crazy about the way God appears in the scene where Mack first meets “Papa”, Jesus, and Sarayu in the shack.  There were quite a few places where the banter between them got to be quite corny.  But on the whole, this book painted a picture of God that I desperately want to believe is true.

Some of you will probably object to the portrayal of God in this book, because there is such a strong emphasis on grace and mercy and little to no mention of God’s judgment against sinful humanity.  But don’t you think that if one has to err, it is better to err on the side of grace?

Some people believe that hell is such a dreadful place and the danger of winding up there is so real, that we should take no chances with portraying God as more gracious than He actually is, in case anyone should be deceived by this false God and wind up in hell as a result.  Because of this, we in evangelical Protestant-dom have done a wonderful job of emphasizing God’s judgment towards sinners.  But at what cost in terms of the conceptions that people have of God?  How much damage have we done in the lives of people who believe that God is some vengeful deity who takes pleasure in sending people to hell?

One of the most striking examples of this that I know of is the Scottish theologian A. W. Pink, who here argues that when Jesus said “For God so loved the world…” in John 3:16, he did not mean the whole world but only those few whom God had chosen in advance to save, and therefore there are some people–a lot of people–whom Christ did not die for.

For me, one of the most moving parts of this book was the chapter where Mack has to take the place of God and decide which three of his children he will send to hell.  Mack cannot do this, and in the end he begs to be allowed to go himself in their place.

In the final analysis, when you approach this book be sure that you are careful to recognize it for what it is.  It is not a work of systematic theology, it is a work of fiction.  It is intended to shock you out of conceptions of God that you may have accepted without question.  If you don’t like the conception of God that Young presents, you are free to drop it and find one which is more helpful for you.  What I think we can all take away from The Shack is the picture of a gracious God who meets us at our point of need.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Shack by William P. Young

  1. Nice review, I’ve just started reading the book and hope that it gets better more interesting than the first chapter.

  2. I just finished reading The Shack and I have to say that it is a great novel. Some of the concepts were a little hard to wrap my brain around and many of them jarred my preconceived notions about God and the nature of the Trinity. On the whole I highly recommend this novel both for those that are already walking with Christ and for those that have yet to know Him.

  3. I was totally amazed by this book, The Shack. I enjoyed each and every moment of it. It caused me to think really hard about just how God can be anything or any being God chooses to be at anytime. My heart ached at what this family had to endure, but the picture painted by this story will forever be implanted into my mind. It is one of simplicity of Gods total order of life for us, why should it matter if God is African, or whatever, God is God….If God can reach others by being something other than what we have all preceived in our minds, then why cant it be…the main thing is that we believe, it doesnt matter how God brings us to it, he will always bring us through it. I sincerely hope that this book will be made into a movie, because I think a lot of non believers could relate to the reality of God in this manner.

  4. You will either love or hate The Shack.
    This book needs to be seen as a parable – A story that can reveal ideas and truths, not a statement of facts. Paul is not suggesting that God the Father, for example, is literally an elderly Negro woman or any such thing. Rather he used unusual character types to help break the straight-jacket that our theology is sometimes encased in. The Pharisees of Jesus day were offended by His parables in the same way – Parables designed to shake up and dislodge the crusted-on misconceptions of the Father and His Kingdom.
    My reading group has recently paired this book with Forgiving Ararat by Gita Nazareth and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, in raising religious discussion and I find it most thought-provoking.

  5. I have to say that “The Shack” by William P. Young was a very thought provoking read.

    After reading the book, I was left pondering several things about it – which is a true testament to the book’s worth. I had several questions on the validity of some of the descriptions of God but I had to humbly admit that there may be no answers this side of heaven for how God presents Himself to each individual.

    I posted a more in-depth review of this book on my own blog http://www.tracysbooknook.com.

    -Tracy

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