The Shack: A Novel

Young, William Paul (with Jacobs, Wayne & Cummings, Brad)
Hodder & Stoughton (2008)
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The proverb says that you can tell a lot about people according to the company they keep. I have often wondered whether the same thing is true of the books they like. Perhaps not in the normal run of the novels and biographies which make up the staple diet of the person who reads better to understand the human condition rather than to escape from it but, then, The Shack is not supposed to be an ordinary novel; it has been supposed by very many people to be very special. The epigraphia bears witness to changed lives. I suppose that even the greatest novels rarely do more than give us an addition to our toolkit but much more is claimed for this book.

To begin with, this is not a very well-written book. The earthly characters are barely more than two-dimensional and would fit nicely into the animated cartoon genre. Like almost all American novels, with the exception of Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James, the narrative is linear, like the roads its vehicles travel, with a strong hint of nature worship. It lacks the density of European writing on architecture, food and wine, manners, history, other writing and, yes, religion which is precisely the kind of richness that a book on religion really needs.

So let us put all my literary quibbles to one side and concentrate on the life-changing. Mack is an averagely faithful 'Evangelical' Christian. His six-year-old daughter is abducted by a child killer and he never recovers. Then he receives a note from "Papa", the family name for God, asking him to return to the shack where the girl's clothes and blood were found. When he reaches the shack he either dreams or lives a weekend with The Blessed Trinity: God is a black woman; Jesus is a jolly craftsman; and the Holy Spirit is a wafty Asian sort of woman. In the course of the weekend Mack discovers that:

  1. The Creator God is genderless, not an old bloke with a long, white beard.
  2. God is love and not judgment.
  3. Jesus is the perfect human being, more rather than less human than us.
  4. Life is pure gift; we are entitled to nothing.
  5. Theodicy is a mystery.
  6. God abandons nobody.
  7. Love means forgiveness of people, including child abductors.
  8. Evil is turning away from God.
  9. We were born to love out of choice and that involves human imperfection and wrong choices; but
  10. God is always with us.

You can see from the order of these propositions how the story goes. Mack has to come to terms with God's equal love for him, his abducted daughter and the abductor; and, while anger is a proper reaction and forgetting is not an option, he must learn to forgive.

So, returning to my point about the company we keep and the books we read. I only know one person whose life might be changed by this book. For your average member of the Church of England, this isn't a very big theological firework. We know all this stuff, almost without thinking about it although, of course, we readily slip into anthropomorphising God in all kinds of ways and we often, too, slip into a variety of idolatries which include ourselves and our achievements, money and power. But if this book helps Evangelicals to de-anthropomorphise God, that's all to the good. Personally, I can't think of the last time I read a book which told me less about God.