Thursday, October 02, 2008

Book Review: The Shack

The Shack by William P Young is now an international bestseller, I doubt other than Bibles as a whole, has any book sold so much in the UK since The Purpose Driven Life. If you're a pastor or group leader you need to read this book because it is one of those books that someone in your group has either already read or is likely to read soon. Millions sold worldwide and probably over 100,000 in the UK. You can buy it in Waterstones, WH Smiths and Tesco as well as your Christian Bookshop of course.

It was featured recently in Christianity, and as with almost any popular Christian book it is also controversial and is already dividing opinion. Driscoll thinks it contains heresy, Mohler calls it 'deeply troubling' while Eugene Peterson thinks it is Pilgrim's Progress for the 21st Century. Couldn't be further apart could they?

The Shack is the fictional story of Mack's journey to be reconciled to God after his youngest daughter, Missy, was kidnapped and murdered during a family holiday. Four years later Mack receives a suspicious note, ostensibly from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend.
What then takes place in the shack is Mack's encounter with the Trinity that help him wrestle with the question, “Where is God in a world of unspeakable pain?”

So what did I make of it? Well, firstly while it is fiction it is also a deeply theological book. Answers to deep questions are asked and answered here, deep truths of the Christian faith are given expression - the cross, the trinity, love, the problem of pain, forgiveness, relationships, law and grace, the character of God, hope, heaven, judgement all find their way into this book. As a result, as with any book, discernment is required.

Secondly, it's not as bad as I feared but it's not great literature either. If you've ever seen the film The Matrix, you can't help but hear the Oracle in the character of Papa (God the Father in the form of a wise, cheery black woman who loves baking) and various other writing cliches and borrowed ideas turn up here and there. But I enjoyed reading it, the story does have decent pacing and it's not hard to read, and in places it is genuinely moving, so the pages keep turning.

So, what of the content? There are two main issues here for me, what truth or falsehood about God lies within and how well does it answer its central theme - how can a loving God allow such pain to take place? On the first question, I'm not sure I agree with everything it says. If you're reformed theologically you'll not like what it says about salvation for it suggests that God has forgiven everybody. However it steers away from universalism by pointing out that despite this not everyone has chosen God (p192).

It's a bit thin when it comes to the cross and I think gets reconciliation backwards - in The Shack God reconciles himself to the world, whereas Eph 2:16 and Col 1:20 suggest that it is us who need reconciling to God, we are the ones who have strayed.

Perhaps the most obvious point of contention is the portayal of God, Jesus is straight forward enough - a youngish Jewish man, but the Holy Spirit is portayed as a small woman of asian descent with a love for gardening and God the Father mostly appears as the matronly black woman, although near the end he is a hippie old man. I'm not too worried by this, because the book makes it clear that God is appearing to Mack in the way that will best help him deal with his not inconsiderable burdens and anger at God. I don't think the author says, this is what God is like. Getting stuck here, would miss much of what the Shack is about. Any attempt to describe the Trinity is fraught with danger, it is very easy to mis-step and on occasion I think that happens here, but on the whole, Young makes a good effort at showing the central relationship that lies at the heart of the Trinity, that God is indeed love.

So what of it's central issue - God and the problem of pain? On the whole, I would say it's not bad at all. It deals with anger at God and judging of God and others, it deals with self-guilt, it deals with the desire for revenge and forgiving and forgetting (albeit a bit too briefly), it encourages people to discover that even in the midst of great tragedy God is still good and God is still love, that forgiveness at heart is a decision to trust God. Anything other would have fallen short of biblical truth. I think it is quite effective in this.

It's not perfect, it doesn't deal with everything with the thoroughness it deserves and the medium of a novel means no references, footnotes or further reflection, however if one takes this and discusses it's themes in the light of scripture, not the other way round then I think it's worth reading.

Tim Challies is more critical sees deeper errors in his review and has offers a longer version for download as a pdf here. Dave Bish here links to a number of other reviews including a hilarious digested account from the Guardian and one from Mark Meynell which is more positive than Challies and in my opinion closer to getting the book right. Max Turner of LST reviews it here and the EA review here.


planty on 3 October 2008 at 12:31 said...

I was thinking of reading it after seeing a review in "The Spectator" magazine, but as I'd read it on my commute I would like to know how it reads plainly as a novel.

So regardless of the theology, did you enjoy it as a novel?

Phil on 3 October 2008 at 13:08 said...

A qualified yes, to it as a novel. The first half of the book is pretty much pure novel and mostly the story goes well, it's not dull. The second half is much more focused on the dialogue but it's still not dull, with just enough story to keep the whole thing going. At about 250 pages I think it would go well as a commute read.

bdavidson on 21 October 2008 at 18:56 said...

I thought you might be interested in asking William Paul Young some questions you might have. He will be chatting live on tomorrow (10/22) from 2-3 pm EDT. You can log in at

Brittany on 27 October 2010 at 04:29 said...

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


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