Monday, April 14, 2008

Book Review: The Shack

Having heard from multiple Northwest friends to check out this book, I have recently read The Shack, by William P. Young (check out the book website here). The book itself is a new kind of genre: theological fiction. It is a narrative that also teaches theology--in this case, the concept of the Trinity. Eugene Peterson compares the book to a "modern-day Pilgrim's Progress"--the Christian classic by John Bunyan. With such a lofty endorsement, I read the book with fairly high expectations.

The story in the book follows Mackenzie "Mack" Philips as he wrestles with a tragic situation the story labels as The Great Sadness. (Don't get me started on the silliness of "Mack" and "shack" rhyming). This inner wrestling--and a timely note from God--ultimately leads Mack to a shack in the Oregon wilderness, where he spends a weekend in conversation with the Trinity. Yes, the Trinity. God the Father is a heavyset African-American woman nicknamed "Papa"; Jesus is a muscular Middle-Eastern carpenter; and the Holy Spirit is a young Asian woman named Sarayu who seems to be constantly moving and shimmering. Mack talks with God, laughs with God, and deals with some of his deep emotional issues and hurts. Along the way, Mack is transformed by his encounter with God.

While I'm not a qualified critic, I found the quality of writing in the novel to be the literary equivalent of a Christian made-for-TV movie--emotional and simple, but fairly shallow and somewhat awkward. As far as stories go, it has a rather mediocre beginning and ending. The bulk of the book is driven by conversations between Mack and members of the Trinity--there is very little action. It is also heavily driven by emotions--there is a lot of crying, hugging, kissing, outbursts, and then more crying. While this isn't necessarily bad, the impact of emotions can be lost when the audience is given an emotional overdose.

That being said, I don't believe the point of the novel to be great story-telling. The point seems to be teaching the reader about the Triune nature of God, with bits and pieces of other theological concepts thrown in. I must admit, I have mixed feelings about the teachings of the book. It is a fairly presumptuous task to begin writing dialogue for the Creator. There are points in the book where I really wrestled with the validity of the teaching, whether or not this was really what God is like. Young seems to teach some borderline heresy at times, notably the person of Jesus and the cross. God also seems to dance around the issues that Mack is going through, at times almost teasing him as he wrestles with deep emotional pains. At other times, God seems extremely warm and fuzzy, giving lots of hugs and kisses and words of encouragement.

The strongest aspect of the book is its portrayal of God as a Triune relationship. It can be very difficult to picture God as three persons, yet also one God. This book gives a fairly solid picture of God as Love, God as Relationship, God as Eternal Community. Relationship comes up over and over again throughout the story as God challenges Mack's notions about religion and preconceptions. God continually brings up relationship and love as the driving force behind everything God does. Reading about the Trinity sitting around a meal, laughing together, making dinner together, etc. gave me a new picture of who God is.

Overall, the strength of the book lies in its ability to challenge preconceived notions of who God is and how He operates in our lives. I have a new perspective on the Trinity and a lot to think about. While I would not recommend the book to someone looking for a well-written story or someone brand new to the concept of the Trinity, I think I would highly recommend it to someone who thinks they've heard everything about God and need a new picture of who He is (like a recent seminary graduate or an aging pastor). I also personally liked recognizing familiar Oregon locations, like Portland, Joseph, and Multnomah Falls. It's a simple and thought-provoking book. Not quite Pilgrim's Progress, but worthwhile.

For other good reviews of The Shack, click here and here.


  1. Joel,

    How does the portrayal of God the Father as an African-American woman, help you better understand the Trinity? God is not a man, He's a spirit. And if God the Father is really God the Mother, doesn't that change things a bit?

    I haven't read the book, but it sounds like it's leaving the truth of Scripture behind.

    I also read another review that suggested the book teaches modalism and denies the hierarchy among the Trinity.

    From what I've heard, even from people who like the book, this book would not get my endorsement.

  2. Brance-

    Good questions. To quote God from the The Shack: "I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or woman, it's because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me 'Papa' is simply to mix metaphors, to help you from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning."

    The book never calls God "mother," though God does appear as both a man and a woman. It does come dangerously close to modalism, and does openly deny hierarchy in the Trinity, though not without some interesting reasoning. I'm not sure that I agree with Young's theology in the story, but it definitely requires critical thinking skills.

    I would suggest reading the book with open and evaluative eyes, asking tough questions along the way, and wrestling with some of your own perceptions of God, especially before rejecting it outright.

  3. gwen and i havent read the book yet but we both appreciate your thoughtful review...(on this and on other books and movies) dont downplay your critique... you are a skilled communicator... although we may not agree with everything you write... we know you are careful, thoughtful and genuine...

    much appreciated...


  4. Mark-

    You don't agree with absolutely EVERYTHING I say?!

    Glad you enjoyed reading our thoughts and ramblings. My wife is hopefully going to read The Shack soon, and I look forward to our conversations that stem from it.

  5. Joel,
    I recently read the shack and I loved it. The one thing I have told anyone I have recommended it to is that you have to remember that it is a fictional book. I liked the fact that it challenged my thinking. If you forget the bible while reading you may be confused but it's good to have our thoughts on religion challenged every once in a while. Also, as a parent of a six year old daughter who's favorite color happens to be red, it really struck a cord with me. We had just taken a vacation to Wallowa Lake this summer so it was all very familiar. It made me really think about how I would react if something like that were to happen to me. The biggest lesson I guess I took away is that God can forgive the unforgivable and he wants us to be in that place as well, could I be? I am not always sure. Anyway, appreciate your thoughts.
    Miss you guys, Summer.

  6. Summer-
    I imagine reading a book like The Shack is very different once you have young children of your own. I definitely read it through the lens of "youth pastor/theologian." So I really appreciate your insights about forgiveness and asking, "could I still trust God if something like that happened to one of my kids?" Thank you!