Review: The Shack

Written for himself and his own family, The Shack is William Young’s fictional exploration his own suffering, how institutional Christianity failed him, how he responded to his pain and how his faith has now grown through it. It is not brilliantly written but has clearly struck a chord with many, becoming a publishing sensation. Without giving the story away any more than the back cover does, The Shack is the story of a man stricken by grief who spends a weekend in a shack with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And They are not quite as you would imagine: an African-American woman, a Jewish labourer, and shimmering Asian woman. This, of course, has led to mixed reviews.

Some people have said that the characterisation of God in The Shack has shown them how God as Trinity ‘works’. It may give insights but it doesn’t contain definitive answers. It’s not simply that we don’t fully understand the Trinity, it’s that we can’t. Where this novel is helpful is in showing that God has fun and God is fun; that God cares deeply for us; that holy means special, not strict and that we shouldn’t set parameters for God but accept what He reveals to us of Himself.

But the unorthodox representation of God is a major stumbling block. As this review says, The Shack is a story rather than a theological treatise but for me, representing God the Father in the manner Young does is a step too far. Christians have often grappled creatively with how to express their understanding of the God of the Bible: C.S. Lewis did so by creating the character Aslan. But Young’s purpose is to re-educate us to understand that we can have a relationship with God Himself, so a metaphor like Aslan can’t work for him. The thing is, we do have an image that tells us all we need to know about God the Father. He is God the Son. He told His first followers: “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father”. In rejecting the head-only religion he found so insubstantial, Young doesn’t want to show us information about God, he wants to show us God. Well, Jesus has done that, so why not have just Jesus in the shack?

These theological concerns, though vitally important, are not what most who read the book and enjoy it will concern themselves with. People are looking for answers to pain and what sets The Shack apart from most Christian books on this emotive subject is that it tries to address them through a work of fiction rather than a simple non-fiction ‘question and answer’ essay on ‘cold’ doctrine. Adrian Holloway takes a similar approach in his novel, Aftershock (although actually both these novels simply create dramatic set-pieces that deal with doctrinal issues in turn). For the enquiring reader, The Reason For God by Timothy Keller would seem to be a more standard Q&A; Mark Driscoll’s Death By Love (promotional video below) could be an intertwining of both.

The success of The Shack highlights how effective a means of communication story-telling still is and is a challenge for those of us who love good doctrine to express it accurately and dynamically.