First, a confession: I don’t read much fiction. That’s not to say I don’t read for pleasure, but what I read for pleasure, generally, is not fiction (unless you count the unmistakable “April Fool!” article that appears in the fourth-month edition of Model Railroader each year). No, except for the occasional indulgence I afford myself through the creative work of the late Robertson Davies, I mostly read stuff that’s going to help me in my work or help me in my hobby.
My wife read The Shack on the recommendation of one of our bookstore staff at the Canadian Bible Society; both are voracious readers and stellar bibliophiles in their own right. When these two women tell me to read something, I usually give it serious consideration. Then, one night while watching the ‘desk bit’ on The Tonight Show, Jay Leno made mention of The Shack. He wasn’t reviewing it or promoting it, he was merely using it as a jumping-off point for his shtick. But in a strange way, that simple, backhanded compliment to a piece of Christian fiction was enough to strengthen my resolve to put it nearer the top of the reading pile.
I had the luxury of spending some concentrated reading time in the past few days, and, through my residual tears, feel compelled to write my review of The Shack herewith. The reader’s comments are solicited, and the reader is hereby implored – nay, begged – to get a copy and read it. Today.
Is that enough of an endorsement for you?
The Shack chronicles the story of Mack, a husband and father whose life experiences leave him somewhat cynical and fairly confident in his functional atheism that masks as ritualistic religiosity. However, through a note left in his mailbox one icy Oregon spring day, Mack is led on a journey that takes him not only deep into the forest, but even deeper into his scarred soul.
The Shack will have its share of critics, not all of whom will remember that this is, first of all, a work of fiction. Some will bristle at the introduction of an image of God as a large, African-American woman. But it is a work of fiction. Some will react to the idea of the Holy Spirit as a wispy Asian woman. But it is a work of fiction. Jesus, on the other hand, shows up largely as one would expect: a Jewish male carpenter.
This is logical, of course, and even the fictitious work gets a thoroughly non-fiction explanation of this imagery.
Where the fiction ends and the non-fiction begins, of course, comes in the fact that this volume, at fewer than 250 pages, engages the reader theologically, not least in a systematic theology that would make John Calvin or Charles Hodge proud, and a treatise of the Trinity that would impress Miroslav Volf or Jurgen Moltmann. What’s more, with great respect to these excellent writers, William P. Young, the previously unknown (to me) author of The Shack, has made systematic theology and the Trinity entirely accessible to all people.
Rather than give away the plot of the book, permit me to cite two quotations that struck me especially (though there are many more quotable quotes within this book). The first touches on theodicy: “…just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies” (God speaking, page 185). Many people wonder where God is in the midst of unspeakable difficulty; this defence clarifies it, in my opinion, exceptionally well.
The second quotation touches at the heart of God’s desire to see us move from being religious people to being people in deep relationships with each other and with God. The Holy Spirit says, “…I don’t want to be first among a list of values; I want to be at the center of everything. When I live in you, then together we can live through everything that happens to you” (page 207).
Ultimately, the goal of this book is to draw the reader into an ever-deepening relationship with God – a relationship modelled on the inter-relationship of the Trinity itself.
True, as my friend John G. Stackhouse, Jr. points out in his review of The Shack, the book paints an unfortunately grim picture of both the institutional church and of theological education – and these are not the only areas touched on in the book that deserve, at least, proper qualification. But there is much in this book (as John also points out) that is truly awe-inspiring in its ability to point the reader in the right direction when it comes to understanding God.
In short, you should read this book, whoever you are. And if you have a friend or loved one who struggles with the prickly issue of forgiveness, buy a copy and give it to that person. Bathe it in prayer, and you may find that he or she comes out, 248 pages later, a different person.
I know I did.