What made The Shack — a self-published Christian novel by a first-time author, William P. Young, originally written for his children with no thought of a wider audience — so phenomenally popular for a few years about a decade ago?
Like many popular sensations, from Titanic to Twilight, from Dan Brown to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, The Shack is easy to rip apart if one has a mind to. It’s too didactic for drama, too literal for allegory, too artless for poetry, and too fuzzy for theology. The writing is folksy and florid; when Mack falls in his driveway, he doesn’t just get a bump on his head: The lump emerges “like a humpbacked whale breaching the wild waves of his thinning hair.”
Although an enthusiastic cover blurb from Eugene Peterson compares The Shack to Pilgrim’s Progress, generically and thematically it’s somewhat closer to C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Lewis’ brilliant book, however, focuses on familiar foibles of human nature; Young attempts a portrait of sorts of the divine nature.
The Shack is essentially an imaginative exploration of theodicy, of the problem of evil, experienced not in the abstract, but as an existential crisis of faith. More broadly, it could be called a response to disappointment with God and disillusionment with religion.
Its reassuring message is that, in spite of all the suffering and evil in the world, God really is good, all-powerful and loves us very much. Exactly how that works is a mystery we can’t fully understand; we must ultimately trust in God’s goodness, even in the face of suffering and evil and despite our limited understanding. Ignorance and pain tempt us to sit in judgment of God, not to mention our neighbor, but this is a mistake: We don’t know enough to judge our neighbor — even the neighbor who greatly sins against us — let alone God.
Going a bit further into theodicy, The Shack adds that evil and suffering are connected to human freedom, and that while God does not cause evil, he is always with us in our sufferings and always works to bring good out of evil. In the end, if we trust him, all will be well.
These are all creditable themes, though execution is a separate question. One can also question The Shack’s depiction of God: The Holy Trinity is represented as a sort of family whom the protagonist usually perceives as a warmly maternal black woman, Jesus in his humanity, and an ethereal Asian woman. Of course one can question any depiction of God, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling to Aslan, so what have we really said?
The Shack doesn’t say God is actually like this; it says that this is how God chose to manifest himself to one particular person: one Mackenzie “Mack” Philips, played in the film by Sam Worthington (Hacksaw Ridge; Avatar). Well, who can say God wouldn’t choose to appear this way to someone? No imaginative interpretation of God is more than a half-truth, if that.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.