“The Shack” relates the story of Mackenzie, a middle-aged husband and father, in the midst of his “great sadness,” a tragedy which has befallen his family. Mack receives a mysterious note from God inviting him to a weekend with Him in the shack where the tragedy occurred. During this weekend, Mack learns forgiveness, experiences healing, and knows a relationship with God that cold religion cannot deliver.
In “The Shack”, first time and amateur author Paul Young delivers a moving and poignant fiction which has received many accolades and endorsements. Written in 1995 as a story for Young’s children and a few friends, buzz and interest in “The Shack” has since grown through word of mouth and grass-roots marketing by a phenomenal and unprecedented rate, having sold more than 7 million copies in English, and being translated in many other languages.
As well as the multitude of praise, controversy in Christian circles over this book also buzzes noisily, with concerns having been voiced by wise and respected leaders such as Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, and Chuck Colson about the treatment of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, importance of local church bodies, and depiction and personification of God. This last point has been the most serious charge, even provoking some to decry the book as heretical. This depiction in the book shows the Trinity appearing to Mack as a matronly black woman (God), a middle-eastern man (Jesus), and an Asian woman (Holy Spirit), and the concern is about whether or not man is free to remake God into forms with which he may more easily relate.
For me, “The Shack” is a book about paradigm-bursting and box-shattering, about replacing religion with relationship. While I don’t take lightly the discernment and wisdom of mentors and respected theologians, it is clear in the book that Young is not saying that God *is* a black woman, or anything but spirit, and so I think that cries of heresy go a little too far. On page 93, Papa (God) says, “Mackenzie, I am neither Male nor female, even though both gender are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a 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 keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning.” …”to reveal myself to you as a very large, white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf, would simple reinforce your religious stereotypes, and this weekend is not about reinforcing your religions stereotypes.” Because Mack in the book has troubles relating to his father, God appears to him in a form to which he can relate. This is the heart and virtue of the book for some, including me (although I have a great relationship and image of my dad), while being the stumbling block for others.
From the time I began to learn to think for myself, as I matured into an adult, depression also grew stronger and more serious in my psyche. I did not know where this came from for a long time. Currently, I recognize the depression as being a manifestation of a inner tension between faith and reason. As I grew up in a culture of Christianity, I inferred, even though I can’t remember ever receiving overtly or implied, that faith and reason were opposed, that God disapproved of doubt and application of reason to issues of religion, and that faith could not withstand an assault of logic: basically that Christianity (and all other religions as far as I could tell) was a religion based on blind faith. With study and guidance I came to realize, within the last several years, that my background assumptions about faith and reason were wrong, and that rather than being opposed, Christianity and reason were complimentary to one another.
However, although this brought me to a point of intellectual acknowledgement of God, I still lacked a real relationship with God, instead more aware of rules and institutions of religion. I tried to fit myself within these institutions and rules and found I was becoming legalistic and works-centered, but really had no good understanding of what a living relationship with God looked like and operated on a day-to-day basis. Seeing the depiction of God interacting with Mack in an admittedly unusual but very caring and relational way was inspiring and moving for me.
In the end, I believe the value of this book is in its attempt to break down religious stereotypes of God and give a new perspective and expectancy of what relationship might be like. This book should not be taken as a comprehensive theological text, but, even though it is fiction, it does purport to shed light on the nature of God, interpreted by the author and publishers, and presents it as truth. Therefore the reader should be aware of the concerns as he or she reads it; if they are kept in mind, “The Shack” can be a very inspiring book that glorifies God and motivates the reader to become more intimate with Him.
(Thanks to Benny Parks for many discussions and insights on this topic)