The Shack: a decade-late review

As I've done with lots of things that became sensations, I came late to the party. I’d never heard of The Shack until it was a recent subject of discussion at my church. The novel by a Canadian author was on the New York Times bestseller list for 70 weeks starting in June 2008, at which point it had sold more than 1 million copies. Sales by now have topped 20 million.

Author William Paul Young didn’t set out to have a blockbuster. He wrote the book for his children. It was only after friends urged him to publish that he went along with the two of them who formed Windblown Media to publish it in 2007. Word of mouth built its fame. Then Hachette Book Group cut a deal with Windblown to market and distribute the book.

A lot of people, I learned in my catch-up reading, find The Shack healing. It offers a comforting explanation for why God allows pain and suffering. The protagonist, Mack, has lost his youngest child to kidnapping and presumed murder. Her blood-stained dress, though not her body, was found. Four years later and still oppressed by “The Great Sadness,” Mack gets a note from “Papa” (his wife’s name for God) inviting him to the shack where the bloody dress was found. There he encounters the three persons of the Trinity, talks faith with them separately and together, and returns filled with forgiveness, love, and joy.

The Shack is also controversial, mostly with orthodox and biblically literal Christians who find heresy in its theology.

If depicting God the Father as an African American woman is heretical, that doesn’t bother me. The liberal perspective of The Shack is one I — and my church — share.

What I don’t like is that much of the dialogue sounds like New Age pablum. A God whose message could be on a Hallmark card comes off as shallow to me.

Consider a quotation from each member of the Trinity:

The Father (“Papa”): “Life takes a bit of time and a lot of relationship.”

Jesus: “You don’t need to have it all figured out. Just be with me.”

The Holy Spirit (“Sarayu”): “If anything matters, then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important.”

Admittedly I chose three quotations that sound especially hokey out of context, so maybe I’m not being fair.

What would I have preferred? More originality and spiritual insight. Less obviousness.

Maybe the people who find The Shack life-changing are not hearing an obvious message of love and forgiveness in church, however. The Shack’s popularity is attributed to longing for that message. There were packed rooms when Young spoke and long lines at book signings. That the novel profoundly affected countless readers is undeniable.

I’ve read a couple of articles that say, in effect, that The Shack ought not be criticized because it helps people. That seems as narrow-minded as the view that The Shack is heretical and dangerous because it imagines God in unbiblical ways.

Interested people can read The Shack and decide for themselves. If it helps someone, I’m inclined to say, “Whatever works.” It didn’t have that effect on me. I’m open to people telling me what I missed. Just don’t make it a discussion of heresy.

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