Love it or hate it, in the last year it seems everyone in the evangelical world has had an opinion on William P. Young’s bestselling novel, The Shack. Whatever its failings, it has moved a lot of people deeply and has them talking about the problem of pain, the doctrine of the Trinity and many other theological questions.
The book starts off like a conventional crime novel: Mack’s daughter Missy goes missing while a family is on holiday. The police find her bloodied dress in a shack by a lake. Despite clunky writing and implausible police procedure – would the investigating officer immediately tell a distraught father that the ladybird pin left where his daughter went missing was the calling card of a serial killer? – this section has a strong narrative drive.
The remaining three quarters of the book is less a novel and more a series of conversations between Mack and God. It starts with Mack receiving a note from God inviting him back to the shack. When he gets there, the three persons of the trinity are waiting for him – Papa (a large black woman); Jesus (a Middle Eastern but very American sounding man) and Sarayu (an Asian woman). Mack spends the weekend hanging out with God, having all his questions answered and his pain healed.
I like the idea of God appearing in a novel, but this God, despite her ethnic diversity, is too folksy and too middle-American. Several times a page the characters smirk, laugh, chuckle and smile their way through awkward dialogue that gives Young a chance to put his theology in the most privileged place of all – the mouth of God.
The central question is the problem of pain: why didn’t God stop Missy dying? But Mack and God end up covering a lot of areas – Christology, ethics and the church among many – sometimes in a muddled, whirlwind way that may cause more confusion than good.
Often the ideas are quite familiar. On the problem of pain, Young’s answer comes down, in the end, to a free-will defence:
“If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love. Love that is forced is no love at all.” (p. 190)
Earlier, Papa assures Mack she was there with Missy as she was murdered; she doesn’t attempt to explain why she didn’t intervene. Theologians have only taken us so far past these answers; it would be too much to ask for anything startling here.
Whatever its literary and theological shortcomings, a key question in responding to The Shack is to ask why so many people love it.
I wonder if for many it’s their first exposure to theology which challenges conservative evangelical piety. I think of my friend’s grandmother who came away from it amazed by the idea that God might not be simply male.
I wonder also if Young speaks to and for the growing number of disenchanted evangelicals who have little or no attachment to a church but still identify as Christians. His novel shows a distaste for institutions and a picture of an evangelical in exile that would appeal to them.
Finally, I think The Shack‘s lack of literary and theological polish is probably a part of its appeal. Young writes as an amateur in the best sense, and the book has a naivety and simplicity which might be refreshing for a lot of people. It’s not only his God who is so very accessible and human, but his writing and his ideas too.