Last month two different people recommended I read The Shack, a fiction book by Wm. Paul Young. Since it's unusual for this to happen to me, I took it as a sign from the universe that I should get down to business and read this New York Times bestseller with over seven million copies in print. As it turns out, I half-liked The Shack and half didn't. First, the like part. Young does the much-needed job of explaining why it's useful to reconsider God without the trappings of religion. He irreverently points out that the rules imposed by religion are intended to control followers rather than set them free. This is good stuff. Young also gives a decent interpretation of how and why so-called bad things happen in our world and why God doesn't stop them. It's not God's will, for example, that we experience crimes and disasters, but God doesn't control human choice or force His will upon us either.
The primary reason The Shack didn't 100% appeal to me is because of Young's inconsistent and confusing message about God and love. On the one hand he comes on strong that God is love and does not judge, and on the other hand he presents us with a limited version of God who is capable of anger. Anger, of course, is a form of judgment, attack and separation. "There is a lot to be mad about in the mess my kids have made and the mess they're in. I don't like a lot of the choices they make, but that anger — especially from me — is an expression of love all the same." An uncompromising, unconditional awareness of love would be more powerful, more logical and more convincing than this watered down version of love where anger is sometimes okay and justified by our creator.
Another turnoff is Young's consistent repeating of his belief that Jesus died for our sins. It's the same old story. Someone or something has to get thrown into the about-top-burst volcano to save the tribe. Even though we think we're smart, enlightened, and modern, we cling to the ancient but wildly popular concept that sacrifice has value to God. This idea is the driving force behind terrorists who kill self and others. It would be more helpful to re-examine the misleading concept of sacrifice rather than to reinforce it.
The Shack is a story about the abduction and killing of a six year-old girl named Missy from a campground in Oregon. It's used to deliver a hard core theology lesson where themes of faith, forgiveness, and relationship are discussed. The story is framed by a supernatural visit with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the trinity of beings associated with Christianity. However, Young does not embrace any particular religion or Christian sect. Refreshingly, Young personifies God as a large African American woman, Elousia. Jesus is presented as a Jewish laborer with a big nose. And the Holy Spirit comes to us as a small Asian woman, Sarayu.
Missy's father, Mack, is the teller of the story. He's been suffering "the great sadness" ever since Missy disappeared. Several years after her death, Mack receives a letter in his mailbox from "Papa," the term used by Mack's family for God. Papa invites Mack to re-visit the shack where Missy was killed. The shack symbolizes Mack's pain, and his visit to the shack symbolizes his willingness to be healed by coming to God, reconnecting with Him and by seeing the situation from a new and uplifted perspective.
Message of Love: All situations can be used to bring about an increased awareness of Love.
Elousia assures Mack that she "will use every choice you make for the ultimate good and the most loving outcome." Mack doubts this because he doubts God. He doesn't really trust that God is good. He doesn't trust that God loves him. And he doesn't trust that a bad experience can be transformed into a good one. Mack's awakening comes about when he finally realizes that he is the sole subjective determiner of goodness and badness. "I would say that something is good when I like it … Conversely, I'd call evil something that causes me pain or costs me something I want." Luckily for Mack and for the rest of us, the judgment of goodness and badness is an opinion, not an absolute fact, and opinions can be changed.
Mack is allowed to have a vision of his daughter, Missy. He sees that she's happy, smiling and playful. Mack has been consumed with guilt for not adequately protecting her, but it's now obvious to him that Missy is whole and unhurt. There is no damage or loss to the "real" Miss. Without using words, Missy tells Mack that "it's okay." And then she uses sign language to tell him she loves him. Mack no longer feels compelled to ask for Missy's forgiveness because there's nothing to forgive, and his "great sadness" begins to lift from his shoulders.
"I am especially fond of you." This is the happy catch-phrase the trinity of God characters repeat throughout the book. Everyone everywhere wants to be reminded that he/she is a most dear, precious, beloved child of God.
The Shack is predictable. By the time you read the first 30 pages, you know how it's going to end. That said, it's an easy read, and Young tells a tight, well-constructed story that holds your interest. He really should have edited out the hokey walking on water scenes with Jesus, though.
The Shack will appeal to those who want to hear a mostly familiar Christian message from a fresh, new voice. It's especially recommended to parents who lost a child through abduction or murder.