‘The Shack’: interesting story, confusing theology
“The Shack,” by William P. Young, in collaboration with Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings. Windblown Media, Los Angeles. 256 pages. $14.99. Paperback.
By Elizabeth Cook
I felt duped when the riveting premise of “The Shack” ó a man revisiting the scene of his young daughter’s murder ó gave way to caricature.
The father, Mack, returns to the rundown shack to find himself in a different world inhabited by the holy trinity. God is a black woman named “Papa,” Jesus is a big-nosed carpenter and the Holy Spirit drifts in and out of view as an Asian spirit called Sarayu.
It feels like “The Lovely Bones” meets “The Three Amigos,” with a dash of “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”
With chapter headings like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Here Come Da Judge,” the novel trivializes aspects of Christian beliefs.
Yet “The Shack” has been at the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list for paperback trade fiction since June 8, spurred by the growing debate over whether the story is heresy or a creative way to help people understand religion.
Either way, the author of “The Shack,” William P. Young, has created a book that both fascinates and repels. It plumbs the depths of human misery and soars to the top of human joy and spiritual wholeness ó or tries to.
The reader is immediately drawn to the character of Mack, a man burdened by horrible loss. “In a world of talkers, Mack is a thinker and a doer,” the story says. Unfortunately, he has a tragedy on which to dwell. During a family camping trip with Mack, 6-year-old daughter Missy disappeared ó abducted and killed by a serial murderer. The Great Sadness that descends on Mack after the murder makes the Ancient Mariner’s albatross look like a rabbit’s foot.”At times he could feel The Great Sadness slowly tightening around his chest and heart like the crushing coils of a constrictor …. Other times he would dream that his feet were stuck in cloying mud, as he caught brief glimpses of Missy running down the wooded path ahead of him …. oblivious to the dark shadow tracking her from behind.”
Who wouldn’t grieve? But just as Mack is about to disappear into his grief and depression, he finds a note in his mailbox. It says:
It’s been a while. I’ve missed you.
I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. ó Papa”Papa” is the name Mack’s wife, Nan, uses to refer to God. The shack is the place where Missy spent her last moments and where Mack later wept uncontrollably at the sight of her torn and blood-soaked dress.
The thought of returning to that place makes Mack sick, but eventually he goes, while his wife and children are out of town. At first he finds an empty, dirty shack, not much different than the last time he saw it. But then a rush of warm air touches his back. A songbird chirps. Snow turns into flowers. The shack has become a beautiful log cabin.
Inside he meets Papa, Son and holy Sarayu in a domestic scene full of good food, wonderful aromas and spiritual love ó a love Mack lost sight of long ago.
Nothing is what he might have expected.
“To reveal myself to you as a very large, white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf, would simply reinforce your religious stereotypes,” Papa says, “and this weekend is not about reinforcing your religious stereotypes.”
It’s not about anybody’s religious stereotypes. The trinity is a difficult concept, but “The Shack” only muddies the waters more. Papa has scars on her wrists from Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus is a dependent, limited human being. And after a meal Jesus strikes a deal with Sarayu ó “I’ll wash. You dry.”
Papa attempts to explain.
“We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father and worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one.”
Pretty quickly I found myself not trying to make sense of the theology in “The Shack.” Instead, I pressed on to see if Mack would come to peace with Missy’s death and shed The Great Sadness. That turns out to be one of the more satisfying aspects of the novel, a resolution that can come only after Mack reaches into his past and heals a broken relationship from long ago.
Young, a former office manager and hotel night clerk in Gresham, Ore., has experienced pain of his own through child abuse, death and the shame of adultery. He has described the shack as a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain” ó something many people can identify with.
But from that common ground Young departs on a journey that can be hard to follow. “The Shack” is an interesting story with a healthy dose of human drama ó and an overdose of convoluted religious theory. Read it for entertainment. Look elsewhere for spiritual direction.