It has topped The New York Times’s bestseller list. Sold over a million copies in a year. It has been called The Pilgrim’s Progress of our generation. It’s received rave reviews from Christian leaders. So what is it about William P Young’s The Shack that has captivated so many people? Without giving the plot away, the heart of the book is a series of extended conversations between a man called Mack and the three Persons of the Trinity, about why God allows suffering in his creation.
These conversations take place in a shack associated with a deeply traumatic family tragedy, the worst nightmare of any parent. Through these conversations, God reveals deep secrets about himself, about the nature of the universe, that slowly begin to heal Mack’s anger and pain. (See Paul Grimmond’s excellent article in the Briefing for a critique of the Shack)
Allowing for the fact that the book is fiction, you need to know that Young depicts God the Father “(addressed throughout the book as “Papa”) as a middle-aged, slightly overweight and extremely cheeky African American woman who loves to bake, Jesus as a man of Middle Eastern appearance in blue jeans, and the Holy Spirit as a slight woman of Asian appearance who is seen more clearly when you aren’t looking directly at her.” So what makes an imaginative but extended dialogue with the three persons of the Trinity so popular with non-Christians? At several key points in The Shack, God declares that love must involve no compulsion and therefore no expectations…
The message is reinforced when the Father declares, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” (p. 120). God says the Mack, “we are submitted to you… we want you to join us in our circle of relationship. I don’t want slaves to my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me.” (p. 145-146). Put simply, the God of The Shack, while sometimes angry at people’s folly, is never angry with people. Sad yes, angry no. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that his anger will never lead to judgement. So we are relieved to hear the God of the Shack assuringly insist, “Evil and darkness… do not have any actual existence.” (p. 136).
In a beguiling way, The Shack speaks words about God and sin and judgement that will scratch itching ears, but this is still not enough to account for the book’s popularity. If there is one thing that Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code exposed was the deep seated suspicion that the Church down the ages has distorted and corrupted the real Jesus. And the failure of the Church is woven into the fabric of this story too. So Jesus insists, “who said anything about being a Christian?” (p. 182) “My life was not meant to be an example to copy. Being my follower is not trying to ‘be like Jesus’…” (p. 149).