Wednesday, November 12, 2008


The Shack

Part I: A Preamble

Books become best-sellers when they connect with our deep questions and tragic/meaningful experiences. Some become classics, others may be left behind with the detritus of literary or theological history.

Wm. Paul Young's The Shack (2007) is a best-seller (it's knocked Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven books off a few perches) but probably won't be a classic. He's nowhere near the brilliance of apologists like Oxbridge don C S Lewis or Soren Kierkegaard.

But when we ask why so many ordinary folks tell their friends 'You gotta read this' I think they have two questions in mind which Young is trying to answer:

• 'Where is God when tragedy crashes in on us, when the innocent suffer, or when a "Great Sadness" overwhelms us?' (Theodicy) and

• 'What sense can we make of it all?' (Theology).

Addressing the second issue first, my 'conservative self' wants a coherent theological system where 'truth' is clear, and questions are answered to my satisfaction – a theory of EverythingImportant, which 'adds up'. Young tries to do this, but many fundamentalists/ conservatives take issue with some of his ideas.

More of that later.

My 'moderate/progressive/skeptical self' can live with some paradox, ambiguity, antinomy, and has real problems with a desire to wallow in 'simplicity this side of complexity'. I'm prepared to live with stuff happening which I can't explain, and believe that verifiable 'miracles' are very rare. I know humans can't easily live with cognitive dissonance, but some of my reservations about The Shack's approach is that too little is left to mystery. The Judeo-Christian God suffers with us, acts for us, speaks to us, but (as in Job, for example) doesn't always give us nifty answers to our deep and urgent questions.

Without revealing too much of the plot, Young takes us on a journey into another, fantastic (in both senses) world, complete with out-of-body experiences - a journey which, to say the least, stretches credulity. Liberals/progressives are rarely at home in realms-beyond-the-rational.

Many books have been written about evil/suffering: Philip Yancey's Where is God When it Hurts?, Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, C. S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain come to mind.

The Shack tries to contemporize (and soften) C. S. Lewis's approach, especially the in-your-face question that Lewis asks if one objects to the notion of human freedom issuing in the possibility of our inflicting evil on others, and God's allowing rebellious humans to choose hell: 'Well, what are you asking God to do?' The Shack is an attempt to put into words God's response...

The Problem of Pain has these famous lines which might serve as commentary on Young's approach:


Except that Young is not as prescriptive about hell as was C S Lewis. There's much more about the joyful certainty of a loving relationship with God in The Shack than in The Problem of Pain (which C S Lewis wrote before he fell in love, and married, Joy Davidman. You'll have to read A Grief Observed to get in touch with that side of Lewis).

Indeed Young is sometimes accused by fundamentalists of being a universalist. He isn't, unless you want to read that into this interesting exchange:

[Jesus]: 'Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans... Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian...' 'Does that mean,' asked Mack, 'that all roads will lead to you?' 'Not at all,' smiled Jesus... 'Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you'. [p. 182].

I would urge anyone to read this little page-turner, and suspend your simplistic fundamentalism or sophisticated skepticism, and allow yourself to be bathed in God's love - an experience beyond creeds or explicable rationalities, whether conservative or liberal. Of course, if you can offer a more coherent apologetic send it to me, and I'll put a selection on our website, but I for one applaud Young for, as we Australians say, 'having a go'...

Part II: The Author and his Book

Knowing an author's life-story offers many keys to understanding what and how they write. At Paul Young's Melbourne meeting I jotted down these summary- points about his amazing journey:

* He was brought up among the stone-age Dani people of New Guinea. His missionary-father was cruel/abusive, and the boy Paul had lots of questions he was not allowed to ask.

* Because he understood the Dani language better than his parents (as children do in these situations) he knew about their conspiracies to kill his family: which, understandably, produced terrible nightmares. His bad dreams were made worse by aspects of the Dani's highly sexualized culture, and some sexual abuse he received at a boarding school.

* Paul attended 20-something different schools before graduating from high school, so he didn't have a 'missus': he trained himself not to 'miss' anybody.

* Until he worked on his shame-based approach to life over a period of 11 years (after a brief extra-marital affair) Paul reacted to conflict by 'compartmentalizing' his responses to each person/situation. He didn't know the difference between an observation and a value-statement. For example, when his wife said 'Don't mix colored clothes with whites' his life-experience taught him to regard that as a dire condemnation of him as a person. He'd planned his suicide (in Mexico, so his children wouldn't find his body). But his wife never gave up on him (hence the tribute 'To Kim, my Beloved, thank you for saving my life!').

* Paul had confused God with his own father: so he could never win God's approval either, and became a religious perfectionist. His were 'golden addictions' - being significant, pleasing others, etc.

* Paul has only been his 'free self' the last four years: especially after intensive therapy (until his counsellor-friend was accidentally shot dead by a meth-addicted son). After a life full of religious and psychological 'crap', God showed up! His secrets were exposed - all of them - and he finally realized he couldn't heal himself.

* Paul is an 'accidental author': he didn't set out to publish a book, but to write a story - in 2005 - for his children and grandchildren. He notes wrily: 'It's as if God wanted someone to speak to Balaam!' Paul was not well-off (three jobs, rental housing) and when a few friends urged him to get it into print, 26 publishers rejected it. So they set up 'Windblown Media' and published it themselves, despatching books around the world from a friend's garage.

* The Shack is a parable. 'Does that mean it's true?' 'Yes,' responds Paul, 'It's just not "real": it's a story!' Is the geography real? Yes (except for the stop-light): people are now hiking that route in the U.S's Pacific North-West. (The story-line is so 'real' that two forensic detectives asked for a briefing on the case-file!).

* The Shack's key question: 'In a world of unspeakable pain, where is God?'. Paul says he's reacting against the angry God he grew up with. He wants people to bring their own paradigms to the story, and be open to a loving Father/Son/Spirit God. Performance-based religion is the worst way to relate to God.

* And the imagery? The 'shack' is the human soul, filled with good stuff or junk by the good and evil inputs of others; it's the house one builds out of one's own pain: until God ('Papa') emerges and gives us an 'Almighty hug!' It took Paul 11 years to renovate his 'shack'.

* The essential message? 'There is nothing from which you cannot be redeemed!'' 'You are the one the shepherd will leave the ninety and nine for...!'

* Paul's conclusion last night? 'It took me 50 years to become a child: I'm not going back to being an adult again!' 'Remember: God doesn't use shame or guilt or condemnation to heal us!'


The Shack opens in a context of tragedy. Four years have passed since the cruel murder of Missy, Mack's precious six-year-old daughter.

The heart of the book is a series of extended conversations between Mack and the various members of the Trinity about how God could possibly allow such pain in his creation. In these conversations, God reveals deep secrets about both his character and the nature of the universe that slowly heal Mack's grief, anger and pain.

The Big Questions:

1. WHAT IS GOD LIKE? 'The door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman. Instinctively he jumped back, but he was too slow. With speed that belied her size, she crossed the distance between them and engulfed him in her arms....' The Shack's feminized 'God' has caused widespread consternation. What's in Paul Young's mind? Here's one explanation: 'For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning.'

My response? The first time I visited Harlem in New York a Presbyterian minister told me that most fathers there were cruel and/or absent, so they rewrote the Lord's Prayer: 'God in heaven, who cares for us like our grandmother does...' The person most-like-God for those kids was their grandma.


Jesus in The Shack as a thirty-ish man of Middle Eastern appearance: no problems there!

The Holy Spirit - the creative Sarayu - is an Asian-looking woman (seen more clearly when you aren't looking directly at her).

Mack asks, 'Which one of you is God?' '"I am," said all three in unison.'

And what is God like? 'I'm not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation....'

In other words - a healthier God than the one espoused in guilt-ridden legalistic religion. (As the Jesus Freaks used to say 'If God is like Jesus, nothing is too good to be true!')

2. WHERE IS GOD? 'God, who is the ground of all being, dwells in, around, and through all things'. The panentheism implicit here has also been attacked by conservative Christians. But we ask: 'Where do you suggest an omnipresent, loving God is *not*?' As the old aphorism has it: 'God, whose centre is everywhere, and circumference nowhere.'

3. THE CRIME. A friend writes: 'Do you think the author downplayed the severity of the crime against Missy? When the climactic dialogue happened and he was told the little girl coped better than the dad might imagine, and she was worried about him... I thought that section was trite actually.' We'll make our own judgments there.

4. MYSTERY AND THE BOOK OF JOB. The same friend: 'And the other thing that I felt was overlooked, was the book of Job - the only story in the Bible anything like The Shack: where God comes and talks to the person suffering. And there.... well... God is not some cookie-making happy and patient middle aged woman. In Job God is very "Who are you to ask me this?" kind of God. (Or am I misreading Job?)'. No, Jim, you're not. And further, in Job God doesn't finally answer the Big Questions (as Job's 'comforters' tried to do), but invites the suffering Job to trust him anyway. Dialogues about meaning and The Great Sadness in The Shack sometimes come across as too simplistic. Nowhere (that I can recall)

does The Shack's God say something like: 'On that one, Mack, you'll just have to trust me!'

5. JESUS' CHURCH is 'all about relationships and simply sharing life... being open and available to others around us. My church is all about people, and life is all about relationships.' One of the key tests of a healthy theology is to ask 'What, essentially, is a Christian?' If the reply begins 'A Christian is someone who believes that...' and love is not at the top of the list, I become very wary, because that's how Jesus' enemies the Pharisees defined their religion. Sure, as 1 John teaches us, there are three tests of authentic Christianity: belief, obedience, love. But love is, for John, as for Jesus his master, the 'greatest of these' (as another Jesus-follower, Paul, put it).

6. FORGIVENESS. Not only does Mack learn to 'forgive' all who have hurt him, he also forgives God! Conservative critiques? 'As if God had done something wrong!' Such a simplistic response ignores both human nature (asking, reasonably, why if God is both loving and powerful the world isn't a happier place) and the enunciation of this complaint in the Psalmic laments.

7. NEW AGE? Literalists have problems with phenomena like (what The Shack calls) 'flying' - something akin to astral travel. 'Such a powerful ability, the imagination!' says The Shack's fictional Jesus. 'That power alone makes you so like us.' My experience of rationalistic theologies is that they have immense problems validating God's gift of imagination.

8. ANTI-INSTITUTIONALISM. 'Enforcing rules' [says Sarayu] ' a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty. And contrary to what you might think, I have a great fondness for uncertainty. Rules cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse.' In addition, The Shack's Jesus doesn't create institutions - 'never have, never will!' [1]

'Institutions, systems, ideologies, [are] futile'. 'I can give you freedom to overcome any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social, or political. You will grow in the freedom to be inside or outside all kinds of systems and to move freely between and among them. Together, you and I can be in it and not of it.' Put me down as someone who resonates with this 'Jesus' (probably tainted by my study of the radical sociologists of the 60s and 70s for whom - as Robert Merton put it - 'All institutions are inherently degenerative!')

9. MACK'S JESUS ISN'T A 'CHRISTIAN'. '"Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian." The idea struck Mack as odd and unexpected and he couldn’t keep himself from grinning. "No, I suppose you aren’t."' [2]

SUMMARY. As many have noted, The Shack has a quietly subversive stance, not-so-subtly attacking conventional, orthodox Christianity. The book will appeal to the 'Jesus Yes Church No' _majority_ (yes!) of Western Christ-followers. The responses everywhere in the many reviews by 'the Doctrine Police' - whose God isn't as 'nice' - decry the absence/ paucity of references to a hierarchical Trinity, hell (sinners are always 'separated from a holy God'), Satan, repentance, salvation, sin and guilt, a physical 'resurrection', and doctrinally 'correct' belief-systems. Such wooden literalism doesn't cope with this genre of imaginative fiction (though note that The Shack has a literal Adam). One of the problems of course is that Paul Young doesn't 'proof-text' everything with Scripture references. 'At its core the book is one long Bible study as Mack seeks to resolve his anger at God,' writes Paul Young's friend and advisor Wayne Jacobsen [3].

ENDORSEMENTS. When the highly-respected Evangelical scholar Eugene Peterson says 'This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" did for his. It's that good!' the rest of us had better sit up and take notice. I agree with this sentiment, in an review: 'Don’t miss this! If there’s a better book out there capturing God’s engaging nature and his ability to crawl into our darkest nightmare with his love, light and healing, I’ve not seen it. For the most ardent believer or newest spiritual seeker, The Shack is a must-read.'

Buy it and read it with an open heart and mind, disagreeing here and there if you wish, but above all prayerfully asking The Shack's God to give you a little taste of the amazing love practised in the Community of the Trinity.


[1] For more helpful material on this idea, Google 'Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity.'

[2] For my article 'Was Jesus a Christian?' see

[3] 'Is The Shack Heresy?' by Wayne Jacobsen (one of Paul Young's friends / theological advisors):

[4] The Shack official website -

[5] Conservative Evangelical Critique - william-young-part-two/

[6] 'Reformed Evangelical' critique -

Rowland Croucher

November 2008