The Shack

The Shack
By William P. Young
Windblown Media, 2007
Review by Carl McColman

There’s a fair amount of hype surrounding this slender work of independently-published Christian fiction from first-time author William P. Young. Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) gushes that it could be the Pilgrim’s Progress of our generation. My own friend Mike Morrell (who first told me about the book) says “If you read one work of fiction this year, let this be it.”

Well… for once I’m happy to join in the chorus.

First, as a reviewer I feel obliged to make an initial disclaimer. This is a religious novel and needs to be appreciated as such. In other words, the novel supports the theological lesson contained within it (and not the other way around). This is not J.R.R. Tolkien or Flannery O’Connor, folks. But what I’m happy to note is that it’s actually quite a good read, as such novels go. After all, the most well known novels-with-a-message tend to be, well, pretty awful when judged on purely literary terms (think The Celestine Prophecy or The DaVinci Code). By comparison, The Shack truly shines. It’s heartfelt without being maudlin or sentimental; its characters have depth and the story has enough of a narrative edge to keep you turning the page. Since part of the message is that God is the lord of all relationships, it only seems fitting that this book should make you want to care about its main characters. Thankfully, it does. And while it may not have the same literary polish as a book by Walker Percy or Graham Greene, it’s as good as any of C.S. Lewis’ novels — and that’s saying something.

This is the story of a quiet and thoughtful man named Mack Philips who lives in the backwoods of Oregon. Mack comes from a broken home (his father was a violent alcoholic) but made a decent life for himself, eventually breaking the cycle of abuse through his own happy marriage and family life. But that is torn apart when an unspeakable tragedy strikes: his daughter disappears during a family outing, and all the evidence points to her brutal murder in a small shack deep in the woods. Four years go by, and the family, while still together, struggles with unspoken feelings of guilt, anger, and most of all, sadness. In the midst of this turmoil, Mack, while home alone one snowy weekend, gets a miraculous gift: a note from “Papa,” inviting him to come and spend a weekend at, of all places, the shack. Mack’s own father long since dead, the author of this note could only be the father of all — especially since Mack’s wife refers to God as her Papa.

Suspicious that this could be some sort of cruel joke (or worse, a trap) set by the killer, Mack’s intuition insists that he accept the invitation and journey to the remote site which in a way has become his own private hell. His own faith horribly shaken by the loss of his daughter, Mack nevertheless suspends disbelief enough to toy with the idea that he just might really have gotten a written invitation from God.

Confiding only in one friend, Mack sets off on the several-hour trek to the place where his daughter apparently died (even though her body had never been found). What he finds there literally blows his mind — and triggers a profound and rich mystical encounter with the Divine, worthy of the visions of Julian of Norwich. I don’t want to spoil the story’s sequence of surprises and delights, but let’s just say that the God whom Mack encounters there in the Oregon wilderness comes to him in a fully contemporary way — a far cry from the white-bearded patriarch as painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Over the course of the weekend, Mack encounters the rich mystery of the Holy Trinity, finding a quiet friendship through Christ, an almost otherworldly beauty in the Holy Spirit, and just plain unconditional love from “Papa.” Laughter and humor dance throughout this divine encounter, but Mack brings the raw edges of his anger and depression with him into the wilderness, and God’s response is both surprising and redemptive. He learns a lot about grace, reconciliation, and redemption over the course of his stay at the shack, and with Christ at his side he faces the depth of his own suffering and pain. Finally, while God refuses to resort to magic tricks in order to restore his daughter, a deeply healing gift is still offered to — and gratefully accepted by — Mack before he leaves the wilderness. Have your Kleenex handy as you read the final chapters.

The Shack is an awesome book, with a powerful theological message that proves to be utterly orthodox and faithful to the great truths of the Christian tradition while still managing to speak boldly and beautifully to our generation. It is insightful, joyful, playful, funny, heartbreaking, and optimistic by turn. Without shying away from hard questions about evil and suffering, it successfully proclaims a spiritual message of deeply good news. It is mystical without being melodramatic, hopeful but not Pollyannish, and theologically profound without being preachy, dogmatic, or boring. In short, it really could be the new Pilgrim’s Progress and probably should be the one spiritual novel you read this year. Go ahead and order more than one copy — this is a book you’ll want to share with others.

This book deserves to be read by at least two to three times as many people who endured the bad theology and even worse writing of The DaVinci Code. In other words, I hope it sells a hundred million copies.

Or more.

  • http://blog.myspace.com/Su_sie Sue

    It’s a doozie of a book, innit!!!

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  • Lisa N

    Loved it. I am not good with words or writting so try to follow. Befoe I read the book many people had encouraged me to do so. As you can assume I have done just that. I READ IT IN ONE DAY! Need I say I did not sleep most of that night after. This book has given me the courage to make that first baby step back to god that I have been trying to figure out how to do for so long. SO, thank you God for makeing this book a beam of light in my heart.

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  • mikeohare

    People who keep their literary fiction noses to the ground will realise that “The Shack” has acquired the Number One best seller status in the United States. Once this happens, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the world’s best selling work of fiction based on fact. As a resident of the UK, I haven’t had the opportunity to read it, so I’m not yet in a position to make any comment regarding the storyline. Roll on mid August when it will be released here.

    The Shack — inspiration to all budding authors

  • ray stone

    I browsed the pages of The Shack and ended up reading about three and a half chapters, plus the ending. Voom! Powerful. Despite some awkward sentencing and obivous theological loopholes, the book is creatively absorbing. Clearly is does not line up one hundred percent with scripture (no book does), but this is why it is FICTION. Does it dishonors God? I think not. Is is leaven and heresy? That is debatable. It simply is what it is. Let the reader beware. An equally intriguing and controversial work is A Step Into Deliverance by T. Pugh. It is a riveting autobiography about a pastor’s amazing journey down the road to the deliverance ministry. It’s a real page-turner

  • http://www.vision-lifecoaching.com Vanessa Vinos

    I have also just finished reading this wonderful book, and as per your review my tissues were all to hand for the ending. I remember closing the book when I finished and then just wanting to soak in everything I had read in pure silence. As you say, it is a book that needs to be read many times over, as I am sure each time you read it you extract more and more of it’s beauty. I was tempted to start it again straight away, but then I thought best not too; let what I have read seep slowly in, and then pick it up again in 6-12months time.
    mikeo’hare: I am a Brit living in Spain where it would have been impossible to buy this book. But I bought if from a fantastic website in the UK called http://www.bookdepository.co.uk. All postage and delivery is free around the world. I have absolutely no connection or affiliation with this bookshop, other than to say, you don’t need to wait for it to come out in the UK, you can purchase a copy direct from them(as I did).

  • ray stone

    Young presents a refreshing aspect of God which could heal many who deem Him as an old, insensative, judgmental, mean tyrant with a big stick-divorced from our pain and in some cases, causing it. Despite some awkward sentences and obvious theological loopholes, the work is riveting. I love the message of forgiveness which I believe is a universal problem with most people-save and unsaved alike. It is FICTION- so that covers the many Biblical misinterpretations- and is vastly creative. Young really kicks down our sacred cows in this work. A work of equal value is “A Step Into Deliverance” by Toni Pugh. Its autobiographical content about a pastor’s spiritual journey with God is a real page-turner

  • Trish Pickard

    I was set not to like the book, The Shack but after reading it, I thought it was really good and thought provoking. All the time I reaad it, I kept thinking it needs a study to go along with it. I finally decided God was urging me to write a study which I did. If anyone would like it, email me at prayerdigm.bookstudy@yahoo.com. I would be glad to send you the study. You are welcome to use it and copy it for others.
    Trish Pickard

  • Lani Plotner

    All of us have heard the expression don’t judge a book by it’s cover. I am so blessed that this book found me and has had such a profound affect on me. I pick it up when I am troubled and just read to where it falls open. It soothes my soul and comforts me. I know that when writting this book the hand of God was on Mr Youngs shoulder. I have purchased many copies to give to people so that they might to find something that will speak to them as well. Yhrough this book I have become a better wife mother friend and child of God.


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