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.