Jim Burklo Reviews “The Shack”

{William P. Young. The Shack. Windblown Media. 256 pages. $14.99 pb}

Reviewed by Jim Burklo

I’m a few years late reading The Shack by William P. Young (Windblown Media, 2007), which made a big splash in the world of evangelical Christians.  On vacation now, I took the time to read it, and it surprised me in many ways.

The protagonist of the novel is Mack, an evangelical Christian whose youngest daughter is kidnapped and murdered in a mountain shack in the Northwest.  Still grieving, months later, he gets a mysterious written invitation from “Papa”, his wife’s term of endearment for God, to go back to the shack for an encounter.  He returns to the place where his daughter was killed, and there he meets the Trinity.  “Papa” is a black woman, the Holy Spirit is an ethereal Asian woman, and Jesus is a stereotypically Jewish-looking carpenter.  The old shack is transformed into an idyllic cabin in the woods that could have been painted by Thomas Kinkade.  He is fed home-cooked meals by the female “Papa” God, or “Elousia”, led through a gorgeous garden by the shimmering Holy Spirit named Sarayu, and his heart is opened to love by Jesus while lying outside at night looking at the stars.  The three-person God enables him to meet his daughter, then to meet and reconcile with his late father from whom he had been estranged.  When his time at the shack is over, he is full of compassion, forgiveness, insight, and renewed faith.

Repeatedly in its story line, The Shack drifts over the line into evangelical heresy, even as it makes notably awkward attempts to appear orthodox. The author obviously has an ambivalent relationship with the theology in which he is situated.  Mack’s little daughter hears the story of an Indian maiden who sacrificed herself to save her tribe, and the daughter makes the connection with the story of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Mack says that the Indian story was a legend, but “sometimes legends are stories that teach a lesson.”  When she asks if the Jesus story was a legend, Mack says no, it was true, and then he changes his mind and says the Indian maiden story was true, too.  Later, in a conversation with the Holy Spirit, Mack says to her that some people think that the story of the Garden of Eden was a myth.  “Well, their mistake isn’t fatal.  Rumors of glory are often hidden inside of what many consider myths and tales,” she says.  Mack answers:  “Oh, I’ve got some friends who are not going to like this” (p 134).  The Shack gives the reader implicit permission not to take the Bible literally.

The social and political views of the author are evident in the text.  Young is a Canadian who was raised in New Guinea by missionary parents.  Mack, the protagonist, loves watching Bill Moyers (though his name was spelled “Moyer” in the novel), and listening to the edgy folk/rock music of the Canadian virtuoso, Bruce Cockburn.  The author clearly is disgusted with the politics – internal and external – associated with evangelical Christianity.  Mack says of some of his fellow church members that “they loved Jesus, but were also sold out to religious activity and patriotism.” (p 181) Jesus tells Mack that “religious machinery can chew up people”…. “I don’t create institutions – never have, never will!” (p 179)  “My church is all about people and life is all about relationships.” (p 178)

Mack once went to seminary, where “he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course.  God’s voice had been reduced to paper….”  (p 65)  The glaring heresy of the book is that Mack meets the Godhead face to face, and its three members aren’t what the Scripture described.  The book’s premise is itself a reflection of the increasing tendency of Americans, even among evangelicals, to rely increasingly on the authority of their own encounters with the divine, and to seek a “religionless” faith.  At one point, Mack encounters Sophia, the figure of Wisdom found in the book of Proverbs.  She is portrayed in a way that would make her fit right in with the other members of the Godhead in the novel.  But when Mack asks if she is God, Jesus tells him that no, she is just a personification of God’s wisdom (p 171).  This orthodox disclaimer, inserted into what is otherwise a very unorthodox narrative, is so weak as to be ludicrous.

The book suggests an opening between progressives and evangelicals on the topic of religious pluralism. Jesus says that people of all religions love him:  “I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved!”  “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)  This is a premise that might undercut any claim by one religion, including Christianity, of superiority over all others, while still giving evangelicals a way to keep Jesus at the center of their devotion.

The theological discussions among Mack and the three members of the Trinity leave the reader with at least as many questions as Young’s imagined Godhead gives unsatisfying answers.  Theodicy, the problem of evil, is answered with the well-worn concept that without the freedom to sin, we would not have the freedom to love, and our sin is what has wrecked the world.  The redemption that comes to Mack after the death of his daughter is clearly a parallel to the traditional formula of the sacrifice of Jesus for atonement, yet the novel vigorously denies this.  Mack is told it was necessary for Jesus to die on the cross for redemption, but the other evils that happen in the world are not required by God for demonstrating divine compassion. Why, one has to ask?  The novel repeats standard evangelical theology, while undermining it in roundabout ways.  I was left with the strong impression that the author is looking for a way out of this box, but he is afraid to take the next steps that would follow the trajectory of his book.

And that trajectory is toward a loving relationship, beyond doctrine or religions institutions, that characterizes God in the intimacy of connection among the three persons of the Trinity, and characterizes the connection between God and people.  Young’s God will do whatever it takes – including sending us notes and changing appearance in order to meet us where we need to be met – in order to establish and maintain that kind of relationship with us.  That’s the charm of the book, and also its charming heresy.

I recommend The Shack to all theologically and socially progressive Christians who are looking for ways to engage positively with evangelicals. The book speaks for countless evangelicals who are privately disgusted with the glib morality and obsession with doctrine of their churches and institutions. The book offers fresh language and imagery, and creatively points the way to a faith that is based on loving relationships rather than rules and dogma.

Jim Burklo is an ordained United Church of Christ pastor who serves as the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Birdlike And Barnless: Meditations, Prayers, and Songs for Progressive Christians (2008) and Open Christianity: Home By Another Road (2000).  Jim’s blog Musings appears at The Center for Progressive Christianity.

About David Charles

David Charles joined Patheos in September 2008. Since then, he has helped shape the structure and content of the site and has led partnership development with a wide range of academic and religious organizations.

David was educated in Switzerland, England, and the United States. He holds advanced degrees in religious studies from Oxford and Harvard Universities. His academic training spans a number of disciplines and fields of study, including anthropology, literature, and history. He is the recipient of a teaching award from Harvard.


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