Is God really good?
This question is what The Shack is all about.
William Paul Young’s best-selling* novel, originally written as a testimony for his kids, is neither a systematic theology nor an evangelistic tract. If you are looking for a general overview of Christian doctrine or a philosophical answer to the problem of evil, The Shack is not for you. To approach it with the goal of teasing out intellectual answers to these questions is quite misguided.
Rather, The Shack is a parable, written as fiction for a reason. It is written for one who is bearing a “Great Sadness,” struggling with the existential question of how can I learn to trust God amidst the evil of my broken world? Is faith in the Triune God of Christianity psychologically sustainable for those among us who have been most damaged and wounded by pain and suffering? To this question The Shack provides a way of experiencing the reality of an affirmative response of renewed trust in God, even in the midst of suffering.
Although it draws on a profound understanding of the atonement and Trinity, The Shack should not be summarized with bullet points on a PowerPoint slide. Rather, it is a book to be experienced, a book that renews the imagination.
In Young’s metaphor, “The Shack” is the place of my greatest pain. Paradoxically, it is also the place where God meets me to show me who He is and how He accepts me with unconditional love and boundless grace. That God meets me in my Shack with unconditional love is the Christian’s astonishing inference from the Incarnation.
For this reason, reading The Shack acts as a potent antidote to all sorts of separation theologies which assume my separation from God as an existential starting point, as if I were not living in the age of Immanuel and reconciled by the Incarnation and death and resurrection of Christ. As an antidote, The Shack is particularly effective against those separation theologies of the performance variety, which view my relationship with God as a bilateral contract in which God does His part while I have to to do my part — by performing up to some standard level — rather than perceiving His relationship to me as a unilateral covenant of unconditional grace, fully accomplished in the person and work of Christ.
But what if… What if my Shack were visited by a God who is fully reconciled to me in Christ? What would my place of pain, my Shack, look like, if somehow I were to come to know it as a place where I receive unconditional grace and boundless love? What if there were such a God? What if such a God were to draw close to me?
Here is the main reason to read The Shack: to become better able to imagine my Shack as a place where God is with me, drawing close in boundless love, and where He is really good and worthy of my trust.
Why do I need to read with imagination?
Reading The Shack therefore requires imagination, understood not as an idle escape from reality, but as an essential faculty of perception of reality. The Shack baptizes my imagination with the faculty of perceiving, beside me and within me and all about me, the real presence of a God who is good and whom it is my delight to trust.
By saying that The Shack requires imagination, I do not mean that it is an allegory. Reading an allegory does not require mythopoetic imagination. The Shack is not an allegory, as if it could be mined for theological proof-texts like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
In his introduction to an anthology of George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis described MacDonald’s stories as mythopoetic because of their ability to impart wisdom, strength, and deep delight on a level more profound than words can reach. The Shack, like the writings of MacDonald, is mythopoesis, conveyed through the story much more than through its words. If you don’t like MacDonald, don’t read The Shack. On the other hand, if you like MacDonald, read The Shack in the same way you read MacDonald and you won’t be disappointed.
Part of what this means is that The Shack alternates narrative and didactic passages in a manner similar to the novels of George MacDonald, like Thomas Wingfold or Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood. I thoroughly enjoy both portions in both writers, but with The Shack as with MacDonald’s novels, the narrative has a much greater impact. The didactic portions derive their power from the story, rather than vice-versa. Copy and paste the didactic portions into a word processor, without the story, and one would have anything but a best-seller. It’s the story itself that is most compelling: how Mack discovers God dwelling in the place of his deepest sorrow; witnesses the mutual devotion of the Trinity; discovers that they are determined to include him in their communion; works through his anger at God, renouncing judgment in the cave of Sophia; discovers the Holy Spirit joyously indwelling Mack’s chaotic garden; finds reconciliation with his father; experiences a new-found trust in God which leads him to forgive Missy’s killer; and re-enters ordinary life with love and forgiveness as if everything matters. We read and interpret the didactic portions in light of these experiences, which refract them and give them meaning that they could never have if they were abstracted from their context and considered in isolation from the story itself.
Young’s writing style — including its alleged allegorical passages, the mix of didactic and narrative elements, and other literary qualities — becomes nearly irrelevant if The Shack is read as a work of mythopoetic imagination. As with MacDonald, the lasting impact of the novel derives not from its literary qualities but from the images presented to the imagination which persist and work profoundly in the depths of subconscious understanding. The narrative story offers a fresh vocabulary for translating the significance of the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation and atonement into memories which come to mind almost unbidden.
This is how The Shack renews one’s imagination in light of the grace of a loving God.
Note for those too burdened by sorrow to read The Shack
One final note about reading The Shack: a number of folks who would benefit from Young’s story feel themselves too broken to bear the grief Mack experiences during Missy’s abduction and the dawning realization that she has been murdered. If you wish to read The Shack but you cannot bear the intensity of reading that section, just skip chapter 4, “The Great Sadness.” If you are already bearing your own “Great Sadness,” you don’t need this chapter to be ready for what follows anyway. And although you will miss a few things, you will gain the greater benefit of reading the whole. However, be reassured that even if you read this chapter, Young nowhere indulges in sensationalized or graphic depictions. The purpose is to enable ordinary readers to enter into Mack’s grief and suffering, in order to share in his comfort later on.
*Windblown media explains in a post dated March 8, 2010:
“With 10 million copies now in print, The Shack continues on the NY Times Best Seller List for the 114th consecutive week, including 52 weeks at #1. It has been on the USA Today Top 150 List for 136 weeks and was ranked by USA Today as the 6th Best-Selling book of 2008. The Shack was ranked by Bookscan as the 7th Best-Selling book of 2008 and the 3rd Best-Selling book of 2009. The Shack also continues to make waves in foreign markets. It has been translated into 34 languages. In Brazil, over one million copies have now been sold and in Germany, the book currently sits at #3. The Shack has also become a bestseller in Canada, the U.K., South Africa and South Korea.”