Is God really good? Can I trust Him in my Shack?

Is God really good?

William Paul Young, The Shack (cover).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.”

More on Paul Young.

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8 Responses to Is God really good? Can I trust Him in my Shack?

  1. Chris Krycho says:

    Have you read Tim Challies’ review of the book? My concern with the approach (though I have yet to read more than a few pages of the book) is that, while you may be able to read it as you described and benefit in some way, most readers cannot. When he deals with the Trinity, with atonement, etc., and it moves people emotionally (as it clearly has), people are going to internalize those views. I think we can both agree that, as expressed in the book at least, his views on the Trinity and the extent of the atonement are deeply unbiblical. Regardless of whether he believes erroneously or simply has communicated in a way that is open to misunderstanding, I am concerned that so many people (who often lack any sense of biblical discernment) are so deeply enamored with the book. What do you think?

  2. Kerry Magruder says:

    Chris, thank you for asking. I read Challies’ review when it came out and found it very disappointing. For the record, I find Young’s views of the atonement and the Trinity to be biblical and orthodox. Those who charge it with heresy are being irresponsible. But I don’t wish to rehearse that debate here. In a follow-up post sometime soon, I plan to link to some resources that anyone concerned about the orthodoxy of The Shack may use to dig more deeply into these questions. These questions are important, but my aim here is different. Rather, my post is to provide encouragement to those who are in need of reading The Shack. I do believe most readers — the silent majority — do read The Shack in the way I do and that it is working to great benefit. I would say to anyone: if you don’t think you’ll like it, don’t read it. It’s not for everyone. But if anyone does want to read it, but has trouble understanding it, then in that case, I would recommend starting with The Golden Key by George MacDonald. Learn to read him first, and then one might read The Shack differently, too.

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  4. Karen Noad says:

    Thank you, Kerry, for your wonderful essay. I find it so difficult to put into words the many blessings and insights I’ve drawn from the Shack, but you’ve put it all so eloquently. I would simply say that I think of it as a “heart” book, not a “head” book or relational not theological, although I did find it very stimulating intellectually as well. Ironically, compared to much controversy, I also found it giving a wonderful and creative expression to my theological beliefs – giving me fresh new insights about the relationship of the Trinity. But most of all it, as you so skillfully put it above, it expresses that place of deepest pain and suffering, where I also find boundless grace and unconditional love. It gives me a place to bring my endless questions, anger and even despair and allow the One who is Hope to restore my life – without a lot of glib and shallow “answers”. It reminded me of an “adult” version of “Hinds Feet on High Places” – although I’m still often “much afraid”.
    Thanks again for your writings and the reminder about this treasure – makes me want to go home and read it yet again!!

  5. Unfortunately, there are many stories like this. Many tragedies that cause us to question God’s goodness. We know so much, yet so little about God. This world is not a good place. Having God as the center of my world gives me focus. As I learn to see this world as God sees this world, I see problems He sees. I also see in Him the solution to those problems. I also see the areas God can use me in His quest to address the problems. Jesus said to His disciples, “the harvest is ripe but the laborers were few”. Allow God to use you.

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