I’m a little late to the table with this one. Yes, I’m very aware that the book is 15 years old, has been a multi-million copy best seller, and The Scroll has carried it for the whole time. But I hadn’t ever read it before. With the advent of the movie, I decided it was time to see what the fuss was all about.
To say the least, this book has it’s ardent supporters, and just as ardent detractors. To be honest, if I had been doing my job better, I should have read it before now, if for no other reason than to assure myself that it deserved a place on our shelves. I’ll discuss my decision on that a little later in this post. In the meantime, for those few of you who are still unfamiliar with the book, here’s the quick rundown.
Mackenzie Allen Phillips is a man in great pain. Three years have passed since his youngest child was abducted and murdered, and the “Great Sadness” still overwhelms Mack & his family. His relationship with God, never foremost in his life is perfunctory now with more than a tinge of distrust. His wife’s own faith is bruised but strong and she still expresses love and trust in “Papa”, as she calls the Father.
Out of the blue comes a cryptic letter, signed “love, Papa”, inviting Mack to return to the location of the murder. Mack finds himself compelled to go there, where he is confronted with Papa (or God, as a middle-aged black woman), Jesus (as a young Jewish man), and the mysterious Sarayu (the Holy Spirit as a beautiful young woman.) This representation of the Trinity takes Mack through conversations and experiences that allow him to unburden himself of grief and unforgiveness, and Mack is returned to his family a different man.
This story is fiction, and as such is allowed some latitude in theological rigorousness. It is understandable, however, since the theology and opinion are being put in God’s mouth that some readers would have cause to cry foul at those points they feel miss the mark. As a result, there has been considerable controversy over whether this book is perfectly acceptable, mildly controversial or completely heretical!
There is much to be admired in The Shack. I was actually surprised at how powerful the story is, and how much emotion it evoked in me. I have long held that all story is based on THE Story. When the good guy saves the girl from the bad guy and does so with great wisdom & virtue, that is reflection of how God saves us from many spiritual bad guys around us. When the protagonist sacrifices his or her life for the good of their story mates, we remember Jesus and His sacrificial love. The Shack is primarily a conversation about God’s love for his creation.
To sum up the message of the book in a few words, it would have to be: “God is good, all the time.” That’s not my favorite saying – a bit trite, and not terribly sophisticated. But it completely summarizes a bottom-line statement of our faith. We live, to borrow another phrase, “in a world of hurt” — a world of pain created by man turning from the creator in numerous daily ways. We see evil, greed, pain, sorrow on every side, and it is one of the prime reasons many use to defend their atheism. “How could a loving God allow…?” We’ve all heard it, or even asked it.
Mack is asking this question pointedly throughout the book. Why did God not intervene to save his innocent daughter from such evil. Did God intend it to happen? Was it necessary to further some other important plan of God? Can I trust a God like that? The conclusion he reaches is the one we all need to reach. God is Good! A Romans 8:28 kinda good. ALL things are worked to our benefit, even the things God would prefer we not do. Even the things that hurt deeply. This is the basic theology that permeates the book, and I agree with it.
There are question marks. At one point (while Mack is still a bit skeptical about who Papa really is ) he asks Papa if she isn’t angry at her creation. What about God’s wrath?
“It seems to me that if you’re going to pretend to be God Almighty, you need to be a lot angrier… Weren’t you always running around killing people in the Bible? You just don’t seem to fit the bill.”
Papa’s answer doesn’t respond to the “God of the Old Testament” question.
“I’m not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”
This certainly has to raise red flags for many. Loving the sinner, but hating the sin is a central component of the faith, but to deny God’s just wrath at the unrepentant goes against many traditional grains. There are other areas I noticed that undoubtedly rub some theological fur the wrong way, but I think I’ll let you google reviews from folks who are better qualified than I to share their thoughts about the doctrinal mishaps of The Shack.
I said earlier that I would answer whether I thought the book deserved a place on our shelf. I have decided that the answer is “yes”. In spite of doctrinal wobbliness which concerns some, I believe that this depiction of a God who is in love with His creation is important. Most of us have no difficulty feeling guilty, unlovable, undeserving of grace & mercy. I suspect more than a few of us attend church and take part in beneficent activities partly out of a desire to “make good” with God rather than from a joyful expression of thanksgiving for God’s love. And there are many who harbor doubts & question whether God really does have their backs. “How can a loving God…?”
There is a part of The Shack where Jesus has just told Mack that there are those who love Him from every system and religion in the world. Mack in response asks “Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?”
“Not at all.” Jesus smiled as he reached for the door handle to the shop. “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”
That is a message that needs to be heard.