One of my oft repeated phrases is: “Better late than never.” The sad fact is that I have all too many chances to utter it. I bring this up because it seems a perfect application to this review. Those bloggers who are organized and on top of things tend to offer reviews when a topic, book, or author is in the news and/or the hot topic of conversation.
I first read the book back when it was much more a burgeoning phenomenon but never got around to putting my thoughts and reactions down in pixels. But when my church’s Sunday School class offered this as one of its book discussions I decided to go back and resist it.
For those of you unfamiliar with the book here is a brief description:
Mackenzie Allen Philips’ youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever.
After a second reading, I found that while its literary merit left a lot to be desired, and its theology was shaky in parts, as a whole it was a thought provoking and worthwhile read.
Below I will look at the book’s literary, theological, and philosophical implications. I’m not sure this matters at this point, but there will be “spoilers” involved.The first thing that needs to be said is that as a “novel” the book fails. It isn’t that the action leading up to, and following, the encounter with the Trinity that makes up the bulk of the book isn’t interesting in some ways, or even well done in places, it is that it really isn’t a novel at all. Oh sure, if you want to get hyper-technical it is a “fictional prose narrative of considerable length” aka a novel. But really the story isn’t the focus or point of the prose.
To me the book is really a conceptualization or thought experiment. It uses fiction and story form to help readers challenge their assumptions and think about theology and spirituality in different ways. Dinner with a Perfect Stranger and God’s Debris are two – very different – examples that come to mind. Didactism first story only as need to allow for dialog, etc.
Not surprisingly then, if you are looking for literary merit in the traditional sense you likely won’t find it in The Shack. There isn’t much plot, suspense, deft description, character development, etc.
What there is a lot of is emotion. Given the author’s background and the subject this is also not surprising. Sometimes the emotion leads to evocative, and even powerful prose, and sometimes it leads to an overly cheesy style. On balance I didn’t find the style distracting or off-putting – because I wasn’t really looking for literature – but obviously people’s tastes will differ on this aspect.
In the heart of the book Mack encounters The Trinity in the form of a African-American woman, a Jewish carpenter, and an Asian women with a hard to pin down quality (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit). Over the course of a weekend Mack interacts with and learns from these manifestations of God. Basically, the interactions are physical representations of his spiritual healing and growth. Whether his encounter actually happened or is the result of drugs administered after a nearly fatal car crash is left unanswered (more on this later). If you are interested in theology and spirituality I think these are interesting and engaging chapters
And to me this highlights that the point of the book is to explore the theology of the Christian’s response to pain and suffering. While there are tangential aspects dealing with the problem of evil, the real focus is how does a person of faith deal with life altering pain or suffering.
And if there was one insight I think the book offers is the way it portrays, and works through, how it is necessary to really believe God is good in order to trust him. Now many Christians might casually think “Of course, God is good. This is part of his nature.” But anyone who has suffered, or struggles with questions of justice, might not have fulled unpacked their emotions and deeper feelings. This is the case with Mack.
In a critical section where Mack is discussing his spiritual growth, Papa tells him:
The real underlying flaw in your life, Mackenzie, is that you don’t think I am good. If you knew that I was good and that everything – the means, the ends, and the processes of individual lives – is all covered by my goodness, then while you might not always understand what I am doing, you would trust me. But you don’t.
I think this is a very valuable idea to contemplate. I find it is a bigger problem then most people might think. A proper understanding of God’s character and a true belief in those characteristics is crucial to not only good theology but spiritual growth. Once Mach wrestles with this he is able to remove some the blocks and see growth.
I don’t have time to get into all the other theological issues involved (for the most popular critique see this review), but I wanted to note that the over-arching flaw I saw is the emotionalism of much of the interactions Mack has with God. Mack always seems to ask the right questions and God in various forms is so attractive and loving that Mack is immediately drawn in and able to tackle his most serious issues.
There is a great deal of emotion, and a sort of romanticism, tied up in these interactions. But they leave out the complications and difficulties people so often struggle with “real life.” Sure, envisioning some of this discussion in a fictional way might help people see things differently, and think about issues they might not otherwise have, but after you put the book down you don’t have a physical Papa, Jesus or Sarayu to interact with nor do you have the incrediably beautiful and peaceful setting in which to do it. In many ways the shack is helpful in helping people work through these emotions but in other ways it uses emotions in place of the necessary hard work of spiritual growth.
The other aspect I found the most unsatisfying is the books discussion of hierarchy and authority. At times the Trinity describes relationships – with God and others – as a sort of radical egalitarian, near anarchical, structure where everyone gives up their will to power and submits to others. And again, there is some insight and truth to some of this philosophical perspective. Faith is not about power in the traditional sense (political, economic, social, etc.) and there is a very real danger of coming to worship institutions and rules rather than the God they are supposed to point us toward.
But ultimately the loosely laid out ideas that are touched on in the book leave you with a mistaken notion of how human beings actually opperate; and more dangerously the idea that the phrase “all God wants is a relationship with us” captures the true nature of God. At times it is an overly-touchy feely Opraphied sort of perspective which distracts from the more orthodox, and insightful, sections.
I have always had a lot of problems with the Christianity isn’t a religion type thinking. As if spreading the Gospel all over the world could be accomplished without organization or structure. As if human beings can function in the long term without habits, processes, and institutions that help guide them. Just because institutions fail doesn’t mean we don’t need them.
To wrap this overly long review up, I think The Shack is an interesting read that has some theological insights and packs some emotional punch but leans toward emotionalism and lacks coherence on a few issues. I don’t think it is a threat to orthodoxy as some seem to think, but neither do I think it should be the basis for spiritual guidance on its own.
It has obviously touched a nerve and that should be explored. Think of it as a conversation starter instead of a book with answers.