The Shack is a 2007 novel by William P. Young. Here, Mack, a man whose young daughter has been abducted and murdered, spends a weekend with God – the three persons of the Trinity in human form.
Young’s depiction of the Trinity – the Father as a black woman, Jesus as a Middle-Eastern carpenter (basically an Americanized version of the biblical Jesus), and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman – can help people to, at the very least, expand the box they keep their understanding of God in. Young also demonstrates an impressive understanding of parenting – what makes it both good and bad. And Young has done a fine job of articulating how God loves us and how he wants relationship with us. This last point, I think, is what has made The Shack so popular.
Young is fine on a lot of theological topics, but of concern is the number of lurking heresies in The Shack. Attempts have been made to explain away these errors under the umbrella of metaphor, but these are exactly the sorts of points that literary metaphor is used to drive home in a literal way – after all, that’s the point of allegory.
On page 110, Young’s Jesus says that he is the “best way” to God, which stands in sharp contrast to John 14:6. And on page 120, God says that he/she doesn’t punish sin, which stands in sharp contrast to numerous large chunks of the Bible. On the whole, Young presents the reader with a gospel message lacking key ingredients: sin and judgment. Young also downplays the value of scripture, and hints in the direction of universal salvation. Others have blasted The Shack’s theology in far greater depth, but those are the most important issues.
What no one seems to be talking about is how poorly written The Shack is. The first third of the book is bogged down in rambling narrative that focuses on all things boring and mundane. How Mack feels and why he feels that way are always clearly explained in the tiniest detail, to make sure you get it. It’s all telling and no showing: Young never brings the reader in, never gives the reader anything to do, never allows (or requires) the reader to make even a small investment in the story. And this is how Young manages to take one of the most horrific events conceivable – the murder of a child – and make it pedestrian.
Young’s writing couldn’t be more heavy-handed. Most obviously, there’s The Great Sadness, which is always capitalized and always in italics, to make sure you get it. Rather than give us any kind of meaningful character development, Young starts us off with a seven page bio of the main character (which, incidentally, is not a particularly accurate description of the character we see in the novel proper) from an otherwise uninvolved narrator (although he does reappear at the end with a two-page conclusion, to make sure you get it).
The dialogue here is atrociously stilted and corny, and often expository for its own sake. Many of Mack’s conversations with God are little more than trite question-and-answer sessions that dance away from the tough issues.
There are flashes of good writing here, mostly in chapter 15, but it’s nowhere near enough to offset all the book’s cringe-inducing moments. The Shack isn’t well put together, either – it’s full of typos and suffers from a severe comma shortage.
I came to The Shack expecting a theological trainwreck, and while I was watching that slightly underwhelming pileup, I was completely blindsided by the much larger flaming disaster that is Young’s writing. In other words, I hated it for (mostly) all the wrong reasons.
Eugene Peterson’s comparison (on the cover) of The Shack to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is laughable. At the end of the day, The Shack is a sincere and personal but poorly-written and theologically troublesome book.