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The Shack Phenomenon

The Shack deserves its word-of-mouth reputation as a compelling example of inspirational fiction.

By 1.13.09

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The Shack, by William P. Young
(Windblown Media, 256 pages, $14.99 paper)

William P. Young's novel  The Shack has already spent more than a year on bestseller lists, but it is the kind of publishing phenomenon that merits beachcomber treatment after the initial waves of reaction have receded.

The book deserves its word-of-mouth reputation as a compelling example of inspirational fiction. In fact, the feeling with which Young tells the story of how Mackenzie Allen Phillips meets God in unexpected ways after years of sadness triggered by the abduction and murder of his daughter Missy puts parts of The Shack within hailing distance of nonfiction classics like Sheldon Vanauken's A Severe Mercy.

That said, I can't give The Shack an unconditional recommendation because its craftsmanship is inconsistent and its narrow focus on healing by any means necessary leaves significant minorities of readers either adrift or trying to connect dots that aren't there. I am a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies, and this novel's relationship to the gospel reminded me of Gollum's relationship to Frodo, which pinballed between dysfunction and treachery on the one hand and surprising helpfulness on the other.

Some reviewers, most prominently Baptist theologian Albert Mohler and blogger Tim Challies, have criticized Young for the way that he has the three persons of the Holy Trinity (dubbed Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu) address certain theological questions in the story. I think their criticisms are reasonable, but misplaced. "The Shack" emphasizes relationship over dogma at every turn, and when Mack asks God whether their unfolding encounter is going to be a "let's-try-to-understand-the-Trinity sort of thing," the reply he gets is "Sort of. But this isn't Sunday School. It's a flying lesson."

Dialogue like that takes me back down memory lane with Jonathan Livingston Seagull, who wouldn't survive cross examination from a devout Christian, either. The most significant difference between the two books is that Seagull author Richard Bach sought transcendence where William Young seeks understanding.

Young was quoted in USA Today as saying that he feels "no need to knock churches down or pull people out [of them]," and while it is true that he sometimes seems to have Jesus-in-the-novel doing that for him, it is also true that the Jesus of his imagining talks enthusiastically about the Church as "the woman I'm in love with." Orthodox sentiment like that goes a long way toward making Young's disdain for "religious stereotypes" more quirky than heretical (if The Shack ever becomes a movie, Morgan Freeman will have to stop playing God so that Queen Latifah can have a turn).

In a thoughtful review for the Web magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America, Walter Hanegar noted that "Unlike the biblical Jesus, who constantly quoted the Old Testament and spent many post-resurrection hours 'opening their minds to understand the scriptures,' The Shack’s Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu turn Mack’s attention away from Scripture."

Although Mack discovers a Gideon Bible in his room after one night in The Shack, that criticism is right. But it does not go far enough. What I mean is that The Shack is accessible, often profound, sometimes annoyingly confident, and -- in broad outline at least -- inevitable. By disparaging hierarchy of any kind and describing the inner structure of the Trinity as a "circle of relationship," Young offers thinking that differs from but depends on the theologies of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.

It strikes me as ironic that contemporary Christians of Reformed persuasion are among those reviewers most critical of Young's attitude toward hierarchy, given their own reluctance to embrace mainstream Catholic interpretation of the "keys to the kingdom" language in Matthew 16:19, which of course reinforces the ancient claim that Peter and his successors are charged with unique responsibilities in their service to the Church.

Contrary to some of the ideas advanced in The Shack, the obvious problem with abandoning hierarchy to flatten human organizational charts goes beyond the lack of scriptural warrant for that proto-Communist attenuation: the upside of radical egalitarianism (weaning people from the illusion of control) is matched by a downside (creating desperadoes). Interestingly, the treatment of hierarchy, though unquestionably negative, is also inconsistent. In "A Festival of Friends," the only chapter of the novel that hints that Young aspires to a Lewisian grasp of the "weight of glory," a transfigured Jesus walks through a meadow at night "looking every inch the king of the universe."

What no one in The Shack tells Mack is that if you lean too hard on a flawed understanding of the "priesthood of all believers," the only thing you're left with is your own pride and the hope that Jesus will come along to point out that "you're losing all your highs and lows -- ain't it funny how the feeling goes away?" Fortunately for all concerned, Jesus excels at that sort of rescue work.

My Inner Pharisee finds motes and planks as far as the eye can see. For example, the magnificence of stars and flowers leaves Mack agog, yet unlike anyone in the Old or New Testaments, he never trembles at conversing with God. Certainly the three persons of the Trinity appear to him in nonthreatening forms, but it must also be noted that Mack's nonchalance accords with the self-consciously democratic fellowship emphasized throughout the story.

How many of the reviewers who question why Mack's sense of awe is so atrophied spend Sunday mornings in pews without kneelers, swaying to the beat of a praise band?

It certainly is shocking to think that even the wisdom of God personified won't keep a sinner from bristling at mild criticism (i.e., "your imagination is not helping you at this moment, Mack") with a rejoinder like "no kidding, Sherlock," as Mack actually thinks on p. 160 before trying in vain to hide that thought from God. But sarcasm seems a predictable consequence of avoiding idol worship to the point where prudence mutates into iconoclasm. Meanwhile, few people ask how hierarchy can be defended in churches where "music ministry" owes as much to REO Speedwagon and Styx as to Isaac Watts and Nun Danket.

I am a crank in good company on the subject of bad liturgy, so let me add that The Shack offers a whole feast of implications to sift through.

Take, for example, repeated warnings about the folly of "choosing independence over relationship." A Protestant can read those lines and think "Amen! Eyes on the prize, baby!" A Catholic can react the same way, and then wonder whether that advice might also be understood as an indictment of the denominational free-for-all that has fractured Christian unity for more than five hundred years. That Young almost certainly meant nothing of the sort matters little to thinking along the lines of "You had visible 'relationship' with each other through unity with the papacy for 1,500 years, and now look what you did!"

Even God's "great fondness for uncertainty" and emphatic willingness (in this novel) to "take a verb over a noun anytime" may trace back to sixteenth-century Christians who rolled dice on the action of the Holy Spirit rather than on the person at the head of an increasingly corrupt church, thus turning every Christian into his or her own pope.

In a missed opportunity of epic proportions, Mack shares a meal of bread and wine with God just before leaving The Shack, but because Young is non-Catholic and adamant about the lack of ceremony and ritual at that meal, nothing is said about the Holy Eucharist as the most obvious and powerful of several ways that Jesus continues to be with His Church.

However parochial it sounds, that omission and the aforementioned criticisms keep The Shack from ascending to the heights of spiritual classics like Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle. Yet it is also important to concede that highlighting the ironies wasted on Young and some of his critics pays diminishing returns over time: in the end it is more charitable and more accurate to say that both have performed a public service.

The novel cannot be called lectio divina, but it is inspiring. Despite its flaws, The Shack has thought-provoking things to say about forgiveness, freedom, evil, and love.

While William Young does not handle Christian faith with the deft touch of master storytellers like Michael O’Brien, Graham Greene, and Shusaku Endo, his first novel is better and more ambitious than many of the other books in its genre. Moreover, I am especially fond of the friends who recommended The Shack to me. Read it -- and then go back to the gospel.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.