Friday, 2 October 2009

The Shack

Suppose you wanted to write about what God is really like, about God’s intention for us, about why God lets us suffer. Being a good storyteller, you decide to get the message across by weaving a dialog with God into a fictional setting. So you come up with a gripping story line and then put your pen down for a long time while you think about how to represent God. Surely you’d have to do better than a long-bearded wise old Gandalf or Father Christmas figure. And you couldn’t make God into a Lion because C.S. Lewis has already done that. How would you bring the Trinity to life for a modern adult readership?

The Shack is William Paul Young’s attempt.

I won’t give too many secret’s away about the plot, but I certainly found it enticing and rewarding. The story centres on Mack, who has been immensely sad for many years, unable to release the pain of his young daughter’s death. When Mack receives a note in his letterbox inviting him to return to the place of his daughter’s death, there is every reason to believe that this might be an invitation from God. He hesitantly takes up the offer, setting the stage for a weekend that challenges his beliefs about God to the core.

A quote on the back cover of the book compares The Shack to Pilgrim’s Progress. But that’s misleading. Although both books use a fictional setting as the stage for theological and philosophical reflection, Pilgrim’s Progress is a allegorical – with overt symbolism equating each element with some spiritual reality – whereas The Shack is clearly a modern novel. Some have claimed that the book, which is a best seller in the USA, is poorly written. I don’t think that criticism is aimed at the story itself, but more at the lengthy sections in which Mack and God talk. That didn’t bother me, probably because I was too interested in the ideas being presented to worry about how smoothly the dialog flowed.

So don’t read The Shack purely for the story. That’s just the setting. The real fun comes from dwelling on Young’s understanding of how God cares for us. Young’s God is more concerned about relationship than dogma. More interested in grace than judgement. More fond of verbs than nouns. More than anything, God is concerned about the process through which we are lead towards him (or is it her – you’ll have to read the book to see how Young addresses that one!).

It has often been said that traditional Christianity imposes a lot of guilt on people. That hasn’t been my experience. The preaching and reading that have come my way have emphasised the freedom that comes from forgiveness. But what has become clearer to me recently is that I have soaked up a theology in which, having been forgiven, I carry a burden of responsibility with regard to how I should live. How many of us “freed” Christians are weighed down by responsibility? And how frequently do we relate to others with an expectation that they must adhere to the same rules?

In The Shack, Mack shows those same inclinations. But God says to Mack:
“Let’s look at your two words: responsibility and expectation. Before your words became nouns, they were first my words, nouns with movement and experience buried inside them; the ability to respond and expectancy. My words are alive and dynamic – full of life and possibility; yours are dead, full of law and fear and judgement. That is why you won’t find the word responsibility in the Scriptures.”

If that sort of insight sparks your interest, you might enjoy the rest of the book too.


Matt said...

I wrote this for our church newsletter, Yabba Yabba, a few months ago.

Phil said...

Gotta check this out. Looking for an ebook if anyone know where it can be found on a budget.