After spending 39 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and currently holding the number one spot, one would have to admit that “The Shack” by William Paul Young has swept the nation. What was written as a story for his children, with no intention of being published, has soared into selling over 5.5 million copies and will soon be appearing in over 30 languages around the world. Not bad for a guy living a simple life in Gresham, Oregon working three jobs (janitor, general manager and sales representative), raising six children, expecting two grandkids and maintaining a healthy marriage.
One must first recognize that the novel was written as theological fiction. This makes it difficult for the reader to discern what the author is saying and decipher whether it holds true parallels with the Holy Scripture. It is also important to keep in mind that the novel isn’t meant to be a Bible lesson. “The Shack” was written as a personal testimony of the protagonist, Mackenzie “Mack” Philips, coming to terms with God.
Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy, was abducted three years earlier during a family camping trip. Although her body was never found, police found evidence in a shack hidden deep within the forest that reveals she had been viciously murdered by a notorious serial killer of children.
Mack immediately dispatches into “The Great Sadness,” the constant guilt he holds for not saving his beloved daughter. At the height of Mack’s “Great Sadness” he receives a letter from God, inviting him back to the scene of the crime, the shack. Although skeptical, Mack goes and experiences the unbelievable: a weekend-long encounter with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. From this point on, the dialogue focuses on topics that theologians have debated for centuries. Young also provides anthropomorphism of the Trinity. God is a vivacious African-American woman who goes by the name “papa,” Jesus is a middle-aged man of Jewish descent and the Holy Spirit is a sylph-like Asian woman by the name of Sarayu.
At this point, the reader may feel the urge to close the book and be done with it, for some might find Young’s characterizations offensive. Although some of them are a stretch, it seems that Young did this in order to break down stereotypes. While the Trinity may appear in numerous tangible or intangible forms, it shouldn’t be about what form it takes, but rather the emotional sensation one gathers. In this novel, Young asked his readers to take off the blinders and experience God in a new way. Granted, it may not be your particular cup of tea, but you never know whether you will like something without trying it first.
Once you get past the personifications, the reader dives into deep stimulating ideals that surround the Trinity: submission, free will, forgiveness, redemption, love, salvation and judgment. Most of the communication between Mack and the Trinity focuses on his inability to trust God.
One of the most touching parts in the novel is when Mack is working in a garden that is a complete mess; it is full of weeds, dead flowers, and just plain ugliness. Sarayu reveals to Mack that, “this garden is your soul. This mess is you! And it is wild and beautiful and perfectly in process.” Whether one reads this as a religious lesson or not, it’s a nice metaphor of how every once in a while we go through periods of time where we have to first internally cleanse ourselves in order to make our external world enjoyable.
Even for non-religious readers, “The Shack” is a great read because it exposes readers to topics that they may not usually contemplate. The author provides answers without imposing his opinions upon the reader and stimulates one’s own morals and beliefs. When reading this book it’s all about openness. It’s not about whether you believe in God or not. The readers must allow Young’s creativity and imagination to take them on a journey into self-discovery and tap into the divine.
The storyline isn’t truly original, yet this novel wasn’t written for the purpose of simply telling a story. Rather, the content and teaching it contains sparks a deep, spiritual and emotional impact upon the reader.