This new novel by first-time author William P Young was brought to my attention from a number of sources. It has been riding high in the bestsellers lists at Waterstones and Borders and is currently in the top 20 on Amazon.co.uk. It was also recommended by many Christians as a must-read. So what is all the fuss about? Plot spoilers follow.
The Shack works on two levels. First it is a novel: a story of a family man called Mack who had a troubled upbringing with a difficult Father, but settled into normal family life in a small town in Oregon. He and his wife, Nan have a perfect suburban life including five beautiful children, John and Tyler in their twenties, teenagers Josh and Kate and a late arrival, Missy. They have a firm faith and are regular attenders at their local church, although Nan’s faith always seems more personal than Mack’s, due to his difficulty in relating to his Father.
Everything is going well until a fateful camping trip. Whilst Mack’s back is turned, Missy disappears. She is never found, and her disappearance is put down to the work of a serial killer who has abducted before, and who had never been caught. The next day, Missy’s dress is discovered in an abandoned hunting shack in the mountains of Oregon. This marks the beginning of The Great Sadness, a depression in Mack where he is unable to open up to anyone, let alone God. Why would God have taken Missy away from him? William Young describes this whole incident wonderfully, drawing you into the story and empathising with his sadness.
But then Mack receives a letter which is simply signed Papa – Nan’s personal name for God. It reads: “I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend, if you want to get together”. Secretly, but reluctantly, Mack makes arrangements to go alone to the shack. It has been transformed. There, he meets God, in extraordinary form, and they literally spend the weekend together. At this point, the story begins to stutter. The scene where the shack is transformed is, frankly, a little cheesy, and in the following few chapters very little happens.
The second level that The Shack tries to work on, and probably the reason why Young wrote the book, is the conversation with God, depicted by three separate characters. Here, the author is on difficult ground. Depicting the Trinity in bodily form, and putting words into God’s mouth is always going to be theologically inadequate. But as Mack spends time with God in the shack, he is transformed. He is forced to face up to issues in his past life – his absent Father and the abduction of his daughter. He is begins to open up to God, to understand him more clearly and to know he is loved. He starts to forgive and be forgiven.
On this level, the book works adequately. In the earlier chapters where Mack first meets God, the story stutters as the author gets across what he wants you to know about God. The dialogue between God and Mack is a little inauthentic, with God constantly responding in ways that Mack cannot understand. But as the conversation continues, the relationship with Mack that God yearns for comes through and the benefits of facing up to the past in forgiveness is demonstrated.
Who is the book for? Before reading it I had considered giving it to some atheist friends who were suffering from similar difficulties to Mack. However, after reading the book I became sure that it would be not appropriate. The leap of imagination required as Mack starts to talk to God, combined with the lack of reality that seems to be present in so many other ‘Christian’ novels would just be too much. Some of the answers it gives to difficult and painful situations are also a little too simplistic and the storyline isn’t quite strong enough to carry it through. For these situations, I would instead recommend a book which gives a true life account such as The Shaming of the Strong by Sarah Williams.
But if read by those who are open to the concept that may be a God who loves, such as non-believers who are searching, or Christians, The Shack would make an excellent gift. It certainly emphasises a constant, daily relationship with our Trinitarian God, and when read as a novel rather than as systematic theology, it offers an excellent starting point for conversation and thoughts about God.