Ministry Talk: Reflections on “The Shack”

William Young writes an interesting novel (as the title page describes this book) — and we have to remember that The Shack is a novel! According to the foreword Young is telling the story of Mackenzie Allen Phillips and his encounter with God at “the shack”, the place where Phillip’s youngest daughter was murdered. Young recounts how ‘the great sadness’ that overwhelmed Phillips after the kidnapping and death of his daughter was removed through this encounter with God.

Theology finds expression in this novelistic narrative in ways that suit the postmodern perspective. As the story unfolds, the reader is led skillfully to reconsider the very nature of God in the context of such a tragic circumstance. Young emphasizes the Trinitarian essence of God and the primary element of love that defines God’s inner relationships. Some might find his characterizations of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit somewhat unusual, but Young is not deliberately sacrilegious and always treats God with respect in this novel. His description of the human Jesus and his assertion that Jesus was totally dependent upon the Spirit (pages 99-100) for any miraculous power he displayed will raise some eyebrows. Jesus’ description of his intimacy with God and sharing of understanding and power in John’s Gospel and Matthew 11:25-26 suggest that Young’s description is somewhat inadequate. And what do we do with the Transfiguration?

Personally I think that Young’s portrayal of Jesus in the story (apart perhaps from some elements in chapter 15 entitled “A Festival of Friends”) fails to show him as the ascended and reigning Lord. Jesus is friend, companion, and saviour, eagerly wanting a relationship with each human being, but his Lordship seems strangely muted.

In my view, Young is at his best in the narrative when Phillips engages one of the members of the Godhead in conversation about a difficult theological issue. Why did God let Phillips’ daughter die in such an evil way? If we blame God for these kinds of events, are we in effect judging God?  What kind of relationship does God want to have with human beings and how does Jesus’ death on the Cross enable this restored relationship to become a reality?  How does human freedom work in connection with divine sovereignty? How does God want us to live as his saved people? What does holiness look like? The dialogues explore these theological nooks and crannies, providing helpful perspectives.

We cannot expect a book, especially a novel, to deal with every significant question or the writer’s selected questions equally well. Young’s novel is no exception. He focuses on some very critical issues. However, we are left wondering somewhat about the relationship of a Jesus follower to the local church. Is the local church too much a part of ‘religion’ to be of any significant help for someone in Phillips’ situation? This seems to be a conclusion, whether intended or not. Perhaps the central focus on relationships is the way that Young seeks to define how a believer finds sense and meaning as part of a local assembly. As well, sin and evil are certainly key components in the narrative, but we have no discussion about Satan or his role in the events described. Young makes the point that God is not responsible for evil, because human beings are independent agents. And God is able to bring good out of evil. But where is Satan in this mix?

And then there is the continuous emphasis upon emotions – not unexpected given the subject matter.

Young’s novel deserves a read, but one that is critical (in the best sense of that term) and discerning. Bad things do happen to good people and resolving this question within a Christian frame continues to require the very best of our thinking, a robust theology, and a deep relationship with God.