The Shack by Wm. Paul Young was on The New York Times bestseller list (2008-2010). This book generated a great deal of conversation. Some loved it; some hated it. And recently, The Shack was released as an “American-Christian fantasy film” complete with country and Christian music.
In 2007, Young wrote this book as a Christmas gift for his five children. He also shared a few copies with friends and was urged to consider a wider audience. So, Young collaborated with two former pastors, Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings, and they tightened up the book and looked for publishers. None, neither secular nor religious, was interested.
The three men opted to self-publish under the name Windblown Media and mailed promotional copies of the books to some of their friends and colleagues. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Shack became a word-of-mouth sensation. From the tiny Christian fiction niche in book stores, it moved up to the front of the store where it was flagged as a runaway bestseller. The Shack also created a lot of radio and blog talk. Some conservative Christians find the book blasphemous; for others, it is affirming. That said, in 2009, the “Diamond Award” was given to The Shack for its sales of 10+ million copies by the Evangelical Christian Publication Association.
The basic premise of the book is this:
Mack is a man deep in the “The Great Sadness” after the abduction and murder of his daughter, Missy, by a serial killer.
Mack takes three of his children on a vacation camping trip. He momentarily turns his back on Missy when he runs to rescue his sons whose canoe has capsized on the lake. When the boys are secured, Mack turns around and his daughter is gone and later determined to have been murdered.
Mack works with the police to track the movements of the serial killer, but, to no avail. Missy is never rescued; her body is never recovered. Mack is wracked with guilt, rage, fury, grief, and despair. The lasting image of Missy’s bloody dress found in a shack, deep in the woods, is never far from his consciousness.
Four years after the fact, Mack receives a note in his mailbox. It reads:
It’s been awhile. I’ve missed you.
I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.
Papa? Mack had left his family years ago. He was fairly certain that his abusive father was dead. But “Papa” is the name his wife gives to God. Could that be?
After much consternation and internal debate, Mack decides to take a solo trip back to the shack for the weekend, wondering if, indeed, he will meet God, the very same God with whom he rages for the brutal loss of Missy.
At the shack, Mack does meet God, in the form of the Holy Trinity. God, aka Papa, is an African-American woman, Jesus is a Middle Eastern carpenter, and Sarayu, an Asian woman, is the Holy Spirit.
Mack has many individual discussions with the threesome. He also clears a garden, walks on water with Jesus, and debates theology. Through the course of the weekend, Mack learns forgiveness for himself and others, connects with his father, and, even, is shown where Missy’s body is buried. Mack’s world has been turned upside-down.
As Mack is driving home, his car is smashed by someone running a light. Mack is rushed to a hospital where he recovers. And with a curious twist of time, the car accident occurs the very same day that Mack had arrived at the shack.
The Shack is a story of forgiveness and redemption.
It is also a conversion story. Remember, Saul who became Paul in the Bible, after he was temporarily blinded by light and fell off his horse? So it is with Mack; he sees anew. He has refound himself; he has refound his connection with God.
In a New York Times article, the author, Wm. Paul Young, was quoted as saying the shack was a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain.”
The Shack is deeply Christian and includes the open-hearted themes of love and forgiveness along with the ideal of a total dependence on God. It is written with great descriptive detail and with many an evocative passage that can leave you teary-eyed.
The book makes God very accessible and available. A high school religion teacher reported that her students told her all about the book as they were excited to find a God to whom they could relate.
In a fast spinning world where personal tragedy is a phone call away and “the great sadness” could be behind any door, this book — and now, the movie — might be a source of solace for those who are open to an all-loving, multicultural, many-faced, human-like God talking Christian theology.
For me, good messages notwithstanding, I found this book a tad forced and contrived as it drove home its point. I liked the story, but not the lecture. My sense of God is more expanded, but, hey, as the old saying goes: that’s what makes a horse race — and good dinner table conversation as well.
Note: I wrote this book review years ago when the book first garnered national attention. Given the recent release of the movie, I have been queried about my take on The Shack. These are my original thoughts with some updated facts on the book. I have no plans to see the movie even though I love the work of actress Octavia Spencer.
P.S. On a curious, dealing-with-fame and the sin-of-greed note, in July, 2010, The LA Times reported The Shack “spawned a tangle of lawsuits over royalties and even the book’s authorship.” Later, the complainants resolved their differences and withdrew their lawsuits.