Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Shack: A Review

Over the last few months I've had at least a dozen people tell me I needed to read the novel The Shack by William P. Young. "It's your theology in narrative form," one person told me. Now, I rarely read novels, especially Christian novels. And in my experience, Christian novels that try to get theological are the worst. But, giving the pattern of enthusiastic recommendations and given that someone had given me a free copy begging me to read it, I decided to give it a two or three chapter trial on a plane ride the other day.

Warning: Do not read this novel on a plane or any other public place where you're trapped around people -- unless you're totally okay with becoming emotionally undone in front of perfect strangers. There are points where this book rips your heart out. At least it did me. The body building dude sitting next to me on the plane must have thought I was a first rate wimp, weeping over a novel.

Anyway, to my surprise, I loved this book! Without giving much more away than is on the back of the book, The Shack is about a guy (Mack) whose little daughter is abducted and murdered by a serial pedophile killer (Young goes for the jugular on the problem of evil, which I deeply appreciate). Several despairing years later, Mack encounters God in the very shack where his daughter's life was taken. The bulk of the novel covers three days of conversations between Mack, on the one hand, and God "the Father" (who appears as an African American woman), the "Son" (appearing as a 30-something carpenter) and the "Holy Spirit" (an etherial, hilarious, Asian lady).

I felt like the portrait of God in this novel was beautiful and reflective of what we find revealed in the New Testament. And the theological and psychological insights of this book were at times profound and consistently communicated in brilliantly simple ways. A good deal of the dialogue is about the problem of evil, but the novel touches on everything from the Trinity, Incarnation and the nature of free will to the nature of relationships, forgiveness and even the role of our imagination in staying anchored in "the Now." In fact, Young even addresses (at length) the nature of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This was the section that impressed me most. Young fleshes out how our tendency to judge God, others and ourselves lies at the root of our sin and misery. It was amazing. Those who have read my Repenting of Religion will have no trouble understanding why I was so excited about this material.

Now, you might think that a book with all this theology would be pretty boring, but it's not -- at all. It's actually a page turner. Young manages to pack all this heady stuff into a narrative that keeps you spell-bound (at least it did me). In one moment he has your head spinning with theological quandries and in the next he has you crying, sometimes out of sadness and other times because of the beauty and tenderness of what he's sharing.

I know many readers of this blog will be most interested in what I thought of Young's theodicy (his explanation for evil). I again don't want to give too much away because I want everyone to read this book. But I will say that those who told me Young expressed my understanding of God and evil in narrative form were largely right.

I was at one point worried, for Young has God say to Mack, "As difficult as it will be for you to understand, everything that has taken place [including his daughter's abduction] is occurring exactly according to this purpose [God sharing his love, joy and freedom with humans] without violating choice or will " (pp.124-25). Sounds like a meticulous view of sovereignty playing the 'mystery card" of free will and divine determinism all over again. But as the narrative unfolds, it became very clear that whatever God [Young] meant by the above sentence, he didn't intend to say that evil happens because God has a purpose for it. Over and over God stresses that he does not in any sense cause evil. But he does respond to it in ways that always end up furthering his purposes in the world. In fact, the novel contains some probing insights into the nature of love and freedom. Young even has a superb section that explores the irrevocability of free will and the mind-boggling interrelatedness of the "ripple effects" of our choices. Those who are familiar with my Is God to Blame? and/or Satan and the Problem of Evil will have no trouble seeing why I was delighted with this material.

The only substantial disagreement I have with the theology of this novel concerns Young's view of time and the nature of the future. While his book breaks from the classical tradition on many points, on these two issues Young is a traditionalist. At several points God brings up his foreknowledge of all that will (not might) take place and Young seems to (mistakenly) think that this helps God achieve his sovereign purposes without violating free will (as though God were not infinitely intelligent and thus able to anticipates "maybes" with the same effectiveness as "certainties"). But given that the open view of the future is a minority view in Christian circles, it's hardly surprising Young espouses this view. And given the over-all theological, psychological and spiritual insight of this masterful novel, this one piece of theological disagreement is hardly worth registering.

I encourage you all to read this powerful and poignant novel.

But not in a public place.