“Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”
“Does that mean,” asked Mack, “that all roads will lead to you?”
“Not at all,” smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”
The Shack made me cry a bit. Although it is in many respects a sad story, I cried out of joy. I had read it seven years previously, and, returning, expected to find a superficial and clumsy exploration of God’s love. I was blown away by its depth. Young’s every sentence seems to loosely veil some theological secret; I compiled more notes for later meditation than I have for many serious expositional works.
Young captures God’s undeserved love staggeringly well. His writing unravelled, and startled, much of the coldness of my own heart and the aloofness (to be distinguished from otherness) I had unknowingly assigned to God. God is enthralling in The Shack. Young portrays God as the Triune “Papa”, “Jesus” and “Sarayu” mind-blowingly well; God is faithfully unity and diversity. Many theological treatises have not captured this mystery of the Trinity so well. And whilst doing this, the book is gorgeous. Well-paced with three-dimensional characters and a three-dimensional landscape, it does not suffer from trying to force theological points and plot development at the expense of good writing.
But it is when one tries to critique The Shack that Young’s genius reaches striking levels through his underflow of painstaking care. The more overt charges against the book do not land. The Shack gives an impious and egalitarian portrayal of the Father as an African-American woman. There are clear hints that Young is complementarian, and why the Father shows himself in this way is steadily explicated throughout the story. Through Papa, Jesus and Sarayu bearing crucifixion scars on their wrists, Young denies penal substitution. When asked, Papa unambiguously states that it pained him to see Jesus on the cross; Papa’s scars represent the emotional distress it caused him. The Shack denies the existence of hell and sin. In a particularly vivid scene, Mack simultaneously discovers the repulsiveness of his own sin and the heartbreak that God experiences in condemning to hell. Where Young seemingly trips up, the nuance of his writing showcases that he has not, and this is seriously impressive.
What is most frustrating about the (myriad) criticisms that are levelled against The Shack is the seeming ignorance of its medium as fiction. Why is it that we are wholeheartedly committed to taking Scripture on its own terms, poetry as poetry, history as history, but we are unable to extend the same grace to other works? I fear that in our conservative-evangelical circles the art of (even appreciating) informed speculation has been lost. We would not dare to attempt anything like this, dressing up our comfortability in the form of reverence.
Do I agree with everything that I read? No, and I am not even sure that Young would want me to. On the one hand, The Shack would have benefitted from dwelling longer on sin and judgement. On the other, this is Mack’s story; he himself has dwelt far too long on these things, he needs God to demonstrate his love. A remaining objection is that there is a heavy reliance on free will to tackle the problem of evil. Papa shows Mack that he has too small a view of God. I wonder, does Young, seemingly Arminian, have too small a view of God which expresses itself in so much of The Shack making clear sense?
The Shack finishes with a brief-but-enchanting glimpse of the redeemed life post-encounter. With heart warmed by Christ, Mack simply reacts rightly to the world. Beautifully, Young invites transformation through precisely the same means.