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The Shack:  a Realization of Relationship and Revelation
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by William P Young
The Shack (Newbury Park, California:  Windblown Media, 2007.  254p.)

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I first heard about The Shack from a friend at our church in Edenvale, South Africa.  While on a holiday trip on the Indian Ocean coast, I found the book in a South Coast bookshop.  I picked it up in August 2008 in Shelley Beach.

This best seller is a creative modern allegory on the meaning of God and life in the context of the biblical revelation.  After an initial setup of the "real-life" story of the character, the story enters in to an allegory, portraying the character in a person-to-person conversational situation with God.  But it is not just an abstract, disembodied God.  He sees the three persons of the Trinity, in forms understandable to him.

The Character
A passive believer struggles with his own faith, the meaning of life, the problem of evil and the trustworthiness of God after his daughter is abducted, raped and murdered.  The main character is Mackenzie Allen Philips, or Mack for short.  In the early stages of the book, Mack is faced with the kidnapping of his daughter.

When she is finally discovered, we learn that she has been raped and murdered by a serial killer.  Police are puzzled and stymied in their search for this brutal criminal.  This throws Mack's world into chaos as he tries to come to grips with this event and the problem of evil.

Problem of Evil
The Shack is thus about the problem of evil, and the limitation of common ideas of God.  Mack has to wrestle with his conceptions of God.  His simplistic conception of God, of good and evil and of justice and the fairness of life cannot account for what has happened to his family.  Mack's world is falling apart.

This allegory probes deeply reflective theology and the nature and character of God.  Why does God not prevent these evil things from happening?  How can God really love us if these things happen?

Mack blames God, due to his inherited simplistic and abstract conception of God.  That God of his philosophical construct can do anything; that God causes everything.

The Problem of Good
But he does not realize that if God overwhelmed human will to prevent the bad events in the course of life, it would necessarily mean that God would likewise overwhelm our total capacity to decide on anything good.  These themes are dealt with in the book in terms of personal experience and relationships to God.

Mack's process of self-deliberation is imaged in his conversations with God's persons in his allegorical experience.  Through these conversations with God, Mack uncovers the Good News and comes to understand the Love of God.  The book's underlying perspective is developed in this growing realization by Mack of the biblical story of redemption in the self-giving Love of God, exemplified in the joyous sacrifice of Jesus.

The Shack
The experience takes place when Mack goes back up to the camp shack where the family were staying on a vacation when his daughter was abducted.  He is compelled to return there to try to deal with this problem oppressing him

When he gets to the Shack, this seemingly mystical experience occurs, when he finds God there in his three persons.  One oddity for some readers is that the parent, God the Creator, does not appear as a Father, but as a Mother.  Mack's puzzlement leads him to questioning exploration of who God is and this leads to all the troubles oppressing Mack.

In the end we discover that all this is happening in Mack's mind while he is in a coma after having a car wreck on the way to the shack.  So this allegorical section represents Mack's wrestling with all these factors, praying as he sleeps, trying to recover from the coma and reorder his faith through the challenge.

Father Problem
One reason Mack has trouble seeing God in a positive light, despite his formal seminary training, is the poor relationship he has had with his father.  There was much unresolved when Mack's father died.  This, then, is the complicating factor for Mack in dealing with any problem of evil.  He cannot relate to God in the biblical motif of Father.

So God appears in the guise of a kindly, but no-nonsense black woman, a down-to-earth matriarch whose tough love is going to what's best for her family and guide then in the right way with a firm but compassionate hand.

Thus communication is opened and Mack is able to focus on things in a way he never could with a prohibitive and forbidding father figure – only a negative factor for him.

Creation Motif
These themes of love and redemption are the focus of the gospels and the New Testament.  I was impressed with the Creation focus which matches Jesus' own reference points in his teachings.  The Creation motif is the basis for God's redemption, his recreation of One New Humanity.  It is the reference point for marriage according to Jesus.

Jesus shifts focus from the Law of Moses to Creation when he quotes Genesis to assert that God's original plan for marriage was one man and one woman, creating a life-giving unity in a family.  Mack finds this family in the family of God's Trinity in The Shack.

One reason for the great appeal of The Shack in our time is that it emphasizes and focuses on relationships.  Those who have lambasted the book for focusing on emotion have missed the point.  It is not emotion, but relationships that The Shack deals with.  The biblical focus is on relationships.  The underlying and permeating worldview of the Bible is relational.  The story of the Bible is about God's relationship to humanity.

Some who prefer set standardized abstractions as Truth would have trouble accepting the relational worldview of the Bible.  Relationships involve people, so they get messy.  Emotions are involved, but The Shack is not about emotions, it is about misunderstandings of Life and Love.

Good News through Pain
Mack learns and we learn with him as the Good News is unfurled little by little through Mack's painful wrestling with self and mind over the hurt and anger he feels over the loss of his daughter and the injustice of her killer remaining on the loose.

The Problem of Evil is unsettling, and causes Mack's crisis of faith.  He finds that his misconceptions of God have led to much of his pain.  But this is not a theological treatise.  And most of the critical reviews of this book have erred in insisting on dealing with it primarily on a philosophical level, rather than a relational level, where the book focuses.

On a broader scale, The Shack thus addresses a general misconception at large in today's western society about the Bible and the message of the Christian faith.  Actual Good News about Life comes through Mack's painful struggle with God and with himself.

In Biblical Terms
The Shack analyzes concepts of God and Evil in the relational terms of the Bible.  Mack struggles in his conversations with God, in the three manifestations, representing the traditional persons of the Trinity.  Mack comes to see he has not really seen God as he has been revealed in the Bible:  redemptive, active in history, compassionate, involved.

The focus of the allegory is the character's own wrestling with his questions about God, evil, love and salvation.  He cannot understand the Love of God, nor the full meaning of love in human terms, because of a bad relationship with his father.

Thus while he has been an active Christian, he is actually a baby in Faith.  Mack comes to understand that his concepts of God as Father have been impeded by his negative ideas about his own father.  The struggle with grief over his own daughter's senseless and cruel death has alienated him from his previous positive but fragile understanding of God.

The Shack is highly Trinitarian in focus.  The Shack makes sense of the Trinity by rescuing the concept from abstract, dusty analysis and puts it back into the dynamic biblical context of real-life estrangement and reconciliation – where our whole life is reorganized around God as revealed in Jesus.

I was struck by the aptness of this focus on the Trinity, relating it to the very different view of the Eastern Orthodox communions.  In my years living in Cyprus, I found that for the Orthodox, the Trinity is a focus for worship, not for intellectual speculation preferred by analytical westerners.

The relational focus of the Bible is more prominent in the Eastern churches with a celebration of the mystery of God and the relationship he offers us.  God is not to be understood, analyzed and explained – God is to be worshiped and loved.

Self-Giving Love
In his weekend away at the shack – actually a coma dream – Mack discovers what the Gospel really is, what it really meant for God to give himself to the world in Jesus, for God himself to arrange and procure the reconciliation of the world back to himself.

This was not a proxy operation.  As the apostle Paul himself commented:  "God himself was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor 5:19).

Through his experience with God, Mack comes to see that what he needs to love and embrace is God Himself, not a certain theory of Being about God.  Mack was Relationally Reordered through his experience in the shack.

Biblical and Real-Life
This is a radical and ruthless, yet very humourous, portrayal of biblical concepts as they actually occur there, free from most of the western cultural accretions of medieval western theology and philosophical classicism.

The classical and static understanding of "Theology" as some standard list of abstract "Truths" arrogantly usurps the identity of authentic biblical faith in life.  Such an intellectual representation of God claims it is the only true representative of biblical Christianity, while drawing its every format and thought from modern analytical abstraction.

The Shack points to Jesus and God as revealed in Scripture.  Everything declared in The Shack does seem to reflect the Bible's perspective.  (But it may not reflect certain abstract modern, linear western worldview expectations.  Some people confuse the two.)  Young seems very faithful to biblical perspectives, themes and concerns, though his reference point is not the traditional Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy.

It is in this context that Mack's attitude to the Church makes sense.  He sees the church many of us see – a self-focused institution that often has little connection to Jesus as we see him in the Gospels or to his portrayal of the Kingdom of God.

The Mystery of Love
Some reviewers have complained about the attitude the book expresses toward the church.  They must be taking that out of context.  We are seeing what Mack has seen or understood in his life.  He is gradually coming to realize the misguided focus he has had, looking at the artefacts rather than the artist.  The Church as he has known it was actually obscuring God.

Mack comments that the church God refers to does not resemble what he has seen.  The stale limitations of the church as Mack had known it is a call for the church of today to be an expression of God, not a self-focused religious institution.

Mack's experiences and resources up to that point had stunted his growth and blurred his perception of the biblical message.  In these conversations with God in the shack, Mack is beginning to see through the fog and understand what was really there all the time.

Healed Vision
But in Mack's earlier experience, the church and culture had obscured the reality of God and his practical rule among us.  Mack's vision gets "healed" and he sees God in a new way.  At the end of his experience, God can appear to him as a father-figure, because now he has processed the anger and disappointment caused by his father.

He has let it go, and finally forgiven his long-dead father.  No longer is this limited figure of a father standing in the way of his understanding God as father.  God's role becomes clearer for Mack.

Mack was surprised to discover the mystery and depth in the event of the cross.  Before it was just an abstract symbol out of history.  But through his experience in the shack, Mack saw finally how the cross is the centre of Love.  He had never understood how Christianity could emphasize the opposites, the wonder of Love and the infamy of the Cross.

Now with his focus redeemed, he sees that Love is what made the Cross!  Now he can see beyond the Sunday School stories where he had camped out so long, now he has discovered what he missed of God even through his seminary studies.

The Shack is not a systematic, analytical theology.  It is a personal pilgrimage.  It speaks to a generation searching and tired of clichιd, dusty, pre-packaged intellectual answers pulled off the medieval or Modernist (Rationalist) shelf for a society yearning for community, love and relationship.  Isn't this where the Gospel speaks?

The Shack has been acclaimed by critics, and was the number 1 best seller for weeks in the USA in 2008 and has continued strong long after.  Eugene Peterson claims that "this book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress did for his."

See related reviews and articles on this site:
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[review] Barbarian Faith versus Safe Religion
[review] Experiencing the Future of Faith
[Review] Graduation to Reality – The Church Emerging
[Review] Integrating Mind and Spirit with Body and Emotion
[Review] Jesus' Openly Secret Teachings
[Review] Myth and Morality in Modern Science
[Review] Postmodernism – The Church's Challenge and Opportunity
[TXT] Postmodernism and the Emerging Church:  Some Thoughts
[Review] The Rich, Persistent Centre
[Review] Uncovering the Hidden Kingdom

See related reviews and articles on the Internet:
The Shack:  The Official Site
The Official Site of Paul Young
What's So Bad about The Shack - CBN

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Many other books have review notes with the reading list entry


First reading notes written 23 August 2008
Expanded 12 September 2008
Final review posted on OJTR 20 October 2008
Last edited 19 March 2017

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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