I am glad that I did not pay full price for this book, and that it is short. I offer this review as a public service. I hope it saves you the 6 or 7 hours of life that I will never get back. I won’t bother to offer my own thoughts on the theology of the book. Others have already covered that, here is one: A theological review of the The Shack
Although the main character, Mac, seems to be someone who has separated himself from God, that is, he is a non-believer, this book is definitely for believers. By the end, Mac is brought back fully into his relationship with God, but he never would have got there if he didn’t have belief to begin with. This book does not explain God or The Trinity or answer questions about of why God allows evil to exist. Mac is not a non-believer in the sense that an atheist is. He is a “lost sheep”, someone who is angry with God and is struggling to understand what he has been taught about what God is.
I doubt the book would do much for a Christian that is angry with their church or disappointed in their religion. There are a few lines here and there about relationships and forgiveness that could be helpful for someone who has experienced a great injustice, but there are much better sources for that. It might be useful for someone who is hanging on to a little bit of belief, but wants to see a miracle to be convinced. Mainly, it will be embraced by those who are already full believers and want to hear another story of someone returning to the fold. They also get some modernized analogies for God along with it.
The problem of evil
It really can’t be ignored in this book. The shack is the place where Mac’s daughter, Missy, was murdered, at 6 years old, by a serial killer who is very good at covering his tracks. He attempts to confront God several times with his anger over how God did not protect his child, which is also clearly stated to be His (God’s) child also. Each time we hear that Mac is not ready to understand, or that he will never understand, or that it can’t be explained, or that God was “especially fond” of Missy.
Eventually, Mac’s anger is revealed to him as covering up his guilt, and he sees that no one else blames him for his daughter’s death, only himself. Mac is cleansed of the guilt, and we never have to worry about that pesky problem again. Near the end of the book, there is a short, but very good discussion about forgiveness. It talks of how holding on to anger toward the killer gives the killer power and that forgiving does not mean that anyone has to forget what the man did, or allow him to walk around freely. That conversation gets cut short and returns to the same old “let God rule your life” conversation that pervades the rest of the book.
There are a few fleeting moments where it seems like an honest and truthful expression of the value of human relationships will take the spotlight, but they pass so quickly I suspect they are just accidents. The text always returns to Jesus telling Mac that he must have a relationship where Jesus “lives through him and in him”, where he completely submits himself to that relationship. No mechanism is described. No methods are presented for how this relationship with an invisible entity is carried out. To the atheist, this is obviously not possible to describe, since no mechanism exists, but someone seeking spiritual guidance may continue to look for clues in this book.
In the most frightening part of the book, Jesus even describes being in relationship with Missy as she is being driven by the killer to the place she will die. This is not frightening because of descriptions of gruesome acts, there are none. It is frightening because Jesus talks of the love and warmth that Missy felt while this was happening. We are spared the details of the murder act itself, and we are denied the details of how Missy’s relationship with Christ made any difference. We are just told that it did, and that she is happy in heaven now and she is a spirit with great wisdom. What frightens me is that the author didn’t put down his pen or shut off his computer and say, “this is completely incoherent, who is this Jesus character, I can’t possibly make this story work.”
The Shack gets it right that our relationships are important. It is true that the power of our being in relationship with our fellow beings, human and otherwise, is difficult and perhaps impossible to describe, explain and teach. They are what binds us to our past, comfort us in the present, and give us hope for the future. They also cause us pain and no system of rules or guidelines has yet been able to prevent that. The solution the book gives for this conundrum is to have a relationship with characters from a series of very old books. I understand and appreciate the value of relating to characters from ancient stories, but I would never submit myself to one of those characters or depend on them for anything except perhaps some temporary comfort.
The problem of evil has a few solutions, each with its own problems. You can say that we are we too limited to understand why God does what he does. That answer is presented more than once in “The Shack”. Or, you can say that God actually is the source of evil. No theologian, amateur or otherwise will ever come out and say that, but William Young does offer the Zen version when he has Jesus say, “it is what it is”. Jesus denies being a “Christian” or any affiliation with any institution and claims he comes to the world through the path of all religions and viewpoints, once again avoiding any explanation of how that works. Then he says he “has some things to do in the shop”, and excuses himself. The concept of God as everything, presented in a folksy Bob Vila like caricature.
Another answer to the dilemma is to say that God is limited, that evil exists and God can only do so much about it. It is not stated explicitly, but this book comes pretty close to saying it. It also does the classic Christian turnabout and puts the blame back on us independence seeking humans. Because Adam, with a little encouragement from Eve, decided to eat from the tree of knowledge, we live in a broken world. We complain and fight and struggle when all we need to do is get back to a dependent relationship with The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost and everything will be okay. God is good, and we take that goodness and screw it up.
At one point early in Mac’s talk with God, God explains this using the Adam story and says, “and Adam did what we expected him to do.” He never addresses why He didn’t create a different universe or a less stupid Adam, other than to say something better is coming and we can’t understand it. We are left as we always have been, alone in a universe that has unbelievable joy and energy and one that has unfathomable and unexplained horrors.