Some thoughts on the novel “The Shack”


I picked up Wm. Paul Young’s novel The Shack at a secondhand bookshop a few years ago, recognising the name but not really being familiar with the story.

When I started reading it shortly thereafter, I read it as a true crime/faith story rather than as a novel, and I got quite irate when “the shack” part of The Shack started, and stopped reading it.

Fast-forward a few years and The Shack has opened as a movie starring Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington, and popular conservative Reformed blogger Tim Challies (whose writing I follow as an exercise in endurance) has bravely declared that he won’t be watching or reviewing the movie (he did write a thirteen page review of the book, if you were bored.) I thought it was probably about time I got off my literary laurels and finished The Shack.

It’s not going to win literary awards, but I thought The Shack was quite good. It’s Christian fiction and so it has all the sentimentality that usually entails as it tries to tackle the dilemma of trying to see God in a broken world. As such it’s a healing read and I spent the latter half of the book in tears. If you’ve been broken, you’ll find solace in Mack’s healing even if you do see the plot devices coming.

Having now read the book I find it easier to understand why so many Christians have problems with it. I think most of these problems sprout from the fact that they’re reading it as a theological treatise and not as a novel. Reading it as anything other than a fictional story about a man finding healing in meeting with God misses the point of the book entirely and adds discourse that you won’t find in the novel.

This discourse typically boils down to a few points of complaint, which I’ll address individually.

1. God is represented visually

For our friend Tim Challies this was enough reason for him to avoid seeing the movie altogether, so I think it’s worth looking at. He feels that God being portrayed visually, by actors, violates the ten commandments (specifically Exodus 20:4). To him, it seems comparable to idolatry.

I find this attitude remarkably similar to the one the religious leaders had back in Jesus’ day. They resented the actual Son of God for being an image bearer of God because Jesus revealed a God very unlike their own conception. Which makes me think conservative resentment about God being portrayed visually is really about…

2. God is portrayed as two-thirds woman

We’re very happy to see God as pure spirit, reflective of both traditional genders without being beholden to either one…until people start talking about God as Mother rather than Father. That’s when the wheels come off rather smartly, revealing a prejudice most people probably aren’t even aware of.

In the novel, God the Father (“Papa”) is portrayed as a big black woman and the Holy Spirit (“Saruya”) as an Asian woman (Jesus is a Middle-Eastern man, spoiler alert). They work with Mack individually and together to help bring him to a place of peace. There are specific reasons for their portrayal that become apparent later on in the novel, so it’s not just that the author was flirting with potential controversy for its own sake.

But I wonder if, had God’s representation been purely male, whether this visual portrayal would have been an issue. People don’t seem to have problems with Jesus movies generally. So why the discrepancy? Could it be because…

3. Hierarchy

In its portrayal of the trinity, The Shack does away with the concept of hierarchy in the trinity. It holds that all three persons of God are equal. God the Father is not the CEO with Jesus and the Holy Spirit picking up deputy-CEO spots each (or the Holy Spirit ranking below Jesus). Rather, they are a unit in complete submission and love to each other. They are, in short, three persons in one Godhead.

Little wonder The Shack irks the “eternal submission of Christ” camp. These folks hold that because Jesus submitted to the cross while he was on earth, he is in submission to God for eternity. But that would imply that there are separate wills at play in the trinity, which seems like hoopla to me.

But the “eternal submission of Christ” doesn’t actually have all that much to do with the trinity and everything to do with complementarianism. Submission in the trinity is often used to justify the continued subordination of women to men in complementarian camps. So that a novel (and now movie) does not only depict God as a woman but also denies an argument often used to subordinate women in certain camps… Well. I’ll leave you to your deductions.

The Shack is an inspiring read that might just reinvigorate your own faith life.

For those of us who God has found in more unconventional places, well, you never forget the backroads of faith. And at its heart, The Shack is a story about being found on those backroads.

If you haven’t read it and you’re curious, don’t read it as a statement of faith. Read it as a story of a man finding God again and you’ll surely find glimmers of God’s heart in the narrative.