For those of you who have been living in a cave, William P. Young tells the story of Mack who suffers a terrible family tragedy and then has an encounter with the three members of the Trinity in a small shack in the woods. Mack learns about the nature of God, redemption, forgiveness, suffering, love, and much, much more.
I really don't know where to begin a discussion about this book. So I'm just going to shoot some bullet points of thoughts I have about it. Here goes.
-- First of all, The Shack is a work of fiction and should be read as such. It is not the Bible. It is not a theological treatise. It is a fictional story. A firm grasp on this fact puts to bed much of the controversy in my opinion. It is one man's attempt through fiction and allegory to paint a clearer picture of the nature of our triune God. As such, it is not perfect. All allegories eventually fall apart or are lacking in some way. This is true of The Shack.
-- One of the big reasons people are upset by Young's portrayal of God is how the members are physically manifested. God the Father is an older African-American woman who goes by the name Poppa (the name that Mack's wife uses in her prayer life to address God). Jesus is pretty much Jesus - a carpenter of middle-eastern descent. The Holy Spirit is a flighty Asian woman called Sarayu. Many people really get hung up on the Father being portrayed as a woman. However, Young clearly explains the reason for this.
Mack has a hard time accepting God as a father-figure because of his own abusive father (a problem many people have). In the story, God explains that, for Mack's benefit, he knew it would be easier for Mack to relate to a female manifestation. Later in the book, when Mack is finally able to forgive his own father, Poppa begins manifesting himself as a man. While most of Scripture refers to God as masculine, God also uses feminine imagery to reveal his nature. In the Bible God is seen as a woman in labor (Is. 42:14), a mother nursing her children (Is. 49:14-15), a mother who comforts her children (Is. 66:12-13), a woman seeking a lost coin (Lk. 15:8-10), or a hen gathering her brood (Mt. 23:37).
The fact is that God is not a man, a woman, or a lion (as C.S. Lewis depicted him). God is God. He reveals himself to us in many ways. While I prefer to stay faithful to Scripture by referring to God as masculine, I don't see a major difficulty with Young's fictional portrayal.
-- There has also been discussion of an incorrect portrayal of the relationship between the members of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the hardest to understand. How can God be one and three, equal but submissive, etc...? If Young's fictional representation of the Trinity has holes in it, it simply means he's human. We can no more understand the nature of God, than an ant can unravel our own DNA.
I felt though that The Shack gave me some real flashes of truth that I hadn't thought about before when it came to God's nature. Sometimes when I try to understand the Trinity, I feel like I'm looking at one of those Magic Eye pictures. Before you figure out how to screw up your eyes and bring the image into focus, you occasionally get glimpses or flashes of the image, but can't quite nail it. You see a corner of the picture come into focus, but when you try to see the whole it goes back out of focus. For me, God is like that. I get glimpses or flashes of truth. Just when I think I'm beginning to understand, I lose the focus, my brain hurts, and I'm left with more questions. I believe it will be clear someday, but not until I'm able to look at it with new eyes (eternity eyes).
-- Like I said, the book is good, but it's imperfect. The allegories do break down in places. It gets too preachy at times. It's even a bit cheesy occasionally. But it's also tragic, beautiful, moving, insightful, humorous, and much more. In my opinion, there's much more to appreciate about this book than criticize.
-- A little closing advice for reading The Shack. Go into it with an open mind, a proper perspective, and a box of Kleenex. I cried in at least 3 different parts. The opening section which details Mack's family tragedy was really difficult for me to read as a father. The insights Mack received during his stay at the shack, were quite thought-provoking and I needed to rest between chapters and let them roll around in my mind a little. And last, but certainly not least, while this book is inspiring for many and helping many people process their own personal tragedies, it's important to remember that it's just a story. It's not the Bible and shouldn't be a substitute for the Bible.