The Shack — or: how the story of a meeting with God becomes a theology book

The ShackWhen I first opened William Paul Young’s The Shack, I was fully aware of the controversy and discussions surrounding this new Christian best-seller. I had read some strong arguments for and against its depiction of God (and a lot of nit-picking, too). So I determined from the beginning not to read a theology book, but accept its form as a novel in order to avoid getting caught up in theological details and miss the main message (a concept that somehow sounds familiar from another major Christian work, if you know what I mean :-)). However, I quickly found out that this is impossible: The Shack is a theology book — just in disguise.

  1. The Shack is narrative theology at its best! I haven’t read a lot of books that manage to engage the postmodern mind with a multitude of profound theological themes the way The Shack does. As the plot turns and twists, the book and it’s main character (God) continue to surprise me in ways I would never have expected. Old theological truths come to light again — but not only in the mind. The book engages me as a person as I’m surprised, I laugh and cry with Mack. It makes me ask questions and reflect about God and his relationship to the world (and to me in particular) in a way a systematic theology could never do. In its story form, it successfully avoids becoming an intellectual exercise only and, at the end, leaves me amazed and deeply moved by God’s continuing presence. This is what theology is supposed to be like!
  2. The Shack is not abstract systematic theology. It is just when I try to dissect the text in my mind in a classic modernist way, when I try to deduce all of its individual theological statements about the nature of God, that I might possibly disagree with the author’s position. I’m quick to write "might", though, because really, I don’t. Two reasons: (a) First of all, this totally misses the point of the book. This is not a collection of propositional statements about God. Rather, it is an attempt to convey the experience of meeting God in the midst of tragedy. (b) Second, The Shack is way too well written for such an exercise to even work. Trying to analyze the author’s theological position just shows how much care and reflection went into the crafting of the story. Take his depiction of the trinity, for example. Not only can I not find it faulty, but I have seldom found such a complete explanation of the trinity that is understandable (within our obvious limits) at that.
  3. The Shack in its own framework redeems itself. Let’s assume for a moment you disagree. You haven’t gotten beyond the shock of God the father being portrayed as an African-American woman and the Spirit making a mess in the garden. You think this is bad theology, heresy and maybe even blasphemy. Then, maybe, you have overlooked a couple of important points: (a) It’s a novel. (b) It’s a novel! (c) Even within the novel, the narrative framework with its surprise ending leaves enough room to doubt the reality (much more the correctness) of Mack’s experience. (d) Assuming Mack’s account of his "week-end" is correct (within the novel), it still contains so many moments where the various persons of the trinity explain that their nature is much more complex than what Mack sees; that it is beyond human understanding; and that God deliberately "limits himself" in some ways (even disguising himself) to meet Mack on a level that he is able to at least relate with. Now, if you take all of this into account and you still want to throw out the book for being bad theology, I wonder whether we read the same work at all.

So, in short: I love it. The paperback edition I bought has Eugene Peterson saying on the front cover that "this book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good." And, even though in our short-lived world, I’m not too sure about the "generation" thing, if you replace "this book" by "this genre", I think he just may be right.

Conclusion: Read it. Enjoy it. And get your own impression — which is why I deliberately won’t give you any links to the discussions I read. Hopefully: Be blessed by the experience.


Über Christoph

Christoph Fischer (* 1978) ist Pfarrer der Evangelischen Landeskirche in Württemberg auf der Pfarrstelle „Erlöserkirche“ in Albstadt-Tailfingen.

Christoph ist verheiratet mit Rebecca. Gemeinsam haben sie drei Töchter.