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Review: The Shack, by William Paul Young

The ShackThe Shack, by William Paul Young (Windblown Media, 2007)

You know how sometimes a new tune or arrangement will make you stop and notice a familiar song’s lyrics? That’s how I feel about The Shack’s portrayal of God’s love. It’s definitely a different picture of God, yet it’s familiar.

I’ve heard lots about the book, both hostile and complimentary, and about the tragedy that drives the central character, Mack, into The Great Sadness. Consequently it languished in my “should read” pile for a long time.

It was the book’s effect on my friends that drew me to read it. People who knew the Lord… suddenly knew Him better, more intimately. These are people I trust, and so I chose to read the novel.

One thing none of them mentioned to me is the book’s humour. It’s subtle, but it adds a delightful thread to the mix.

Consider the chapter titled “God on the Dock,” where Mack and Jesus lie on a dock by a lake and watch stars: the chapter’s opening quote is from C.S. Lewis, author of God in the Dock (which I believe addresses some of the same issues Mack does). Or in the same chapter, when Papa (God the Father who has chosen to appear in female form because of Mack’s memories of his own father) has cooked a meal: Mack describes a delicious feast “spiced with who but God knew what.” (p. 105)

The novel’s premise is that Mack receives a note inviting him to meet God at the site where his younger daughter was presumed murdered. He goes to find out if this is real or some kind of sick joke… and ends up spending the weekend with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in human form.

Needless to say, Mack has a lot of baggage and some heavy-duty questions. The novel feels in places like one long dialogue (perhaps sermon?) but that’s realistic to the story. Mack’s hurt has no room for platitudes and pat answers. And I love how the various forms of God will explain something to him and then simplify if it goes over his head.

I’m thankful not to inhabit a Great Sadness, but like most people I have my moments of “lesser sadness.” The message I take from The Shack reminds me to anchor in God’s goodness and love instead of letting the sadness build.

William Paul Young sums it up well when he has the character of Jesus say, “To the degree that … fears [imagined and of the future, not rational ones] have a place in your life, you neither believe I am good nor know deep in your heart that I love you.” (p. 142)

The storytelling has a slightly distant feel, more like narration than the current style that would draw us into Mack’s heart and head. But with the trauma Mack’s been through, I don’t think we as readers could cope. Plus, Mack has had over three years to live with his loss before facing God with his questions. Readers experiencing it fresh wouldn’t be ready for that step.

It’s still a lot to chew on, and I expect I’ll read this book a few more times over the years to fully “get” parts of it. But I did get the basic message: God is especially fond of me… and you… and each individual on earth whether they pay attention to Him or not.

The Shack is Mr. Young’s first novel and has prompted a lot of discussions and debate. Among the recognition it has received is “Best Contemporary Novel” in The Word Guild 2008 writing awards. The author’s website says the book will soon be available in over 30 languages, plus as audio books.

Mr. Young is Canadian by birth and currently lives in the United States. Interviews and podcasts are available at the Windblown Media site.

You can read the opening pages of The Shack here. Be sure to read the Foreward – it’s part of the novel. If you’ve already read the novel and want to talk with other readers, visit The Shack online discussion forum.