Written by Christian author William P. Young and published in 2007, The Shack went largely ignored for almost a year. By 2008, though, the book's fate had changed; word-of-mouth promotion in churches and Christian radio stations led evangelicals across the world to pick up a copy, and soon it was a New York Times bestseller. By May 2010, The Shack had sold over 10 million copies, and it's now been translated into over thirty languages. It's no real surprise that the book has now been adapted into a film, which promises to be a Hollywood blockbuster. But what makes this story so important?
The Power of Stories
"I'm not who you think I am, Mackenzie!"
It's easy to dismiss stories as "mere fiction", but the truth is that stories have real, transcendent power. Jesus himself knew this; he was a master of 'parables', brief narratives that carried hidden meaning if you care to dig a little into them. The truth is that the human mind is primed to think in stories, and that packaging thoughts and ideas in a narrative is a very useful way of communicating them.
The Shack is only the latest book to use a fictional story to explore deep questions of faith and life. It stands in the same tradition as C. S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" series, albeit far more intentional. Lewis actually didn't originally intend his first book, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, to represent his faith; it just kind of slipped in as he wrote it. On the other side of the debate, author Philip Pullman has deliberately styled himself as the 'anti-Lewis', trying to use the "His Dark Materials" trilogy to the same effect as Narnia, but in favor of atheism. He's planning a sequel, The Book of Dust, later this year; no doubt it will explore the same themes and ideas.
By using narrative in this way, William Young encourages us to open up our hearts and minds, to consider questions that we normally avoid. It's a story with real emotional depth, and as such it's deeply attractive.
It Dares to Dig Deep
"I collect tears."
Where C. S. Lewis primarily told the story of Christianity in a fantastical way, William Young's novel dives into some of the deepest waters in Christian theology. It's central plot is that the star, Mackenzie Allen Phillips, has had his faith shaken by tragedy; in a heartwrenching narrative twist, we learn that Mack's youngest daughter was kidnapped and brutally murdered. They never recovered her body. As a result of this tragedy, Mack has retreated from the world; he's become thrall to what he calls "The Great Sadness", forever locked in grief. Then, one day, he receives a note inviting him to return to the Shack where they found his daughter's blood-soaked clothes, and it's signed "Papa". His wife's affectionate name for God.
What follows is a beautiful narrative, in which Mack returns to the place of his heartache and pain, and meets with God. It's true that The Shack's answers are unconventional; many mainstream Christians, from Albert Mohler to Chuck Colson, find its responses to the question of pain and suffering very troubling, and aren't impressed by William Young's strange approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. But that doesn't lessen the beauty of The Shack; it spurs Christians and non-Christians alike to consider ideas they don't normally give any thought for. I'm a Christian who firmly believes in thinking my faith through, in questioning every assumption, and I find The Shack challenging and thoughtful. At it's very best, it inspires contemplation and consideration. It encourages Christians to dig into their faith, and suggests to non-Christians that there are ideas in this faith that might just be worth thinking about.
Very often, Christian responses to the problem of pain and suffering are unsatisfactory, to say the least. It's often easier to find a platitude than it is to find true, thoughtful compassion. The Shack, though, points beyond the platitudes; it uses a heart-wrenchingly extreme example of suffering to encourage us to go beyond the answers we often give by rote. It may not give satisfying answers itself, but I think it points us on a journey of exploration to find some.
A Focus On Relationships
"I suppose that since most of our hurts come through relationships, so will our healing."
At its heart, the narrative of The Shack is an excuse for conversation. All too often, dialogue between Christians and non-Christians turns into a lecture or a sermon; instead, The Shack shows a relationship between Mack and God, in all its confusion and wonder. Mack's questions often aren't truly answered at all, and when they are answered he's left with his head spinning. Throughout the whole narrative, though, of one thing you're absolutely sure; Papa truly loves Mack, and is reaching out to him in his life.
From a Christian viewpoint, I see The Shack as a call for dialogue and relationship; to move beyond lectures and essays, and on to conversations and friendships. If you'll forgive a bit of theology for a second, The Shack is 'incarnational'; it shows God stepping out into the place of tragedy, reaching out into the heart of pain, and offering comfort and solace. It's an extension of the same principle you find in the Bible, which tells of God not remaining distant, but instead becoming flesh — in a backwater country, once great but now steamrolled by successive empires, not born in a palace but in a manger. As Isaiah prophesied, "A man of sorrows, intimately familiar with suffering."
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Ultimately, The Shack is a beautiful tale, and a narrative that dares to ask deep questions of faith while grounding them in the reality of a painful life. I'm not going to pretend I agree with all of The Shack's answers, but I love that the story has the power to make me think. It uses a hauntingly beautiful narrative to stir the mind, and encourages Christian and non-Christian alike to ask questions we'd normally sideline. The film has already released in the US, but here in the UK it's release date isn't until June 9th, so I can't check it out till then. For now, though, I've got to say this is one film I'm truly looking forward to.
Are you planning to watch 'The Shack'?
(Poll Image Credit: Lionsgate)