Book Review - "The Shack" by William Paul Young (fiction)

I have read the fiction book "The Shack" by William Paul Young (check out its website at http://www.theshackbook.com/ ). I actually read it as part of a study at church, so it was not something I would have thought of reading otherwise, but I was very glad I did. As a bottom line, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone, but especially those who:
  • have had or are having bad experiences with the church or organized religion,
  • are wondering why bad things happen if God is good,
  • are unable to acknowledge God in the middle of a personal tragedy,
  • are struggling with forgiveness.

I admit I had some reservations initially, it has been a controversial book. I am reviewing here only the book and not its background, but for those who are interested in more, click here for a balanced review from USA Today giving some of the book's history and author's background, as well as comments from some Christian church leaders.

The reservations I had were dispelled by the time I got to the end of the book. The plot is simple but grabbing. While on a family camping trip, Mackenzie (Mack) Philip's little daughter is abducted. Evidence points to a serial killer. Police discover a shack where she probably spent her last moments with the killer. Mack is left wondering where is God in all this? Then, several years later, Mack gets a note which seems to come from God, inviting him to go to the shack. What follows changes Mack's life and his relationship with God.

This is definitely a very unusual book, with a unique plot, and reads well. It addresses big theological questions very well, from a practical standpoint and in a manner that anyone can understand.

The two small negative points from a technical and 'readability' point of view is that there is a lot of emotional introspection interspersed throughout this book, which has an interrupting effect on the flow of the plot (both physical and theological). Furthermore, the author has portrayed the book as having been written by Mack's friend from what Mack has told him afterward, thus making the reader wonder how he managed to portray Mack's emotions so well without being a mind-reader. (I have still not figured out the reason for the author's use of this device at all, although I'm sure there is a good reason). However, I re-iterate these criticisms are very small ones - because I still found the book to be a page-turner, and I am not one of those people who can read slow-going fiction. A reader who resonates with Mack's experiences and point of view may likely find the honest and raw emotions a plus.

From a theological usefulness point of view, this book is great. Although keeping in mind that it is fictional, it occupies the relatively untrodden middle ground between devotionals about applying Christianity in daily life, and books addressing big theological questions from a theoretical basis. The book does a wonderful job of illustrating 'where is God in all this?' using Mack's situation as an example.

From a realism point of view, this book is not realistic as far as the latter parts of the book are concerned in the sense of what physically happens. This in my opinion is not a drawback, as I believe the whole point of the book is to encourage the reader to pose the important question of how they might react to an invitation from God and what might ensue in their own, unique situation. Critics of the book largely focus on this lack of realism, as there is no precedent in the New Testament for all of what is portrayed in the book to occur in one's Earthly life. However, firstly, the book IS a fiction book, and I do not believe the author's intent was to illustrate Mack's interaction with God at the shack as something that might happen literally as shown, but rather to say 'hypothetically, if this were to happen, what could ensue?'. In what follows, the theology in the book is sound.

One particularly good touch is the author's portrayal of Mack's wife's relationship with God as relatively healthy, which shows a contrasting point of view on religion to Mack's bitterness.

Another noticeable strength of the book is that the author makes a point for God to appear to Mack in a way that defies any preconceived notions.

I would also like to add that the issue of forgiveness is particularly well illustrated here. It shows what forgiveness is, and more importantly, what forgiveness ISN'T. The book shows through Mack's situation that forgiveness for a past event doesn't necessarily imply future trust in the wrongdoer, nor necessarily require establishing a relationship if there was not one present beforehand.

In conclusion, if ANY of the issues I have raised during this book review resonate with you, I strongly recommend getting your hands on a copy of 'The Shack' right now. This is the time to take a chance and give it a go. It will be money wisely spent (or you can try your public library for a free copy). You can always stop reading it if you do not like it!

-Ver

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