Eugene Peterson describes William Young’s “The Shack” [website here] as a book that “has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” Now, it’s been a few years since I’ve read “Pilgrim’s Progress” but unfortunately I don’t think I can say the same. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read any Christian fiction, and I don’t know that the genre necessarily known for producing amazing literature, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The book has an interesting premise: Mack is a father who experienced an incredible loss (which is referred to as The Great Sadness in the book) ends up being “taken up” into a revelatory, vision experience in which he spends a few days with Elousia, or Papa, a large African-American woman (who represents God), a Middle Eastern carpenter named Jesus (who represents…Jesus) and an Asian woman named Sarayu (who represents…yup you guessed it, the Holy Spirit). He spends a few days with this holy Trinity working through his anger, disbelief, frustration and theological issues with God.
Papa, who is a female, yet she insists on being called “Papa” assures Mack that God isn’t male or female, yet it was important that God be known primarily through male imagery.
“But then,” he paused, still focused on staying rational, “why is there such an emphasis on you being a Father? I mean, it seems to be the way you most reveal yourself.”
“Well,” responded Papa, turning away from him and bustling around the kitchen, “there are many reasons for that, and some of them go very deep. Let me say for now that we knew once the Creation was broken, true fathering would be much more lacking than mothering. Don’t misunderstand me, both are needed – but an emphasis on fathering is necessary because of the enormity of its absence.” ((William P. Young, “The Shack” (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007), 94.))
I found it interesting that later in the book, after Mack’s severed relationship with his biological father is mended, he then sees God as an old man with silver-white hair.
Mack spends time walking on water with Jesus; a Jesus who is a free-spirited “buddy” – a guy who doesn’t like institutions (the institutional nature of church or even of marriage) and who is Mack’s favorite of the three. Jesus even tells Mack that he isn’t interested in him being a “Christian” – because, heck, even Jesus isn’t a Christian. There is a slight mention of Buddhists and Muslims being able to be good people and care about the things Jesus cared about, but Jesus very clearly says that not all roads lead to the same place. Jesus does say that he can go to any road to find people, but the author doesn’t lead off into universalism. Mack also spends some time gardening the “garden of his soul” with Sarayu, the Holy Spirit.
With Papa, Mack has lots of theological conversations; their conversations cover the meaning of the cross, free will and predestination, suffering, evil in the world and many, many others. At times, the focus on getting across certain theology seemed forced and sometimes it was a bit cliché as well. I finished the book – but didn’t find it to be all that compelling. It is interesting, and I think that there will be some who will like it. I liked that a Christian author wanted to try some new things and play around with the stereotypes of God as male, God as European and white. But in end, it seemed that Young still came back to the image of God as Father, God as male being the most important image. All in all, to compare it to “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is a little bit of a stretch though. Sorry Eugene. But if someone would like to give it a read, and perhaps a better review, I’ll ship it off to the first person who leaves a comment and asks for the book.