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The Shack: Heartrending but Not Life-Changing

Observer Scene | Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wm. Paul Young’s bestselling novel “The Shack” claims to “[wrestle] with the timeless question: Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain,” but seems to fall short of its goal for many people.

“The Shack” tells the supposedly true story of a man named Mackenzie Allen Phillips, who lives with a wife, five kids and the memory of an abusive father. Mack, as he is called by Young, a real-life friend of Mackenzie’s, lives a content life, though he cannot seem to find the affection that his wife, Nan, has for God, whom she affectionately calls “Papa.” His life is happy, for the most part, until he decides to take his three youngest children on a camping trip that will forever change his life.

On the final day of the camping trip, Mack’s pre-teen daughter, Missy, is abducted while Mack is distracted saving his son who has fallen into a nearby river. Mack and the rest of the Phillips family later learns that she has been taken by a serial killer named the Little Ladykiller, who targets young girls, leaving only a ladybug pin behind as evidence. The only trace of Missy that the police can discover is a bloodstained dress in an abandoned shack in the wilderness outside of the campground.

Missy’s death throws Mack into “The Great Sadness,” a term Young borrows from Mack himself to describe the empty feeling of worthlessness that now surrounds his everyday life. That is, until Mack receives a mysterious note in his mailbox, requesting his presence at the shack, and signed “Papa.” Despite reason telling him not to, Mack journeys to the shack and is thrown into a world of self-discovery led by the three persons of the Christian Trinity – God, in the form of a large black woman known only as “Papa,” Jesus, in all of his humanity, and the Holy Spirit, who takes the form of a mysterious Asian woman who goes by the name of Sarayu.

Throughout his time at the shack, Mack comes to understand many things about himself, about religion, and most importantly, about what it truly means to be in a relationship. Young clearly means for “The Shack” to have a similar effect on his readers as the experience had on Mack, or at least for it to open the eyes of the readers to the reality in which he believes, and for extremely open-minded believers in Christianity, it likely does just that.

Unfortunately, for conservative Christians, and especially for those who are truly struggling with the question of evil in the world, it seems that “The Shack” does very little. For conservative Christians, the characters of the Trinity are too anti-religious and too anti-establishment. For those who have suffered pain and are doubtful as to the existence of God, the theology of “The Shack” is simply too powerful without giving any evidence as to why one should believe in His existence at all. If one is to glean anything from the novel, he must grant Young his specific beliefs about the state of the universe and try to look for the underlying message that he is attempting to put forward.

“The Shack” is a heart-wrenching but enjoyable novel that is easy to read. It is by no means, however, life-changing for those who are actually wrestling with the important question for which it claims to answer.