I’ve been burned by Christian fiction before, and tend to steer well clear of it these days. However, this book was recommended to my wife by people in her Master of Counselling course (at a Christian college). These people are as disposed to being intellectually honest with their belief as you’re likely to find amongst any Christians you meet, and it looked to be a short and easy read, so I tentatively picked it up.
The main plot point deals with how the protagonist, Mackenzie “Mack” Allen Phillips, deals with faith issues and what he calls “The Great Sadness” resulting from the kidnap and murder of his youngest daughter. In the process he receives an invitation from God (literally) to revisit The Shack, the site where the murder took place. There, he has an …unusual encounter with The Creator.
The author probably thinks himself very clever, deliberately breaking stereotypes and preconceived notions, challenging Christians to rethink their perception of God. The problem though, is that the very nature of Faith is its dogmatism; its fingers-in-ears approach to anything that doesn’t conform with their very specific beliefs. So in contrast to the broad audience that this book pitches itself to, I fear it might actually have very limited appeal; specifically, a very small group of liberal Christians (particularly white Americans – the narative reeks of white guilt).
As if in acknowledgement of this, to try and broaden its appeal amongst believers, the book contains no fewer than 23 separate quotes from Christians in various positions of importance or influence, with some explicitly spelled out (e.g. “Patrick M. Roddy. Emmy Award-winning producer for ABC News”) and others cryptically not (“Chyril Walker, PhD”).
As to the story itself, it’s pure fantasy. There’s a certain discomfort in using the fictional construct to present (theological) “truths” in this way, because there’s always the tension in the mind of trying to reconcile what’s real with what’s not. In the case of Christian fiction, and especially so with The Shack, the problem is that the author oversteps the boundaries of what a person might be prepared to accept as real, given the empirical observations in daily life – the failures, the disappointments, the unexplainable. As much as the book attempts to address the theological perspective of these things through the metaphors used, it’s no comfort at all that once you finish reading, the wonders presented remain safely tucked away inside the pages, wholly apart from reality.
If you’re looking for an intellectual discourse, this book isn’t for you. Even though the premise of the story ostensibly offers to answer “the difficult questions”, what it actually does is to present the liberal Christians’ views on the character and nature of God, from which they derive a context for understanding. If that all sounds a bit too airy-fairy and not your cup of tea, then I suggest picking up The Spirit-Filled Believer’s Handbook, by Derek Prince, instead. I found that to be much more straightforward and informative.
If you’re an ardent unbeliever, The Shack will just seem like another nauseating piece of televangelist-style Christian propaganda.