If you are interested in a pastoral review of The Shack, that five part series begins here.
While some have perhaps read The Shack as an actual account, the title page clearly identifies the piece as a “novel.” This is a fictional story.
Young himself identifes the literary genre in which he writes as an extended modern parable (listen to his personal story). This is helpful. Like a parable, the events described are fictional though quite possible. And also like a parable, it may communicate something true about God.
For example, the Prodigal Son (Luke 16) is a fictional but true story. It is fictional in the sense that the story has no correspondance in fact, that is, it is not a story about a specific, actual family. But the story is nevertheless true. The Prodigal Son communicates truth. It is theological reflection.
A parabolic story draws the listener or reader into the world of the parable so that we might see something from a particular angle. A parable is not comprehensive theology, but a narratival way of saying a particular thing. As a piece of art rather than didactic prose, it allows a person to hear that point in an emotional as well as intellectual way. It gives us imagery, metaphor, and pictures to envision the truth rather than merely propositions that state it. Parables, as the parables of Jesus often do, can sucker-punch us so that we begin to see something we had not previously seen about ourselves, about God, or about the kingdom. They speak to us emotionally in ways that pure prose does not usually do, much like music, art and poetry are expressive in ways that transcend prose.
The Shack is, I think, a piece of serious theological reflection in parabolic form. It is not a systematic theology. It does not cover every possible topic nor reflect on God from every potential angle. That is not its intent. It is not a comprehensive “doctrine of God.” Its focus is rather narrow. Fundamentally, I read the book as answering this question: how do wounded people journey through their hurt to truly believe in their gut that God really loves them despite the condition of their “shack”?
When reading The Shack as serious theological reflection, it is important to keep in mind two key points. First, Young wrote the story to share with his family (primarily his kids) the theological dimensions of his journey into recovery. His family recognizes that he is “Mack,” that Missy is his own lost childhood, and Mack’s encounter with God is the story of his last eleven years to find healing. It is a story into which his children can enter to understand their father’s journey.
Second, it is serious theology in that he shares the vision of God that is at the root of his healing. The parable teaches the truth–the truth he came to believe through the process of his own recovery and healing. The “truth,” however, is not that God is an African American woman–that is the parabolic form. Rather, the “truth” is that God is “especially fond” of Paul (Mack) despite his “shack” (his “stuff”).
The theological message, once it found a publisher, is now availalbe for others than his children. It now became a parable for other readers as well through which Young invites us to see that the truth he discovered in his own recovery is true for every one of us. God is “especially fond” of each of us no matter what the condition of our “shacks”.
In this series–and I have no idea how far or long I will go with this–I will use Young’s parable as an occasion for thinking about some significant theological themes. The Shack will provide the fodder but I will not limit myself to the book in developing those themes.
While one aspect of my purpose is to discern whether The Shack is as heretical as some seem to think, my larger intent is to think about these themes in the context of my own journey to find healing in the midst of woundedness as well as to think more broadly about what our vision of God actually is.
So, I invite you to read, reflect, and discuss these themes with me, but I write for my own processing more than I write for you.