What Kind of Book is the Shack?
I will open my mouth with a parable, I will teach you lessons from the past.
Psalm 78:2 (TNIV)
While some have perhaps read The Shack as an actual account, the title page identifies the piece as a “novel.” This is a fictional story. But…it is nevertheless true.
When Paul Young talks about his book, he identifies it as an extended modern parable. Like a parable, the events described are fictional though possible (that is, it is not science fiction). And, like a parable, it becomes a world into which we step to hear something true about God, life and the soul.
The Prodigal Son (Luke 15), for example, is a fictional but true story. As fiction the story has no correspondence in fact, that is, it is not a story about a specific, actual family. No one walked up to Jesus after the parable to ask the name of the son, which family he came from and into which “far country” he went. Whether it is actual history or not is irrelevant. It is a fictional tale. But the story is nevertheless true. The Prodigal Son says something true about God and his relationship with his children.
A parabolic story draws the listener or reader into the world of the parable so that we can see something from a particular angle. A parable is not comprehensive theology, but a story-shaped 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 describing it in prose. Rather than analyzing propositions, we become part of a parable’s narrative. We are free to experience our own life again as we are guided by the storyteller.
Parables, as the parables of Jesus often do, sucker-punch us so that we begin to see something we had not previously seen about ourselves, God or the world. 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 discursive or academic descriptions. This enables the right side (the artsy side) of our brains to connect with what the left side (the analytical side) of our brain thinks about. We can feel these truths rather than simply think about them. As a result those truths can connect with our guts (our core beliefs about ourselves) in ways that our intellect cannot reach. The truths, then, can settle into our hearts as well as our minds.
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. That would be too much to expect from a parable. The “Prodigal Son,” for example, is not a comprehensive teaching about God.
Rather, the focus of The Shack is rather narrow. Fundamentally, given my own experience and hearing Young talk about his intent, 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”?
The parable is about how we feel about ourselves in our own “shacks.” Do we really believe—deep in our guts, not just in our heads—that God is “especially fond” of us? How can God love us when our “shacks” are a mess? The parable addresses these feelings, self-images and woundedness.
The theology of The Shack engages us at this level. It encourages us to embrace the loving relationship into which God invites us. Consequently, it does not answer every question, address every aspect of God’s nature or reflect on every topic of Christian theology. Instead, it zeros in on the fundamental way in which wounded souls erect barriers that muzzle the divine invitation to loving relationship.
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 his own journey into spiritual recovery with his kids. His family recognizes that he is “Mack,” that Missy is his own lost childhood, and Mack’s encounter with God over a weekend is a telescoped parable of his own ten year journey to find healing. It is a story into which Young’s children could enter to understand their father’s journey from tragedy to hope, from barrenness to relationship with God.
Second, it is serious theology in that he shares a vision of God that is at the root of his healing. The parable teaches 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 (a metaphor which has angered some). That is simply a parabolic form. Rather, the truth is that God is “especially fond” of Paul (Mack) despite his “shack” (his “stuff”).
This message, once it found a publisher, became available for others beyond his children. It has now become a parable for other readers, and 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 the brief chapters that follow I will use Young’s parable as an occasion for thinking about some significant themes in spiritual recovery. The Shack will provide the fodder but I will not limit myself to Young’s book in developing the themes. Using the novel as a starting place, I will pursue these themes in the context of my own spiritual journey as well as placing them within the Story of God as told in Scripture.
While one aspect of my purpose is to discern whether The Shack deserves the hostility that some have given it, my larger intent is to reflect on spiritual recovery in the context of my own journey to find healing. We will walk along side Mack as he receives a vision of God which wounded people need and want to hear—a vision available in Scripture itself.
So, I invite you to reflect on these themes with me—to process them within your own journey, out of your own woundedness and in relationship with your own God.