Theological Reflections on “The Shack” I: Literary Genre

[My book on the Shack is now available on Kindle.]

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. 🙂

9 Responses to “Theological Reflections on “The Shack” I: Literary Genre”

  1.   T Gagnon Says:

    So John Mark,

    Are we to just observe the blogs regarding “The Shack” as solely your personal journey and not comment on your opinions? Are we to disregard your opinions/commentary regarding what you think the parable means which apparently does make an impression on those who frequent your blog? It seems like you’re pulling way back from the initial position as a knowledgable commentator/proponent on “The Shack.” I’m genuinely confused at this change of focus. Please clafify.
    Thank you

  2.   clyde s. Says:

    I read the Shack 8 or 9 months ago after being tipped off by a friend who said it was life-changing and that Eugene Peterson had said it was going to be this generation’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I enjoyed PP, and I love Peterson, so I had to read it.

    I was underwhelmed, probably because I expected too much after all that hype but also because I didn’t think he was a very good writer (his writing style struck me as predictable/formulaic).

    But you’ve really shed some light on the value of the book. If it helps other sufferers in the same way it has helped you, then it will have been of immense value, far beyond its modest page count.

    Thanks for the string of posts on it.

  3.   clyde s. Says:

    Sorry–I also meant to say that I had no idea when I read it that the author had been through anything traumatic at all, so it has altered my perspective just knowing the place out of which it was generated. Thanks for bringing out Young’s personal background.

  4.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    My point in discussing “The Shack,” is for processing my own hurt and pain. I write to continue my own journey. At the same time, I invite others to reflect and comment as well. I welcome discussion.

  5.   rich constant Says:

    john mark we can look at your processing as a existential dinamic , a community project so to speak. A process of acceptance learning to live life on life’s terms.
    Giving glory to God patiently asking our father for help and guidance through our efforts and understanding his will
    so that we all are becoming a work in progress through the dynamic of the community and the restoration of our own shack

    Question John Mark I don’t understand what you don’t get about Paul’s argument in Romans seven and his didactic prose. Who shall deliver me from the body of this death/
    and God brings water and rain upon the righteous as well as un righteous….

    Blessings rich California

  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I love prose, Richard. I write it myself. I like Romans 7–it resonates with me and impacts me emotionally as well as intellectually. But it is also personification. 🙂 But it is not the only literary genre in Scripture or the only way to communicate.

    I appreciate your comments on the communal process of recovery…the “fellowship” supports, encourages, and guides us. And the Spirit of God is at work among us.

  7.   rich constant Says:


    this ought to be fun

  8.   amtog Says:

    Perhaps this is one of those books (or occasions in life) when one will find what one seeks because he brings it with him.

    It seems that people who go looking for heresy will find it.

    Those who go looking for affirmation of their own beliefs about God will find it.

    I went expecting to find that the book was neither heretical or revelatory and that is what I came away with.

    Honestly, I think I got more out of this post about the book than the book itself. Thanks for letting me borrow your eyes for a moment.

  9.   Terrell Lee Says:

    I agree with amtog and read The Shack from the same perspective. Reading only those materials I agree with leads to theological inbreeding and this does not paint a pretty picture.

    Push on John Mark.


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