It is difficult to review a book like ‘The Shack’ which has been the subject of so much hype since its publication in 2007 and has been made into a film. Interestingly, it was initially self-published. Many of my Christian friends find it gobsmackingly amazing. God is portrayed as a black African woman? Am I meant to be shocked? Jesus is described as not good-looking and visually Jewish. Do I have to do the shocked thing all over again?
The main story starts, after a lot of preamble, with the kidnap and murder of a small child – a most distressing beginning. The main theme concerns how her father, Mackenzie, deals with this terrible tragedy. After five years of bitterness, he receives a note from ‘Papa’ (this being the name by which his wife, Nan, calls God) summoning him to the ‘shack’ where the police found the bloodied dress of his little daughter, Missy. When he arrives there he finds the building transformed into a thing of beauty and inhabited by God (‘Papa’ but female), Jesus and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit). What follows then is several hundred pages of tightly-packed but sound Christian doctrine. The narrative also includes a lot of visual descriptions, including a period when Mackenzie is given enhanced visual powers like Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, enabling him to see thoughts and emotions in glorious technicolour. This probably worked very well in the film.
‘The Shack’ takes Christian fiction to its extreme limits, depicting God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit as human people, who laugh, demonstrate physical affection and share the ordinary things of life (like listening music CDs). Showing the three persons of the Trinity in this way, as loving, tolerant, patient and understanding, was arguably the strongest feature in the book. The gender and race of the God-Papa character became less important as the narrative progressed.
How I rate ‘The Shack’ depends on whether I regard it as a work of literature or of theology. As literature, it is good but not outstanding, the pace slow, meandering and the storyline taking a while to get going. The main character Mackenzie is a sponge to soak up the personalities of Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, and we don’t get to know him outside the tragedy of his daughter’s death. If I consider this book as theology, I find the most important structures of Christian doctrine stated and restated, accurately and meaningfully, which doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. A work for mature Christians, with a lot of food for thought.
A good review, Rosemary. I read The Shack years ago and found it very moving.
The beginning was gut wrenching though.
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