Man meets God in this fictional story of the middle-aged Mack. In the telling, Mack receives a mysterious note one winter afternoon, four years into his "Great Sadness," inviting him to the shack where his youngest daughter, Missy, was murdered after her disappearance from a family camping trip. Upon arrival, Mack encounters three people in the Oregon wilderness, each presented by the narrator as a member of the Trinity: God is a beaming African-American woman named Papa; Jesus, a handyman in jeans with Middle Eastern features; and the Holy Spirit, an Asian woman named Sarayu who is an imperceptible presence at best. Over the course of one weekend in this supernatural company, Mack comes to terms with what he believes about who God is and how God regards him.
The shack is William Paul Young's metaphor for the heart housed by hurts, lies, and secrets. His aim in the story is to offer an approachable God of relationality and love through whom his protagonist can make sense of tragedies, failures, and disappointments. However, there is another task threaded throughout the book. Young means to dismantle preconceived notions about God and all religious conditioning (93, 119, 179, 205). In so doing, however, he creates false antitheses between faith and life, belief and practice, doctrine or religiosity and the experience of God, all of which in his view are mutually exclusive.
The book is useful in that Young makes a number of assertions and arguments that serious Christians should consider. He is an engaging storyteller-even if the plotline is prosaic at times-and the themes tackled (namely, how we think about God) matter a great deal. However, Young has little regard for the way in which God has revealed himself in Scripture, as when Papa tells Mack, "If I choose to appear to you as a man or woman, it's because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning" (93).
This misses an important point, namely that God reveals himself to us by accommodating our creatureliness. God names himself and describes himself in ways that are graspable to humans; he gives us metaphors and analogies that are readily understandable. Although God is spirit, and thus neither anatomically male nor female, he identifies certain pronouns that conform to the way of redemption itself (God sends his Son, who becomes man in order to make satisfaction for sin, so that we might become children of God, Abba, our Father). It is no small thing to challenge God's self-revelation the way Young frequently does and play fast and loose with the names, titles, and designations we find in Scripture. There is, therefore, a more fundamental issue at stake in The Shack: the act of naming and the authority that goes with it. By renaming God, Young subverts the authority of the One to whom the act of naming belongs in the first place.
Similarly, Young frequently hop-scotches over the finer points of what constitutes orthodox or "right" teaching and opts for a different classification, the "almost right," where parts can be isolated from the whole. This is where the reader must handle the author's arguments carefully, because many of God's attributes are inaccurately portrayed. For example, The Shack lays aside God's transcendence or "otherness" in favor of an exclusively close, near, and relational God. This reductionism continues when the cross of Christ is all but overlooked (101) as the reconciliation that makes possible a close relationship with God. Young consistently prefers a more palatable God molded into our image, a God who is like us, or more importantly, who likes us, rather than the God of the Bible.
The book is unfortunately filled with other teachings that are not in accordance with Scripture; and not just about who God is, but about what God has done for us in the gospel. For example, Papa says, "I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don't need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It's not my purpose to punish it; it's my joy to cure it" (120). For Christians, this line of reasoning runs afoul God's revealed attribute of justice and holiness (and so impinges on who God is), but it also removes an indispensible element of the gospel itself-the work of Christ on the cross in satisfying the just demands of the punishment of the law. The fact that the wages of sin is death, and that this payment was meted out in the crucifixion of Christ, is part of the logic of the gospel. Without it, God's work on our behalf is severely undercut, reducing God to a resource for our own positive self-affirmation.
Young states at the outset that readers will come to The Shack from their own perspective and that not everyone will appreciate the story. However, the broad popularity of the book means that Christians should take seriously its portrayal of God and evaluate it against the teaching of Scripture. The Shack is unapologetically a work of fiction and so plays by literary rules. Nevertheless, it must be read carefully and with great discernment, and with the recognition that in places it strays far and wide from a biblical God who is not like us, but became one of us in order to save us out of our sin and misery.