A mystery,” “beyond comprehension,” “impossible to understand fully”—these are some of the phrases Christians use to describe the Holy Trinity, a central tenet of the faith. I once overheard an adult initiation sponsor tell a catechist, “You don’t need to worry about the Trinity. Not even priests understand that.” The Trinity is an essential doctrine, yet few of us know much about it or its significance to our lives.
The Shack, a bestselling novel by William Paul Young, attempts to put flesh (literally) on the Trinity. God the Father, a k a “Papa,” is portrayed as a jolly African-American woman who can bake a mean scone while attending to the affairs of all creation. Jesus is a carpenter who looks like a Middle Eastern version of Bob Vila from “This Old House.” The Holy Spirit, a hippie Asian woman named Sarayu, tends a garden and flits in and out of scenes at will. (Either Drew Barrymore or Björk could play her in the movie adaptation.) The Shack leads readers to think about how a Trinitarian God relates to humanity, albeit in ways some may find silly or worse.
The book has become both a fascination and an object of contempt to millions of Christians. Opponents claim that literally portraying the Trinity as three persons is heretical; they also dislike the book’s message that Jesus looks unfavorably on organized religion and wishes that people could just “get along” despite their differences. Such backlash could contribute to the book’s success: “If you condemn it, people will read it.” By April 24, 2009, The Shack had spent 48 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, much of it in the number one spot for trade paperbacks. That is an astounding accomplishment for any book, let alone one with a $200 marketing budget. According to the publisher, Windblown Media, over six million copies are in print.
The Great Sadness
The plot is built around a sympathetic character, Mackenzie Allen Phillips (Mack), and his struggle with faith. Mack takes his children on a camping trip in the Northwest that ends disastrously—a serial child-killer abducts Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy. After a grueling search, authorities find strong evidence in an abandoned shack indicating that Missy has been murdered. Mack’s worst nightmare has come true. A host of painful feelings envelop him, an experience he calls “the Great Sadness.” Mack and his family are devastated by the loss of their beloved Missy, but they struggle on. Four years after the murder, Mack receives a mysterious note (presumably from God) that invites him back to the shack where his daughter died. There Mack encounters the three anthropomorphized members of the Trinity, each of whom helps him face his deepest spiritual wounds.
The book’s message, one familiar to many Christians, is packaged in a “spiritual but not religious” way. God, especially in the person of Jesus, eschews organized religion and instead promotes the building of relationships. This may be a breath of fresh air to those brought up with a stifling form of Christianity, but it offends those who find meaning in orthodoxy and structure.
The book raises three edifying themes.
God is interested in our lives. Even before his daughter was murdered, Mack had, at best, lukewarm feelings toward God. His wife’s affectionate term for God the Father, “Papa,” seemed quaint and foreign to Mack. It is not surprising that Mack, who was abused by his alcoholic father, would find any father figure, including God, to be suspect. If not a lost sheep, Mack is a disoriented one. He stumbles into this experience of God and learns that despite his apathy toward religion and his skepticism about the divine, he is loved by a personal God who is always present to each individual.
We can encounter God in our pain. This may be the primary reason for the popularity of The Shack. Theodicy deals with the problem of reconciling a loving, all-powerful God with the suffering in the world. Many people have taken on the problem, from brilliant theologians to ministers to writers of fiction. There is no perfect answer to it, but the best Christian answers usually invite us to envision God suffering our pain, and in that experience to draw us closer to God. The shack where Missy died represents the place in Mack’s soul where he is hurt the most, and it is here that God meets him face to face. In the midst of something as senseless as the death of a child, God not only is present, but gives us the courage to move through the pain and emerge, tear-soaked and exhausted perhaps, but with some relief and hope.
Forgiveness is possible. During his encounters with the Trinity, Mack realizes the many ways he has hurt others. Ultimately he is able to ask God for forgiveness. As a result he is able to forgive those who have hurt him, especially his father and the man who murdered Missy. This may seem outrageous or blasphemous to some, but Christians admit no limit to the power of forgiveness, even 70 times seven times.
‘Da Vinci Code’ or ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’?
The Shack is like The Da Vinci Code in one respect: people either love it or think it heretical. Evangelical Christians seem divided. YouTube videos and articles praising it are as plentiful as those condemning it. One hyperbolic blurb on the book’s front cover hails it as a Pilgrim’s Progress for our generation. The Shack is promoted by “The Missy Project,” a grass-roots campaign to pass on the book to family and friends. Hundreds of blogs, book clubs and Web sites are now devoted to promoting the book and its message. “The Missy Project” Web site advises fans to leave copies of the book in battered women’s shelters, prisons and hospitals, where people might be consoled by the message.
The Shack is not a brilliant piece of fiction, but its message arrives at the right time. Technology can sever our personal connections with one another, and pharmaceuticals can ease our pain; but The Shack shows that cutting oneself off from others and avoiding the pain of a loving, engaged life never leads to human flourishing. The notion that God is primarily about relationships with humanity—and that God is a relationship among three persons (the Trinity)—is both consoling and challenging. Some may argue that there is more to life and to religion than relationships, but as with the Trinity, relationships are central to the Christian tradition.