A decade after it came out (though a few weeks before the movie premiers) I finally read The Shack. My grandmother asked me to read it because there were things she wanted to talk to me about, though sadly I didn’t before she died. The Shack is a fictional tale centered on a man named Mackenzie Allen Philips. His young daughter Missy gets abducted during a family camping trip at Wallowa Lake State Park in Oregon. A frantic search leads Mack and the police deep into the Oregon wilderness—to an old and abandoned shack where “on the floor by the fireplace lay Missy’s torn and blood-soaked red dress.” Four years later (with Mack in the midst of a spiritual crisis he terms “The Great Sadness”), a mysterious note appears in his mailbox inviting him to that shack for a weekend:
Mack goes to the Shack and encounters God. God in the form of Elousia (Creator, a black woman), Jesus (Jesus the Christ, a Middle Eastern man), and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit, an Asian woman.) The encounter will change him forever as he wrestles with his faith and relationship with God. In some ways, the book centers on the theological topic of Theodicy. If God is all-powerful and God is perfectly good—why does God allow evil to exist? For Mack, this question is personal as he cannot seem to forgive God for the brutal death of his young, innocent daughter Missy.
With God beside him, Mack explores the Doctrine of the Trinity, the Doctrine of Human Beings, the Doctrine of Sin, Christology, Ecclesiology, Christianity and other World Religions, and Theodicy (among other theological topics that I may have missed in this list!) Being a Seminary-trained Ordained Minister in the United Church of Christ, there were parts that read like a creative Systematic Theology paper. While not all the theology in The Shack aligned with mine, Young presents a remarkable way for readers to engage questions of faith within this work of fiction. It’s disheartening to see some Christian ministers write off The Shack as heretical because some of the theology might not align with their own.
Personally I appreciated Young’s exploration of the Trinity in particular—which is a difficult theological concept! It’s hard to present our three-in-one and one-in-three God in a work of fiction, let alone in papers or sermons. The Trinity will always be a bit mysterious because we’re talking about the very nature of God—who is both immanent and transcendent. Seven years ago, I wrote my Ordination Paper for the United Church of Christ and here’s what I wrote concerning the Trinity:
The Prologue in our UCC Constitution begins by stating that Jesus Christ is the sole head of the UCC and identifies him as Son of God and Savior, but also points to the Holy Spirit’s work in the world and the Church’s need to worship with pure hearts before God. The Prologue mentions all three persons of the Trinity but is not bound to traditional formulaic expressions of Trinitarian language like Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While I appreciate the Trinity and believe the Trinity to be an excellent way to understand the complex nature of God, I also have some misgivings with the traditional hierarchical form of the Trinity. Rather, I tend to think of the Trinity in more relational terms—more like a circle than a triangle, so to speak. The Trinity is about relationship and about God manifesting God’s own self in several forms.
I do think of the Trinity as a circle of relationship. And Young’s exploration of the Trinity is just one example of what I find valuable in The Shack. For Young has Papa (Creator) explain to Mack, “We are in a circle of relationship.” That’s a belief that many Christians do adhere to, including myself! Though does every single line about the Trinity in the book echo my own beliefs? Of course not. But The Shack made me dig out my Ordination Paper and remember what I had written in the midst of my theological studies.
And there’s many great theological quotes one can find in The Shack!
- “Mack, pain has a way of clipping our wings and keeping us from being able to fly . . . and if it’s left unresolved for very long, you can almost forget that you were ever created to fly in the first place.” (99)
- “Jesus is fully human. Although he is also fully God, he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being. He is just the first to do it to the uttermost—the first to absolutely trust my life within him, the first to believe in my love and my goodness without regard for appearance of consequence.” (102)
- “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside.” (122)
- “You demanded your independence, and now you are angry with the One who loved you enough to give it to you.” (166)
- “This life is only the anteroom of a greater reality to come. No one reaches their potential in your world. It’s only preparation for what Papa had in mind all along.” (169)
- “Mack, I don’t want to be first among a list of values; I want to be at the center of everything. When I live in you, then together we can live through everything that happens to you.” (209)
- “Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes; with every kindness and service, seen or unseen, my purposes are accomplished and nothing will ever be the same again.” (237)
I’m excited to see the movie and wish I had read The Shack earlier to speak to my grandmother about what the book evoked within her. For that is the beauty of this book—all who spend time on this journey with Mack and God will come away with various questions on their hearts. And then the journey begins anew.