A Catholic Reads The Shack

Perhaps you’ve heard of the publishing phenomenon called The Shack. The book, written by William P. Young, was brought out in 2007 and has become an international sensation, riding atop the New York Times paperback bestseller list for nearly a year and currently sitting at #3 on the Amazon book sales list. What makes The Shack an extremely unusual bestseller is that it’s a modern retelling of the book of Job, an exploration of the problem of God in relation to human suffering. The protagonist of The Shack is Mackenzie Phillips, a decent family man whose youngest daughter, Missy, we learn, had been kidnapped and brutally murdered by a twisted serial killer. The last trace of his daughter, a blood-stained dress, had been found on the floor of a delapidated shack set deep in the woods. In the wake of the murder, a crushing depression settled on Mackenzie and he began to question his belief in God. As the novel opens, Mack receives a mysterious invitation to come to the shack. The note, without return address or any other identifying marker, is signed, “Papa,” the name that Mack’s wife typically uses for God. Fully aware of the dangers (the note could have been penned by the killer), but desperate for answers, Mack goes to the shack and there he meets, to his infinite surprise, the three-personed God.

The second half of the novel unfolds as a series of conversations that the grieving man has, together and separately, with the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. What I found immediately attractive — and theologically right — about The Shack is that God is portrayed as love right through. The Father, Son, and Spirit relate to one another as friends and insist, over and again, that they want to draw Mack, and the whole human race, into a share in their fellowship. Thomas Aquinas referred to this deificatio (deification), a participation in the dynamics of the Trinitarian love. Further, the three persons of God are depicted by William Young as both infinitely and intimately knowledgeable: God knows Mack through and through; he knows every detail of his painful story; he knows the quality and depth of Mack’s resistance to grace. I do think that many in our culture are haunted by a Deism that places God at a great distance from our ordinary concerns. The God of The Shack is decidedly not the Deist God, but rather the God of Psalm 139: “Lord, you search me and you know me. You know my resting and my rising; you discern my purpose from afar.” And this means, in turn, that God is someone to whom we can speak, and not just in the sometimes stilted and abstract language of formal prayer. Mack goes on long walks with Jesus; he gardens with the Holy Spirit; he helps to prepare meals with the Father. I realize how strange this can sound, but then we recall that, in the Genesis story, Adam walked with God in the cool of the evening and conversed with him friend to friend and that Jesus ate and drank with his disciples, even preparing a meal for them by the Sea of Galilee.

The central issue of the novel — Mack’s anger over God’s seeming refusal to protect Missy — is also handled creatively and in the biblical spirit. God explains that the original sin involved the establishment of the limited human mind as the criterion of what is ultimately good and evil. What this led to was a loss of trust in the God whose purposes are always good, even when that goodness lies beyond the human capacity to see.

Now many critics of The Shack have emerged (which is inevitable when the topic is God!), and I can’t possibly explore all of the objections. I will focus only on what bothered me the most. Toward the end of the novel, Mack’s conversations with the Trinity turn to the issues of law and “religion,” and I was somewhat disquieted when God began to sound like Martin Luther! We hear that God gave us the Ten Commandments only to convince us how incapable we are of ever living up to them and that the law involves an interruption in the grace of relationship and that those who are in Jesus are free from the demands of “rules and obligations.” As I say, all of this is out of the standard Reformation handbook, and Catholics have legitimately balked at it for five hundred years. We appreciate the law, not as a reminder of our incapacity, but as the structuring logic of love, the rules that govern our lives within the household of God. Luther and his disciples (including William P. Young) tend to set up a dialectic of opposition between law and grace, but Catholics see the two as analogically related, law fulfilled by grace and grace leading to a deeper embrace of the heart of the law.

Would I recommend The Shack? Yes, absolutely, especially to those who have suffered a great loss. But, if I can borrow a metaphor, reading it is a bit like eating a watermelon: lots of good sweet stuff to eat, but you’ve got to spit out a few seeds!

Fr. Robert Barron

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Fr. Robert Barron, S.T.D. is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

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  • Robert Corley

    Rev. Robert Barron,
    Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on The Shack. I came away with a very similar sense of the story. I have come to view many non-Catholic Christians as good, even holy people who have embraced elements of God’s truth. I believe that when one embraces a Truth of Gog they receive a special grace. Much of the holiness expressed in this story reflects the holy grace given to many. Many on Catholics seem to hold this view that it does not matter what church you go to -some even consider that church is not necessary. The contradiction of this attitude, rooted in defiance of authority (read-pride), is exemplified by the great logical proposition expoused by CS Lewis (himself a non-Catholic) when he argued that Jesus was either a liar, lunatic or the Son of God. The Catholic Church is either the church founded and loved by Jesus, or it (its members, holy ones, leaders) are lunatics, or they are liars. Mr. Young’s distain of religion and minimization of organized church is exactly opposite of what Paul taught in his Epistles: that we are to agree on everything; praying, singing palms and hymns with thankful hearts. Alas I pray for the patience and strength to love and not condemn, especially in the face of a teaching that harms the very prize of God’s desire: His Church. Let us pray for God’s Church and all His people.

  • ronpilgrim

    I don’t think it’s prudent to uncritically praise this novel without reflecting on the charges that it has elements contrary to our Faith, such as pantheism. Yes, the Trinity seems to be figured. Is that the only test of it, though, as good Catholic reading material? Jesus in the novel is like the guy next door, not in a glorified body, no Sacred Heart, no Divine Mercy, nothing Catholic, nothing of our Church’s vision of Him as the Second Person of the Godhead, the Lamb of God, Our Savior. I am reading the novel. It’s well written. I don’t think, at this point, it passes Catholic theological muster.

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