The Shack: A Novel Take on Job


(system) #1

If the book of Job were written by a contemporary middle aged guy from Oregon, chapter 5 verse 90 might read:

No longer concerned or caring about what to call God and energized by his ire, he walked up to the door and decided to bang loudly and see what happened, but just as he raised his fist to do so, the door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman. [1]

And after the book had been rejected by secular publishers as too Christian and by Christian publishers as heretical [2], it would end up as the New York Times #1 trade paperback best seller for 12 straight weeks as of this writing and the subject of a front page Times story. [3]

Like Job, William P. Young’s self-published, first novel The Shack relates a theophany. We learn in the framing narrative that Mack Phillips’ life has been devastated by the brutal murder of his five-year old daughter, Missy. While his wife’s faith has remained strong (the 21st century, accepts a wife who is more spiritually mature than her husband), Mack finds himself depressed and questioning God. It is through the framing narrative that readers recognize Mack’s life as something we read in the headlines and experience ourselves much as Job’s original readers must have nodded their heads about those Sabean raiders. This allows both us and them to indentify with the protagonist’s questions and ultimate trust.

At first glance, Job’s friends do not live in The Shack. However, their role is played by the conventional church Mack remembers and especially in the seminary he attended. Repeatedly, Mack remarks to God or thinks to himself, “I never heard that in seminary.” Thus, the contrast between conventional religion and an unexpected God appears in both Job and The Shack.

In contrast with Job, it is Mack who questions God. He asks God all those questions that we say we would like to ask such as “How does prayer work?” and, of course, “If you are all powerful and good, why didn’t you protect my daughter?” Unlike in Job, all three members of the Trinity graciously respond to these questions as they lead Mack to trust and forgiveness. Whereas Job comes to trust through his experience of God’s transcendence, God woos Mack’s trust through intimacy. This contrast reveals the change in zeitgeist over the millennia. We prefer our God to respond in prosaic transparency rather than in poetry. [4]

After his theophany, Job hears God endorse his original theology in Job 42:7 before his life is restored to the status quo ante. For Mack, the framing narrative has him being hit by a drunk driver and spending weeks in coma. However, his life and family are healed and the murderer is brought to justice. That, I suppose, is the modern equivalent of having 10 more children to replace those who died.

Reactions of Christians to The Shack have included the expected charges of heresy. Critics see occult references to pagan deities, unbiblical statements, an egalitarian Trinity with identical personalities, and unsophisticated theology generally. Other Christians acclaim the book as a fresh vision of God. Eugene Peterson compares the book to Pilgrim’s Progress for our generation in a cover blurb. [1] The book is causing similar reactions among Adventists with some churches organizing study groups. I suspect there will be a response entitled “The Shack Collapses” published by Review and Herald to point out that the Bible teaches the non-immortality of the soul, the Devil exists in conflict with God, and the Holy Spirit always points a seeker of truth to the Bible.

I wish Young would have acknowledged that authentic relationships do flourish within church communities. This failure leaves The Shac tinged with a highly individualistic view of God’s kingdom.

From a literary perspective, The Shack shares a problem with many self-published books: the editor (or lack thereof). Dialect is caricatured (think Jar Jar Binks), the narrative becomes murky in places and far too much of the book consists of stilted exposition masquerading as conversation. This may be a case where waiting for the movie (the rights to which are currently being negotiated) might be better than reading the book.

Taken as one Christian’s attempt to pass on his understanding of God to his children, The Shack succeeds. Like all of us, Young is sure about some aspects of his faith. These include that God will confound our expectations, the Trinity values relationship among its Members and with humans, and the futility of human institutions such as organized religion. He sidesteps other subjects such as soteriology. Occasionally, his turn of phrase is profound. My favorite is this exchange:

“Does that mean,” asked Mack, “that all roads will lead to You?”

“Not at all,” smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” [1]

This picture of a God who seeks us out in surprising ways may explain how self-published fantasy novels to end up flying off Walmart shelves and into the movies. I’m picturing Della Reese as God.

___________________________________ 1. William P.Young. The Shack. Windblown Media, Los Angeles, CA 2008

2. This puts it among a collection of successful books initially rejected by multiple publishers including Lorna Doone, A Wrinkle in Time and a recent Christian critique of Nietzsche better known as Harry Potter.

3. Motoko Rich. Christian Novel Is Surprise Best Seller. New York Times June 24, 2008

4. See Edwin Thiele, Margaret Thiele. Job and the Devil. Pacific Press, Mountain View, CA, 1988 for a persuasive explanation of God’s answer to Job.

Daniel Giang writes from Loma Linda, CA where he lives with his wife, three children, and three dogs. He is a neurologist and administrator at Loma Linda University.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/885