Then a friend told me how much she liked it and lent me her copy.
Essentially, The Shack is the story of a family that has suffered the tragedy of having their six-year-old daughter kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer. They are suffering from all the reactions one can imagine, from intense sadness and guilt to extreme anger with God for allowing this to happen. Mack, the father, finds a mysterious card in the mailbox one day. It appears to be from God and invites him to come to the shack where the last evidence was found of his daughter, a blood-stained dress. When Mack gets there he encounters the Trinity in a Narnia-style adventure that strives to inform about God and our relationship to Him.
With one eye open for things that would lead me away from Church teachings, I plunged in. This is clearly a book written by someone who has not studied the craft, but who is passionate about how we can better be in a relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I found much to praise, inspire, and ponder in the first two-thirds of the book. The author's own obvious enthusiasm is communicated to the reader in an imaginative setting that helps the reader to grasp a bit better the Trinitarian God, Jesus as fully human and fully God, and our relationship to God as humans. At times this dips far enough into sentimentality while making a point that it leaves the reader wincing. However, overall I was intrigued and swept up in the way that love and relationship with God were being expressed and explained to Mack. I especially enjoyed the personification of the Trinity and that of Wisdom. (On a side note, I would be very curious to hear from any well-catechized Catholics who have read this and could comment on how this view of the Trinity falls into line with Catholic teachings.)
There were some glaring problems in the last third of the book, however. One such problem is in the author's lack of honesty in story telling when Mack finally asks Jesus about his daughter's fear and suffering at her kidnapper's hand. In a story that is supposedly about how one deals with true evil in the world, the answer glossed over any semblance of reality in a fashion that practically screamed "I can't answer this so let's just not deal with it." The author lost a golden opportunity to do some real good in giving people a chance to wrestle with this issue.
Additionally, when Mack leaves the shack and reenters reality, the family's story is sped to a satisfactory conclusion a la, "a shot rang out and everyone fell dead." As the essence of the book is found in the shack this can be understood but it left a somewhat unfinished feeling for this reader.
However, as I was not expecting much literary virtue from the author in the first place, my main problems came from the divergences between his representation of Christianity and mine as a faithful Catholic. The book suddenly takes a turn into an almost New Age mentality and I'm not just talking about the night scene where Mack is given the gift of "true sight." There is a repeated disdain expressed especially by Jesus for churches and religion as "institutions" and "buildings." Jesus tells Mack at one point of his love for his bride, the Church. He then explains that he isn't talking about what people call "church" but about every person who believes and has a relationship with him ... including Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus. While I am on board with the idea that other faiths have relationships with God (as is the Catholic Church), as a Catholic I know that we have Jesus present with us in the Eucharist. This is not simply symbolism but true presence, body and blood, soul and divinity. That is the entire reason for the Church and for any Catholic church building in the first place ... as a meeting place with Jesus in physical form. Even taken from the Protestant understanding (as I am aware of it) this is a clear disdain for the church as "community," which is what God has been talking about for a good portion of the book. Despite the "broken world" explanations given to Mack, one winds up with the feeling that if we would all waft through life just loving God and being all that we can be, then eventually we'd all wind up holding hands and singing together.
Once I read The Internet Monk's review and discovered that the author is of the "emergent church" persuasion much more about the problems I had became clear. I encourage you to read the Internet Monk's review which reflects much of my own reaction to the book. Here's a bit, but please go read it all.
Young is not a master of elegant prose (though his descriptions of the indescribable are well done), but he is wonderfully passionate about the love of God. This is a book that will leave certain aspects of the Gospel indelible impressed on the reader: the nature of the Trinity, God’s personal love for us, the meaning of trust and forgiveness, and the constant creative presence of the Holy Spirit. Young takes many chances, and while not all of them pay off equally, those that do are pretty magnificent. ( I can’t remember setting in a classroom and being moved to tears by a novel before, certainly not one in the “Christian” market.)I did enjoy this book and definitely am going to reread it, if for no other reason than many of the things in it are true and inspiring. However, this is a work of fiction and the reader is warned not to swallow the author's occasionally dubious theology whole and adapt it as their own. As the Internet Monk says, it is a work that can help inspire our own intimate relationship with God. If we take that message and actually use it in our prayer and daily life, not merely read it and feel good, then The Shack can be of great use to any Christian.
Those inclined to look for emerging church error or general heresy won’t be disappointed, and I am sure Young enjoys some of this theological and traditional mischief. I’d recommend putting up the doctrine gun for the duration of this book, and letting the story entertain and explore. This isn’t a confession or a catechism, but it is something a lot of people will read and absorb. It is difficult to not be drawn into the central character’s “Great Sadness,” and the transforming experience that sends him back into the world a changed man is one all readers will find themselves envying. If you can read this book as what it was meant to be, and not as a chapter of someone’s Systematics, it will work on the level we most need such a story: our own sense of intimacy with God.
Update: The Paragraph Farmer has an excellent review that answers my questions about where this book falls in comparison with Catholic theology. Do go read it if you are interested in this book.