The Shack, Part 2: Lemme Know How That Works Out
The Scene: Dr. Phil is interviewing an aspiring author who tells him he has a sensational idea for a new book.
Dr. Phil: So what’s the book about?
Author: It’s about a man who meets God one weekend at a shack in the wilderness.
Dr. Phil: Uh-huh.
Author: And here’s the cool part. God turns out to be the Trinity.
Dr. Phil: This guy meets the Trinity in a shack in the wilderness?
Author: Yeah, and it gets even better because God isn’t anything like what he imagined.
Dr. Phil: I’ll bet.
Author: When the man meets the Father, he turns out to be a black woman.
Dr. Phil: This is a joke, right?
Author: No, it’s part of the book. And he calls her “Papa."
Dr. Phil: The man calls the black woman “Papa"? Why does he do that?
Author: Because she’s like God the Father in the Bible.
Dr. Phil: Are you saying God the Father is a black woman?
Author: No! This is a novel. It’s just a story.
Dr. Phil: Okay, what else?
Author: Jesus is a man in his early 30s.
Dr. Phil: I get that part.
Author: And the Holy Spirit is a woman named Sarayu who sort of floats in and out.
Dr. Phil: And these three, what do they do?
Author: They talk a lot, and they help the man work through his pain.
Dr. Phil: Sort of like what I do on TV?
Author: Yeah, only they’re always right.
Dr. Phil: Anything else?
Author: Yeah, the Father appears as a man later in the book.
Dr. Phil: “Papa” starts as a black woman and then turns into a man?
Author: Something like that.
Dr. Phil: You’ve got a black woman called “Papa” as the Father, a young man as Jesus, and a woman named Sarayu as the Holy Spirit. And the Father becomes a man late in the book.
Author: There’s a lot more to it than that.
Dr. Phil: Okay, but what you’ve said is pretty weird. Lemme know how that works out.
The answer is, from a book selling point of view it’s worked out just fine. The Shack has sold over a million copies and it apparently hasn’t crested yet. So from that standpoint, the strange plot device works.
But it is also the most controversial part of the book. After giving the matter some thought, I came to this conclusion. The best way to read “The Shack” is to think of it like some crazy dream you had one night. That’s not far off because the whole encounter in the shack turns out to be a dream or vision of some sort. It’s as if a friend said, “I had this strange dream last night. I was in park (or maybe it was a stadium—I’m not sure) and up rides Jesus on a motorcycle only he was dressed like Abraham Lincoln, and he said, ’I am here.’ What do you think that means?” It might mean a lot of things, or maybe it means nothing at all. But to your friend, the dream was extremely vivid. If I read “The Shack” on that level, I can see, sort of, what the author was trying to do.
But in the end, it doesn’t work. It can’t work. The book imagines the Persons of the Trinity in bodily form. And then it imagines them talking to each other. And then you have the Father as a black woman called Papa. It’s hard to know what useful point is being made by that sort of gender confusion. Is God a man? No, God is a Spirit, but the Father is always referred to as “he” or “him” in the Bible. You just can’t get around that huge truth. Even with the best of intentions, no matter how hard you try, once you decide to humanize the Trinity, you end up with a God of your own imagination.
As a literary device, it does have the advantage of taking one of the most difficult concepts of the Christian faith—the Trinity—and making it memorable. The author has certainly achieved that goal. And to the degree that this “crazy dream” approach makes people think of God as personal and real, then it serves some purpose. But so much is lost in the process, especially the great biblical truth of the holiness of God. It’s hard to leap from “The Shack” back to Isaiah 6.
I know we shouldn’t parse a novel too closely, but on the other hand, words mean something and ideas have consequences. As Derek Keefe pointed out, being fair to the book means reading it on its own terms. “The Shack” is not a doctrinal treatise, but it is teaching us something about God. There is truth here about love, forgiveness and reconciliation, and that no doubt is what many readers have found inspiring.
Let me go back to my imagined interview with Dr. Phil for a moment. He is famous for saying, “Lemme know how that works out.” As a novel, the “crazy dream” idea accomplishes what the author intended. As a true picture of the God of the Bible, it doesn’t work out very well.
Tomorrow I’ll have something to add about several parts of the book that I thought were helpful.