The Shack By William Young: Uv Readers' Group Discussion Summary

Posted at 22:50pm on 25th April 2009

Is The Shack A True Story?

This was one of the issues raised when twenty-one of us met on Thursday to share our impressions of William Young's debut novel. Many of us found ourselves thinking of Madeleine McCann, the four year old who disappeared in Portugal whilst holidaying with her parents and twin sibs, who has never been seen again. The book, we felt, would bring solace to all parents who have ever suffered the direct loss of a child through death, or indirectly through drugs or delinquency.

Some of the group felt that the book had been written in three distinct styles, and that there were times when, for various reasons, they felt they didn't want to read on. However, we all agreed that we found ourselves increasingly drawn into the story and, despite its sometimes harrowing nature, thought it an amazingly uplifting novel, overall. Certainly one which we would be happy to pass on to non-believers to open up a dialogue about faith.

Where Is God When Things Go Wrong?

The theme is stated on the back cover of the book as "Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?" Most of the group felt that this issue was the biggest stumbling block for unbelievers, though some thought it a cop-out: a mere excuse for lack of faith in the sense of a rhetorical, almost sarcastic question, "and where is God when you need him?"

When the question is re-phrased as "Where does God stand when it comes to suffering?" some of the group felt that non-believers, and possibly some Christians, seem to take this to mean does God "allow" suffering (in the sense of "sending" it)? Personally, I believe that God's stance on suffering is very clearly demonstrated in the crucifixion. But not simply as an illustration: Father and Son suffered in agony. They don't just use our pain to make us into "better people". They know it. They feel it. Because they've "been there" and "done that".

How Are We To Deal With Christian Belief That The Book Is Heretical?

When it came to the reviews quoted in the Questions, and others that members of the group had read online, the Oedipus complex was dismissed as rubbish. The issue, quite simply, did not occur to any of the readers.

Some of the women questioned the men in the group as to their reaction to a female God, and received an overwhelmingly positive response. So often, it was felt, the church was perceived as stern and legalistic and, by implication, so was God. Consequently, the motherly, nurturing aspects of a plump black woman called Papa, conjured up an altogether softer, more approachable image. By toppling all our previously held conceptions, Papa was seen to be an accessible figure!

There was some discussion about the importance of numbers and symbolism. Missy was six and a half years old when she disappeared: not yet quite the perfect seven of the Bible. It was three and a half years (half of seven) after her death before Mack returned to The Shack. And then there was the Narnia-esque metaphor of Winter turning to Spring when he found Missy there.

By far the most difficult passage in the book came at the end of Chapter Twelve. "Is that what it means to be a Christian," asks Mack. "Who said anything about being a Christian?" Jesus replies. "I'm not a Christian." He then goes on to list people from every creed, race and political persuasion, as well as those of the criminal class and the self-righteous. All, he declares, may love him and be transformed into Papa's sons and daughters without ever becoming Christians.

Controversial? I'll say! Heretical? I don't think so. When asked by Mack if that means that all roads lead to him, Jesus replies unequivocally that most roads lead nowhere, but that he will travel any road to find "you". That's you, and me!

The discussion that followed questioned the relationship of faith and deeds and asked if leading a good life was a prerequisite of a Christian. Clearly not, we concluded, given that the thief on the cross had no time to make amends for his wickedness, yet was emphatically and instantly accepted by Jesus and given access to Paradise. With that in mind, how can we doubt that we may well encounter many of those listed on page 182 if, and when, we reach heaven ourselves?

Hard stuff to comprehend. But as one member put it: God often offends the head, in order to reach the heart.

This is, in my view, definitely a book for our time. How can we doubt that God brought it into being for this time of recession, when losses of all kinds are being visited upon mankind on an unprecedented global scale? Loss of a child may be the ultimate pain. But loss of job; economic stability; self-worth; home; marriage; perhaps, even, family must come pretty high in the suffering stakes. And if there's one thing that this book shows, it's that Christian belief in the grace and compassion of God is the answer to everything. The only answer!

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