Before we can rightly understand The Shack, it is important to understand the book within its literary framework. The book does technically fall within the genre that is commonly labeled “Christian fiction,” and therefore does, to an extent, carry with it certain literary implications. For example, being fictional, after having read the book, we do not expect to stumble upon the main character, Mack, when we visit the northwestern part of America. Also, we, to a certain extent, suspend our disbelief while reading the book, if only to help us endure the book to the end.
The Author and the Speaker
That said, more important than the genre into which The Shack falls is understanding how the author, William Young, sets up his work to be understood and how he desires it to be read. In the foreword to the book, we are given these parameters. The speaker introduces himself as the narrator of Mack’s story, a story that, according to him, invites skepticism for, “Who wouldn’t be skeptical when a man claims to have spent an entire weekend with God, in a shack no less?” (p. 9). The speaker in his foreword of Mack’s story, conveys to the reader his own supposed reluctance in believing certain aspects of Mack’s story, but, because of the character of Mack, gives Mack the benefit of the doubt.
Finally, we are given at the end of the foreword a moniker of the narrator in his signature, “-Willie” (p. 15). We are given no reason to presume other than this is the signature of the real author, William Young, adding to the story what I believe is the author’s desire that his book be taken, to a certain extent, as a true story. This ambiguity between author and narrator is purposeful so that the author might grant to himself, on the one hand, the literary freedom that many give writers of fiction thereby shielding himself from the scrutiny inherent in non-fiction, and to give, on the other hand, a sense to the reader that this story is not another mere work of fiction but could (and perhaps, should, depending on the amount of faith that one has) be taken as reality. In other words, the author is setting himself to be a partaker of the best of both literary worlds–of the world of fictional license and of the world of non-fictional believability.
In spite of this literary straddling of the fence by the author (which he does quite well, mind you), the genre into which this book falls or does not fall is irrelevant given the nature of the material, which I shall deal with in detail when addressing the book’s theology.
The Character of Mack
In the foreword to The Shack, we are also given the speaker’s testimony of Mack, the protagonist of the story. Mack, is, as the author intended him to be, a person whose character rises above contemporary American scrutiny. In other words, Mack is what most American readers would consider to be a “good” man. Mack was reared in a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) home, and was regularly beaten by his alcoholic father while he received from said father routine devotions out of the King James Bible. In spite of this, Mack was intellectually honest enough not to abandon the Christian faith entirely and actually goes to seminary and becomes well-instructed in both theology and philosophy. And though Mack is a great thinker because of his education and disposition, he is a “thinker and doer,” not to be thought of as a hypocrite (p. 11). On the outside, Mack is an ordinary man (“slightly overweight, balding, short white guy” [p. 12]) with no striking features and no charisma that draws people to him. However, to those who know him well, he is a remarkable person, full of wisdom and intellect. In the words of the speaker:
You don’t realize how smart Mack is unless you happen to eavesdrop on a dialogue he might be having with an expert. … He can speak intelligently about most anything, and even though you sense he has strong convictions, he has a gentle way about him that lets you keep yours (p. 12).
In other words, Mack is the man that every modern American wants every other person to be. He is not handsome but not ugly, he is quiet but not silent, he is a thinker and yet is not proud, he has strong convictions but does not offend people who believe differently, he believes in God but is not religious, he is gentle, kind, nice, but not a pushover–Mack is the personification of American morality.
Besides Mack’s great morality, the meat of the book, i.e. the great revelation of God to Mack, comes after he has endured what is referred to throughout The Shack as the Great Sadness. The Great Sadness in short is the abduction and murder of Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy, and Mack’s subsequent feelings of anger and guilt regarding it. Therefore, before the narrator reveals to the reader the fantastic encounter that Mack has with God, Mack is shown to be a man who is above American moral reproach and one who has suffered a devastating loss in the murder of his daughter thereby making anyone who would criticize Mack in anything that he does a person straight from the pits of hell.
Besides Mack, every other character (besides God, which shall be dealt with in the book’s theology) simply plays a role in supporting him. He is married to Nan, who is uncommonly beautiful to be married to a George Costanza-like man, a fact which further testifies to the “inner beauty” of Mack. Nan is portrayed as a great mother and as one who loves God deeply and intimately, so much so that she calls God “Papa” (also the name by which “God the Father” calls herself later in the book [and, no, herself is not a mistype]). Nan is a great inspiration to Mack, and has no revealed flaws in the book.
Mack also has five children, all of whom are predictably different, a fact which becomes important in one particular “revelation” of God to Mack. The one child who adds a bit more to the plot than the others’ common distinctiveness, is Missy, who, as said before, is abducted and murdered resulting in the Great Sadness around which the revelation of God to Mack in the literal shack occurs.
The chief symbol in the book is “the shack,” the place where Missy’s abductor takes her and murders her. It is in this same shack where God meets Mack and reveals to him her great purposes in all things, especially in his tragedy. There are other smaller symbols, such as the lady bug, which appears on the book’s cover and is the mark of the serial child killer who murders Missy, but no reader should worry about missing allusions in the book through any great symbolism, because there is none.
Next: The Shack: A Critique, Part 3: The Theology of The Shack