The Shack came out in 2007 and became an instant cult classic, with its own website and several spinoff books. As of this writing, it has 3989 reviews on Amazon, 2534 of which give it five stars and 677 of which give it one star, with relatively few people giving it two, three, or four stars. Knowing only these facts, and that it has something to do with religion, you might guess that the book paints a vivid but controversial picture of God.
Your guess would be correct. The Shack is a novel about a man who suffers great personal loss, and is unable to come to terms with it—until he experiences an incredible personal encounter with God. The encounter brings him spiritual healing and changes his life forever.
It is clear why the book receives so many strong positive reviews. Many people harbor false notions of God—for example, that God is a stern, cold, taskmaster—and have never been exposed to God’s joyful, loving, playful side. Their god is a dead god, with no answers to their painful, searching questions about life. If The Shack is their first glimpse of the possibility that God could be so much more than they have ever imagined, then it is likely that the book will hit them with the force of a revelation, especially if they have experienced the same kind of personal loss as the protagonist has, and have asked the same questions about how God could allow such suffering and evil in our world.
It is also clear why the book receives so many strong negative reviews. The portrait of God in the book is unconventional in many ways. The way the book is written, the author puts many words in God’s mouth. The author would probably be the first to admit that he does not have complete answers to the tough questions raised in the book, and that his own understanding of God is limited. But the literary device of having God speak directly to the protagonist is likely to be offensive to many people who disagree with the author’s theology. In addition, the book is rather weak as a novel. Though many passages are beautifully written, the character development is somewhat lacking (the protagonist takes an “instant liking” to rather too many people), and the entire plot of the novel could be criticized as being little more than a conceit for putting forth a particular theological view.
Yet overall, I think the positives of this book outweigh the negatives. There is plenty of truth about God in The Shack that the world needs to hear. And the book has indisputably brought healing to many who are hurting and who have felt that they have had no outlet for their pain and for their burning questions about God. The Shack has also opened the eyes of many people who have never known that God could be so beautiful and good, and who would never have heard such marvelous news through more conventional channels. Fiction is a powerful medium and can convey certain truths more effectively than any non-fictional communication can.
I agree with the critics that the book’s portrait of God is misleading and inaccurate in some ways, but I believe that it is far more important that a book awaken a thirst for God than that it get everything exactly right. The Shack has started conversations in our society that would never have happened without it. That alone makes it a valuable piece of literature.