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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > July 2009 > A Catholic Reads The Shack
Current rating: 4.3 (16 ratings)

A Catholic Reads The Shack

By Rev. Robert Barron

Perhaps you’ve heard of the publishing phenomenon called The Shack.  The book, written by William P. Young, was brought out in 2007 and has become an international sensation, riding atop the New York Times paperback bestseller list for nearly a year and currently sitting at #3 on the Amazon book sales list.  What makes The Shack an extremely unusual bestseller is that it’s a modern retelling of the book of Job, an exploration of the problem of God in relation to human suffering.  The protagonist of The Shack is Mackenzie Phillips,  a decent family man whose youngest daughter, Missy, we learn, had been kidnapped and brutally murdered by a twisted serial killer.  The last trace of his daughter, a blood-stained dress, had been found on the floor of a delapidated shack set deep in the woods.  In the wake of the murder, a crushing depression settled on Mackenzie and he began to question his belief in God.  As the novel opens, Mack receives a mysterious invitation to come to the shack.  The note, without return address or any other identifying marker, is signed, “Papa,” the name that Mack’s wife typically uses for God.  Fully aware of the dangers (the note could have been penned by the killer), but desperate for answers, Mack goes to the shack and there he meets, to his infinite surprise, the three-personed God. 

The second half of the novel unfolds as a series of conversations that the grieving man has, together and separately, with the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  What I found immediately attractive—and theologically right—about The Shack is that God is portrayed as love right through.  The Father, Son, and Spirit relate to one another as friends and insist, over and again, that they want to draw Mack, and the whole human race,into a share in their fellowship.  Thomas Aquinas referred to this deificatio (deification), a participation in the dynamics of the Trinitarian love.  Further, the three persons of God are depicted by William Young as both infinitely and intimately knowledgeable:  God knows Mack through and through; he knows every detail of his painful story; he knows the quality and depth of Mack’s resistance to grace.  I do think that many in our culture are haunted by a Deism that places God at a great distance from our ordinary concerns.  The God of The Shack  is decidely not the Deist God, but rather the God of Psalm 139:  “Lord, you search me and you know me.  You know my resting and my rising; you discern my purpose from afar.”  And this means, in turn, that God is someone to whom we can speak, and not just in the sometimes stilted and abstract language of formal prayer.  Mack goes on long walks with Jesus; he gardens with the Holy Spirit; he helps to prepare meals with the Father.  I realize how strange this can sound, but then we recall that, in the Genesis story, Adam walked with God in the cool of the evening and conversed with him friend to friend and that Jesus ate and drank with his disciples, even preparing a meal for them by the Sea of Galilee. 

The central issue of the novel—Mack’s anger over God’s seeming refusal to protect Missy—is also handled creatively and in the biblical spirit.  God explains that the original sin involved the establishment of the limited human mind as the criterion of what is ultimately good and evil.  What this led to was a loss of trust in the God whose purposes are always good, even when that goodness lies beyond the human capacity to see. 

Now many critics of The Shack
have emerged (which is inevitable when the topic is God!), and I can’t possibly explore all of the objections.  I will focus only on what bothered me the most.  Toward the end of the novel, Mack’s conversations with the Trinity turn to the issues of law and “religion,” and I was somewhat disquieted when God began to sound like Martin Luther!  We hear that God gave us the Ten Commandments only to convince us how incapable we are of ever living up to them and that the law involves an interruption in the grace of relationship and that those who are in Jesus are free from the demands of “rules and obligations.”  As I say, all of this is out of the standard Reformation handbook, and Catholics have legitimately balked at it for five hundred years.  We appreciate the law, not as a reminder of our incapacity, but as the structuring logic of love, the rules that govern our lives within the household of God.  Luther and his disciples (including William P. Young) tend to set up a dialectic of opposition between law and grace, but Catholics see the two as analogically related, law fulfilled by grace and grace leading to a deeper embrace of the heart of the law. 

Would I recommend The Shack
?  Yes, absolutely, especially to those who have suffered a great loss.  But, if I can borrow a metaphor, reading it is a bit like eating a watermelon:  lots of good sweet stuff to eat, but you’ve got to spit out a few seeds!

Posted: 7/29/2009 3:04:40 PM by Word On Fire Admin | with 25 comments
Filed under: theshack

mary ann ashworth
I personally think the shack is a very dangerous book since it portends to be real. It is not only protestant ideas but the idea that churches do not present Christ correctly and while it does promote some kind of resolution of suffering that may be helpful I worry very much about people who already have weak faith. Of course there are many attacks against the mainstream religions and this is much milder but that fact alone may disguise the dangers. mary ann
7/30/2009 7:17:25 PM
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Luke Fong
I think that we must not forget that this author William Young does not purport this book to be a theological exposition. Reading too much into it will always get us into arguments and missing the forest for the trees. I get some parishioners coming up to me and telling me that the Bible doesn't speak about dinosaurs and evolution, and yet they are evidenced in archeology. They too, miss the point that the Bible is not meant to be an archeological text. That's not its purpose. And in that light, I don't think William Young's purpose is to make a definitive statement about God. It serves to open up one's possible way of thinking about God anew, but it doesn't claim to be the ONLY way to see God. Perhaps the dangers, if any, will be because we put too much into what we read, and are unable to bracket out what really isn't there at all.
7/31/2009 12:41:55 AM
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Bryan Miller
It is interesting to me that books like this so quickly become best sellers. It could indicate that many people have a hunger for God and for Truth that is not fully satisfied. (I wonder how many people have read this book that are not faithful Church goers.) But it also could indicate not only an unsatisfied hunger for God and Truth, but a desire to place God and Truth in a context outside of Church.

If we as the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, continue to focus on proclaiming the Sacred Scripture, the relevance of Church Tradition, the power of the Sacraments, people would get their religious education primarily from Church; and, their religious consciences would be well formed to discern between what is Truth and what is near truth.

Obviously, books like this fill a void, but the near truth aspects of books like this are likely to be taken in stride just as the Truth portions are: without solid spiritual discernment. We need to take a lesson from this void filling literature.
7/31/2009 10:02:29 AM
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Barb Armijo
I am interested. Really need to have more information.
7/31/2009 7:25:19 PM
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Marge Griffin
I am so glad I found this blog! I read the Shack last fall and enjoyed it for a while, though I found myself questioning some of what God was teaching MacKenzie. Minor little points. Then when I came to Jesus' rant about law and religion I could read no further. While I feel a tender affection for God when I remember the book, that part was so off-putting that I never finished it. I just can't pick it up again. A fellow teacher lost her 2 year old son at Christmas and I would love to give the book to her but I can't. She has found her faith through the trial and has returned to Christ and His Church and that has brought her more comfort than the book ever could.
8/7/2009 8:30:29 AM
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Kevin McDonald
I am disappointed that a Catholic priest would say anything even remotely positive about a book which contradicts church teaching on the trinity, Christology, the value of sacred scriptures, sacraments and the hierarchical church.

Father Barron needs to take a second, more critical look at t his book and realize that a priest's endorsement of heretical or semi-heretical books is never good.
8/25/2009 2:23:55 AM
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The Shack is a book that I read and reread Chapter by Chapter. I do not find it in conflect with the teaching of Jesus Christ in any way. The Trinity, our great mystery of our Christian faith, not just our Catholic faith, is truly proclaimed as Love. Maybe some are not comfortable with God the Father as a mother figure. I truly feel The Shack is one of the best books written giving us a Trinitian God we can relate to and love, and who loves us as a mother and father love us.
9/2/2009 9:02:22 AM
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Doug Sirman
While the idea in the book that we must look for God in the midst of suffering is valid, it's expression in the book was deeply flawed by pop-xtian wishful-thinking. When he meets God, the bloodstains from his daughter's murder are conveniently gone, he drops spiritual acid and starts seeing sounds and hearing colors and suddenly its easy to forgive daddy for being such a hateful *****. If you're going to luv god, love all of Him, not just the bits you find most pleasant.
9/5/2009 10:56:28 AM
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mike bolognese
very good assessment of the novel
9/7/2009 3:36:23 AM
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Lisa Hollenberger
I found reading this book to be very fulfilling. Remembering that it was written to appeal to 'the masses', I think the author did a brilliant job of addressing spiritual issues in a way that all believers will be able to relate too. One needs to read this book with an open mind, both mental and spiritual, to enjoy the many levels at which it relates. Kudos to the author for tackling a subject that lends itself to heavy critiques but is yet arguably realistic. Well worth the time spent reading!
9/10/2009 8:36:02 PM
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Lou Lobenhofer
I enjoyed The Shack, particularly the portrayal of the love of God and the Trinity. I was somewhat put off by the negative attitude he takes toward organized religion, which is a little extreme even for a Protestant. I recommend The Shack to my Protestant friends without worrying that they will be shocked. I only recommend it to Catholic friends who can deal with the parts of the book that they will find offensive.
9/16/2009 3:56:41 PM
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Jen Nelson
I have a sneaking suspicion that the author had an agenda. He took an emotional topic, gets the readers deeply involved in what they are reading, emotionally ties them to the story, and then he starts throwing in little cracks at "organized religion", which could be a low blow to the Catholic Church.

At one point, Jesus states that he never intended to create religious institutions (churches). But that is a falsehood... "Do this in memory of me" The disciples, after Jesus's death, were the first ones to say Mass. The Catholic Church's church service centers around the Mass. Everything about the service leads up to, or points directly to the last supper. The wine and bread is turned into Jesus's Blood and Body.

I left the Catholic Church and became Protestant for a while before I realized the truth and came back. (It was Jesus in the Eucharist that brought me back, even though I didn't believe He was there when I initially left.) I know how Protestants think towards the Church, after all I used to be one of them. G.K. Chesterton was right on when he said "There are thousands who hate what they precieve to be the Catholic Church, but there are only about a hundred who actually hate the Catholic Church. (Many Protestants have no idea that many of the teachings they condemn the Catholic Church for having aren't even Church teaching... It's easy for rumors to spread, when you're outside looking in and observe something you don't understand... and then don't take the time to ask why something was said or done.)

But in this case, the author seems to frown upon any type of organized religion.

Another thing I picked up on, which I find frightening, is that God's laws and rules don't seem to apply. It seems that one is ok and completely forgiven with out consequences as long as they don't judge another person. Judgement is portrayed as the gravest sin.

This is extremely dangerous because it is conditioning people to be passive. Not to stand up for what they know to be true and good, and against what they know is evil and against God out of fear of being portrayed as judgemental.

But when we stand up against things as abortion, same-sex attraction, and others... (Which the Bible clearly states are evil, and the Holy Book that the author tries to dismiss as something that shouldn't be paid attention too.) the the person committing these sins is not the one being judged or condemned, it's the action.

Jesus said to hate the sin, love the sinner (I'm a sinner too!). But many people don't know the difference. They assume it's one and the same. So they conform to accept the sin in hopes of not looking/seeming judgemental.

The author takes some theological truths, and then adds some mistruths. This is actually a very popular sales technique I learned in a business class I took in college. If the reader isn't that in tune with the subject presented, you present facts that the person knows are truth, and then you can mix in a few mistruths with the truths. Because the person knows there are some truths, they will assume that the mistruths are true because of the other truths presented are there. They think it to be creditable. And they don't know enough about the subject/product to know otherwise. The truths, make everything look creditable.

I noticed Planned Parenthood (when describing abortion) and also Catholic's for the Common Good (an organization who claims to be Catholic, but stears people away from Catholic teachings for liberal political gains) using this same exact technique on their websites before. (I'm not comparing this author to these two groups, but just mentioning that I saw them both using this sales technique.)

It's deceptive. When I saw that, a red flag went up. Some of Mack's (main character) interactions with the "God" characters are beautiful, and have some very true spiritual truths present, but then something contrary to Faith is thrown in there... which the average person might not even notice and/or may end up agreeing with because it sounds good and seems to come from the right/good place.

Sometimes there is a thin line drawn between good and evil, and I'm not an uptight, ultra conservative either. It's just really upsets me if I see people purposely leading people astray.

I don't know if the author intended to do this, but it just doesn't set well with me.

I've had a hard time getting back into the book since I started taking notice. I'm currently 3/4 of the way through it (pg 181) and will probably finish it tonight.


10/10/2009 10:33:15 PM
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Bruce Newman
I read The Shack last year. I was Protestant at the time. I'm going through RCIA now. I'll basically say the same now as I said then: a whole lot of Christians need to learn how to lighten up and stop seeing heresy behind every rock the way McCarthy saw Communists. I completely agree with Father Barron's assessment.
11/15/2009 8:13:08 PM
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Martin Terrel
I read The Shack after reading this article. I was deeply moved by the book and found it by and large a powerful explanation of the Trinity. Although the book is dismissive of organised religion, I prefer to see this as its selling point to readers who are alienated from the Faith because they conceive a God to be distant and uncaring and the Church as irrelevant.

The book is (at least to me) more subtle. Know God and all the rest falls into place: love, obedience, the law and above all the Church. After all, we need the Church to make these truths known to us.
2/6/2010 1:35:17 PM
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Donna Swartout
i read the book at the urging of my sister. I had a difficult time getting through the first half, and read to the end because I had to know how it ended. Although it was thought provoking, it did not change my views of my Catholic faith. God is still my Father and Jesus is is His Son, and the Holy Spirit is still the fire in my heart !It could be dangerous for persons of weak or floundering faith.It was, however, thought provoking in that it carried the message of Jesus, that we must love one another regardless of our state in life.
8/16/2010 6:26:20 PM
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As Father Barron suggested, I spit out the seeds I knew would make bitter the rest of the fruit. But I must say, as I told a friend who sent me the book, I was deeply touched by the underlying theme of Love in the twists and turns of all conversations while Mack was at the shack. Many of the scenes in which one or the other of the Trinity involved Mack, especially that contained in the chapter "Here Come da Judge", were awesomely moving, directing me to conduct a truthful analysis of how I look at and evaluate other people.

If read as a non-theological book, which it is, there is much to be learned about the very real fact that "God is Love" and how it could and should change our lives for the better if we but lived that knowledge every day of our lives.
9/11/2010 12:06:54 PM
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sunday school lessons
I don't think I've ever heard of "The Shack." So it's a modernization of the Book of Job, aye? That sounds like an interesting concept. Any way they can bring the stories of the Bible to life for the people of today is a blessing in my eyes. Thanks for sharing this! I'll definitely see if I can pick up a copy of "The Shack" :)

Leila Warner
"The lord is my Shepard..."
2/7/2011 1:51:40 PM
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Bethanie Ryan
I agree with your assessment of The Shack. It's depiction of the Trinity is absolutely beautiful, however you need to take a lot of the other theological points of view with a grain of salt. Especially it's stance in regards to organized religion. You can read my review at:
9/20/2011 4:20:53 PM
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Thank you Father! Works of fiction aren't definitive but they aren't meant to be. This is still a very helpful, tender and beautiful portrayal of Our Heavenly Father, His Son, Our Savior Jesus Christ and the love existing between them, the Holy Spirit. God bless you and the Word of Fire!
3/23/2012 2:09:34 PM
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I am only 3/4ths of the way through the book. I find it an easy read and must admit I did not see the purpose of the book until Mack choses to head up to the shack and I must admit I found the relationship presented with God, Jesus and the Holy spirit at first very comfortable but hard to believe the interpretation of how they were perceived to look. I loved the ability to talk because I feel in my prayer life I feel open to talk with God and have always saw formal prayer as needed for groups but not for personal prayer. As I read I did find myself questioning how the Catholic church would view this book; but I also felt it was too spiritual in talking about the trinity to believe it would fit in a protestant setting. So in reading this website and realizing that Fr. Baron is ok with the book accept for the last part of the book appearing to be more Lutheran in view I find myself anvious to read the rest of the book and I will keep this in mind as I read it. I can see where it would help people drastically who have went through terrible times. I use to be a Child Protection Caseworker and would have loved to offered this book to the parents when bad things happen to good children.
8/20/2012 7:39:49 PM
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I am only 3/4ths of the way through the book. I find it an easy read and must admit I did not see the purpose of the book until Mack choses to head up to the shack and I must admit I found the relationship presented with God, Jesus and the Holy spirit at first very comfortable but hard to believe the interpretation of how they were perceived to look. I loved the ability to talk because I feel in my prayer life I feel open to talk with God and have always saw formal prayer as needed for groups but not for personal prayer. As I read I did find myself questioning how the Catholic church would view this book; but I also felt it was too spiritual in talking about the trinity to believe it would fit in a protestant setting. So in reading this website and realizing that Fr. Baron is ok with the book accept for the last part of the book appearing to be more Lutheran in view I find myself anvious to read the rest of the book and I will keep this in mind as I read it. I can see where it would help people drastically who have went through terrible times. I use to be a Child Protection Caseworker and would have loved to offered this book to the parents when bad things happen to good children.
8/20/2012 7:40:27 PM
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I have finished the book and loved it. I must admit it was helpful to be aware of the protestant influence in the later parts of the book. I have a question for either Fr. Barron or one who has a Catholic view on the section about Sophis? Can someone give some Catholic interpretation of her purpose in the story. I know sohpia represents Wisdom but I also know other religions honor her in different ways. Some say that she is equal as the femine side of the Trinity. Yet I had never adressed this in any religious studies. Can you shed some light on this subject. I know Thomas Merton talks of her. Is that his Eastern views comming out? Peace/Shalom
9/13/2012 4:03:01 PM
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I have finished the book & enjoyed it. I am thankful for the heads up on the Protestant influence in the last part of the book. My question though is what is the Catholic view of Sophia? I believe she is viewed by many as Wisdom and by some as the female part to co exist with the Male Trinity. How does she fit into the Catholic view. She has not been brought up in any of my religious studies. A reflection in this area would be helpful. Peace/Shalom
9/13/2012 4:07:04 PM
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With due respect, I beg to differ from you, Father Barron. I would not recommend the book indiscriminately. Only people who are mature in the faith can read it because the risk of swallowing the seeds with the fruit is great and whoever eats the seeds will certainly get very, very sick. If we need to make sense of evil the book of Job is handy. We do not need a book with a poor taste representation of God the Father as a woman. I wonder if there is some sort of hidden feminism in the book or it was just a mere coincidence. On the other hand, and this is most troubling, if Jesus is the "best" way to go to heaven and not THE way, THE truth, and THE life, there is serious departure from Christian doctrine and that implicitly makes Christ a liar. Last, but not least, is Young's bitterness against hierarchy. If he does not see that between God the Father and God the Son there is a hierarchy and that Christ gave commands involving hierarchy, calling hierarchy sinful equates calling God himself sinful. Heresy fall short of describing this. This book is extremely dangerous and must not confuse Christians who know their faith. Recommending it to others, I am sorry to say, Father Barron, is not an irresponsible piece of advice.
10/7/2012 10:09:08 PM
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It is so sad that people can't read the book for what it is. In the book "Papa" explains why the image of a black motherly woman is shown to Mack. "I am neither male or female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it's because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest you call me papa is simply to mix metaphors to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning." Pg 95 lines 11-17 and then explains further "hasn't it always been a problem for you to embrace me as a father? And after what you've been through, you couldn't very well handle a father right now could you?" Pg 95 lines 33-35. Of course there are going to be inaccuracies in this book, it was created as fiction by a human who shares with the world how he sees God and the holy trinity. It's beautiful how he takes blame off of God for the evil we create everyday. We as a human race are so greedy, we want independence and free will, which was given to us but when something or an attitude we've created turns "evil" or not in our best interest, oh how easy is it to say "oh where is god?" Or just outright blame god for our shortcomings as a human race. Religiously or biblically accurate or not I believe everyone should find faith in god in there own way. Learn about him through church and the bible and decide for yourself why and what god intended to be to you. Once you do your relationship with him goes with you everywhere you are especially on your deepest darkest day or when you are tempted to give in to evil, your relationship with god will be there to help you out. Shame on anyone for turning this into a negative interpretation of how one man views God.
1/2/2013 5:54:10 AM
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