Dear Maria,

I read The Shack a few years ago, and in a recent discussion in a group I am in on Facebook, I said I liked the book and hoped I would like the movie, too. 3 or 4 readers posted that the book is heretical, and some offered links to reviews of the book from evangelical websites or pastors blogs. I am still on the search for what God wants me to do, and I don’t have a faith that I call my own. The book was helpful to me in that I got to imagine how Jesus could talk to me if I let Him in my life more.

I am wondering what your thoughts are on the novel, The Shack? I was raised Catholic, but am kind of in limbo (so to speak) on where I fit in the Christian worldview. I used to think in a black and white way: “Thou shall do all these things, or be damned to hell.” But, I don’t see how a merciful God would be as concerned about a book I read, more so than my response to what I got out of it. Do you think I should get rid of the book? Do you think I should avoid the movie?
To Shack or Not to Shack

Dear To Shack or Not to Shack,

Do I think you should get rid of the book? No.

Do I think you should avoid the movie? Read some reviews before you decide.

Your experience in that online forum makes me sigh. There’s a lot of that going around these days—quick judgments from strangers. The good news is that your encounter is prompting deep questions about the materials you’re reading, and if they are of benefit to you and your spiritual life. Here are my thoughts:

I had the opportunity to work with William Paul Young, the author of The Shack in 2011. He spoke at The Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, and I led a brief retreat in conjunction with his talk. I asked him about the criticism he’d received since The Shack was published, about 4 years earlier. Based on the critiques I read online at the time, I understood one concern to be that the theology behind the story in The Shack suggests that heaven is open to anyone. Including those who do not follow the Christian faith. Some do not prescribe to this open-door policy of eternal life.

Young has offered us a fictional story in The Shack. Using his imagination, he’s offered us his reflections on big issues concerning life, death, and the afterlife. While his story has sparked heated discussion, he does not offer it as a doctrinal statement on salvation. He explained that his story presents a new image and understanding of God, through the relationship of the Trinity (the Christian doctrine of three persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). He portrays these three in unconventional ways. Young’s purpose here is to make God more accessible to seekers. Young also places healing and forgiveness in the context of relationship. By depicting God as a relationship of persons, he has offered his musings on where we might find God’s grace in our own lives, as well. To me, the story reflects a profound understanding of spiritual healing in the face of great loss. Once we get past the book’s heartbreaking premise, we accompanied protagonist Mac on a marvelous journey. His entire belief system is shaken by tragedy. This is the case when trying to survive such a devastating loss. As the layers of pain and regret peel back, Mac experiences profound healing and forgiveness. The story gives me hope that, as Anne Lamott says, “Grace bats last.”

A major part of my spiritual formation has been through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order of Catholic priests and brothers. I posed a question like yours to my dear Jesuit spiritual director one day. His response came from the heart of the central teaching of Ignatian Spirituality, the Foundation and Principle. In it, we recognize that all in life is a gift from God. These gifts have the potential to either draw us into deeper relationship with God, or to move us away from God. The invitation in life is, as these gifts are presented to us, (such as The Shack book or movie), to evaluate them in light of their impact on our relationship with God. So, I ask you what my director asked me: Has your experience of this book drawn you into deeper relationship and understanding of God? Listen to your heart. Attend to your feelings. These will help to discern your answer. I would not trust an online forum to give you the understanding you seek.

The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises have been in the news recently, via the movie Silence and one of its stars, Andrew Garfield. Garfield did the exercises, and Fr. James Martin, SJ, was his director through the process. Check out this video of him discussing the film and his experience with Stephen Colbert:

As troubling as this time is, The Shack has served you by raising these questions. My humble observation: This is your call. Keep going. The answers will come.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. ― Rainer Maria Rilke

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

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