I just spent the last few days at a seminar for bond lawyers (just as exciting as it sounds) — during which I was quite ill. And so with the air travel and indisposition, I had time to catch up on my reading. The books I packed were The Shack and unChristian — and both are excellent. And both would make great studies for small groups.
The Shack is something of a phenomenon, being the number 6 bestseller on Amazon despite a publicity budget of $200. A review on Amazon, by Eric Wilson, offers a good synopsis —
William P. Young’s book has an intriguing premise. Years ago, a father name MacKenzie Phillips took his children camping and lost one of them to a man who has kidnapped and killed others. Mack has grieved since then. His marriage has struggled. Understandably, his relationship with God has suffered. Then, one wintry day, he receives a note in his mailbox inviting him back to the woods, to the shack in which his daughter’s dress and bloodstains were found. The note, it would seem, is from God.
From this simple yet effective premise, Young leads Mack Phillips back to his point of despair and anger. The encounters he then has with God there in “The Shack” serve as thought-provoking moments for both Mack and the reader. This is not the God of stodgy Sunday school classes. This is not a flannel-graph Jesus. This is not limited to a fluttering dove of the Holy Spirit. The descriptions here are startling, while remaining true to the nature of God’s love and grace as portrayed through Scripture. Not only are they startling, they’re wise and moving and beautiful.
Some might argue that “The Shack” has little theology or accuracy to it, but the very argument is what Young is trying to melt away. I earned a Bachelor’s from a Bible college, and the majority of Mack’s godly encounters could be wrapped up in biblical theology: redemption, grace, forgiveness, propitiation, etc. Do I agree with every line of the book? Not necessarily. Yet, while never sounding like trite religion (because they’re not and never should be!), the words spoken by God in this book are full of vibrancy and life.
Is it the best crafted novel ever? No. In many ways, it could be encapsulated in a non-fiction treatise. However, in sharing this remarkable tale in a fictional form, Young has breathed wonder and wisdom into a story that will continue to buzz around for years to come.
It’s a good book. It’s often ambiguous (which has led some to view the author as less orthodox than he really is). And this makes it great for discussion.
I’ve not been able to find a small group discussion guide for the book and don’t have time to write one at present. But I think I’d proceed along these lines —
* Make sure all participants have read the book front to back at least once.
* Have the group read this post on the author’s blog considering God’s use of ambiguity — just to help some students cope with the ambiguities throughout the book. But I might save this for when the question comes up.
* The first few chapters are important background for what comes later but not really the meat of the book. Cover them in a single session.
* Talk through the rest of the chapters with the group at whatever pace suits the group. I’d make certain the group gave permission to one another to disagree with the author.
Now the point of the group would be to help the students reject false images of God and develop a healthier image of God. I’d keep J. B. Phillips’ Your God Is Too Small, a marvelous little book, close at hand as additional resource material.
Now, the temptation would be to get too caught up in the theology and less so with the character of God — which is really the point of the book. This means much of the discussion has to be about how each student reacts to the image of God the book presents.
The book focuses almost entirely on the love and acceptance of God and says little about the holiness and wrath of God, and so I think the post I mention in the second bullet is important for preserving the Biblical tension between God’s love and justice.
Now, of course, I don’t agree with everything in the book. But neither am I inclined to detail my disagreements. It’s better if the group works through the challenges of the book themselves.
The image of God presented by the book is so much healthier than the image most of us have, I’d strongly encourage the study.
* After I wrote this, but before it was posted, John Mark Hicks began his own study of the book. It’s good stuff. He’s posted two comments so far, with more to come: Introduction. What is the shack? But read the book before reading John Mark’s comments.
* During the same time, one of our ministers was working with a woman dealing with many of the same issues that the book so beautifully addresses. She suffered a great tragedy in her life years ago, and so she hates God, blaming him for letting it happen. And yet she feels guilty for having those feelings. I’ve encouraged him to have her read The Shack. I think it might do her a world of good. Please keep her in your prayers.