A Matter of Fiction
The genre of the book is fiction, but how do we know? Well, first there are numerous interviews with the author that state this fact. But beyond this, the book clearly has fiction printed on the back and it is often sold in the fiction section. The title page says "The Shack, a novel by William P. Young in collaboration with Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings" (emphasis added). Websters defines a novel as "an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events"
Also, consider some of the endorsements of the book:
Eugene Peterson: "When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel ..."
Jim Palmer: "captivating novel ..."
Mike Morrell: "A guy-meets-God novel ..."
Greg Albrecht: "You will be captivated by the creativity and imagination of The Shack ..."
Michael W. Smith: "The Shack is the most absorbing work of fiction I've read in many years."
What Type of Fiction is This?
What The Shack falls under is a genre called "Realistic Fiction."
Many realistic stories depict their protagonist growing up or coming of age. The coming-of-age stories typically trace the protagonist's growth from a self-absorbed, immature individual into an expansive, mature human being concerned with the welfare of others, and his/her place in the world scheme.
In good realistic fiction, the characters possesses a clearly defined personality and exhibits growth during the course of the story. Their growth of self-awareness usually comes with struggling, pain, and even suffering. In children's stories, the protagonist usually reaches a higher level of maturity and a greater sense of self-awareness by the book's end, but has not achieved adulthood.Â Classic example: Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" (1909).
In realistic fiction, humor is frequently used to break the tension in sensitive situations, unlike fantasies in which the humor is often the humor of the absurd. Humor is a form of self-preservation, of coping.Â In realistic fiction, humor usually takes one of the three forms:
- The humor of character. This depends on the antics of an eccentric personality.
- The humor of situation. Surprising, awkward, or ridiculous actions or situations are among the most common sources of realistic humor.
- The humor of language. Plays on words, verbal irony, malapropism (the misuse of words), misunderstandings, all contribute to verbal humor.
The New Realism literary style sought to bring more honest emotions, franker language, and bolder ideas to realistic fiction literature. It opened an entirely new range of subjects, and little remained that was taboo, including racial prejudice, teenage gangs, drug abuse, homosexuality, child abuse, mental illness, sexual abuse, parental problems, psychological disorders, and many others.
The "problem novel", focusing on a singular, hot issue that affects the protagonist, is a result of New Realism. It is always set in contemporary times and aims at a naturalistic portrayal of a problem plaguing the main character. Problem novels are directed to older children or adults and focus on the individual's emotional response to life's experience.
A Matter of Truth
However, with all this said, the book is very much true in many regards. The experience of the author that it was based upon is "true" and many of the themes and discussions between characters include elements of Biblical Truth, Theology and Philosophy and to the extent that those issues exist outside of the story line (in the context of the discussions) - those can be said to be "true" at least in terms of the presenting the views of the author.
So here is the thing ... this book IS TRUE. But it is fictionalized in its account of the author's life. Did the conversations with God really happen? We think so, in Paul Young's life ... but this wasn't over a weekend but many years of healing. Did a tragic thing happen to a young child? YES! But not in Missy, but in a young Paul Young who went through a horrible childhood. Did a tragic thing happen to an older man who had to experience healing from God? YES! But not in Mack, but in an older Paul Young who went through various burnout and failure in life and came to see God in it.
So if you ask us, "The book isn't true?!" we would say, "It certainly IS true! Just not in the way you think."
A Matter of Metaphors
C. S. Lewis, a well-known author and apologist, is best known by people of all ages for his seven volume series entitled The Chronicles of Narnia. His writings are one of the most well known in Christian circles for using metaphors and symbols to represent bigger ideas than the books represent. As Lewis wrote about the land of Narnia, an imaginary world visited by children of this world, he had two obvious purposes: to entertain the readers and to suggest analogies of the Christian faith.
Although Christian symbolism can be found in The Chronicles, Lewis recognized the importance of getting "past those watchful dragons" which are people who are not open to the beliefs of Christianity because they were told they should believe it. But how should Lewis go about getting past those who are not open to the idea of Christianity? He believed that the best way to do this was to present it in a fictional world, a world in which it would be easier to accept. The audience grows to love Aslan and everything that he symbolizes; they begin to wish for someone like Aslan in this world. After finding this love for Aslan, they will ideally transfer that love to Christ when presented with the Gospel later in life. Even though Christian themes are present, the Chronicles are not dependent on them. Peter J. Schakel, a professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, states that a non-Christian reader can approach the book as a fictional story and "be moved by the exciting adventures and the archetypal meanings, and not find the Christian elements obtrusive or offensive". For this reason, "the Narnian stories have been so successful in getting into the bloodstream of the secular world".
Metaphors and symbols exist throughout the Bible. For example: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27). The Christian believer and his characteristics are described in terms of many colorful metaphors in the Bible. In this text, Christ calls us "my sheep," and has also said: "I am the good shepherd, . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:14-15). If we are truly His sheep, then we will surely follow Him, receiving safety, peace, and nourishment.
Paul Young has stated in interviews that he sees The Shack as metaphorical or a parable rather than allegorical. The word "parable" means any fictive illustration in the form of a brief narrative. Later it came to mean a fictitious narrative, generally referring to something that might naturally occur, by which spiritual and moral matters might be conveyed.
A parable is one of the simplest of narratives. It sketches a setting, describes an action, and shows the results. It often involves a character facing a moral dilemma, or making a questionable decision and then suffering the consequences of that choice. As with a fable, a parable generally relates a single, simple, consistent action, without extraneous detail or distracting circumstances.
Many folktales could be viewed as extended parables, and many fairy tales, except for their magical settings. The prototypical parable is a realistic story that seems inherently probable and takes place in a familiar setting of life. A parable is like a metaphor that has been extended to form a brief, coherent fiction. Christian parables are stories about ordinary men and women who find in the midst of their everyday lives surprising things happening. They are not about "giants of the faith".
Regardless of what phrase you use to describe the book, many of the "theological arguments" against the book would be moot if they would simply remember the fictional and metaphorical nature of the book. On the other hand, people who over-allegorize the fictional nature of the work will miss out on what the story is really about: to taste, to feel, and to see something that a chart of allegorical parallels can never achieve. See Paul Young's story in the pages of the book. Then ... see your own.