Sunday, June 7, 2009

Book Review: The Shack

The Shack
Wm. Paul Young
Windblown Media, 2008
ISBN-10: 0964729237
ISBN-13: 978-0964729230

I only read The Shack by William Paul Young because one of my housemates wanted me to, and to be honest, it was only for that reason that I stuck with it once I started. I usually don't last that long with books that annoy me, and this book is annoying. The first 80 or so pages are a morass of bad writing, poor editing, and whipsaw shifts from mundane Oregon travelogue to sophomoric, high-drama soap opera. I mean, life's just too short, and there are a lot of really good books out there that I haven't gotten to yet. But I love my housemate, so I slogged on.

And I'll have to say I'm glad I did. The story (about a man named Mack whose daughter is murdered, and who then gets an invitation to meet God in the place where it happened several years later) starts to get better on page 80. This is not to say that it isn't still problematic, because it is, and I'll get to that in a minute. But the writing does get better, perhaps because the conversations between Mack and God are what really drives the work, rather than the story itself. It would be interesting to know if the backstory was written later to provide context for these conversations, because they certainly read more evenly and surely, and actually contain some really profound insights. Not that these excuse the other problems, but as I read on, I began to grieve a little over the book's many unfortunate flaws. I mean, with a little more care, this could have been world-class literature; the raw material is there.

Instead it limps along with way too much telling, not enough showing, and drags along some unexamined stereotypes that really made me wince. It wasn't the presentation of God the Father (called "Papa") as an African-American woman that caused the difficulty. In fact, I think we could do well with a lot more images of God that move beyond the Bearded Old White Guy on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It was the presentation of God as an Aunt Jemima clone, fussing over Mack and cookin' up a mess of greens, Jesus the Jewish carpenter's big nose, and the diaphanous, inscrutable Asian woman in the role of Holy Spirit that elicited the groans. I mean, if we're expanding the paradigm, couldn't we just take it a little further and get beyond those worn conventions as well? Argh.

And these problems don't even begin to address the many unorthodox, heretical and theological inaccuracies which also plague the book, at least according to its many educated and theologically-astute reviewers. Can God the Father really limit himself so as to enjoy a story told by Mack that God in his omniscience already knows better than Mack himself? Can Mack really see the Face(s) of God and live? Can he really dare to rail against God and be angry without being struck down? Is it heresy to depict Papa with scars identical to Jesus'?

Well, perhaps these are important questions. I doubt they are on the minds of most people who seek answers to questions much more immediate and fundamental, however: Who does God love? Does God love me? Why does God permit evil? Why do we have to suffer? What happens when we die? And it is the treatment of these raw concerns that make the book worth reading, in my opinion. Young never shies away from exploration of the most difficult questions, nor does he offer facile answers, even if those answers are not always theologically correct according to various denominational authorities. The message of every one of these conversations is that God loves us, right in the middle of sin and suffering and our own evil and the evil of others. God loves you and me, and all the Buddhists and Muslims and everybody. Always loves us, cares about us, wants us to flourish. Always.

That's the message that makes this book popular. That's the message that people need to hear. That's the reason to read this book. And that's why it doesn't matter that this didn't turn out to be world-class literature, which might've kept a lot of people from reading it. It's just an ordinary flawed book with a message we don't hear enough: God loves us. That's all that really matters.

Baya Clare, CSJ
Trinity Sunday, 2009


St Edwards Blog said...

Oh how I tried to avoid this book, I tried and tried.

You have managed to say all that I might have said if I had not been floundering around trying to find the words. Only you said it so much better.

I hope you don't mind that I link back to my own post here and I have included a link to you in my mine.

Thank you for this.


Meredith Gould said...

Thanks so much for reading and reviewing this drek so that I don't have to!

Really, I "get" the hunger for spiritual connection that drives ordinary people to read horribly written and poorly conceptualized books "about" God. I just haven't got time for the drain, but grateful that you do and that you've posted this fine review.

Anonymous said...

Interesting: thank you.

I resisted reading it for quite a while ... in the end more or less had to because I was sent a review copy.

As you say, clumsily written. But more than that... made me angrier by the minute as I reflected on the use of a tragedy like a child abduction and murder as a launch pad for a wholly inadequate theodicy.

The reality is that even an omnipotent God, even if there was one, couldn't make a square circle. Evil happens; and I think we do ourselves no favours when we try to defend the indefensible. A child kidnapped and brutally murdered and the Shack's God says s/he could have prevented it but didn't "for purposes that you cannot possibly understand" (p.222).

What would we think of a human being who excused him or herself like that? We'd call them a monster, and rightly so. Same goes for God, only more so. No: the Shack's God is a work of fiction. A fascinating exploration of the author's ideas about God but which I think falls at that last hurdle.

A friend of mine once said something about the most evil thing about evil is that it has no purpose. I think she was right. It's a nice idea to believe that God somehow weaves together the dark strands and the light strands of life to make a tapestry — but that analogy falls apart because a weaver uses wool dyed different colours: it's still perfectly good wool. Try to weave a tapestry made out of wool with a few strands of barbed wire thrown in for good measure and you end up with a nightmare.

So for me, the Shack left a bitter taste in my mouth. God loves me, huh? Just not enough to do something about it when I'm up shit creek without a paddle...

Anonymous said...

... and now The Shack has its own facebook group...