Essay / Literature

The Shack: Four Walls, Five Reviews

Shack slice

The Kids-Book Author:

Have you read the Shack of Mack?
Have you read this paperback?
Would you give it to your friends?
Will you spoil how it ends?

I have read the Shack of Mack.
I have read this paperback.
I would not give it to my friends.
I might just spoil how it ends.

Did you like Mack’s Trinity?
Did you like Mack’s persons three?
Did you like how Jesus talked?
Did you like that water walk?

I did not like Mack’s Trinity.
I did not like Mack’s persons three.
I did not like how Jesus talked.
I did not like the water walk.

That Mack in Shack!
That Mack in Shack!
I do not like that Mack in Shack!

Did you like it for your heart?
Did you like it as some art?
I did not like it for my heart.
I did not like it as some art.

Not in the Shack.
No paperback.
Not in my heart.
Not as some art.

I do not like the Mack in Shack.
I do not like it! Take it back!

Shack slice

The Naive Believer

I admit I cried. Even though some parts of The Shack didn’t seem quite right to me, and I don’t know what I think about all of it, this book really got to me. Through the character Mack, I got to see a glimpse of how God deals with his children: He comes to them and meets them where they are. I think I already knew that about God, but The Shack helped me realize it at a much deeper, more real level.

For instance, Mack has gotten himself so messed up in his thinking that he thinks of Jesus as loving, but thinks of God the Father as some kind of mean and angry tyrant. He blames God the Father for two big tragedies that have happened in his life, but still thinks of Jesus as being on his side. The greatest thing about the book is how Jesus won’t let Mack get away with that. When something really wonderful happens to Mack (I don’t want to give away what it is), Mack thanks Jesus for it, and Jesus makes sure to tell him: “That was all Papa’s idea.” That correction is what brings Mack’s messed-up thinking crashing down on him, and he has to face the fact that there’s not some mean God hiding behind the God who loves him. I guess Mack had used his half-baked ideas about the Trinity as a way of sub-dividing God, and assigning the good parts to Jesus. But the Bible makes it clear that God the Father loves the world, and that’s why he sent Jesus. So it doesn’t make any sense to play Jesus against God. Having God the Father and Jesus as characters who talk Mack through all of this was really helpful.

And God is so gentle the way he brings Mack along. Mack is just not in a mental place where he can reconcile himself to an all-powerful God who loves him and yet let him suffer so much. I guess he is living as a kind of un-trinitarian heretic without knowing it, rejecting God the Father deep down. You can almost hear God asking Mack, “Well, what if God the Father were a big black woman? Then could you accept him? Well, what if he treated the world the way you treat your kids, then could you accept him? Well, what if… what if… etc.” Like Papa says, not all roads lead to him, but he will go down any path to get you back. I like that. Mack finally comes around and reconciles himself to the idea of God the Father.

Is that funny to say that I learned about God the Father from a female character? But like Papa says, “this weekend is not about reinforcing your religious stereotypes.” It’s kind of weird how Jesus and Papa and Sarayu talk to Mack about what their plans are for the weekend, as if Mack was on a planned-out retreat with them. In fact, if you read The Shack over a weekend, it really is like a spiritual retreat that helps you get your heart back in the right place. I guess that’s what it’s for.

The Shack takes a lot of things I take for granted in my Christian life and makes me notice them again. For instance, when Mack walks into the kitchen and Papa has been in there cooking all morning, his gratitude just wells up inside him and he says “Thank you for making this food for me,” from his heart. Then it hits you: That’s what praying at meal time is supposed to be like, every time! That alone was worth reading the book for. The part where Papa was cooking in the kitchen and talking about freewill made me think of that Oracle character in the Matrix. In fact, they even talk about the Matrix in here. That was pretty cool.

Another example of making something ordinary seem more real and immediate is when Papa says after dinner, “I would like to have a time of devotion.” Mack thinks Jesus is going to “pull out a huge old King James Bible,” and remembers terrible family devotions: “Often, it was a tedious and boring exercise in coming up with the right answers, or rather, the same old answers to the same old Bible story questions, and then trying to stay awake during his father’s excruciatingly long prayers. And when his father had been drinking, family devotions devolved into a terrifying minefield, where any wrong answer or inadvertent glance could trigger an explosion.” But then what happens is that Jesus holds Papa’s hands and tells him or her how much he loved to see Papa helping Mack find healing: “What a joy to watch! I love being your son.” That’s a pretty mind-blowing idea of what devotions are, even “devotions” between the Trinity, if there is such a thing.

I don’t take most of this book seriously. After all, it’s a novel! It’s not meant to be real. That’s what makes it possible to imagine new ways of thinking about God’s love. I don’t read many fiction books, but this one really showed me what fiction can do for your faith. The only thing that really bothered me is that sometimes when the author is trying to make fun of messed-up churches, he sort of overshoots and makes fun of all churches, or maybe even the whole idea of church. The same with the Bible: he’s trying to make cheesy church traditions sound silly, but he ends up sort of mocking things that are just right there in the Bible. I get the feeling that William Young thinks he has forgiven the church and is okay with it now, but that really in his heart he’s still pretty bitter and rejecting the church. But at least as a burned-over MK, he’s rejecting it from inside of it, sort of.

The main idea of The Shack is that you can’t run away from the dark, messed up places where you suffered. God wants to meet you in those very places, those shacks, to redeem them and you. He doesn’t want to justify your suffering, but he does want to redeem it.

I’m recommending The Shack to my friends and looking forward to using it as jumping-off point for deep conversations!

Shack slice

The Worried Theologian

Pro:
1. The Shack drives home the fact of God’s love, walking the reader through some of the many ways that believers fail to affirm this truth.

2. It especially pushes the reader to confess that God the Father is a loving God, and not just God the Son or God the Spirit. In this way it emphasizes the unity of the Trinity.

3. The Shack points readers to the idea of a personal encounter with God, encouraging them not to settle for formal structures or merely intellectual assent to doctrines.

4. The Shack sometimes describes the life of God as complete and fulfilled in itself, and powerfully opposes the trendy view of a God who needs the world in order to be complete.

Con:
1. The Shack, in its central images, metaphors, and scenes, systematically de-emphasizes Scripture and teaches readers to prefer any other form of revelation over biblical revelation.

2. The Shack ridicules formal education in biblical and theological subjects and uses the word “theology” as a pejorative term. To call something “theological,” in the vocabulary of The Shack, is to call it artificial, humanly constructed, and mechanical rather than personal. This is presented as if the author of The Shack does not have a theology, though clearly he does.

3. The actual theology of The Shack promotes an abstract notion of relationship to the status of highest good. “Relationship” means a fulfilling interpersonal relationship of mutual trust, affirmation, and commitment. For the theology of The Shack, nothing has value except as the bearer of this good. In fact, The Shack shows a suspicion that enduring social forms (“institutions,” another pejorative word) could be bearers of relationship.

4. The Jesus of The Shack speaks a psychologized therapeutic language jarringly different from the words of the biblical Jesus. Even if we take this Jesus to be a character in a book, he is a different character from the other book, the Bible.

5. Depicting God as three characters in conversation illustrates a strongly social trinitarian conception of God. This could be permissible in a literary context. But when the three characters discuss their relationships with each other, they report a kind of egalitarianism that has almost nothing in common with the biblical account of the Trinity. It may be an imaginative portrayal of the ontological equality of the persons as confessed in historic theological accounts, but it flattens out the Father-Son relationship in particular.

6. “When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.” p. 99. Though many other problematic statements can be found in the book, this one perfectly illustrates the sloppiness and confusion which the author puts into the mouth of his God characters. In my judgment, “heresy” may be too heavy a charge for a book that tries to do the right thing so often, but Mr. Young should admit that with statements like this, he is teaching his readers, and teaching comes with high standards of responsibility.

7. Presenting God, or one of the persons of the Trinity, as revealing himself to us in forms that we can accept and understand tends to loosen the connection between God’s self-revelation and God’s actual identity. A god who can appear as a motherly woman or a fatherly man indifferently, depending on what we need to perceive, is the god of our many understandings. Even in fiction, it is unhelpful to loosen the cords of metaphor in this way. The Wisdom character introduced in the middle of the book would have been a better vehicle for this kind of shape-shifting.

8. The Shack‘s view of the church is anti-church. When it attempts to say something good about the church, it exploits biblical imagery as symbols of relationship. It commends an anti-ecclesiology in which real, local churches are the enemy of a personal relationship with God.

9. The hard topics of judgment and punishment are subjected to a conceptual redefinition which renders their biblical meanings unrecognizable. The author repeatedly refuses to explain the objective accomplishment of redemption, and makes everything depend on the subjective reception of redemption. God, in other words, is entirely reconciled to everybody for reasons having something unspecified to do with the cross. But people continue to live with God as their enemy because they have not opened up to relationship with him.

10. With such an incomplete and vague account of salvation, The Shack is unable to accomplish what it undertakes in its teaching with regard to the status of unbelievers. Since the Jesus of The Shack doesn’t want people to be Christians, there are no terms available within the vocabulary of The Shack for having a clear discussion of non-Christians. Young has taken the slogan “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” and attempted incoherently to make a worldview out of it. The Shack may not cross the line into unscriptural affirmations of universal salvation, but it rushes right up to the line and only avoids crossing it by by sacrificing clarity.

Shack sliceThe Literary Snob

I suppose, since Wm. P. Young’s The Shack has now been perched upon the throne of the NYTimes bestsellers list for thirty-six consecutive weeks, one must deign to afford it some notice. And so, dear reader, if you will bear with me, I shall describe it to you. By Mr. Young’s own admission, the manuscript of this book was rejected by 26 publishers before he decided that self-publishing would be his best option. No doubt many of those editors are now filled with regret at missing their opportunity to sell so many copies of anything. But as the gatekeepers to the kingdom of print, they were surely right to turn it down. The Shack still reads like the first draft of a first book, by an author who, having read many nifty things, is keen to try his hand at this writing business. As an author, Mr. Young wishes that he sounded like Bill Moyer or Bruce Cockburn or one of the many authors he quotes (in chapter-opening epigrams that make us want to set the book down permanently and go read something by one of these quoted authors). Instead of writing like his favorite authors, though, he simply asserts in his own sentences the effects that their writing has on him. The result is oppressive, as in the description of a tree that the character Mack crashes into: As he lies prone and looks up into the tree, it is said “to stand over him with a smug look mixed with disgust and not a little disappointment.” Take a moment right now, reader, to see if you can arrange your face into an expression that communicates smugness mixed with disgust and disappointment. You will find it “not a little” impossible, and you have greater expressive range than trees. This is typical of the way Young projects attitudes rather than actually describing anything. It accounts for the fact that, of all the parts of speech, he has subjected his poor adjectives to such chronic overwork. In most of the sentences which are not dialogue, Young’s modifiers tell us relentlessly what to think and feel, rather than leaving us with any freedom to perceive and ponder. The result is a cramped and shoddy literary space; a shack to be sure.

The first 23 pages contain the worst cases of this projectile compositing, for it is in these pages that the author (Young), the narrator (Willie), and the main character (Mack) are all struggling to address the reader in a single voice. Whatever religious readers may make of the theological Trinity in this book, the most heretical trinity is surely this trinity of the Foreword and the first chapter, wherein three personas speak to us in a single confused voice, crying out with a shrill faux-folksiness, “Please like me! Please like me! I’m ever so authentic!”

The writing, let us admit, does improve eventually. But even readers who weather the unrelenting schlockstorm of the opening pages have many trying passages ahead of them. Consider this gem from page 25: “The story of Missy’s disappearance is unfortunately not unlike others told too often.” The disappearance in question marks the beginning of the “CSI Special Victims Unit” portion of the book, taking us deep into the territory of emotional manipulation where the author is not polite to his readers. But this too shall pass, to be replaced by the Thomas Kinkade chapters, the long central section in which Mack hangs around a sunlit cottage with his new best friend Jesus and two divine figures who have come down from central casting: the matronly black woman who cries a lot, and the inscrutable Asian girl. And the clich├ęs became flesh, and they dwelt in the shack. Throughout this section, the worst narrative passages sound something like “By the time Mack woke up, Jesus already had the waffles a-cookin’, and the Holy Ghost had cracked a couple eggs.” That is not an actual quotation, but here is one: Papa, the woman who portrays God the Father, reflects on her tendency to love everybody by saying, “”Guess that’s jes’ the way I is.” And before the reader can finish rubbing his eyes in disbelief, three lines later Papa says “Sho’ nuff!” Though he comes perilously close, Young at least manages to keep his God character from saying “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout rulin’ no universe!”

The less said about the conclusion the better. I avert my attention from the labored theological discussions and the tear-jerking revelations that bring the book to a conclusion. Not a word of the characterization is credible on any level. Jesus could start any of his sentences with the phrase, “Mack, my therapist says that…” and the sentences would ring just as true. Having bounded to success over the warnings of 26 editors, Mr. Young has earned the right to scorn critical advice. But let me offer one word of caution in case he decides he has more than one book in him: Until you can write believable human characters, please resist the temptation to write dialogue for God. Even Milton didn’t really succeed at at it, after all, and Dante knew not to try.

Shack slice

The Haiku Artist

Eugene Peterson
Said it was good as Bunyan.
He must have meant Paul.

We’ve all got a shack:
That dark place deep inside us
Where we keep our crap.

“I’m thinking that bird
Probably understands that
Better than I do” (p. 98)

That Jewish guy said
Papa baked me some cookies
‘Cuz she is so sweet.

Whose problem is it
That I feel weird with this God
Like Aunt Jemima?

Wacky Trinity
Is not what you expected
And that’s the whole point.

“I’m sorry, but those
Are just words to me. They don’t
Make much sense,” Mack shrugged. (p. 98)

My copy was free
But I almost lost my mind
Inside of the Shack.

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