Review: The Shack

[Spoilers ahead!!]

I’m still scratching my head about the hullabaloo.

To hear people talk, you’d think The Shack was either the Holy Spirit incarnate or Satan Himself reduced to print form and corrupting the minds of American Christians one reader at a time.

I couldn’t escape the Shack discussions … dear friends recommended it highly; church elders dissed it.  I’ve heard it labeled “inspired”…”stupid”….”heretical”…”beautiful”… “insightful”…. “a load of crap.”   With appellations such as these, who could resist? Besides, it’s barely 200 pages.  Easy summer reading.

In a nutshell, I don’t think the book deserves either extreme of praise or disdain. It’s not well-written enough to provoke so much response.

Seriously.  

I’m not being high-brow or elitist here; I’m just sayin’….  Young comments his book went through 4 drafts. Apparently none of them included stylistic revisions.  (If he did have an editor, I shudder to think what the firstdraft sounded like.)

Young’s style makes too much of what he doesn’t need to say (dumb details) and fails to pull off the sophistication one expects from great literature.  But I knew going in that this wasn’t a classic read.

Setting style aside, we must accept Young’s premise that he is writing fiction when he describes Mack’s encounter with the members of the Trinity at the location of his daughter’s murder…. the “shack” of the title. (Subtlety is not Young’s strong point.)  That said, Young proceeds to insert long passages of didactic explanations about all things deep and mysterious into the mouths of his Trinitarian characters.

It’s tough enough thinking about sovereignty, the problem of evil, or the hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures without having the waters muddied by Young’s conjectures about such difficult problems of theology.  As Coart says, one ought never to put words in God’s mouth … especially if you have the chutzpah to make God a “character” in your story.  And anybody under the age of 80 who pretends to understand (much less explain) the interactions within the Trinity is smoking some pretty strong pot.

Side note: The book deals specifically with the problem of evil, an issue which all philosophers agree is the most pervasive thorn in the side of biblical Christianity. We are left with an uneasy mystery at best when we try to “explain” how God is entirely good and all-powerful, yet real evil exists in our world and it’s not His fault.  Young’s explanation (like every explanation I’ve ever heard) diminishes one of those three propositions, usually the idea that evil events really are that bad. 

On the positive side, Young provoked my thoughts on the evils of man’s isolationism and independence (that the Fall was a shattering of relationship and community).  He also offers neat insights into forgiveness and the self-centeredness which drives us humans to think we can judge God’s actions in the universe.  The book’s emphasis on a relationship with the God who is Truth offers a needed correction to today’s intellectually-heavy evangelicalism.  We rush into codified truth so fast that we miss the whole point.   His imaginings concerning the Trinity were interesting to consider …. I liked his “Holy Spirit” the best..

But having thought about it for a few days, my initial positive reaction has mellowed to a semi-apathy toward The Shack.

Perhaps if Young had handled his fictional metaphor more skillfully, infusing it with the depth of C S Lewis, the beauty of Tolkien, or the rich symbolism of Umberto Eco, I might be willing to set aside my theological uneasiness in favor of the book as a whole.

Fact is, he didn’t.

And while I was willing to set aside my propositional understandings of theology in order to appreciate his fictional “truth,” the theological sketchiness looms too large in such a badly written, badly-paced, badly-characterized story.

“Story truth” can be more ‘real’ than factual truth, as Tim O’Brien says, but not at the expense of craft and beauty.

*****
Slightly related comments:
This is an amazing post from a Canadian farm wife about learning to respond to “failure” on God’s part.  Read it — you’ll be glad you did. [Edit, 5/20/2013 – this link seems to be dead; maybe this is the post I was referring to?]

If you’ve never read the book The Cry of the Soul, I highly recommend it.
Allender & Longman pick up Young’s theme of God’s desire for a relationship with His children and examine human emotions in that biblical light. Excellent reading.

For a much more beautiful, thought-provoking, and honest wrestle with the problem of evil, read Mary Doria Russell’s two books The Sparrow and Children of God.   Truth and beauty.

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