The Shack, by William Paul Young
My roommate has three copies of this book scattered around his house, and the book has sold millions of copies, but I did not go out of my way to read this book. In fact, I long avoided reading it. It was only when a friend of mine discussed that one of her relatives had based their theology on this book, with concerns about the heretical nature of the book, that I reluctantly put on my hat as the reader and critic of heretical materials  and decided to read this book. I wish to state this at the outset because I did not come into this book, as I usually do, with either a neutral or positive expectation. I came into this book expecting to find a lot that I did not like and that I actively disagreed with, and to be sure, that is what I found. No doubt many among the book’s millions of readers or those who watched the film adaptation in the theater found some kind of comfort from this book, but I found it a tedious chore. At least it read relatively quickly. This book would have been pretty intolerable if it had been a slow read, but at 250 pages of fairly light reading, there are worse ways I have spent my time. I didn’t happen to like this book a lot, but it is by no means a contender for the worst book over, which probably says something about my own reading tastes, I suppose.
Normally, in reviewing a book like this, I would be concerned about spoilers, but for the purposes of this review I will note that those who have wanted to read this book without spoilers have had years to do it and a movie to watch that has been out for months, so if this review is a spoiler alert, you had plenty of time not to be spoiled. The story is told via a frame story, in that it purports to be the story of a friend of the author named Mack(enzie) who overcame a period he calls “the great sadness” due to the horrific murder of his daughter thanks to some direct intervention from God. Most of the plot, such as it is, consists of conversations between Mack and one of the three imaginary persons of the Godhead, two of which are portrayed by women of color, and the other as a Middle Eastern Jesus Christ in a shack in beautiful and remote Wallowa country in Oregon, a country I am familiar with, actually . Aside from this talking, we have the murder of the protagonist’s daughter by a serial killer, the investigation of said crime and four others that leads to the killer’s capture, and a car accident that lands Mack in the hospital because of his distraction over the long talk with God. Aside from the harrowing and melodramatic death of the innocent child and what surrounds that, this book has about the same plot as a dinner conversation between some friends and I.
Ultimately, then, in order to understand this book we must understand what it says about God. Here is where the framing of the story becomes particularly manipulative. I have read many books by liberal Christians of the Pacific Northwest who show a sense of ambivalence to hostility towards the doctrines and practices of traditional Christianity . Those books honestly portray themselves as nonfiction and make a case for adherence to the social gospel in some form or another. It is a case I disagree with, but it is a case nonetheless. While I disagree with the perspective, it is presented honestly and that honesty earns my respect. This book does not have that honesty–it shows hostility to organized religion and seeks to smuggle certain dodgy beliefs about the workings of God as well as the nature of free will and human responsibility, the afterlife, and other subjects within the realm of a vision that is written by a third party who happens to be a friend of the person. This sense of distance makes it seem as if the author is presenting the views and insights of someone else rather than seeking to take ownership of them. Furthermore, presenting these views as dialogue in a novel frees the author from having to justify these views as biblical, because they are portrayed as being truths given in a vision. The author seeks to win the sympathy of the reader in presenting a horrific story about a father seeking to overcome depression over the death of his young daughter while using it to smuggle dodgy theology in a morally and intellectually dishonest fashion.
In many ways, this book is an anti-Job. Job presents its story within a frame story that shows Job’s suffering to have been provoked by a challenge between God and Satan that God wins thanks to Job. This novel’s frame story does not raise the stakes of the events, but seeks to manipulate the reader into an emotional agreement with the author’s supposed worldview. Most of the dialogue within Job is between Job and his friends where his friends represent dodgy theology and unsympathetic application of said theology, while most of the dialogue between this book is between a somewhat ignorant and deeply suffering protagonist and three “friend” who deliver bad theology as manifestations of a dodgy view of God. In Job, God never explains to Job why he suffered, but shows his power and gives favor to Job when Job relents his covenant lawsuit against God in an answer to Job’s prayers that God would speak to him face to face. In this novel, ‘God’ invites Mack to the shack in order to engage in a great deal of specious reasoning and justification of His/her actions and to overwhelm him with fantasy views of heaven and the afterlife. It is as if the author set out to write a version of Job that answered his own and our contemporary society’s own longings for explanation and for visions of beauty rather than dealing with God as the Bible presents Him. That the book appears to get some aspects of God right–such as God’s freedom as a verb rather than His identity as a noun–is irrelevant in light of the larger package of fancy and error and dishonesty that the book is wrapped in. Ultimately, the essential dishonesty and deep error of this book make it an unworthy parable for believers.
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