Book Review: THE SHACK

I've had several people ask if I would review The Shack, a fictional novel written by William P. Young. A friend I met online from Ireland was kind enough to send me a copy as a gift and I read it last week. I must admit to you (and this might not surprise some) that I am immediately suspicious of anything Christian that is popular. I'm of the opinion that the mainstream, the fashionable, the trendy, the crowd, the herd, the pack, the majority, the masses, are usually wrong. So I reluctantly opened the book and began reading with skeptical eyes. I'm also not a great fan of fiction. I tend towards non-fictional works, my favorite genre being biographical. And, curiously, these are precisely the two areas where the book both fails and succeeds for me. So I want to tell you what I think are the book's weaknesses, then its strengths. But then I want to conclude with a general observation. The Shack doesn't really fail, but in the minds of many, it seems to. I googled the book and read several reviews and opinions. Strange! Even though this may not be the best written prose, it is Young's first work and it does transport the story fairly well. I found some parts of it a little stilted. If they are making this into a movie, I hope they do not include the long monologues. It felt preachy in parts. That would be boring to sit through. And even though I didn't find it difficult to eat the meat and spit out the bones, some of it did feel naive and New Agey and I found those sections challenging to take in stride. So I wouldn't use it as a theology text. I wouldn't hand it to someone and tell them that this is what I believe about God or the Faith. However, that being said, let me tell you what happened to me when I read the book. I cried. Why? I have a young daughter. I also need to move deeper into forgiveness. I also know what it means to carry a great sadness. I also know what it means to feel distant from the Lord... etc., etc.. But read what Young himself writes:
As you read the story, we pray that God will touch your heart and open up places where you might be stuck, and help you see the way he loves you in richer and deeper tones and colors and sounds. We believe that this book is a gift to you. As words on a page, it has no power to do anything, but as you read don't be surprised when something happens inside that you were not expecting. That is so like Jesus.
That, folks, would be the purpose of the book. And it achieved that for me. Like opening the curtains and the windows in my own shack of a heart, it breathed in new winds that I wasn't expecting. It was a gift to me, not just physically but spiritually as well. Even though I knew right from the beginning that it wasn't a true story (some people have apparently planned to travel to the location of the story's setting to meet Mack! Huh?), the biographical nature of the book was a tool that helped me keep reading. I actually became curious as to what else it might do to me. I didn't learn any new theology. I didn't learn anything new about God. But that is not its purpose. Which brings me to my final observation. This is a work of fiction! The author writes that its purpose is to awaken you, help you feel something, unlock your heart, surprise you, and so on. It isn't meant to be a theological text. It is, in other words, a piece of art. Whether good or bad, that is up to you to decide (I refuse to use those two categories for art). I am surrounded with art. I am an artist myself. I listen to all kinds of music. God save me if all I listen to is theologically correct music. (What does that sound like anyway?) I surround myself with paintings and photographs. What do they say? Be sure that they say all kinds of things. Some of it isn't "correct", but all of it is valid and has a right to be said. I watch lots of movies. I may not personally appreciate or agree with everything that they communicate. But I love how diverse and varietal films can be and how they can shed new light on old ideas or open new vistas of possibilities in the dull and boring routine I often find myself in. I have a library full of books. You would never be able to peg where I stand theologically from looking at my diverse collection. I expose myself to all kinds of art because I love diversity and what all art may have to say or contribute to my life. Young is a story-teller, and I think a decent one. I suspect he will improve too. He will refuse, I hope, to be labelled a theologian. But as I've said and as he himself has implied, this is not his calling. I don't care if God appears to me as a an old man, a Jamaican woman, a donkey, a cloud or a fire. I don't care if pronouncements are made from a stone crying out or the trees of the field clapping their hands or out of the mouth of babes. These are all incidental, but they are all theological. I agree: let's analyze what is being said. Let's critique the message. Let's evaluate the medium. But let's also remember, this is just a story that can be appreciated (or not) on its own merit. On those grounds I think it's worth a read.
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