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THE SHACK

Disappointing Christian Novel, 2007 - 3-Stars

Begins Well But Lacks Balance

In brief: by "lacks balance," I mean it needs more truth mixed with the wonderful elements of grace, more active faith mixed with the relational elements of love. It is heavy on conversation and light on action; heavy on God's "soft" qualities and light on His "hard" qualities; heavy on fantasy and light on reality; heavy on explanations and light on mystery. A better balance of these would have made a better novel.

My first response to the idea of someone trying to depict the Trinity in a novel is, either they're a fool or they're really bold. I mean, "Fools rush in..." and all that. The Trinity is the greatest mystery of Christendom. To include it in a novel as three of its characters, you would have to understand it pretty thoroughly, right? But what human has that kind of understanding about the things of God? William Young seems to think he does.

Second, if you substitute a human being for God the Father - "a large beaming African-American woman" (p. 82), in this case - you're stripping Him of His divine nature and all that goes with it. No matter how wonderful that human is, and even though we're created in God's image, you are substituting an image of God for God. That is, at worst, idolatry, according to the second commandment; and, at best, a huge let-down.

Third, you're also stripping God of His mystery by trying to explain and understand Him. We're not supposed to understand God. That's why He is God and we are His creatures. As someone once said, "To explain something, you have to be greater than the thing you want to explain." I wouldn't want to be the one presuming to be able to explain God, would you? I have a feeling God is standing behind Young with a look on His face that would cause Young to turn sheepishly red if he turned around.

Now, someone is going to say, "The Shack is an allegory. It's not supposed to be taken literally." Chronicles Of Narnia is an allegory. Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory. The Shack is not. To be an allegory, a work of fiction has to be "an extended metaphor: a narrative in which objects, persons or actions have meanings that lie outside the narrative itself." Papa might be considered an allegorical character if it weren't for the fact that he/she is called God and thought of as God, literally, throughout the novel. No, even though The Shack has strong elements of fantasy, which allegories often do, it is more along the lines of The Da Vinci Code: a novel that attempts to redefine God.

In The Shack, William Young errs the way Randy Alcorn, in The Grace And Truth Paradox, says most Christians err: he makes a choice between grace and truth - two things that are supposed to be taken together, and both of which Jesus came to bring (John 1:17). Young chooses grace over truth, even though it takes both to be Christ-like. He chooses a forgiving Father over a disciplining one, when Scripture says that God is both. He chooses the God he wants over the God who is. He chooses a buddy.

Not only that, Young seems to divide God into two genetic halves: one male and the other female. He discounts the male half with all its "vices," and embraces the female half with all its "virtues." He does this in a number of ways, not the least of which is how he depicts Papa, the name one of his characters gives to God the Father. All of God's harder, or "male," character qualities - warrior (Exodus 15:3; Jeremiah 20:11), refuge (II Samuel 22:3; Psalm 46:1), disciplinarian (Hebrews 12; II Timothy 1:7), jealous lover (Exodus 20:5; Zechariah 1:14), avenger and judge (Nahum 1:2; Hebrews 10:30), to name a handful - are either ignored or denounced. The softer, or "female," qualities - love, grace and mercy, for example - are exalted.

Young makes all the strong characters in his novel female, and all the weak ones male - except for Jesus, maybe. Papa (God the Father), Sarayu (the Holy Spirit), Sophia (Wisdom), Nan (wife of Mack, the main character), the FBI agent "Sam," and even MIssy (Mack's daughter) are all strong females. Mack, his buddy Willie, Mack's father, the "Little Ladykiller," and police officer Tommy are all either weak or highly flawed males. Young even goes so far as to condemn men in general on pages 146-148, saying that, because women are more relational, they would have made better leaders than men and, if that had happened, "there would have been far fewer children sacrificed to the gods of greed and power." I guess he just forgot about the role women have played in abortion in America - something that has killed far more of its children than all the wars in its history combined. That is the problem with transferring our own prejudices to God: it blinds our eyes and gives our prejudices "justification." I find this "preference for the feminine" in The Shack to be very similar to Dan Brown's penchant for goddesses in The Da Vinci Code.

Then Young goes on the warpath against nations in general, and America in particular, denouncing everything from power and authority to institutions and economics - even patriotism. Are we to infer from that that he prefers nihilism and communism over godly order and republican democracy? It isn't clear because he doesn't give any practical examples. If he truly is condemning all governments, systems and institutions, then he condemns people like William Wilberforce, George Mueller and Mother Teresa - saints who worked within governments, systems and institutions to make life better for the poor and weak. In condemning armies, weapons and warfare, he condemns the men and women who have given their lives for freedom, - including the heroes of the Bible, our founding fathers, the heroes of WWII and our present military overseas. Instead of condemning those things wholesale, Young should have differentiated between those that are of this world, or of the evil one, and those that are of God. God also has power, authority, institutions, armies, weapons and warfare. Young seems to ignore these.

Something else that bothers me is how the author wants us to deal with our problems magically, in Alice-In-Wonderland or Matrix fashion - through dreams, visions or phenomenal events - rather than realistically and maturely through prayer, faith and discipline. He seems to believe that everything can be fixed with a hug, a treat and a cup of coffee. Eating and talking, relationally - as opposed to doing what's right, no matter how difficult it is - seem to be his solution. Love, as he defines it, is preferred over prayer, faith and discipleship - things that take work. Love and relationships are important - very important - but not to the exclusion of righteousness, or doing what's right. Often God calls on us to take a stand and fight - spiritually, mentally and sometimes physically - rather than hold hands and sing "Kumbaya." Just a cursory study of Jesus' life shows that.

There is so much good in The Shack, and it starts off so well, that it is really a shame it goes down a rabbit's hole once Mack gets back to the shack. It held so much potential, with which a more mature writer would have known what to do. For example, it could have turned into a really good spiritual thriller. Instead, it becomes a series of didactic conversations. I did like the chapter with Sarayu in the garden, and with Sophia in the cave. Notice that every chapter is basically just a conversation - nothing really "happens" at the shack. Yet, notice how much does happen in the first four chapters. They are the part of the book that is most like real life and, therefore, most believable. If only the whole book could have been that real, that believable.

I was especially disappointed in the walking-on-water chapter with Jesus. Young turns what was a miracle that caused the disciples to shake with awe into a neat little magic trick. Which brings me to this point: where is the awe and the reverence that always accompanies any conversation with God in the Bible? Even the disciples were continually in awe of Jesus. Psalms 111:10 says that the fear (awe, reverence) of God is the beginning of wisdom. Where is that at the shack? Mack should have been falling all over himself with wonder and awe, fear and reverence - which would have added another rich layer to the book. Instead, he has an unexplainable non-chalance about the whole thing. There should have been equal amounts of awe and wonder to go with the warm, fuzzy feelings.

For a first novel, I think Young does a decent job writing; but he bites off far, far more than he can chew subject-wise. It is obviously biographical, and I would say that Mack, not Willie, is the character that represents Young. He is obviously dealing with some issues from his past, which authors often do in their first novel. But I'm not happy with the way he deals with them. A wound received in childhood from a father can only be healed through another father-like relationship - not through a relationship with "a large beaming African-American woman." Even though a strong, "male" Father God could fill that role and heal that wound, He would also choose to work through people - so there should also have been one or more strong male characters in Mack's real world that came into his life and befriended him. That's the way it happens in real life, as God designed it.

For what it's worth, The Shack is a promise of what could be done if a writer followed the encouragement of CS Lewis: "We don't need more people writing 'Christian books' [but] what we need is more Christians writing good books." What that says to me, in light of The Shack, is "we need better writers with better theology writing better stories; not more writers writing more stories with more theology." A good goal to continue shooting for.

Waitsel

Waitsel Smith, March 16, 2008

Text © 2008 Waitsel Smith. Images © 2007 Windblown Media. All rights reserved.

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