The book “The Shack” with the subtitle “where tragedy confronts eternity” was a challenging book to read and it’s going to be more challenging to review. According to the cover, there are more than three million copies in print and it’s a #1 New York Times bestseller.
I didn’t pick up the book myself, since it advertises its religious content, and I am generally not much interested in the subject in fiction. A dear friend gave me the book, though, and said it was excellent and I’d really enjoy reading it. So I did.
First, the author’s short bio on the back cover caught my attention:
Wm. Paul Young was born a Canadian and raised among a stone-age tribe by his missionary parents in the highlands of what was New Guinea. He suffered great loss as a child and young adult and now enjoys the “wastefulness of grace” with his family in the Pacific Northwest.
Clearly, there is an indication of first a very different viewpoint, one that most of us cannot even fathom, and second, some deep struggle to explain severe adversity and possibly evil when there is presumably an all-loving God, particularly when your parents are missionaries and presumably deeply religious.
If you were a devout Christian and had something horrible happen to you, and you needed to come to terms with it, you’d write “The Shack.”
The story is quite simple: a family loses a small child to a deviant repeat abductor and murderer. We never get to meet the criminal, but from the evidence of his deeds we can conclude that he performed unspeakable atrocities before eventually killing the child. The rest of the family has to live with this and they all try to blame themselves for what happened. After years of grief, Mack, the protagonist, receives a note that he cannot explain other than that it came straight from God. His instructions are to come back to the shack, the location of the heinous crime years before.
He arrives alone, and indeed meets God. There are as many interpretations of God as there are religions and subreligions. For Mack, God shows himself as three people. Papa is God, the father, who is first a large black woman and later an aging hippie with a long grey pony tail and a goatee, in jeans and hiking boots. Jesus is God, the son, a stocky Middle-Eastern looking man in his early thirties, who is a handyman around the place and likes to build things with his hands. The Holy Ghost is Sarayu, a middle age Asian woman who likes gardening and is restless, flitting about and sprinkling wisdom around. The three spend the weekend with Mack, going on various walks, hikes and activities, talking and giving lessons. Mack is enlightened and eventually returns home.
I won’t tell you any more than this, lest I spoil the story and enjoyment. It’s an intricate plot, a well crafted and almost engineered story line. The author tries to make things come alive in front of you, but I don’t think he succeeds. I am constanly reminded of the fact that I am reading a book I was asked to read, and I make myself turn the pages. When Steven King tells of a group of good old boys sitting around in the lobby of a Texas gas station on plastic chairs, popping open cans of Bud Light, you can smell the beer, feel the Texas heat, smell the gasoline fumes and see the greasy fingers of the attendant. You are there. When Young elaborates on a point that is irrelevant to the plot but he makes it to paint the picture, you see just that, he’s painting the picture, and you wish he got on with it. There are several places in the book where Jesus or Papa tell Mack to “grab a bite” in the kitchen before they embark on something. The vision of “grabbing a bite” simply does not make things come alive for me.
The majority of the story is comprised of conversations between Mack and one or more of the personifications of God. They are talking about the original sin, Eve giving the apple to Adam, they are explaining good, evil and free will, they show why Christ died and how this somehow saved the world, and every other Christian theological topic you can think of. Young is obviously a preacher who wants to explain the whole of Christian doctrine in terms that people in 2009 can understand.
If you are a Christian, you will enjoy the new interpretations and answers to questions you may have harbored deep within you for a long time. You will probably interpret some of the dialog as theological discourse. You may find the story as creative and possibly spiritually profound and life changing. Every Christian will enjoy the book and the pages will keep turning automatically, regardless of the at times cumbersome prose and predictable plot.
If you are not a Christian, like me, you will simply be bored, when you realize about one third into the book that for the rest of the story, you will be presented with one interpretation of Christian doctrine after another, neatly packaged in conversations directly with God, speaking through characters manufactured to be likable.
The book is only 250 pages long, and it took me more than two weeks, on a business trip, to read, since I had to keep telling myself I was interested in this and keep turning the pages for that reason. After a few pages I’d fall asleep and I’d start over the next day. Without acceptance of a holy trinity the whole story does not make much sense. In my mind, the trinity was represented by a God father, an old bearded and long-haired man in a throne, Jesus, a guy in a robe with long black slightly wavy hair and a beard, and the Holy Ghost, a white dove. Ok. Now I have a big black woman, a Middle-Eastern man and an Asian woman. It does not help or expand my picture of Christianity.
People of other religions may have similar trouble reading this. The concept of the original sin does probably not filter through to a Hindu, but I am only guessing here. Having Jesus help Mack walk on water might elicit a good chuckle for a Christian, but it won’t invoke the same response in a Muslim.
This is a book written by a devout Christian struggling with the concepts and tenets of his religion, trying to make sense of it, for the audience of all other Christians with the same trouble. That’s why it’s a bestseller.
For everyone else, it’s just 250 boring pages by a mediocre writer.