Skylar Burris's Reviews > The Shack

The Shack by William Paul Young
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Jul 26, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: christianity

This novel seems to be aimed at overturning (primarily fundamentalist) misconceptions about God and emphasizing that God IS Love. And although that is a noble and important goal, I find the novel itself to be overly didactic, with too many long explanations of too many things all placed directly in the mouth of God Himself (which seems to me a bit presumptuous).

Things are very often better explained and understood in story than in definition, and that is why I usually tend not to like didactic novels: they ruin a perfectly good story with an explanation. He tries to depict God as love, but ends up drawing instead a sentimental human relationship. He tries to establish some kind of theodicy, but at times, the Trinity almost seems to be playing the role of Job's comforters. He tries to explain the Trinity, addressing in a facile and confident manner a great mystery with which the greatest minds have wrestled for centuries. I am reminded of a quote by Rumi: "Some commentary clarifies, but with love silence is clearer. A pen went scribbling along, but when it tried to write _love_, it broke. If you want to expound on love, take your intellect out and let it lie down in the mud. It's no help."

It's not that I have a problem with theology embedded in story. I loved The Brothers Karamazov and many of the novels of C.S. Lewis, which are clearly aimed at discussing and conveying theological arguments. Here, however, the writing itself is somewhat banal. The dialogue is silly (how many times did Mack say, "Whoa!"? Like, whoa! Totally! I never saw God like that man!). The exchanges between Mack and God seem to consist of staged/leading questions followed by answers. The action is almost nonexistent, and the "story" is only about 15% of the novel, while the didactic dialogue is about 85%. The characters are undeveloped, except for Mack. There were some standout observations and one moving scene (the "judgment"), and the author did an important job of emphasizing that Christ did not come to establish a religion but a relationship. However, on the whole, it just wasn't, in my personal opinion, a very good book. I wanted a STORY with real, raw emotion. I got a LECTURE, with a little bit of story, with maudlin emotion. And what little I got of a story sometimes sounded like something told by a youth pastor trying to relate to the kids on their (presumably simplistic) level and only succeeding in coming across as a little goofy.

So much of what plagues modern popular Christian fiction (didacticism, lack of subtlety, undeveloped characters, telling not showing, over-obvious foreshadowing, drawing conclusions for the reader, even the obtrusive, attempt-to-be-hip pop culture references) plagued this book. I have known many who have loved and recommended this book to me, but I fear I just cannot step up onto the bandwagon with this one.

Though I agree God is love and that Jesus will travel any road to find us, I really disliked his portrayal of the Trinity. There was something condescending in his constant attempts to overcome religious stereotypes: first, the assumption that most Christians have those stereotypes to begin with (and because I don't the "correction" of my "stereotypes" about God irked me), and, secondly, that he replaced those religious stereotypes with ethnic stereotypes: the grammatically incorrect Aunt Jemimahesque African-American woman, the whispy Asian, and the big-nosed Jew. (Yes, really, he goes there. He means to do it lightly as a joke, and perhaps even a joke on stereotypes, but it really does not work at all.) No, I'm not under the impression that God actually has gender or that Jesus was a white, long-haired, blue eyed Anglo-Saxon. But thanks for setting me straight with your multicultural trinity of cardboard cutouts. Ultimately, my problem is that Young's God is not much to be in awe of. And also, I kind of like religious ritual and don't think it's part of the trinity of terror or however he phrased that. Politics, religion (what was the third awful thing?) - these things can be used for ill, yes, but you know what? Order is not an inherently bad thing. Jesus is not systematically opposed to order.

I give it the second star because it clearly has touched so many people, so obviously the flaws that prevented me from really appreciating it are not an impediment to its central message for most readers. And its message that God is love is something that needs to touch people.
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Reading Progress

July 26, 2008 – Shelved
October 2, 2008 –
page 100
40.32% "So far it's had it's had some virtues, but I'm not jumping on the bandwagon at the moment. Seems heavy on the didacticism."
Started Reading
October 6, 2008 – Shelved as: christianity
October 6, 2008 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-15 of 15) (15 new)

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booklady I just ordered that yesterday. My spiritual director told me it was good.

Skylar Burris I saw it was the #1 fiction seller when I went to Borders yesterday. I'll probably wait to check it out from the library, but I'm intrigued. I'm hoping it's not typical "Christian fiction" fare, which can tend to be very didactic and non-literary in quality.

message 3: by ♥ Ibrahim ♥ (last edited Feb 25, 2009 03:25AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

♥ Ibrahim ♥ Hello Skylar,

Greetings! You say,
"I find it a bit presumptuous to place one's own understanding of God, religion, church, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and salvation directly into the mouth of God Himself"

I have a question. In the very Bible you read, a lot of the Pagan tradition has been ascribed to God while it is still part of human legacy at the same time. Paul quotes this in the book of Acts when he says "In him we move, live and have our existence" and his quotes from Epimenides. You have also quotes from my ancient Egyptian grandfathers in the book of Psalms. Yet they are attributed to divine revelation. Why can't God speak through the author of the Shack in the same way? God can inspire him and you to speak his oracles. Right? You can be God's voice to me. I guess we have to be on guard against literalistic dogmatism. Won't you think?

Time to provoke you a little bit; wink, just teasing.

Skylar Burris Of course God CAN do it. The question is, should an author presume he IS doing it?

This author basically puts his understanding of who God is, what the Tirnity is, what sin is, what judgment is, into the mouth of God Himself.

I have never encountered an author this presumptious. Most authors communicate their view of God, etc. through allegory, association, parable, or in the speech of human characters--not having God Himself say it and thus allowing for the possibility of error or dispute.

Of course God can reveal Himself through pagan literature, but then He is using the author. Here, it seems to me more like the author is using Him.

♥ Ibrahim ♥ And why shouldn't the author be doing it? This might present us with another question, "how does God speak?" How do you know how he spoke for sure? He can speak through you in spite of your humanity. You look out of the window and you have the gospel of nature. Nature itself speaks for God without permission on how to say it or what to say.

You say, "This author basically puts his understanding of who God is, "

Very good. Let me ask you, Skylar. Didn't the early fathers of the church do this? God used their personalities, cultures, understanding, etc. They coined for us the term Trinity and we have come to accept it in faith and simplicity. Any theologian has this job of giving his understanding in light of his reading Scriptures, written tradition and oral tradition.

You see it as "presumptuous". Well, how about trying to see him as comfortable with his God?

I really don't see the author, Skylar, my friend, as using God by any means. He has a goal and it is to help us to cross a bridge to get to the other side where the "living God" is in his waiting for us in the midst of our hurt and doubt.

If Jacob the cunning scoundrel wrestled with God and he thus later became Israel, why can't we in our spiritual pilgrimage?

Have a great day.

Skylar Burris I do understand and appreciate the point you are making, but I think there is a difference between wrestling with God, coming to terms with our own understanding of God, expressing that understanding of God, being inspired by God, making communal statements on the order of "We believe..." and, on the other hand, making God Himself a character in a story we have created entirely by ourselves, a character over whom we have complete power and control and in whose mouth we can place any words we like, so that our creation is speaking as the Creator at our command, and then have Him explain didactically and in detail a perspective on every major component of Christian theology with which the greatest minds of the ages have struggled. If that can't pass for presumptuous, I don't what can. But, yes, Jacob was presumptuous too, I suppose. Abraham was presumptuous to argue with God over Sodom; Moses presumptuous to argue with him over the Israelites. I suppose it's not always bad to be presumptuous. But if you are going to be presumptuous, you should wrestle well. I don't think he wrestled well in this book.

Have you read the book yet? If/when you read it, you can give me a more detailed perspective on it. I felt the book was didactic, at times condescending, and that in his depiction of God, he effectively minimized God and left me, overall, with a lack of feeling of reverence.

Any human depiction of God is bound to be limiting, but add to the limiting a clear lack of artistic or literary quality, and...well. I just didn't like the book. That's what it comes down to.

booklady I hope it does not seem as if we are ganging up on you Skylar, but to me it seemed more like a little child drawing -- well maybe scribbling -- a poor picture of the parent and bringing it to the parent and saying, "See Daddy! See I drew YOU!" And the Daddy, would smile indulgently and rub his beard and tilt his head to one side and look and look at the picture and try to see himself in the drawing but he would be very touched that the little child -- out of love -- made the effort to portray his beloved Papa. Maybe it is presumption and maybe it is childlike flattery, who can say? We cannot look into anyone's heart, but the tree is known by its fruit... We shall see what comes of the book.

message 8: by ♥ Ibrahim ♥ (last edited Feb 25, 2009 03:25AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

♥ Ibrahim ♥ Skylar, you make an excellent point here:
[But if you are going to be presumptuous, you should wrestle well. I don't think he wrestled well in this book. :]

At the same time, if you read the first parable in the beginning of the book about this Native American chief who gets sacrificed or whatever (p. 28), you will immediately recognize that this author is a missionary at heart and he is trying to reach a certain audience. His book reminded me of Peace Child by Don Richardson
and another one called Eternity in their Hearts.

Please read both books and compare them with the Shack. Have a great afternoon.

Skylar Burris Oh, I don't doubt that he had a missionary impulse in writing this book: it was, I think, primarily targeted at those Christians who have drifted from Christ or from the faith because of having grown up with a narrow or harsh view of who God is. He is evangelizing the badly evangelized, so to speak. If he reaches such Christains or former Christians and the book persuades them to give Christianity a second chance, then great.

Skylar Burris No, Booklady, I never feel ganged up on by either of you. I enjoy these kinds of discussions.

booklady Good! ☺ And sorry about the mixed metaphors! (eyes rolling!)

message 12: by Kate (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kate Skylar, in your review, you captured my ambivalence with this book perfectly. I too felt the author was presumptuous in answering for God, Jesus & the Holy Ghost. I disliked the condescending pedantic Q&A throughout the book. I cringed at the heavy reliance on Biblical literalism coupled with a clumsily-drawn ethnically-stereotyped Trinity. HOWEVER, I did find the book interesting. And it did actually challenge my own faith... (At the very least, it challenged my own knee-jerk resistance to the Evangelical Christian vernacular and my own righteous sense of superiority! ha ha!) Thanks again for your thoughtful review!

Mary Alice I really enjoyed this review. I just finished reading this book and you have put into words all my thoughts.

message 14: by Kristen (new)

Kristen Bloom-pestana Thanks for your honest review. It helped me know that I wouldn't enjoy this book as much as I had hoped. I dislike when people try tell me how God is, or who He is. I grew up in an evangelical church. Enough is enough. Even parts of the Bible annoy me- Paul giving the church his opinions on how Christians should live. Then to have a pastor giving his two cents about what Paul just preached... I would rather read a good fiction novel. His love will guide me. When I read the Bible I would like to judge it on my own and apply it to our relationship. To each their own right? Sorry for sounding negative or bitter folks, but this is my journey.
Maybe I should write a book! kidding!

message 15: by Ruth (new)

Ruth E. R. This is my favorite review of The Shack. Thank you!

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