Saturday, September 13, 2008

Book Review: The Shack

I have finally joined the club that meets at The Shack. Apparently, this iconoclastic bestseller has been rocking the Christian reading world since its publication last year. Christianity Today called it "fiction for the faith-starved." It is a self-published phenomenon.

The Story

Mack receives a mysterious invitation, ostensibly from God himself, to revisit the shack where the deepest tragedy of his life occurred. The story flashbacks to the time of the tragedy. Mack's young daughter is abducted from a campground. They never find her, but eventually they find evidence that she was violently murdered by a serial killer.

Mack goes to the shack, where he delves into intense theological psychotherapy with Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Papa is a jolly Black mother-figure, baking pies and whipping up four-course meals out there in the boondocks, hundreds of miles from the nearest Trader Joe's.
Jesus is, of course, a rugged but gentle Middle Eastern handyman; and Sarayu is a mystical, pan-dimensional being who fades in and out of sight. They eat (a lot), fish, walk, and always talk.

The four cover a lot of theological ground. Theodicy is the main theme: reconciling the existence of evil and suffering with an omnipotent, benevolent God. But there's also Trinitarianism, the incarnation, Hell, predestination, original sin, forgiveness, and more.

The Review

I did not love this book as the millions who have put it on the NY Times bestseller list obviously do. I didn't exactly hate it, either. My buddy Stroke put it this way: "The prose is as bad as the writing in The Da Vinci Code, which was pretty bad. However," he continued, "the book deals with ideas that Christians should think about and grapple with."

(Some Amazon reviewers indicated that the book does not promote one faith over another, but unless there are other faiths with Jesus the God/Man and a Trinity, then it surely does point toward Christianity.)

I agree with Stroke. The prose is dry, awkward, and occasionally ungrammatical; it is often cliche; and it has too much telling, too many details, and too many characters. The Shack needed a firm editing hand.

For example, there's this paragraph early in the story, shortly after the main character, Mack, cracks his head open on his icy driveway:
He would have to wait until Nan made it home before he would get any real medical attention; one of the many benefits of being married to a registered nurse. Anyway, he knew that the worse it looked the more sympathy he would get. There is often some compensation in every trial, if one looked hard enough. He swallowed a couple over-the-counter painkillers to dull the throbbing and limped toward the front entry.
Problem one: the second clause in the first sentence is a fragment. It's awkward; it begs for a verb.

Problem two: sentence three is not just awkward and passive, but it introduces the impersonal, third-person pronoun "one" which just rubs me the wrong way. It sounds like the author is injecting himself right into the middle of the story. Otherwise, maybe it's Mack who's thinking that there is compensation in every trial--but then why isn't this thought punctuated like a direct quote?

But the biggest problem is that the whole first third of the book is written in this talky narrative style, in which Young moves the story forward insistently, like he's in a hurry to get somewhere with it. Instead of developing characters and setting up the plot, he
attempts to cram an entire novel's worth of drama, action, suspense, and horror into the first third of the novel in order to get us to the four-way conversation between Mack and the members of the Trinity. And that's a problem.

It's clear that Young's hope and intent with his book was not primarily to tell a story that compels the reader to think and feel, but to give the reader a theological lesson. Don't get me wrong--I love theology, and I think it can be pretty exciting. But I feel gypped by a book that pretends to be a story, when in reality, it is primarily a Message About God.

Young must have been influenced by the philosopher
Peter Kreeft, who did exactly what Young attempted, only with great success. Kreeft's Between Heaven and Hell imagines a Socratic dialogue between Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, humanist John F. Kennedy, and pantheist Aldous Huxley after they all died within a few hours of each other in 1963.

"Where the hell are we?" says JFK in the first line of Kreeft's pithy novelette; and the three embark on an entertaining philosophical debate about the meaning of life, life after death, and the claims of Jesus.

Young, on the other hand, introduces two entire families of characters on page 34 that completely disappear 30 pages later; takes his main character to an isolated cabin where he confronts God and his worst horror with too much sarcasm even for me; and crafts a cliche Jesus, complete with a big nose but a warmth so that "Mack knew instantly that he liked him." Of course he did.

I can't completely hate a book, however, in which the protagonist admires Bruce Cockburn amid the garbage dump of intellectually-stunted-in-the-name-of-Jesus Christian music that's out there. But it's not enough to allow me to recommend it.

The Theology

Concerned Christian reviewers have labeled this book as dangerous because of its faulty theology. It's sacrilege, many reviewers have said or implied, to paint God the Father as a woman. I'm sure many also feel a knee-jerk antipathy to the idea that the church might have the whole paternalistic hierarchy thing wrong.

Honestly, I don't care very much about these issues. The Shack is not systematic theology. It is a work of fiction, and not even very good fiction at that. Banning or vilifying a work of fiction because its characters might be somewhat off the beaten track of Reformed Theology is pointless.

In my mind, the most serious theological deficiency is also a serious plot deficiency: The story takes a far too simplistic view of forgiveness. Mack has an other-worldly reconciliation with his father, who, as far as we knew, had died a miserable, hateful, toxic, and unrepentant man. Does Young want us to believe that repentance is optional? That everyone will end up healed, forgiven, and redeemed? And what exactly was it that caused Mack to instantly forgive and embrace his father? I didn't buy it on either the story level or the theological level.

The Bottom Line

If you are struggling with or interested in the theological issues that Mack delves into, there are many other books that offer better theology without the trappings of second-rate fiction, or better fiction without the distraction of questionable theology.

Update: I forgot to mention this important point: The whole book revolves around Mack's suffering about his daughter's horrifying abduction and murder. When Mack talks to Jesus about this, to try to get some understanding and peace, the answers are as lame and uncomforting as anything I've ever read. Basically, Jesus tells Mack that Missy was never alone, because Sarayu--the Holy Spirit--was with her; that they talked, and she was comforted; and that "she was more worried about you and the other kids, knowing that you couldn't find her. She prayed for you, for your peace." Jesus tells Mack, "She was so brave!"

I have to call bullshit. If I were the parent of a murdered child, this would not comfort me; it would piss me off. I suppose it is theoretically possible that it could happen in real life--that a six-year-old child would feel the presence of God enough so much that she would pray for her family in the middle of her own traumatic ordeal. But it's also possible, and even more likely, that she experienced no such comfort or security before her violent death

The bottom line is that there are just no words that can bring comfort to a parent in those circumstances, or in any circumstance in which a child experiences fear or pain. It is not only feckless to try to take away a person's sorrow, it is manipulative and insulting.

So there.


jeanie said...

You said, " But I feel gypped by a book that pretends to be a story, when in reality, it is primarily a Message About God." E. Peevie, isn't that what the Bible is? A story that is a message about God? Isn't that what all our stories are? See I Cor. 3:3

Other than that one line I have to agree with you about The Shack. However, you gotta wonder what chord it hits, even with Christians, to propel it to the top of the NYT bestseller list?

E. Peevie said...

Jeanie, The key word is "pretends." I feel that The Shack pretends to be something that it isn't. It sets out to be a Story, when it is really a Message.

I don't have a problem with Messages. I read them all the time--they're called Non-fiction. You read them expecting to read a Message about something--whether it's How to Become a Millionaire, or Systematic Theology.

But when I pick up a work of fiction, the primary focus should be (I think) on creating believable, complex characters in a story with a real plot, real tension, a real climax. If there's a Message that comes with it, all the better--but it should be a natural outcome of the story.

I felt cheated by The Shack because it seemed that the story was secondary to the message.

I think many readers do not care about excellent literary qualities. They DO care more about the message than about style. Our mutual friend Bob the Builder feels this way, and I totally respect that. She doesn't pretend that it's well-written; she just knows how deeply it affected her.

But what really leaves me flummoxed are the people who find this book to be well-written. In the promo section in the back it claims that "there is a literary quality to it that distinguishes it as a special gift." I guess that's vague enough to not really mean anything--but I doubt there are very many people with expertise in "literary quality" who would agree with it. (I don't claim to be one of those people.)