Friday, September 25, 2009

Book Review: The Shack

I have to admit that I've been pretty ambivalent about reading The Shack, by William P. Young, for a long time. I first heard of it from a colleague who really ticks me off most of the time, and the superior way he spoke about the book made me think it was probably very hokey. Then, of course, so many evangelicals came out against it (complaining about "dangerous doctrine") that I thought it probably wouldn't be so bad.

Most recently, a friend and new member of our church talked about how great the book was. Since I really like her and trust her, and since she had pretty solid reasons for liking the book, I decided I should suck it up and read it - if only to learn more what she took from it. At the recent Planned Parenthood book sale, I picked up a used copy for $3 and got to reading.

My first impression was that while the story was cheesy and rather mediocrely written (though still better than the wretchedly written Left Behind series - to say nothing of that series' theology, those books were just badly written), I was kind of into The Shack. While there's virtually no chance that a mystical experience of God would involve three days correcting one's bad theology with the Trinity as sit around a house talking about what they really meant with all that stuff that happened in the Bible, those scenes did produce some good quotes that will be useful to me, and it made for a few thoughtful times.

So much of the book was dialogue - or more precisely, monologue on the part of God - that it made me think of those dorm room discussions we'd have in seminary (or college, or wherever) about Very Important Topics, only this time with the Authority giving the right answers. To its credit, most of the scenes in the Shack with God giving all the right answers were not too "happy-clappy," so it didn't totally turn me off from the book, even though these conversations did seem conveniently tidy most of the time.

I found myself convicted in a few places, faced with the dissonance between what I believe is true of God for other people and the impossible standards to which I hold myself - and the utter ridiculousness of this stance. I did not have a big emotional "come to Jesus" moment in the book, but I did reflect on some things, and probably will continue to do so in the coming weeks and months. That is all to the good, and I'm sure Mr. Young would be happy to know that.

The theology is your garden-variety, radical "God is Love" stuff, shocking to many who will insist on a God of Judgment over a God of Grace, but pretty basic to someone like me, who's been preaching on the radical love of God for some time now (and who's lived and believed that theology for a lot longer than I've been preaching it). I liked that this theology was getting out there. Open Theism doesn't scare me the way it does some others, so even that wasn't a muss. Having God the Father as a bold Black woman and the Holy Spirit as an Asian sprite also wasn't that shocking.

[TOTAL SIDEBAR: I do wonder, however, how African-Americans read and understand this book...does it seem like tokenism to have God portrayed thusly? A misappropriation of skin color just to make a point about upending our human assumptions about God, particularly when that skin color is appropriated without any context about what being Black in the United States is all about, socially, politically, or historically? Just a weak, cheap ploy, almost "Mammy"-ish? I found myself cringing at the representation of God the Father as a bold Black woman, there to comfort hurts and making good food, offering sweet, tender care. Either give the bold Black woman some less-stereotypically female (and particularly, less stereotypically black slave/servant) things to do, or put a male Father God in the kitchen and let Him heal through good cooking.]

Still, a lot of stuff annoyed me. There was a lot of "magical thinking" in the book, by which I mean to say a lot of magical stuff happens. This is not Garcia Marquez' "magical realism," or even Harry Potter, but more like hocus-pocus. Was this just a clumsy attempt to portray a mystical experience with God? If so, it was very poorly done. The plot was unbelievable and silly, but I wanted to give it a chance. And to be truthful, bad writing and pedestrian theology included, I enjoyed large parts of the book when I could just jump into the story. But in the end, I just couldn't make the final leap. Maybe that's because I don't have a real mystical center, much as I'd like to - but I suspect it's more because the book just wasn't that well-written. And truthfully, if this kind of story is what passes for modern-day mysticism, give me Julian of Norwich any day.

Where the book really started to lose me is when it gets deep into atonement theology - that Jesus willingly took on the punishment for our sins on the cross. In my theological understanding of the death and resurrection of our Lord (so succinctly expressed by my dear friend Legs last night), the cross and Jesus' torture and execution at the hands of the Roman authorities says a lot more about humanity - our fear, our desire for control, our bloodlust and our revenge-seeking - than it does about God. The resurrection is where God takes the worst that we have done to one another (and even to God) and redeems it. You can't have the resurrection without the cross, of course, and the fact that One is willing to be so faithful to God's message as to die for it is, indeed, awe-inspiring in the most biblical sense of "awe." But it is the Resurrection that shows God's true power, overcoming death.

It was also frustrating that for most of the book, Mack called this clearly feminine representation of God "Papa" (but at least there were female pronouns attached to her and that disjunction made good sense). Yet, what ruined even this for me is that at what is supposed to be the climax of the story, Papa appears as a man, telling the main character that "You are going to need a father today." Puh-leeze. The climactic scene (which by the way was so totally obvious you could see it coming a mile away) was not very dramatically written, nor did the main character break down in such a way as to need the healing love of a perfect Father. Papa as a bold Black woman would have been just as effective - and even more dramatic.

What this says to me is that, in the end, in the hardest things we have to face in this life, nothing is good enough as a male Father God to do the job. So, in the final analysis, William Young did not upend our assumptions about God the Father, but reinforced the masculine portrayal as the truest and deepest understanding of what it means to be divine.

And finally, the book's ending is so very pedestrian. What happens to Mack after he leaves the shack is given short shrift - as if Young realized he had to end it somehow and just threw in another dramatic scene, this time set in the real world. Then, let's wrap up all the other details and put a shiny bow on it! Sorry, life, and the aftermath of violence in a family does not end so neatly, even with a mystical experience accompanying it.

Even as the book tried to talk about the hard road of faith, grace, and forgiveness - and brothers and sisters, if you take nothing from the Gospels, you must know that the road to which Jesus Christ calls us is full of hardship and heart-pain as we embody faith, grace and forgiveness to those who have hurt us most deeply - even as the book tried to talk about how hard it is to "let go and let God," still, in the end, Mack is rewarded with a sugary, happy ending in the "real world." Happy-clappy is really the best way to describe it. Was Young trying to make a parallel to the Job story? If so, it was as saccharine and neatly-tied-up as it comes - and therefore utterly unrealistic. Even the ending of Job offers a little more substance and ambiguity.

So, I can't really recommend this book, but even with all my complaints about it, I don't think I will condemn it, either. Like my evangelical brethren say (but for very different reasons), "Read it carefully and with a discerning heart," take from it what you can, and let the rest go. If it gets you thinking about God and God's activity in the world, if it invites you to trust more in the Living God, and if it inspires you to live a more grace-filled, forgiving life, that's all to the good.


Lucky Fresh said...

I'm probably not as hard-dore a reviewer (or theological thinker) as you, and it was over a year ago that I read it, but the main thing I remember appreciating about it was the creativity. Sure, it may have been amateurish, but quite frankly, encouraging amateur creativity is part of my religion.

I probably completely agree with you about the theological points. (I had completely forgotten about God getting all Fatherish at the end - ick.) But I have had the feeling for a while that a lot of the fundegelical response was a gut reaction to the broad use of imagination. I'm pretty sure they're not into that. And I am. As part of my theology.

I'm just saying...

LiturgyGeek said...

Amateurish - that's exactly it! Thank you, LF! And yes, I am quite sure that some of the negative response among fundamentalists/evangelicals was due precisely to the use of creative imagination/license. Such a shame,really.