People of the Books: The Shack by William Paul Young

I think it’s high time I review this book and get it off of my desk so I can give it back to the friends who loaned it to me in…oh…April.  *sigh*

When they loaned this to me, they said, “Read it when you have some free time–you won’t stop once you’ve started.” This is always a hilarious thing to say to a graduate student who forgot what free time meant somewhere after declaring a major in undergrad, but I understood what they meant.  That didn’t happen for me, though; far from never being able to put it down, I found that I had to walk away sometimes, had to have the space to absorb what was going on.  I do recommend this, recommend that you read it and challenge yourself with it, see where it makes you uncomfortable, where it makes you cheer in recognition, where it makes you long for that place.  Whatever else I might think of the book, I do applaud Young for taking on such an incredible topic as “why does God let evil things happen?”

That’s really the core of this.  The concept of evil in a world created by a perfect God continues to twist theologians’ minds as well as that of the layman—and has pretty much since the beginning of religions.  And there is evil in this book; you couldn’t pay me enough to be Mack, the main character, and go through what he goes through.  I totally get why he’s angry, why he’s distant, why he thinks that God has checked out, which I think is a strength of Young’s narrative; thankfully, not many will exactly identify with Mack’s problem.  But we recognize its severity and the effects in our own moments of being broken, of knowing that God did not act as we wanted Him to, as we hoped He would.  We feel betrayed by the God Who promised to love us, and that is something we need to acknowledge as true without trying to classify it as right or wrong.

On the cover of my version, there’s a quote from Eugene Peterson that The Shack “has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.”  I’m not entirely sure what Peterson thinks that is, but I’m interested by the comparison (not least because that’s the universe in which I’ve set myself).  Is Peterson (or Young) looking for a revival by this?  Admittedly, I’m late to the bandwagon; this was The Hot Book of Choice when it was published about 4 years ago.  I remember hearing of all sorts of church book groups set around it and thinking I should read it some day.  But I don’t think Young was going for Bunyan’s cry of hope and evangelism; I think it was much more a release of the author having the space to say that just because the world sucks doesn’t mean that God does.

Young begins with the author-within-author conceit that some folks use, in which this story is true as told to me by a buddy of mine.  I dislike this artifice, especially so in the category of Christian fiction where this resides.  I think you have to be very careful about the blurring of the real and the imagined when talking about people’s experiences with God, not because there is any “true” ruler by which to measure such things, but because it is so easy to lead someone to the way you characterize God and say that this is God.  Yes, yes, I know, all of our conceptions of God are subjective—but there are some who hunger so deeply for a concrete interaction that they will cling to something like this without realizing it didn’t “actually” happen.  So I understand, as a writer, the shell narrative, but I don’t think it added anything.

I think my favorite thing about this was the attempt to explain and portray the Trinity, which is the draw of this. The choices of each persona are fun, absolutely (I mean, who can’t pass up the idea of God as a sassy black woman? I’m on board), but the undercurrent of the three-in-one-yet-three idea is just smartly done.  Young manages to introduce sex, gender, ethnicity, and age into a deity that fundamentally doesn’t have any of these attributes and yet doesn’t make it a “thing.”  At every turn, Mack is met not with what They look like or where They come from, but what makes Them smile, weep, love until love overflows for this one lost man, his lost daughter—even the man who caused all of this pain, which is one of the mind-blowingly difficult things about Christianity.  That kind of forgiveness is rough, but without it any other kind of forgiveness is less deep, less true.

Applause for this whole endeavor. It’s not right all the time, and it’s not the best book ever; sometimes, the prose was decidedly clunky, the story skipped around a bit, and the ending was kind of flat to me—mostly due to the shell narrative, I think, but also due to the fact that it’s wicked hard to end this kind of story.  But it did radically flip my mind several times and cause me to rethink a lot of things–which is exactly what this kind of book wants to do.  Perhaps that’s what Peterson was getting at; this isn’t about getting the Word out there so much as it’s causing its reader to see the Word where It already is.

Rating:  5/5 stars

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