Friday, August 08, 2008

Book Review: The Shack, by William P. Young

The Shack is a warm-fuzzy about God. It is a very imaginative fantasy that attempts to teach spiritual truths, but as literature, it is rather poor. Thankfully, it is not about dogma but relationship to God. At first impression, the novel may not seem to address more difficult to accept concepts like brokenness, sin, or discipleship, but they actually hover over the entire story, in the person of the main character, Mackenzie Allen Phillips. While a few of the ideas are clearly off-track theologically, the book illustrates some spiritual concepts very well.

Mackenzie’s young daughter had been abducted a few years prior. The body was never found, just some bloody clothes in an old shack in the mountains. Now, Mack receives a mysterious note inviting him to return to the shack. The heart of the novel is a dialogue with God. The enchanted world in and around the shack reminded me of the imaginary land of Teribithia, from Bridge to Teribithia. The combination of ordinary people and the supernatural remind me of the works of Stephen King, with the difference that The Shack is about good rather than evil.

Rigid, unimaginative, authoritarian, legalistic, or overly dogmatic Christians (they are legion) may have a hard time appreciating the story. It will be a challenge to anyone whose image of God is of an angry patriarch, or whose experience of Christianity is of fire and brimstone.

As far as literary style goes, I choked on the first paragraph of the first chapter. This is a book about relationship to God, and the author states that, “the god of winter was not about to relinquish its hard-won dominion without a tussle.” A Christian author who is trying to teach truth who starts a book with a citation of pantheistic theology confuses the reader and undermines his own credibility as a teacher or a narrator. The same paragraph finishes with this gem of originality: “snuggle up with a book and a hot cider and wrap up in the warmth of a crackling fire.” The book is rife with similar cliched images.

Beneath each chapter heading is a quote from a different author. The quotes are bold and provocative in themselves, but they tend to spoil the reader experience. Besides being distracting, good authors do not tip off the reader that way. A well written story can speak for itself. Part of the fulfillment of reading is to discover the substance and meaning of a text on one’s own.

I have no intention of trying to vet the validity of the theology that is presented. I learned quite a bit about the Biblical concept of submission in relationships (it is a little different than what it sounds like!). I am sure that that part is absolutely correct. The book presents a reasonable but not original answer to the age-old question of why God permits the existence of evil. Forgiveness is presented as extraordinarily difficult but possible. However, the author’s heretical presentation of Wisdom as a fourth person, apart from the Holy Trinity, is just too wacky.

The Shack correctly takes the common but mistaken notion that religion is primarily about morality and stands it on its head. Christianity is firstly about one’s relationship to God. As Luigi Giussani says, morality is less about abstract rules and laws than it is about honoring a relationship.

For Christians, the concept of relationship is ultra-important. Those who do not cultivate or experience relationship are doomed to living out their lives as empty shells. I am relatively new to an appreciation of relationships, whether between myself and God or between myself and another person. I am not sure that one can have a positive relationship with God until one has had a positive relationship with another person. One models the other. Perhaps we can only cultivate a relationship with God to the extent that we can cultivate relationships with other people? Or is it the other way around, or in parallel? I have observed that those who actively, continually work on their relationship with God tend to apply the same effort to their human relationships, with fruitful results. Christians are expected to act with charity, that is, love, towards others. The place where charity begins, and can be practiced by anyone, is in our relationships with those closest to us.

I accept at face value the numerous people who say their lives have been changed by book. That is a good thing. As a “message” book, I do not mean to be so harsh, but The Shack is a work of fiction, not theology, and ultimately, it must be judged as such.