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The Shack

May 18, 2008

There’s a bookshop in Belfast that was renowned for the interesting and sometimes bizarre discoveries one could make on its shelves, the floors, the stairs, in fact any horizontal space where books could be piled. It was a deathtrap. I haven’t been in it for many years so it may have changed (it may even be gone!).

The one consistent part of it was the narrow stairs whose walls were festooned with Christian ‘art’. Lots of framed posters of broad and narrow ways, puppies and bible verses, or, for the guys, cars and bible verses. You know the type. This is art as evangelism. Art whose only value lay in its educative purpose. Art as illustration. I didn’t, and still don’t, like that kind of thing.

So. ‘The Shack‘ by William P Young.

Well, Young has a fascinating personal story, as has this book, which was not written for publication but for his six children and which has gone on to be a self publishing phenomenon. There’s rumours of a movie, there are websites and blogs all over the place for and against. People are buying multiple copies for friends and testifying to a change of life – just read the recommendations on Amazon. Eugene Peterson has even compared it to a ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’ (just what was he thinking??). I read it some time ago and have resisted writing about it for a while until some other friends had read it and we could talk. The question for me is whether or the fiction vehicle is strong enough to carry the theological content? Does it work as a novel?

Yes there is some interesting experimental theology and yes, some delightful images of encounter with the God character, and if you google you’ll find all sorts of reviews, most of which seem determined to pick apart the theology. And I would guess that Young is content enough with that, it is after all a ‘theological novel’. But it is not a work of art. It just doesn’t work as a novel.

As I read it, I couldn’t help but recall the stairway in that shop in Belfast – ‘art’ pieces whose value was judged by its evangelistic intent. There was no subtlety, no need for interpretation or reflection, everything is surface.

And I have to say that by the end I felt manipulated and I resented that. Young is not a great writer. The characters were one-dimensional and under-developed, and the quick and easy resolution of the deep pain of the main character was just too simplistic.

But to charge the man with heresy, or of being part of some emergent church conspiracy, or of channeling Brian McLaren is absurd and unfair. But as a conversation starter the book is very good.

It is just not a very good novel.

For seriously good writing with theological intent read Ron Hansen who is one of the America’s great novelists who approaches his craft from a faith perspective. Check out Atticus, a fictionalised reflection on the prodigal son, or Mariette in Ecstasy, a compelling novel about human sexuality and religious mysticism, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for sin and redemption and consequences.

And for an education in the relationship between faith and fiction, read ‘A Stay Against Confusion‘.

Hansen’s faith infuses his writing but not in an intrusive way. It lures you in through the characterisation, the development of plot and the writing itself enthralls.

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From → Books

8 Comments
  1. Would be the same bookshop that urban legend has it once got new carpet fitted. It was only weeks later when someone lifted a pile of books from one of the stairs up to the first floor that they discovered that the carpet fitter had given up shifting all the stock out of the way, and had instead cut the carpet out around the books!

    It’s a lot less cluttered now … though that’s relative to where they started from.

  2. Ah… It was never the same once it moved from the old place… Now that really was a death-trap…

  3. I read The Shack a while back and found it a very strange read. I agree with most of what you say. It’s certainly not very well written, and it’s puzzling to find someone who writes as well as Peterson praising it so highly. I remember commenting to someone that it was basically a discussion of trinitarian theology disguised as a trashy airport novel.

    But I am fascinated in why it is so popular. Obviously there’s nothing new about badly written fiction selling by the truckload (see The Da Vinci Code, or the Left Behind books). But I do wonder in this case if it has something to do with something genuinely good at the heart of the novel. I wonder if people are thirsty for a picture of God which is really, deeply loving and gentle and kind, a God who actually likes us and is “especially fond” of each of us. Of course it’s not a very balanced picture of God’s character and leans into sentimentality, but I wonder if its popularity says something about the harshness and coldness of the picture of God in the popular evangelical imagination.

    I’m going to cling onto the belief that Peterson’s recommendation was based on that kind of sympathetic reading! There’s lots of better written fiction and more carefully balanced theology out there, but maybe books with good hearts are harder to find…

    I’m looking forward to checking out Ron Hansen, though. Sounds like my kind of fiction. And you are the man who recommended Jayber Crow to me…

  4. Laine Bartlett permalink

    Yes, I agree we are in great need of a God who actually likes us. And yes the book’s popularity (and the subsequent controversy) is fascinating.

    Remember the reaction to the movie “The Matrix”?

    “The Shack” is the #1 best seller on New York Times Best Seller (Paperback) List, because God is behind this book.

    He has raised up the standard: “This is WHO I AM.”

    It is our call what we do with that and that is hitting us hard.

  5. Thanks Jayber and Laine.

    I agree that the idea of a God who might actually be for us is a compelling one and something that might not always come across so clearly in many contemporary ‘presentations’ of God, from the pulpit or in our writings. Nonetheless, when you put words in God’s mouth in this way you are already on a hiding to nothing.

    I just found the portrayal of God to be a bit twee and sappy. And, as I said above, I resented being manipulated by not-very-good fiction.

    But still, it’s a phenomenon which has created very odd bed-fellows. But then nobody got poor on over-estimating evangelicalism’s capacity for the sentimental. Countless framed pictures of puppies and bible verses has seen to that.

  6. ray stone permalink

    Young is presenting a refreshing aspect of God which could heal many who deem Him as an old, insensative, judgmental, mean tyrant with a big stick-divorced from our pain and in some cases, causing it. Despite some awkward sentences and obvious theological loopholes, the work is riveting. I love the message of forgiveness which I believe is a universal problem with most people-save and unsaved alike. It is FICTION so that covers the many Biblical misinterpretation, and vastly creative. Young really kicks down our sacred cows in this work. A work of equal value is “A Step Into Deliverance” by Toni Pugh. Its autobiographical content about a pastor’s spiritual journey with God is a real page-turner!

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