One of the blessings of my previous class at Xavier was the freedom to choose our own subjects for papers. Fortunately, my class was on views of the Trinity, so I tailor-made one of my papers so that I could read and examine The Shack.
As I mentioned here before, The Shack is a piece of fiction that is quickly becoming a best-seller and is said to be transforming the way that people are viewing their relationship with God. Originally I was skeptical, but I knew some good Christian people who enjoyed the book so I decided I would refrain from commenting any further until I read it myself. Well I have read it and studied it thoroughly. And after finally taking the time to type out my response, I am ready to unveil the following conclusion:
I do not like this book at all.
In my previous post on The Shack I gave a quick synopsis on the book. So as I continue here, I'm assuming you at least have a cursory understanding of what it's about. Quickly, The Shack is about a guy [named Mack] who is angry with God because his daughter was killed by a serial killer. So God chooses the location of her murder [the aforementioned shack] to be the site of His reconciliation with Mack. Mack spends the weekend with the Trinity [described as a black woman, an Arab man, and an Asian woman] who try to tell them "the truth" about God.
As I begin to critique, let me start here: to be fair, I don't know William Young [the book's author]. I don't fully understand the circumstances surrounding his life [which were apparently somewhat hellish] and I am not judging him directly. As I understand it, the book was supposed to be a therapeutic gesture written for his children, but Young later sought for the book to be published; from there it gained widespread popularity. So it's no longer a personal matter, but a public one, and people are going to this book for spiritual guidance, then it is then fair game for me to deconstruct its contents.
I'm assuming that Young had good intentions in getting this work out there to the masses, but there is objectionable content in it. And while some suggest that it's just an innocently written fictional book that shouldn't be over-examined, I disagree. There is power in the written word. And just because something was done with good intentions does not excuse it from scrutiny if it is, in fact, harmful.
As for its artistic merits, I found it lacking. I've admitted before that I'm not very big on fiction. That said, I can easily recognize good writing and The Shack isn't it. For example, while I disagreed with practically all of the "factual concepts" found in The DaVinci Code, I could definitely see why it is so popular— Dan Brown was a good storyteller. The Shack was not at all similar. Young vacillates between humor and seriousness to the point that it is uncomfortable. And much of the dialogue seemed forced, completely unnatural. It isn't good fiction.
So if I were merely a book critic, this would be reason enough alone for me not to recommend it. But even more than its literary attributes, this book attempts to speak authoritatively on theological issues. Again, Young can claim that it was never his intention to do so, but he does make statements about God and Christianity that are presented as fact, not opinion. So it must be examined from a theological perspective as well.
A roadblock to examining The Shack theologically is the fact that it speaks authoritatively under the veil of a rather emotional narrative. The catalyst behind Mack's weekend conversation with the Trinity is the brutal sexual assault and murder of his daughter. I would suggest that Young's use of the worst possible crime in our society [the violation/death of an innocent child] as a backdrop to this story is a method of deflecting any criticism towards his more controversial statements. Bolstering this observation, Young gives the illusion that this story could possibly be true by inserting himself into the story as narrator. While all of this might seem like no big deal, it creates a barrier for those who dare to criticize the content of the story; so if I question Young's assertions, I'm a heartless person who is unsympathetic towards parents who have lost their children. But the inclusion of such a horrific back-story works for Young by giving his statements strength. So if you are going to truly assess The Shack for what it is, you must immediately divorce the narrative from the given statements about God.
Like I said in my earlier post on The Shack, I am always skeptical of the theological fiction genre. One might counter that that's exactly what C.S. Lewis' classical writings were, but there is a distinct difference. Notice how Lewis worked theology into fiction— He never directly spoke through the Trinity, but always used different representations: The Screwtape Letters is very theological, but it is a conversation conducted between demons; in The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan was certainly a Christ-like character, but it was in a completely different world; in The Great Divorce, the heaven seen does not specifically involve the Three Persons. This is advantageous because if Lewis' theology [like all humans] isn't perfect, it does not suffer from putting definitive statements into the mouth of God.
And this is exactly where Young makes his initial [and crucial] mistake— he puts words into God's mouth. Fiction or not, that makes huge statements and you must ensure that you make no mistakes. And I'm afraid Young is mistaken.
In the next part of this review, I'll give specific instance from the book that I find problematic.