So, apparently there’s going to be a movie made about “The Shack”, a book by William P. Young. This brought up a small conversation on Facebook because I mentioned I would not be seeing the movie based on my review.
This led to me finding the actual blog where I wrote the review…a bit of background…a friend and I decided to co-write a blog. It covered a lot of topics; but it was a short-lived blog; mostly because we have/had lives, families, jobs, etc.
But, because someone asked, I looked for it and found it on the wonders-of-wonders-interwebs where nothing ever disappears.
Please realize this was written almost 5 years ago. Of course, both of us are different people now with different lives, outlooks and issues. So, bearing that in mind I give you a 5 year old book review written by two ‘chicks’ who don’t always agree. But are (still) friends:
Episode 3: Book Review, “The Shack” (original post here) (November 14, 2010)
This week we decided to review a book that we’ve both read. Jen frequently recommends books to me; so far I’ve read three she’s suggested. We read for different reasons and tend to read different genres: Jen reads for education, information and a bit of pleasure and I tend to read solely for pleasure with an occasional jump into trying to inform myself. Her ‘pleasure’ reads are Judy Piccoult; mine are Nora Roberts. So, it’s a bit remarkable that I’ve enjoyed two of the books she’s recommended; the other one was kind of a “maybe”. (By the way, I still have about three others I may never get to read as there just aren’t enough hours to read between laundry, Facebook, and being a mom.)
There was quite a discussion that ensued over the theme and spirituality of the book; and whether works of religious fiction should go so far as to change the scope and accuracy of the God outlined in the Bible. As I read for fiction I was pretty certain I wouldn’t find the book blasphemous or sacrilegious; I have, in comparison, read the “Left Behind” series; which cannot under any suggestion be considered anything but fiction with some truth interwoven in their pages.
I don’t believe any modern writer can adequately write a book dealing with the certainty of God’s character, meaning, teachings or truths without involving a bit of their own fiction and personal beliefs of God. God chose to directly intervene and speak to the writers of the true Bible, using his voice and his power – I don’t believe modern authors can claim that same authenticity without a bit of skepticism being considered by any reader.
People of any faith (or no faith), believers or not, should read any book pertaining to religion, with a bit of doubt; as a starting point to study and learn more about the subject they are reading about. History books are not to be taken at face value; websites, news articles and many publications are usually written with a great deal of bias, as well as truth (I won’t quantify the amount of truth – it will depend on the author, the facts and research used and the subject). So, if a book presents a specific belief, it should not be taken at face value, but investigated and verified using true sources of knowledge – a dictionary, Bible dictionary, a Hebrew translator, a trusted pastor or your own insight and / or knowledge of God.
When Jen recommended this book to me, I was fairly certain I wouldn’t like it, but within a few pages I was pretty swept up in the story. Writing style is a lot to me and the characters were likeable and real. The story itself is set in the Pacific Northwest, so the visual descriptions were easy to imagine as well as mind-pictures I could identify from personal experience.
*POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT???*
Mack had a horrid childhood and it’s remarkable to me that he seems to have a fairly “normal” adult life; a stable marriage to a hard-working, Christian woman, and children than are well-liked, friendly and with no obvious issues, until the “Great Sadness” hits their lives. He doesn’t seem to have a close relationship with God, but he’s not completely against the idea or availability of God, either.
Over the course of one weekend, Mack has an opportunity to speak with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit through an invitation he receives in the mailbox. The three are personified in a complex and interwoven personality that clearly explains and yet completely mystifies the reader and Mack. There is clarity in the discussions with the three that explains, although in human knowledge, the beauty, the intricacy and the power of God that I think many search for but may not find through church, relationships with others and solely reading the Bible. Throughout the weekend, Mack comes to grips with religion, salvation, relationships, love, grace and learns to heal and grow because of his past and into what can be his future.
This is a very deep book with a lot of religious and spiritual teachings that would benefit a great many Christians in their lives. It is troubling that the author uses gender to assign personality to the Triune, although I know that as humans we tend to personalize God (and the trinity) in male format; Biblically, God is always referred to in the male pronoun. I have to say that I appreciate the author’s vision of the trinity and the explanation that each character of the triune gives for their appearance in their meetings with Mack. I’m not sure that Mack, in his pain and struggles with religion and family would have accepted any other appearance of the God-head than what was presented. Through his time with the three; his healing begins and he is more able to relate to the God that we all associate and characterize.
There is some profound wisdom regarding friendships and relationships that make the book far more than just a ‘religious’ book or retelling of a story; fascinating in the intricate yet simple ways we relate with others as well as God.
I would not recommend this book to a person looking for God or struggling with God’s power in their life; although those may be the exact people the story was written to touch. It IS a fictional account; although the author says it’s based on a true story.
I would however recommend this book to someone who is searching for a deeper meaning of God – although it should be remembered that my opinion is that it is not a book written by God through the author, it is the author’s perception of a man’s struggle with God and our identity in God.
Whenever the entire world reveres a “Christian” novel, I’m exceptionally wary. When a “Christian” novel jumps to the top of the national bestseller list, I’m nervous. After all, Jesus told us that if the world agrees with us, we’re doing it wrong. If the world hates us, we’re doing it right. (That’s reassuring since I’m frequently hated.)
And so it is with “The Shack” by William P. Young. For three years or so I’ve avoided reading this book for the reason above. Though reviews from friends and family have been along the lines of “This book changed my life” and “I’ve never understood God until I read this book”, the skeptic (see above) in me refused to read it.
Then it came up in a “What are you reading” discussion on Facebook, and though I’d never read it, I went off about the horrible doctrine and absurd theology contained within. But I’m smart enough to know that an argument won’t hold water unless I have something to tread with, so I admitted I hadn’t read the book, and that I would read it to see if my opinion had changed.
(I was, I have to admit, insulted when a Facebook friend asked me within the discussion “Do you read much fiction?” as if to imply that I couldn’t possibly understand that this book was fiction and, therefore, the bad theology could be discarded. More on that later.)
I read it.
My opinion did not change.
(Stop reading here if you haven’t read the book because it’ll likely be spoiled for you. If you’re ok with that, continue. You’ve been warned.)
The premise of the book is a man, Mack, wrestling with a grief he’s been unable to shake since his 6-year-old daughter was abducted and presumed murdered a few years before.(Disclaimer: I am not implying his grief should be shaken, not at all. I’ve never lost a child and can’t presume to know how it would feel at any given hour or moment. I imagine that, like Mack, I’d likely hate the killer for a good long time.) So a few years after the abduction, Mack arrives home one afternoon to find a note in his mailbox. It implores him to meet him at “the shack” and is signed “Papa.”
(I found it odd that Mack instantly believed that the note came from God. I mean, really? I mean, we knew that his own father was dead, but to automatically assume that “Papa” was God was a jump that I don’t think we were ready to make. But I digress.)
So let’s continue. Mack. Note. God. He gets this note and, after a discussion with a friend, decides to go to the shack. To meet God. (The shack is a rundown building in the middle of nowhere in Oregon where it’s assumed his daughter’s murder took place.) But he feels he can’t tell his wife so he lies to her while she’s away with their other children. He lies to his wife about going to see God. Mmmmkay.
So he borrows a jeep, works his way through the Oregon wilderness, and arrives at the shack, looking for God. He is greeted by—I am not making this up—a big black woman (my aunt told me to think of Della Reese in “Touched By an Angel” and I have to agree that’s an accurate description). This—this big black Della Reese looking woman—is God.
Now. I’m not saying that God does not appear in human form, or that God cannot appear however He needs to appear. This is true, to a point; it may be that when He “appears” to us as someone we have known or loved, for example, He’s not sending you Himself, He’s sending you that person, with a message from Him. But I digress
But. God. Is. Not. A. Woman.
Regardless of your “interpretation” as to whether or not God is actually genderless (He is genderless but there is a reason He is referred to as a “father” and not as a “mother” in the Bible) it’s a form of blasphemy to attempt to give definition to God.
Ok, fine. But this is fiction you say. (Or, at least, my FB friend suggested…with the implication that I, a writer and holder of an English degree, could not distinguish fiction from non.)
And I think that’s really the crux of the whole debate for me: just because something is fiction, must it still hold to good theology and doctrine? Does it make a difference if the work is fiction or not if the theology is bad?
I argue no, and my gut says that Paige is going to argue yes.
Paige will say that, if that’s the case, every book ever written will be blasphemous, heretical, and full of false doctrine. I’m not so sure that’s the case. Every book ever written is not selling itself as an allegorical story of forgiveness, salvation, and redemption, as “The Shack” is doing. I mean, if I pick up a romance novel (and I don’t know anyone…cough cough, Paige…who reads those regularly) I’m not expecting the hero with robust loins to be patterned after my Lord and Savior, and I’m not expecting the heroine to represent all of fallen mankind. That’s the difference. People have been writing allegory for centuries, and I am and have been perfectly fine with that. It’s just that usually when writing allegory, one does not give a Godly name and human shape to the being meant to be the allegorical savior. Furthermore, not all fiction is directly about God the father and His relationship with both Jesus and us. It’s that distinction that I believe sets “The Shack” apart from all other fiction, even Christian fiction, and it may be where Paige and I disagree.
In “The Shack”, Papa is not only meant to represent God, but the author tells us point blank that Papa is God. And the author also gives human form to Jesus—certainly fine, because, after all, Jesus was God in human form; and to the Holy Spirit, an Asian woman who floats through the scenes. It is her that perhaps leaves the greatest effect on Mack, and it’s her personification that I think I take the greatest issue with. The thing about the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit—is that we are not meant to understand it. In the Bible, God never even describes Jesus but to give details regarding where He was born and his heritage, which can lead one to imagine what He may have looked like. The reason God doesn’t tell us what God looks like, or why He doesn’t give definition to the Holy Spirit (other than the fact that it is, you know, a spirit), is because we’re simply not meant to know. And to claim that we do know, or even to pretend we know, is blasphemy at worst, heresy at best.
There were certainly things that I did not take issue with in this book. The overall theme of forgiveness and letting go is one that I think everyone needs to be exposed to. It’s difficult to forgive someone who has hurt us so badly, and I think someone would be lying if they said they’d never had trouble forgiving someone, and not many people have gone through what Mack has, to be honest.
So I get that. I get that it’s a powerful theme, and one that probably needs to be explored on a deeper level and on a regular basis. I get that what we are supposed to take away from the book is not, in fact, the possibility that God could be a black woman (He’s not), that Jesus claims He doesn’t care about sin (He does), and that the Holy Spirit is in fact flesh and blood and a woman who speaks with an Asian accent (it’s not).
But I worry. I worry that someone who reads this book who is not well-versed (no pun intended) in the Scriptures or doesn’t even really have a solid understanding of what is and isn’t sound doctrine, if a Christian, is going to come away from this book thinking that William P. Young’s (fictional) God—the God who says sin is its own punishment and there is, therefore, no hell; the God who says that all people of all faiths eventually wind up with Him anyway; the God who loves with the love of a nurturing mother and not a loving father (and if you think there is no difference and that a parent is just a parent you are dead, dead wrong)—is the God they worship. And I fear if they believe this is the God they worship, they’ll wind up in hell rather than the heaven they believe in. (Of course, they wouldn’t think there was a hell or that people go there, so….) I worry even more, though, for those that read this book—more than likely the majority of readers—who are not Christian will get “saved” through this book. They’ll be saved without a mention of the Gospel, without a mention of the Garden of Eden and our basic need for salvation, without an understanding of what God can do for us. Instead, they’ll be saved into a faith where they spend more time thinking about what they can do for God. That sort of faith implies God needs us. He doesn’t. If He did, He would not be God.
As my pastor is fond of saying, what you win them with will be what you win them to. And for that, because of this book, I am fearful.