Book Review: The Shack by William P. Young

So how am I supposed to review "The Shack"? As a Christian? As a black woman? As a writer? All three? I know reviews for the book are wide and varied, like "This is the best book ever! It goes right up there with Pilgrim Progess!" and "This is the worst book ever! It clearly screws with real theology!" It took me a long time to get around to reading it, and it took me even longer for me to think it through before I could sit down and write this review.

I first heard about the Shack from a couple of co-workers. Soon, it seemed our entire office was reading it. I held off reading it though, for a lot of people told me that despite its popularlity, the man who wrote it is not that skilled of a writer–and suddenly I got shades of "Angels and Demons" (I really like that one Simpsons episode where Bart wanders into a literary gathering and yells, "Hey! Dan Brown is still on the NY Times Best Seller List!" at which point all the literary folk fall to the ground, holding their heads in pain. Ah, good episode).

But then it got nominated for reading in my book club, so I buckled down to read a copy. And yeah, everyone is right. The book does get you to thinking. And it truly was written horribly. I have the feeling that I would’ve liked the book more, bad writing and all, if it hadn’t been for a video game.

On the JayIsGames website, there’s a short point-and-click game that used to have an offensive stereotype as one of the characters. The creator of the game, being an international person, caught wind of this and wisely got his artist to redraw the character. But that didn’t stop the comments to veer into some discussion about race and stereotypes in media. Some just didn’t see what the big deal was, so someone put a link to The Jim Crow Museum to help explain the offensive character. Seeing that I had just heard about RaceFail, I decided to check it out, and whoa. I highly suggest going to the site yourself and doing some reading. It opened my eyes to a lot of things I took for granted.

If I had read The Shack before I had gone to that site, I would have thought, Whoa, God’s a black woman. Awesome! But after reading the museum’s info on mammies, when I reached the part where we meet Elousia for the first time, I went: Ouch… And how Mack kept describing her "large" and "black" and "beaming" had me going: Ouch, ouch, ouch…And when Elouisa described herself as ‘housekeeper and cook’: Owowowowowowow!!!!

Which sucks, because I couldn’t really enjoy the book like I wanted to. It’s like Young was so eager to go for a different view of God, but he wasn’t really experienced enough in the creative department to think of a different face for God, so he fell back on well-worn stereotypes of different ethnicities: the mammified black woman, the mysterious asian woman, the Middle Eastern man with the big nose, and Guest Starring Wisdom as the exotic looking Hispanic woman. Ouch.

Granted, I actually liked the idea of the Holy Sprit being an ethereal woman. It was a beautiful portrayal. And I really liked how he brought Wisdom into the picture. But still, it was disappointing to see the Godhead in such tired stereotypes. Personally, it would’ve rocked if he made God the Father the Hispanic woman, the Holy Spirit a (thin) black woman and Jesus as South Asian. Wouldn’t that have made for an interesting read. But oh well.

There are the other things that made this a badly written book–a whole lot of broad grinning going on, awkward sentences, things the characters did that made no sense, an occasional ‘light’ swear word thrown in to show that ooooo, Mack’s mad, he has a bone to pick with God, ooooo…And the real story didn’t start until what, Chapter 5?

But once you get past all that, well, the book gets somewhat interesting. In parts.

I found all the philosophy discussions fascinating. Whether or not it was correct theology didn’t bug me. I knew this was a fiction book when I picked it up, and I knew that the theology reflected the sentiment of the author. There were some nice views in there that I agreed with, and there were some where I, with no seminary background to my name, questioned. For instance, when Mack and the Holy Spirit talk about the Tree of Good and Evil, Mack never asks the obvious question: "If the tree was off-limits, then why was it placed smack dab in the middle of Eden, unprotected, in the first place?" I would think that with all the questions he was asking God, that would have been the question to ask. But it never came up. Or if it did, I must’ve missed it somehow. I skipped a lot through the book.

That’s when I realized that Young was attempting to manipulate the reader to where he wanted them to look. "Manipulate" is such a strong word, but it’s actually what a lot of us writers do. We want to manipulate the reader into going along with the main character’s troubles, to feel what he feel, to agonize and rejoice with him. But this was the first time that I was aware that my feelings was being manipulated, and I wasn’t so sure that I liked it.

Think of it: a man who lost his daughter in the most violent way possible is called back to the place where they found evidence of her death. That’s bound to bring on strong emotion, no matter who you are. The story had its best moments when it focused on Mack wrestling with his pain of his daughter’s death. Who wouldn’t be affected by that? And when Mack sees his daughter for the last time, or when he forgives his father, or when Papa leads Mack to his daughter’s resting place, you can’t help but be drawn in, because all the philosophical discussions, ethnic stereotypes, and horrible writing aside—buried within all that is a somewhat decent story. Heck, I cried when Mack finally was able to find his little girl.

Of course, Young manages to wreck the bittersweetness of the whole thing by carrying the book too far when it should have stopped at Mack leaving the shack. He commits the worse sin a writer can do at the end of the book–an stupid, stupid occurence that comes so out of left field, I was jolted. Then I started cracking up, because, man….what a stupid, stupid, stupid ending.

So, how do I rate the book? I can’t give it five stars–it’s a pretty crappy book. But I can’t give it one star either–there were some things in the book that genuinely made me think. I guess I’ll just settle for two broad grins out of five. I like to see how many times a normal person "broadly grins" in a given day. Certianly not as much as these people in this bizarro land. I think I’m going to clear my head by reading InterVarsity Press’s response to the Shack.

Was this something that deserved to be on the Best Seller’s list? Well, here’s my opinion. This whole thing started with a guy who felt God’s mercy so much, he wrote a book about it to give to his friends. And their friends gave it to their friends. And on and on and on. This book was never meant to be place on the mass market. When it did as well as it did, the author got surprised. So he supplied the demand for more. If Young had been a pro writer, with a strong editor and a better handle on the characters and story, this could have been an awesome book–one that truly would be worthy to be the next Pilgrim’s Progress. Personally, I’m much more interested in Young himself. It seems he has lived through the "Great Sadness" of his own, and I think his biography would be much more interesting than hiding behind this mediocre ‘fiction’ book.

And this brings up another question: if God can use medicre works to proclaim his glory, and there’s no doubt that many who read this book has had their walk with God affected so that they worship him easier, when will a really great artist get inspired to write something. Does God even use real artists anymore to inspire, or are there great works out there–they just haven’t clicked with the general mass audience who prefer more simplistic works like this?

Think about it.