What does the future hold?
I had quite a few comments on last week’s posting. My wife tells me that people like lists, so next Friday I’ll be featuring a guest posting by blogger/writer Jill-Elizabeth. I met Jill-Elizabeth through Book Blogs (but more on that… and her… next week). The posting of hers that I will be sharing with you is entitled “Top Ten: Little Books with Big Stories.”
But without further ado…
There have been many stories that set out to give us a different version of God than the big guy in the sky with the white hair and long, flowing beard. Whether it’s the laid back God from Conversations with God (see My Own Works Cited list) or George Burns (that reference seriously dates me. I hope some of you are chuckling right now), it seems that we aren’t as content as we used to be with the traditional thinking of who or what “God” is supposed to be and exactly how he/He/she/it is supposed to act.
The Shack by Wm. Paul Young purports to do just this, give us a new version of God. Unfortunately, I found the same old God just wearing a different mask (or masks, rather, but we’ll get to that later).
From the Amazon book description: “Mackenzie Allen Phillips’s youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation, and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later, in this midst of his great sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change his life forever.”
This books was handed off to me with little comment or detail, and while reading it, I came up with a new pop culture verb which I hope you will understand. “To Blair Witch.” It means to make something which is fictional appear as fact. It’s not necessarily deception (like what James Frey did with A Million Little Pieces). Rather, you’re just not entirely sure. With The Shack, the author starts the book with a very detailed foreword about the main character, Mack Phillips, that makes him sound like an old chum. Then he goes on to say that he is ghostwriting Mack’s story because Mack isn’t comfortable with his writing abilities.
Ergo, I was Blair Witched by The Shack. Now I know that more people would be more skeptical and realistic, but keep in mind from my list of ten influential books (My own Works Cited list), that I read Conversations with God with a fairly open mind. I mean, why not? Why wouldn’t God still speak to us in a language we could recognize? I was about 60 pages in before I put everything together and realized that this was a work of fiction. No one was actually claiming to have spoken with God. The story was just the vehicle for the message.
And in that fact lies some of the strengths and weaknesses of The Shack. I will say that one of the best parts of this book is the writer’s ability to make you feel the gut-wrenching torment of a father who has lost his daughter. As a new father to a baby girl myself, it hit so close to home that I almost had to stop reading it. The author must have done his research, talking with people who have had children abducted and then turned up murdered because it was amazingly true to life (unfortunately, when Mack goes to meet with God, much of this genuineness is lost. Even the dialogue starts feeling stilted and forced).
However, I felt like it was also a little over the top, a plot device brought out for shock value (it worked, by the way). In my mind (at least until the end of the book, which I’ll discuss shortly), it would have been just as effective to have Mack’s daughter simply go missing. I didn’t feel that we needed to see the bloody dress and details. My good friend, Brandon Schrand (see his memoir excerpt if you haven’t already), once said, “Never hesitate to be offensive, but never be offensive for offensive’s sake.” I feel like that applies for shocking material as well. And in this context where the reader is supposed to have some sort of divine revelation, it felt a little, well… hyper-Christian. It reminded me of those Hell Houses that the fundamentalist Christians started in Dallas, using horrific images to “scare you to Jesus.”
Along these same lines, there was a line early on in the book which also set me on my guard. When referring to the lake they are camping at, the narrator says, “Walowa Lake…formed, some say, by glaciers nine million years ago.” This line jumped out immediately at me, and I was led to wonder, Who wouldn’t say that it was formed by glaciers. Oh wait. People who don’t believe the earth has been around nine million years. This made me really nervous because I knew that regardless of where this story was going, the author and I were coming at this from two very different backgrounds.
And when Mack showed up back at the shack, the site where presumably his daughter had been murdered, things started to fall apart for me as a reader. There were definitely some things I liked about this book, some thought-provoking ideas. And similar to my thoughts on e-publishing (anything that gets people reading can’t be all that bad), if there’s a message that brings people hope and inspiration, a reassurance of their faith, how much should I be criticizing it?
I guess my beliefs on this are that a good message doesn’t necessarily mean a good book. I’m reminded of a book that was popular in the early 90’s, The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. This book had some amazing ideas, concepts, realizations, etc… It changed much of how I viewed the world at that time. But let’s be honest, his vehicle for relaying this message was pretty rickety. In my opinion, he would’ve done better to write an essay.
SPOILER ALERT/MY LIKES AND DISLIKES: If you don’t want to know what happens next, skip down to the “What do I want from you?” section at the end of this post.
What the reader comes to find out in the end of the book is that this is a story of forgiveness. Because of this, I will allow (even though I’m still not comfortable with it) the fact that the main character’s daughter had to be assumed dead (and not just missing). This was difficult for me to swallow as a father, but let me say that I’m impressed with anyone who could find this forgiveness. I see these people on the news all the time (especially living in Utah) who talk about a family member who was killed by a drunk driver (or something likewise horrific) and how they aren’t angry at the person.
But I’m going to let this strand go because it gets into deeper theological discussion (which I would gladly continue with any of you on a one-on-one basis) and this is supposed to be a book review. So here are some of my likes and dislikes (some of them often going hand-in-hand).
– I like the fact that God is a black woman (“God” says this temporary image is to throw Mack off balance a little, make him more open), that Jesus looks like he is Middle Eastern (because he probably wasn’t a white guy), and that the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman. However, I’m a little critical of these points, as well. It felt a little too much like a plot device, and again, perhaps I was still carrying a little discomfort at the author’s seeming religious background, but it just seemed like a way to appeal to large groups of people in order to get them to listen to your message.
– This leads to another of my dislikes. I wasn’t crazy about how stereotypically African American the God character sounded at times. It was as if Arnold from “Different Strokes” was writing her dialogue (Whatchoo’ talkin’ about, Mack?). Also, as I mentioned earlier, as soon as Mack arrived at the shack, the dialogue in general started feeling more put-on and sounding less natural and realistic. And as a writer, the excessive use of exclamation points is enough to make me a little crazy. They’re like adverbs. If your words aren’t getting the point across, then you need to rewrite the words.
And even though I said I would leave the theology alone, I guess I have to say this. This is the type of book that begs for an answer to the question of “Why is there evil in the world?” or “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but in the end, it felt like the same old thing. We’re just supposed to trust God and put our faith in Jesus.
For a lot of people, this is the only answer they need. I’m not saying it’s the wrong answer, but if you’re coming to this book looking for something other than what you’ve been told your whole life, you’ll be disappointed. This was my biggest gripe. I’m a huge student of religion (see my discussion of Life of Pi in My own Works Cited list) and love new concepts that attempt to answer the old questions. But with the exception of the new masks worn by the Holy Trinity, I didn’t find much that I hadn’t seen before. However, as I mentioned earlier, if you are coming to this book looking for a renewal of your faith in times of trouble, or for hope or inspiration, if you’re looking for a message without too much concern for the vehicle carrying that message (and there’s nothing wrong with that. Again, The Celestine Prophecy had a huge impact on my life) then you will be pleased with this book.
What do I want from you?
Have you read The Shack? What did you think? Have there been other books that have challenged/changed your beliefs? Or do you think we should just leave it alone, that The Holy Bible is the only written word we should listen to when it comes to the topic of God? Look forward to your comments.
And don’t forget to check back next Friday for Jill-Elizabeth’s “Top Ten: Little Books with Big Stories.”