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.”
29 thoughts on “Discussion/review of “The Shack” by Wm. Paul Young”
Thanks for the nod Paul, and for the opportunity to guest post next week!
I like “to be Blair-Witched” as a new verb – and knew exactly what you meant when you said it. Also caught the George Burns reference – I LOVED those movies, especially when he played the devil and his eyes went red… I enjoy books/movies on religion too, particularly when they offer an alterna-view on the traditional or make me think about my own beliefs. An author who can make me think without foisting his/her own beliefs on me is a talented individual indeed. I recently read/reviewed a book (Santa Claus, Flying Saucers and God) that managed to do this decently, leading me to review my own attitudes and actions regarding organized religion – interesting and thought-provoking stuff. Thanks for sharing the review and your perspective!
No problem, Jill. I’ll be sure to include your link and information next week. And thanks for the book recommendation. What a great title. I’ll have to check it out.
My views on religion are well known to you. However I still love to read religious fiction like “The Red Tent” and “Mary Magdelene”. I however don’t like pat answers in books that use God to tie up loose ends , the deus ex machina if you will. It’s the lazy way out of a plot twist in my opinion. I was greatly influenced by “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and “The Athiest Universe” by someone I can’t remember. Those books put words to what I believed but couldn’t explain.
Thanks Kodi. I wouldn’t consider myself an athiest, but I think Dawkins put an interesting spin on it, saying that being an athiest doesn’t take away any of the amazement with the universe, but rather it makes it all that much greater to see all the wonders of the world, universe, etc… without just pawning it off as the wonders of God.
I’m sure you know how I felt about “The Shack.” At several points, reading it felt like sitting in grade school catechism classes with a different cast of characters for teachers. Seldom do I think about putting a book down without any intention of completing it, but I almost did exactly that with “The Shack.” I don’t believe there are many people in the world who could forgive such an evil person (I mostly don’t really believe the people on TV who say that) but that is exactly what grade school catechism teaches. It all had such a familiar ring. When I closed this book, I was happy to be done. It isn’t a book I’d recommend to anyone for two main reasons–getting through the first horrific 50 pages and then getting through the rest of the book. I have never read “The Celestine Prophecy” and thanks for that recommendation. I’m going to also look for “Santa Claus, Flying Saucers and God.” Do you think I can get them on my Nook??
I do believe “Santa Claus, Flying Saucers & God” is available electronically – if it turns out it isn’t let me know and I’ll put you in touch with the author. He’s a very nice guy – he contacted me out of the blue to ask me to review his book a few months ago – and could probably get you a version that you could do on Nook! 🙂
Amen to your review, Paul, although I confess I put the book down about half way through because the characters seemed too contrived and the dialogue too strange. I bought the book because it was on that great New York Arbiter’s bestseller list–bad reason. There are much better written and thought provoking books about Man’s relationship to God, including the Bible. (How about Jacob wrestling through the night with the Angel?) Why do bad things happen to good people? The only answer that makes sense is: Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.
When we are depressed by tragic and sad events we have the sense that we’re living in a damaged, sick society. We look for some enlightenment in a book, hoping it will make us more positive. I call these novels the “light at the end of the tunnel” genre. They probably serve a purpose, but why should they receive literary acclaim? I dug my copy out after reading your review and donated to the local Christian used bookstore. (still unread). Carol
Carol, I think it’s funny that you said “Amen” to my review. I’m not sure that’s what the author would say 🙂
Thanks for commenting. I agree that there is a purpose for this kind of literature, but the inspirational message (or celebrity endorsements) shouldn’t overrule poor writing (at least after he gets to the shack) when it comes to literary acclaim.
Thanks so much! Barnes and Noble does not have the book in any format. Amazon does have used copies but nothing electronic (wouldn’t work on my Nook anyway). I did enjoy reading your reivew, but you gotta love it when the author does a review of his own book! I especially like the full title: “Is Anybody Up There?: Santa Claus, Flying Saucers & God.” I’ll probably just order a copy from Amazon. Thanks again.
Teehee – I know, it is cute (in a completely non-condescending way) to me when people review their own stuff! Yeah, the full title is totally what sold me on reviewing the book… If you are willing to do a review and post it, I’m sure the author would be more than happy to send you a review copy – really. He was very into publicizing the book when we spoke. I can either send you his email address or I’m happy to send the email introducing you/requesting the review – you know us crazy author-types, all we really want is people to read our stuff!! 🙂
As a great Christian skeptic I was very skeptical of this book when it was given to me by my Midwest devout conservative Christian. I think it could be the complete idealogy of Christian Conservatives. The ONE thing I picked up from this book is that Jesus is not fond of much organized religion! I believe there is a higher power (energy force?) because there is too much perfection in nature–MAN not so much.
Pam, great comment. I agree. And I had forgotten about Jesus not being fond of organized religion. I liked that part, as well… the idea that when humans get involved, we tend to screw up the message and put our own intentions, interpretations and motives into it. However, I remember that was in Conversations with God, as well. So while I liked the idea, it wasn’t a new one for me. Thanks for stopping by.
Having read “The Shack” and your review, I am reminded of two popular views of Bible stories among believers. First, there are those who feel they are true accounts of actual events and must be taken literally. Then, there are those who believe them to be just that…stories. However, those belonging to the second group do believe Bible stories are inspired by God and are written, to use your words, as “the vehicle for the message.” While Young is certainly not playing God, I can accept that he may have an agenda, but so what. Regardless of where it leads us, I think it’s healthy to explore and debate the questions of who are we and what is our place in the universe. For this reason, I am glad I read “The Shack.”
Ever heard the term God of the gaps? It applies to your comments to Kodi. It is the practice of assigning anything we don’t understand [yet] to God. Some find it a comfortable way to accept and practice certain sciences without compromising their faith. In light of discovery, God of the gaps may be losing some valuable ground. So, I would recommend “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” by Francis Collins. As current director of the NIH, and former head of the Human Genome Project (considered by many to be the most important undertaking in the history of science), Collins has been called one of the preeminent scientists of our time. A physician-geneticist with degrees in medicine, genetics and physical chemistry, it would be easy to assume him ready-made to be of the ilk of athiest Richard Dawkins. Think again, Collins is a person of faith who, as a matter of conscience, has not taken the convenient path of science in one pocket and faith in the other. He has sought convergence.
For anyone else reading this, Dan is my father and the one who gave me The Shack to read (which is why I was very hesitant to post this discussion. I value his opinion on everything… whether we agree or not :). Anyway, this has been the debated book in our family ever since.
Anyway, interesting comments about God of the gaps. Personally, I’ve never understood why there has to be such a schism between science and spirituality. My question is, what happens to the God of the gaps as we continue to learn more about the universe? Doesn’t that God shrink? Granted, I believe there will always be things we will never be able to fully grasp, but I think as our knowledge base grows, those who use the God of the gaps to maintain practice in both science and religion will find it increasingly difficult to do so. For me, if there is a God, why can’t he/she/it be responsible for the science of things as well. Science explains the perfection of so many systems, but what explains “Science”? I don’t know for sure, but why can’t it be some form of higher power?
Do you have a copy of the Collins book?
Yes, I read the book. Yes, I found the grammar and writing style distracting at times and in need of a good editor. However, I decided to set aside my annoyances with these “things” because I found it to be a compelling story.
I don’t read much fiction these days. Real life has become so compelling to me that I don’t need fiction to be amazed by a story. And speaking of story, human beings are meaning making machines. From the comments above I can see each of you have created your own meaning – just as I have.
Which brings me to the post and comments – do any of you know the story behind the story, The Shack?
Knowing the story behind the story, shifts how I read The Shack and how I read your comments.
It is WPY’s custom to write poems and stories as gifts for friends and family. The book was written by Wm. Paul Young as a Christmas present for his children and close friends…fifteen copies. There was no thought of publishing the story. It was written at the bequest of his wife to explain to his children and friends the relationship he has with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Paul began getting requests from children and friends to approve their making copies for their friends. It snowballed from there.
Reality: It was a self-published book. No professional book publisher and editor had a hand in this.
It has sold over 20 million copies and changed many lives in a positive way.
For me, it was nice hearing the story of someone angry and arguing with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – as I frequently do myself. No, it did not challenge my beliefs – an affirmation. I experience God as real – I talk with him/her as I would with any person I hold in high regard.
There are books that have deepened my faith – C. S. Lewis, Brian McLaren, Pearl Buck, James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, Calvin Miller’s Singer Triology, …these books and more have expanded and affirmed my view of the Trinity.
And “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?”
No, I do not believe the Holy Bible is the only “recorded” word of God. He/She is alive and well and still speaking to us today.
Elaine, thank you for your response. I’m glad to see someone who is taking the side of The Shack (as did my father–just below your comment– who gave me this book to read). Not that I’m taking the opposite side (that’s why I tried to keep away from the theological side… nearly impossible with a book like this, and I don’t know that I succeeded). I tried to look at it for its writing merit. I think books like this come to people when they are ready for, or need to read them. Perhaps it wasn’t my time. Or as I mentioned, much of the material in The Shack which I found compelling I had already discovered through other channels. And maybe for me, I just didn’t relate because I don’t get angry anymore at whatever god I believe in when things go wrong.
To get back to the writing side, thanks for sharing the story of how The Shack came to be. Interesting. We writers are funny creatures, very often hypercritical of instant acclaim or success. I remember the first time I went to the Maui Writer’s Retreat. It was the year that Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code was just gaining momentum, and it was quite the buzz (“have you heard about this new book?” sort of thing). When I went to Maui the next year, suddenly everyone was decrying it, picking it apart, and I knew that it was because it had made such a smash (and to be honest, most of them were probably jealous). While I recognized its obvious roots in the non-fiction, but speculative, Holy Blood Holy Grail, I enjoyed the book. However, in the case of The Shack, if we’re going to put a book on the New York Times Bestseller list, in my opinion (of which many would differ), I don’t believe we can disregard writing style, regardless of author, origins, etc…
Again, thank you so much for your comments. This is exactly what I had intended for this post. I originally simply titled it a “Discussion” because that’s what I wanted it to be (then I added on “review”). Before you put your comment in, I almost went out with a plea for someone who had enjoyed The Shack to put their comment in. It felt a little too heavy on the other side.
Actually, my father’s comment was just before yours, not after.
Paul – thanks for tracking me down. I had marked my comment to notify me of further comments, but I didn’t get a notice…and I’m a little OCD about checking my email.
Yes, I too have been on this journey long enough to have discovered much of what WPY (not to confuse one Paul with another Paul) – covers in his book. Although, I had never thought of God as Papa, more as Dad. Papa was modeled after an African-American woman in WPY’s life who had a huge impact on him. If you go to YouTube you will find lots of videos of interviews with WPY.
Most of my arguments these days are with the Holy Spirit for whispering things in my ear I do not want to hear. Recently, she told me, “You help others to avoid doing your “work”. Ugh! I’m considering the possibility that it’s true…
I still argue with God, but I don’t get angry anymore. That stopped a long time ago when he let me stew in it for a while. Waking up to the truth that I have “free will” and that even my remaining silent when others did things I didn’t like was colluding with them. It was a hard pill to swallow.
In the interest of full disclosure, I want to let you know that I know so much about WPY because I recently helped a friend with a joint project he did with WPY. Before helping, I did my research.
Thanks for you hospitality. Elaine
(gosh, I can’t remember if I used my FB, Twitter, or WP signature last time.)
Is that what that whispering is? Okay, maybe I do get angry sometimes as well when I hear things I don’t want to hear. I can get on board with that one.
Anyway, glad you checked back and commented again. By checking out your Twitter account, I had gathered that you had something to do with The Shack a little more personally than just reading it. Best of luck in those endeavors. As I said, I can’t be too critical of anything that brings people hope and inspiration, so keep up the good work.
Thanks for understanding and your kindness. It has been a pleasure connecting with you in this virtual space.
Thanks, again, Jill Elizabeth. I would very much like to read the book and do a review and would appreciate it if you could send the author an email on my behalf.
Happy to do it – I will use Paul’s email, since I have that from our guest post-swap. 🙂
I have never read the Shack though I know it has been in a lot of heated debates..LOL. I just never felt inclined to pick it up and still don’t. 🙂 Got your message on book blog so I thought I would come and check out your site. 🙂
Agree with your reply regarding God of the gaps. That’s why Collins might be an interesting read. God of the gaps only seems sustainable in the absence of discovery or in the rejection of it. But as we continue to peel back the layers, the questions just get harder. For instance, behavioral traits like empathy and moral law seem to not have much of a place in survival of the fittest. Why then are humans, the most intellectually fit (though we may do stupid things sometimes) and technologically advanced, the one specie we’re sure displays these traits? At the risk of sounding like Steven Wright, might we some day arrive at the question of why does existence exist?
I’m the last person who’s personal beliefs will get in the way of me liking or disliking a book. Van Gogh once said something about how loving God means loving all things. So I approach all books and works of art with an open mind and open heart no matter what the author’s point of view is. I just really like new points of view.
That being said, I liked the way “The Shack” starts. It really pulls you in. It establishes the protagonist’s childhood and you know right away what his issues are and why he would see God to be the way he is later on in the story. As a lover of horror stories, I was really pulled into the way the book describes the very disturbing and realistic aspects of his daughter’s abduction by a serial killer. I honestly didn’t care what the book was about. I was just pulled into the beginning of this story and I was curious as to how this man would deal with his grief. How does a person go through something like this? The book asks the age old question, “why does God let bad things happen to good people?” It is a question that many religious people avoid because it is so difficult to handle but this author really makes an effort to explore this question in all its entirety and I admire that kind of courage. I did start losing interest once the theological aspects of the story started coming up but I read on because I was still interested to have that age old question answered and I still wanted to know how this man gets over losing his daughter to a serial killer. It was a well made author trap to keep me reading his religious subject matter. I’m not the most critical of readers. If a book pulls me in and gives me a journey, I’m happy. At my age, I don’t expect books to change my life anymore. I’ve read the “Celestine Prophesy” and other books and once you become content with your relationship to the spiritual world or God, there is nothing more to be learned. These books serve as great reminders, however, for when times get a bit tough and its nice to keep them in your shelf for those times in our lives when we feel chaos.
Concerning God, Jesus and The Holy Spirit visiting the protagonists disguised as “people of color”– I thought it was clear in the book that they chose these forms in accordance with the protagonists subconscious. This is not how they would appear to us or anyone else. Though I do see how playing the race card can be a pretty gritty choice. The author was going to get slack for this no matter what.
Lacey, thanks for the very detailed comment. I think we’re on the same page on many of these issues, although it’s interesting that you don’t expect books to change your life anymore. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I still believe books can enhance our lives (which is, in effect, a change), and even still our relationship with the rest of the universe (in whatever form we choose to believe… God, science, Mother Nature, whatever). For me, I would say that I am content, but I still want to know more (so maybe that means I’m not content? Again, damned semantics). And The Shack just didn’t provide that for me. Not saying I disagree with his point of view (personally I believe every human being has at least a fragment of the correct idea when it comes to “God”), but it just wasn’t anything really new, at a time when I didn’t necessarily just need a reminder.
The only area I would disagree on is concerning their appearances. If I recall, God, or “Papa” took the form of a black woman because it was exactly the opposite of what Mack had envisioned. Granted, God seemed to take different forms (eventually looking more like the bearded wise old man) but it seemed like the Son and the Spirit were pretty fixed in form (especially the Son, seeing as he represented the physical embodiment of Jesus Christ).
Great comment. I really appreciate you taking the time to put all your thoughts down.
Did I say that I don’t expect books to change my life anymore? What was I thinking? Thanks for catching that. I do expect books to change my life which is why I love reading and writing them. I suppose I don’t expect and spiritual books to be something more than what they are. I tend to get more from works of fiction and non-fiction that are wonderful stories that leave me to interpret their spiritual significance for themselves.
I suppose this is why I enjoyed the beginning of The Shack the most. The very stark reality of what this man was going through was well depicted in the beginning and I loved the story more than anything. When things became ethereal, I started to yawn.
I do see what you mean by the depictions of God, Jesus and The Holy Spirit. While the interpretation of God seemed to come from the protagonists own issues with his father, the other two did seem to be a bit generic.
But I was just thinking, after I made my first comment that I must really like the book. I don’t usually read books that are from the “Christian” genre and this one got to me and I did recommend it to a Christian friend of mine. So I think the author was more successful than most Christian author for getting someone who doesn’t actively go looking for Christian books to like his work.
Some good points. I also really was drawn in by the beginning. As I mentioned, as a new father of a girl, I almost had to put it down because it felt so true to life.
And I agree about the parts where I started to drop off, as well.
So I’m curious how you came upon this book. Did you just hear about it, or did someone personally recommend it?
I saw it at the bookstore and skimmed through the introduction. It pulled me in so I bought it. I didn’t know anything about the book when I picked it up.