Friday, April 18, 2008

My review of the Shack

As I said previously, the brilliant and very personable Pam Hogeweide recently gave us a free copy of the rising-on-the-charts book entitled The Shack, by William P. Young. I finished it, and I can't come to a conclusion about it. So I'm doing my review in two parts.

The shack, pages 1-197: First of all, the writing is ... not un*bearable*, but ... clunky. By clunky I mean I found myself reading along and then there would be this "clunk". Like ... you're smoothly accelerating in your car, and then there's a ... hiccup, and you think to yourself "Someone should fix that". And I thought to myself *muliple* times in the first 30 pages "Good God, that would be relatively easy to fix--some editor should have fixed that." Oh well.

But then I sort of ... got over it. Our brains are wondrous machines with mechanisms for filtering out smallish annoying things.

The forward should just be skipped altogether. It...doesn't really do anything except give a preview of the stilted sort of things which are to follow the setup.

Okay, then ... pages 14 through 80 worked reasonably well. I mean we get a decently told story, and by decently told, I mean it rings true--in the best sense of the word. Willie sets up a great opportunity to discuss some questions that are both interesting and ... close to home for a lot of people, and does it with story without getting too didactic on us. He even very kindly sets up for us a big lie which lots of people believe, and does it in a way which leaves open the possibility of blowing the lie apart (always a delightful and terrifying thing to have happen):

Mack's heart broke as he understood what this conversation had really been about. He gathered his little girl into his arms and pulled her close, With his own voice a little huskier than usual, he gently replied, "No honey. I will never ask you to jump off a cliff, never, ever, ever."

"Then, will God ever ask me to jump off a cliff?"

"No, Missy. He would never ask you to do anything like that."

He also catches out our culture on overstigmatization of child abusers/sex offenders, although he does it in a way which *seems* to indicate that he rather agrees with it:
Something in the heart of most human beings simply cannot abide pain inflicted on the innocent, especially children. Even broken men serving in the worst correctional facilities will often first take out their own rage on those who ahve caused suffering to children. Even in such a world of relative morality, causing harm to a child is still considered absolutely wrong. Period!

Alas, as it turns out, all the story is really just set up for a rather longish theological treatise, to which Willie treats us pretty much from pages 80 through approximately .... well, at least through 197 or so. You thought Mark Driscoll sermons were long? Willie descends to mere allegory. I mean it in this sense: C.S. Lewis defended his Chronicles of Narnia thusly:
If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair [a character in The Pilgrim's Progress] represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, 'What might Christ become like, if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?' This is not allegory at all.
Willie's writing becomes allegorical in the stricter sense, and alas, allegory is no longer *story* in the best sense (and my apologies to all you Pilgrim's Progress fans out there). It's more like a regression from story.

And Willie's is just totally unbearable. In fact, he falls into a trap which he himself knows to be a trap (how very human of him). He says of family devotions as a child:
Often it was a tedious and boring exercise in coming up with the right answers, or rather the same old answers to the same old Bible story questions, and then trying to stay awake during his father's excruciatingly long prayers.
So pages 80 through 197 are mostly like that. Mack's totally justifiable anger gets more or less the same treatment nasty emotions get in most of the Christian churches I've ever been involved with. We have God mouthing old and mostly unsatisfying, and sometimes really toxic churchy "truths" for 117 pages. So he had me underlining, starring, and writing "BULLSHIT" in great big letters in the margins.
Mack was glad he was stepping back from his ugly accusation. (page 92)

"Mackenzie, I never left him, and I have never left you."
"That makes no sense to me," he snapped.
"I know it doesn't, at least not yet. Will you at least consider this: When all you can see is your pain, perhaps then you lose sight of me?" (page 96)

"Relationships are never about power." (page 106)
"What you're seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power." (page 122)

"But don't think that just because I'm not visible, our relationship has to be less real. It will be different, but perhaps even more real." (page 112)

"There are millions of reasons to allow pain and hurt and suffering rather than eradicate them, but most of those reasons can only be understood within each person's story. I am not evil. You are the ones who embrace fear and pain and power and rights so readily in your relationships. But your choices are also not stronger than my purposes and I will use every choice you make for the ultimate good and the most loving outcome" (page 125)

"You must give up your right to decide what is good and evil on your own terms" (page 136)

"In one instance, the good may be the presence of cancer or the loss of income, or even a life" (Byron has something to say about this)

"Genuine relationships are marked by submission even when your choices are not helpful or healthy" (page 145)

and here's a little "criticize the victim":

"The real underlying flaw in your life, Mackenzie, is that you don't think that I am good." (page 126)

Mackenzie gets very slightly honest and angry with God on occasion (emphasis on the (annoyingly) slightly):

"One last comment. I just can't imagine any final outcome that would justify all this." (page 127)

Bottom line, although there were also bits and pieces of beauty in there, it was mostly just yuck, through page 197 or so.

Although I must throw in this caveat. I can imagine a time in my past when i *think* *maybe* I would have found this not only bearable, but actually ... encouraging. Why do I say that? Because I grew up in a Christianity where the level of discussion about these issues was *even* shallower than this. I mean to say we weren't even allowed to talk about it at *all*. Period. In fact, I'm guessing for instance, that my old pastor will probably roundly condemn this book from the pulpit, if it starts to worm it's way into that church--not because it's too ... stultifying, but rather because it's too ... open and ... liberal. (I mean to say if he's still the same as he was when I knew him. 'Cause he coulda changed.) So I can see how for myself or others in an even more stultifying atmosphere of Christianity that the one Willie lays on us, this book would be liberating and beautiful, because they would kind of be looking ... forward toward it, while I'm kind of looking backward toward it. If that makes any sense. Xukes I hope I am not coming across sounding as astoundingly arrogant as I actually am.

The Shack, Part 2, pages 197 through 248. Okay, here's why I can't decide what I think about the book. It's gets a *lot* better after page 197. Suddenly God starts saying things that ... well, that by God ought to be said. I just haven't been able to decide if the last 50 pages makes up for the previous 120. I'm going to have to sit on that for a few days. But now we get lot of "HOORAY!" quotes from God:

"Mackenzie, religion is about having the right answers, and some of their answers are right. But I am about ..."

and "Just don't look for rules and principles; look for relationship--a way of being with ..." (page 197)

"Enforcing rules, especially in its more subtle expressions like responsibility and expectation, is a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty" (page 203)

"Religion must use law to empower itself and control the people who they need in order to survive." (page 205).

"Responsibilities and expectations are the basis of guilt and shame and judgment, and they provide the essential framework that promotes performance as the basis for identity and value."
"Beyond that [what I already know], because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me." (page 206)

"Forgiveness does not create a relationship. Unless people speak the truth about what they've done and change their mind and behavior, a relationship of trust is not possible." (page 225)

At the end, we get ... redemption that isn't excessively schmarmy, which is really nice.

Overall, I guess at this point I wouldn't recommend it. A bit too much wading through sludge required in exchange for the payoff. Instead, perhaps, try out the yotta brilliant Aurelia's Colors, which is, thank the gods, all straight up great story from beginning to end. Or else Helen Dewitt's zeta brilliant novel, or Mark Haddon's, or Michael Chabon's, or ... (okay, I'll stop. but those *are* all really great reads, and if you haven't read any of them, I totally recommend them.)


Helen said...

Great review, Benjamin!

Mine is now up

Pam Hogeweide said...

Wow. Thanks for blogging your thoughts about The Shack. You are very thorough in your assessment and review.

It must be remembered that Young wrote this book for his kids, aged 13-22 at the time. He had no idea it would become a public story. On purpose he wrote it with a thinly hidden agenda to discourse about God, love and life in a way that would engage his kids about the philosophy of God he raised them on. It was set, for example, in a campground where his family had a pleasant time years ago. These were signals to his kids when he wrote it, shout outs to their family's history.

Having said that, yes, I did warn you that the writing style is not strong. Definitely clunky in places. This is partly why I am so fascinated with the phenomenal success of this book. A half million copies. Half million. Unflippinbelievable! And despite the ok writing, this book is providing a spark of hope and faith that maybe God is good and not out to kick the sh*t out of me. For whatever reason that this humble book is accomplishing that, well, it is!

On my way home from Seattle I stopped in Centralia for lunch. As I was ordering a young woman was about to leave who was holding a copy of The Shack. I stopped her and talked with her. I ended up asking her if I could interview her. She was agreeable.

She was 22y, grew up a missionary kid with a distant dad, too busy saving the world. Her mom read the book, and then bought four copies, one for each kid, ages 14-22y.

The young woman I spoke to was reading the book for the third time and had bought other copies to give away. She was not distracted by the reading in the least. In fact, her opinion was that her generation does not like to read. "We text message, and email quick messages. We do not like long reading." She herself grew up reading classic literature, but she said the simplistic straight forward writing of The Shack actually helped her absorb the greater truths of the story. She liked not having to think about it.

Another young man I know, aged 27, who is quite philosophical and a deep thinker, said that because he did not have to think hard to follow along or figure stuff out that he was able to just read and soak in the takeaway. For him, who grew up fatherless in a tough neighborhood, this book ended up being a milestone in recovering an image of God as a kind father.

So, we're all so different in our takeaway.

I just read a book someone gave me who insisted I read it, hoping I would review it. Nope, not gonna. There's not a thing I like about the book. It's self-published, and I can see why! Poorly written, horrible storyline, (at least The Shack had that going for it) and it's thinly veiled theological agenda was poorly presented. But the guy who gave it to me raves about it. Not sure what, but it had a takeway for him. For me, it just has takeaway, in that I mean, Please, somebody take this book away from me!!!!!!!!!!

(remembering your lovely family with a smile, ben! come to portland and stay with us anytime!!!!!)