Friday, October 2, 2009

The Shack: A Religious Experience

Answer: A large, African female God, a Middle Eastern Jesus, and a whimsical, unexplainable presence.

Question: What is the intro to a bad joke?

Well, sort of. These are three of the main characters in William P. Young's The Shack. The novel tells the story of a semi-spiritual man named Mack who, after tragically losing his youngest daughter to a serial killer, is stuck in a slump of sorts. His belief in God has faltered in his despair, so God puts a note in his mailbox (doesn't God know that 's a federal offense?) Mack answers his call from the Lord, and what ensues is a beautiful religious experience that brings him closer to God than he has ever been before. Well, either that or a CRAZY good acid trip.
This book left me asking, who are you writing to, Mr. Young? If it is the non-believer you're after, your powers of persuasion are seriously lacking. Despite the fact that the plot is wildly unbelievable from beginning to end, some of the elements are so cliché and predictable it is almost physically painful to read. We get it: you are challenging our Western idea of what God and Jesus are. God can be a big, fat black lady if that's what it takes to get through to you. Jesus was a Jew and from what is now the Middle East, so he probably doesn't have light brown hair and delicate features like a Frenchman the way we portray him in our art. And the Holy Spirit is quirky and mysterious so you can't really see it, but you know it's there! And you needn't worry about the loved ones you've lost, they are happy on the other side. They get to play with Jesus under pretty waterfalls! The people who were able to read this and proudly proclaim, "It changed my life!" are people who already had faith and were just thrilled to hear a touching testimony.

And if Young was aiming at the faithful, he still made a huge mistake. The book is plagued with biblical inaccuracies that would likely make the well-versed theologian itch.

No matter the content of a novel, I can always appreciate good writing. Simple, easy to read style can be a good thing, especially if you're going to be a best seller like Young. But I would go so far as to say the writing in The Shack is rudimentary. Young's attempts at lyrical prose reminded me of proofreading personal narratives in my high school composition class. I'm not saying the writing is bad! I'm just saying it's not great, and CERTAINLY not impressive. I expect more from a New York Times Bestseller.

I've been tough on Young and The Shack, but I will say this for it: it does provoke raw human emotion. However, I think our strong emotion comes not from religious awakening, but the empathy we have for a man not only losing his daughter, but doing so in a horrifying way. We feel for the Mack, we imagine how we would feel if anything like that happened to us, and that is why this book makes us emotional. But emotional appeals do not a spectacular novel make. Sad, horrible things happen to good people every day. So congratulations, Mr. Young! Your novel had a profound effect on my comparable to a relatively busy installment of the evening news.


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