Monday, November 3, 2008

Book Review: The Shack

I will try to write this review without giving too much away about this book. Tons of people have read it already. It's about a family tragedy that happens to a father who's a Christian but has trouble with "God questions." He receives a note in his mailbox that appears to be from God and responds by going to a shack in the wilderness, associated with that tragedy. There he meets God in surprising forms and has lots of long conversations. Suffice it to say he learns something about how to get past tragedy, I hope you can see that coming from the cover (or the type of store it's sold in).

It was good. I found the occasional paragraph to be very well put, and for a book that's basically all talk, Will Young finds ways to keep it moving and vary the setting from chapter to chapter. This book isn't big on nuance. The tragedy is something that is so stark and black-and-white that even Lifetime wouldn't build a movie around it. Also, the father's family history is similarly just a bit too over the top. I'm ambivalent about whether the author should have "toned down" the evil. On the one hand, he's making a point about true evil in the face of innocence. On the other hand, it is drawn so starkly that I had trouble relating to it -- it always seemed just this side of a "this is evil" kind of conversation. But by the end of the book, when he demonstrates how to deal with that evil, I think I return to his side of things, and like Stephen King he knows how to pull heartstrings.

Yes, I typed that correctly. Young has the same easy way with prose and fast-reading, clear style that bestselling authors like Stephen King has.

Now, some of the theological points he makes with that easy, fast prose are debatable, and theo-blogs get up in arms over parts of them, as if it's not clear from the start that this is fiction and one man's perspective. Debate if you must, but I'd prefer that you answer in kind, with your own talky story, not with a point by point blog post. I find his vivid characterization to be more important than the fine points of his theology of the Fall.

Actually, the points that bother me the most aren't theological so much as philosophical. In particular, rules and hierarchies in general get condemned. I'm ambivalent about that as well. I think some of what he says in this regard makes it a lot easier to "get" Jesus (and therefore to "get" God). Bully for him on that count. But I don't think God eliminates hierarchies as much as he turns them upside down. See the Magnificat. Also he doesn't eliminate rules, he enlivens and uses them. I think Young's actually a little too traditional in his take on Paul and the epistle to the Romans and all that: the Law is good and bad, not just bad (to put it WAY too simplistically). If Rules aren't what it's all about why did Jesus make a point of fulfilling the Law? Rules are something ... we just get what they are wrong. Maybe there's a "flipping over" to be done with those as well. (If rules and hierarchy are so out of order what does that say about the mechanism of justice depicted in this book?)

So some of those points come off as typically Northwest Emergent-Church Theology gone a little too far. But they're not the point. The point is talking to God and seeing him as surprising and loving characters. The point of this book is to write the Trinity on your heart in images, and to give images of forgiveness and the beauty of what looks like a mess (without explaining it away). This book succeeds admirably at that.

Eugene Peterson's cover blurb compares this to Pilgrim's Progress. As someone who's never read Pilgrim's Progress I'm inclined to agree. There's schematic tendencies to the plot and over-talkiness and probably theology that will look dated in 20 years in both of the books, and God speaks through both of them. I'm more inclined to compare it to Perelandra by CS Lewis, another talky but interesting book. Either way, it's worth a read.

1 comment:

Deanna said...

We read this in book club last January - our senior pastor had read it and recommended it to us. I liked it on its face as a story, and even someone as non-theology focused as I am (I leave that to you, Eric, and Juliet) caught a few lines where I was left scratching my head. Still, I found it to be a very powerful read, and it was a good thing it was so short, because I made the mistake of picking it up late in the evening and couldn't put it down until I'd finished it. (Insert joke about how I was asleep before midnight here.)