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The Shack

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This book has made such a splash -- we're hearing about it from all around -- that we feel it deseves a page of its own.

The Shack (Fiction/Spirituality) by Wm. Paul Young, 2007

....Mack would like you to know that if you happen upon this story and hate it, he says, "Sorry...but it wasn’t primarily written for you." Then again, maybe it was.

                    - from the Foreword to The Shack

The above quote would suggest that we should, perhaps, pass over this book with respectful silence. It is, after all, a work of devotion intended for the devout. Ourselves not included. On the other hand, the final sentence of the passage cited makes it clear that the author hopes to reach some not-so-devout readers. A blurb at the back of the book even recommends various ways that fans can help to boost its sales, in the hope that movie producers may sign on. We’re dealing here, then, not with a simple work of piety but with a commodity.

One that has, in fact, become something of a cultural phenomenon, given its umpteen weeks as a New York Times Best-Seller, with more than 10 million copies in print. All the more reason, then, that we here at Dilettante’s Diary see it as our duty to inform the buying public about what’s on offer.

What you’re getting is a supposed novel – but really an inspirational treatise featuring a man named Mack, a resident of Oregon. As the story opens, Mack’s brooding over what he calls "The Great Sadness." It’s the result of the murder of his little daughter Missy, some years ago, by a serial killer. All that was found of her after her abduction was her bloody dress abandoned in a tumble-down shack in the wilderness.

Now Mack finds in his mailbox a typewritten letter from God (bear with me) inviting him to the shack. Not exactly keen on revisiting that dreaded site, Mack nevertheless answers God's summons. On getting there, he finds the setting magically transformed to one of idyllic beauty. Inside the shack, he encounters the Triune God who sits him down and spends a weekend explaining stuff like suffering and death and pain and forgiveness. Sounds a lot like one of those weekend brainwashing sessions for cult members, doesn’t it? Except that there’s no sleep deprivation here. At night, Mack sleeps the sleep of the blessed – well, who wouldn’t, with the world’s top security firm on guard!

It may seem here that we’re contravening the publishers’ instructions (in their follow-up notes) not to reveal the plot of The Shack. To do so would certainly be an egregious sin on our part, since we at Dilettante’s Diary take special care to reveal as little plot as possible. However, most of the facts mentioned above are revealed in the book’s cover blurb. As for robbing the book of any other element of suspense, what’s to reveal? Few potential readers are likely to be surprised to hear that, in the end, Mack’s encounter with God does him good.

Lest this review be seen thus far to lack the required deference, let it be said that many people will find in The Shack much to comfort and intrigue. The idea of the Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit) as a circular relationship with no hierarchical implications has its appeal. So does the love that flows among the three divine persons. (Although you might find the kissing a bit icky.) We learn that the main point about forgiveness is that it frees the forgiver. And we hear that we shouldn’t judge others. By the end of the book, Mack longs for a revolution of kindness and love. Hard to argue with that.

But some underlying themes aren’t so easy to take. In spite of its touches of feminism, environmentalism, humanism, psychotherapy and pop culture, what we have here is essentially a fundamentalist tract. Why does it strike me that way? Not least because tremendous emphasis is put on the human race’s lamentable tendency to try to be independent of God. In a book that tends to circle back to various themes repeatedly, the hammering away on this damnable independence of humans stands out. I counted nine separate references to this "insane lust" for freedom – all attributable, of course, to that bounder Adam who, whether he existed or not, and the book acknowledges that maybe he didn’t, managed to make one hell of a mess of things. The only solution is for us to SUBMIT to God’s way. The message gets so strident that even a reader who’s never had any bone to pick with the Almighty begins to feel about as amenable to his ways as Jean Paul Sartre did.

Nor is there much satisfaction to be found in some of the book’s other grand motifs. For instance, the constant falling back on God’s omniscience whenever things look iffy. Without exactly signing up for full membership in the Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens club, a person might find that it doesn’t make a very convincing argument to keep saying that the reason we have problems with stuff like suffering and child killers is that we can’t see things from God’s perspective. To keep hearing that things will come clear in the end, that it’s all going to work out according to God’s plan some day – that’s not very reassuring, either. Same for the claim that Jesus was "with" Missy all through her ghastly ordeal – whatever that could possibly mean. Then there are the trippy metaphysics whereby an attempt is made to explain how Jesus is both human and divine and how his getting murdered fixed everything that’s wrong with the world.

Granted, human beings have always, as far as I know, struggled to come up with theories that make sense of our situation in the universe. For those who subscribe to the Christian narrative known as Salvation History, the elaborations on it provided here will no doubt prove satisfying. For other people, so much belaboured cerebration might demonstrate that, when you posit an omnipotent and loving supreme being, you create problems that take some fancy mental acrobatics to solve.

But even the most devout believer, if endowed with a modicum of discrimination, might have some trouble ploughing through the shlock for the sake of the spiritual insights. Take the personalities of the three divine persons. God the Father, referred to here as Papa (a nod to Jesus’ use of the term "Abba" in the New Testament), is an earthy, hearty African-American woman. Worried about the gender thing? Don’t be. God can appear as male or female, see, because the Godhead contains both. This Papa listens to funky jazz, cooks better than Julia Childs and Betty Crocker combined, calls Mack "Honey", drops her g’s as in "smokin’," "nuthin’," "cookin’," and "tastin’," sprinkles her speech with "ain’t’s" and flings around the expression "Sho’nuff!" Such lingo may or may not endear you to the Deity. But full credit to Mr. Young: in the creation of this version of God as a black American woman, he has boosted the sales possibilities of his book exponentially.

Another inhabitant of the shack, after its miraculous transformation, is a "well-muscled" carpenter in jeans and plaid shirt. Guess who! Described as pleasant-looking, he just misses being handsome because of – what else? – his Jewish schnozz. But we’ll soon discover that the objects he turns out of his carpentry shop are items of rare beauty. If you find yourself laid out in one of his elaborately carved coffins, you’re gonna think you’ve died and gone to Heaven.

As characters go, however, the Holy Spirit, is harder to nail down. Even such an observant fellow as Mack has trouble tracking this ethereal sprite who darts about in a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t manner. The model, apparently, is Tinkerbell.

Delightful as these individuals may seem on first meeting, they exhibit, as a collective, somewhat troubling tendencies. Their artistic taste, for instance. We’re frequently told that the transformed setting of the shack – with its gleaming mountains and sparkling streams and scampering wildlife – looks "postcard perfect." Now, I don’t know about you, but my confidence in the Supreme Being might not be encouraged if He or She thought the ideal way to approach me would be on a sound stage that looked like something from Walt Disney’s Bambi.

Equally off-putting about the Godhead is their addiction to laughter. In this respect, they seem to be patterning themselves on the members of certain religious communes who tend towards giddy outbursts of joy, presumably because of their awareness of their elect status. When Jesus drops a bowl of sauce that was intended for one of Papa’s fabulous meals, the Three of Them collapse in paroxysms of laughter. Call me a curmudgeon, but I don’t expect the Deity to have a three-year-old’s sense of humour.

When it comes to some of the individual traits of these folk, close scrutiny causes further unease. Papa professes to like all music equally. No question whatsoever of the possibility of differences in the quality of the music being offered. That, you see, is because Papa loves everybody and everything that they do – just like a loving parent’s attitude towards his/her children. One wouldn’t want to begrudge God this consequence of her general benevolence, but it does mean that some of us would need earplugs if we ever got to Heaven.

A more serious failing on this God's part, as I see it, is that she doesn’t always play fair with Mack. For instance, she berates Mack for not telling his wife Nan about this trip to the shack. God says that Nan should have been given the choice as to whether or not she wanted to come along. Sounds like God’s scoring a point for a woman’s rights, doesn’t it? But just a minute. What about that typed note God had delivered to Mack’s mailbox? It was addressed to Mack alone. No mention whatever of Nan. To me, that means Nan wasn’t invited. So why make someone feel bad by letting her know about a party she’s not invited to? Oh, it’s all very well for God to say she wanted Nan to come along, that she, God, assumed that Mack, being the perfect husband, would tell his wife everything. But I think this God could do with advice from an Ann Landers regarding some of the niceties of social intercourse among human beings.

Jesus has his unsavoury side too. Granted, many readers will rejoice on discovering that he’s apparently a fan of sci-fi programs like Star Trek, as evidenced in his explanation that Mack’s experience of a weird distortion in chronology has "something to do with time dimensional coupling." Even more readers will be won over by the fact that Jesus professes a marked dislike of religious institutions. If you look closely, though, he’s not exactly egalitarian. Like any pedantic guru, he’s constantly lecturing Mack, with frequent exhortations along the lines of "you are correct" and "now you’re beginning to understand." Let’s face it, this Jesus comes across as pretty bossy – if always, as the divine Dame Edna herself would say, "in the nicest possible way".

But he’s a little hard on Mack in other ways. At one point, he and Mack are heading out to another site and it takes Mack a page or so to figure out how they’ll cross a lake. (I bet you caught on quicker.) Mack has reasonable doubts about the proposed method of transportation but Jesus says the trouble is that Mack’s imagination allows him to picture a dire outcome. Never mind the poor guy’s imagination. What about his common sense, his experience and his awareness of the physical laws of the universe?

And, while we’re on what might be seen as the dubious aspects of Jesus’ character, we need to consider the relationship between Mack and Him. It looks pretty darn gay – all that lying side by side and gazing at the clouds and stars, the hugging and hand-holding, the intimate sharing. All of which is ok by me. But it's a bit surprising in a tract coming from a source that’s essentially evangelical in nature. On the other hand, I suppose even evangelicals aren’t gonna complain about this sort of carry-on when it’s with the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.

Since we’re finding fault with the Divine persons here, we can’t let Mack off the hook entirely. In the foreword to the book, we get a note from the purported writer, a friend of Mack’s named "Willie" who says that he’s relating what he heard from Mack. Clearly, Willie wants us to like Mack, but I detect a certain ambivalence on Willie’s part. At one point, he wants to portray Mack as being open-minded and tolerant: "....even though you sense he has strong convictions, he has a gentle way about him that lets you keep yours." But Willie also says that, when people hear Mack talk, "they are not quite so satisfied with themselves." So which is it, Willie? Is Mack sympathetic and supportive of other people, or is he a prick who makes everybody doubt themselves?

As for Mack’s own view of himself, at the outset of the story he says that lately he's been feeling a growing rift from God. It strikes me that this guy, with his frequent prayers and pious utterances, is about as far from God as Saul of Tarsus was. However, we’ve got to allow Mack some peccadilloes, right? Otherwise there’s nothing to repent of. That’s the convention of conversion literature: you gotta start out bad.

My trouble with Mack, though, is that he seems blind to what strikes me as a pretty major fault – his attitude to his wife, Nan. On the terrible day of Missy’s disappearance, she and her siblings were on a camping trip with Mack. Nan was enjoying a weekend alone back home. As the search for Missy gets underway, Mack mentions that, at some point somebody phoned Nan to tell her about the child’s going missing. Wouldn’t you think that a considerate husband and father would see it as his own responsibility to be the first to contact his wife in such a situation involving one of their children? Ok. Let’s pass that off as an oversight, a lapse on Mack’s part, due to the stress of the moment. But, when Nan arrives at the campsite where the search is going on, we’re told that Mack poured out his sorrow "and Nan tried to hold him in one piece." What about Nan’s distress? Is her role in life only to help Mack? Sorry, buddy, I’m willing to grant your image of yourself as a really fine guy, but this tragedy isn’t only about you!

To move on to a discussion of the book’s failings in terms of writerly craft might seem like a shift of focus from the moral and ideological level to the mere technical. So why make the shift? After all, one wouldn’t ordinarily attack writers of spiritual books for literary stumbles. (Who would fault the Dali Lama for fractured English grammar?) But I’m not sure that there isn’t a moral angle to a consideration of the quality of the writing in The Shack.

Specifically, the issue might be hubris on the part of the author and his associates. The blurb at the back of the book claims it has "a literary quality to it that distinguishes it as a special gift." In his postscript, Mr. Young thanks his friends Wayne Jacobsen, Brad Cummings and Bobby Downes for taking his original manuscript and turning it into this gem. One shudders to think of the work that was presented to Messers Jacobsen, Cummings and Downes. On the other hand, maybe the manuscript they received was written in clear, unadorned prose. Perhaps they are the ones we have to thank for the groaners in the final version.

Prominent among them would be the frequent use of substitutes for the simple verb "to say". Thus, we get dialogue tagged with things like "he grinned," "he grimaced," etc. Have you ever tried to grin a sentence? How about grimacing a few words? Perhaps we won’t be at risk of looking like total slaves to fashion if we say that, while this sort of usage used to be accepted in certain kinds of writing – like that of, say, the so-called Franklin W. Dixon, ghost-author of the Hardy Boys series – most writers now see the practice as the tasteless distortion that it is.

Shall we talk about over-writing? Mack’s story begins with a lengthy rumination on the fact that people enjoy a winter storm because it slows things down and makes for an oasis of calm in their busy lives. Perfectly true. But I don’t need two pages to make the point. A couple of sentences would do; we’re not dealing with the theory of relativity here. We’re talking about a common experience. But maybe the point of a book like this is to stoke comfortable, familiar feelings?

Then there’s the descriptive over-kill. For example, "tears sparkling like a waterfall of diamonds and jewels." (Speaking of tears, this book’s awash with so many of them that the cover blurb should recommend life jackets for all readers.) A nighttime scene, in which Mack sees hoards of humanity on the march, dazzles like no Sound and Light Show that Ticketmaster ever handled. A minor player in this extravaganza, an osprey, dives towards a lake "in a rush of peach and plum and currant flames." Further on in the same scene, we get flashes of violet, ivory, orchid, gold and flaming vermillion. Is this an LSD trip or what? But then another possibility comes to mind: a variation on the mad visions of the Book of Revelation. Sure enough, somewhat later comes an allusion to that hallowed work, when it’s noted that God will wipe the tears from everybody’s eyes (everybody on God’s side, that is).

The book also raises some questions about realism. You mightn’t think that would have any bearing on a work that’s essentially a fantasy. And yet, there’s enough realism here to make a person wonder about the breaches in the routines of life as we know it. For the whole of Mack’s weekend indoctrination, we’re with him every moment. His getting up in the morning, for instance, is described in minute detail. But we’re never told that he takes a pee. Is that too gross an aspect of human life to be mentioned in the presence of the Divinity? If so, why are joking references made to the possibility that the greens Mack’s eagerly devouring, as served up from Papa’s stove, could cause the "trots"?

Apparently, the etiquette for behaviour in the divine presence is trickier to master than the rules of conduct in the court of King Louis XIV. For instance, Mack seems to feel that he must shave when he gets up in the morning at this isolated shack in the middle of nowhere. You’d think a Creator would accept a guy as he was created, without requiring him to submit to the convention whereby a man is obliged to scrape the hairs off his face before presenting himself for viewing. Not Mack’s God. A guy has to be squeaky clean. Like the scenery, it appears.

One of the strangest departures from realism – an unintentional one, I presume – regards the finding of human remains in a cave in the woods. On approaching the cave, we’re told, Mack recoils from the smell of decay within. But the deceased died four years ago. Here at Dilettante’s Diary, we don’t claim much scientific expertise, but doesn’t the decomposition of the human body work much faster than that? Not to mention what all those scampering animals would do to the body. The four collaborators on this novel – well-meaning fellows, no doubt, but not necessarily experienced writers – apparently hadn’t heard that it’s essential to keep a close eye on your time lines.

Not that these guys would have ranked anything like fidelity to facts and truths very highly. In the book’s foreword, the writer who’s supposedly telling Mack’s story offers this disclaimer: "Whether some parts of it are actually true or not, I won’t be the judge." This dancing around the question of truth/fiction is disingenuous manipulation. The events of the story – not to say its ideas, necessarily – are total bullshit. No question whatever of "fact or fiction." By hinting that there might be any such issue, the authors are trying to get us wondering. This presumably, is the road to faith. As when you’re reading a story to a kid who is falling asleep. In that hazy, twilit world, it seems anything might be true – leprechauns, dragons, magical godmothers. If you want to go that route, this book is for you.

Me? Whenever there’s talk of fairies at the bottom of the garden, I recommend a good dose of an environmentally friendly pesticide.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com