By William P. Young
What it is: A novel originally self-published in 2007 and eventually adapted into a recent film starring Sam Worthington, the release of which seems to have prompted the book’s return to the bestseller list. The story follows a man named Mack who receives a mysterious note inviting him to the shack where his young daughter Missy is presumed to have been murdered after having been kidnapped. There he meets three personifications of the Holy Trinity: A black woman named Papa, a Middle Eastern-looking young man named Jesus, and an older Asian woman named Sarayu. They teach him how to develop a relationship with God and deal with the loss of his daughter.
I went into The Shack with low expectations. The trailer for the film adaptation made it look real corny, and the idea of Christian entertainment in general puts me in a cynical frame of mind, not just out of skepticism of organized religion but because the whole thing feels like a racket: Christian books and movies can move a whole lot of units real fast by marketing to congregations and church groups, which is apparently exactly what The Shack‘s publishers did and what the film was aiming to do, judging from the title card at the end of the trailer listing a website and phone number “for group sales.” (This approach seems to have worked, since the film didn’t hit #1 but still made a decent amount of money.)
Despite all that, I was actually really enjoying this book in its first few chapters. It had a bit of a modern Washington Irving vibe, with layers of narration implying a potentially unreliable narrator (an introduction explains that the main story was co-written by Mack and his friend Willie) and wry prose with an eye towards the natural environment. (“There is something joyful about storms that interrupt routine.”)
But then Mack arrives at the shack, and the book turns into a series of boring exercises in hair-splitting and rationalization like this:
“But what about all the miracles? The healings? Raising people from the dead? Don’t those prove that Jesus was God–you know, more than human?”
“No, it proves that Jesus is truly human.”
“Mackenzie, I can fly, but humans can’t. Jesus is fully human. Although he is also fully God, he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being. He is just the first to do it to the uttermost–the first to absolutely trust my life within him, the first to believe in my love and my goodness without regard for appearance or consequence.”
There are pages and pages of this sort of thing, didactic pseudo-conversations which can’t have any dramatic tension because all of the speakers involved except for Mack are God, and therefore infallible. Parts of the book nod towards progressivism or even what many might (and did) label heresy–the personification of God in people of color, and passages in which Jesus claims not to be Christian and criticizes organized religion, saying, “I don’t create institutions; that’s an occupation for those who want to play God.” But ultimately The Shack makes the same mistake that organized religion does: It frames spirituality as a collection of rules and information rather than an experiential way to commune with the things that can’t be put into words.