Within the past week I have received four different emails regarding William Young’s, The Shack. The attention this book receives is interesting to me, and I posted a review in May 2008 that voices a minority opinion — while I observe a widespread, gushing adoration for the book, I found it to be a poor book at best. In response to those asking for the review to be made available again, I am posting it here.
Periodically, I will share some reflections from my reading journal — which I keep in hope that by writing about what I read, I will somehow retain and remember things that would otherwise disappear in a short period of time. Often, books are released that become very popular, very quickly, and I am often asked my opinion (for what it’s worth…) Here are my notes on William P. Young’s, The Shack.
When I was eight years old I liked nothing better than the sugary treat of a Hostess Twinkie. Soft, sweet yellow cake with an even sweeter creamy filling – no thought of nutritional value or long term health consequences, just simple enjoyment of something that tasted so good. Left to my own devices, I would have made a steady diet of Twinkies – which in no way would have been good for me.
The Shack is a spiritual Twinkie – sugary sweet with little or no nutritional value. The fantasy tale is very unevenly told, but framed as a might-have-happened second-person narrative (Mack is the narrator/protagonist; Willie is the narrator/author), the spiritually naïve and immature might find this to be a deeply satisfying treat. Without a sound theological basis or the application of even the most basic critical thinking skills, a reader might mistake this as more than just a fairy tale.
There are a few specific things I find disturbing and potentially dangerous to newbies to the Christian faith. First, it is deeply rooted in the “me-and-my-buddy-God” privatized spirituality of 21st century USA. Traditional church is both demonized and discarded – as long as the individual is in relationship to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, then a real Christian community is expendable. To have a faith-based network in which to test and explore the faith, to have a sacramental life, to have a history and tradition, and to have grounding in rituals and practices – these are dispensable options, not deeply important to the faith. It is what many people mean when they say they are “spiritual, but not religious.”
Second, God’s thinking and teaching is an expression of the rampant “pick’n’choosism” of today’s culture. The author/narrator shares the revealed truths of “Papa,” Jesus, and the Spirit – a scattershot selection of feel-good ideas more redolent of New Age spirituality than a biblically or theologically grounded Christianity. Oh, there are wisps and tatters of scripture crow-barred into the story, but they are manipulated in service to the author’s neo-Christian philosophizing.
Third, the appalling narcissism and arrogance cause the story to constantly bog down. The author/narrator deconstructs the Trinity (actually, represented as four persons…) as rather unremarkable human manifestations that are easily accepted and understood. It would not be in any way unusual to pop into the local diner to find Mack shooting the breeze and having coffee with his ol’ buddies Pappy, Junior, and Spooky. The author tries to tell us how special these three figures are, but then paints them in very two-dimensional, unimpressive colors.
The narcissism continues in a very distressing and hurtful way when the murder of an innocent child is used to make an observation about God and faith that is deeply offensive to anyone suffering such awful tragedy. The whole purpose of this visitation is not to help Mack and the family to honestly cope with the tragedy, but merely to feel better about it. God tells Mack that his little girl was fine with what happened to her because Jesus and Holy Spirit were with her so he can let go of the thought that she might have been scared, traumatized, or in pain. The bottom line message offered to Mack is, ‘you can feel better about this because it really wasn’t so bad.’ This is a horrible scene in the book and an insult to a deep, abiding faith. Many “contemporary” Christian churches follow this simplistic and puerile path – don’t deal with the realities of a broken world, merely chant how much Jesus loves you and how everything is really okay. No personal responsibility, just blessed assurance.
Fourth, its lack of substance and depth make it an easy target for the Sam Harris’, Richard Dawkins’, and Christopher Hitchens’, who delight in mocking the ignorant, irrational, and inconsistent beliefs of the spiritually immature. When a prominent or popular voice produces a piece like The Shack, it is truly a gift to these people who anxiously await the next harvest of low hanging fruit provided by those promoting an insupportable, childish vision of the Christian faith.
Fifth, I was personally offended by the feeble attempt to pander to modern multiculturalism – Papa is a black woman, Jesus a ruddy Middle Easterner, the Holy Spirit is Asian, and Wisdom/Sophia is Hispanic/Latino. In each case, the representation was pedestrian and trite. In an age of deep need coupled with intellectual sophistication, such depictions of “little gods” are not helpful. If we must anthropomorphize God, then at least make the depictions real and not embarrassingly plastic caricatures. When God – in whatever form – is nothing more than a meddling nanny spouting simplistic aphorisms and clichés, we are in bad shape.
All surface, no substance; all breadth, no depth; all sugar, no nutrition – that’s what The Shack was for me. In a culture where many Christians get their spiritual education from the likes of Joan of Arcadia, Touched By An Angel, The Passion of the Christ, the 700 Club, and the Left Behind series, this is not merely a poor book, but a potentially dangerous book – able to further obfuscate the Christian faith and teach people that a personalized, privatized, comfortably customized, and arbitrary relationship with God is what religion is really all about. Sadly, The Shack doesn’t even meet the lowest faith standard of our modern culture (”I’m spiritual, but not religious”) – it is neither deeply spiritual, nor religious in any meaningful way.