Sunday, August 10, 2008

Book Review: The Shack

New York Times bestseller, "The Shack" by William P. Young is all the buzz right now and those who love it say that it has changed their lives. After hearing so much about the book, last week I finally decided to read it for myself. If it hadn't come so highly recommended, I'm not sure I would have made it past the preface.

The story, for those who haven’t already heard, is a fictional account of a man whose young daughter is brutally murdered. Several years after the murder, the man gets a letter from God inviting him to spend a weekend in the shack where the murder occurred. The first quarter of the book is mostly flashback, and the rest is primarily dialogue as the man talks theology with a giggly and somewhat clumsy middle eastern man representing Jesus, a gardening Asian woman representing the Holy Spirit and God, who is portrayed as a black woman who goes by the name of "Papa" and can be found in the kitchen baking scones. I had many issues with the book, but I’ll highlight three of them...

Issue #1: I found the flashback of the murder chilling enough to give any parent nightmares. I could see it especially vividly because Young used a real place (Oregon’s Wallowa State Park campground) as the setting. Every detail was accurate as I remember it. I’d advise that if you have small children, or if you camp, or especially if you plan to visit the Wallowas someday, don’t read this book.

Issue #2: The way Young portrayed the trinity (God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) was weird. Some may find the various characters helpful in expanding their thinking about God, but it seemed to me that Young instead reduced God to a manageable size. It reminded me of a book title from back in the 60's: "Your God is Too Small." I was looking for the "awe" of God, and it wasn't there.

Issue #3: The theology in "The Shack" wasn't bad, but I felt like it was lacking. Young tackles many of the age-old questions (the nature of the trinity, the reason for pain and suffering, etc.) by having the characters representing God explain the answers in very neat, simple packages. These are questions that have been under discussion for thousands of years. Having "God" give the answers the author believes are correct seemed to me to be presumptuous. I also felt there was a lack of respect for the church, traditional understanding of theology, and the scriptures.

"The Shack" is obviously written from the author’s life story, which so far he has not shared, and since I’ve never experienced such a devastating loss I can’t really know if his approach is helpful to those who have. Obviously the book is meaningful to many people. I can see how some of Young's theology might be helpful to someone who has been hurt by the legalism that is all too prevalent in the Church. He also paints a clear picture of God's love for humanity. That's my best guess as to what it is that people like so much about the book. For me, I give "The Shack" 1 out of 5 stars. I recommend that church leaders read it so they know what it is, but I don’t recommend it to anyone else.

If you want to know more about God, don’t read "The Shack" and don’t watch the inevitable movie, instead read the Bible. Find a version that is in plain English (no King James-eth!). I suggest starting with the book of Luke in the New Testament – it's my favorite -- and follow it with the book of Acts. Now that's 5 star reading!


Joyce said...

Donna, your review is intriguing. I keep hearing about this book, and Rob Harrison (blogging at The Spyglass) as well as one of the writers over on The Thinklings, have discussed it.

I haven't read the book, but one thing that struck me reading your review was how much this author was wrestling with the same issues that are exposited in the Book of Job in the Bible. Job had a series of tragedies occur in his life, and then several friends show up to discuss his spiritual struggles with him. Even though they are very brilliant and insightful, ultimately they can't answer his questions. In the end he has to acknowlege God for who He really is. (And don't you think it's some of the best "literature" in Bible, in terms of sheer poetry?) So, it sounds to me like the author of this book was asking all the right questions, and the characters were trying to give him the best answers from the human point of view, but he couldn't quite bring it home like the Book of Job.

I remember that book "Your God Is Too Small"; I read it when I was in my teens and still find myself thinking about it. Great stuff! It's too bad this person hadn't read it (probably) before he wrote. I like C.S. Lewis' novels because he actually got the idea of the limitlessness of God.

I like Luke and Acts, too! That's the combination of books I try to reread just about every year.

~Mad said...

(As also commented on

For another review of The Shack - try my church website here ...
Go down the right side to "Pastor's Blog".
Per - this book/story most resembles this definition of an "allegory": "the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence; also : an instance (as in a story or painting) of such expression."

It was enlightening for me - but I have witnessed the death of a brother and a young husband, the loss of another marriage, death of both parents and significant disappointment and grief. It helped me considerably with forgiveness and why "bad things happen to good people."

I feel it is different for each who reads it - so give it a try...if you wish.

~Mad(elyn) in Alabama

Donna said...

Joyce: Wow, your comment is so insightful I'd have thought you read the book! I just heard a great sermon on Job recently and the thing I kept thinking about was that Job is asking all these questions, and then God shows up and Job says(I'll paraphrase), "OK, I'll shut up now.) The presence of God was enough. I found that sense of awe lacking in "The Shack" and so, for me, it just wasn't believable.

I never actually read "Your God is Too Small" -- I think I was in preschool when it came out :) -- but the title has stuck with me. Maybe I need to go read it, huh!

mad: I followed the link to your pastor's review and I agreed with just about everything he said -- strengths and weaknesses. I'd take issue with his statement that the book is well-written, but I see what he meant by that. Thanks so much for your comments and I'm glad you found the book helpful.

~Mad said...

Donna - thanks for your response. I'll also note the pastor didn't have the same insights out of The Shack as I did. He and I see a lot of things differently. Different strokes for different folks.

If you want a hilarious discussion of (questionably)well-written material, try this:

I'm going to have to check out at least the first of the series to "see" for my self.

I hope it will make you giggle.

~Mad(elyn) in Alabama

Joyce said...

Donna, I just picked this book up. Mike and I are both going to read it and may write reviews. It will be interesting to see what we think of it.

Donna said...

Joyce, Yes, I'd very much like to know what you think!

Joyce said...

Our pastor just read the book on vacation and used it quite a bit in his sermon today. He liked it a lot. Now I'm completely intrigued!