Today The Shack opens in theaters. It is of course based on the best-selling book of the same name by William P. Young. I do not plan on watching the movie. Nor do I feel like I would need to in order to talk to folks about it who like it or have questions about it. I read the book.
Back in 2009, the book became relentlessly popular. I wanted to read it and provide a pastoral response for my congregation and for friends and family. As preachers, we are responsible to our people in this way. Lots of people have read this book and now, because of the movie, perhaps more will engage with it. I wish they wouldn’t.
Here is what I wrote when I first read the book:
The Shack: Too Popular to Ignore, Too Shoddy to Recommend
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Fiction is difficult for me to critique. I don’t read much of it and I by no means understand what makes a good fiction book. So from a fictional standpoint, I come at this read as a normal Joe. But if “this book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his” as Eugene Petersen allegedly stated, then we can understand that this isn’t just a story (are most fictions?)
I had to read this with a theological eye because:
a. it is very theological, fiction or not, and
b. there is no other way to read anything.
But first, the story as a piece of fictional writing:
The elements in the story are good and the unfolding of events rather drew me in. But there are tinges of amateur writing in the dialogue and in the description of some of the characters. The meat of the book comes when the main character (Mack) meets the Triune God in a shack. God the Father is in the form of a large black woman who disarms Mack with her spirited personality while she bakes and engages Mack about her knowledge (The Matrix anyone?)
Young must’ve mentioned explicitly that God was a large black woman at least a few times (it felt like several) leaving me with the impression that the author has a low view of the reader’s eye for detail and/or the reader’s moral sensibilities when it comes to racial awareness. That God appears as black is supposed to shock you. Well, at least it shocked Mack. At one point the narrator actually thinks to himself when describing the Trinity including a Jewish Jesus and an Asian Holy Spirit, “…and none of them white? Then again, why had he naturally assumed that God would be white?” (87) I have a question: why does Young assume that I am assuming that Mack is white? NONE of the characters in the story are described as white, but minorities are heavily emphasized as being of color. This is because, in the author’s mind, white is default.
As a minority, I found his overt attempts to discomfort white readers who may view God as white only served to distance me more. I felt that same distancing when I read Mack’s encounter with Jesus. Mack is actually dull enough to tell Jesus he thought the Savior would be better looking. Jesus responds that it must be his big nose. Then Jesus follows that up with, “I am Jewish, you know.” Besides Jesus’ reinforcing a historically offensive stereotype, I wondered what in the world Jewishness had to do with Jesus’ commonly appearance. There were other points where I felt this same distancing like when God the large black woman says things like, “Guess that’s jes’ the way I is,” and “Sho’ nuff!” Is she a large black woman from the slave days or is she from the projects? Well, she’s black so I guess that’s supposed to fit the bill either way. When Mack meets Wisdom personified, she appears to him as Hispanic — thanks Mr. Young, I was beginning to feel left out.
The Shack is not a theological treatise, but do not be mistaken — it is a deeply theological book. This is where I had the biggest problem with Young. Of course I take issue with God taking on female forms simply because he never once does so in the Bible — who are we to suddenly change his modus operandi? But that issue aside, there is much to watch out for in this book.
- The over-the-top “seeker-friendly” message of God not wanting Mack to do anything out of obligation but only what he wants to do (89).
- The big black woman bears nail marks just like Jesus because all three of them died on the cross (96).
- All three members of the Trinity became fully man (99).
- That man is at the center of the very purpose of the Trinity (111-12).
- That all authority and hierarchy “is the human paradigm” and is most assuredly not from God (124).
- In fact, no institutions are of God not even marriage (179) and, presumably, not the Church either.
- Jesus doesn’t preach the reform of religion — he simply chalks it up as a human invention that is not of him (I guess his half-brother James would have to differ on that — 1:27).
- Jesus also explained why he came as a male — to complete a picture about Creation — whatever that means (148). Maybe Jesus doesn’t approve of Paul’s explanation of Christ’s having to come as the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:21-22).
To be sure, there are glimmers of solid, biblically based thoughts to be found. To see Jesus is to see God (110), our failure to understand God shouldn’t undermine our trust in him (126), morality is determined by the goodness of God, not our own (136), and that the purpose of the Law of Moses is to show us how dirty we are (202) — excellent! Mack’s encounter with Wisdom where he learns that he could never judge God’s actions, no matter how horrible his own experiences, was wonderful. I cannot simply trash this book entirely. The problem is that most readers do not have a sufficiently keen theological grid to sift through the nonsense and propaganda to find the real Scriptural gems that are scattered throughout.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines the word “shack” as “a roughly built hut or cabin.” In that sense I think this book is aptly named — The Shack: a roughly built novel or story. The corny lines and wanna-be racial awareness make this a less than finely-polished reading. But the theological carelessness and frankly un-Biblical assertions are more than just rough around the edges. They give The Shack a sandy foundation and, against the wind of careful scrutiny, it topples with a crash.