The genre of “Christian Fiction” is about as appealing to me as a second helping of chicken-ripple ice cream. I felt it needed to be said, and even though some fine people‘s wives write this genre. In my head I know that not all Christian fiction falls into the hyper-corny schlockfest category with longwinded explanations of how Jesus is the answer and everything’s going to work out alright for this Godfearing nuclear family and you can have Jesus in your heart too, Lucy… as explained by Sally’s mother. On a more visceral level, it has seemed to me that calling the genre “Christian fiction” is probably somehow redundant.
That should tell you where I was at when I first held William P. Young’s first book, The Shack, in my hands with the prospect of reviewing it. Except for one thing: the invitation I had been ignoring to join The Shack group on Facebook. I didn’t join the group because I hadn’t read the book… actually had never heard of it. But hearing of a book for the first time through Facebook was still novel for me, and the person from whom I received the invite is not overly given to fluff. So I read it.
The Shack, for those who don’t know despite an effective grassroots marketing campaign, is a story about Mack, a father of four who was once a father of five. God features in the lives of the family, but much more so for Mack’s wife Nan; Mack has been living with something he calls The Great Sadness for the three and a half years before the events in The Shack take place. Three and a half years earlier, Mack’s youngest daughter Missy was abducted while on a camping trip with Mack and two of the other kids — she was killed, her body never found. She was six and a half years old… and I had another compelling reason not to read this book — it was clearly going to have morbid overtones playing off the occurrence of what any parent can tell you may be their greatest fear. I have two daughters, the youngest of whom just turned six. You see what I mean?
Young does well to describe the events of the abduction with only the detail necessary to the story — and not at all in the macabre way that seems to gain television ratings so surely these days. (I’m not just referring to the six current often-grisly dramas featuring coroners and crime scene specialists that make Quincy look like Saturday-morning childrens’ programming, but pointedly, Law & Order: SVU — what is up with that?) Young finds a way to present the facts of the case in a manner that allowed me to read quickly past the chapter I didn’t want to think about and get to what is, actually, the “meat” of the story: Missy’s death is really just background material to help you understand the main character. The story actually starts when Mack receives a typed note invitating him to spend the next weekend at the shack where Missy had been killed. The clincher is that the note purports to be from God. Mack decides to go, and God shows up. Any more detail than that and we’re getting into spoilers… which in my opinion, several of the reviews I’ve seen venture too far into — if you should find a review that starts to tell you how God appears to Mack, stop reading and save it for the book. (Hey, some of us are more accustomed to nonfiction where “spoilers” aren’t really a concern!)
So, what do God and Mack talk about for for 156 pages of a 248-page novel? Well… a little bit of everything. It is this fact which prompts me to argue that the book is not Christian fiction at all, but creative nonfiction on Christian themes. The conversation is where Young makes his points — the novel tells a story, but the point of the story is in the dialogue between God and Mack, who has his thinking adjusted on several matters, changing many of his views of God, the world, and the relationship between the two. And, naturally, his own relationship with God — a cliché phrase I hate to even write. Honestly, the thing I found most difficult with the story was the fact that God is called “Papa” throughout. I wouldn’t say the name has a patriarchal tone in Young’s use of it, it’s just that it’s the one vestige of the kind of Christian fiction of which I probably wouldn’t have seen chapter three. Or two, perhaps… it’s that “redundancy” thing. Yet when I corresponded with him by email about the book, he referred to God as Papa then too, and it didn’t sound nearly so awkward to my ears in that context. Fiction? Probably the wrong word — but not entirely wrong either.
The fictional material in the book is really just a literary device — no different than what you’d find in books like Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality or Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey. These would be much more appropriate comparisons than anything by Frank Peretti. To illustrate the way in which Young attempts to prod the reader to see things differently, a few quotations are in order.
Relationship is Non-Hierarchical. When Mack is talking to God about the relationship of the trinity within himself, he refers to a “chain of command” he assumes within the Godhead, to which God responds with a Bruce Cockburn quote, “Though chains be of gold, they are chains all the same.” The conversation continues, with dialogue following between God and Mack.
“Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being’ as your ancestors termed it. What you’re seeing here is relationship without any over-lay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours.”
“Really? How so?”
“Humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that people could work or lie together without someone being in charge.”
“But every human institution that I can think of, from political to business, even down to marriage, is governed by this kind of thinking; it is the web of our social fabric,” Mack asserted.
“Such a waste!”…
…”It’s one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you…. Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarcy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you.”
“Well,” said Mack sarcastically, sitting back in his chair. “We sure seem to have adapted pretty well to it.”
…”Don’t confuse adaptation for intention, or seduction for reality.”
“So then… we’ve been seduced into this preoccupation with authority?
(p.122-123) You can’t read this blog for too long without understanding that this is going to resonate with me… and it’s a good example of how Young knows his stuff, so although it’s not at all systematic, it would be a mistake to think of the theological insights as lightweight “fluff.”
The Problem of Pain. Clearly, Mack has some cause for discussing evil in the world, whether or not God is to blame, and how God can justify horrific events in order to achieve other purposes. In part of God’s reply, he says,
“Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”
(p.185) I love here the observation that grace does not require suffering in order to exist.
Keeping The Law. Dialogue with Mack, God speaking first:
“[K]eep in mind that if you live your life alone and independently, the promise is empty. Jesus laid the demand of the law to rest; it no longer has any power to accuse or command. Jesus is both the promise and its fulfillment.”
“Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?”….
“Yes. In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful.”
“You can’t be serious! You’re messing with me again,” moaned Mack.
…”[T]hose who are afraid of freedom are those who cannot trust us to live in them. Trying to keep the law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control.”
“Is that why we like the law so much—to give us some control?” asked Mack.
“It is much worse than that… It grants you the power to judge others and feel superior to them. You believe you are living to a higher standard than those you judge. Enforcing rules, especially in its more subtle expressions like responsibility and expectation, is a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty. And contrary to what you might think, I have a great fondness for uncertainty. Rules cannot bring freedom, they only have the power to accuse.”
(p.203) Excellent observation about keeping the law as a declaration of independence… deeply insightful, and it’s just plain good theology. Young must have been reading Romans…
Forgiveness. The subject had to come up eventually.
“Forgiveness is not about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.”
“But I thought you forget our sins?”
“Mack, I am God. I forget nothing. I know everything. So forgetting for me is the choice to limit myself. Son, …because of Jesus, there is now no law demanding that I bring your sins back to mind. They are gone when it comes to you and me, and they run no interference in our relationship.
“Forgiveness does not establish relationship. In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship. Mackenzie, don’t you see that forgiveness is an incredible power—a power you share with us, a power Jesus gives to all whom he indwells so that reconcilliation can grow?
“Mackenzie, … I already told you that forgiveness does not create a relationship. Unless people speak the truth about what they have done and change their mind and behavior, a relationship of trust is not possible. When you forgive someone you certainly release them from judgment, but without true change, no real relationship can be established.”
(p.224 & 225) The notion of God limiting himself comes up a few times, so it’s fairly closely linked in with the major theme of the book. There is some insightful stuff here about forgiveness and relationship, and the fact that the two are not synonymous… not the plastic Christian-fiction redundancy stuff. Here again, some of our traditional views are challenged. As with all of the direct quotations from God, Young isn’t claiming direct verbatim revelation of new truth or anything of the sort… but he is challenging us to think about those assumptions, and to do so from a fresh understanding of God’s heart.
I want to recommend the book, and fairly highly. I think Eugene Petersen’s praise for it was a bit too high — likening it to Pilgrim’s Progress is just too much for anything to live up to. But it’s well-written, insightful, and a superb conversation-starter — which would make it a reasonably good book club choice. It’s good fodder for anyone to whom you might suggest Blue Like Jazz or A New Kind of Christian, but in an even more introductory and/or broad way, to people who have no particular beef with the church but who still want to see things in a new light whenever they can. I’m going to contend that those who take the brief time necessary to read The Shack will find a message directly to them, from God. If you’re in particular need of such a message, read the book. I’ll spell it out for you: get yourself a pencil, and write down the page number, 242. Don’t peek ahead, just wait until you get to it: it won’t have any real meaning or impact if you try to take a shortcut, but at the end of the book, Mack delivers a message from God to Willie, on page 242. This message, if you’re paying attention, is also intended directly to the reader — if you like, stroke out Willie’s name in the sentence and write in your own. By pure coincidence I’m sure, when I read it, I think something must have dripped onto my cheek, maybe a raindrop or a splash someplace, perhaps from a leaky ceiling… but it was moist somehow. You’ll know it when you get there.
Tomorrow, I’ll post an interview with William P. (Paul) Young, the author. In the meantime, if you’ve read The Shack (or even if you haven’t), drop in some comments… particularly if you had a favorite passage or insight from it. If your comment has spoilers, please mark it with **Spoilers** so those who haven’t read the book can skip your comment until they have.