Review of The Shack by William Paul Young

The Shack, by William Paul Young, was gifted to me by my mother a few months ago, along with an inspiring internet story about how it was rejected by mainstream publishers, only to be self-published and promoted by word of mouth. It went on to sell millions of copies and change millions of lives—to say nothing of the boon it has been for self-publishers around the globe. Truly, The Shack is an inspiration.

At the beginning of The Shack, Mackenzie (Mack) Phillips, takes three of his children on a weekend camping trip, leaving his wife and two grown children behind. On the last day of the trip, Mack’s two eldest children flip their canoe in a lake, and when Mack goes to rescue them, his youngest daughter, Missy, is kidnapped. The police track the kidnapper and Missy to a shack in the woods where it is made clear that Missy has been brutally murdered. Needless to say, Mack and his family are devastated. After a few years of attempting unsuccessfully to cope with his loss, Mack gets a note inviting him back to the shack for a weekend with the proposition that the note’s author is none other than God.

Reluctantly, but inevitably, Mack returns to the shack to meet and confront God for taking his daughter, only to learn that his judgments against God have been misguided. Over the course of his weekend, and through the loving guidance of God (“Papa”), Jesus, and the Holy Spirit (“Sarayu”), Mack is inspired to love through and with God and to accept that the loss of his child does not mean that God’s love is limited.

Inspiring, sure. Good, no. I see why no one would publish The Shack, and it has nothing to do with the religious content of the book. As a piece of “literature,” it is terrible. The characters are inconsistent and trite, the narrative is littered with clichés and unchecked blabber, and after about the first 100 pages (if that), you can sense the author is trying to fill enough space to make it book-length. Had I not agreed to discuss the book with my mother, I would have put it down early on and never picked it back up.

While some reviewers have taken issue with The Shack’s theological point of view, it seems that most readers have found the novel interesting, even compelling. I have no real qualms with the theology, not being knowledgeable enough to take issue with Young’s brand of spirituality, but I do take issue with the narrative quality of this book, so much so that I had to put it down at several points because I was exasperated by the dismal story-telling.

Up to and including Mack’s first encounter with God, Young does a good job of drawing readers along. The prose is engaging, and the story moves quickly through the tragedy of Missy’s abduction. As a dramatic introduction to the novel, the first third of the book, while not likely to win any awards, is equal to the beginning of any Dean Koontz novel. Young also does a respectable job of drawing out and exploring Mack’s emotional state as he wallows in his despair and considers returning to the shack. As a reader, I was with Mack as he drove out to the shack, approached it hesitantly, and wept over his daughter’s blood stain on the living room floor.

When Mack finally met God, however, the tone and quality of the book shift noticeably, and not in a good way. The Shack transformed from the touching, heartbreaking journey of a grieving father into a sermonizing, condescending harangue thinly veiled in an illuminating spiritual encounter.

What I found most irritating about The Shack is the preachy quality of Mack’s interactions with the Holy Trinity. It seems that every time Jesus or Papa or Sarayu explains a concept, Mack follows it with a comment like “So what you’re saying is…” or “I guess what you mean for me to learn is…” (e.g., “I don’t understand,” Mack hesitated. “Are you saying that we can respond to one another in colors?”). Mack translates nearly every point of God’s message for readers, the obvious implication being that readers are a little too daft to understand it on their own. Mack’s interpretations quickly turn from irritating to insulting, particularly because they are so blatant.

Young’s unashamed preaching seriously undermines the role of his narrative. For this type of story, one goal of an author is to show what happened as if the readers aren’t there. This is one of the successes of the first part of the book. But, Mack’s conversations with God, in God’s multiple forms, are so completely unnatural that readers are left with the distinct feeling that they are being moralized at. The Mack from the first third of the book has important questions about his daughter’s murder that demand direct answers. The Mack in the second two-thirds is all too willing to avoid asking real questions, instead contentedly translating whatever God says. He devolves from a well-developed character into a religious cipher. He learns all sorts of lessons from God so readers don’t have to.

Since Mack is the book’s protagonist, when his character starts to break down, the whole novel begins to crumble. For example, we are told that Mack holds God responsible for the death of his daughter. Yet, when he meets God, he can’t even think of confronting God about his anguish. I cannot believe that he could be in God’s presence for as long as he is (nearly 36 hours) without directly asking the questions that could help him to understand Missy’s murder. Mack’s willingness to play along with God’s agenda, no matter how abstract, signals to readers that he isn’t interested in answers to his questions or in understanding the loss of his daughter: he only wants readers to learn what God wants them to learn—a decidedly irksome authorial ploy.

Indeed, as a character, Mack is so contradictory that he completely undermines the force of Young’s theory/theology. Mack’s contributions to the discussions are childish. (“Papa?” “Yes, honey?” “I’m so sorry that you, that Jesus, had to die.”) He moves seemingly without reason and with the slightest provocation between anger, guilt, embarrassment, understanding, and childlike wonder, leaving readers wondering if he has any sense of why he went to the shack to begin with. Mack takes everything God says for granted, unless it infuriates him and he turns into a petulant little boy. And he is willfully simple-minded, in spite of his supposed seminary training (deep thinking about philosophy and theology, my eye). There is no point in the entire book where Mack tries to understand God’s proclamations from the point of view of someone who has thought seriously about theology; instead, he is an angry weekend worshipper who just goes about religion as a habit—easily confused and easily contained. To me, those are two very different ways of thinking about religion, and there is no evidence that he thinks at all in a sophisticated or complicated way. As a reader, I was left wondering if Young ever thought about the consistency of Mack’s character. I am inclined to think he had another goal in mind.

It seems fairly obvious, in fact, that Mack is nothing more than a barely disguised pawn for the author’s spiritual message. Mack is not really a character—he is a hostage. He does whatever the author needs him to do at any given time. For example, in the introduction, Mack is a serious, quiet man who does not talk unless someone asks him a direct question. He is deep and contemplative and has a disquieting effect on others—someone readers can trust not to fawn over every snake oil salesman that blows into town. But when Mack meets God, he morphs into a jibber-jabbering idiot. He’s quick to interrupt, he’s slow to process, and he talks incessantly like a toddler talking for the pleasure of hearing the sounds instead of with the goal of making meaning. Mack does what the book needs him to do at any given moment, not what a person would actually do if they were placed in God’s presence with a pressing concern.

To take another example, Mack spent three years or more blaming God for the death of his daughter. The brutal kidnapping and killing, and God knows what else, of his six-year-old engulfed his family, plagued his every thought and action, and unalterably diminished his life. But still, more than 120 pages after he meets God, Mack has not asked the one question he must have been thinking since Missy disappeared: Why did God let her die, and why that way? As a father, that would be the one question I would demand an answer to. I can’t imagine being content with the answers that put Mack at ease. Even when he does demand answers, a loving rebuke from the Holy Trinity calms him. He’s satisfied with whatever answer God gives him (which usually has nothing to do with the injustice of Missy’s death). As a reader, I was appalled and insulted by Young’s tactic of denying Mack the chance to ask real questions in order to convey the other messages he wants me to have. The method is obvious and condescending—Young holds off on giving readers dessert (the answers to the important questions) until after they have their vegetables (lessons on God’s love).

In addition to the pedantic sermonizing and inconsistent literary conceits, there is another fundamental contradiction in The Shack’s main message: redemption is only possible through God’s love. Papa/Jesus/Sarayu relentlessly reiterate that Mack can only truly live in and with and through God’s love. This is the major theme of the book. Every action is designed to demonstrate God’s love. He has to choose to deliver himself to God’s love. Nevertheless, the enduring sub-plot of the book is that God knows best, and therefore, Mack’s need/desire to understand his daughter’s death is interminably delayed, if not exactly ignored. Throughout the novel, God, Jesus, and Sarayu keep constant company with Mack even as they seem to largely ignore his reason for being at the shack. They ignore his anger; they ignore his need to hear a direct answer, no matter how infuriating; and they ignore his confusion, always putting off his main concern until a later time with placating abstractions.

By delaying Mack’s legitimate distress, God does not demonstrate the love that Young would have readers witness—rather, God demonstrates a power play, which Young’s God claims love is free of. The message is, Mack does not need closure until God determines he needs it. I recognize some people will find this quibble flawed—it is not for man to judge God’s will—but God tells Mack repeatedly that Mack has free will, that he needs to trust God, and that he needs to be open to God’s love. His free will should have driven him to ask tough questions and expect tough answers. Instead, he’s baited and placated until God deems him fit enough for the tough conversation. Maybe God has a celestial plan that Young understands better than I, but I had a hard time stomaching this book, built as it is on the paternalistic, patronizing, God-the-Father-knows-best definition of “love”.

Call it a human flaw, but as a reader, I found both Mack’s and God’s passivity about Mack’s journey exasperating. To my mind, the pretty shack scrubbed of any trace of Missy’s death, (but replete with freshly-baked pies and compliant blue jays, long walks on the water with Jesus, and gardening expeditions in Mack’s soul with the Holy Spirit) demonstrates a fundamental disregard for the explanation that Mack came to find. The paradise where Mack spends the weekend with God is window dressing, not love, and as a reader, I was continually drawn back to a question of my own: how can God expect Mack’s trust when God refuses to be honest and upfront about Mack’s reasons for going to the shack in the first place? Of course, Mack eventually finds the answer he needs, but it must be cajoled and bargained out of God—-not, to my mind, a ripe opportunity for the kind of relationship-building Young’s God trumpets.

Finally, though perhaps a minor point, I’ll end this review by noting my sadness over the cliché of multiculturalism that permeates the book. Mack is a white patriarch, God is a black mother, Jesus is a Middle-eastern carpenter, Sarayu is an Asian gardener, Sophia is God’s Hispanic assistant (maid? tying up God’s loose ends? A stretch, perhaps, but not a leap). Everyone is represented and included—we’re all in the kingdom of Heaven, and we’re all integral parts of God’s all-encompassing nature. The message is nauseatingly evident.

While I certainly appreciate Young’s goal to be broadly representative, the inclusion of “one of every kind” feels like a ploy, especially because each character is so unbearably clichéd. God comments to Mack that she didn’t appear to him as a white man with a long beard because she wanted to unsettle Mack’s religious expectations of what God should be like, but appearing as a different kind of stereotype does not exactly clear things up. Young would have done better to avoid racial stereotypes altogether rather than including one of each. When God eventually turns into a white man, it hammers home the tedium of racial representation in The Shack.

There are broad themes in The Shack with which I agreed in spite of the dreadful narrative: religion and religion’s rules tend to facilitate sanctimony rather than compassion; if people better accepted their social/collective roles and let go of individual notions of power, the world might be a better place; and love is harder to foster where lies and self-righteous judgment are present. But ultimately, the literary blunders and patronizing tone that plague this book completely overshadow any potential messages I might have discovered in a less homiletic story. Perhaps the literary gaffes that stood out to me are less offensive to the people who have flocked to this book by the millions, but for this skeptic, The Shack is just one more ineffectual sermon, the inspiration of which is lost in the conscientious attempt to inspire.


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