Several years ago I tried to read Wm. Paul Young’s bizarre religious tract “The Shack” because, well, everyone was doing it. I got through about a third of it, realized it was crap and returned it to the friend who had loaned it to me saying something noncommittal and politic like, “I just couldn’t get into it.”
Fast forward to last month when someone in my new book club chose “The Shack” as our first book. I nearly dropped out. But being a good team member (something that is almost never recognized, much less rewarded anymore) and I found myself irritatedly skimming this book I had written off years ago.
I had the same reaction this time. My eyes started rolling when I saw a testimonial for the book by noted theologian Wynonna Judd on the back cover. The book “has blown the door wide open to my soul,” she writes. “Sweet Jesus,” I muttered, wondering exactly what the hell that could possibly mean. Kathie Lee Gifford also weighs in on the life-changing power of the book, should that be a selling point for you.
“The Shack” tells the story of Mackenzie Allen Phillips (even this guy’s three names irritated me) whose daughter is kidnapped then murdered in a shack in the middle of nowhere. Understandably, Mack has turned away from God, who Mack says allowed this tragedy to happen. Mack has been living with The Great Sadness caused by this horrific act for years and it’s destroying his family. (We know it must be a great sadness because it’s always capitalized and italicized.) In the midst of The Great Sadness, Mack gets a note asking him to come to the shack. It’s signed Papa, his wife’s favorite name for God.
(Let me stop here for a moment: Who, may I ask, has “a favorite name” for God? But I digress.)
So, Mack goes to the shack—which transforms into a beautiful house when he enters— where he finds his host: A woman calling herself Papa. Because she’s an African-American, Young has her say things like “Sho ’nuff” and fix him a mess o’ greens then — I shit you not — warns him not to eat too many or he’ll get the runs. (Was I wrong to expect more in the way of advice from God?) Also hanging out at the house is a carpenter named Jesus who takes Mack fishing (Yep, share does) and a holy spirit-like creature named Sarayu who helps Mack rebuild the garden of his soul, literally and figuratively. (Among the stupidest comments Mack makes — and makes and makes — is that Papa, Jesus and Sarayu get along so well together. Go ahead, think about that for as long as it takes.)
In this magical shack, Mack has the chance to ask the Holy Trinity all the things anyone on Earth who has had an unspeakable tragedy in life might have weighing on their souls. Instead says things like this to Jesus “Somehow I thought you’d be the ideal man, you know, athletic and overwhelmingly good-looking.” Jesus laughs it off by saying “Is it my nose? What do you expect, I’m a Jew.” I am not. Kidding. You.
For 250 pages we get clever exchanges like that along with simplistic answers — delivered with a chuckle and a wink — to some pretty trite questions. In the end, SPOILER ALERT, Mack understands God and The Great Sadness is lifted. (Was there any doubt?) My eyes hurt from rolling and, as I skimmed the final page, I was left with a lot of questions, the most important one being “Who the hell is buying this book?” And I meant that literally and figuratively.
It’s difficult to argue with a book that reminds readers how much God loves us—and that’s the only thing keeping “The Shack” out of the Crap Bucket. That’s what the Bible says and that’s what I believe. But the Bible also says “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him.” There are better translations, but my point is that Young’s imagination, not to mention his sentence structure, is not up to the task he created for himself.
An even bigger sin is that it’s so boring. Mack, Papa, even Jesus are not compelling or vaguely interesting and the conversations go on and on. (God, forgive me. Or should I say God forgive Wm. Paul Young?)
People want easy answers to life’s big questions. I would suggest that if you want to know more about God, go to the source: The Bible has better writing, more compelling stories and even a few dirty parts.