The Shack, by William Paul Young
Of course you can't judge a book by its cover, but it's okay to pick one because of it. When I saw the cover for The Shack, by William P. Young, I thought three things. First, I said, "That cover would look great for a book that I'm writing." Second, I said, "That title is the same title as the book that I'm writing." Third, I said, "Oh, crap. I better read this before I make the effort to finish my book." Fortunately, there's nothing at all similar. "Mac," the main character, is a very religious middle-aged man with a wife and two daughters. They're just a very average middle-American family, go to church on Sundays, occasionally take weekend camping trips, and are about as "apple pie" as apple pie. They are so religious that they even have their own nickname for God in order to feel closer to him. "Papa" they call him, making him one of the family.
On one of their camping trips, something goes horribly wrong. There's a calling card-leaving serial killer in the area who abducts children and does unspeakable things to children. When Mac's older daughter struggles with a canoe in a lake, all attention is on her. Only the murderer's attention is on the 7-year old as she draws in a coloring book at a picnic table nearby. In a relatively short time, the police are on the scene, combing the mountain, and producing an abandoned pickup truck that the killer had stolen to bring the innocent girl to a remote shack in the woods. What is found is reason enough for the police and Mac to believe she will never be found alive.
Mac retreats from the world, as does his older daughter who blames herself for what happened. Mac falls further into despair until he finds a note in his mailbox on a very snowy day. The note tells Mac that it's time to talk again and to meet at the shack in the woods where his daughter disappeared. The note is signed "Papa," which leads Mac to believe that the murderer knows of his religious past and is playing a game with him. Mac borrows a gun from a neighbor and treks to the shack amid the heavy snowstorm.
When he arrives at the shack, there's nothing but an old bloodstain, the same one that had been there at the conclusion of the police investigation but oddly was never cleaned up. He isn't sure at this point who really called him there. He gets angry, reliving the events of the murder, re-boiling the pain and hate that pulled him away from his faith, and thus getting his back up against God. He challenges God to face him and explain why his life was ripped to pieces, much like the Book of Job, one of many Bible passages that Mac used to discuss with his family.
Eventually, Mac's draining catharsis leads to a slumber of unknown duration from which he wakes, straightens up, and leaves the shack. Outside, things have changed. Spring flowers and a blue sky have replaced many inches of snow, and then Mac is called back to the shack.
The premise of The Shack is truly frightening, especially to anyone with children. I have two girls, and when I glanced at the blurb on the book cover, I did not think I would have been able to read it without a painful, sympathetic cry. I almost cried, but only because halfway in I realized I still had another half to suffer through. "Mac" is as trite a nickname as possible, and I wouldn't want neighbors who call God "Papa" as if they're having him over for Thanksgiving.
When I scanned the cover, I didn't get the impression that the story would have such a heavy religious presence. If I had, I likely would not have read it because, as I would have feared, the story read like a very long sermon. Mac meets God in the form of a very friendly, large, African woman who is an excellent cook. Jesus appears as an olive-skinned, athletic man in jeans and a flannel shirt to fit the image of a carpenter. The Holy Spirit is a quiet, philosophical Asian woman. Mac spends a long weekend with them, learning many quirky details about each but nothing at all as enlightening as you'd hope for when one stumbles upon the Holy Trinity.
I'm sure that anyone who has ever lost someone, especially a child, would have two very painful questions to ask whichever Supreme Being he or she believes in. The first is obviously, "Could you have saved my child?" In The Shack, God said "Yes." The second question then must be, "Why didn't you save her?" To that, God gives one of the worst answers possible. "You wouldn't understand." Hey, God. Try me. Give it a shot. Just tell me, and let ME decide if I understand. Am I really so stupid that I can't understand? If so, how about you educate me? Explain why you think I won't understand, and then make an effort to help me understand. At least let me know that my child's death contributed to something good.
From a writing perspective, God's inability to answer was just plain wrong. If a writer is going to pose the possibility of God inviting Mac to the shack to deal with issues about his daughter's death, then a real discussion must take place. There is a worldwide struggle and debate almost daily with similar topics such as divine intervention, intelligent design, creationism versus evolution, destiny versus free will, fact versus faith, and so on. If you're going to place that box in front of me, you must open it. It is unfair to tell me that something is in there, but you're not going to show me because you think I won't understand it. I'd say that when Young wrote the story, he just didn't know what God's answer should be, and that's okay because absolutely nobody knows what, if anything, God would or should say. Anyone who writes such a meeting must either address that question head on or completely avoid it. The last thing to do to a reader is to say, "I'm God, I know all the answers, but I'm not telling."
Although the book is far from a comedy, one particular scene was unintentionally hilarious. Mac tells Jesus that he expected him to be more handsome. Jesus says, "It's my nose, isn't it?" Then he adds, "Well, I am Jewish, you know." That's a line I'd expect on Saturday Night Live but not in a suspense story.
I don't like stories that present a fantastic situation before taking it all away. After Mac spends a weekend talking to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, he wakes up in a hospital bed where facts show that the entire experience could not have happened. That's cheap. If you're going to write a book about a conversation with The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, then write it and stand behind it. Don't pull an ending like the television show Dallas back in the 80's in which an entire season of the show was just someone's dream. If you can't finish this story the right way and let it stand on its own merit, then it doesn't have any merit. If all you're going to give me is that it was all a dream, then where is your faith?
I bought the CD's, not the actual book, and the last CD is an interview in which the author preaches about his personal religious journey. If you want me to believe all about your faith and religious journey, then you better be ready to demonstrate that faith. Staging an accident with a head injury in such a way that reduces the whole spiritual weekend to just a comatose hallucination is not standing proudly next to the faith that you're demanding from the readers. You're the one without faith. I've heard from three or four people who claim this book changed their lives, but I don't understand why. It's only a piece of fiction in which someone talked to God, but then they didn't. The Shack should be no more life changing than The Cat in the Hat. Mac learned nothing from God except that man should just shut up and blindly follow him.
Be it a person or a book, to blindly follow anything presents danger. The potential of that danger is then magnified by the potential power claimed by that person or book. There's nothing wrong with reading The Shack as entertainment. However, there is plenty wrong with reading it for purpose and direction in one's life.