Sunday, October 7, 2012

Don't go to The Shack

Overall, I'm not having the best of luck with books this year, especially not with traditionally published books. I'm not sure, exactly, what that says, but there it is. The last several have been less than what I wanted, and this one, The Shack is no different. It's somewhere down around the level of Snow Crash, but not quite for the same reasons.

As with Snow Crash, my negative opinion began before I even started reading the actual book. In case you don't know, The Shack is being called the new Pilgrim's Progress, so my expectation was that the book is some kind of allegory. And it is, except that the author doesn't want us to think that it is. So he lies to us. Yeah, in the foreword... So you do all know what a foreword is, right? It's a piece of non-fiction about the book written by someone other than the author. Basically, someone else writes the foreword for your book which should then be about the book or you or you writing the book or whatever. But Young uses a character from the book, except you don't know it's a character from the book since you haven't read it yet, to write a "foreword" about  the book in which the (fictional) character claims that the book is a true story.

So here I am with this book in my hand not really knowing what to think. Because the author lied. Yeah, it's a lie, because that bit at the front of his story is not a foreword at all. At best, it should have been the prologue. That would have worked, because that puts it into the context of "story," not the context of "fact," so I almost right away have to go look up to see whether the books is supposed to be true or based on real events or whatever, and I find out that it's not, so I started out pissed that the author felt like he needed to give his story more weight by lying to me about it.

And I would have put it down right then except that my neighbor loaned me the book because it's one of his favorite books ever, so I felt kind of obligated to read it. Or, at least, give it more of a chance.

Now, this has nothing to do with reading the book, but I always carry a book around with me, and The Shack has been the book I carry around with me lately, because it's a paperback, and that's what I carry with me. So I always carry a book around with me, but it's a rare thing that anyone ever says anything to me about the books I'm reading. Not so with The Shack. I had many people come up to me and ask me about this book, ask me how I'm liking it, and, as soon as my face twisted into my "not much" look, before I actually said anything in some cases, I got "oh, I hated it, too." From every single person that came up to me. They were all women, and they all had the same reason for not liking it, which has nothing to do with my reasons, but, still, it was a weird thing to have so many people coming up to me telling me how much they also didn't like the book.

The next thing is that the writing is just bad. Amateurish. The first third of the book is all "tell" and no "show," and I found it tedious and without any real tension despite the fact that the set up for the book is that Mack loses his daughter. We're never brought into the story, so it's really difficult to care about any of the characters. And, oh! my! gosh! I got so tired of the words "then," "now," and "again." People did things again and again and again. "Again he turned." "Again he turned." I'm surprised all the characters weren't puking from dizziness.

So... once we get through all the "telling" to what the book is really about, we spend the virtually the rest of the book involved in a philosophical conversation with "god." I'm sorry, but, really, if you want to have a philosophical conversation, write a book of philosophy; don't write a story to act as a thin veil to cover that philosophy. And don't lie about it on top of all of that to try and get me to believe that what you believe is actually the truth. Because, and I have to say it, this guy's theology is pretty shaky in spots and just wrong in others. Which isn't to say that I don't think he gets some of it correct, but what we really have is the author's personal philosophy of God that he's trying to pass off to us as a true story, and it offended me more than a little.

Not to mention that his picture of God is most often just silly and, frequently, offensive. At least to me. But that may be that I grew up in the South. His presentation of God the Father is that of a large, Aunt Jemima-style black woman. Now, I appreciate his attempt to go beyond a picture of God as an old, white guy. And I'm not offended by his presentation of God as a woman, because I do actually agree that God is above male and femaleness and that God could choose to present "himself" in whatever form "he" might want to. What I do find offensive is the stereotypicalness of Young's presentation of God as the large, black woman, "Oh chile, let's get you some food!" Not that that is an exact quote from the book, but that's how he portrays god, and I don't think God would ever be so callous as to incarnate himself as such a racial stereotype. At least, not the God I believe in. Yes, this really bothered me.

At any rate, I waded through all of the philosophical conversation (just like I waded through it all in Snow Crash), and I found it tedious as well, but what I really didn't like was that Young would frequently have Mack ask some question (a logical, common question that we might all ask) and then have God respond with "we'll talk about that later" and never go back to it. Why bring it up if you're not going to address it? Seriously. That's just dumb.

When we finally get to the end of the book, and, yes, this is a spoiler, he completely destroys everything he's done (which, granted, wasn't much in my estimation) by having Mack be involved in a life-threatening car crash. You know, to cast doubt over the weekend the character just spent with God. Was it real or was it an hallucination? What the heck? Really? That's where you want to put it. That's your out for your bad theology? Maybe Mack didn't quite remember everything correctly, so you can't be held accountable for anything that isn't correct? Well, if you'd just owned up to the fact that you made it all up to begin with, Mr. Young, that wouldn't be necessary at all, would it?

So, yeah... I couldn't recommend this book to anyone. I understand why my neighbor liked it, and I suppose it could be a good book for people caught up in religious dogma to read, because it could certainly present God to them in a way they hadn't thought about before, but, really, those people should just read C. S. Lewis and apply their brains to what he says about stuff before getting caught up in some dude's ideas that are no better formed than "ooh! what if language was a virus?!"


  1. One of my favorite books by Lewis was "The Screwtape Letters" and another favorite was "Surprised by Joy"

    I think I'll take your advice and pass on The Shack. Have a good week Andrew!

  2. Looks like I will pass on "The Shack" as well. I think the "forward" idea was rather novel, but there should have been an asterisk around there somewhere.

  3. I've not read The Shack or anything by Young. (Although I have read several books by Lewis.)
    If a book has the potential to offend me on a spiritual level, I avoid it. You've given me several reasons to skip this one.

  4. I remember when this came out, folks at work were walking around with it, reading it on their lunch breaks... but I noticed that the people reading this one were all people who never really read much. I think it was one of those things that - at least here - caught on at churches and Sunday School and it exploded in popularity after that. I did hear complaints of people that I knew that were readers who picked it up out of curiosity and told me that it wasn't very good.

    But for me, the theology probably wouldn't bother me too much. I mean, theologians can't really agree on what they believe about spiritual matters, I'm not so sure I would expect an first time author to offer much by way of pristine spiritual advice.

    My big problem would be reading a book that I know is a tract for someone's worldview disguised as fiction. That's about the most off-putting thing I think I can imagine. I read this Time-travel book once that was really an excuse for the author to go into detail about their political philosophy - I was furious that I paid money for it. I was paying money to have someone preach at me for 300 pages about how unjust modern political systems were.

    He brought this guy from the past to view the present and instead of doing anything cool, like putting him in awkward situations and exposing him to cool technology - instead he moralized for 2/3rd of the book before he died for his beliefs by a swat team or something. It was so stupid.

    Anyway, sorry you didn't like the book. Enjoying what I read is one of the great pleasures in my life. Having that taken away by something being awful can be like sitting down for a great meal and discovering it has a cockroach in it. It sort of freaks you out forever.

  5. Never heard of this one. From the title I thought your post would be about a bad experience at Radio Shack.

  6. I've never heard of this book and it sounds like something I can safely skip and feel all right about it.

    I always enjoy your reviews.

  7. Me too PT. I certainly don't like the sound of this book.

  8. Someone gave me this book... and I've been resisting reading it for years now. Call it a 6th sense. Hrm. I'm going to put it in the give-away pile, I think.

  9. Rusty said it perfectly. It really does sound like it's "disguised" as fiction. Like, it's almost duping people. In fiction, there's nothing wrong with an underlying message (hell, we tried to insert some of that into The Missing Link), but disguising it as your own personal sermon with Aunt Jemima the black stereotype as God does not sound like my idea of a good read. And that's not a racial thing, either. I'd equally roll my eyes if God was portrayed like Cheech Marin, and his kingdom was a taco truck, and he calls all of his people 'essay.'

  10. Lewis is the master when it comes to instilling important philosophical and theological messages in a story without losing sight of the story. The Space Trilogy is a true tour de force, particularly That Hideous Strength. I reread it recently and it was just so powerful without being overbearing.

  11. I read the Narnia series as a young kid (like 6-ish?) and had no clue there was any kind of allegory involved. (I had no church background whatsoever so the stone table and all that went way over my head.) I can still read the series as an adult and ignore all the allegory if I want to. In fact, I would prefer that my kids read the stories just as grand adventures FIRST, because allegory can always come later, and it's more fun to discover as sub-text than text. I guess what I'm saying is that if an allegorical story is all like "HEY LOOK THIS IS MY POINT IT'S MY POINT GET IT DO YOU DO YOU?!?!?!" then I'm totally turned off. That's just poor and boring writing.

    Andrew didn't specify, but the thing all the women who talked to him about the book didn't like (but which didn't bother him as much) is the novel's background where the protagonist's young daughter is abducted and murdered. Personally, I will not read books where kids die because I just can't handle it, but we each have our own tolerance level for that stuff. According to Andrew, it's not detailed at all in the book, it's just background, but for me it brings too much harrowing imagination.

    Sarah AKA Andrew's wife

  12. Never heard of it, but already I know it's not my thing. So thanks for the warning. :)

  13. Anne: The Screwtape Letters are great! Although I've never read anything by Lewis that I didn't like.

    Jeremy: Yeah, if it was done as a novel within a novel, it could have been okay. Instead, I just felt like he was trying to trick me.

    Alex: I can easily say I won't read anything by Young again.

    Rusty: Yeah, I kind of felt like this was the same as when Left Behind came out. All these people who never read anything were suddenly reading it and gushing over it. My reaction was pretty "meh." The writing was simplistic and uninteresting. Plus, I hated that they were using the story as a "here's what is 'true' about the rapture and the end times" vehicle. Especially when they're wrong.

    PT: LOL I can't even remember the last time I went into a Radio Shack. I think I looked in the doorway of one a few years ago.

    M.J.: I'm glad you do!

    Jo: There's nothing to like about it. :(

    Elisabeth: That's a good place for it. Or, um... okay, never mind. I don't condone book burning.

    ABftS: And it was barely disguised. It wasn't even a Bugs Bunny disguise.

    Sarah Mc: Lewis was certainly a master. I think it was because the message fit into the story rather than being the story.

    Sarah: Yeah, she doesn't do that stuff at all.
    What's that stuff above the sub-text?

    L.G.: Sure, no problem.

  14. I reviewed this book on my site a year or two ago. I read it at the behest of my mother and sister, who both loved this book. My assessment was much like yours though I was much more forgiving of the technical aspects. My theory about the female depiction of God was that I saw her to be more like Oprah, which may have been the author's sly trick to be Oprah's Book-of-the-Month. Maybe?

    The following week I did another review of a book that refutes The Shack. I read this one because I wanted some clarification on why I disliked the novel so much.

    Your review is tough and very good.
    If you're interested in my posts you can find them at:

    Tossing It Out

  15. My wife really enjoyed this book. I read it after she´d gone through it a second time. I honestly enjoyed it. I read it in portuguese, so I completely missed that the forward was not just a prologue. Maybe that was a translation error, or maybe I just missed it. I'll check one day.

    I liked the idea of the book, but, yes, the story could have been done much better with a more engaging start, so that we cared about the family too. The way it was, the book just told us he was depressed and that was supposed to be enough.

    The idea of a weekend with God was very good, but certainly stereotyped to the point that I imagined Pappy, or Daddy or Papa, or however he was called in English to be the Oracle from the first Matrix movie.

    I liked that there was some closure with respect to the dead daughter and the casket and such, but there were some things in the book that seemed like it was written specifically with Hollywood special effects in mind to give "closure" to his relationship with his own dad. Forced fluff.

    I feld betrayed by the car crash. That just seemed like, as you said, a cheap out-clause.

    In all, i was entertained and didn~t take it seriously enough to get offended by theology.

    Side note: The Great Divorce is the book that kept coming to mind as I read this one. It was much better.

  16. I haven't heard of this book, but will take your word that it isn't good. :) Probably because it says it is based on true facts, and wasn't. As always a great review and Thanks for sharing these reviews.

  17. "Well, the God I believe in isn't short of cash, mister!"

    -- Bono.

    That's what your review made me think of, first and foremost, but that's mostly because I'm about 80% insane.

    I heard about "The Shack" and took note of it only because it was amazingly successful for a self-published book, which I attribute to "people will buy stuff if it's Christian." Your review seconds my uninformed opinion.

  18. Lee: I've never watched Oprah, so I wouldn't know. Does Oprah spend a lot of time in the kitchen covered with flour? Because that's what really gave me the Aunt Jemima feel. That and the bear hugging. I'll take a look at the posts.

    Stephen: The Oracle from the Matrix is actually a good example, but, she, too, is based on that same stereotype.
    I have to say I -hated- the scene with his father. It was completely shallow, and the stuff with all of the lights was dumb.
    I haven't read The Great Divorce in more than 20 years, so I'm not bringing it enough to mind to make a comparison. I'll have to find my copy.

    G_G: Sure!

    Briane: Well, it didn't really become wildly successful until after it got picked up by a publisher, though it was successful enough to get noticed by a publisher.
    80%? Are you sure?

  19. One of those books I'll probably read someday, just because it was such a big deal, but I've heard mostly negative things about it.

  20. Bess: You know, I understand that because I've done it, but I'd have to tell you to just skip it.

  21. I had never heard of this book, but it doesn't sound like one that I'd particularly enjoy. As you know by now, I kind of don't like books that take themselves too seriously when it comes to religion.

  22. I wasn't making the Oprah connection by the woman's appearance as described in the book, but by the incarnation as God in the form of a black woman with a powerful personality. Since Oprah's highly influential Book Club was in full swing when The Shack came out I was speculating that if perhaps the author used an Oprah-like character, the book might better catch the attention of those who make the book picks. Not to overlook that a movie version of the book could possibly use Oprah in the role. Just a theory that hit me when I was reading, but I can see the Aunt Jemima connection--(is this stereotyped icon still used and is she recognizable to more recent generations?).

    Considering the author's well planned marketing strategy I wouldn't be surprised if my theory had some substance.

    Tossing It Out

  23. Michael: Yeah, I didn't think you'd need me to tell you not to read this one.

    Lee: Ah, yeah, I can see that. That kind of makes it even worse for me, if that's what he was doing. That's like the lying in the foreword stuff.

    I don't actually know if Aunt Jemima is still recognizable, but his audience was people that would recognize her.

  24. This book got talked about a lot in the woo woo circles I frequent, and then blew over. I didn't go for it, and now I'm super glad I didn't. Seriously? People are still into that Magical Black Person stuff? Wow. And yikes.

    For my two cents, there is nothing that can replace Pilgrim's Progress. Yes, it is an olde booke, and unabashed allegory. Yes, that is a bit of a clunky way of telling stories according to today's standards, but as spiritual allegories go, it is beautiful. It also bears a strange resemblance to Wizard of Oz, but that's a story for another time.

  25. Elizabeth: Yeah, Pilgrim's Progress is great. The Shack didn't even come close to it, mostly because the main character didn't ever really do anything. Other than get hit by a car.

    Woo woo circles? I'm kind of scared to ask what that is.

  26. I hated that book. I agree the writing was terrible just awful. Like a first draft awful.....where you're just trying to get the story out of your head but you know you need to go back and clean it up. It came so highly recommended that I picked a copy up from my local Target one day and after I read it I was like.....I will never take a book recommendation from that person again. I feel the same way about Fifty Shades of Gray! The writing is atrocious and I want to SCREAM every time someone posts something about it on Facebook or whatever saying how great it is. Because it's not!

  27. Jennifer: I hate when I spend money on something like that, like I did with Snow Crash. At least someone loaned me The Shack.