The Shack – Why do bad novels happen to good people?

After seeing William P. Young’s The Shack flying off our library shelves as fast as people could return it, and after hearing from at least one person who’s opinion I respect that liked it I took the plunge. Bad move on my part. Not only is the writing suspect, the theology is fairly shallow and the characterization of God as the Trinity borderline offensive.

But let’s start at the beginning. In The Shack the main character, Mack, loses his youngest daughter to a serial murderer on a camping trip. He later receives an invitation – apparently from God – to return to the shack where his daughter’s bloody dress was found. God then proceeds to put the hard sell on Mack to get over his anger and realize that God is bigger than personal tragedy.

What Mack is struggling with is what the theologians refer to as theodicy. Theodicy, as a friend recently put it can be viewed as “the only theological question that really matters because it’s the only one that doesn’t have a very good answer.” Theodicy asks how a God who is all powerful, and all benevolent can allow suffering to happen in the world. Or, “why do bad things happen to good people?”.

Unfortunately, after finishing with The Shack1 I am not entirely sure that it’s possible for a novel to tackle the question of theodicy overtly. This is to say I am happy when fiction deals with tragedy, reconciliation and such weighty moral questions of human existence. I am not so happy when the narrative format turns pedantic, and even less so when it takes aim in it’s pedantry at one of history’s most prominent theological questions.

As this is a blog post and not a final essay for a graduate seminar, I will follow the format used in my previous post on Their Eyes Were Watching God. Bullet pointed musings on what I liked and disliked coming right up!

  • Early in the novel there is a useful illustration of a bird that was designed to fly but was able to limit itself to walking. This is how we are to understand the idea of God becoming fully human to enter into relation with his creation. OK – I’ll bite.
  • The idea of the Trinity embodying the principle of living in relationship is another point well made. The father, son and holy spirit form a circle of relationship without hierarchy. The ability of humans to enter into this same type of relationship not only with each other but also with God is reasonably compelling theology
  • It’s pretty much bad from there…
  • I’m willing to suspend disbelief about God sending one man an invitation to meet one-on-one to overcome personal tragedy. Sort of. I’m less willing to let pass God as “a large beaming African American woman”. Methinks we smell a wee bit of white guilt here. Not to mention that Young’s characterization of this beaming African American woman is a base stereotype of the head-scarf wearing Mammy figure full of sass, homespun wisdom and just the right amount of dropped consonants in her dialect.
  • Jesus and the Holy Spirit aren’t much better.
  • During Mack’s visit to the shack, he has his recurring nightmare about his daughter’s abduction and killing. He wakes up and pitifully asks why God won’t make the dream go away. This is beyond simpering.
  • For all the talk about relational living, this sure seems like an individualistic quest for satisfaction from the Almighty. There is little talk about what role a community of fellow believers plays in the common life.2
  • There’s actually a chapter titled “Here Come Da Judge” in this book.
  • And here’s where the novel lost me for good: Eventually Mack gets to see his daughter. He is also reassured that his daughter knows he’s there and that this experience is real. Letting go the notion that we will still be who we were on earth when we get to heaven this is still hugely problematic. It answers the question of tragedy by glibly pointing to the afterlife. Oh everything works out for the best because no matter how painful your loss you get a do-over in heaven. What does it say for faith that Mack has to see his daughter alive in order to let go of his loss, forgive God and move on?
  • I really tried to keep reading but couldn’t do it. The characterization felt artificial, God kept telling Mack that he (Mack) couldn’t understand him (God) but the author treats the Trinity as thorougly knowable in each incarnation throughout the book. Plus the Heaven answer to theodicy is just ridiculous. Not that it’s the only answer the author posits, but Mack seeing his daughter is the definite turning point of the novel – the next page reveals that The Great Sadness that had ruled his life was now gone. Sheesh.

So, in conclusion, save yourself some time and don’t read The Shack. No, really, don’t read it. Take a swipe at a good translation of Job, C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain or even Harold Kushner’s Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. Theodicy is a question that writers, thinkers and artists have struggled with for ages. Just because The Shack is a new, trendy, popular take on an old question doesn’t make the question new, and it doesn’t make the treatment measured. You’ve been warned.

1 N.B. I “finished” with The Shack after about 180 pages – leaving about 40-50 pages unread
2 props to Rainey, the preacher lady, for the catch on that one

4 Responses to “The Shack – Why do bad novels happen to good people?”

  1. Perm Says:

    Kudos to this review. I can say that you and I are pretty much on the same page with this one. At the encouragement of my hierarchical superior in my place of employ, I had the book group that I facilitate (at aforementioned place of employ) read this one. Gah. I can assure you that you lost nothing in letting the final 40-50 pages go unread.
    And thank you for pointing out that “the writing [is] suspect” — everyone seems to think that this is fine literature.

    I cleansed my palate by reading Adams’ Watership Down. Which, incidentally, is all about the role a community of fellow believers plays in the common life.

  2. Perm Says:

    Oh, and the “white guilt” thing — brilliant. That had not occurred to us, Dude. But I knew it sat uneasy with me for a reason…

  3. Katie Says:

    Just thought I should post that apparently Demi Moore is currently reading The Shack. She twittered about it…and I read it on a celebrity stalker website. Here’s what she said: “off for some brain dessert of AMERICAN IDOL before plowing back into my book THE SHACK for some enlightening soul food!”
    i still don’t understand the point of twittering…

  4. Walter Says:

    I remember when the throngs of Bookfair customers were desperately seeking The Shack. There was either a creepy hunger or steely arrogance in their eyes that was disturbing and made me want to hunt down Mr. Young and punch him square in the face. How’s that for lit crit? Stupid f*#%@r. Bad things happen to good people because they do. And we hang on and don’t kill ourselves and that’s the mystery and the power and the glory, amen. Job doesn’t get his family back– he gets a different family. The people he had loved all his life are lost to him forever, and he must learn to live and love anew. What makes Young think he deserves anything more from God? Have you run low on books by Jews, Conan? Do you need to borrow some? I worry for your sanity now…

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