The Shack

I can imagine that attempting to depict God in literature is a frustrating task. Firstly, of course, it is fundamentally impossible. Secondly, you are utterly guaranteed to outrage a lot of people – the religious community consists of countless denominations with as many understandings of ‘who God is’. Thirdly, and perhaps most irritatingly, the resulting work is probably only going to be read by those in society actually interested in God; a rapidly deteriorating number. The theological and literary nightmare of producing Christian literature probably has a lot to do with the fact that few authors, if any, since C.S Lewis, have produced a text with an overtly Christian message that has attracted both a Christian and secular readership. Milton’s Paradise Lost and Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters are two texts that prove that such a feat is possible, even without forcing Jesus to lurk stealthily behind the surface of the text, only exposing him in the form of clever, digestible allegories. What exactly is it that an author must do to bridge the gaping void between Christian and non-Christian interest?

{{ quote There really is very little chance that The Shack will ever experience any major success with a secular readership }}

William Paul Young’s The Shack is an excellent starting point for considering the issue. Despite being denied universally by secular publishers, unwilling to place their heads on the block next to the author’s (dismissing the book as ‘too edgy’ and containing ‘too much Jesus’), the novel has experienced astounding success. Within a year of being written, 1.7 million copies had been sold in America alone and by 2008 it had topped the U.S chart and was high as #7 of all books on Amazon. Now it is being considered as material by well-known film producers, no doubt hungry to tap into the appealing power that Christian allegory has been shown to have on screen. What’s more interesting is that Young didn’t even intend his book to be received in this way: he wrote it as a Christmas gift for his six children in 2005, after which ‘it just snowballed’ into the Christian community, causing about as much of a stir as is possible (just look at the comments beneath YouTube discussions of the novel).It now remains there shivering with the anticipation of bursting into the secular world and joining the mighty ranks of those books which have jumped the chasm.

The story tells of a middle-aged man named Mack trying to live with ‘The Great Sadness’ that has weighed upon him since his youngest daughter, Missy, was brutalised by a depraved murderer known as the Little LadyKiller. Four years later, Mack receives a mysterious note signed ‘Papa’, inviting him to meet at the shack where Missy was killed years before. When Mack arrives, he encounters God in the form of a larger-than life Afro-Caribbean woman, a boring looking carpenter and an allusive young woman. The priority of the book seems to be to humanise God, to take the sword-tongued judger of men from Revelation and transform him into an excessively jovial triad of huggable individuals. Such an image undoubtedly stands behind some of the book’s success – if one section of the readership snaps the book shut in disgust at its sheer ludicrousness, another will relish in the discovery of a God with the uncomfortable and irritating identity traits of the inflictor of eternal damnation nicely hidden away from view. Young shows, at times, refreshing awareness of the images attached to Christians, and goes to great lengths to try an emulate the everyman in all his down-to-earth glory: Mack jokes about being put on the prayer list at church for smoking dope and later is advised by his friend that, upon meeting God, he should ‘try not to piss him off’. For the vast quantities of people inhabiting the murky space between the religious and the irreligious; the unconvinced, the angry and the non-committal; The Shack provides enormous catharsis. Young explores with considerable success the problem that raises hands in Sunday schools across the globe: how can an all-knowing, all-powerful God allow such evil and pain in the world? For anyone interested in this question, The Shack will yield some delight. In combination with the darkly intrigue of the first four chapters and the universal readability of the text, it’s not hard to see the book’s appeal. Reading The Shack is a daring thing to do for a non-Christian; perhaps this is reason enough to read it.

However, despite its appeals, there really is very little chance that The Shack will ever experience any major success with a secular readership. The difference between The Shack and Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, is that Young weaves the veil of fiction too thinly, revealing that at its very heart The Shack is little more than a pamphlet. As soon as Mack enters the shack (try not to think of Dr. Seuss), the text seems to stream from a different pen altogether. The reader feels as if Young has wooed him to the shack using the moreish suspense of a Robert Harris novel, shut the door behind him, and only then brought out the lectern. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is such a widely-read masterpiece because it establishes such an intricate, delicate balance between literary innovation and an overtly Christianising motive. In The Shack, the abandonment of any attempt to merge the message of Christianity into the text with any intelligence or artfulness sees the text’s appeal hurl itself abruptly from the literary to the theological. The movement is so violent that it probably throws most secular readers overboard. Young is clearly a capable author, his descriptiveness and use of imagery is impressive, but as soon as the shack is entered, the adopted lack of subtlety is both patronising and annoying; it feels like being given a lollipop and an exaggerated smile of pity upon being that told you have a horrific and degenerative illness. The fact that the actual fiction is paraded as biographical by a foreword that approaches something like deception, adds wood to the fire. Any literary acumen which Young may have displayed becomes discredited, the reader feels cheated into the front aisle of a church, and the book enters into the list of those which never succeeded in working evangelism into universally acclaimed fiction. Perhaps The Shack deserves the success it has enjoyed up to this point, but the snowball can only hurtle so far, and is going to hit an abrupt and unmoving wall.


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