Book Review: The Shack

Because The Shack (Wm. Paul Young, 2007) has been such a popular and influential novel the past couple of years, I’d decided to read it while procrastinating from writing an Aristotle essay (my preferred form of multi-tasking). It is more interesting as a thinly disguised theological treatise than as a novel. Examined as a novel, the plot is weak, the characters bland, and nearly every scene for two thirds of the book is allegory followed by exposition. Of the four major characters, three are theological constructs who act and speak like, well, theological constructs, and one is a human who acts and speaks like another hypothetical construct, which is a pity because Young’s main concerns are with relationship and person-hood, which becomes strained when Mack, the only character with the potential to be an interesting human person, is so flat. On the other hand, Young has a strong descriptive ability and his style is comfortably fluent.

It seems to be the case that in writing a story about (rather than simply involving) the nature of the Trinity and how that effects the nature of Creation and man in it, one runs the risk of either altogether confusing the reader and failing to make your point (to the extent that you have one), or relying too much on exposition and boring him. The Shack errs on the second count; it is perfectly comprehensible, but at the cost of assuming Mack and us to be kind of dense. It can of course be argued that Mack has gone through severe emotional trauma and has a right to be a bit dense. Yes, he does: it just doesn’t do much for him being a character I can be very interested in. The opposite fault is the sort of writer who, like Charles Williams, hopes that we’re well enough informed in theology and philosophy and a number of other things as well, and clever enough, to keep up with him. As a result his novels are terribly suggestive, but also very perplexing. Because of the sacrifice of mystery and movement for clarity, as a novel The Shack is decent but nothing special.

It is, however, more theological than narrative in nature, and is more interesting when read as such. In that respect I’m having a bit of a difficulty determining its merit, because nothing in it is especially new or unusual to my sensibilities – simply a collection of decent Trinitarian relational theology, tolerable theodicy, and a dreary lack of theology concerning the Church (is that ecclesiastical theology?) set in some fairly striking allegorical scenes. However, I am apparently the exception in that, and I don’t want to discount the possibility that for someone who thinks primarily in terms of a judicial understanding of God’s relations to humanity it could be quite helpful in suggesting other possibilities.

If I were giving out stars The Shack would probably be 3/5 – three because it’s well written and thought provoking, and only three because it fails (perhaps it never tries) to transcend a narrowly prescribed readership of people who misunderstand Christian theology, but are interested enough in it to bear with shoddy plot and character development in its’ favor.

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