This is a review for the audiobook version of The Shack by William P Young, available here:
I was lent this audiobook for a long drive I was going on. My mum has been trying to get me to read it for a long time, as she and other Christians I know found reading it to be an incredibly profound experience in relation to their faith. I’ve resisted until now because it didn’t really interest me and I’m not a particularly religious person, but with 11 hours in the driver’s seat ahead and several of those hours through areas with no radio reception, it was better than nothing! All that said, be aware that my non-interest in the book may well colour my review, however fair I think I’ve been.
The first thing I would like to address is the recording itself. I can’t remember the name of the guy reading it, but it’s fair to say he’s not the best. Several times I had to switch back to music because he was making me feel sleepy and when it comes to the accents, they’re all over the place, particularly Jesus. The only one he manages with any consistency is Papa and the rest are completely hit and miss, making it difficult sometimes to know who is speaking. That said, the quality of the recording is clear and the beginning and ending of the discs are clearly marked, unlike other audiobooks I’ve listened to where there is no marker and it just skips back to the first chapter on the CD. That’s a tick in the ‘pro’ column.
The book itself is kind of odd structurally. Frankly, I’m amazed it ever got published. The first half of it reads like a crime novel and is full of pointless characters and pointless world building, although you don’t realise until later that they’re pointless. In fact the whole first chapter (possibly a prologue?), which is the narrator addressing the reader, is completely pointless. I know that sounds harsh, but the book is billed as a discussion on the nature of faith and the latter half of the book is exactly that. It’s almost like the author knew where he wanted his character to be, in a shack with “God”, and then tacked on the bit in front because he felt like he had to explain how the character got there. It’s really quite bizarre how it’s a crime novel to start with and then suddenly switches to a series of circular discussions about theology when Mack arrives at the shack. Long story short, Mack’s 6 year old daughter Missy got abducted on a family camping trip (where Mack was the responsible adult) and killed by a serial killer. All they found of her was a torn and bloodied red dress in a remote shack in the woods. That’s all you need to know, so why he spun it out into chapter after chapter with a whole supporting cast of characters that have no bearing on the story just doesn’t make any sense at all. I also didn’t really understand the author’s obsession with the slip on the ice and the head injury. It’s just pointless waffle. There were sections of it that were so repetitive I started to feel like if I heard the words “Circle of Relationship” one more time I was actually going to break something. It’s the same with the theological arguments. They just go round and round in circles, far past the point where the reader has understood what it is that the author is trying to get across.
So that aside, was listening to it a profound spiritual experience for me? No, although I CAN see how it would be to a person of faith looking to deepen and understand their relationship with God. Did I find it fascinating and thought provoking as a philosophical/theological discussion on the nature of faith? Actually yes, in a few parts.
There was some beautiful imagery and conceptual thinking. The one that really struck me is the idea that love is “the skin” of knowing. If you love someone, it doesn’t matter what you come to learn or know about them, your love can expand to fit that knowledge. If you love unconditionally, your love will always be greater for that person than the sum of knowledge you have of that person. Love is therefore the skin of the knowledge. I don’t know why that concept in particular struck me, but it really did.
I also really enjoyed the discussion on gender equality and the interpretation of the creation of Eve from the rib of Adam. The author theorises through the characters that because woman was “born” of man and then goes on to give birth to man, there can be no gender differentiation given to woman simply because they have a role as mother, because woman was initially born of man. I’m not explaining it very well, but you get the point. It was at this point that I began listening to the story with a bit more interest, because it appeared to diverge quite significantly from traditional Church teachings, so it was interesting to me academically. The Church has long treated women as second class citizens, despite revering the Virgin Mary to some level.
This divergence is fully realised during later discussions between Mack and the various aspects of God. The author appears to revert to an almost Gnostic interpretation of faith, wherein your relationship with God isn’t about institution or preaching or formulaic worship; it’s between the two of you and the love you have for each other, one of the author’s so-called “Circles of Relationship”. It reminded me of the Gospel of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi, wherein Jesus states bluntly that you will not find God in buildings of stone or wood. Instead you may split wood and God will be there. Lift a stone and you will find Him. The concept that God is within and surrounding the person and/or the earth and not associated with any Church or institution is an old one. Having studied the Gnostics and the early history of the Church during my school years, this aspect of the book really was quite fascinating to me, not least because so many of the Christians I know find this book profound and moving when it quite clearly goes against the grain of much of the teaching they have come to accept. I found my thoughts wandering on how different things may be if different gospels had made it into the final version of the bible, or if the Gnostics had survived the early persecutions and continued on to preach to this day. It struck me as somehow ironic that in trying to deepen people’s understanding of their relationship with God, the author is also directing them away from the Church. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not.
There are sections of it that just made me downright irritated because they were contradictory to earlier parts of the book and at times they were arrogant to the point of being offensive. One that got me actually snapping at the radio is kind of appropriate to the previous paragraph so I thought I’d bring it up. It’s the section where they’re discussing the ten commandments and “God” says to Mack that s/he gave us the ten commandments knowing that we’d fail at them to prove the point to us that we totally fail at being independent beings. They’re described as a “dirty mirror” simply designed to reflect our inadequacies until we let go of all rules and laws, and exist only in God’s grace. It then goes on to discuss how laws and rules are bad because they teach us judgement and responsibility and how those concepts are dead things. The way in which it was written made it sound so arrogant and it jarred me enough to remember that this is a man putting words in the mouth of his God. While I’m sure we can all agree that living in a utopian world where everyone is happy and equal and kind and free of all responsibility would be amazing, the way in which it is presented is dangerous and subversive. He mentions law and rule several times, lambasting it for simply existing for the purpose of being a way in which people are controlled. He says we should live without rules and laws, and in a perfect world by all means have at it. The point is that we don’t live in a perfect world and telling people to go out and live outside the law and outside of responsibility for their actions and behaviour is both dangerous and, in my personal opinion, stupid. Just because you choose not to recognise a law doesn’t mean that breaking it won’t get you sent to prison.
Another section that I found incredibly offensive was later on in the book. It was the meadow scene where Mack meets his dead father. This was a man who grossly abused his son, including tying him to a tree and beating him on and off for two days. Mack then killed his father by poisoning his alcohol. You can imagine that I was somewhat surprised and then angry when Mack realises his father is in the field and runs straight down and into his arms exclaiming how much he loves him and forgives him. If it had been couched in terms of Mack’s development and understanding of forgiveness through his discussions about God and faith over the previous day, this might have been a little easier to swallow. Instead he just keeps repeating that he’d wanted to tell him all these things “for so many years”. You don’t just get over abuse like that or come to love the abuser you murdered (!!) and to suggest that anyone does is both belittling and hurtful. Especially when this is a character that has not resolved anything in his life or received closure in anything. It’s inconsistent and ridiculous and it becomes clear why it’s even in the book the following day when God suddenly brings it up in discussion to prove a point.
There were some very emotional parts of the book, particularly where Mack is in the cave with Sofia and sees Missy and then later on when God leads him to find her body. These encounters were well handled and did bring a lump to my throat because they were sad and hopeful and redemptive all at once.
The discussion between Mack and Sofia in the cave is an interesting one. I was just past this point in the book when I finished my long drive and have often thought over it in the days since, while listening to the remainder of the book. The book covers the eating of the apple from the tree of knowledge in what I perceive as something of a unique way. The author refers to it as the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the basic outcome of that is that in determining what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’ mankind has simply given itself the burden of having to judge between them. The deeper aspect of this for the Christian is that railing against God for allowing or not preventing something the Christian perceives as evil is judging God by a uniquely human grasp of the cosmos, which is ridiculous. Christian or not, the lesson within that is something that ALL people should learn. You should not judge others, particularly when you don’t know all aspects of the situation.
And I guess that, in essence, is what I took away from this book. If you stripped away the religious magical realism of the events and made “God” a counsellor or something like that, I may have found it a bit more profound because it would relate to wider social and moral issues. A man in a very dark place struggling to come to terms with his emotions is something I can relate to emotionally. I can even understand a struggle with faith under those circumstances, particularly for a man struggling to blame everyone and everything rather than accept that bad things sometimes just happen and you have to learn acceptance as part of your faith. It could have been a book that reached to a much wider audience had it not been so heavy on the theology in the way that it was set up. But then maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe I’m not the target audience at all. Maybe it’s a book solely aimed at Christians struggling with their issues.
In the end, the final message of the book was one that resonated quite strongly with me and it’s one that I think we should all be mindful of, spiritual or not. Every thing that you do in this life, every single thing, has consequences that ripple out from you like a stone thrown into a pond. Every decision you make, every fleeting thought, every word and action and intention, changes the course of your life and thus changes also the course of those around you. Be mindful of your words and thoughts and how they can affect the people in your life. Sometimes doing the thing that’s hardest for you may be the right thing for the people you love. Taking the path of laziness or self interest can sometimes hurt those you love in ways you can’t even begin to imagine. Be mindful and open your eyes, ears and hearts to the ripples.
I try to finish most of my reviews by saying whether I’d recommend it to anyone or not. In this case that’s a difficult question to answer. I’d say it depends on what your goal in reading it is. If you’re a Christian or any spiritual person struggling with your faith and you want to understand how to deepen your personal relationship with God, then yes. This book might help you on that journey, although I qualify that by saying that there may be other, perhaps better, books out there about it. I don’t know because I don’t usually read this genre of book, by which I mean Christian Fiction. If you’re looking for a good piece of well-written fiction then choose something else because this book does not tick that box.