I got into this discussion twice in the last week. Granted, once was because I started the discussion, but still.
A while ago, a friend of mine suggested I read a certain book. It was, the friend said, a favourite. The sort of book one reads over and over so that none of it is forgotten. The sort of book that changes lives. I read the book (as a side note, I do try to read most of the books people recommend to me).
I don’t like to think I’m one of those literary snobs who only reads books that are incomprehensible or that have been shortlisted for an award no one has heard of. I don’t like to think I’m the sort of person who starts a book discussion with : “The perspicacity of the characters are reminiscent of early Dickensian writings, although in a far more parochial, muted sense”. You know what I mean…the kind of high-brow academic malarky that basically makes everyone think you’re an enormous jerk. People like that usually go on to compare *something* in the book to some Greek philosopher, or to some obscure French medieval poet, and then start talking about how *important* the book is. This is usually a precursor to ripping apart everything about the book, from the opening title pages to the author’s photograph on the inside leaf. Maybe I *am* that sort of person and just don’t recognise it in myself.
I really prefer to find something wonderful about every book I read. It’s not always possible.
It wasn’t possible with this book. I agonized over what to tell my friend. In fact, I might not have ever told my friend what I thought of this book. I might have just decided to cop out with something like : “Well, it’s not something I would ever choose to read. Again. Ever.” But the truth of the matter is, the book was a total and complete waste of my time. Now, I know my friend reads my bournal, and I just want to be clear that my opinion on your most favourite book of all time in no way colours my opinion of you, so none of the vitriol and yellery that follows is directed at you. I know I probably don’t have to say that, but. Favourite books are sometimes like dear friends and I’ve discovered purely through trial and error that if I insult someone’s best friend, I often raise ire.
Although I cannot imagine what one could say about this book that could be insulting. There is nothing *rude* you can say about it that isn’t true. Except maybe that it’s pornographic. But that’s not rude. It’s also not true. It also would have made the book tolerable.
It’s important to me, when I don’t like a book, to really think about *why* I don’t like it. There was one book I read (also recommended by a friend) that I didn’t like. In the end, I figured out that the writing was extremely well done, and the book itself was amazing, but I just hated the protagonist so much it made me dislike the book. Which is ultimately a *good* thing, because it certainly highlights the writer’s skill. But that character was a total douche.
So. What didn’t I like about this book?
Well, I didn’t like *anything* about this book. Not. One. Redeeming. Factor.
The Shack, by William P. Young (Self-Published)
First of all, it’s a thinly veiled attempt to talk about Christianity without talking about Christianity. As if you could slip it in there without anybody recognising what you were up to. This pisses me off. It’s insulting. First of all, to assume that your reader isn’t going to figure out in less than five seconds what you’re up to is, frankly, a gross misunderstanding of your readers’ capacity. Second, why beat around the bush with this? Why try to be coy? Why not just come right out and say: “I’m trying very, very hard to write one of those…whattayacallits…ALL-A-GORY…thingummies” Because unless you’re CS Lewis or Tolkien (which you’re really, really not) or any number of other writes who’ve written allegorical stories, you’re not going to do it well. Do you know how difficult it is to write a competent, workable allegory for any religion’s theology? It’s REALLY HARD, without sounding like a simpering idiot or a pretentious jerk.
The basic premise is offensive. I mean, it’s even offensive to Christians.
The execution is terrible. It’s a book full of meandering, pointless prose, and dry, repetitive narrative. It’s hackneyed and trite, and there isn’t, I don’t think, a single original thought in the entire manuscript.
On to the thinly-veiled and horribly executed ‘allegory’ of the Trinity.
Jesus, of course, is a young middle-eastern fellow with a beard. He wears jeans and a plaid lumberjack shirt. And workboots. Or no boots. I don’t remember if he has stigmata, but it wouldn’t bloody surprise me. The Holy Spirit is some kind of weird, garden-tending hippie that is ‘shimmery and difficult to see’. I know a lot of hippies. Many of them are shimmery, some of them are difficult to see, and all of them tend gardens. I think the Holy Spirit might also be Asian. I don’t remember now. But his/her name is Sarayu, and I think s/he is supposed to be Asian. The ethnicity of any of the characters really oughtn’t be important, but the writer makes such a big deal of it, I suspect what he wants us all to know is that HE IS INCLUSIVE. HE IS NOT RACIST. HIS HEAVEN CAN INCLUDE THE YELLOW PEOPLES AND THE BROWN PEOPLES.
Which brings me to God. The Holy Father. Who is an African-American woman. Who calls herself Papa. And Elouisa.
I mean. ELOUISA? Really? You get a note in your mailbox after you’ve just announced to nobody that you’re giving up on your faith, and the note is signed from “Papa”, and your own father is dead, and you come to the conclusion that the note must be from God, and not from some weirdo who wanders around putting notes in people’s mailboxes? And God – I mean ELOUISA – *puts a note in your post-box*?? I guess things have really gone south since the whole burning bush thing. Modern-day equivalent would probably be a slightly charred and smoking potted plant, which just doesn’t have the same panache.
And let me go back here, a moment. I’m not saying it’s ridiculous to picture God as a black woman. I’m saying that by making it such a big deal in the novel, and by making the main character have to work so hard to get his own mind around the idea, you’re basically saying: “Look! Readers! God can be anything! EVEN a black woman!” And “Even ASIANS can be included in theology! Even though many of them are godless communists!” And “Not ALL Middle Eastern men are terrorists who want to destroy western culture and eat your babies! Some of them are Jesus!”
One of the tenets you’ll hear as a writer is “show, don’t tell”. It’s really not a difficult concept to grasp. Except for William Young (the author of the book).
Apparently, he wrote the book as a Christmas gift for his children. And then, as is the way with things like this, some of his friends made the mistake of telling him that the book was *really good* and that he should get it published. And it’s books like this that sometimes make me disparage the relative ease with which people can now publish their own work. Don’t get me wrong, self publishing has been around since the 1600s. William Blake, for God’s sake (or should I say for “Elouisa’s Sake”), was a self-publisher. I don’t even know, to be fair, whether William Young tried to shop The Shack to traditional publishers, but if he did, it would have been rejected by most. Why? Because it’s trite, it’s not well written, it’s pedantic, the narrative is plodding, unnatural, and forced, the dialogue is stilted and ridiculous, the premise is tenuous, and even the editing is shaky. There are self-publishers out there who are extremely professional, who wouldn’t want anything out under their name that isn’t perfect. William P. Young is not one of those sorts of self-publishers.
So aside from the story itself, the actual writing, the production quality, and the narrative, what’s left to criticise?
The page numbers are stupid.
Okay, I say that kind of in jest. But it was also clear to me that the people who produced this book didn’t give a fiddler’s fart about design. And design is important. But then again, the people who produced this book didn’t care that it was terribly written to begin with, so there are a few strikes against them already.
Other Christians have spoken out against this book, from ministers who say there are heresies in the story, to apologists who claim there are “theological errors” in the book. Of COURSE there are theological errors in the book; the author is not a theologian. He’s probably never even read the church fathers. He probably hasn’t even read anything but the biblical passages he’s required to read in church. I don’t doubt the man’s devotion to his faith and to his family, and that’s all lovely, but his book sucks.
I mean, sure, theologically, if you happen to be Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, the book is rather terrible on a religious front. The basic message it gives you is: “if you’re having a terrible time of things, if things are really hard, you should know that God will do everything He can to make it better, provided you pray hard enough and properly”, and “God is whatever you want Him to be”, and “God makes everything happen for a reason”. If you’re Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish, and if you’ve actually taken the time to learn what your faith teaches, you’ll know that all three of these premises are incorrect, hurtful, and are damaging to your faith and to the expression of your religion. I mean, I could go on about the horrible depiction of the Trinity as three separate persons, but that’s probably a little too heavy for a Monday morning, and you probably don’t care much about deeply theological arguments like Trinitarianism. (Incidentally, what Young offers in his book is not a Trinity. It is a Tritheism, which is very, very different…or, I suppose, you could argue that it’s Modalism, but again, Heavy. Monday. Stop.)
In short, don’t waste your time. Or your money. I’ve no idea why this book is so popular, except perhaps that fundamentalists think it’s incredibly clever and hopeful, like The Celestine Prophecy was, or The Secret (both of which were terrible books that attempted to disguise a thought pattern/belief system either in narrative or in a series of revelations…not unlike any holy book, I suppose, but the ancients did it so much better…I mean, at least the Old Testament is a good, rip-roaring fantasy adventure, right?), and that it bolsters their belief that prayer is about God helping them. Which it isn’t.
So, I’m sorry that I hated your favourite book. No, ‘hate’ is the wrong word. I despise your favourite book.
If I was going to rate this book, I wouldn’t even flip the bird once. I’d just toss the book in the recycling bin.