OK. The Shack. Firstly, simple impressions;
As a work of literature: 3/5
As a work of theology: 3/5
As a pastoral tool: 5/5
At which point you may say “Huh?!?”
But that’s about where it’s at.
Young is a competent writer – but he’s not brilliant and his prose occasionally gets clunky. Part of what I reacted to was simply the American tone – but it wasn’t just that. Grisham also writes novels that are 100% American flavoured, but he does it effortlessly, and I have no trouble believing him. The American taste in The Shack drew attention to itself too frequently to be native; it was the work of someone who has observed American culture from the outside and deliberately imported those flavours into his work. It has a tinge of artificiality about it.
Also off-putting was the easy emotionalism. I lost count of how many times the narrator simply burst into tears, leaned over and kissed somebody, or told someone that he loved them. Now this is more likely to be a distinctively kiwi reaction to a distinctively American characteristic. But still, it detracted. Emotions I can cope with, and often they were presented clearly and powerfully. Just sometimes they were put in apparently as if the plot required it, rather than their arising naturally from the character. That was an (occasional) writing problem.
As for the theology, a 3-out-of-five rating from me for a fictional book is actually high praise!! Young tackles the really hard questions of theodicy and the immanent versus the economic trinity (and yes, those words really are used by theologians in a completely different way to normal people – so I’m delighted Young didn’t use them!), and the nature of death and the resurrection, and justice versus judgement and a whole lot more! He doesn’t add anything significantly new to theological debates, and he stays (for the most part) well within orthodoxy, but the simple fact that he actually gets to these issues and makes them apply to the real life issues of a person we can relate to is a fantastic achievement.
And that’s the pastoral value of this book. Young’s brilliance is that he’s given us a person we can relate to, in a story that grips us, and made the heart of Christian faith not just relevant, but essential to the plot. And he does so in a way that is consistent with what God has done: lovingly, surprisingly, personally, tangibly. Despite the average writing, and the largely conventional theology, he presents personal interaction with God in a way that gets around our defences and jaded expectations, and is more often than not deeply enjoyable. It is that imaginative experience of the enjoyment of God that does it; it awakens hope and desire in the rest of us for a similar sort of relationship with all the persons of the Trinity, now and in eternity. It can’t but strengthen us, and whilst reading it, I found myself wanting to be more like the God shown in these pages. That’s got to be a good thing.