I’m usually not big on reading books that have a lot of buzz surrounding them. I tend to think of myself as an “off the beaten path” kind of guy. Although, truth be known, I get sucked into pop culture a lot more than I’d like to admit.
So when I heard all the hoopla surrounding William Paul Young’s book The Shack, I thought, “Here we go again, another shallow book on spirituality to make folks feel good about themselves without offering much substance.” So I didn’t exactly rush to put it on my “must-read” list. I mean, I wasn’t refusing to read it, but I didn’t plan to be in a big hurry to get around to it, and if I never read it at all that would probably be OK.
But sometimes God puts things in your path. So my wife picked up the book, not really having heard any of the buzz about it…she just saw it in a store, thought it looked interesting, and brought it home. Lorie’s one of those people who can just fly through just about any book, while it can sometimes take me months to wade through even the shallowest of the formula novels. As it worked out, she finished reading The Shack just as I was finishing another book, Erwin McManus’ Uprising. She told me Young’s novel was a pretty easy read, and not wanting to get into anything real deep while I was preparing for an Emmaus weekend last week, I thought I’d see if I could just breeze through it and at least be able to carry on intelligent conversations about it with my friends who had read it.
She was right. It was a very easy read. I think it only took me about 3 or 4 days to finish it, which is how long it usually takes me to get through the Sunday comics. But contrary to being a shallow formula novel, I found The Shack to contain some amazingly deep truths.
I really liked the way Young laid out his story of faith through his book. I wasn’t sure I agreed wholeheartedly with all of his theology, but nothing about it really bothered me. What I did enjoy was the way the book talked about the reality of a relationship with Jesus.
Now, this is a book that many people, Christians and seekers alike, are claiming as one of those life-changing tomes that only come around once in a generation. And I could certainly see where the themes and just the story itself could touch people in the midst of their struggles and give them some hope. But I was still curious as to what it was that was impacting people so deeply that it created such a buzz. So I started reading some online reviews and articles and watching some interviews to see what the buzz was all about.
What I found really surprised me in some ways. On the one hand, you had people claiming that, for the first time, they really understood the Trinity as a result of this book. Now, I enjoyed the way Young laid out the idea of the Trinity, but I didn’t feel like I got any great new insights into God’s mysterious three-in-one existence. And on the other hand, you had these religious leaders just slamming the book as downright heresy because it dared to portray God (the Father) as a black woman, among other things. One well-known megachurch preacher even accused Young of paganism by basically erecting “graven images” with his fictionaly portrayal of God.
What surprised me was how far both ends of the spectrum seemed to miss the point of the book, at least the way I interpreted it. First of all is the fact that fiction is art, and art is always open to interpretation. It was not intended to be a factual discourse on some great revelation Young was given into the image of God or the nature of the trinity. It was just his way of laying out, in story, a vision of how one man’s interaction with God’s triune nature might play out. So for folks to claim on one hand that they now have a deeper understanding of that nature because of a work of one man’s imagination, and on the other to say that sharing that imaginitive inspiration is heresy, just seems a little nuts to me on both extremes.
To me, the point of the book was not to give people a new understanding of the nature of the Trinity. If there was new insight to be gained, again, in my opinion, it was into the nature of surrender, obedience, forgiveness and redemption. It was about how our relationship with Christ might look if we stop judging people by our own standards and see each other through His eyes. It was about the freedom we gain when we abandon our addiction to self-determination.
So here’s my advice on The Shack. If you’ve heard it will help you understand God’s true nature in a way you never have before, I’d take that with a grain of salt. If God wants you to gain new understandings about him through the book and you’re open to his leanings, you may find that insights are there just as they are in any other work of fiction. If you’ve heard that it’s a heretical rant that misrepresents God’s true nature, I’d advise you to be open-minded and look for the truths that are there instead of getting hung up on the questions of deep theology.
In the end, if nothing else, The Shack gives us an opportunity to enter into these kinds of dialogues about what is and isn’t really important in this world.