There’s a bookshop in Belfast that was renowned for the interesting and sometimes bizarre discoveries one could make on its shelves, the floors, the stairs, in fact any horizontal space where books could be piled. It was a deathtrap. I haven’t been in it for many years so it may have changed (it may even be gone!).
The one consistent part of it was the narrow stairs whose walls were festooned with Christian ‘art’. Lots of framed posters of broad and narrow ways, puppies and bible verses, or, for the guys, cars and bible verses. You know the type. This is art as evangelism. Art whose only value lay in its educative purpose. Art as illustration. I didn’t, and still don’t, like that kind of thing.
So. ‘The Shack‘ by William P Young.
Well, Young has a fascinating personal story, as has this book, which was not written for publication but for his six children and which has gone on to be a self publishing phenomenon. There’s rumours of a movie, there are websites and blogs all over the place for and against. People are buying multiple copies for friends and testifying to a change of life – just read the recommendations on Amazon. Eugene Peterson has even compared it to a ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’ (just what was he thinking??). I read it some time ago and have resisted writing about it for a while until some other friends had read it and we could talk. The question for me is whether or the fiction vehicle is strong enough to carry the theological content? Does it work as a novel?
Yes there is some interesting experimental theology and yes, some delightful images of encounter with the God character, and if you google you’ll find all sorts of reviews, most of which seem determined to pick apart the theology. And I would guess that Young is content enough with that, it is after all a ‘theological novel’. But it is not a work of art. It just doesn’t work as a novel.
As I read it, I couldn’t help but recall the stairway in that shop in Belfast – ‘art’ pieces whose value was judged by its evangelistic intent. There was no subtlety, no need for interpretation or reflection, everything is surface.
And I have to say that by the end I felt manipulated and I resented that. Young is not a great writer. The characters were one-dimensional and under-developed, and the quick and easy resolution of the deep pain of the main character was just too simplistic.
But to charge the man with heresy, or of being part of some emergent church conspiracy, or of channeling Brian McLaren is absurd and unfair. But as a conversation starter the book is very good.
It is just not a very good novel.
For seriously good writing with theological intent read Ron Hansen who is one of the America’s great novelists who approaches his craft from a faith perspective. Check out Atticus, a fictionalised reflection on the prodigal son, or Mariette in Ecstasy, a compelling novel about human sexuality and religious mysticism, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for sin and redemption and consequences.
And for an education in the relationship between faith and fiction, read ‘A Stay Against Confusion‘.
Hansen’s faith infuses his writing but not in an intrusive way. It lures you in through the characterisation, the development of plot and the writing itself enthralls.