I will not cop to charges of snobbery; I find my pop-culture thrills wherever I can. I freely admit, though, that I’m selective. Any consumer of media has to be, I think. There are only so many hours in a day, and so much to fill them with. It’s not so much that I’m actively avoiding anything; it’s just that there’s so much good stuff out there that I’ve not yet experienced—Infinite Jest, Kurosawa’s Rashomon, “The Wire”—that I’ve got to be choosy with the little time I have above ground. And because I write about media from the perspective of an enthusiast, rather than a critic, I’m not obliged to watch or read and listen to anything in which I would otherwise have no interest.
In practice, that means gravitating towards a comfort zone. It’s a big zone, as these things go—I’m a pretty well-rounded guy—but in the great spectrum of mass media, it’s a relatively narrow bandwidth. Now, I can and do often enjoy myself when I venture out of that zone; but I always do so with mingled feelings of hope and dread. Part of me wonders, “Am I going to hate myself for watching this? Will I wish I could have this hour back?” And another part of me thinks, “Hey, you never know. This could be a keeper. And really, after all—how bad can it be?”
This column aims to answer that question.
Let’s start with a book you may be encountering for the first time. Maybe you follow the world of book publishing; I do, on a casual basis. Perhaps you’ve heard the buzz about a book called The Shack—or, to give it its full title, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity. Or perhaps you were puzzled when you found it under your Christmas tree. If that’s the case, I don’t blame you; the big news in publishing for you and me might be the latest series about sexy vampires—but apparently, The Shack has sold a bajillion copies and topped the New York Times bestseller list for umpteen weeks (figures estimated). The first I heard of it, though, was a couple of weeks ago, from a couple of ladies at my church, who were planning on buying multiple copies to give as holiday gifts. Because The Shack: Where the Rubber Meets the Road is totally a Maiden Aunt Book.
Everyone’s got a maiden aunt. Maybe she’s not your aunt, or even an actual relative at all; she might be married, she might even have kids of her own—but she’s your maiden aunt all the same. She’s that dear lady of a certain age, who never forgets your birthday, who always sends a gift at Christmas—and it’s always a book, something like All I Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, or Life’s Little Instruction Book, or Chicken Soup For The Soul, or maybe even The Secret. Something spiritual, anyway. Something uplifting. Because your maiden aunt loves you very much, honey, and she just wants what’s best for you—but she worries about you, poor thing. And it hurts her terribly to see you so unhappy. And this book—well, she thinks this book might change the way you look at things, dear. It’s really awfully inspiring.
And so these books—Maiden Aunt Books, or MABs—sell millions of copies, because all the well-meaning middle-aged ladies in our lives buy multiple copies to give as gifts. Occasionally, Oprah—our Designated National Maiden Aunt—will hype one of these books on her show, and that book will became a sensation. Mostly, though, MABs are a sort of underground phenomenon, existing in a parallel publishing universe just alongside our own, and receiving little notice despite huge sales.
The Shack: When Harry Met Sally, which your aunt has just foisted on you, was written by a guy named—depending on which printing of the book you’ve got—either William P. Young or Wm. Paul Young (although he usually goes by “Willie” in the promotional materials), and at least two credited co-writers. It’s different from most MABs in that it is a work of fiction. That is, it announces itself as “a novel” on the title page, then in the Foreword introduces the conceit that it’s actually an as-told-to, although the narrative proper is all third-person limited, and Willie appears therein as a character. Postmodern game-playing, or idiot-savant hackwork? Let’s defer judgment for a while.
The Shack tells the story of Mackenzie Phillips, who must learn to live, one day at a time, in a decrepit apartment with younger sister Valerie Bertinelli and divorced mom Bonnie Franklin, all while avoiding the lecherous advances of the shack’s superintendent. Well, no. Here’s an extract from page one:
His full name is Mackenzie Allen Phillips, although most people call him Allen. It’s a family tradition: the men all have the same first name but are commonly known by their middle names, presumably to avoid the ostentation of I, II and III or Junior and Senior. It works well for identifying telemarketers, too, especially the ones who call as if they were your best friend. So he and his grandfather, father, and now his oldest son all have the given name of Mackenzie, but are commonly referred to by their middle names.
Got that? Good. Now forget it, because every single character in the book calls him Mack throughout, as does the narrator. If that paragraph does nothing else, though—and it’s not even the entire paragraph; I couldn’t bear to type out the whole thing—it should serve to give you a flavor of the prose. Remember, folks, it took three people to write this.
Anyway: Mack is our Everyman protagonist, a loving family man, who suffers a massive crisis of faith when is youngest daughter is kidnapped and murdered by an unknown assailant. Police eventually recover her bloodstained dress in an isolated cabin in the Oregon wilderness, but her body is never found, and the killer is never captured. Four years after these gruesome events, Mack receives a mysterious invitation to spend a weekend at the shack where the dress was found—an invitation that seems to be from God Himself! Mack breezes off to Oregon, and finds that—OMG SPOILERZ!—it was indeed God who sent the invitation. It seems that He—or rather, They; the Almighty has chosen to incarnate in three separate human forms for this occasion, representing the Trinity—wants to have a word with Mack. Their conversation fills most of the rest of the book; Mack asks questions, God gives answers, challenges are made, important lessons are learned, lives are transformed—you know, the usual.
Now, you’ve got to be wary when a writer starts putting words in God’s mouth. Admittedly, there’s a long and honorable tradition of this kind of thing. John Milton famously claimed that he wrote Paradise Lost “justify the ways of God to men,” while somewhat closer to our own time, Stanley Elkin’s brilliant and too little-read novel The Living End gives us God and the afterlife to make some strong points about the human condition. On the other hand, you also get things like The Celestine Prophecy, or the one about the footprints on the beach.
While reading through The Shack: Where Push Comes To Shove, I kept flashing on a line I’ve seen attributed to the American philosopher Daniel Dennett (although it might’ve been Rose Kennedy who said it first): “There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.” While I agree with a lot of Young’s theological points, I simply couldn’t get past his presentation. The book oversells everything, to obnoxious effect. For instance, when Mack first encounters the incarnate Trinity, we get several pages on his utter astonishment with their manifested forms. The Holy Spirit appears as—gasp!—a woman, and an Asian woman at that! Jesus is short and dark and has a big nose—why, it’s almost as if he looks—shock! horror!—Palestinian! Egad! Amazement abounds! And God the Creator has taken the form of—can it be?—a big, nurturing black woman (not unlike Oprah, in fact)! Does it not shake you to your very foundations?!? The three Persons of God—and not a one of them is an old white guy who looks like Gandalf! OH NOES! MY REALITY TUNNELS, THEY ARE COLLAPSING!!one!
Well, not really. And maybe it’s just me, but it seems that for anyone who’s actually thought about the nature of God or the historical Jesus for more than, say, two minutes, this stuff is obvious to the point of banality; it’s the kind of realization that you come to over bong hits in your freshman dorm. It’s a perfectly useful insight, as it goes, but—like many things we come up with while stoned—it doesn’t seem quite as profound after you sober up. Certainly it’s nowhere near as radical as Young makes it out to be. He’s like a street magician tarting up a simple card trick with a lot of hand-waving, then fishing for not just applause but awe: “The deuce of clubs! Check it out! AM I BLOWING YOUR MI-I-I-IND??” Um, no.
Then again, maybe I’m an outlier. In book discussion groups and on message boards devoted to The Shack—and I warn you, there are many, both online and in real life—you’ll find hundreds of testimonials from readers who found the book a life-changing read, forever altering the way that they perceive God and His works. Me? Not so much. Of course, it probably helps that I come out of the Catholic tradition, which—for all its hierarchy and dogma—still has plenty of room for mysticism, direct revelation, and the role of the individual conscience.
The Shack: Where the Deer and the Antelope Play has, of course, also drawn its share of detractors—mostly evangelicals and Biblical literalists who complain that the book is insufficiently grounded in Scripture. If you can judge a book by the enemies it makes, then by rights I ought to like it a lot more than I did. Interestingly, though, I have not yet seen a single criticism based on what is, to me, the book’s most obvious and glaring fault: it is abominably written. Of all the world’s holy texts, the one I hold holiest is The Elements of Style; and in his tortuous grammar, bald description, and tin-eared dialogue, Young proves himself a heathen apostate.
Overall, The Shack is written with such flatness that it comes off less as a narrative than as a set of PowerPoint slides for an afternoon retreat session—appropriate, considering that the story (such as it is) follows the structure, essentially, the ultimate weekend retreat, but still a chore to slog through. The framing story of the violent death of Mack’s youngest daughter plays out in a smug and unsatisfying manner to an ending of unearned moral uplift, and the implications of Mack’s own sinful nature (for Mack himself may have a dark secret, although it’s kept ambiguous, partly through authorial intention but mostly through incompetent writing) go entirely unexplored. That makes The Shack a book that is not merely disappointing, not merely unpleasant, but downright infuriating. Avoid at all costs.
But write your aunt a thank-you letter anyway, poor thing. She does worry about you so.