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The Shack

Best-selling book feels like fiction but resembles an unconventional Sunday school lesson

By Drew Halfnight

The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity
By William P. Young
(Windblown Media) $15.99

In William P. Young’s debut best-seller The Shack, an Oregon man returns to the site of his youngest daughter’s murder at the hands of a serial killer only to find that the backwoods shack where the killing took place has morphed into a commodious alpine chalet where God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit live.

God appears as a heavy-set black woman who utters clichés like “Sho’ nuff” and “That’s jes’ the way I is” as she tends to her scones. Jesus is a bearded Semite in shirt sleeves, and the Holy Ghost is a “small, distinctively Asian” wraith of a woman. The three engage the aggrieved dad in a series of Socratic dialogues, helping him reconcile his pent-up bitterness through Christian love.

If the reader finds the intrigue at the centre of The Shack a touch lugubrious, the prose under-inspired and the characters less than fully rounded, it’s because these elements are mere vehicles for the book’s doctrine. The Shack looks and feels like fiction but is, in fact, a prolonged and unconventional Sunday school lesson.

At one point, Jesus rails against the economy, politics and religion, which he dubs the “trinity of terrors.” Among other attempts at theological controversy: the Father and Holy Spirit were on the cross with Jesus; the Trinity does not interrelate hierarchically; God is two-thirds female; and God is a mix of African, Jewish and Asian.

The reader of The Shack will look in vain for narration that does not somehow point back to the author, whose own “great loss” is announced on the back cover. Young’s voice lurks behind every speaking part in this drama. Even his taste in music intrudes in the form of repeated references to Bruce Cockburn.

At some stage, most readers will likely feel alienated from the story — perhaps most acutely during the book’s climax, when Young, in the characters of Jesus and the grieving dad, scorns all man-made systems, looks down on church people who “love Jesus” but have “sold out to religious activity and patriotism” and suggests all people, including “Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians,” are bound to become sons and daughters of a Christian Father.

On the plus side, Young is well-intentioned and possesses an evolved understanding of his own faith. These factors alone make the pages of The Shack turnable enough.

Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
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