The Shack, by William Paul Young, had a lot of buzz a little more than five years ago, but I never got around to reading it for myself. When you’re in graduate school, you tend to focus more on surviving the books you’re required to read rather than to thrive on books you’d like to read. Plus, the book’s subject was a guy going to a shack in the country and having an encounter with God. As religious as I am, I didn’t find the premise appealing.
But my dad and his friend, a pastor, had read it and discussed it and both raved about the questions it asks and the paradigms it challenged. The opportunity to finally grab a copy and read it came when a pastor’s wife in my book club suggested the title as her pick. With a mix of chagrin and curiosity, I downloaded an e-book version and read away.
Two things jumped out at me immediately. The religious/spiritual side of me was engaged with the questions and philosophy the author was attempting to engage . The English teacher/literary side of me was frustrated with blatant foreshadowing, pathos driven character development, and poor editing. So what to make of it? I decided that I had to tackle the book from two different angles.
On the philosophical side, I was challenged to ask myself, what is my image of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit? And what is their relationship to each other and to me? Growing up in a faith-based community, being educated in Christian elementary, secondary, collegiate, and graduate schools, I was somewhat shocked to realize I had never taken the time to ask myself these questions. Embarrassingly, I can quote Bible scriptures to defend the tenets of my faith, but until I read this book, I couldn’t have described what God looks like to me. Young describes God as a Black woman, Jesus as a Middle-Eastern man, and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman who shimmers like heat waves (I’m still working to actually picture that description in my head). I understand Young’s decision to describe the Trinity as such, but I’ve come to believe that the Godhead look different to each individual. Just as we all have different relationships with each of the Trinity, so do they represent different things to each individual and, thus, look different to each one of us.
For me, I see God as either a man or woman. It honestly could go either way. But I see God, for some reason, as a man/woman in a business suit, who is kind and easy to be around, but who is also cool, hard to predict, and gives off an air of authority. Jesus is Semitic in appearance, and is more avuncular in nature. He’s the easiest for me to describe maybe because he actually became human and can be described in human terms. The Holy Spirit is to me a breeze or a naiad/dryad sort of being. You know he/she is there, but you feel their presence more than you actually see it.
I struggle to understand the concept of the Trinity. Mostly because there’s no human equivalent to equate it to. But I’ve come to understand that each one of the Godhead is a manifestation of “God” and therefore one is no more powerful than the other, but serve different purposes. It’s this concept, and the aforementioned descriptions, that have redeemed this book from being a slog. I’m a better Christian because of reading it. I now feel like I have a more tenable relationship with each of the Trinity.
I won’t hate on the writing too much other than to say that I think the author over-sentimentalized a lot of the characters’ actions. It felt like watching a Lifetime special, but with male actors and somehow trying to reach a male audience. It wasn’t because the men were showing emotions. It was the amount of random hugs, random crying, knee patting, and shoulder rubbing. I’m not against man-man touching, but this seemed over the top. Because this hasn’t been my experience with the men that I know, family and friends, either it’s because Young is from Oregon (they are different there), or because this is his imagination gone wild.
Ultimately, I give the book an A+ for concept. It’s not an easy task to have a book about God become a bestseller and to get people to think about their relationships with God. But the poor writing earns a C-. I’ve had students that gave away their plot in the first paragraph just as he did in the first chapter. The saving grace is that the book is an easy read. I encourage you to give it a chance and ask yourself, What does God look like?