Thursday, April 22, 2010

THE SHACK by William P. Young

The Shack is a 2007 novel by William P. Young. Here, Mack, a man whose young daughter has been abducted and murdered, spends a weekend with God – the three persons of the Trinity in human form.

Young’s depiction of the Trinity – the Father as a black woman, Jesus as a Middle-Eastern carpenter (basically an Americanized version of the biblical Jesus), and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman – can help people to, at the very least, expand the box they keep their understanding of God in. Young also demonstrates an impressive understanding of parenting – what makes it both good and bad. And Young has done a fine job of articulating how God loves us and how he wants relationship with us. This last point, I think, is what has made The Shack so popular.

Young is fine on a lot of theological topics, but of concern is the number of lurking heresies in The Shack. Attempts have been made to explain away these errors under the umbrella of metaphor, but these are exactly the sorts of points that literary metaphor is used to drive home in a literal way – after all, that’s the point of allegory.

On page 110, Young’s Jesus says that he is the “best way” to God, which stands in sharp contrast to John 14:6. And on page 120, God says that he/she doesn’t punish sin, which stands in sharp contrast to numerous large chunks of the Bible. On the whole, Young presents the reader with a gospel message lacking key ingredients: sin and judgment. Young also downplays the value of scripture, and hints in the direction of universal salvation. Others have blasted The Shack’s theology in far greater depth, but those are the most important issues.

What no one seems to be talking about is how poorly written The Shack is. The first third of the book is bogged down in rambling narrative that focuses on all things boring and mundane. How Mack feels and why he feels that way are always clearly explained in the tiniest detail, to make sure you get it. It’s all telling and no showing: Young never brings the reader in, never gives the reader anything to do, never allows (or requires) the reader to make even a small investment in the story. And this is how Young manages to take one of the most horrific events conceivable – the murder of a child – and make it pedestrian.

Young’s writing couldn’t be more heavy-handed. Most obviously, there’s The Great Sadness, which is always capitalized and always in italics, to make sure you get it. Rather than give us any kind of meaningful character development, Young starts us off with a seven page bio of the main character (which, incidentally, is not a particularly accurate description of the character we see in the novel proper) from an otherwise uninvolved narrator (although he does reappear at the end with a two-page conclusion, to make sure you get it).

The dialogue here is atrociously stilted and corny, and often expository for its own sake. Many of Mack’s conversations with God are little more than trite question-and-answer sessions that dance away from the tough issues.

There are flashes of good writing here, mostly in chapter 15, but it’s nowhere near enough to offset all the book’s cringe-inducing moments. The Shack isn’t well put together, either – it’s full of typos and suffers from a severe comma shortage.

I came to The Shack expecting a theological trainwreck, and while I was watching that slightly underwhelming pileup, I was completely blindsided by the much larger flaming disaster that is Young’s writing. In other words, I hated it for (mostly) all the wrong reasons.

Eugene Peterson’s comparison (on the cover) of The Shack to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is laughable. At the end of the day, The Shack is a sincere and personal but poorly-written and theologically troublesome book.



The Shack: Unauthorized Theological Critique is evangelical blogger Tim Challies’ 18-page 2008 review of and response to William P. Young’s 2007 novel The Shack.

Challies says in several places, “We will look at the book with a charitable but critical eye.” That’s a lie; he goes right to work telling us how “subversive” The Shack is. At its core, this book is a hatchet job.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Challies is wrong (at least, not about everything). He’s right that The Shack is “clearly intended to communicate theological truths” (p. 4), and that attempts to explain away The Shack’s theological errors on the basis that the story is a metaphor are flawed. He’s right that Young downplays the value of the Bible. He’s right that Young gives his readers an incomplete gospel message, one without much in the way of sin or justice.

Unfortunately, that’s about all that Challies is right about. He’s off on a host of other issues, ranging in importance from the major to the nitpicky.

Challies criticizes Young for portraying God in female and motherly ways. He says, “Nowhere in the Bible would we find any suggestions that God expects us to relate to him in anything but masculine attributes” (p. 15). Evidently, Challies’ Bible doesn’t have Isaiah 49:15, 66:13 or Luke 13:34 (or any number of other verses) in it.

Citing the Second Commandment – make no graven image – Challies asserts that Young has sinned by portraying the Father and the Holy Spirit in human form (but not Jesus). Then again, Challies says that “make no graven image” is the Third Commandment, which doesn’t do a lot for his credibility.

Challies also gets upset that Mack, The Shack’s main character, swears and yells around the God characters – he calls it “one of the most disturbing aspects of The Shack” (p. 15). This tells us that yes, Challies is uptight, but also that he doesn’t understand things like fiction, metaphor, or allegory.

I could, unnecessarily, go on. In these few pages, we explore a number of things that are wrong in The Shack, but we also see a lot about Challies’ own limited view of God.

From the last page of The Shack: Unauthorized Theological Critique: “All this is not to say there is nothing of value in the book. However, it is undeniable to the reader who will look to the Bible, that there is a great deal of error within The Shack. There is too much error.”

Said the pot to the kettle.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Portraits of the Word: Great Verses of the Bible in Expressive Calligraphy is a 2002 book by calligrapher Timothy R. Botts. This is more of the same from Botts - seventy-five passages from the Bible illustrated with Botts' phenomenal expressive calligraphy. More of the same is exactly what we want from Botts - the way he uses fonts, colors, shapes, angles and arrangements to breathe life into the texts never ceases to be amazing.

These are Botts' seventy-five favorite pieces, and he accompanies them with his thoughts on the creative process as well as brief prayers that respond to the verses. This book is arranged thematically. In Botts' own words, from the introduction: "The sequence of the art begins with who God is and his revelation through Jesus Christ. Then it progresses from our response to our privileges and to our responsibilities."

My one gripe with this book is that it's too small - about eight inches high by seven inches across - it's simply not big enough to do his work justice.

Botts' calligraphy is always fantastic, and Portraits of the Word contains some of his best work.


DOORPOSTS by Timothy R. Botts

Doorposts is a 1986 book by calligrapher Timothy R. Botts. It contains sixty passages taken from The Living Bible and rendered in expressive calligraphy. These verses are presented here in the order in which they appear in the Bible, and each has a few comments on the design from Botts on the facing page.

Botts' calligraphy is nothing short of magnificent. He uses color, font, shape, angle, size and arrangement to bring these verses with life. This creativity and the amount of thought he puts into each work is what makes this art spectacular. And what is perhaps most impressive is that he can create so many different pieces without significant repetition, and yet every piece is still distinctly Botts.

I never get tired of Botts' work, and I don't have enough good things to say about it. Whether you're already familiar with his art or not, Doorposts is a great collection.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a 1970 novella by Richard Bach with photographs by Russell Munson. It’s about a seagull who shuns the social conventions of his flock to pursue his love of flying.

The book is divided into three parts, beginning with a predictable follow-your-dreams story and then moving into an Eastern-style cycle of self-perfection and reincarnation, and then there’s some business about love and forgiveness tossed in at the end.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a short book, but even within these confines Bach does little to give the book much ambition or depth. The seagull flies this maneuver, the seagull flies that maneuver, the seagull spouts some platitude about transcending reality. There’s no sense of setting, no real insight – just flying birds and superficial philosophy. Bach’s writing is otherwise unimpressive. There’s at least one continuity issue, and it does feel rather absurd that these birds have such amazingly accurate internal speedometers (Bach rather belabors that point).

Munson’s photographs of seagulls and beachscapes help to set the mood, but the low quality in which they are reproduced in every version of the book I’ve ever seen just doesn’t do them justice.  Nevertheless, they do imbue the book with a certain charm that it badly needs.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull basically comes down to banal fable and trite spirituality. There are a innumerable better “follow your dreams” stories out there, most of which don’t get into this unlocking-the-unlimited-freedom-inside-you nonsense.


Monday, April 12, 2010


The Heart of a Father: How You Can Become a Dad of Destiny is a 1996 book on fathering by Ken Canfield, founder of the National Center for Fathering. Based on the research that organization has collected, Canfield offers a three-part “blueprint” for good fathering.

First, Canfield says, every father should resolve his relationship with his own father so that he can effectively build relationships with his children. Second, a father must be involved, consistent, aware, and nurturing. Third, Canfield offers perspective on each stage of fathering, from having an infant to becoming a grandparent.

For what Canfield has to say, this is a long book (288 pages). Part of the problem is that Canfield loves to belabor his points. He does a ton of recapping, whether from chapter to chapter or paragraph to paragraph. It doesn’t help that the content within a number of the early chapters doesn’t feel well-organized.

When it comes to problem-solving, Canfield is always frustratingly general, as he tends to drop out of his anecdotes at key moments. So we never get to hear how this fathering expert disciplined his children in any specific situations, and he often presents challenging problems without offering solutions of any kind.  

Canfield is more specific with the long-term approach a father should take. Yet his list of mandates feels inhumanly rigid – no one could possibly do all of it and still keep any ambitions of his own. It gives the book a feel of, “Kids are great, but you’ve got to abandon all your hopes and dreams to raise them right.” He also advocates effusively praising your children on a level that feels disingenuous.

Canfield is right on the basics: listen to your children, love them unconditionally, be involved in their lives, build them up, and so forth. No one’s disputing that. But this book isn’t the best way to get these points across.