The Shack (by William Paul Young)

William Paul Young is a Canadian, someone I had never heard of - indeed, he was pretty much unknown until he raced to success in the USA last year with his first novel.

I'm not entirely sure why 'The Shack' is SO popular. I suppose it's a good, and certainly unusual story: Mack, devastated by family tragedy, has suffered depression for four years. Then he has a note, apparently from God, inviting him to spend a weekend with him...

The majority of the book is taken up with Mack's conversations with the three Persons of God, presented in slightly unexpected human forms. Much of what is said is positive and encouraging, as he learns about the nature of unconditional love and forgiveness.

Perhaps the theology veers towards universalism, but it IS fiction, and should be taken as such. The focus is on what it means to love, and how much God loves us each as individuals. Naturally one short novel cannot possibly contain a significant amount of serious theology.

I have to admit, I nearly gave up on this book. The first few chapters are so badly written, I wanted to get out a red pen and edit them. The descriptions are ponderous, full of clichés, repetitions and unnecessary adjectives. It's very 'American' too, obviously designed for the US public. I found that a bit annoying at first, too, but eventually got used to it.

Fortunately, the book gets a lot better once the conversations with God begin, and I did find myself getting more drawn into the story. There were one or two rather emotional moments that brought a tear to my eye, and while I didn't actually read or learn anything new theologically speaking, there were some good reminders about the importance of relationship as opposed to rules in the Christian life.

The strangest thing is that Mack, who appears to know almost nothing about the nature of God, and has apparently never heard of the doctrine of Grace, is supposed to have gone to seminary (the US equivalent of Bible college). It's hard to believe that any theological college, no matter how rigid or denominational, could have left him so ignorant. It's not a significant part of the book, just puzzling why the author would have suggested - and it's more than once - that Mack did go to seminary.

This isn't a book for everyone. Anyone who does not believe in God, and doesn't want to, would probably find the book rather dull. You should also avoid it - or at least skim the first fifty or so pages - if you hate clichés and poor writing, since those early chapters really are tedious.

Still, I'd recommend it in a low-key way to anyone caught up in rule-based religion, or who wants to know more about the nature of God. It's quite thought-provoking in places; just don't forget that it's one man's fictional interpretation, not absolute truth.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 2nd January 2009

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