The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Attack of ‘The Shack’

Written by: Carlton King, Special to CC2K

ImageWhat is The Shack? It’s slight piece of Christian fiction that some guy named Willam Paul Young self-published for about $300. Something else you should know about this book: it is incredibly popular. My friend the Internet tells me that, as of May 2010, The Shack had been Number 1 on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for SEVENTY WEEKS. Seriously?

Even so, I might not have ever heard of The Shack if someone hadn’t given it to me for Christmas. The relative who gave it to me is religious, and I’m not – maybe he’s trying to help my immortal soul. Either way, this is not the kind of book I would ever pick up and read on my own. But after it sat on my shelf for months, I gave it a spin, as a kind of anthropological expedition into the heart of Jesus fanfic.

First, let’s look at the cover. There’s a picture of a shack, which is promising, even if it only promises that there will actually be a shack in the book. The tagline – Where tragedy confronts eternity – tells me nothing. A blurb: “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” — Eugene Peterson. Who is Eugene Peterson? He’s a pastor, scholar, author, poet. He’s written over thirty books! One of them is The Bible: The Message in Contemporary Language. (Really, Eugene? Trying to pass off the Bible as a book you wrote? We’re onto you!)

Mack, the main character, realizes that his young daughter has been kidnapped by the Little Ladykiller, a serial killer of little girls. He alerts the authorities, and the manhunt begins. Here’s a sample paragraph

    With evening quickly approaching, an intense discussion began regarding the efficacy of immediate pursuit or holding off until daybreak. Regardless of their point of view, it seemed that everyone who spoke was deeply affected by the situation. Something in the heart of most human beings simply cannot abide pain inflicted on the innocent, especially children. Even broken men serving in the worst correctional facilities will often take out their own rage on those who have caused suffering to children. Even in such a world of relative morality, causing harm to a child is still considered absolutely wrong. Period!

Yeah! Not terribly subtle. I picked that passage more-or-less at random (it’s on page 59), but it’s a good example of what’s wrong with this book — besides the exclamation marks. Yes, the threat of harm to a child is abhorrent to most people. That’s why it’s a really cheap way to play on the reader’s sympathy. There’s no moral quandary here: Mack is blameless as a father — Missy is abducted while he is saving his other child from drowning, for goodness’ sake. And just in case we didn’t get the fact that having your little girl abducted by some diabolical pervert is just about the worst thing that could ever happen, the narrator goes ahead and spells it out for us. (I’m using a lot of italics to write about this book! It’s that good!)

To continue, Mack and the police follow Missy and her kidnapper to a shack in the woods, but they never find her. Months later, Mack finds himself drawn back to the spot by a mysterious note. So Mack backtracks to the shack after the attack. (Yes, that is incredibly cheap, but it’s just that kind of book.) There he meets God – yes, God. Mack encounters God personified by three characters: a black woman who goes by “Papa,” a Middle-Eastern looking Jesus and an Asian woman whose name I forget but who represents the Holy Spirit.

I’d guess that this representation of the Trinity doesn’t reflect one of your standard-issue theologies – but like I said, I’m not religious. I will say, that it takes a certain courage to have as a character an African-American woman who cooks a lot and says things like “Sho nuff.” Yes, really. And the same kind of courage to have Jesus remark on the fact that he has a big nose and is ugly because he’s Jewish. A certain ill-advised courage. (In addition, the Asian character appears to be serious and hardworking – no stereotype there!)

I eventually read the whole book, and it continued not to be very good. As I said before, it wasn’t written for me. I wasn’t ever going to like it. I am 90% confident that they will make a movie out of it, however, and Young will be famous forever. I have respect for him – he wrote the damn thing, got it out there, and probably made a million dollars. I hope he tithes!

So, my hat’s off to Mr. Young. He’s had great success with a terrible book. It’s a once in a lifetime, stroke-of-lightning kind of success. I’m sure he doesn’t care if I think it sucks. He shouldn’t, in fact. But oh man, it does.