Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Love Shack

This review is not a happy review. The novel gets a big thumbs down from me. So if you love this book, you're not going to want to read this post. Keep in mind, it's just my opinion. And I'm sure we've disagreed before.

Many people have been moved by this story. And so was I to some degree. While some would say it walks along the cliff's edge of sentimentality, others would say it took a flying leap off that same cliff - akin to listening to Tim McGraw sing "Don't Take the Girl." You're sobbing as you scream, "You bastard!" because of the obvious emotional manipulation. But there's also something very real here, and I don't mean to underplay it: Young, the author, needs a tragedy in order to spin his yarn. Maybe his wife dying (rather than his little girl) could have helped him better avoid his sentimentality. I don't know. He made his choice and stuck with it. That's his prerogative as the author.

The core of The Shack is fairly simple. It runs along these lines: God is especially fond of you. And s/he does not dig forms.

The Shack is at its best when its simply a story that happens to real people in real places every year - even when it skirts sentimentality. When the fantastic is introduced, the curtain is pulled back and Oz is revealed - and it just plays cheesy, as too much Christian fiction does. And The Shack is entirely about the fantastic - a man, Mack, spends a weekend with the Trinity (Della Reese plays Papa - The Almighty, the Tetragrammaton, He Who Is, etc. - a John Eldredge-y kind of dude wearing a tool belt and leather gloves plays Jesus, and Lucy Liu knocks the Holy Spirit out of the park). And here's where it gets wormy for me, if you noticed. The Shack becomes a kind of love shack - a place for Jesus et al. to be Mack's girlfriend. You can yell at God and be pissed off and, sheesh, if only God would explain himself. Jobian? Maybe, except in Job, if we remember, God doesn't explain himself. He just is and Job gets it - or is satisfied with not getting it. In the book of Proverbs we are told, "Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but he who restrains his lips does well" (Pr 10.19). This is ordinarily true. But when you write a work where half of your novel is about the actions and words of the Blessed Trinity, this becomes extraordinarily true. It's like giving a five year old an Uzi. It's an author using the Blessed Trinity as his mouthpiece, making a god that fits.

Pope Leo XIII wrote, "The Mystery of the Blessed Trinity is called by the doctors of the Church 'the substance of the New Testament,' that is to say, the greatest of all mysteries, since it is the fountain and origin of them all. In order to know and contemplate this mystery, the angels were created in heaven and men upon earth. In order to teach more fully this mystery, which was but foreshadowed in the Old Testament, God Himself came down from the angels unto men ..." This is no mean doctrine. This is the doctrine. And yet Young gets it wrong. Then he builds his theological shack from there, board by rickety board. All authority and religion and institutions and hierarchy are man-made and are sneered at by God in this book. I understand the milieu this kind of thinking rises up out of, but it is sadly mistaken. Apparently Christ did not appoint some as apostles. Apparently all that bit in the New Testament about the episcopacy is just man's garbage/baggage - or perhaps due to the hardness of man's heart. Apparently sheep do not need a shepherd, leastwise none but God.

Wisdom is personified in the novel and is far more awe-inspiring then the Godhead. But then that isn't hard here, because God is not awe-inspiring in The Shack. Lewis's genius in writing about God - Aslan as a type of Christ - is that Aslan is always other and rarely around. His words are few and far between. He growls sometimes. He is wholly wild and wholly good. Reverence. Young's God is rather teddy bearish. Barney-as-God, if you will, singing his theology.

And the book goes on to offend any faith tradition remotely liturgical by rejecting all ritual and hierarchy and ecclesiology. "Nothing is ritual," Papa (bear) repeats. But as I finished reading the book before Mass and walked into my parish and dipped my fingers in holy water and crossed myself, I thought, "No, everything is ritual." (Damn near everything.) Unfortunately some have made ritual to be a godless thing, definitionally - without God, without merit, without hope. Yet ritual is how we as humans live - from how we rise and go to bed to how we celebrate, from how we eat our food to how we make love (or, better, that we make love). It is birthdays and weddings - I Love You's and kisses. Baptisms and bedtime prayers. Ritual can become empty and lifeless. But the answer to that problem is not to toss the ritual, but to renew the heart.

For me, Young reaches his theological low point on the Sunday of Mack's tryst with God. Mack and the three persons of the Godhead sit down together and celebrate Communion: "Without any ritual, without ceremony, they savored the warm bread and shared the wine and laughed about the stranger moments of the weekend." That's what makes it for me, along with the inane chumminess, a bitter read.

Much more could be said, but I've already said too much. There are good things that I haven't talked about. But the longer I think about the book, the less I like it. I did not like it, Sam I am.

P.S.: My wife doesn't much care for The Shack either, finding the depictions of the Godhead ridiculous, interruptive and distracting. She wanted me to tell you.


Dan said...

It's great reading your writing, friend. You're gifted, and insightful. And a pleasure to read, as well...you draw the reader in, so keep writing, whenever you find the time. You have things to say that people need to hear.

Dan said...

BTW...I'm sending you an email at what I think is your current address...if you don't get it, could you send me one, with your current email? I'd like your feedback on a bit of writing I've done...pertaining to my most recent blog post. My email, in case you've lost it, is my last name with my first initial, @msu.edu

truevyne said...

It is so funny. I didn't like this book while I was reading it or after, but I had been asked to read it by our family counselor. And it didn't hit me till later, that there were important things for me to remember which helped me in my prayers with Mother Mary I told you about in the summer. Strange how a book can work like that.

ali said...

this is a great piece. you should submit it to a catholic blog or magazine.

ps. i've been very curious to hear your opinion of the notre dame scandal...since you were a catholic that voted for obama.

Scott Lyons said...

Thanks, everyone. I thought I was going to be reamed for my review - maybe those readers are just keeping quiet. : )

Ali, as to your question about Notre Dame (thanks for picking at that wound : ) ) - I do not think it's scandalous that they would be honored with the president giving their commencement speech, in spite of the fact that he supports abortion. He is our president and he deserves respect as our president. (Though even on the issue of giving this honor I vacillate because of the potential message it sends - at least to other Catholics.) But the honorary degree makes me queasy. It's simply the wrong message. Then again, I know little about the giving of honorary degrees. If it's simply a gesture, and a rather meaningless gesture at that, then I wouldn't have a problem with it. If, on the other hand, an honorary degree is supposed to mean something, then suddenly it's problematic.

Certainly we all need to honor Pres Obama, and pray for him. But it seems to me that a university is doing something different when it bestows an honor on an individual - or so I've always thought. And if that is so, Notre Dame made a mistake here, and has made mistakes in the past as well.

I don't think Fr. Jenkins should have rescinded the offer to the president once it was made and once it was accepted. I think that would have been dishonorable. But there needed to be more counsel sought before such a controversial decision was made. Now that it is this year's plan, I think Catholics at Notre Dame (and elsewhere) need to do their best to show the president what it means to be Catholic, and not what it means to be conservative Americans. They need to be exemplary hosts and be missionaries of love rather than of anger. All this talk of having separate ceremonies and running protests is, to me, not very Christian. I imagine President Obama knows the Catholic Church's stand on abortion, even though his Catholic vice president does not fully participate in the Church's teaching on this issue.

And while, overall, I generally disagree with what Notre Dame has done, it doesn't keep me awake at night. What concerns me more, honestly, is the way in which we handle others' missteps as Catholics, even (perhaps especially) one so public as Fr. Jenkins'. We need to be men and women of peace (of rest and stillness) and show Fr. Jenkins love even in the midst of our disagreement. The zealotry I see among many Catholics disheartens me (even though it's over right issues) because it dispenses with love. It's terrible how we treat one another, Ali. As if because abortion is such a grave evil, we are no longer obligated to love our "enemies" (those we disagree with), nor even, apparently, our brothers and sisters. Or our priests. Despite its gravity, even ending abortion through some means other than love, is an empty victory because we've lost our souls in the process - because we've not done it in Christ's spirit, but in another.

Personally I would like to see more quiet desert fathers in the Church and fewer Crusaders. Certainly I would like to be more that way.