My first major magazine publication was supposed to hit newsstands two summers ago. It was a review/introduction/essay on the music of Sufjan Stevens, Denison Witmer, Damien Jurado, Dave Bazan and Rosie Thomas for the benefit of the readers of Christianity Today. I pitched the idea to an editor at the magazine who loved it and encouraged me to write it and submit it ASAP. When I did so he was psyched about it. Thought it was great and told me when it would be published. And then, a few weeks later as I anxiously awaited the galley proof he was going to send, I received a different kind of email with the simple subject, “Sorry.” My article had been cut. Apparently the other editors didn’t think enough CT readers would care about pop singers on the fringes of Christianity. As I imagine it, my editor, a young hip guy (who is no longer with the magazine) pitched the story to his old, curmudgeonly colleagues who carelessly batted it down. Anyway, that’s how I imagine it.
Fortunately, this sad story has a (somewhat) happy ending. I kept up contacts with the magazine (because of deep seated masochistic tendencies) and eventually scored an article (which has been since cut down to a “contribution”) about my brief trip to Southern Sudan last year to be published in January (knock on wood with your fingers crossed). But on a perhaps happier note, in the process of writing I became a big fan of Rosie Thomas. Of the list of artists I surveyed I was probably least familiar with her and Denison Witmer. Rosie was merely that amazing voice that backed up Damien Jurado. But I listened a lot to her album “These Friends of Mine” during that time (an amazing album that features Sufjan Stevens and Denison Witmer prominently and Bazan and Jurado less prominently). Then, I went back and got “Only with Laughter Can You Win,” another great album. Needless to say, I was psyched when, just last month she released a Christmas album, “A Very Rosie Christmas,” every bit as endearingly precious as you’d expect it to be, but with a few very serious and, dare I say, worshipful moments as well.
Well, all that being said, imagine my excitement when I learned that she would be playing two shows in the NYC area supporting her Christmas album. So excited was I that I bought tickets to both shows (though, the plan was actually to sell the second night’s tickets when I realized it’d be more convenient to go to the show the first night…but the plan fell through and we went twice in a row). So, two nights of Rosie, two nights of excellent music, a wide range of emotions and, the second night, the added treat of Rosie’s alter ego and standup routine, Sheila.
Perhaps the most powerful song both on the record and in her live show is her rendition of “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” This obviously subjective and it is based on the fact that it happens to be my favorite Christmas hymn and that “Emmanuel” is my favorite name for God (You know you grew up in an Evangelical home if…You have a favorite name for God). Emmanuel means “God With Us,” and, if I’m not mistaken first appears in the book of Isaiah. How amazing is the idea that God, creator of everything, is with us; chose to be with us. Gets me every time.
(And now for the not-so-subtle transition into book review.) How much better would the concept of “God With Us” be if, for just one weekend, he really would be physically present in all his triune glory, at a shack somewhere in the Pacific Northwest? Well, if he says things like “Guess that jes’ the way I is,” or if Jesus, in all his brawny carpenterness, whispered things in your ear with his head near yours while looking up at the stars on the dock of a lake, then no, I think I’ll stick with his spiritual presence thank you. But this is how William Paul Young chooses to render the supreme being of the universe in his novel The Shack. God the Father is a large and loveable black woman, the Holy Spirit takes on the name Sarayu which, apparently, means wind, and Jesus is (where’d your imagination go Billy) a Jewish carpenter.
If you haven’t heard of this book or are unfamiliar with the very simple premise, I’ll offer a brief summary. A man name Mack is the protagonist, though his story is actually told by his friend Willy (folksy names, ain’t they). Mack is married, a father, and an all around likable guy, if not occasionally (and inconsistently) gruff. The major drama of the novel revolves around the abduction and murder of Mack’s youngest daughter. After this tragedy we rejoin Mack a few years later to find that he is angry at God and living with The Great Sadness, which I italicize there because for some reason Young italicizes it throughout the novel. One particularly stormy day, Mack receives a letter in the mail, presumably from God (identified by the name Papa, a dead give away to Mack) inviting him to the shack in the woods where the trail of his daughter’s murder ended with a bloodied dress. After some internal struggle Mack decides to go. The rest of the novel (for the most part) takes place as Mack hangs out with God the Father/Mother, the Son and the Holy Asian Lady, err, I mean Spirit up at the Lake. Here Mack gets to ask questions which serve merely as prompts for long monologues by God (or William Young?).
Many people are aware that this book has been controversial since its publication for a number of reasons and, in all honesty, that’s why I picked it up. When it comes to things that piss off Christians I gravitate, moth to flame. And, as I mentioned here before, this book pisses me off too, but I don’t care that God is a black woman or that the Holy Spirit seems a bit dippy or even that Jesus talks about his disdain for organized religions. (I was perusing other blogs about this novel and came across this one. God as a black woman really killed this guy…count how many times he uses the word “crass”…it’s funny.) What really gets me is that Young’s God reads like a Hallmark card. But not just any Hallmark card, one of those really obnoxious numbers with beveled, pink flowers, lace around the edges, a poem that goes on too long and music that plays when you open it…and maybe it’s even scented. This book is that obnoxious.
To his (dis)credit, Young took up a really immense challenge here. He uses the person of God as three of his main characters. That means God get’s a lot of talk time and God is fluent in pop theology. The ideas espoused here (and really it is a book of ideas thinly veiled as narrative…more on that later) will not appear new to anyone who has had exposure to only a tiny bit of theology or grown up in Evangelical churches (I imagine the theology here is similar to what would result if the uneducated Pentecostal pastors of my childhood and the well educated pastors I’ve come to admire got together to write a paper in which each blindly contributed a paragraph and an outside editor got to compile it…that is, it’s really hit or miss), but, when channeled through the voice of God, Young assigns it a gravity that not even the most respected theologians have dared attribute to their ideas.
This got me thinking, how many other authors are so bold as to use God as a character. While I was reading The Shack, and since, I have asked a number of people this question and have come up with a few myself. Perhaps the most obvious is Milton’s Paradise Lost, there we see God the Father and the Son, as well as Satan, angels, devils, the whole supernatural crew. The next I thought of is Norman Mailer in The Gospel According to the Son, a novel that imagines the Gospel story from Jesus’ perspective. Others I hadn’t personally thought of is C.S. Lewis’ Aslan in the Chronic(what)cles of Narnia, though clearly that’s a bit more representational, and maybe Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress. (Can you think of any not mentioned here…I’m sure there are many, many more.)
Let us take a look at that list. There’s Milton’s epic poem which is, by definition epic. God is booming and God-like and Milton doesn’t take too many liberties with the Biblical narrative. Then there is Mailer, admittedly not the kind of guy you really want taking on the character of Jesus but, much to many people’s surprise, he stayed right in line with the Gospels and, perhaps for that reason, the book received mixed reviews mostly all wishing he had taken the opportunity to do something more controversial (isn’t that, after all, one of the marks of modernism…shock them for the sake of shock…another rant, another essay). C.S. Lewis gives us as Aslan, the lion who says smart things and who is safe to hug (most of the time) but being that Narnia is a fantasy land, it’s kind of different. Pilgrim’s Progress is often referred to as one of the most significant works of English literature, so we’ll just let that say it all.
The point is, as my friend and frequent commenter Mike put it, “you’ve got to be pretty bold to write God as a character in a novel.” That’s precisely the point I’m trying to make with all of this. And further, I can say with great confidence that William Young, author of no other book, does not have what it takes to attempt this, even if Michael W. Smith thinks that “The Shack is the most absorbing work of fiction I’ve read in many years.” Or, that Wynona Judd loved it, or, even, that Eugene Peterson went as far as to say that it “has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgirm’s Progress did for his.” No. It doesn’t.
One last rant before I move on. Having received a formal education in writing fiction and having remembered some of it, one thing I know a bit about is the way a story is meant to arch. Ok, you don’t have to have a Masters in English to have learned this; you probably got it in high school. You know that drawing that your teacher would do that looked something like a stick figure mountain with one peak.
That is how a story is supposed to work. It begins someplace, builds to a dramatic moment, often called the climax, and then comes back down for a bit and then ends. Young never got this lesson, or, if he did, he didn’t heed it. Read it, you’ll see.
Alright, that’s enough of that. The fact is as far as I can tell there’s nothing sacreligious about this book. It is no more controversial as far as I’m concerned to personify God in the body of a black woman than it is to go with the more traditional rendering of white guy with flowing beard. It’s just not good writing and when bad writing is passed off as the word(s) of God, it’s annoying, that’s all.
Fortunately, for me (and for you if you still care to read these things) I’ve moved on. I’m back on track with my reading for an upcoming NEMLA conference at which I’m presenting a paper on contemporary African writers. Currently I’m into Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. Adichie is a Nigerian writer who’s writing is (especially after you-know-who) absolutely beautiful. Her descriptions jump off the page (to use a description that doesn’t jump off the page due to overuse) and her prose is just stunning. I look forward to writing more about this (already) wonderful novel in weeks to come.
As always, thanks for reading.