Zen and the Art of the Pyramid Scheme

The Shack The Shack by William P. Young

I did not like The Shack. I read it three times this week because I did not want to stop with my first impression. Each time I read it I was able to more accurately identify exactly what I did not like about the book and exactly what my objections were to the author himself. I didn’t want to leave it with just complaints about the writing or the racial stereotypes applied to god. I wanted to have more to say, and I have distinct things to say about both the author and his actual message and hope that I can write in such a way as to ensure that each of my objections are understood separately. A writer and his/her words deserve two distinct judgments and should rarely, if ever, be considered in the same thought. .

The Library of Congress and my bookstore categorize this book as “Christian Fiction” It was recommended to me by Aunt J’me, Uncle Tony, and my favorite mother-in-law in waiting, Barb (who has recommended me more great books of fiction than anyone I know). These three people, as far as I know, are not themselves Christians, and the books universal appeal – perhaps explaining its accessibility to non-Christians – is evident by its position atop the NY Times Bestseller list for 32 weeks. It is for this reason that I was most anxious to read this book: my first foray into bestselling fiction. I sincerely thank J’me ,Tony and Barb for helping with this project because this is what I was looking for: an opportunity and structure to read books I wouldn’t otherwise read. Only three books in, I realize how much better I am for it.

Now for the author and his publishers:

In my next book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addresses the ways in which people dumb down Christianity instead of seriously engaging with its demanding doctrine. “Very often,” he says, “this silly procedure is adopted by people who are not silly, but who, consciously or unconsciously, want to destroy Christianity.”

Now, obviously Paul Young does not want to consciously destroy Christianity (we’ll get to the subconsciously later.) He wrote this story for his family, after all, not to be published, in order to explain concepts behind the theology of the Trinity. A few friends read it as well and loved it and convinced him to publish it, which he did, with Windblown Media.

This, at least, is the story the publisher and author put forth, after the book’s success, in book readings, web interviews and in their site online.

. The final pages of the book offer an explanation of something called ‘The Missy Project,’ which basically says that if you were touched by this book and its story please contribute to ‘The Missy Project’ by purchasing multiple copies of this book to give to friends, relatives, strangers, bookstores, bloggers, people culturally relevant or even to a battered women’s shelter (This is not a joke, that is what it says).

Missy is the fictional daughter of the main character in the book, who was savagely beaten, raped, and killed leading to the despair of our character which leads to god inviting him to that very Shack for the weekend where god will explain to our hero, Mack, the nature of god and lift Mack out of his “Great Sadness.”

So why ‘The Missy Project?’ If I buy this book for multiple strangers, I am participating in the Missy Project? Does that mean I’m saving Missy, saving the girl whose tragic death I just experienced in the last 200 pages? Am I saving Mack, the lonely, depressed father? Am I saving a battered women, one by one, with every book I buy? Is the buying of the book now a moral obligation, or, at least, more commendable than buying a book that “merely” entertains the reader? If I don’t participate in the Missy Project, do I not care about battered women?

A book is not a story with characters and a plot or a narrative of history or whatever it is ‘about’. A book is an object, cover to cover, with artwork, text, forwards, a table of contents, dedications, an author who wrote it, someone who edited it, a division of employees) that sells it. A book is the imprint of the publisher on the spine, it is the library of congress number, it is page numbers and chapter spacing, and it is everything on and included in its covers. And ending a book with a section that claims not to be a part of the book, that supposedly speaks from outside the book only deceives readers. The page speaks from and to moral universals we share with the author and characters and acts as a back-stage moment with the de-masked “author himself” in which the ecstatic text itself comments on its own importance. And its effect is to intertwine your post-story emotional vulnerability to the book’s continuing sales.

And . . . its genius: how can I, as an aspiring writer and aspiring book salesman, ever criticize this man? The author, (and likely a team of Windblown Media employees), knows the psychology of a reader who has just read a redemption novel so well that he doesn’t end his book with inane descriptions of himself or advertisements for more books by him, but with a strongly worded suggestion on why we should buy more of this same book and spread it around. I, as a book salesman, can’t criticize the author or the book at all because I will make bonus this quarter because of sales due to this book, the emotional state of most readers upon finishing it and, most importantly, The Missy Project.

So C.S. Lewis might be wrong in this case about the men who put forth ‘simple Christianity,’ but he is still correct in his assessment that simple Christianity makes Christianity vulnerable to doubt and disdain.

I want to replace the word Christianity with belief because in my next review I want to actually give Christianity what it deserves: a conversation involving the complex and brilliant mind of C.S. Lewis. But also, I do not think the effect of this book has been to bring out the Christians but to bring out the believers.

And as a believer in several things myself (Plato’s forms, drinking beer on the roof in the summer, ghosts, that Pluto is a planet, Bob Dylan’s genius, my dog Sandy’s immortality), I strongly agree with C.S. Lewis that it is simplicity which ultimately fogs and thwarts opportunity for great belief.

The theology of The Shack is undoubtedly simple, and because of its simplicity it is, in many ways, appealing and beautiful. The idea that god gives the answers, that god herself redeems tragedy with self-exposure is consoling and beautiful. It is much better than the Old Testament god, whose exposure meant horror and strife for the many who witnessed him. Mack, our hero, gets to see god in all her simplicity and in several different forms to help explain the trinity (though I suspect that the depictions of the characters of the trinity are actually just conscious or subconscious rip-offs of the Wachowski brother’s Matrix Trilogy.) He interacts with them, they reveal truths to him, they challenge him to think more clearly. This god embodies several different races and genders and is far more inclusive than any Republican critic will admit. Most of all, for Mack, this god showed up when he needed him the most. S/he dropped him a note and invited him to get away and to face his fears and to talk it out awhile when times were at their most difficult. Not only that, but this god will make a prophet of you so that you go from guilty, depressed father to prophet, in one weekend.

The world is more complex than this, but more to the point: belief is more complex. Belief grows with the individual, and it fades: it springs forth with poignant sonnets about fathers, dies with the absurdity of war and disease. It is banished in dialectical university seminars yet is demanded in politics, it is personal and communal, democratic and despotic. It is all of these but it is never fully revealed to anyone at any time. That is not what belief or religion is. That is morality or codes of conduct, and the two should not be confused. The nature of divinity (call it the sublime, or Spirit, or the Ineffable, or the Trinity, or the Forms, or the Buddha, or our extra terrestrial alien fore-fathers) and our relationship with it, if even at all, is greater than can be answered by a weekend’s direct revelation, no matter if it’s metaphorical or prophetic. I think Wm. Paul Young’s attempts to describe belief as anything but a life long journey and struggle are not only anti-intellectual but, worst of all, dehumanizing, disrespectful of the depth, gravity, infinity of our private and public struggles with the divine. One’s relationship with the divine, or a struggle to find the divine, might be simple in the beginning, or at particular moments, but it is, in the end, a complicated and cloaked affair thats is fueled by uncertainty and always, ultimately, climaxes with death and silence.


2 responses to “Zen and the Art of the Pyramid Scheme

  1. You mention the author “appearing” at the end of the book. This reminds me Miguel de Unamuno’s “Niebla” (Mist) where Unamuno himself appears to discuss the existence of his characters in his book, acting much like God. Genius it is, but to further book sales makes it marketing, not art. Well said Adam.

  2. I love that book Wade. It also reminded me of Pale Fire where the book is a long poem followed by in depth criticism about that poem. One doesn’t know if its just that, or maybe our critic who we see at the end is critiquing his own poem but is too scared to call it his own, or if he is too scared to just give us a poem and so must defile it or if all those things are actually the author. CRAZY. Too bad The Shack wasn’t going for one of those things, too bad a self promoting author like an H. Thompson or Norman Mailer wouldn’t of thought of something similar and called it art, than that’d be really interesting.

    Also, can’t wait for the Wendell Berry book, and can’t wait for a nice Spring when it’ll be warm enough to talk about that sort of thing.

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