Wednesday, January 7, 2009
I don't do book reviews often. Rarely, actually. And never a fiction book. Not that I don't love reading other's opinions of a book, but I hate to draw judgments on writing that is so completely subjective. What I may dislike, obviously someone liked and saw not only redeeming value in but also "loved it," "connected with it," or whatever it is that agents and publishers need to take on an author's work.
But this isn't really a book review. It's about a book I read.
I'd heard of The Shack for months. Every time I turned around, it seemed, someone was asking if I'd read it. During an email exchange, one of my fantastic critique partners offered to mail me her copy. It arrived the day Jean died. When I pulled it out of the envelope, the German airmail postage stamped days before when she was alive and well, I knew it would be a different book than had I read it two weeks before.
And it was.
I think this is what I learned about books this week: a book so often is not just what the author writes, but what you as a reader bring to it. Passages that would have meant nothing to me weeks ago were heavy with meaning, passages I read over and over, sometimes trying to figure out in my head, and sometimes causing me to say "Yes! That's exactly what I think too!"
The Shack, if you haven't heard about it, is a book about a man whose daughter is brutally murdered. Weighed by depression, he receives an invitation in the mail from God to meet him at the very shack where his daughter was killed. The vast majority of this book is this meeting of the main character and God, and working through the questions all people face at some point in life: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? How can we trust - even love - a God who allows the innocent to suffer?
This book is sold as fiction. It is fiction. But much of it actually reads as theology. It took me much longer to read through this 248 page book than most fiction books, mainly because of the stretches of theological conversations that range from the way the trinity works to forgiveness. There is an entire Bible packed into this book, in a very non-conventional way. And if you want to get something out of it, or even "get it," you need to take your time wading through it. Take time to ponder, to dwell in the ideas and siphon them through your own biases and experiences.
It may not be the book for someone not interested in spiritual issues, but for anyone who has wrestled with faith, with God, with the idea of church and religion as an institution, this book may make you take a new look at it all. And spark controversy.
When God shows up as a large black lady and says, "I'm not too fond of religion," you know there will be outrage among some readers. But it's this very kind of twist on the world view of Christianity that makes this book alive and something unique. And all without really leaving the truth of the Bible, even if it does eschew tradition.
But like I said, this book is as much about what you bring to it as what it brings to you. In the face of recent tragedy, I found myself dwelling on certain parts of conversations more than others, like this one:
"Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn't mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don't ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn't depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors."
Two weeks ago, would I have stopped over that line and reread it? Would I have marked the page, come back to it days later?
Maybe if I read the book again, in a few months, it will mean something else to me, will flow with the something elses that are going on in my life. But I will have to keep wondering, because now it's time to pass it on to the next writer in my critique group. That was the deal.