Several years ago, I read The Shack by William P. Young. Let me tell you. This book challenged every mental picture I had of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. As a Christian that is HUGE! We are shown various images in movies of God being a bright, blinding light, and Jesus being a multitude of complexions from fair to ebony. And don’t get me started about the Holy Spirit. It is rare that the Holy Spirit is mentioned in movies, let alone have a visual.
What I enjoyed about The Shack is the vivid descriptions of the characters and setting, relatable plot that stemmed from a life-changing event (i.e. child kidnapped and murdered), and a moral or lesson of the story that challenges the main character (Mack) and readers to consider/reconsider their faith. I’m a fan of books that are thought-provoking and spark feeling. This book certainly achieved that.
For instance, the Holy Spirit was described as a woman of Asian decent who is sparkly and wind-like. Even Young’s name choice,”Sarayu” (meaning wind), correlates. Up until this point, I envisioned the Holy Spirit almost like a faint white haze or mist. Not sure where that came from, but it was stuck in my head.
Jesus is portrayed in the story as an average man who likes to make things of wood and enjoy nature. His physical appearance is explained as Middle-Eastern and slim. My mind’s eye pictured a bronze-skinned man resembling a hippie dressed in jeans and a coordinating denim shirt. I laugh at myself for that, but looking at it more closely, it makes sense on why Young would paint Him like this. Jesus came in human form to teach mankind over 2000+ years ago. We’ve been conditioned to visualize Him in long robes and sandals. But modernizing Him, makes the story more realistic and connects our 21st century selves to someone we’ll never see in flesh form again.
And what about God as an African-American woman named Elouisa? The naming was interesting considering the German origins and meaning of “famous warrior”. But I took it as Young using a play on words since Elohim is the Hebrew name for God. I’m assuming he wanted something close to use for the character.
Throughout the story, Elouisa has what many of us in the African-American community call a “Big Mama” persona. What this means is that she is nurturing and loving, often using colorful examples and phrases to teach lessons (sometimes with food). If you’ve seen movies like Soul Food you know what I’m talking about. Using this character form makes God less scary or like the fire and brimstone punisher some may believe Him to be. It makes God more approachable like a father with his child – still loving and in authority, but not intimidating.
So what can a writer learn from all of this? Well, my take away is to find a unique hook. Or better yet, look at the story from different angles and think outside of the box to grab the reader. Use things that may be common, but put an interesting spin on it.
Young could have written about Mack’s experience using the Trinity in ways we’re familiar. But by using a fresh and different perspective, it opened a whole new world to the reader, challenging what has been taught or understood, and prompting re-evaluation on what is formally known.
In addition, the word choices to describe the setting, characters, thoughts, feelings, and emotions were phenomenal. It didn’t alienate the reader by being too scholarly or religious, or too simple that the story’s boring. The “Great Sadness” is an excellent example. Young illustrated the plight of Mack and used this to join with the reader.
As a Christian, life has not been perfect and neither have I. There have been situations where I have questioned God’s choices, and moments when events took me into the worse depressions. While I may not have experienced a tragedy like Mack in losing his daughter, I could empathize and sympathize with the turmoil and anger he felt based on my own misfortunes. Young may have drawn upon the notion that everyone goes through something major in life that takes them to a low point. And that was used to create the bond between story and reader.
Overall, if you are looking for an example of a book that has good structure, storyline, and a think outside-the-box feel, check out The Shack. You won’t be sorry you did.