Currently making some waves is this novel by William Young, who has done so without the aide of a major publisher nor national exposure - until it reached #1 on the NYT bestseller list. What is more, the book has been raising eyebrows for many within the church for its unique portrayal of God, tragedy and the human response. Since I do not often read fiction, I will not attempt to provide a critique of the literary sort. That would be better left to those who might know what they're talking about. So I can honestly say that I have no concept of how this writing measures up to the current (or historical field). I can say that I enjoyed the prose, and that the first four chapters were written well enough that I didn't want to have to read them (now that I have my own daughter).
But what about the thematic content? There is much within this book that will make both the nominal and the committed believer uncomfortable. Whether it is the anthropomorphic description of the Trinity or the need to forgive well beyond what we consider human nature. Whatever the case, I believe that there is something great contained in these pages if one wants to have their perceptions of God pushed and stretched.
1. The portrayal of the Trinity: when the main character, Mack, first encounters God he sees three distinct figures. What might be initially unsettling to the reader is said also to be the case with the protagonist - the Father is found as a large black woman, known as 'Papa'; Jesus a Middle Eastern man dressed as a laborer; the Spirit as a wiry Asian-looking woman gardener. I have heard some complaint over this, but it must be by people who've not actually read the book. For in the story, Mack is clearly told that 'Papa' is neither male nor female but that he comes to us in the way in which we need him most. This, I believe, is consistent with the mixed metaphors found throughout Scripture in which God is portrayed as fathering but also texts which speak in terms that can be classified as motherly action. Also, within the story this figure changes for just this very reason.
2. The devastation of depravity: I mentioned above that this book's opening chapters were difficult to read. This is because it explains Mack's dilemma - his youngest daughter is abducted during a family vacation and brutally murdered in a shack deep in the Oregon mountains. Although the story is told from Mack's perspective (thus sparing the details of the abduction), it is unnerving to think about the pain which families who find themselves in such horror are experiencing. The author does not allow this to be a simple story of loss and redemption. Rather, he exposes great depths of human loss and pain - the result of a real and present evil in the world. And, frankly, many believers need to be reminded of the real pain that torments so many. . .The Great Sadness of the human heart.
3. The power of forgiveness: Mack is invited to the shack in order to meet with God and deal with the pain in his life. There are three major areas which he must confront - his relationship to God, his relationship with his own father, his relationship with his daughter's killer. He is taken on a journey of hurt and healing in order to discover life and redemption. At so many points the main character must fight against and through issues which plague so many of us. How do we embrace God in a world of darkness and evil? Where is he to judge and to exact revenge? How is it possible to truly forgive? (And, no, there is no easy answer given in the book.)
The great value of reading a fictitious portrayal is that the standard theological categories don't hold up. Within the symbolism and characterization there is a truer fluidity than is capable within systematizing our thoughts. And so the boundaries get moved and stretched until we are moved and stretched. The conclusions reached in this book are not perfect, nor are they always found in the typical consensus of the academy - in other words, not everyone will agree with every point in the book (if that were the case, it would be boring). So I am not saying that this book is without fault, but I am not looking for those areas anyway. Instead, I want to encourage readers to approach the discussion openly so that it could actually be a discussion. And to see, along with Mack, how much our conceptions of God need to be smashed in favor of something wholly other and bigger than ourselves.