Monday, February 08, 2010

Karl Barth on "The Shack"?

I haven't read The Shack. Or at least I didn't finish it. Mostly I just didn't like the writing, to be honest. I also knew that if I read it I'd have to blog about it, and didn't want to go there. But today in my reading I came across what I think might possibly have been Barth's reaction to it, had he been alive, and hypothetically cared to respond to it.

For those who are not familiar with the story, basically it is about a guy who has a horrible tragedy in his life and ends up in a shack alone wrestling it out with the Triune God over his questions. The Trinity goes out of its way to appear to him in some more "acceptable" (?) forms in order to enable this conversation, and the whole experience ends up being fairly redemptive, from what I gather.

I don't really want to go into all the doctrinal problems there may or may not have been with this. (You can track some of that down here.) I'm just addressing the basic premise of the quite prevalent "shack" metaphor in Christian spirituality.

Barth makes no bones about his conviction that there is no such thing as private Christianity. It does not end at "Jesus loves me". It just doesn't. I am a part of the world reconciled to God in Christ, and there is an intensely personal component to that reality, but it is not a private reality. Barth comes around to this theme again in his section on "The Christian in Affliction":

"It is not surprising that when Christians are threatened or already visited by affliction, they should be assailed by the treacherous thought, which must inevitably arise where the personal experience and assurance of salvation is regarded as the essence of Christian existence, whether it is not permissible in face of the storm of affliction, and even perhaps imperative for the sake of general and not least of individual peace, to retreat into an island of inwardness where the Christian will give offence to none and will thus be not unfavourably regarded by many, and where he may fairly certainly count upon it that he will be safe from the painful counterpressure of the external world....

It is as well for him, indeed, if his attempted evasion does not succeed. For he would be brought into mortal danger if his calculations were correct. Assuming that the Christian succeeded in retreating to that island and really found peace there in the abode of his inner life and experience, his withdrawal could only mean the renunciation of his ministry of witness and therefore of his Christian existence of which it is the principle" (IV.3.2, 616-617).

To be fair, were Barth allowed to speak to the issue directly, in his true dialectic style he'd likely point out to a nay-sayer such as me the proper place for a book like The Shack as well. Certainly, for all the glossy consumerism and implicit individualism of the stereotypical evangelical ethos, one would not want to feed the all too common notion that Christians can use the community as an avoidance strategy for the personal issues that they ought to be facing head on. It is all too easy to take the beautiful thing that is Christian communion, and the self-giving love of the gracious people who are in it, and to take advantage of it, spewing our difficulties to whoever has ears to hear and expecting others to take up our cause for us.

Christian communion is not meant as an evasion of personal responsibility. So I suppose there is a place for some shacks in the church. Sometimes maybe the thing we need is for someone to kick us into a room, lock the door, and force us to grow up and ask ourselves some hard questions for awhile. But I'm still going to go ahead and say that the individualism and privatization of which The Shack is just the tip of the iceberg are a very negative trajectory in the evangelic ethos.

Now, I know many people I respect read The Shack and benefited from it in some way. That's fine. I'm happy to hear it. I don't mean to take away from some of its benefits. And I didn't finish it, so I'm open to the possibility that the book offered its own self-corrective in this regard? I hope so. But if it does have a long term benefit, it will be because the retreat and withdrawal which it implicitly engendered were a failure.

Admittedly, I could be a bit grumpy today, due to my Colts losing the Super Bowl last night. Please don't bring that up. I don't want to talk about it. Leave me alone while I retreat into my sporting shack of self-pity.


joel said...

There you go Jon.

Anonymous said...

More great stuff from Barth (and you)!
I have a lot of thoughts running through my head regarding this stuff, but nothing I can organize coherently at this point.
If your misery's in need of company, feel free to visit my sporting shack of self-pity. I'll be in it until the Rider/Alouette rematch on July 1st.

Brett Gee 英 明 said...

I forgot to answer your question there. I heard about your blog from my father-in-law, Ron McClelland. My wife Barbara and I have been living in China the past 4 years.

Regarding The Shack...

At least you didn't listen to the audio version, as read by Roger Mueller. It was my first, and last, audio book;)

I never thought of this "retreating" being a negative thing until you (and Barth) brought it up. I'm sure that most people look at the fictional story of the encounters he had at the Shack to be somewhat new and challenging to the "God as menacing judge" picture that many people believe in or as non-believers casually toss out as unloving so, therefore, unbelievable.

I would hope that tiny shacks, nooks, crannies, sewers,etc. all across North America are at this time unoccupied by God-seeking-Shack-readers. These types of people were most certainly in line for the "6 easy steps to feeling better about yourself" type of books back in the early 2000s, though I am one to believe and hope that those types of books are on their way out.

After listening to the Shack I came away with a few things that helped me see God's love from a different angle. Fictional as it is, there are some interesting things. Interesting as it is, it is still a fictional book.

Sorry to seemingly throw a bunch of random thoughts on the page. I'm not sure if I have a point, just contributing!

I am a NY Jets fan so I am optimistic.

Jon Coutts said...

good point, i guess reading The Shack itself is a non-shack experience. Just the reader, the author, and the Aunt Jemima Trinity.

to be fair, as a work of fantasy I think it may help break through some misconceptions of God. I'm glad if it helps people to that extent.