Friday, September 03, 2010

Back to The Shack

A lot of water and ink has gone under the bridge since the publication and ensuing phenomenon of William P. Young's The Shack. But I did finally read the whole thing last month and figured I might follow up on some past forays into the matter by giving a few of my impressions of this contemporary theological novel. It has been panned by critics, sometimes for sketchy reasons and without a lot of kindness. It has also been defended by diehard fans, also sometimes for sketchy reasons and without a lot of openness. The best review I've read of the book is here (and in fact I'm about to repeat a lot of it in my own words). I know I'm kind of late to this party and am still not sure I want to add one more voice to the chorus, but here we go.

Now, first of all: I know it did a lot of good for people. I think it says some good things about forgiveness, it opposes foundationalism quite strongly, and it gives readers a general sense of the big picture of the eternal love within Godself and its overflow to humanity--even to each person. So, the book can do some good things, especially depending on where readers are coming from. I don't want to make it sound like I don't appreciate that. Nor do I want to detract from that. But that doesn't mean readers shouldn't build on that and come to a deeper understanding of what is the good. I mean, I love love loved Mere Christianity 10 years ago, and am still deeply thankful for its influence on my life, but that shouldn't stop me from getting past its "mereness" or even recognizing some potentially faulty thinking that might have arisen from it.

Secondly, let's dispense with the idea that this is just a story. The fact is that this is first and foremost a book of theology. Every page is soaked with it. Unfortunately, the story cloaks itself in a kind of anti-theological guise, offering itself simply as one man's story of how God touched his life, but it is theology through and through. And if it denies that then it does so insidiously and dangerously. The only thing worse than bad theology is bad theology that hides the fact it is theology and then when it is theologically critiqued takes a "spiritual" posture as if the wisdom of God has just confounded the wise. If we set a sharp division between "spiritual" and "thoughtful" we are stacking the deck in one direction and setting up an ungodly false dilemma in the process. God is Spirit, and the Spirit is the Spirit of Truth.

This book makes claims about God and the world and Christianity which, whether they accomplish some good or not, have to be held up to theological scrutiny like anything else. Unless of course we don't care what God we're worshiping or what the Christian life is about, or how we are to relate to the world, that is.

In that respect, I already mentioned a few things I thought were worthy of appreciation in the book. I should add that I thought it did a good job depicting God's relationship to time, the tension between imitation of and participation with Christ, and the relation of mutual submission to the sticky topic of gender relations. Consider the following quotes in that regard:
Regarding God's presence in time, Jesus tells Mack: "When I dwell with you, I do so in the present--I live in the present. . . . If you want to do your thing, have at it. Time is on our side" (141-142, 149).

On the imitation/participation tension, Jesus says: "Seriously, my life was not meant to be an example to copy. Being my follower is not trying to 'be like Jesus,' it means for your independence to be killed. I came to give you life, real life, my life" (149, cf. 197-198).

On mutual submission and gender relations, Jesus says: "When I am in your life, submission is the most natural expression of my character and nature, and it will be the most natural expression of your new nature within relationships" (146).
Like I said, it isn't all bad. However, let me share four things I found very concerning about this book, especially given the bad habits in evangelical thinking that it has likely perpetuated by virtue of its immense popularity.

1. Rampant Individualism:

On the cover of my copy Eugene Peterson proclaims that this is our generation's Pilgrim's Progress. That is well said, but it shouldn't be a compliment! Don't get me wrong, I loved Pilgrim's Progress, but on the other end of modernity's turn to individualism we did not need another depiction of the Christian pilgrimage as one man weaving his way alone through options, struggles, foes and friends on his way to an ultimately privatized encounter with God. Mack has no reason to go to Church at the end of this book, other than if it helps his personal walk with God. This is a Christian life characterized more by consumerism than by Ephesians 5 self-giving love and mutual submission. Rule of thumb: If it sounds like Glenn Beck it is probably more capitalist than Christian.

The book is ripe with examples on this point, but suffice it to provide the following highly telling quote. Near the end Mack is marveling at his incredible good fortune to have had this personalized experience of God's redemption. He reflects: "'God, the servant,' he chuckled but then felt a welling up again as the thought made him pause. 'It is more truly God, my servant'" (236-237, emphasis mine).

That says it all right there. Earlier when Jesus is prompting Mack to express his emotions more, especially around his loved ones, he seems to be pushing him to a life of relationship, but instead of Jesus teaching him the centrality of community to God's plans of redemption he reverts back to talk of Mack's private relationship with God--and then a fish catches Jesus' attention and they are distracted by trying to catch it. Ironically, the priority of being Mack's personally most likable Jesus possible keeps Jesus from pointing Mack to community at perhaps the most teachable moment in the book. Imagine the disciples bowing at Jesus' feet and him taking them out one by one on some good old fishing expeditions instead of saying to be "fishers of men." That's the jist of this scene. This leads to the next problem.

2. A Misguiding View of Revelation:

Although I have this one second, it is probably the most glaring concern of the book. The fact is that God has revealed Himself to humanity in Jesus Christ: A Jewish man from Nazareth living in the Roman Empire some 20 centuries ago. Like it or not, that's how God has revealed Himself to humanity. He has not remained inaccessible to us, but neither has He given individually tailored epiphanies of his glory. Even if He does from time to time (and He is free to do so), it is to guide us into fellowship and further consideration of those visions as a community for the community and ultimately for the world. Regardless, I don't think we get the point that privatized epiphanies are not to be expected. Knowledge of this Jesus comes to us through the witness that has passed on in the Scriptures of the Church, and we believe this is superintended by the Holy Spirit but we also recognize that by and large the Spirit prefers to have it be a revelation we receive and act on together.

Now, I recognize that The Shack is a fantasy, so we get some creative representations of God meant to make a point. But at the end of the day, without proper qualification, the overwhelming force of it is that Mack gets through his Great Sadness by way of an encounter with God that none of the rest of us get. And we're not just talking about the fact that Mack has an epiphany, either. It is catered particularly to him and his wishes. For instance, while the rest of us get a non-descript and unattractive carpenter in the middle east, Mack gets an "instantly likable" Jesus who just so happens to be a riot to be around (84-85, 113). But Mack doesn't just get Jesus. The Spirit is there too: An alluring woman named Sarayu more than willing to distract attention from the Son of God--right when Mack is about to fall to his knees in worship no less (87)!

But the most telling thing of all is that the Father is a woman wearing Mack's mother's perfume and singing Mack's favourite songs (82). That would be one thing, harmless enough on its own perhaps, except that the explicit reason given is self-contradictory and misleading. When asked about it "Papa" explains that Mack's own bad experience with his own father meant he wouldn't be able to handle God appearing as a Father right then. However, when asked why God is normally revealed as Father it is because there would be more of an absence of good fatherhood in the world, thus we would need this particular emphasis on "fathering" (93-94).

Nevermind that the one reason contradicts the other, or that it is implied that women are somehow more spiritual or better than men (a theme repeated in the novel, cf. 192, 197), or even that it is assumed we will get our definition of God from our definition of fatherhood rather than vice versa: The really weird thing is that basically God is whoever you need God to be! God might as well be a nice dream Mack had one time. Next time we face a crisis, we might all dream up our favourite God so we can feel better. Though the novel poses as a theodicy (facing the problem of evil and suffering), this is basically what I am left with when I put down The Shack.

3. False Dilemma Between Relationship and "Religion"

I don't doubt that in many cases there seems to be an off-putting tension between vibrant spontaneity and lively emotional spirituality on one hand and dry traditionalism or elitist and overly-technical intellectualism on the other. I imagine that my theological critique might add to that (spoil sport!). But in my opinion it is a false dilemma. The spontaneous and emotional is no more "spiritual" or even "relational" than the ordered and thoughtful. They are meant to be different aspects of the spiritual and communal life of Christians that are not in Christ mutually exclusive. We can love him heart, mind, soul and strength, and therein by whole persons not divided ones. Elitist academics and seemingly stuffy ritualists need to hear that, and so do sentimentally expressive worshipers and surprise-favouring mystics. Which of these is Young's audience?

Answer that either way, and you still don't have a warrant for driving a wedge between emotion and intellect, relationship and religion, expression and theology like this book does. Repeatedly we have Mack saying that "none of his old seminary training was helping in the least" (91), we have Jesus saying that it is our order destroys relationship (123), and we have the Christian life caricatured as the "freedom to overcome any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social, or political" (181). The book does better when it says that Mack "will grow in the freedom to be inside or outside all kinds of systems," (181) but this kind of wisdom is the exception not the norm.

Like I said at the outset, there is something good about this. We rest on our idolatrous principles and self-help models and liturgies and disciplines all too often. But the false dilemma is not helpful. I mean, I went to seminary wanting a shack experience. Instead God gave me theological training, taught me the value of community, and introduced to me the wonder of ordered and thoughtful liturgy. I don't mind if someone has a different experience, but don't set it up like it is prescriptive of Christian spirituality.

4. Some Really Sloppy Writing

If you are going to write a fantasy story about meeting God, you can and should be more careful. And that doesn't mean less creative, it means more creative! For example, I counted three times where God apologized to Mack: When Mack expresses The Great Sadness and anger at God, Papa tearfully says "Mack, I'm so sorry. . . . I know what a great gulf this has put between us. I know you don't understand this yet" (92). Later, Jesus says "I am with you and I'm not lost. I'm sorry it feels that way, but hear me clearly. You are not lost" (114). Still later, the Spirit, Sarayu, interjects when Papa and Jesus are exposing Mack's short-sightedness, and says: "Mack, . . . you must forgive these two" (201).

Really? Wow. That's a whole Trinity of apologies from God to humanity! Where do we get the idea that God has something to be sorry for? I guess it is just an idiom expressing empathy, but c'mon. That's just sloppy writing. This book sets itself up as a theodicy, and then flies in the face of the book of Job.

I mean, I know this book spoke to many hearts, and that's great. But whatever love it stirred up for God in our hearts needs to also involve our minds. I do not wish to anathematize William Young, or sound like I don't find resonance with what he went through and what he shared with us from personal experience about God's love for us in this novel. But now that the dust has settled and the millions have been sold and the media has had its heyday with this phenomenon, let me express my concern over some of the evangelical trajectories depicted and perpetuated by this book, and call us to grasp together more deeply this Christian faith that we have been given to share.

Next week I will be at a conference for Theology and the Arts in St. Andrews and I will be sharing some of these thoughts, particularly as they concern the things we should be shooting for when we write or read theology in fiction. I'll welcome push-back in the Q&A there, and I welcome it here. Peace.

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