Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mack at the Shack

There is a phenomenon that has swept the culture — in particular the evangelical Christian culture — in the form of a book titled "The Shack". I have read numerous reviews of the book and the majority of them are positive. Actually "positive" isn't a strong enough word. We're talking giddy, overwrought, blubbering, ecstatic praise. Here's an example from a fellow blogger...

I just finished reading “The Shack” by William P. Young. You should know that as I begin to write this post it is 12:23 AM, and I’ve just spent about he last hour and a half finishing the last several chapters in the quiet of my office in the late evening. A bit of that time was spent weeping. For a time, I wept about once a page in the early parts of chapter 17. A bit of that time was also spent on my face on the floor weeping and praying, praising God, and all I could tell him was that he was good. My face is stiff from the salt in the tears, and my eyes and cheeks ache from crying, but it is an ache that I would not trade for anything. You see I know now that the God I worship is good.

Wow. Where to begin? Now, I'd like to think that I'm not a repressed, stoic block of ice, emotionally speaking. But I'm not the kind of person who cries at a Hallmark commercial. I am often moved emotionally by books and movies but only when it's warranted. What does that mean, exactly? It means that I respond emotionally when presented with something that is artfully done. When I read "Animal Farm" I would scream at the book in response to the stupidity and cruelty of certain characters. When I read "Moby Dick" I was awe struck by the emotional depth and tragic nature of Ahab. When I read "1984" my worldview was changed by Winston Smith's futile struggle. These are books that elicit a warranted emotional response. Thousands of readers over the decades have been deeply effected by books like these.

"The Shack" is not in the same category as the books listed above. No surprise there. But to read the reviews one would think it was divinely inspired.

So a lot of people like it. Great. A lot of people like Cheez Whiz. But what is it about this book that has struck a nerve? Insert your theory here. No right or wrong answers. But here's my take. I think the book makes the gospel interactive. I think there is a traditional approach to all things Biblical that dictates "look but don't touch". It's set in stone. Now and forever, amen. This is God, here are his attributes, here's the plan of salvation. Get it. Got it. Good. Now move along.

I think what William Young does in "The Shack" — or attempts to do — rather clumsily, in my opinion — is theology. Or, more specifically, theodicy. But not the respectable theodicy that is devised in the respectable halls of learning in the respectable theological seminaries. He practices front porch theology. Or around the campfire theology. Most of us have stared with bleary eyes into the dying embers as the Deep Discussions of the Big Questions go on and on into the night.

Which isn't to say that the guy is making it up as he goes along (well, actually, he is — it is a work of fiction, after all). But I mean he isn't making up the theology part out of whole cloth. He may be playing loose and fast with various concepts but he keeps a lot of the central issues pretty closely aligned with traditional dogma. (Now, I know what some of you critics are thinking — the trinity debacle. More on that later.) The point I'm trying to make here is that Young has taken in all the traditional beliefs and done his riff on them. Like Jimmy Hendrix playing the National Anthem.

I think people are starved for this sort of thing. They want to break away from playing it by the numbers and find a way to make the old stories relateable. To make them more relevant in the here and now. They want to imagine it for themselves. Young is doing what writers — even the Biblical writers — have always done. He's looking at all the established dogma and he is reinterpreting through the lens of his personal point of view. I have no problem with that. It's called being creative. It's called being human.

I've long hypothesized that there is not one god. There are six and a half billion. By that I mean that no two people have exactly the same view of God. But this idea seems radical. Isn't organized religion all about agreement — all about singing off the same page? Maybe. Maybe not. I think people may suspect that their personal view might not exactly match their neighbor's. And if conformity is the rule of the day, that might be a dangerous thing. I think Young has given people permission to paint their own picture of God. Is he an old man with a white beard? Maybe. Is he a large, matronly African American woman? Maybe. Is he a 6 foot tall rabbit named Harvey? Why not?

And this gets down to the heart of the matter. My criticism of the book has nothing to do with the trinitarian issues that I alluded to earlier. Frankly, I don't care how Young wants to personify the trinity. Is this an example of modalism (the idea that God, who is in essence only one, simply reveals himself in different masks or modes)? Maybe. But in fact I think most of us are guilty of thinking in terms of modalism or maybe we're still polytheists at heart. Can you say God is both one and three? Sure you can. You can also say it is both day and night at the same time in the same place. But what can that possibly mean? I'll leave it to finer minds than mine to wrestle with this ancient mystery.

This whole trinity thing is a bit of a sticky wicket. You won't even find the word in the Bible. One of the verses in First John that seems to solidify the concept was apparently added by scribes who had axes to grid in later manuscripts. And it no longer appears in revised versions of the Bible.

So go ahead and dump on Young for not providing an accurate reflection of the brain twisting concept that trinitarianism is. Knock yourself out.

What bothers me about the book is not how Young portrays God but, rather, how he portrays man. What a sorry lot we are. What a weak, spineless character Mack is. He does do one heroic act which is to save his drowning children. But for the rest of the novel he is carried along, reacting and succumbing to forces beyond his control. Even in the act of saving his children he wants to give the credit away...

"Whether it was God and angels or God and adrenaline, he would never know for sure, but on only his second attempt he succeeded..."

God and angels or God and adrenaline? Is this the writer's attempt to apply
Occam's razor? Here's an idea: any chance it could be just adrenaline? Do I sneeze because angels irritate my nasal mucosa or is it safe to say I just sneeze because that's the way the human body works? Can Mack not get any credit for anything?

An especially maddening passage comes in Chapter 11 when yet another personification of God called Sophia (so are there now four members of the trinity?) forces Mack to decide which of his children should spend eternity in hell. Let that sink in for a minute — you read it right. How does he react? Does he stand up bravely and tell Sophia that he will have no part in her mind games? Does he point out the insanity of an innocent child roasting forever? Does he tell Sophia to go to hell herself? No. He crumbles. Bear in mind that when I said she was forcing him to make this decision she wasn't holding a gun to his head. She wasn't inflicting torture on him. She just repeated her demand a few times and he fell apart, groveling at her feet.

Here's my real problem with the book. Mack is an anti-hero. And I don't mean a cool anti-hero like James Dean or Tom Joad. I mean he is the opposite of a hero. There is nothing heroic about him. He is a worm. He is a victim. Nothing comes from within him. He is not driven by his own volition. He makes a decision to go to the shack and after that he is carried along on a stream. He has his strings pulled by these three condescending, new agey people who are supposed to be God and he always follows their lead like a good little boy. It's Mack's independence that the three continually tell him he's got to give up. Apparently they want him to give up his manliness as well as he is reduced to a weeping mass of jello in scene after scene.

What I find so disappointing about the book is that it is the opposite of the Hero's Tale — the theme that underlies so many of the great novels. Ayn Rand or Henry David Thoreau would tear Mack a new one. There is just no "there" there. There is nothing to aspire to — to live up to. This is the power of great fiction. You read a book like "Catcher in the Rye" you wish you could be as bold and honest as Holden Caufield. When you read "The Fountainhead" you wish you could have the same strength of your convictions as Howard Roark. Books like this set the bar high and dare you to jump over it. And you become a slightly better version of yourself by reading them.

"The Shack" just leaves you wanting to read a better book.

Thank you for reading.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really interesting post. I've been hearing a lot about "The Shack" since I'm an avid reader, but I haven't had much interest in it since I'm not religious and I therefore think the religious theme of the book would be lost on me--there are many other books out there that hold more appeal. Your analysis solidifies my choice not to read it, but was interesting all the same.

    I liked your comparison of Mack to Howard Roark and your mention of Ayn Rand. I'm an avid fan of Rand and look up to her strong, heroic characters. It's nice to find someone else who feeks the same way.