Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Shack Revisited*

People have been asking me what I thought of the new book by William P. Young called The Shack. They say: “You gotta read it; it’s a great book.” And so I ask them: “Okay, what’s so great about it?” What I get is theology – they like the view of God the book espouses. Of course, that means I’m in. So I read it. It’s a good read, really. Real page-turner. Young manifests a rare gift of language and imagery. Example: The central character, Mack, receives a note, presumably from God, which he then proceeds to open. Young describes this rather pedestrian task with language that is anything but – Turning his back to the breath-snatching wind, he finally coaxed the single small rectangle of unfolded paper out of its nest. Now, that’s nice.

Theologically, the book is a bit schizophrenic, perhaps intentionally so. When the tortured protagonist, Mack, is speaking, the theology espoused is a sort of new age, postmodern, existential, anti-intellectual, “roll-your-own” spirituality that gives priority to feeling over thinking, experience over tradition, immanence over transcendence, and the personal (individual) over the corporate and cosmic. One passage in the book is telling:

Try as he might, Mack could not escape the desperate possibility that the note just might be from God after all, even if the thought of God passing notes did not fit well with his theological training. In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?

But when “God” is talking (as “Papa,” “Jesus,” or “Sarayu” – Young’s take on the Trinity) the theology expressed is more fully orbed, satisfying, and, occasionally, even profound. For example, when Mack asks Papa who’s in charge in the Trinity, Papa responds:

Humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that people could work or live together without someone being in charge. …Creation has been taken down a very different path than we desired. In your world the value of the individual is constantly weighed against the survival of the system, whether political, economic, social, or religious – any system actually. First one person, and then a few, and finally even many are easily sacrificed for the good and ongoing existence of that system. In one form or another this lies behind every struggle for power, every prejudice, every war, and every abuse of relationship. The ‘will to power and independence’ has become so ubiquitous that it is now considered normal.

Actually, that’s not a bad interpretation of Jesus’ statement about the “will to power” in Mark 10:42-45 in which he suggests that power is pagan and cannot be redeemed; only aborted.

Of course, the theological issue at stake in The Shack is theodicy – the problem of evil; literally, the "judgment of God" as in God on trial. (See the collection of essays by C. S. Lewis titled God in the Dock.) Mack’s daughter, Missy, was kidnapped and murdered at The Shack and he returns to the scene of the crime three and a half years later to make sense of it all…and peace with God. C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, expressed the essence of the issue of theodicy when he says, “There are three statements, only two of which can be held together – God is all-powerful; God is good; Bad things happen.” The Shack resolves the “problem” (just as Rabbi Kushner does, When Bad Things Happen to Good People) with an appeal to impotence and immanence – God may be “all good,” but he is not “all powerful,” God’s power being limited by human choice and freedom. That resolution to the problem of evil works (in the sense of being satisfying) if the pain/evil we’re talking about is personal pain/evil. When what I’m dealing with is individual, personal, intimate suffering then it’s enough to have a God Who puts His arms around me and says “I know just how you feel even though there’s really not very much I can do about it.” When my pain is personal, immanence trumps transcendence. But when the pain is cosmic – when the bombs are falling, or the 767’s are flying into the World Trade Center – I want more than just empathy; I want sovereignty. I observed that churches were full on Sunday September 16, 2001, and the worshippers weren’t so much looking for a Caring God as a Sovereign God. Indeed, someone even said to me on that Sunday: “I needed to come here today to be reminded of Who’s in charge.” To be sure, it didn’t last. Never does. Life settles in and settles down and the tuff stuff, while not painless, is at least personal rather than cosmic, and therefore seems more manageable, and we think that with a little understanding we can handle it. That’s The Shack’s approach to theodicy; and that’s all right, I guess, so long as we remember that God is also the “Blazing Fire” the writer of Hebrews talks about (see Hebrews 12:18-21). Immanence and transcendence – we need both in our gods. Fortunately, with the Bible’s God, we get both.

One final comment. I find it interesting…and encouraging that The Shack is the number one best seller right now on the New York Times Best Seller’s List. It documents what some of us have long suspected; that, despite the ubiquitous secularism and just plain silliness being served up these days as a “junk food diet” for the desperate and the disconnected, there is yet a deep, abiding longing for God hardwired in every one of us. And it shows up at the strangest times…in the strangest places. That’s probably important.

*The is a a reprint of a blog I did on July 10, 2008. There is renewed interest in the book in our area (western NC) because the author has been invited to speak at a local college.

1 comment:

J. Travis Moger said...

The problem of evil is the Achilles heel of monotheism (Christianity included). How can a perfectly good, omnipotent God allow evil and suffering? The Shack gives us permission to think and talk about this difficult, if not insoluble, dilemma.

Here's my less-than-eloquent blog post on the book and one discussion group that formed around it: