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Friday, August 14, 2009

guest post: why the literary-ness of "the shack" matters

Hello, y'all. This is Tamie, Jon's partner in life and crime, and guest writer for this blog post. Jon and I have been discussing the novel The Shack, by William P. Young, over dinner. I just read it, finished a few days ago, and he read it about 8 months ago. He asked me to write up some of my thoughts here.

When I first heard about the book, in conservative evangelical circles, I imagined that it was poorly written and full of half-baked theology, my biases being what they are. Which is to say that I associate that sub-culture (conservative evangelical American Christianity) with sentimental art and anti-intellectualism. I'm not saying, of course, that every person who participates in the sub-culture prefers only sentimental art and is anti-intellectual. I'm saying that the sub-culture, as a whole, has that feel about it. I'm not sure why this is, either.

But then some of my non-conservative-evangelical friends began recommending the book to me, saying it was worth the read, or that they liked it, or that they thought I should read it (for vague reasons; I should have asked them why they thought I should read it!). So finally I relented. I read the book.

It turns out that the book is sentimental and full of half-baked theology. Not only that, but it is poorly written, and succumbs to racial and cultural stereo-typing. Which actually surprised me, because by the time I set out to read it I was convinced it would be pretty good, my recommenders being who they were.

There are four points that I will make in this post:

  1. All of the creativity and originality in The Shack don’t add up to much, because the unspoken assumption of substitutional atonement theology overwhelms/undermines the theological and spiritual creativity of the story.

  1. The book is poorly written, and this really matters.

  1. The story ain’t as creative and original as the hype would have you believe. This, too, matters.
  2. Why the heck does evangelical/conservative/American Christianity so often tend toward anti-intellectualism and kitsch?

And then, at the end, I will make a fifth/concluding point which is: If you want to read quality fiction that is deeply theological, and will rock your spiritual socks, I have some suggestions.

First though, let me just say a few positive words about the book. The book, and the greater project it represents, is well-intentioned. I believe that the authors really meant to write a new vision of God. They weren't trying to make a quick buck. They may not have been trying to make any bucks at all. It's very clear that they wanted to get across a new and transformational vision of what living in relationship with God could look like.

It is also clear to me that many readers of the book are very hungry for a new/transformational/creative vision of God. They're tired of the white-male God, tired of the irrelevant/angry/irrational God. I think that this is probably the number one reason why the book is so popular. Because people want to know God in fresh, lively, substantial ways. This desire is good! But, because the book is such a mixed bag, it not only does not deliver on the carrot it dangles in front of the reader, but it also manages to reinforce problematic theology and cultural stereotyping.

One final note. I'm going to assume that my audience has read the book.

Point #1. All the creativity and originality in The Shack don't add up to much, because the unspoken assumption of substitutional atonement theology undermines whatever cool notions of God that the story puts forward.

I had hope, for about the first half of the book, that the story would suggest a new idea for the meaning of Jesus' death/atonement etc. After all, it's a pretty creative book. God as a black woman (we'll get to why "God as a black woman" is problematic later...), the Spirit as an Oriental see-through feminine being. Definitely more colorful, on the theological front, than Aquinas or Calvin. But then I got to Chapter 11, in which the whole story does indeed go bankrupt. Chapter 11, titled "Here Come Da Judge," is the one in which Mack is forced to encounter "a tall, beautiful, olive-skinned woman with chiseled Hispanic features, clothed in a dark-clothed flowing robe." She is a judge; she is also Sophia which, depending on how you read the thing, means she's either a personification of God's wisdom, or else another form of God Herself.

In this chapter, Sophia informs Mack that he must decide which two of his children will be sent to hell. He has been asking why God doesn't do something about the brokenness of the world, and Sophia answers that God already has: She sent Jesus to die. Sophia says, "She [God] chose the way of the cross, where mercy triumphs over justice because of love. Would you instead prefer she'd chosen justice for everyone? Do you want justice, 'Dear Judge'?" Leaving aside the fact that a sarcastic-but-deadly-serious God is profoundly disturbing, I want to point out the unspoken assumption here.

The unspoken assumption--and I think it's fair to say that it's the
author's unspoken assumption, not just the characters'--is that human "sin" demands "justice" and what does that justice look like? It looks like damnation, eternal torture and punishment and separation from God. In other words, the automatic and obvious consequence for falleness, or sinfulness, is eternal punishment and separation from God. This is Atonement Theology 101. It is straight-up, orthodox (in the sense of widely accepted and non-heretical) theology.

So: why? Why does doing something against God's will, or something bad, or something harmful, have to equal either death, or punishment, or eternal damnation (depending on how you take the theology)? I don't know. I've heard it explained like this: God is holy and perfect, and therefore can only tolerate holiness and perfection in His presence. So, when we are bad then we are un-holy and imperfect and cannot be in God's presence. So far at least the argument is logical. It's a rather thin definition of holiness and perfection, but at least B follows from A. But then there is this jump in logic that I can't for the life of me figure out: The answer to this unsolveable state of affairs is to
kill someone. Um....hunh? Does this strike anyone else as just slightly peculiar, a little bit of a leap, maybe not entirely intuitive?

Sophia demands that Mack must send two of his children to hell. Mack squirms and resists and says he won't send any of his children to hell, he can't possibly do it, but Sophia forces the choice on him. So finally he begs to be sent to hell in place of his children, and Sophia congratulates him on his choice, and we're left to clearly understand that God sacrificed Jesus (or Jesus sacrificed himself) rather than let his children go to hell. It's a little bit unclear at this point whether the children have to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior for this deal to kick in. That's left ambiguous for the whole book, and I think you could make a case that Young is saying that the work of redemption continues beyond human death, at least in some cases.

But my question is:
who says it is ordained that people have to go to hell in the first place? Why does the imperfection of God's creatures necessarily entail the savage wrath of God? Why does our fragility and confusion have to equal God's torment and rage? Why do people believe that God must kill someone (either us or Jesus) in order to be able to love and forgive? Why?

This is the theology on which
The Shack turns, and frankly it's theology that is old news. We've heard it all a hundred thousand times before. Same old arbitrary and angry God, full of bloodlust, whose version of compassion is either, depending on how you look at it, murdering His own son, or committing suicide.

Point #2. The Shack is poorly written, and this really matters.

The dialogue doesn't sound real. There are lots of filler sentences. There are reams of descriptions involving words like "wonderful" and "beautiful" and "magnificent"....all of which are fine words for people to use when you describe the Grand Canyon to your buddies, or when you tell your girlfriends about a first date, but none of which should really be used in published writing. Or, very very rarely. For God's sake. The characters are one-dimensional, resulting mostly from the fact that the narrator tells us about the characters, but does not show us; he does not create these characters as real and believable and sympathize-able characters on the page. The plot really isn't a plot, because the purpose of the book is not to tell a story; the purpose is to teach theology.

What is the purpose of art? It's an age-old question, comrades. And of course there is no one right answer. But here's my take. My number one goal, in creating (I write) is to tell the truth. My number one question, when I arrive at a piece of someone else's creation, and decide whether I will give myself to it is: Does it tell the/a truth? If it seems somehow dishonest--it it seems trite, or overwrought, or cruel, or all hung up on being clever (this is perhaps one of the most insidious problems with art in the last 100 years)--then I feel I cannot trust it.

There are many purposes for art. To celebrate. To lament. To make love with/to the world, or to make love to your medium, or to make love to a community (as in when a band creates music together). To be as alive as possible. To rage. To worship (photography is often a form of worship, it seems to me; photographers make pictures to adore the earth as it is).

But, whether art is celebrating or raging, if it is good art, it must be also telling the truth. Don't ask me what this means, to tell the truth. That's a tough and deep question that I suppose it ought to take us our whole lives to answer. It seems that we can begin to get at what it might mean by engaging the works of folks like Lucien Freud (painter), Marilynne Robinson (writer), Cole Porter (musician), Anna Akhmatova (poet).

Form and quality are not incidental to telling the truth. I'm not saying that you have to be a maestro to tell the truth. But I am saying that good art, art worthy of the name, will tell the truth. I'm also saying that the better you are at your craft, the deeper you'll get in your truth-telling. When the craft is not done well, then truth is ill-served.

One final word on this point. Sentimentality drives me crazy, and this book is full of it. Mack is crying in every other paragraph. The Holy Spirit and Jesus and Mack and God are constantly kissing each other on the lips (which could be cool--Jesus making out with an adult man--but it just isn't, because it's all so over the top and unbelievable). There are continual explosions of color and emotion. It's like a Hallmark card on crack. It's really frustrating. It is frustrating because it does injustice to the depth and span of human experience and emotion.

But the worst part of this sentimentality is the fact that it's all grounded in a story about an abducted, murdered little girl. And that just feels cheap. And sick. And wrong.

Point #3. The story ain’t as creative and original as the hype would have you believe. This, too, matters.

When I first got to the section where God is a large black woman I was like cool, God as a big black woman! It felt new, and it also felt reassuring. The image of God as a southern black mama who can hug you hard and long and make your troubles feel not so bad. Who welcomes you in with corn bread and iced tea.

But after a couple chapters I was like hold on a second. It was reading Newsweek that did it for me. There was an article in Newsweek (July 13) about racism, written by a black woman. She writes, "I do not think we are a nation of people secretly yearning to scream racial epithets and reinstate Jim Crow. I think we are a nation of people deeply influenced by the stereotypes endleessly perpetuated in our culture. The sassy black hairdresser, the Asian computer geek, the ditzy blonde, the dorky white guy, and the cool black best friend--each of them are stock characters in our culture." Suddenly I realized that The Shack also makes use of stock characters, and that I bought it, at least for a day or two, hook, line, and sinker. I bought into the idea that all "big black women" are pretty much the same. The book doesn't develop her as a character, really. We don't get to know her. The author/narrator seems to be assuming that we'll all just understand what a big black woman is.

Then John Doyle, good friend of this blog, pointed out that the mysterious Oriental woman (ie., the Holy Spirit) is also a type. A sexualized type, too. Jesus is too, actually: the rolled-up-sleeves, plaid-shirt, big muscled all-around good guy type. Like a really nice Midwestern blue-collar worker, except Jewish and with brown hair. Oy ve. As it were.

Let me see if I can try to get at the crux of the problem here. The problem here is that the book seems to be all innovative and creative....God as a Black woman! The Holy Spirit as the mysterious Oriental woman! Sophia as a sexy Latina!....but really, so much of it is reinforcing stereotypes. And not just racial stereotypes, but sexual stereotypes. (The aggresive sexy Latina.)

And it seems to be innovative in terms of theology. But...is it really? The great Problem of Evil is one that I've wrestled with for as long as I can remember. There were a few points during the story that I thought maybe the author or narrator or Mack or Jesus would come up with something helpful to say, about why there is suffering and where God is in the midst of it all. But that didn't seem to happen. The supposed comfort just felt cold.

Point #4. Why the heck does evangelical/conservative/American Christianity so often tend toward anti-intellectualism and kitsch?

I don't know.

And now, in conclusion. Quality fiction that wrestles with theological questions. Here are a few suggestions.

Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger
The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
The Plague, by Albert Camus
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
Home, by Marilynne Robinson
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver


chris van allsburg said...

I read about a hundred pages, and left it alone after that. One might say it was "left behind." (Crowd says, boooo!)

Good points on how The Shack is quite lame. Here's another thought: what is the protagonist's problem in the novel? It is his poor relationship with his father. Mack has two men in his life who are monsters: the killer of his child, and his loser, alcoholic dad, neither of whom he ever meets or with whom he has closer.

Fatherlessness is a major theme in the novel, and fatherlessness' problem is met with not God the Father, but God the Mother. The killer--what happens to him? What happens with Mack and his dad? Mack's own heavenly father is not met with the unfufilled needs he has in life. Rather his fatherlessness is perpetuated in the Mother God scenario.

And yes--it was very cheap--the daughter getting murdered thing. Very cheap indeed.

tamie said...

Thanks for your comments, Chris.

Mack does actually meet up with his own father near the end of the book. And it's just more cheapness. They have this reconciliation scene full of weeping and little else. The thing is that in the hands of another author I can imagine a very believable and beautiful reconciliation scene full of weeping and little else. But in the hands of this author...I just didn't buy it for a second.

God also transmogrifies into a Father for a little while late in the book--when God shows Mack where his daughter's body is hidden. God tells Mack that "you're going to need a father for this." It would be interesting to track the gender typing throughout the book, but I just started to lose heart after writing as much as I did!

Kellsotr said...

Bravo!!! I could not agree with you more. I, like you, had that book recommended by so many different people that I thought surly it must break the typical Christian novel mold. Both Matt and I tried to read the book, he made it farther than I did, and I think he stopped on the second day that Mack was in the Shack. There is just so many times you can read the same drivel and regardless of what meal they are sharing it over.
On top of the generally awfulness of the book, it made me angry that the first part of it jerked my emotions around thinking of my own daughter in that horrid situation, only to be met with such an empty, preachy story as a response. I am sure the author had good intentions, but it was like you said, cheap.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Thanks for a fantastic guest post.

Much appreciated!

Jonathan Erdman said...


Question for you. If the characters had been developed in a more literarily compelling way, would this have changed your stance toward the ethnicity of the characters? For example, let's say that God the "father" was not just the stereotypical "big black woman" character but rather a particular black woman with a developed and compelling personality and psyche. Perhaps this developed "big black woman" would even have many characteristics that challenge the "big black woman" stereotype itself. Would that have resonated without relying on the stock stereotype? Or do you think that the use of ethnicity was a complete mistake? In other words, is the problem with the ethnicity or is the problem with a reliance on stock stereotypes, stock characters that rely on our preconceived notions of "big black woman," "sexy, mysterious Asian woman," "sassy, sexual Latino woman," etc.?

I'm interesting in hearing you discuss this a bit more.


Jonathan Erdman said...

"Why the heck does evangelical/conservative/American Christianity so often tend toward anti-intellectualism and kitsch?"

Because that is the way the movement has chosen to build itself. Relationships tend to not be deep or developed. Theology and philosophy tends not to be deep or developed. Spirituality tends not to be deep or developed. Outreach to the poor and oppressed tends not to be deep or developed.

The greater movement as a whole seems to rely on superficiality rather than substance.

But, of course, not everyone who is an evangelical fits that generalization. There are those who are different. But the exception proves the rule, and the rule is that leaders are building religious movements and churches that reflect the superficiality and lack of depth of the greater American way of life.

That's my thought anyway.

tamie said...

I'll answer your question about stock characters in a second. For now my question is: but *why* did the movement choose to build itself that way? There's got to be an historical reason or two. So what are those reasons? I should ask my Dad. He frequently comments on the anti-intellectualism of the movement.

tamie said...

Kelly...thanks for reading! I'm impressed that anyone read through the whole post. It was kind of long. I'm glad we're in the same boat on this one, too! What else do you like to read? Got any other recommendations in the genre (fiction that addresses theological issues)?

Tamie said...

Jon. A word on stock characters, ethnicity, etc.

First of all, every human character that exists is of a particular ethnicity. So obviously, the use of "ethnicity" is not a problem, because it's impossible *not* to use ethnicity. Also impossible not to use gender, one way or another, and I suppose the same goes for sexual orientation, creed, etc., although sometimes those things don't play a strong part in the story.

One of the things you hear a lot in writing circles is "write what you know." This means that we are all limited in what we understand of the world, and it's better to write from what we know well, than to make shit up because it would seem to make our story more colorful. So for example, I have no idea what it's like to be an inner-city black youth in Detroit...and so I'd better either not include such a character in any story I write, *or* I should research the hell out of inner-city Detroit, to really understand deeply and broadly what I'm writing about. Otherwise, I risk writing out of stereotypes which is for one thing offensive, but for another thing just plain pointless. I mean, *why* would you include in a story a character that you didn't understand at all, whose life you were clueless about?

I remember reading the novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" a couple years back, which is written about a Japanese Geisha, obviously, but it is written by an American white man. The book got rave reviews, and one of the reasons is that he managed to write from deep inside the psyche of a Japanese Geisha, even though he clearly had no personal experience as a Geisha. I don't know if he lived in Japan, or if he just really did his research, or what, but that kind of thing is very hard to pull off. Kudos to those who do, but personally I think you should either do it really well or not at all.

Clearly, stock characters happen all the time. Hollywood movies are full of them, just full of them. Probably Bollywood movies are too! It's not like I think there should be the Stock Character Police. (Although...one has to ask oneself how constantly ingesting that kind of stuff affects the way we treat ourselves and each other....personally I think it affects it pretty deeply, and contributes to violence, sexism, etc.) But, when we have a book selling like hot cakes, and it's purported to be a serious book, and it's all about God....well, then I think we get into pretty dangerous territory, where we're aligning racial typing with ideas about God.

Does that kind of get at what you were asking?

Kellsotr said...

Absolutely, Haven Kimmel, who actually writes about small town Indiana of all things. Her fiction knocks my socks off, both in complexity and in theological thought. You should really read The Solace of Leaving Early, I think it would resonate with you. Actually, now that I think of it, the main character may even be you...
I used to read all the time, pre-baby, now I am lucky to read a book every other month or so and most of the time it is just mindless stuff to unwind. I just ordered Blue Like Jazz, that is next on my list.

Ooh, and I thought the post was lovely. It was long, but did not drag and was not superfluous.

Rachel Clear said...

Tamie. I am so glad you wrote this.

A book club that I started (which has sinse clearly taken on a mind of its own) has voted to read this book and I. Just. Can't. Do. It. I don't want to, and I don't even know why. I don't even know the point, or the plot really (I've got the basic idea), I just know that a guy who went to my college wrote it, which frankly, makes me want to read it even LESS.

The thing is, no one in the book club understands why I don't want to read it. I think they think I don't want to read it because it clashes with my own beliefs, which is NOT the reason. You wrote a great post, detailing precisesly why I don't want to read it, I think, but I can't really know that unless I read it. Huh. I don't even feel like discussing it in the book club, which is odd because I'd rather discuss than pretty much anything. All that being said... should I go ahead and read it? Or is it okay for it to just be the thing I never read? What made you finally read it? Do you wish you hadn't?

Chaim Potok is one of my favorite authors. Great suggestions. I'd rather go re-read his books. Am I being a dink?

I feel like I'm writing Cary Tennis or something... but I'd love your feedback!

amy said...


You might like Job: A Comedy of Justice. I wouldn't call it deeply theological, but it's the funniest, most subversive critique of American Evangelical Christianity I've ever read.

Thanks for your evaluation. Now I can articulate quite a few more reasons for not reading the book besides my original reason, which is that a piece of trite, sentimental, superficial pop theology that has the abduction and murder of a little girl as a plot underpinning makes me absolutely ill.

Rachel Clear said...

One other book I wanted to mention. I assume you've already read it (or some Twain anyways) but Mark Twain's "Letters From the Earth". A must read.

"Adam's Diary" and "Eve's Diary" are equally great, but I'd read "Letters From the Earth" first. Maybe even right now. Hilarious. Poignant. Perfect.

Melody said...

As a conservative evangelical I threw-up a little when you linked the book to "my" sub-culture.

I know there are plenty of flaky evangelicals out there, but I would personally consider them to be a much different sub-culture.

Maybe I'm being snotty and mean...I just don't think we're the same.

Sorry, back to the regularly scheduled discussion.

john doyle said...

Very good post; I agree; don't have much to add. I'm sure that those who like the theology are more positively disposed toward the book,though the other flaws you've highlighted remain. I find the Screwtape Letters quite irritating partly because of its good writing, which prettifies what I regard as a rather offensive theology. No danger of that here. The premise of encountering God out in a shack is clever; the follow-through not so much.

Regarding your recommendation of The Brothers K -- I'm waiting for the movie.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Are you saying that The Shack does not represent evangelicalism? I think the author would disagree with you. And I would also guess that those reading The Shack are overwhelmingly either evangelical or formerly evangelical.

But maybe I am misunderstanding your point. Could you elaborate?

Tamie said...

Yay for you guys recommending good books! I've written them all down...thanks!

As those of you who read my other blog know, I just started A Long Way Gone...so I'll have to at least wait til I'm done with that before I can read more.

Amy, I like your summary of why you can't read the book. I could have just written that and I wouldn't have to have spent hours writing this post! :)

John, I really liked The Screwtape Letters, back 15 years ago when I read them. I think I liked them mostly for the great writing. But I wonder what I'd think of them now! I imagine I'd agree with you.

And Melody, I agree with Jon: I'm not sure what you meant by your comment? Are you saying it's unfair to link the book to the evangelical sub-culture? Or are you saying that it *is* linked to the evangelical sub-culture and you don't like that? And if not, why not?

Tamie said...

Rachel. I don't know whether you should read the book. A few reflections:

#1. I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone. I wouldn't say it is in any way "worth reading." There are some cool ideas scattered here and there, and if I was talking to someone that I wanted to share the cool ideas with, I'd just recap the ideas, rather than have them read the book.

#2. I really really struggled to finish the book. The reason I *did* finish the book was because for the last couple years I've been trying to make it a discipline to finish books I start. Prior to that, I would start 15 books at once and finish none of them. This really frustrated me about myself, so now I try hard to finish books I start, even if I don't like them. That's just my thing. Also, I was kind of curious, and I'm always on the lookout for good reflections on the problem of suffering. I shouldn't have kept my hopes up though.

#3. I think that the main value of reading the book, for someone like you, would be to be able to have intelligent conversation about it with other people. Is it worth putting yourself through reading it in order to have that conversation? Honestly, Rachel, I don't think so. Consider everything you've been through recently! Shouldn't you be kind and loving to yourself? This is a book about the murder of a little girl, and it is a trite rendition of it, at that. Shouldn't you read something that can nurture your soul? Yes!

That's my ten cents. XO

Melody said...

Jon & Tammie,

Afters some reflection, I think maybe I have an idealized version of evangelicalism in my head. And it doesn't include the sappy-sentimental or thoughtless type evangelicalism I'd associate with The Shack.

Jon, I'm sure the author would consider himself evangelical, but I wouldn't. I doubt that I hold more ideas in common with the author than I do with you.

Tamie, mostly I was just horrified that it could be linked to "my" subculture.

Tamie said...

Melody, as an idealist myself, I can sure understand walking around with idealized versions of things in your head! Out of curiosity, what does this idealized version of evangelicalism look like?

Jonathan Erdman said...


I just read your link: fantastic! I had to post it to my facebook page.

And I can't wait for the movie!

Melody said...


Well of course conservative theology and a literal translation of the bible are practically synonymous with evangelicalism.

I wouldn't consider The Shack to be either of those things.

And the sort of sentimental evangelicals you described...well they're often not conservative or literal in their translation. A warm fuzzy story about "pennies from heaven" holds the same weight with them as a verse from Psalms.
And that's absolutely not so for me. I think the first is rubbish and the second divinely inspired.

And even when the warm-fuzzy people do hold to more literal/conservative theology they often don't know why.
(i.e. "It's just not natural!" or "The Bible says so")

I've always considered well developed critical thinking skills to be sort of an essential part of evangelism and life in general.

Which bring me to another big thing I associate with evangelicals - their religious beliefs are inextricably mixed with their daily lives. It matters to them that they live what they believe on a daily basis...the forgiveness and the love and giving and obedience.

And as I'm writing this I'm realizing that we're really, really not known for these things ('cept the first). Saved trailers and paragraphs from Rapture Ready are floating around in my head and I realize that we're known for dopey things like "Testamints" and other "Jesus Junk" or bad writing and angry things like boycotts and protests.

But I've never considered those things to be part of being evangelical, just a soupy sort of pop-Christianity.

I hope that makes sense.