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:
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.
The book is poorly written, and this really matters.
The story ain’t as creative and original as the hype would have you believe. This, too, matters.
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.
"Theos" is the Greek word for "God," making this blog something of a God Project........A project that we all collaborate on, that we all share in, saying what can't be said.......different faith traditions in dialog, believer and nonbeliever in conversation.......Please feel comfortable joining the dialog, each perspective is valuable and beautiful in its own way, because all of us "know in part."