This spring I finally succumbed to all of the hype and read William P. Young's bestselling novel The Shack. All I knew about it was that it had been self-published, had gathered significant steam, and then found a major publisher and mainstream status. It's an unusual story -- all self-published authors think they can get that kind of major play, but almost none really can (see prior post on self-publishing). It's as if Cinderella were a book.
I had also heard that the theology of the novel has been controversial, and has been received very poorly by some conservative Christians. Apparently the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary devoted most of a radio show to denouncing the book and pointing out its many heresies. And of course, that succeeded beautifully in driving attention to the book and making it a focal point for discussion among evangelicals. (You know that old cliche about even bad publicity being good publicity? It's actually true.)
Being in possession of what might be termed a rebellious streak, I've never been one to allow Southern Baptists to tell me what to read, unless you count Jimmy Carter. So I eventually dug out the copy I was given last year and began to read. The first fifty pages were quite disappointing. As an editor, I found it difficult to get past the many flaws with Young's writing, which I won't enumerate here, but let's just say that another old chestnut--show, don't tell--has become a cliche because it is also true. The book's vocabulary is anemic, its deep narration infrequent, its dialogue overdone. Okay, I guess I couldn't help enumerating the problems after all. So sue me.
Still, I got in the groove. From a postmodern theological standpoint, The Shack is truly interesting and even profound. As you may know, it deals with the age-old theodicy question: why does a good God allow horrible things to happen to basically good people? In the story, a middle-aged man named Mack, who is trying to recover from the brutal murder of his daughter Missy, confronts God and his own deepest pain in a run-down shack in the woods. Over the course of a weekend, God appears to Mack in multiple guises and imparts many lessons about divine love.
I wound up writing a study guide to the novel for TheThoughtfulChristian.com. It's tough to highlight the most important issues in a 2,700-word study guide, and I've already gotten a couple of letters from readers who were disappointed about specific theological points I did not have room to discuss. Still, I hope it is a helpful introduction to what the novel has to say about the weeping God, the Trinity, the problem of human suffering, and the hope of heaven. Here are few tidbits from the study (which I'm afraid costs $4.95 to download, so I can't post the whole thing up here or they'll get mad at me):
"What Mack needs is not rote religion, but a life-changing experience of God. In The Shack, God is described in the same way that theologian Paul Tillich referred to him—as the “ground of all being” who is in all, through all, and uniquely real. (p. 112) Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu take great pains to teach Mack the difference between religion and love. Religion is based on hierarchy and rules, which Mack learns 'cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse.' (p. 203) Papa explains that the Bible isn’t a rulebook but a 'picture of Jesus,' and that ritual is dead if it exists merely for its own sake. (pp. 197 and 207) The three don’t want Mack to be a rule-follower; they want to permeate every nook and cranny of his soul."
I was impressed by the expansive view of the Trinity that the novel proclaims, and of course by its use of feminine as well as masculine imagery for God:
"Papa chooses to reveal Godself to Mack first in the form of a woman for the very personal and loving reason that Mack, a survivor of childhood abuse at the hands of his father, might have strong suspicions of a male deity. In her appearance as a 'beaming' African-American woman, Papa represents what some black Womanist theologians have labeled 'kitchen table theology.' Papa bakes a pie and wipes a tear; Papa sings along with the radio in the kitchen; Papa conjures pancakes and fried potatoes and collard greens. God’s love becomes manifest in these acts of caring, as God serves up the wisdom of the ages alongside melt-in-your-mouth scones."
I was surprised and a little bit humbled by The Shack. If the writing does not bother you, dig into the theology. It may surprise you too.