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Shackin’ Up

April 2, 2010

*This post originally appeared in another blog, but since I wrote it, I’m including it here.

Bestselling author William Young has endured both accolade and criticism for his only published novel, The Shack.  Much has already been written about this book (a book I’d never heard of until this January when a friend recommended that I read it).  Said friend had reluctantly read it herself at the request of another friend who gave the novel rave reviews. I was not interested in The Shack, but since a friend valued my opinion and was curious enough to put me to the test on it, I got on the waiting list at my local library and held out three weeks for a copy.

I will spare my readers a complete summation of the book, since the plot is merely pretext for a bigger theological conversation about the character and nature of God.  The main character, Mack, is invited to meet God in a shack in the woods where his young daughter was taken in a kidnapping.  What ensues is a four-way conversation between Mack and the three members of the Trinity.

Many critics of the book begin here, with the depiction of the Trinity in bodily, albeit metaphorical, form.  Young portrays God the Father as a black woman, the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman, and the Son as a Middle Eastern man.  While I too, find these images problematic, it is not for the same reason that most critics do.  The folks I’ve been reading who are most displeased with the book believe these images to be reductionistic at best, and heretical, at worst.

The ones crying heresy say that the Bible explicitly speaks against creating images of God.  While I agree that this is more than problematic, I don’t think the author intended anyone to worship his creations as God.  It seems to me that while these are human representations of who the author believes God to be, it is clearly metaphorical, along the lines of another author whose work depicts God as a lion (though Young’s work is light years away from the literary merit of C.S. Lewis’ works).

Maybe God’s a Woman, Too?

In what is obvious to me to be an attempt to shatter the reader’s expectations, Young chooses two women to portray two members of the Trinity.  Tim Chailles, a Reformed blogger and scholar, believes this too, is heresy.  He says,

God is Spirit and does not have a body, Young is correct that He is neither male nor female, at least insofar as it relates to anatomy. Clearly God does not and cannot have male or female anatomy. Yet God has chosen to reveal Himself as masculine. Nowhere in the Bible would we find any suggestions that God expects us to relate to Him in anything but masculine terms. Nowhere is God known as our Mother. Nor does the Bible give us the leeway to re-imagine God as female—as a Goddess. God has given us revelation of     Himself and we re-imagine Him only at our own peril.

Throughout his review, Chailles invokes Scripture as any voracious reader of the Bible would to defend his point.  Yet Chailles has a short memory on this count.  While Scripture does generally consider God in the masculine, there are moments where the feminine is considered part of His character.  In Isaiah 49, God asks “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”  While this verse is clearly a contrast between human love and divine love, God chose to compare Himself to the female model.  Jesus does the same, using a simile in both Matthew 23 and Luke 13 to describe Himself in female terms: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

To say that God only relates to us in masculine terms is to omit the attributes that He has revealed to humanity through both His Word and His deeds.  The fear that any description of God in feminine terms will lead to some kind of pagan earth Goddess worship is both paranoid and chauvinistic.

A Triad of Bigotry

While I do not believe Young’s depictions to be heretical, I do have problems with the characters he is using.  In his attempt to defy expectation, he lands squarely in the middle of a typical literary faux pas—that of a white male author who engages in racial stereotypes while trying to appear enlightened and inclined toward “diversity.”  The Papa character is portrayed as a Mammy type—a large, wise, black woman who spends most of her time in the kitchen.  Papa uses colloquialisms and slang while dispensing mind-boggling truisms.  She is both Mammy and the magical Negro, motifs common in both literature and film.

Young again engages in racial stereotyping with the Sarayu character.  She is portrayed as a beautiful and inscrutable Asian woman—an image common in writing that features Asian women as provocative subjects of white male fantasy. Sarayu would mysteriously come and go, intriguing Mack with a coquettish vacillation between visibility and invisibility.

Young is similarly racial when describing Jesus.  While depicting Jesus as a Middle Eastern Jew is historically accurate, and a welcome change from most art that attempts to capture Christ’s image, Young uses language that is patently anti-Semitic.  When Mack notes Jesus is less attractive than he thought He would be in person, Jesus remarks that it’s His large nose that may be His most unsightly feature.

Is his portrayal of the Trinity reductionistic? Yes; but, Young goes beyond that and chooses to define the Trinity in terms of racial caricature. Any other mainstream author would be chastised and despised for such blatant use of racial stereotypes, but for some strange reason, the cacophony of Christian criticism has been silent on this issue.  I think this fact speaks even more about the Christian literati than it does the author.

A Lack of Character

Cindy Crosby at Christianity Today writes of The Shack that:

[it] is an example of a good story transcending the mechanics of problematic writing. The book needed a rigorous edit; the dialogue is rough in spots, and even the website is rife with spelling errors. Though a typical, even expected, self-publishing problem, it’s still disappointing.

I would both disagree and agree with that assessment.  I think the story, while potentially engaging with its high emotional stakes (the cruel loss of a young daughter at the hands of a serial killer), is thin—a veil to lure the reader toward a conversation about the goodness of God amid an unjust world.  Every believer I know has wrestled with this—many of them throughout their lives.  And Young, to his credit, does well imagining a scene that would test even the most devout believer’s confidence.

However, once the plot part of the plot is over, once Mack sets foot in the shed, all development and storytelling ends.  The conversations feel contrived and out of order.  One moment Mack will be sarcastic, chiding Papa for her absence in his time of pain, and the next he is repentant and bawling.  Within the time it takes to turn the page, he’s back in the full throes of cynicism again.  While I would suspect that an encounter with God to be emotionally overwhelming and perhaps confounding, I found the schizophrenic response of the main character unbelievable and false.

The Shack is a cultural phenomenon that grew from a story a man wrote for his family to a bestselling novel.  The word-of-mouth accolades given the book pushed it up the publishing ladder with very little editorial pruning.  The book would not stand as a great or even a good work of literature, but many in Christian publishing are satisfied with that as long as something sells and brings new people into the fold (even if they were lured there under dubious pretenses.)

The standard operating procedures for Christian publishing aside, I am disturbed at how faddish Christians can be when it comes to this type of work, and I’m even more perturbed that there are people making money off that lack of spiritual and literary discernment.

Church Sucks

In another overt attempt to engage unchurched readers, Young repeatedly calls into question the authority and value of the church.  Many of Young’s critics dwell on this point, expounding on the hierarchy within the Trinity, Son submitting to the will of the Father, etc.  I generally agree with these assessments, so I will not belabor their points by repeating them.

I think that many of these issues arise from Young’s intended audience:  his children, who were pre-teen and teen at the time he penned the book (a detail I didn’t know at the time of my reading, though I did detect a cool-youth-pastor-“this ain’t your daddy’s kind of church” tone in much of the book.)  That tone emerges from Young’s exploration of Mack’s authority issues.  Apparently, he respects authority, and that’s his problem.

Young’s Trinity characters insist that they are not concerned with power, yet in Scripture, there are many references to the might and power of God.  The author makes a sophomoric mistake in logic when his characters equate all power to totalitarianism.  This view falls into the category of the slippery slope fallacy.  If God has absolute power, and power always corrupts, then if God is to be good, He must not be into power.

When Mack asserts that God digs institutions because He created marriage, the snarky reply of the deity is that marriage is not an institution.  The characters tell Mack that he is trapped in a false system where power dynamics are the water in which he and all societies swim.  The Trinity characters go so far as to call this water “the matrix,” alluding, no doubt to the Keanu Reeves’ films.  Apparently, in Young’s vision, God is so hip, He goes to the movies.  And the rated R ones, too.

Having worked with teenagers for several years, I can safely say that they quickly see through the put-ons of older people using colloquial terms to describe theological principles.  What they value is authenticity—something I think Young is trying to achieve with Mack’s doubts and uncertainty.

The problem comes when in order to reach a particular audience, you pander to them.  An often used phrase in training church leaders, be they in seminary or the laity, is that we are supposed to “meet seekers where they are.”  Meeting them where they are—even if they are disenchanted or angry with the state of the church—doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.  It may work for a season, but eventually, the weak preaching they’re given leaves them unsatisfied.  Ultimately what anyone wants to know is that you’re telling them the truth—as much as God has dispensed you the grace to understand it.

They don’t have to be told the system they live in is messed up—they know it already.  And they don’t have to be told that your church isn’t really like church in order for them to show up.  Folks rejected New Coke because they liked the original, and they’ll reject the New Church because though it is different from the last “new” thing, it’s still not aimed at following the original model.  It’s all audience-driven.

Final Impressions

Despite all my objections to the book, I do think it deserves a more charitable reading than many people are giving it (maybe even more so than I have given it).  I do not think the author intended for this book to be widely distributed, and I think that fact is clear in the way it is written.  However, he didn’t stop the gravy train once it got rolling, and I think a “Hey guys, it’s not ready for that!” or maybe a “I need to take another look at that part” would have been an estimable objection on the part of the author during the hysteria that shot this book to the top of the charts.

I think The Shack is dangerous to all the people whose fragile understanding is usually endangered by books with shoddy emergent theology.  Those folks may not know they should stay away from these teachings, and there is teaching the moment one attempts to put words in God’s mouth, however metaphorical a god one creates.  For those weaker brothers, I am concerned.

But for those well-grounded enough to engage in a conversation with Young’s characters, I would caution, along with Derek Keefe when he writes, “Theologically attuned readers of all confessional stripes are likely to find themselves cringing on occasion.”

And on that note, I take my leave of the shack and head off to sturdier dwelling places.


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