“What do you think of ‘The Shack’?” I have been asked this question at least a dozen times, maybe more. No, this is not in reference to a seven foot tall, 325 lbs NBA player nor is it a retro question from someone who just discovered the B-52s. No, it is a literary question of the first degree. One of the occupational ‘opportunities’ you have as an academic is to be the ‘go-to person’ for questions germane to your field of study. When your field of study happens to be Theology and Cultural Theory, you get into some interesting dialogues through casual questions: “Have you read ‘This Present Darkness’ and do you believe in angels and demons?” “What do you think about the Left Behind series – do you think their is going to be an end times?” “What do you think of the Purpose Driven Life – does it work?” Lately, everyone seems to be buzzing about William P. Young’s The Shack and they want to talk about it.
Now I realize that the books I referenced above – while all ‘best sellers’ – have a particular buzz factor primarily within the Evangelical bandwidth. So if you are not tuned to this frequency, you may have missed all the buzz about William P. Young’s massive self-published book that is flying off of Costco pallets near you. As a synopsis, Young’s publisher Windblown Media put out the following couple of teaser lines: “Mackenzie Allen Philips’ youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep int he Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, ostensibly from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever and quite possibly your own.” Suffice it to say, the book has touched a deep cord in people to the point that Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, has given a glowing endorsement likening Young to CS Lewis! I will be among a choir of people to say that Peterson is creating an analogous relationship that is pretty strained and with regard to writing style, theological reflection, and depth of insight – I would have chosen to make a point akin to the Lloyd Benson in his now infamous 1988 Vice Presidential debate with Dan Quayle – to riff on Lloyd Benson – The Shack ain’t no Narnia.
Let me breakdown my brief reflections on The Shack into Tillich’s categories of form, content and meaning. With regard to form, The Shack operates like a standard 20th century morality tale ala Dicken’s Christmas Carol: the protagonist Mac leads a rather mundane spiritual life after a horrible event strips him of the extremes of human emotion – no highs and no lows, just existence. He is moved through the narrative akin to Scrooge in Dicken’s Christmas Carol – repeatedly visited by various spirits incarnate (the first portion are various manifestations of the Trinity and then later Young seems to embrace a Greco-Roman motif and evokes the persona of Wisdom/Sophia as well as something seemingly separate from the Trinity) to teach him what it means to be truly alive. He “awakens” from this journey in a hospital bed, solves the mystery of his daughter’s death, and the “great sadness” is lifted. Roll the credits. As far as content, the tale draws more on cultural tropes than biblical or theological ones. Clearly this is what has raised the eyebrows of some – notably Mars Hill Church’s Mark Driscoll. It is the frabrication (albeit fictional) of the Trinity in a multi-racial anthropomorphic collective which Driscoll deems an act of ‘creating craven images of God’ counter to the Decalog (please note: if you click through the link above to watch Pastor Driscoll rabid critique of The Shack, be sure to note the ‘graven image’ of the Trinity artfully displayed behind his head – I guess you can create graven images if you are the pastor but not anyone else). Additionally, Young’s free-flowing use of various emotional tropes over and against solid biblical exegesis and deep theological reflection are pretty off putting – i.e. he ends a number of sentences with exclaimation marks to ensure you don’t miss the “Ah Ha!” moments of Mac coming to grips with what the Trinity is engaging him in. At this point I am fairly open minded given that it is a work of fiction afterall and as such you have the freedom to, well, be free. In short, many have used the book as a justification for an overly theraputic gloss that most American evangelicals have of the Christian faith – i.e. in the end the Gospel is about feeling better after tragic events and that God speaks to us as a Grandma would – all comfort and statically available to us if we make the effort to go and find her. This personification of the Gospel is tragic in itself and a trend that is all-too-familiar ground for many American christians today. This point is not missed by John Crace in his “disgested read” of The Shack that boils the book down to five minutes and holds the essential story as an American romance novel celebrating the fact that ultimately God is a cosy quilt waiting to embrace the worried well of the middle class if they would just ‘buck up’ and head to the Love Shack.
In his reflections on the book found on his website, Young puts his intention this way: “For me, everything is about Jesus and Father and the Holy Spirit, and relationships, and life is an adventure of faith lived one day at a time. Any aspirations, visions and dreams died a long time ago and I have absolutely no interest in resurrecting them (they would stink by now anyway). I have finally figured out that I have nothing to lose by living a life of faith. I know more joy every minute of every day than seems appropriate, but I love the wastefulness of my Papa’s grace and presence. For me, everything in my life that matters, is perfect!” (note the exclaimation point!)
To be fair, The Shack has touched a lot of people and does raise an important question in regard to the nominal faith mired in malaise many Christians sitting in pews experience today – something Young terms ‘the great sadness’. This is something worth noting and I think the biggest subtext many folks connect with in the book. Life ain’t great and life doesn’t suck too bad… but is that life? For the ‘worried well’ of suburban American, that in itself is a great question worth exploring and if this provokes people to look for a deeper engagement with their lives, then The Shack is certainly worth a visit… but not a place to move to.