Monday, July 13, 2009

The Shack Revisited

The other night an old friend asked me to tell her about The Shack. She and I sort of run in different circles, and the women in a Bible study group she attends keep telling her to read The Shack. Since she knows I read voraciously, she knew I had an insight about it. I have read it, back last Fall.

So what did I tell her? First, don’t bother—life is too short. Second, it bugs me that with all the great classics of the faith (let’s start with the all-time best missionary bio, To the Golden Shore, followed by all the C.S. Lewis, and then there’s Calvin’s Institutes—well, I’m getting a little crazy here, but you get my drift), anyway, it bugs me that the big bestseller in the Christian market is a second-rate allegory that borders on heresy, if it doesn’t venture boldly into it. Third, if someone wants to read a good novel, ha, ha, they can read mine!

Seriously, I told her the book appeals to people who are largely led by feeings, who tend to define Christianity in terms of their own emotional and subjective needs, and dare I say, many of whom are not very discerning. I don’t need The Shack to know how much God loves me. Romans 5:8 is enough. And yes, that verse says “us” not “me.” There’s a big theological argument there, one I’m not willing to get into now, but let me give the short version. Jesus died for the world, for the church, for His bride, not “for me.” I happen to be part of the world, the church, and the bride. I’m no less or more important than anyone else in that group. Some evangelical theology, if it can be called that—and definitely evangelical hymnody—is almost narcissistic. Another friend was complaining about the chorus, “I am a friend of God” because of its nauseatingly simple lyrics and music, but worse than that is that the name of God is used less than the first-person pronouns.

Yes, I did find the first part of the book, before he goes to the magical shack that turns from a beaten down cabin to a Thomas Kinkade painting (did he get royalties?) pretty good. The story of his daughter’s death is gripping. But the long section with the supposed Trinity was bad writing, bad theology, and bad practice.

“God is a spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” John 4:24. That’s enough. As much as the human mind and creativity may feel the need to anthropomorphize God, we can’t. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” said Jesus. So we don’t need a novel depicting God the Father as Mammy from Gone With the Wind or the Holy Spirit as a character from The King and I. And we certainly don’t need Sophia, which I found as shockingly blasphemous, in light of what I know about feminist theology, as the physical portrayal of the Godhead, which is pretty bad.

(By the way, was I the only one who noticed that “Magical Negro” fallacy? Why do white writers feel the need for the all-wise black character? And one who cooks and is overweight? And then the wonderful, Godspell, laid-back Jesus? Jesus has to be portrayed as such a nice guy . . . )

It is frightening to me that the evangelical mind is so untutored, so incurious, and so lazy, that it finds a book like The Shack to be a source of spiritual succor. There are better novels—I could suggest thousands, like The Brothers Karamazov, to start with, or Things Fall Apart. There are better books about theology—the Bible is a good place to start if you want to know about the crucifixion and what it means. I have a feeling that many who read it were vaguely uncomfortable with it but succumbed to peer pressure. Even worse, I fear that we know the traditional doctrines without knowing where in the Bible those doctrines are addressed.

I feel much the same way about The Shack that I did about The Passion. Mel Gibson convinced evangelicals to support that movie and he made a fortune off of us, which he now uses to pay for his divorce because of his adultery. We were had, and I for one don’t like being had (I did not go to the movie for that reason, and also because I was told that I “just had to see it” by too many people.)

In both cases, the writers had the right to produce the works, and we all have the freedom to see or read them. It is the mass hysteria, the zealous insistence that the work will change one’s life, the fear appeal that one might truly miss God’s best unless one views or reads the work, that is the problem. There is a big difference between faith and gullibility, but I’m not sure that evangelicals in the 21st century know what it is.

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