Friday, August 22, 2008

The Shack: Theology, narrative and the cultural moment

Yesterday several of my colleagues and I had a lunchtime discussion of William Young's The Shack, the self-published book that has become a bestselling phenomenon with two million copies in print. I read it a few months ago after hearing some of the initial buzz about it and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. (And I have to say that the title of the book always makes me think, "Love shack, baby, love shack!")

As Christian publishing industry professionals, my colleagues and I had a good time bantering about The Shack's merits and demerits, assessing its theology, discussing its narrative efficacy, unpacking the cultural dynamics and publicity. (If the following is slightly vague regarding plot specifics, it's to avoid spoilers for those who have not yet read it.)

One of the most interesting points of our discussion was The Shack's portrayal of the Trinity. That's easily one of the most distinctive things about the book. Most Christians focus on just God or Jesus, but The Shack personified the Holy Spirit as well. And seeing the three of them converse, interact and relate to each other is striking, so much so that one of my colleagues said that she'd happily use the book as an introductory textbook for teaching theology.

All of us in the room were curious to hear what one of our editors had to say, as he has a PhD in theology and has specialized in Trinitarian thought, especially of Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance. And he actually was quite positive about The Shack's take on the Trinity. He said that even if the language and notions could have been articulated better, he didn't see anything that was a gross misappropriation of the Christian tradition, that basically various orthodox Trinitarian theologians throughout the ages have said many of these things. Not all in one person, perhaps, but The Shack is a bit of an amalgam of various portraits of social trinitarianism.

One particular critique of The Shack's theology is that it confuses the persons of the Father and the Son, especially in the suffering of the Son (leading to charges of the heresy of patripassianism). My colleague didn't agree. Instead he pointed out that these detractors more often too rigidly separate the persons of the Trinity so that they seem like three separate Gods, as if the experience of the Son is not at all experienced by the Father. Indeed, some theologies place great (over?)emphasis on the Father's action against/upon the Son, which necessitates a sharp distinction between them. The Shack should be seen as a corrective against this overemphasis, to remind us that the three persons of the Trinity truly are one God.

Another key theme in The Shack is the problem of evil and suffering. Here we also generally affirmed The Shack's take on theodicy. Rather than overly spiritualize bad things as somehow happening by God's secret design or plan, The Shack says that evil truly is evil, and not God's plan or intention. The approach correlates well with Tom Wright's book Evil and the Justice of God - God is not the author of evil, and less important than the "why" of why bad things happen is the "what" of what God is doing about evil.

This relates to the cultural context and why perhaps The Shack has caught on so much. I think The Shack in many ways is doing for this generation what Philip Yancey's books Disappointment with God and Where Is God When It Hurts? did two decades ago - it gives voice to people's questions and heartcries about their own suffering and doubts about God's goodness. It used to be that apologetic questions were about "Is the Bible true?" or "Is Christianity the right religion?" Now the more fundamental questions are "Is Christianity good?" or "Can God be trusted?" If there is a God, is he really a good God? And The Shack goes a long way toward tapping into this cultural moment and answering (positively) that despite a world of pain and suffering, we can still believe in God, because he is still good, even if we haven't always recognized this as such.

The downside to The Shack's approach, perhaps, is that more traditional perspectives of God and church are the necessary foil to this message. So the book naturally appeals to the many who have had bad experiences with the church, Christians or God. (Which of course is another aspect of this cultural moment.) There's an implicit anti-authority and anti-institutional approach to this book (which is made more explicit in another Windblown Media book, So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore).

Another downside of The Shack is its "preachiness." The didactic sections of the book are a little heavy-handed, and the fictional narrative is mostly a delivery device for the author's message. The story is engaging, but does not rise to the heights of the best Christian fiction. Nor does it really parallel the fictional-yet-didactic narratives of books like C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce. If anything, the tugging-at-the-heartstrings approach of the book is somewhat manipulative. My wife commented that she was in tears at various points of the book, because of the emotional nature of the plot developments, and that seemed to be a manipulative way for the author to get you to respond to and affirm his theology.

We recognized that while most of us in the room were interested in discussing the theological aspects of the book ("Wow! A popular book for a mass audience that actually has Trinitarian theology!"), we recognized that most people reading the book are likely not looking for the theology. They're primarily looking for an interesting read. But they're finding something compelling in both the format and the content. It surprises, and that causes buzz. It's not a self-help book, and it's not really an "inspirational" book. But it's grappling with real issues about suffering and evil, whether God can be trusted and is God really real and good. Somehow the book connects with human doubts and points to the character of God. And that's a good thing.

We also talked about the book's publicity and word-of-mouth buzz. The sense was that for many of us, Eugene Peterson's endorsement (that it's this generation's Pilgrim's Progress) was enough to validate the book to make us check it out and see what all the hype was about. Many of us are jaded publishing professionals who have seen plenty of shallow bestsellers come and go. I'm still dubious about the overall value of endorsements, but this is one of the rare cases that an endorsement made us take a second look at this self-published book.

Of course, as publishing folks, we're wondering what we can learn from The Shack and whether it has any implications for our own publishing. IVP's kind of publishing is quite different; we're more likely to publish Tom Wright's straightforward exposition about evil than a fictional narrative about the topic. But we're not completely averse to fictional narrative approaches. In the last year three of my own projects have been narrative: Don Everts's One Guy's Head series (one volume of which, The Dirty Beggar Living in My Head, is all about questions of evil, suffering, hell and justice), James Choung's True Story and Robert Velarde's Conversations with C. S. Lewis. And it occurred to me during our discussion that Conversations with C. S. Lewis has uncanny similarities with The Shack, including a fictional narrative about a suffering, grieving protagonist who has lost a loved one and meets guides that give him new perspectives on loss and God. (Yeah, I have to slip in the obligatory "If you liked The Shack, you'll love Conversations with C. S. Lewis!" plug here.)

At the end of the day, our discussion was surprisingly positive about The Shack. Does it say everything it could or should? Of course not. But far better for millions of people to be reading The Shack than The Da Vinci Code or Eckhart Tolle. Overall, our sense was that the book, though imperfect, was helping readers encounter God - not just a generic fuzzy god, but the distinctly Trinitarian God of Father, Son, Holy Spirit. And we can rejoice and be glad.


Dianne said...

I think you have a good take on this and interesting to hear the perspective from some people in the publishing industry. I especially appreciated the way the author made me think about the Trinity, in terms of God being a relational God, that relation beginning in the Trinity. I don't know that this book is up there with Pilgrim's Progress or C.S.Lewis but no doubt a powerful message for people today.

Jenell Williams Paris said...

Hey, what's wrong with reading Eckhart Tolle!?

I appreciate your post - I read a briefer review of The Shack, and yours elaborates well.

Al Hsu said...

Jenell - I saw your post(s) about Eckhart Tolle and the commenters you got on Emergent Village. I didn't mean to slam Tolle uncritically (I've not read him, and I know you and others have read him profitably) - I guess my point is just that given the choice between an explicitly Christian/Trinitarian work and one not, I'd rather see the Christian one find popularity.

Adam Pastor said...

Greetings Al Hsu

On the subject of the trinity,
I recommend this video:
The Human Jesus

Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you to reconsider "The Trinity"

Yours In Messiah
Adam Pastor

Robert Velarde said...

Al, thanks for your insights and for your kind mention of my book Conversations with C.S. Lewis. I haven't read The Shack, but as you know I tried to present a fictional narrative in my book that offers insights into the life and thought of C.S. Lewis via a fun series of imaginative discussions. I, for one, find this sort of approach much more appealing to the average reader than a dense academic tome.

Unknown said...

I appreciate your feedback - just picked up your book and am beginning to read it tonight . . . .

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks, Justin. Feel free to contact me via my blog with any questions or comments about Conversations with C.S. Lewis. Or drop me an e-mail at conversationswithcslewis at gmail dot com

Sabrina said...

A timely post for me, Al - I just read the book while on vacation. I summed it up to someone similarly - how the plot was just ok (and sometimes a little over the top), but the author seemed to be using it for some interesting conversations about God and suffering...

As I was reading, I do remember thinking, hmm, I wonder what my Systematic Theology professor would think of this portrayal... and thanks to your post, now I know! :)

Elaina said...

Thanks for posting on this Al! When I went to the Donkey Congress where we discussed The Shack, I'd actually not read the book, but the discussion there prompted me to want to read it. So I told myself that if I saw it in the airport on my way to Alaska, I'd buy it. So I did, and I did.

I'm about halfway through the book, and the pace of the book has definitely slowed down. In fact, I'm finding that I'm having a hard time finishing it, because of its didactic preachiness (glad you mentioned those things, so I know I'm not alone!). I found myself observing how much more powerful the book could've been if the author had been able to have Mack slowly and experientially realize these things that God was coming straight out and telling him!

Anyway, all that to say, I appreciated the Donkey Congress discussion and I'm glad to read your further thoughts on the book.

Friar Tuck said...

Our church is reading this in a book club. It is helpful that you see this as fiction. I was under the impression that the author thought of this as a memoir.

Patrick said...

Dear Al,

Just wanted to say thank you so much for this casual review of The Shack (I actually first encountered it last summer, when you wrote it and still come back to it). I think it's the best I've read - fair, insightful, gracious, and appropriately critical all at once. I've recommended it (via a link) to several people, who have very much appreciated it.

I am a fellow PhD student (across the Border, in Hamilton, Ontario), studying theology & ethics (and did one of my comps on the Trinity). I think your comments were apt and very well put.

Thanks again!!

Lerin said...

Hello! I came across your post while I was post-reading surfing for in-depth conversations about this book. So, thanks for your words! It's good to see people talking about this book because it does have a lot to offer after you peel back the layers.
Also, I thought you'd be interested in something else I came across in my searchings (I love sharing my good research finds). It's a religious publisher that has online Bible studies and they have two on The Shack. One is about the book itself and the other just came out this week and is about the theology of the book. Thought you and your friends might be interested. They actually had a bunch of cool studies on the site:

Well, enjoy your day!

Brook Warner said...

great post! Makes a nice change from the usual arguments that only reveal more of the writers skewed theology / inattention to their own blindspots!