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The Shack

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The Shack (Amazon Link) is this big little book that is really popular in Evangelical circles of late. Eugene Peterson compared its potential impact to Pilgrims Progress. My mom bought a copy and I read it.

This entire entry is chock full of spoilers for The Shack, so you shouldn’t read it if you care about that kind of thing.

It’s interesting in a number of vectors. The backstory is neat; some guy wrote it and no one wanted to publish it so he did it himself and it’s been a great success for him. The conceit is clever; guy loses a young daughter to violence and then is invited to talk to God about it. And the fervency is admirable: it is not shy about making big statements of theology.

I want to talk about this book in three almost completely unrelated ways: as a work of fiction, as a work of theology, and as a polemic. The first two are obvious; this book is shelved with the novels, probably in the Christian section. But the last is more subtle; if you read closely there’s an undercurrent of thought that propels the entirety of the narrative, and that undercurrent is more interesting– and more troubling– than the other two aspects.

As Literature

Let’s say this right away: The Shack is not very well written. Young is overfond of flowery language and tends to emphasize narration when it’s unimportant and deemphasize it when it is.

Nearly the first half of the book is the backstory of how Mack, our main character, gets to the Shack. There are moments where the story flows along nicely (the abduction/chase sequence is well done), but overall it relies too heavily on a sense of foreboding that is utterly destroyed by reading the jacket cover, or thinking for a moment about what’s going to happen to make the story work.

Mack, the main character, is boring and confused. His entire personality is the fact that his daughter was abducted, and he has very little depth beyond that despite getting an entire foreword dedicated to telling you how awesome he is. Said foreword tries to sell him as a scholar and a gentleman; a man of the world who’s been in a war and gone to seminary. But the rest of the book tries to treat him as an everyman, making him astounded at simple theology and failing the reader by not bringing up the sometimes obvious follow-on questions.

But none of that really matters, because The Shack is a novel only as a ruse to get you to read its views on Theology.

As Theology

The heart of this book is the theology, and it’s got a lot.

But just as Young can’t decide if Mack is a scholar or an everyman, he seems unsure about how to present his theology. To give it power, he puts the words in the mouths of his trinitarian characters. But to make that work, they need to make the theology sound like second nature; there’s nothing interesting in it for them; they live it. To counterbalance that and make sure the reader understands that these are Big Ideas™, Young then dumbs down Mack and makes him the incredulous human who receives each bit of doctrine as if he had never thought that way before.

This approach would work if the doctrine was some radical rethinking of Christianity, but it’s simply not. It’s presented in an interesting way, and given some emphasis that makes it easy to convey (and here Young does well), but the vast majority are things that I was familiar with from my Westmont Religious Studies Department schooling (GE track!), and it was disappointing when the gone-to-seminary Mack is made to know none of it.

That said, let’s just be explicit about where the book does and does not focus.

Quite a bit is about the nature of God, which is a good thing to talk about when three of your four main characters are God. Young hits the high points; God is better than we can imagine (Young explicitly disavows the Anselmian greatest-possible-composite-of-attributes Godhead), essentially mysterious, trinitarian with three co-equal persons, and the trinity is necessary because it allows God to be in a relationship.

Relationships, it quickly becomes obvious, are the center of Young’s theology. The trinity is a model of the relationship man is to have with God: trusting and loving the other and allowing them to work in you. Independence, seen in this light, is a subversion of the relationship where one party (that’s the humans) fails to love or trust and takes everything into their own hands.

More explicitly, Jesus is a model of the proper relationship; in this telling, Jesus is fully God but his kenosis means that “he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything” (p99); instead, God-the-Father (Elousia, in this telling) works through Jesus to accomplish everything: “so when you look at Jesus and it appears that he’s flying, he really is… flying. But what you are actually seeing is me; my life in him. That’s how he lives and acts as a true human, how every human is designed to live–out of my life.” (p100). This brings up all sorts of thorny issues (did Jesus pre-incarnation “draw upon his nature”? if not, how did he survive? where “was” he? does this break immutability, which is also ascribed to God? If the Father is doing the work, doesn’t the Father have the agency in his actions, thus making Jesus not only impotent but also pointless?), but Young sadly ignores these entirely. It’s not what the book is about, so it’s understandable, but it’s disappointing all the same.

Man is kind of problematic in this whole deal, though. “Never creating at all” was “never under consideration;” (p222) “we created you… to be in face-to-face relationship with us” (p124). So man is supposed to be in relationship with God, but at the same time God “has never placed an expectation on [Mack] or anyone else.” (p206) This is the point where I jumped off the rails. Expectations are necessary, or the whole unravels. Sin is a failure to live up to expectations. Righteous Anger is either impossible or stupid without an unmet expectation of something better. No expectations and the perfect foresight attributed to God in this narrative cannot mesh; either God knows what’s coming and therefore expects it, or he does not know and does not expect it. The small sliver of middle ground here is redefining “expect” to imply uncertainty, but Young doesn’t try this trick, which is good because it would be a lame word play that wouldn’t solve the basic problem of God wanting one thing (good on everybody!) and reality being another (evil happens).

Because the big issue that this book attempts to tackle is our old friend the problem of evil. There are really two and a half problems here, so let’s look at each in turn.

First, Young wants to make sure that defining evil is left to God, because humans tend to make it “pretty subjective” (p134) and “become the judge” (p135) based on how things affect them. So feelings aren’t a good guide here, but Young also dismisses “following the rules” to “do good and avoid evil” by “reading the Bible” with the Holy Spirit saying “How’s that working out for you?” (p197) Instead, Young wants us to rely on God to define evil and we will respond to that… somehow. How word reaches you what is good and what is evil is left unsaid, except that what you think and what you read are suspect, which kind of leaves nothing.

Far more fruitful is the second tack, which talks about the moral calculus of evil. “Everything that has taken place is occurring exactly according to this purpose [to bring mankind into relationship].” sayeth the Lord (p124). But Mack, for once, pushes back: “How can you say that with all the pain in this world, all the wars and disasters that destroy thousands? And what is the value in a little girl being murdered by some twisted deviant?” (p125) God, in reply, claims to “use every choice you make for the ultimate good and the most loving outcome,” which is a weak assertion of Leibniz’s best-possible-world idea, which is stunning in its simplicity and horrifying in its failure to assuage any of the revulsion of the problem of evil. “But the cost!” Mack says, bringing that revulsion to bear, “Look at the cost… is all sounds like the end justifies the means… I can’t imagine any final outcome that would justify this.” (p125-7). God then makes a distinction that makes all the difference: “We’re not justifying it. We are redeeming it.” Justification implies a balancing of the whole’s benefits with the whole’s costs. Redeeming, though, is a holistic making-better: each individual part becomes justified in and of itself.

The final subset of the problem of evil bleeds directly into the last major theological point, which Young tries to avoid but runs roughshod over instead: free will. Multiple times Young’s godhead assert that free will is ascendant, and that free will is never trampled on or limited. But repeatedly, God is seen as omniscient about future outcomes (see p187 for an example), which requires all decisions to be predestined, which in turn robs the humans of agency for their actions. If they have no choice in the matter, they cannot be properly blamed for the outcomes; that blame shifts to God, and the book makes it very explicit that judging God is a big mistake that boils down to putting yourself in God’s place. This little knot is taut; given the assumptions the book makes there is no way to make all these assertions correct, but the book doesn’t seem to notice in the slightest.

As an Artifact of the Right

Underneath all of this, however, is an incorrect understanding of how the world works that is very prevalent in today’s political right: railing against institutions as the bad guys without realizing that the institution is just us, in aggregate. Here is a little speech put into Jesus’ mouth:

I’m not too big on religion… and not very fond of politics or economics either. And why should I be? They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about. What mental turmoil and anxiety does any human face that is not related to one of those three?… Put simply, these terrors are tools that many use to prop up their illusions of security and control… Systems cannot provide you security, only I can. (p179)

This anti-establishment vibe is incredibly strong throughout the book. We are told that “power in the hands of independent humans… does corrupt” (p148), and that “first one person, and then a few, and finally even many are easily sacrificed for the good and ongoing existence of [a] system” (p123) and that “educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligencia.” (p66) Science is belittled at every turn; “what you call science” (p132) is puny; “some say” (p34) the Earth is nine million years old, and Eden was real (p134). Mack’s wife’s “black and white” view of the world is “common sense” (p11).

Instead of systems and establishments, Young wants relationships. But politics and economics aren’t systems; they’re attempts to understand how groups of people interact. Pretending that a thousand people can rule themselves with relationships that don’t complicate into politics isn’t idealism; it’s a willful denial of how people work.

This is my biggest problem with the book; not it’s anodyne theology pretending to be great insights, but that it takes one of humanity’s great strengths– our ability to compound relationships into larger and more complicated things– and pretends that doing so is not a powerful extension of relationships but is rather a perversion of it that hollows out the benefit and provides nothing in return.

Politics, Economics and Religion are how humanity interacts with each other on the grand scale; it is not a substitute for the smaller scale, but it is the small scale continued in other means. My church does charity work that I would never be able to do alone; my government promotes the general welfare in ways that none of us could accomplish by ourselves. These help real people, and in so doing make the world a better place. Does God not care about that?