Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"The Shack"

I've read a number of reviews of The Shack - most positive, a few negative.  I've had a number of folks recommend the book, so I decided to read.  After finishing, I can with only minor reservations recommend the book highly.  It's accessible, easy-to-read and, on the whole, powerful.  What follows is a more detailed summary of my thoughts about the book.  I offer a few comments on style and form, but most of my thoughts are about the ideas - the theological and philosophical ideas - that the author conveys in the book.

Ok, the writing is a bit pedantic.  And I squirm a bit at the overly sentimental and somewhat melodramatic dialogue and language used by the "god" characters.


And the idea of God the father as a "down-home" older black woman seems at once a bit too "matrix-y" (cf. "the oracle") and a bit too obvious and "over the top".  It grated on my nerves reading some of it.


Having said those things, it does some great things:


(1) it reinforces the emerging idea that we (believers) are not being called to conform to some external religious model, but are being called to become what God originally designed us to be (which is not a religious kind of thing at all)


(2) it reinforces the idea that Jesus in his human life wasn't a "superman", but was "the" man - the "Adam" who finally "got it right" in that he lived his entire life in harmony with God's will - not as a counterproposal to human existence, but as "perfected" and "intended" human existence; as such his "powers" were not "god" powers, but were "human" powers as God-intended when we are working and living in harmony with God


(3) I love the way, when challenged by Mack to "justify" the magnitude of human suffering and the ravages of evil in the world, God replies "we're not justifying it, Mack, we're *redeeming* it"; I think this has to hint at a view of post-mortem redemption cum universalism (*in Christ*, a la G. MacDonald's "The Evangelical Universalist")


(4) I also love the way Mack expresses the outrage and frustration of all this evil and suffering and doesn't get platitudes and the typical inexcusable over-simplifications you find in so many theological writers (I'm thinking here of D. A. Carson who, seriously, just doesn't get it and, to a lesser degree, N. T. Wright (who I otherwise love - especially re:NPP))

(5)  In the discussions regarding sin, the writer clearly indicates, through the voice of God, no less, that humans aren't truly free in the Greek or philosophical sense as so much of modern evangelicalism teaches and believes; rather, we are severely limited in our free choice by our genetics, our circumstances, our psychology, our personality, and our upbringing - leaving a relatively narrow swath of freedom before us


(6) The writer captures the idea that the creation as it exists today is distorted and broken and does not reflect in its current form the intent and design as God originally created it; he also indicates, also through the voice of God that humans are quick to call good things evil and evil things good when they (humans) lack a full understanding of things; while this is certaintly true and an important point to make, the writer oversteps and tries to make the claim that humans in their propensity to define all things relative to themselves, have no proper understanding of good or evil; this is obviously and patently false; the protagonist quickly and inexplicably fails to define good and evil in any terms other than his own preferences - never mind concepts such as needless suffering; the suffering of innocents; theft; etc. - ideas well-founded and understood in all cultures in all places as immoral and evil; humanity, while certainly incapable of comprehending good and evil in all contexts, it is also false to claim that we have no bearing or understanding of good and evil as categories


(7) An interesting idea the voice of God shares with Mack is the idea that god has hidden the truths of nature in creation as a divine act of love so that humanity and share in the joy of seeking and discovering


(8) The author repeatedly emphasizes my long-held idea that you cannot will yourself to believe something - you either believe it or you do not; you come to it or you do not


(9) The author echoes Nouwen in the idea that humanity is motivated by either love or fear, and practically everyone chooses fear; only God can give us the capacity to choose to live from love


(10) In one of the more disappointing sections of the book, the protagonist is given a "Job-like" challenge to be the judge himself, if he is superior to god - a challenge the protagonist shrinks from and ultimately refuses by offering himself instead of judging one of his own children; while the section is poorly conceived, it ends well and on a soft note that no human can understand the unbearable pain that god feels in seeing so much waste and suffering; it also ends well in that the protagonist still harbors his anger at god for allowing the protagonist's young daughter to be kidnapped and killed some years back; the "explanation" is two-fold: (a) God didn't do it or plan it - but allowed it to happen as part of the plan of unfolding free agency; and (b) the little girl is happy and perfect and joyful in the embrace of Jesus coupled with the message that this life is just th 'antechamber' to true life; I think the author is right on these things, but he can only be right if this is true for all people - not just "Christian" people - therefore, this argument holds only if you believe god will ultimately save and redeem everyone


(11) The author also captures the idea that Jesus is non-institutional, non-systematic - that politics, religion and economics are a "trinity of terror" created by humanity to subjugate and control one another - idols of destruction


(12) On the idea of god's will and sovereignty and suffering, the author as the god character sharply repudiate the idea that god allows evil or orchestrates it in order to do his will.  A quote from chapter 13:


"[J]ust because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn't mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don't ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes...Grace doesn't depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors."


(13) In an interesting sideline, the author has the protagonist point out to god the father how before this encounter, he had always thought of God the father as mean and jesus as gracious and kind.  God replies, "Sad, isn't it? He came to show people who I am and most folks only believe it about him. They still play us off like good cop/bad cop - especially religious folk...But...he reflected my heart exactly."


(14) Some great quotes from the book;


"even should we find another eden; we would not be fit to enjoy it perfectly nor remain in it forever" Henry Van Dyke

"love is the skin on knowing" 

"People are tenacious when it comes to the treasure of their imaginary independence.'

"The flower of faith does not grow in the garden of certainty."


In reading this book, I don't think I heard anything I hadn't heard before, and some of the writing is, stylistically, off-beat a bit. Having said that, the author has done an exceptional job of discussing and, at least at a rudimentary/anecdotal level, defending a whole host of ideas and concepts that I myself believe that are very uncommon in evangelical circles.  He stops short of universalism, but lays all the right groundwork to come to that conclusion.  A quote from the end of chapter 12:


"Those who love me come from every system that exists.  They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institution.  I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous.  Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians.  I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Abba, into my brothers and sisters, into my beloved....Most roads don't lead anywhere...I will travel any road to find you."


And, finally, he tackles the issue of the kidnapping and violent murder of the protagonist's 6 year old daughter in a way that was initially flat, but was ultimately satisfying to me, as a father of young daughters - and believe me, that is no mean feat as a father who has tumbled across my own tongue the curses I would lay at God's feet were he to allow some unspeakable evil to touch my girls.

In the end, this simple book is deserving of the hype and praise it has received.  It as both deep and touching, if not sophisticated.  It is moving and thought-provoking. 

So much of the book echoes Nouwen's counsel on moving from the house of fear to the house of love.  In a particularly poignant scene where God is gently confronting the protagonist about why he didn't tell his wife about the invitation to the shack (the protagonists says it was to prevent her from the pain of confronting the death of their daughter again; but god corrects him and says the real reason was that he (the protagonist) was afraid of all the emotions they would deal with  - i.e., he was hiding the invitation to protect himself, not to protect her), the protagonist worries if tells his wife the truth and asks her forgiveness for his lie, "what if she doesn't forgive me?".  To which god replies, "Faith does not grow in the house of certainty."


Eric Livingston said...

Yep. A few gems speckled amongst the simplicity and poor story telling.

Tom said...

The local radio station hosted an interview with Paul Young last week. Have a listen: http://www.b98.com/sectional.asp?id=21564