Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Shack: A Postmodern Novel

I just saw the movie, The Shack, on Sunday night, and I am so glad I did. I thought they did a great job bringing the book and the conversations in the book to life on the big screen. I first read The Shack back in 2008 and I even wrote a paper for grad school, talking about The Shack as a postmodern novel. So I decided to publish that here if you are interested in reading it. Warning, it is kind of long... but Enjoy!

The Shack, by William Paul Young, began as the self-published debut novel of an unknown writer and is currently the #5 book on (I'm sure sales have been boosted again by the release of the movie this past weekend.) Through story format, The Shack communicates deep ideas about God and theology that have strong implications. If reasoned debates could be called a rhetoric of modernism, story is a primary rhetoric of postmodernism. It should be no surprise then that The Shack, has experienced such widespread popularity as a story imbued with theology, and has been especially popular among those who might be considered postmodern.

The novel is about Mackenzie (Mack) Phillips wrestling with God over the abduction, rape, and murder of his youngest daughter, Missy. Following Missy’s death, Mack, who has always had a somewhat strained relationship with God, falls into what he calls “the Great Sadness.” One winter day, Mack receives a letter from Papa (his wife’s favorite name for God) asking him to meet God in the shack where Missy’s bloody dress, the only evidence of her murder, was recovered. The rest of the book is a conversation between Mack and the Trinity.

When Mack arrives at the shack, his memories and anger are stirred up and his feelings towards God are revealed. Mack desperately wants answers but feels his prayers and concerns are being shouted to a deaf and uncaring person. At his wit's end the scenery around the shack changes and when he goes to the door, he is met by an older African-American woman who reveals herself to be Papa. Mack finds himself in the presence of the entire Trinity: Jesus is depicted as a middle-aged Jewish man, and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman named Sarayu (Sanskrit for "wind").

When reviewing any book, it must be considered within its literary genre. This book is categorized as fiction, and the reader should remember that it is a story designed as fiction, not an account of real events that happened in the Northwest. Though it is not categorized as a book about theology, much of the uproar surrounding the book has to do with the theology that is embedded in the story. Young claims that it was not his intention to change theological foundations, but critics have claimed that his depictions of God and theology are at best, misinterpretations, and at worst, a heresy. Young deconstructs different elements of Christian theology and paints a new picture of God and The Trinity it would seem he wants readers to embrace.

This deconstruction begins with the depiction of God the Father as an African-American woman, deviating significantly from conventional stereotypes, including Mack’s own preconceived idea of God as an older grandfather figure, who he had “naturally assumed … would be white” (87). The book uses some characterizations of God to play with the religious stereotypes to get people to consider God as he really is, not how we have reconstituted him as a white, male autocrat bent on religious conformity: “For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning” (93). There are important reasons in the story why God takes the expressions he does for Mack, which underlines his nature to meet us where we are, to lead us to where he is. However, this postmodern play with the manifestation of the character of God is a major point of contention for many Christians. Mark Driscoll, former pastor of a church in Seattle, WA, calls this goddess worship: “if God the Father is really God the Mother, that changes everything … if God reveals himself to us as Father, we are to honor him as Father and if we say that God the Father is a woman now we’re not worshiping God, we’re worshiping goddess." (Link to video clip) Critics have called Young’s depiction of God, in essence, idolatry, seeking to set forth the terms of the relationship rather than God setting the terms.

This deconstruction and redefining continues with the characters of Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well as the Trinity as a whole. By doing so, Young seems to be saying that Christianity has misconstrued an understanding of the nature of God that must be revised in order to truly know God. Critics like Albert Mohler say Young paints a picture of Jesus that diminishes his divinity. This would be called a limited Christology in theological circles, for example, Papa says that when Jesus healed the blind, “he did so as a dependent, limited human being trusting in [Papa’s] life and power to be at work within him and through him. Jesus, as a human being, had no power within himself to heal anyone” (100). This statement goes against orthodox Christian doctrine, and it is statements like these that illustrate how The Shack is postmodern in the way that it shakes up the “accepted” ideas and plays with words and definitions in an attempt to make people think differently about things.

Again, one of the defining postmodern elements of this novel is the way it embraces storytelling to teach theology and persuade the reader as opposed to direct statements of belief. Stories are terrific teaching tools, however they can be manipulative, sometimes disguising a denial of truth and relying too heavily on experience and subjectivity. Young says, “The Shack was a story written for my six children, with no thought or intention to publish.  It is as much a surprise to me as to anyone else that I am now an ‘author’”. Young writes (in story format) about the function of parables in an article entitled “Fiction, Truth, Reality and all that stuff”:
That’s what a parable does.  It uses a story to tell the truth in a way that gets by your training and your defenses.  I think you might be confusing facts with truth, thinking that what seems to be ‘real’ should be the same as what is true! … Parables are not as concerned with facts and reality as they are about communicating the truth. … The truth of a story like this parable is much more significant than just the sum of its parts, in fact, Truth belongs to a different realm of existence and significance than facts and reality. 
In addition to the postmodern elements of deconstruction and emphasis on story, The Shack emphasizes relationships over institutions. This book has clearly resonated with the masses, likely many who have been burned by deep tragedy, bad church experiences, and churchgoers who consistently misrepresent Christ. The content of this book takes a harsh look at how many religious institutions and practices have blinded people to the simple Gospel and replaced it with a religion of rules and rituals that have repelled people away from God. Sarayu says, “Enforcing rules ... is a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty. And contrary to what you might think, I have a great fondness for uncertainty. Rules cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse.” And Jesus says that the church Mack knows is only an institution, a man-made system that is not what he came to build, when Jesus thinks of the church he sees “people and their lives, a living breathing community of all those who love [him], not buildings and programs” (178). Jesus tells Mack that it’s simple, “it’s all about relationships and simply sharing life … being open and available to others” (178). This goes hand in hand with the emerging church that is attempting to embrace certain aspects of postmodernism that can be beneficial to them as the Church. This anti-institution theme is most definitely a postmodern one, summed up in this book when Jesus says to Mack:
Institutions, systems, ideologies, [are] futile. I can give you freedom to overcome any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social, or political. You will grow in the freedom to be inside or outside all kinds of systems and to move freely between and among them. Together, you and I can be in it and not of it. (181)

The failure of the church is woven into the fabric of the story. After taking a walk across the lake together, Jesus tells Mack that he is not a Christian and does not want to make people into Christians; he just wants a relationship with people. It is a sentiment that harmonizes beautifully with one of the anthems of postmodern culture: institutions and labels are impersonal and inauthentic. Mack is also an example of institutional failure; he admits that his years in seminary taught him things that failed to result in a real relationship with God. Jesus highlights this clash between stale, unreal doctrines and living personal relationships by insisting that Mack's experiences of hymns and sermons are not the church he came to build.

One of the most postmodern elements in this story (and most controversial among Christians) is probably the following passage:
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 institutions. 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 Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved. (182)
Immediately after this, Mack asks Jesus if that means that all roads will lead to him and Jesus says, “'Not at all, most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you” (182). Despite the clarity here, Young has been raked over the coals for this passage, and mostly because people are not paying attention to the tenses of the verbs. “They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans … I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous” (182). These same people tend to end the quote after, “I have no desire to make them Christian,” instead of reading the rest of it, “but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved. (182). The point here is not that all roads lead to God, but that He is a God of relationships and transformation, not institutions, rules and regulations.

A final postmodern element may be the ongoing conversation with the author. Because of the internet, communication with the masses is at our fingertips and Young has taken advantage of this and responded to some of the strongest allegations on his blog:
Every person has a right to an opinion, but there is much being stated that is simply not true. No, I am not a Universalist! There is no ‘agenda’ behind my book - I wrote it for my six children.  The Shack is not scripture, not a book on systematic theology, it is fiction.  I love the community of believers and am not particularly bothered by how they choose to gather - I am the master of no one.  People are people, and Papa has purpose in everything, and adores each of us. Some are upset that the book is ‘fiction’… sorry, there was no ‘intent’ to deceive anyone into thinking it was not (that is why it says ‘fiction’ on the cover, is endorsed as ‘fiction’ and sold as ‘fiction’).  It would have made no sense to have the Foreword and After Word be non-fiction, but the rest of it be fiction. (WindRumors) 
Young also addresses these accusations in the same format in which he wrote The Shack, as a dialogue between himself and Papa called “The Mystery of Ambiguity.” In it, Papa asks him what specifically is bothering him that is being said about him and he responds, “Let’s see, that I am a Universalist, that I am an adherent of various religions, that I hate the Church…” When Papa asks him if he is indeed a Universalist Young responds, “You know that I’m not. I know that faith in Jesus is the only way into your embrace; that only what you did on that cross saves us.” As the dialogue continues, it progresses into a discussion about why God did not make things clearer in the Bible. At one point Papa says,
Have you ever thought that ambiguity, that mystery, might have purpose? ... I delight in ambiguity. I relish what mystery brings to the table. It’s not that I don’t delight in clarity; after all, the Scriptures themselves are about revealing me so that you can know me.  But part of that revelation is that I am completely different than you and you will never completely comprehend me or my ways. … It reveals the heart of the individual.  In fact, mystery is at the center of both relationship and faith.
Again, Young is pointing to a more postmodern Christianity, which of course is the reason for much of the controversy. It is not easy to speak definitively of The Shack's theology (maybe this is intentional). Young did not choose to write a systematic theology, he chose to write a story, a parable more than an allegory. As even the back cover of the book says, at its core, it seems to mostly be a story of a soul wrestling with the timeless question: “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?” Even a postmodern society is still concerned with understanding the answer to that question.

Works Cited

Young, William Paul. The Shack. Los Angeles, CA: Windblown Media, 2007.

---. “Fiction, Truth, Reality and all that stuff…” Wind Rumors. December 2007.

---. “The Beauty of Ambiguity (Mystery) Wind Rumors. March 2008.

---. Wind Rumors. 2008.

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