Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, Dr. Strangelove, features a rogue general ordering a nuclear strike on Russia. While the bomber moves closer to its destination, the president and his advisers attempt to recall the bomber before its payload. The incompetency and lunacy of the council cannot recall the bomber in time. The film satirizes, among other things, the Cold War policy of the proliferation of nuclear arms as the greatest deterrent to war with Russia. Kubrick’s point was that the proliferation of nuclear weapons can only lead to their use and not to their non-use. To underscore this point, Kubrick uses numerous sexual references and symbols throughout the film signifying that we will eventually give in to our base urges and use these weapons.
That an event that would lead to the end of the world could be satirized in such way is simultaneously humorous and repulsive – and Kubrick is a genius for it. I’m sure you’re wondering what Dr. Strangelove has to do with The Shack.
I get that The Shack was intended to be read as a serious piece of allegorical fiction, and that the book supposedly aligns itself with the mission statement (at least at the time of this article) of Windblown Publishing, which published the book: “to provide creative and intellectually honest literature for those seeking a renewal of love and faith.” A noble goal that I believe The Shack fails to meet.
Yet, when interpreted along the same lines as Kubrick’s classic (i.e. as a satire), The Shack becomes a work of genius. If you’re repulsed by this point, I consider my case is already made. For those of you still unconvinced, I’ll designate this satirized version of the book with brackets – [The Shack] – and present my case.
I know that many of my friends have read The Shack, enjoyed it, and been impacted by its message. I’m not trying to diminish that impact. God uses many means to get a hold of us. You have been honest with me about your love for this book. Please let me be honest about what I feel about this book. Before we anoint it as a “Christian classic,” we ought to consider its message seriously. It purports to break the mold of rigid religiosity and intellectualism to bring biblical concepts to a lay audience. I believe it does none of that.
But the Shack’s satirical alter ego does. Presenting us with a poorly thought-out theodicy encased in shoddily written narrative with little emotional depth, [The Shack] is a beautifully composed, yet biting critique of the Contemporary Christian Subculture (CCS) that generates this type of media commonly represented in popular sermons, music, books, blogs, and magazines. By adjusting our lens to see the book behind the book, we will find that [The Shack] calls us to a higher standard, and we ought to get behind its message.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying…
I think the key point was the moment the main character described his view of Scripture. The letter that Mack receives from God flies in the face of what God was supposed to do:
[T]he thought of God passing notes did not fit well with his theological training. In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow Sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book.
Although many have argued that The Shack is steeped in Scripture and that it’s the allegorical nature of the book that enables the “unorthodox” pictures, I believe this statement from the main character is what enables Young to break from traditionally formulated doctrine in a way that doesn’t require him to tie whatever statements and caricatures he makes back to Scripture. The difficulty in writing allegory is making clear what real thing the allegory refers to. The Shack doesn’t do this. Whatever theological concept or Scriptural reference it has a backdrop for the allegory was extremely unclear. If the book isn’t establishing its ideas about God on heretical beliefs (I am always willing to extend grace), it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint which orthodox ideas the author is allegorizing.
Read from the point of view of [The Shack], however, the above statement takes a different significance. The CCS and its community, whether they acknowledge it or not, possess a shallow knowledge of Scripture. Any interpretation, philosophy,or theology is fair game as long as it matches the expectations of CCS, which has become the interpretive grid through which to learn about ourselves and about God. Impersonal, irrelevant theological thinking and interpretations are perceived as generated by cold-hearted “intellgentsia” and are easily deposed because they limit God to the proverbial “box.”
[The Shack] enables us to see how such views have become prevalent in the CCS. What follows in [The Shack] is a slightly less than heterodox presentation of the Trinity and the inner working of their relationship. The Father can be a grammatically-challenged African American woman, Jesus, a migrant worker from the Middle East, and the Spirit, an Asian woman who possesses the wisdom and clarity of a fortune cookie. The Shack intends these pictures to challenge our notion of God. [The Shack], however, challenges the lack of interest in theological thought by presenting the Trinity in highly stereotyped human forms. All the attempts of the CCS crowd to imagine a God “outside the box” are just skin deep. CCS’s God still retains the classic stereotypes that restrict him from acting in a way appropriate to his character as described in Scripture.
God does not “have” to punish sin, sin is its own punishment. Everyone is his child already. God really wants relationship with everybody with no responsibilities or requirements and no strings attached. The notions of penal substitution as the ultimate solution to sin and evil and the call to sanctification through the power of the spirit, both explicit in Scripture, are placed in a box and set aside. We might expect a Scripture-saturated allegorical story dedicated to exploring the problem of evil to make mention of these important points. [The Shack] leaves them out in a conspicuous manner declaring that if one has an inadequate view of God, theodicy naturally suffers.
The “bare-bones” story might have the potential to explore the topic of grief and pain as long as the details are fleshed out properly. Mack is a man who was abused as a boy by his Bible-wielding father. Although his faith is not the strong faith of his wife, he loves his children and is himself a decent father. He decides to spend some extended quality time with them by taking them on a camping trip through the Northeastern United States. Each day is better than the last until two of his children accidentally capsize their canoe. When Mack rushes to the water to save his children, his youngest daughter, whom he left to save the other children, was kidnapped and eventually murdered by a serial killer.
The story is not, however, well told. The characters have little depth. There’s almost no feeling. Mack’s struggle with grief, the “Great Sadness,” is portrayed linearly. He struggles early in the story. Mack then encounters a Mormonesque version of the Trinity, eats pancakes with God, plants a garden with God, walks on the water with God, and delves into highly questionable theological thought…with God. The “Great Sadness” is all but forgotten until the narrative decides that Mack needs to let it go. The Shack deals with the issue promptly with some emotional flourish. I thought the expression of grief was flat and inadequate especially in contrast to books like the Psalms, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Job which all deal with the concept of enduring grief and pain.
[The Shack] quickly and shallowly deals with Mack’s grief and thus demonstrates the inadequacy of CCS to deal with sorrow. Grief and pain have a weak presence in the life of the Christian who knows that God is “quite fond” of him or her. [The Shack] further underscores this foolishness by narrating the story in a poorly-written style: A Scripture-less culture is simply incapable of expressing grief and pain in a thoughtful and honest way. [The Shack] limits its expression for the sake of expediency – keep the story short and flat, keep the words small and the theology vague. The reader can choose to stop and think and confuse himself or move on quickly to find out “what happens next” – always moving from comfort to comfort.
…And Love The Bible
Obviously, I didn’t like the book. I didn’t like any of the book. I thought it mocked Christian thought, sold itself short on Scripture, and left me extremely confused. Don’t get me wrong though. I think we need more books like The Shack. Well, we need books better than The Shack. We need books that can actually be what the The Shack was supposed to be. G.K. Chesterton has said, “A great man knows that he is not God. The greater he is, the better he knows it.” We may never possess the brilliance or greatness of Kubrick or David, but let our work aspire to be great by making something worthy of God. Great Christian novels should not be characterized by weak storytelling and shallow theology. Learn the art of expression, and make it good. Most importantly, learn how the Bible expresses itself, and love it. The Bible expresses itself truly and deeply. Since that’s our first and best book, maybe we should start there.