Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Shack - a Review

Today is the anniversary of my late father’s birth day. If he were alive today he would be ninety-eight; instead esophageal cancer left him with too many bags, drains and tubes and no way to eat, so he went to bed the day after Christmas, 1982 and died. I loved him, alcohol, cigarettes, despair and all. My grief was long and hard. He died too soon for the length of my love.

I never thought God had a thing to do with his premature departure, causally at least. I don’t know what Dad thought. He didn’t talk. He’d say on and off throughout his life, What’s the point? and those were his last words to me as he lay dying. I had no answer but I don’t think he expected an answer, at least from me.

Dad had a reverence for the holy even in the midst of feeling defeated by life. He had a respect for religion and the transcendent. I could tell by the way he sang the Christmas carols in full bass voice, almost happy. I’d look up at him when I was a kid and think he knew something but couldn’t quite grasp it or let it take hold of him.

Traditional portraits of God— judge, monarch, Big Daddy watching from on high, subduer of deepest desires and passions—may have made it hard for my father to love and feel loved by God. He grew up in a family of six boys and two girls, number five flanked by two sisters who used to dress him up and play house. His father was passive, sweet and inebriated while Ma was a stern rising tower of authority. “Ma’s boys” could do no wrong. Dad was successful but I’d wonder if the occasional yearning I spotted in his eyes longed for, craved, a missing peace.

It’s not God but our misconstrued images of God that wound and kill us. The patriarchal God who points fingers and plays favorites has scared too many people for too long. That God, He, is the projection of a frightened church. That God, He, is still alive and well in too many shivering, cautious hearts. That God, He, has been the image of choice (for there are many images in the bible) in the church for too many centuries now.

Many clergy preach other, but mental imprints and hierarchical domination language are still used in worship and still hold power over souls.

I wish my dad could have met the portrait of God in The Shack.

When I read The Shack this summer I felt affectionately connected to God— in myself, in creation, in other people, and on high. Not new feelings but renewed feelings.

I’d resisted reading it in part because it was all the rage and I’m cynical about the tastes of the masses, and in part because I’d heard it was evangelical propaganda full of biblical literalism and not for sophisticated progressives who take the bible seriously but not literally, like my image of myself.

The Shack is a parable, a wisdom tale designed to startle and reveal something new. The story is about a father’s spiritual trip, and I say trip, because it is not a steadfast faith journey that evolves and matures over time with trust and prayer. It’s a crisis trip, an internal psychological/spiritual conversion of soul and mood: from a life of grim plodding, possessed by grief, laden with a habit of gloom larger than Eeyore’s to a life full of joy grounded in wisdom not rapture.

The plot isn’t complicated. It’s a reiteration of the story of the biblical Job, the good guy who is struck by more personal tragedy than anyone should have to bear and asks, Why? Job is far more dramatic in his impatient refusal to let go of the besetting question about why bad things happen to good people than is Mackenzie Alan Phillips in The Shack who has sunken into a faith of empty duty and spiritual deadness—until he gets an odd invitation in the mail.

The ideas in this book aren’t new: God in three persons, God who meets us and loves us at the center of our pain, Jesus in living color. It’s evangelical Christian propaganda as I’d feared.

What is new is that the theological ideas are wrapped, often not too tightly, in personal narrative, someone’s experience filled with characters you can fall in love with, identify with, care about. You keep reading even though you think you can guess what might happen, and to Christians the story is the one we hear in Church every Sunday and then some—with a twist. One of the novel’s characters is God-relating-to-God. Hey, don’t you have inner dialogues? But are yours all filled with mutual respect and love—and good boundaries, for godssake?

The gift of his book is that it gives readers a new image of God, not an abstraction or doctrine but as characters in a novel, drawn with sympathy and color, characters that sustain the narrative, characters you want to know. That’s new and it is charming.

What makes The Shack not really a good novel is that its plot is weak, the writing not very creative, the dramatic action not suspenseful but forced into the service of an agenda, the solutions contrived, the wisdom un-nuanced. The plot quickly takes second place to the agenda of the author and collaborators with just enough change of scene to keep you going. What starts as a story turns into a sermon, embarrassingly preachy in spots. especially near the end when a clear Christian refrain shows up uninvited. I cringed. My Jewish blood also curdled in a couple of places that were unnecessarily anti-semitic and insulting to the Hebrew scriptures. The story doesn’t carry its own weight throughout.

As I’d feared it is also biblical literalism thinly disguised. Why am I not in a rant? Disgusted? I don’t know. I just got into the scene, the relationships, corny but alluring, often followed up with a tidbit of irresistible wisdom like the Eden myth question: “Rumors of glory are often hidden inside what many consider myths and tales.” Or the human soul as a living fractal—wild, messy always in process, patterns emerging, alive, growing and needing constant tending.

Jesus takes Mack on a walk across the water. I giggled with them as they stepped off the dock, carrying their socks and shoes and rolling up their pants just in case. This and other biblical scenarios are simply portrayed without fanfare. They’re just acted out in character. Who cares if they actually happened? It is not fact that inspires faith but warmth.

This book is vulnerable, open to all kinds of scholarly nitpicking, literary scorn, religious defensiveness, much of it justified. But does it work anyway? I think it does for one reason only: the characters are lovable, charming, their voices convincing. You want more. You fall in love. You want this kind of love, this kind of God. I wonder if that is why this book is so popular. It allows us to fall in love, to be as a child, to let go of proofs, to enjoy a story that touches our humanity at its most vulnerable and presents an ancient Christian insight in new garb.

In addition, this book may serve as a bridge between the foolishly warring left and right religious camps. It's a string bridge to be sure, but one that both side may be able to execute with caution.

If The Shack does nothing else it give us fresh dynamic language and imagery for divinity and goes a long way to balance transcendent and immanent, love and freedom, revelation and psychology.

This is evangelical Christianity in its loveliest form. Happy Birthday Dad. Is this “the point” you always asked about?