Monday, September 29, 2008
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
The Shack... the buzz... the controversy... the middle aged black woman... the revolution... the lack thereof...
For months now, murmurs of The Shack have rumbled around me - reviews, recommendations, discommendations, swirling around me like the aromas from Sarayu's fractalesque garden until I finally had no choice but to give in and read. My dear friend, Ashley, first gave me the book months and months ago to read; but I, however, evaded her under the pretense that I am incapable of reading more than one book at once; moreover, I am a slow reader and must make careful choices of the books I read for woe to me for wasted time on empty pages. And, hearing what I had heard about the Shack, I feared for the worst... There is nothing like popular Christian fiction, or popular Christian music, or popular Christian anything to induce me to question its quality.
But, alas, it is finished. And I find myself very much where I was when I began the book. The Shack failed to redeem itself from my stubborn preconceived expectations - but, then again, when I am set against something from the beginning, wow, often my own vigilance surprises me.
However, I found myself, much to my chagrin, indifferent, no, ok, aroused, ok, pleased with certain parts in the Shack. Those moments were few and far between, as my "see I told you so" determination to find all that I disliked quickly dispelled those more pleasing passages.
I think I know now what I think. And with the help of excellent criticism from John Stackhouse, Carolyn Culbertson, and other friends, will attempt to put my thoughts into words. Questions have arisen about the book's theology. The theology, though sparse and loose at times, did not offend me. The imaginative quality has put many ill at ease - my "African American" grandmother cannot be an adequate picture of God! I rather like that... No, The Shack represents to me what is wrong with literature today: it's too easy, it all works out in the end, and it fails utterly to convey the voices of our time. Simply put, The Shack may be many things, but literature it is not.
John Stackhouse, professor at Regent Seminary gives the following most excellent comparison between ideological fiction (books set to exhibit ideas) and propaganda.
Now, when does fiction become propaganda?
First answer: when it propounds an ideology I don’t like.
Second, better(!), answer: When the fictive art is compromised for the sake of the ideological message. When dialogue becomes stilted, when characters become inconsistent, when events become implausible, when a deus ex machina saves the day—in sum, when “what would happen” is sacrificed to “what should happen.” -John Stackhouse (please read more and often: http://stackblog.wordpress.com)
Yes! Literature tells us of our experience. Literature is like coming across people you might meet in real life and gleaning from their ideas, worldviews, behaviors, even outlandish experiences. It is not that Mack's experience seems unrealistic, it's that he was created by the author to fit the experience and not the other way around. Everything that transpires seems perfectly cast for our poor, befuddled, lovable, emotionally sunk protagonist. How many depictions do we come across describing Mack's mental incapability to take in all he was hearing and experiencing: Mack was stunned and speechless... struggled to find footing... felt like his head was going to explode... Given the type and intensity of the experience, wouldn't anybody feel this way? That's just it - Mack is too general, too universal. Mack could be any of us and none of us, all at the same time. You know, a guy like Mack who had all these like "unspecific" preconceived notions of the Christian life, then like, they were totally changed when he had that crazy experience!
What we don't get see of Mack is the working out of this experience in the messy reality of life. That was where Mack might have gained back some of his humanity, but no, "...Mack? Well he's a human being that continues through a process of change, like the rest of us. Only he welcomes it while I tend to resist it. I have noticed that he loves larger than most, is quick to forgive, and even quicker to ask for forgiveness." (Young, The Shack, p.247) What a general, obtuse, and intangible conclusion to our adventure. Mack, however, remains unavailable to comment as he "is testifying at the Ladykiller trial" (Young, The Shack, p.248.) This, for me, remains the book's greatest downfall. Justice. Earthly justice. Not only is Mack miraculously reconciled to God, to his drunk abusive father, to his family, but, the icing on the cake, God provides a way to bring that killer to justice! Mack and Missy's longing for justice is answered, within 250 pages. The rest of us live our lives in the torrent and despair of injustice - both on smaller and larger scales. This is nothing new under the sun: "In the place of judgment -- wickedness was there, in the place of justice -- wickedness was there" (Ecclesiastes 3:16.) We have simply the promise of justice, much more difficult to live with than the real thing.
Despite my critique, The Shack serves to encourage many, provoke many, delight many. With those reactions I will not argue. If you enjoyed The Shack, read on! Act as though you never came across this response (not difficult as you probably have not read it in the first place - my blog is not what we term "popular"). But there are bigger and better Shacks out there, with bigger and better Macks, and bigger and better trinities. If you come across one, let me know, I'd like to visit.
When we tell these little ones' stories - we best attempt to make it worth it... Thank you, William Young, for speaking on their behalf...
Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones! - Dostoevsky, Rebellion, The Brothers Karamazov
"There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries, than the necessity of listenting to sermons." Anthony Trollope " Barchester Towers vol. I, chapter 6.
Truly there is nothing like a good sermon to draw a crowd to the chapel, and nothing like a mediocre, even bad sermon to drive us back to the ideals from whence we came.
And here, for sheer comedic value, the quote in its entirety:
There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling audiences to sit silent, and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, (sic) and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. Let a professor of law or physic find his place in a lecture-room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. A judge's charge need be listened to per force by none but the jury, prisoner, and gaoler (sic). A member of parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town-councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sindbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday's rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God's service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship; but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape, which is the common consequence of common sermons.