Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Shack

The Shack is a book which is attracting a lot of attention and is surprisingly popular among evangelical Christians. I say that this is surprising as The Shack contains some challenging and radical concepts, not least the image of God as a large, bubbly Afro Caribbean woman who, despite being named Papa, could be seen as a direct challenge to patriarchal ideas about God. Even the fact that Papa tells the protagonist, Mack, that she can take a number of different forms, could be seen as supporting the idea that humans form God in an image which suits them , an image which only approximates to what God is. The book seems to me to hint at the possibility that the “truth” of God is not immutable; we grasp truths through our faith not a definitive “truth.” One of my favourite aspects of this novel is that God is presented as a being with no desire to control our lives or to punish us for wrongdoing. When Mack, the protagonist, first arrives at the shack, he expects the experience to be structured and controlled. When he asks, “So, what am I supposed to do?” he receives the answer,
“You’re not supposed to do anything. You are free to do whatever you like.”
In the Chapter, “Da Judgement Come”, Mack expects God to do the judging, only to find to his amazement that he is the judge of his life and actions and that God, as a parent, would be incapable of sending any of his/ her children to hell. Again, the emphasis is not on a punitive God but on one who only opens up possibilities for redemption and transformation.
This is not to say that The Shack does not have its critics – and some have been less than whole hearted in their praise. For start, the fact that the story revolves around child abduction, rape and murder, has been seen by some as insensitive, sensational or even offensive. The ideas about forgiveness might be described as glib. Mack cannot forgive his daughter’s murderer and in this instance Papa does make some demands saying,
“I want you to forgive. Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver, to release you.”
Although this concept of forgiveness does have some support in scripture and is, arguably, one of the more compassionate presentations of the reasons why we should forgive, those who have struggled with forgiveness, especially in the areas of child abuse, sexual violence and murder, would recognise it as an “answer” that can seem superficial and even be damaging to those affected. The assurance Papa gives that the child, Missy, “has already forgiven him” also seemed pat and insensitive to me.
The Shack is also, at times ,toe- curlingly embarrassing in its hippy like emphasis on lurve as the answer to moral and ethical dilemmas and it certainly does not offer a systematic or rigorous theology but more skims across and dips into a range of theological ideas, some would argue , without really grappling with them.
And yet, The Shack has something...something... that kept me avidly reading until the end. If you do read it, it is sure to either profoundly move or intensely irritate you, to make you feel it is a spiritual triumph or an intellectual charade, or even to get you to a point where you just can’t decide... and that has to be worth it in itself.

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