The Shack by William P. Young is the latest Christian success story, currently at no.1 on the New York Times bestseller list, where it has been since June 8.There is a certain kind of person that is suspicious of success and seeks always to tear down what has been raised high. They’re usually called British. A fair proportion of British blood courses through my veins, as does such suspicion. However, with The Shack, and as an evangelical Christian, I feel this suspicion is justified. So, for the next few weeks, I will feature some criticisms of the theological pitfalls and half-truths that make this book so friendly to postmodern ears, and dangerous to the gospel.
The Shack is a well-written novel, and many of its insights are helpful and encouraging. In fact, given that it is ‘merely’ fiction, and emotive, devotional fiction that encourages deeper spirituality, criticism of the book will probably seem mean-spirited. However, let’s not make the same mistake that was made when The Simpsons first aired. Because The Simpsons is animated, people mistakenly assumed that it was intended for children, when its themes and approach made it far more suited to a young-adult audience. So, it was misunderstood and unnecessarily protested (its staggering drop in quality since 2001 is in fact reason for us to protest it, but that’s another story). The mistake that Christians will make about The Shack is to assume that because it is fiction, it is not theology.
The Shack is part of the postmodern Christian school, following in the footsteps of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. In postmodern thinking, monologue is the enemy, and story is the primary means of communication of ideas. Thus, the way in which postmodern theologians teach theology and persuade their students is by means of stories, not direct statements of belief. Stories are terrific teaching tools, as Jesus himself exemplified, but they have as many weaknesses as strengths. Stories admit a number of problems for the pupil sitting under postmodern teaching:
Problem #1: Story is manipulative
In contrast to orthodox evangelicals, postmodernist Christians believe that there is no objective Truth; that scripture is at best ideas about truth on the same level as anyone else’s ideas; and that authority and judgement and conflict are great evils that have no place in Christianity. A teacher-student relationship is hierarchical and presupposes power of one over another, and so is rejected. Ideas of ‘orthodoxy’ lead to conflict and attempts to gain power over people, and so orthodoxy is rejected.
The strange thing is that postmodern Christianity still teaches, and it has some key beliefs that do form a kind of orthodoxy. For example, a God of wrath definitely has no place in its theology. Those of us who do believe in God’s wrath are called outdated ‘modernists’, or nice words for ‘bigot’. However, the way in which this theology is communicated in story form ends up being heavily emotive and manipulative, and therefore no less a ‘power play’ than traditional teaching methods. If traditional teaching is too much like open conflict, then postmodern story amounts to espionage or sabotage, so that the enemy is disarmed, but it is no less an attempt at conquest. For example, a ‘modernist’ would engage in debate, defending his own teaching, and giving reasons why his opponent is incorrect. The postmodernist Christian novel never debates or appeals to reason directly. To persuade, the author creates a pretentious, despicable character to represent the opponent’s view, and an honourable, loveable, misunderstood, flawed-but-honest character to represent his own view. In so doing, the reader trusts the hero whatever he speaks, and dismisses the villain regardless of the truth of his words. The victory is won through emotion, not reason.
Problem #2: Story is ambiguous
A second problem is that, due to its inherent complications and ambiguities, story is extremely difficult to analyse. If the author provides too few guiding comments, the reader is unable to know for sure whether certain ideas should be accepted or treated with reservation, particularly if they are spoken by a flawed or developing character.
For example, in The Shack, even though the author does provide lengthy explanation, many people still trip over the representation of God the Father as a black woman.
Or, take this for example. The main character, Mack, receives a note in the post box signed ‘Papa’, which is his wife’s favourite name for God. He says, ‘I guess part of me would like to believe that God would care enough about me to send a note,’ (page 71). We’re left to guess whether the author is suggesting that this is a legitimate expression of God’s care. Is the book a fantasy story in which such things belong to a fictional universe? Is it just the rambling of a misguided character? Or should I be led to believe that the Christian life ought to be a supernatural, experiential relationship with God in which things of this order happen?
Problem #3: Story is subjective
The third major problem with story, especially postmodern story, is that it doesn’t insist that the reader should understand something particular and important, or that the reader should respond in a certain way. Postmodernists aren’t interested in being interpreted ‘correctly’, but rather that the reader gets something from it that is important to him. They call it ‘reader response’. So, in massive contrast to scripture that calls false teachers and any deviation from the original gospel fatal (cf. Matt. 7:15-29; Gal. 1:6-8), postmodern stories purposefully allow the reader to filter and select, and to draw whatever conclusion he likes.
So, if we as Bible-believing Christians are to assess postmodern theology well, we have to become adept students of fiction, and alive to the strengths and weaknesses of story.
Appendix: The Bible and Story
One might well object that the Bible makes use of story very often. Should we similarly distrust it? Well, the differences between the Bible and a novel are many. The Bible has books that are bald, direct theology that, in contrast to postmodern sensibilities, claim to be Truth and demand obedience. Even the gospel stories themselves contain many theological statements and other guiding comments from the author that would prevent us making unfettered subjective responses.
For more on postmodern Christianity, see my lengthy critique of A New Kind of Christian (http://www.studenty.org.za/c_nkc1.htm).