Tag: The Shack

On coming late to The Great Divorce

I’ve just finished C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce for the first time. It is a strange genre of writing, certainly not a novel in a conventional sense. Somewhat like Pilgrim’s Progress, it has a series of encounters with representative people in heaven, hell and in-between, whose responses to their situations have much to teach and warn us about our lives today.

Despite its disclaimer (‘a dream’), the book must surely horrify many evangelicals with its set-up of the afterlife. People’s fates are not fixed; they have the opportunity of visiting heaven and even staying. Their entry seems to depend upon their letting go of the sins which they have become attached to.

Lewis performs a deft twist at the end to exculpate himself and maintain his orthodoxy; the encounters we have read of are perhaps ‘only the mimicry of choices that had really been made long ago’ or perhaps ‘anticipations of a choice to be made at the end of all things’ (107). Better to say neither, advises George MacDonald (C.S. Lewis’s literary hero and his guide in heaven) – ‘do not ask of a vision in a dream more than a vision in a dream can give.’ MacDonald, warns him to be sure to ‘give no poor fool a pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows’ (108).

It is one of those rare books which inspire me to be a better person. Actually, perhaps it scares me to be better as much as inspires me – it is frightening to see parts of myself in all these people who are shutting out heaven and holding onto sin. The worst sin in The Great Divorce seems to be joylessness – those who shut out joy will shut out God. This is hard for a gloomy person like me to hear. It’s not the sin Jesus spent the most time on, but I see much truth in Lewis’s depiction of a series of people who will not embrace joy and truth because they are holding onto resentments of various kinds:

…it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine. (60)

Also frightening is Lewis’s depiction of a liberal bishop, who would rather return to the ambiguities of his theological reading group in the gloomy city (hell) than embrace the certainties of knowing God face to face. This is how he became what he is:

Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. (28)

There should be more books like this. The Shack probably belongs in the same genre, but unfortunately not in the same league.

The Shack : theological fiction for the disenchanted

Love it or hate it, in the last year it seems everyone in the evangelical world has had an opinion on William P. Young’s bestselling novel, The Shack.  Whatever its failings, it has moved a lot of people deeply and has them talking about the problem of pain, the doctrine of the Trinity and many other theological questions.

The book starts off like a conventional crime novel: Mack’s daughter Missy goes missing while a family is on holiday. The police find her bloodied dress in a shack by a lake. Despite clunky writing and implausible police procedure – would the investigating officer  immediately tell a distraught father that the ladybird pin left where his daughter went missing was the calling card of a serial killer? – this section has a strong narrative drive.

The remaining three quarters of the book is less a novel and more a series of conversations between Mack and God. It starts with Mack receiving a note from God inviting him back to the shack. When he gets there, the three persons of the trinity are waiting for him – Papa (a large black woman); Jesus (a Middle Eastern but very American sounding man) and Sarayu (an Asian woman). Mack spends the weekend hanging out with God, having all his questions answered and his pain healed.

I like the idea of God appearing in a novel, but this God, despite her ethnic diversity, is too folksy and too middle-American. Several times a page the characters smirk, laugh, chuckle and smile their way through awkward dialogue that gives Young a chance to put his theology in the most privileged place of all – the mouth of God.

The central question is the problem of pain: why didn’t God stop Missy dying? But Mack and God end up covering a lot of areas – Christology, ethics and the church among many – sometimes in a muddled, whirlwind way that may cause more confusion than good.

Often the ideas are quite familiar. On the problem of pain, Young’s answer comes down, in the end, to a free-will defence:

“If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love. Love that is forced is no love at all.” (p. 190)

Earlier, Papa assures Mack she was there with Missy as she was murdered; she doesn’t attempt to explain why she didn’t intervene. Theologians have only taken us so far past these answers; it would be too much to ask for anything startling here.

Whatever its literary and theological shortcomings, a key question in responding to The Shack is to ask why so many people love it.

I wonder if for many it’s their first exposure to theology which challenges conservative evangelical piety. I think of my friend’s grandmother who came away from it amazed by the idea that God might not be simply male.

I wonder also if Young speaks to and for the growing number of disenchanted evangelicals who have little or no attachment to a church but still identify as Christians. His novel shows a distaste for institutions and a picture of an evangelical in exile that would appeal to them.

Finally, I think The Shack‘s lack of literary and theological polish is probably a part of its appeal. Young writes as an amateur in the best sense, and the book has a naivety and simplicity which might be refreshing for a lot of people. It’s not only his God who is so very accessible and human, but his writing and his ideas too.