July 28, 2011

I Haven't Read The Shack, But Apparently It's Better Than a Tract

I still haven't read The Shack and don't plan to at any point soon. It has never piqued my interest, really. I did read a criticism of it the other day, however. Which made me feel a lot more favorable about the book. 

My brief response to the four problem areas of Tim Challies' "charitable but critical" critique of The Shack, using his own headings:
  • Subversion: Apparently this guy has no awareness of how shallow many people's experience of God and the church has been. No obvious sense of humor, either.
  • Revelation: More of the usual criticism leveled against Blackaby's Experiencing God: The Bible is the only way God speaks. Anything else is rank mysticism. Be suspicious of people who say that God ever replies when prayed to.
  • Salvation: It's Calvinism or the highway. And Universal Redemption is a heresy.
  • Trinity: This guy doesn't want to read a novel; he wants a mimeographed copy of his favorite Bible verses. He may also approve of some Taliban policies. They take the "no graven image" command more seriously.
Based on reading this critique, this Berean watchdog "exercise in discernment and critical thinking," questions that I would want answered before I started criticizing this novel would include several along these lines:
  1. What was the author trying to communicate?
  2. Who was the author's intended audience?
  3. Was the author trying to write a "4 Spiritual Laws" tract to evangelize his audience?
  4. Was the author trying to make an argument for the Bible being superior to face-to-face conversation with God?
Challies acknowledges that the book is a novel, yet reacts as though he has missed this crucial point -- that The Shack is fiction, written to his own children and for a specific reason. It is not a textbook of systematic theology or a sermon for the hell-bent. It is not a seminary thesis or a litmus test of his credentials for the ministry. The choice of fiction allows the author to speculate about details on which the Bible is either silent or unclear. Details about what God might say -- in a dialog and in understandable language -- in response to honest questions and complaints. Like the book of Job, but in the context of pseudo-Christian America, and fleshing out other aspects of God's character. Fiction allows an author to wonder out loud some of the thoughts that a Christian might have when considering how to reconcile loyalty to the loving and just God with the classic problem of suffering and the natural feelings of disappointment, confusion, or anger that the problem leads to. 

It would be ridiculous to criticize C.S. Lewis for using a talking animal as the savior and lord of Narnia. Or for having that lion let children stroke his mane. Because Lewis wasn't trying to suggest that the real Jesus is a talking animal. Or has fur. Or wants us to stroke it. Similarly, it is ridiculous to take a work of fiction about being invited to a face-to-face conversation with God, and the insights about evil and pain (theodicy, really) that would be possible in that context, and then criticize that book for not containing a suitable number of declarations that the character should leave God alone and go read his Bible for the answers to his questions, instead. Those answers that have generally left cold the people who are in real pain unless they have a loving and personal relationship with God in addition to a Bible. And maybe even then are not completely satisfying. You know, those answers about God's ways being too high to understand, for example. Or about some of us being created as objects of wrath. And what we might logically conclude about God's view of us if our miserable lives appear to be evidence that we are not among the elect.

If I read it, I would not be surprised to discover that this novel was actually an apologia on another level, arguing that belief in God's love and power is reasonable despite the reality of the fallen world we live in. Imagination in the service of worship. "Faith seeking understanding," even, in Anselm's words. Hmmm.... Maybe I will read it after all.