Reality isn’t kind to Christians, which is why they tend to create and consume media that reshapes reality into something they’re much more comfortable seeing. The Shack is one of a very long line of Christian glurge media that recreates reality for believers, giving them the thrill of “seeing” their beliefs mesh at last with the real world. But for everyone else, stories like this one simply make the religion sound worse.
The Shack is a simplistic fable written in 2007 by William P. Young. The author, notably, had a little training in theology, enough to write a convincing Christian yarn at least: an undergraduate degree in Religion, a bit of seminary education, and a childhood spent with missionary parents. He claims that he just wrote this book for his children, with no intentions of publishing it until friends brought up the idea (and I sincerely hope that this origin story is just more glurge, given what the book is about). However he got there, his book is now one of the big success stories in self-publishing–it hit a million sales within a couple of years. (Insert muttered grousing from a hundred wannabe authors right here. I’m with ya. I know. TANJ.)
In the novel, a married father of five named Mack (a shameless Mary Sue stand-in for the author himself, a fact he cheerfully volunteers) loses one of his children to a senseless, brutal murder. He goes into a tailspin, but then he’s invited to the selfsame shack where his daughter likely died (nobody has yet found her body). There, he discovers that the ramshackle shack has been totally renovated into a comfortable cabin surrounded by gorgeous scenery–the perfect place to get himself sorted out. He meets the Christian god, too–in three racially-stereotypical manifestations of the Trinity, because of course, and he also meets a woman acting as the judge of humankind. In talking to these manifestations, Mack gets his faith back, resolves his messy questions about why Christianity doesn’t square with reality, and even locates his daughter’s body–and from there her murderer. Some oogly-boogly mystical stuff happens and Mack has one of those “THEN WHO WAS PHONE?” sorts of experiences. The end–yay! Except um his little daughter still got brutally murdered and his family still had to grieve her loss.
There are no words to describe how creeptastic the premise and general themes in this book are. The author likes to say that the idea of a shack in the book is metaphorical and that he’s indirectly talking about how people get “stuck,” hurt, and damaged after painful experiences. He also likes to claim that he himself stuffed his own painful memories and dark secrets into his own “shack,” which his wife forced him to resolve when she caught him cheating on her; this tale sounds as fictionalized as the novel itself, but I can see fundagelicals eating it up with a spoon. He also says that he has “a free and open life full of love and empty of all secrets” in the wake of his success with The Shack, implying that as his self-insert Mary Sue figured himself out, the author did as well.
Of course, the author of this book is no more qualified to help people get healed and unstuck than he is to offer a theological treatise on the Problem of Evil, but Christians have never had a problem entrusting either their minds or their lives to completely unqualified people claiming expertise (and they don’t really care that there is no shortage of theologians and Christian leaders sharply criticizing this book’s ideas, including Mark Driscoll of all people).
Continuing in a long-standing tradition of reading and absorbing absolutely anything except the Bible, Christians glommed onto The Shack like it was the last Little Debbie snack cake at a Southern birthday party. It has quickly achieved bestseller status among Christians, who often consider it required reading (and don’t realize just how many lawsuits have erupted over it, which in my opinion detracts significantly from its ethereal reputation). In a sense, it’s part of the heavenly tourism genre of Christian books–it offers up a person who sees and interacts with “God” and “Jesus” in a mystical realm, shows that person answers to the big questions Christians always ask, then returns that person to his own reality. The only difference here is that The Shack involves a fictional character and the author only coyly pretends within the book’s own world that its events really happened, while Heaven is for Real and other such books involve real people and everyone’s pretending that the stuff in them totes for sure totally happened.
And whoa Nelly, these books sell! As of 2016, The Shack had sold a total of some 20 million copies, probably almost every one of them to Christians (it’s hard to imagine non-Christians responding well at all to the glurge contained in it). Considering how many Christians there are in the United States, that means that there’s a very good chance that any given Christian you meet has read it.
Wait. Listen. Do You Hear That?
Somewhere Out There, a White American Christian Is Having a Crisis of Faith!
Quick, to the Jesus-Mobile!
There are a lot of criticisms I could make about this book (and by extension the movie based on it).
One could start with the idea that the Christian god is really that concerned with individual followers to the extent he is with Mack. Christians get indoctrinated with the idea that their god displays this level of care with each of his followers, and then have to spend their time as Christians figuring out why reality doesn’t seem to correspond with that indoctrination at all. When anybody has serious trouble, suddenly all that “lilies of the field” stuff starts looking like the fairy tale it is. For every Christian who feels that their faith is really helping them through some sort of rough patch, there are a dozen more who are faking it–or, increasingly, talking about and trying to address the discrepancy between rah-rah talking point and reality.
But The Shack dwells in that hinterland between fantasy talking-points and reality, where narcissism rules unencumbered by facts. And there, nothing in the world is more important than a white American Christian man who has suffered a loss of faith. For that ultimate need, the Christian god will, the book tells us, stop everything to go incarnate himself into three beings and (apparently) totally revamp a murder scene in order to guide that lucky soul back to faith through painstaking measures.
This book reminded me of the series House on television. House’s main conceit is that a small but very dedicated team of elite doctors are standing by to personally test, maintain, cure, and heal a single patient at a time (though individual doctors may have to do clinic work, which itself is presented as an inconvenience–making that work just a method of getting the characters to brush up against different people in the series). The doctors on the team write symptoms on a whiteboard, brainstorm, consult computers and books, and even do personal investigation (including breaking and entering) to figure out exactly and precisely what’s wrong with their patient. They don’t rest until they’ve solved the mystery.
This series must seem very comforting to people who haven’t ever had a serious medical problem. To people who have, the reality of modern medicine quickly makes House seem as realistic as The Blue Fairy Book. In the real world, mystery illnesses may never be identified. Hospital patients may never meet their doctors, who in turn are handling dozens of patients at once in rapid succession. In this past week alone, I’ve read two different news stories about people who went to the emergency room, got sent home with antibiotics by the harried professionals there, and then had to return a few hours later because their illnesses turned out to be something vastly more serious that the ER didn’t catch. That’s much more the reality that actual patients deal with in our system. And doctors who critique House regularly snark the investigative work and tests that the team performs.
Don’t get me wrong. I love House (at least the first four seasons of it, before Amber’s situation). The main character, Gregory House, is one of the most fun people there is to watch on the small screen. I just know that it’s not an accurate depiction of how hospitals work, and if I had to go to the hospital I know that nothing that happened to me there would look like House–and I wouldn’t be disappointed at all in such a case. I mean, I had a near panic attack before my first MRI because I’d seen those tests go so hideously wrong so often on that show. Turns out MRIs aren’t like that at all. I really wish someone had told me that before I went for mine. It really needs to be an intake question: “Do you watch medical shows like House? Okay, so let me tell you how this is not going to go.”
But I don’t base my cosmology on that show, and it wouldn’t throw me into a crisis of faith to learn that Gregory House isn’t quite the genius the show makes him out to be (or that he doesn’t exist).
By contrast, Christians live by a cosmology that tells them that they, personally, are super-duper important to the author of the entire universe, and that everything will come to a screeching halt if they ever need some hand-holding. The Shack is an outgrowth of that narcissism. The reality is that Christians (along with everyone else) suffer all sorts of horrific setbacks and tragedies, and their god doesn’t do anything to help anybody through it. And that’s actually a considerably better idea than the one that this book presents: that he helps some people some of the time with some of their problems, and pretty much sits and swivels on his thumbs all the rest of the time–but that if anybody has a problem with that, he’s got a bunch of talking points handy to share with them to tell them that they’re not allowed to ask too many questions about why this stuff happens.
In the book, Mack’s daughter gets brutally murdered. That’s terrible. Such a loss, mined as it is for man-pain in this book, is the worst thing I can imagine ever happening to a parent (of course it’s considerably worse for the child actually being lost). And an unthinkable number of parents and children undergo this devastation every single year. In 2012, 95,000 children aged 0-19 were murdered around the world. America has more child homicides alone than any other Western democracy–and our rate of child homicides equals that of Iraq. In 2012, 3000 kids were murdered in America. Every few minutes, a child is killed by violence somewhere in the world.
Christians who get into nonsense like The Shack prefer to concentrate on the one white Christian dude who gets personal attention from his god to help him get over his loss, just as they prefer to think of the one person suffering cancer who gets a magic healing, or the one person with depression who gets magical happiness, or the one person with virtuous debt who finds magic money on the sidewalk. But they tend not to like hearing about all the other thousands of parents who don’t get that attention and who therefore struggle just to find the energy to get out of bed every morning to face yet another day of grief.
There are a lot of excuses about why some of them get this attention while others don’t. And Christians may find comfort or meaning in those excuses. I’m glad that I’m not under any requirement to believe in their god or cosmology, because those excuses just make their religion sound worse than it already did to me. They sound like primitive Neanderthals trying to explain what happens at dawn every morning–they have no idea why their god’s attention seems so singularly inconsistent, and their flailing just draws my attention to that fact.
In the end, we’re still left with the grotesque display of a guy who has suffered a loss similar to that suffered by so many other people, a god who personally steps in to help him find his way back to faith, and a million other people who could really have used that help who didn’t get it. Oh, and we’re also left with a god who is capable of spending a whole weekend doing miracles for one follower, but still allows children to die in agony and terror–and then tells the father suffering one such child’s loss that he was standing right there when her murderer wrought his dark deed but didn’t stop the criminal from harming her.
The gotcha “wait, OMG, did this really happen at all?” twist doesn’t help at all; it just makes the author sound like he doesn’t have the courage to assert that his fairy tale really happened within its own world. Nor does the author’s clear hero-worship of his Mary Sue, who isn’t very heroic: he very likely poisons his own father within the first couple pages of the narrator’s prologue only to have that weirdly-specific plot point tied up neatly by the end. The hero’s father’s death is presented in a way that suggests that the author admires such a response to abuse. (I don’t think “God” ever really talks to him about this incident, though toward the end of the book, Mack “meets” his alcoholic father in a vision and apologizes, and his dad is sooooo totes happy and it’s a wonderful bit of closure that, again, most people never get in reality. Gee, that’s nice, “God” made Mack see the alcoholic dad that he poisoned years ago to get one last conversation, and gosh, wouldn’t ya know it, that conversation goes about like Mack almost certainly always dreamed it would. How many kids of alcoholic fathers never get that wondrous moment of reunion and closure?)
It’s hard to see why so many Christians actually like this awful piece of dreck. There is a reason why the Problem of Evil is so powerful that Christians haven’t ever formulated a meaningful and satisfying answer to it, and you’ll search in vain for one here. There’s simply no way to resolve unthinkable violence and pain with an omnimax god who lurrrrrves everyone and actually cares about each and every person who follows him. The Shack‘s response to this problem is to throw glurge point after glurge point in hopes of something actually sticking to the wall. All I can figure is that it offers up enough of them that every Christian reading it (and not immediately repelled by its rather odd theology) can find something there to like.
Oh Cruel Reality!
Typically, Christians of a certain variety just love Christian books and movies, while everyone else just hates them. There’s a good reason for why this polarization exists, of course, and The Shack definitely fits into that reason.
A couple of years ago (egad, has it really been that long?!?), I wrote about what we can learn about Christians’ conceptualization of reality from their media. Indeed, these movies typically present Christians with a perfect world: non-believers who can be swayed by the talking points they’ve learned, problems that can be surmounted with prayer, and endings that are always happy and fitting.
When non-believers criticize the world these movies present, Christians leap down our throats with a ready arsenal of excuses about why we obviously hated what we saw. The polarization of reactions we see in reviews of Christian media mirrors the polarization of reactions we can see in actual interactions with Christians.
The reality, of course, is that Christianity is losing people right and left in large part because it can’t respond to the real questions that people have about life in a way that resonates and meshes with our lived experience. Part of me wonders how many people read this book and came away angry that the god in it did nothing to save that little girl’s life yet could spend a weekend saving the faith of her father–and how many find their own faith unraveling as they realize that their god has done absolutely nothing so dramatic for themselves.
We’ll return to this topic next week as we look at the worldview accidentally exposed by the casual racism contained in this story. See you then!
“Glurge,” incidentally, is a story that is sickly-sweet treacle at its heart, told and treasured by people who don’t realize that these stories actually say something really terrible about themselves and their worldview. In this story’s case, the glurge comes at us from many different directions. The term was very likely coined by the people who write the urban-legend debunk site Snopes.com.