Friday, February 27, 2009
"The Shack:" Spiritual Reading or a Crock?
Sorry about the imagery, but there it is.
During the season of Lent, I usually try to set aside the secular novels that I like to read, and delve into books that would (presumably) enhance my relationship with God. (The key word is "try:" have you ever read a papal encyclical front to back? I have started a few, but gave up and never finished any of them.) I have read some really good spiritual books, too, including St. Therese's The Story of a Soul and Raymond Arroyo's moving and sometimes hilarious biography of Mother Angelica (founder of the EWTN network). I have heard much buzz in the last couple of years about William P. Young's The Shack, and decided to give it a try.
I do not speak for the Catholic Church. That's the Pope's job. Nor do I speak as a theologian (be it Catholic or Protestant); just an ordinary Catholic Christian who longs for a deeper relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While I found The Shack to be moving and inspirational, I don't think it really changed my perception of God except to remind me of just how deep His love for me really is.
The Shack tells the story of Mackenzie "Mack" Phillips, who is struggling with profound grief over the kidnapping and murder of his six-year-old daughter, Missy. When he receives a postcard in the mail inviting him to come to "the shack" where the crime took place, he is especially alarmed when he sees who it's from: Papa. This is the name he used in his childhood to address his abusive father, and it's also what his deeply religious wife calls God. Still, he is curious, and decides to accept the invitation.
When he arrives at the dilapidated old cabin, it is winter; but suddenly the season changes to summer and the shack becomes a lovely log cabin. There he meets the three persons of the Trinity: Papa, God the Father personified as a large African-American woman. (I kept picturing Queen Latifah. As much as I like Queen, I don't think she really personifies God.) He also meets Sarayu, a small Asian woman who is the Holy Spirit, and a middle-eastern young man who of course is Jesus. The rest of the book is mostly a dialogue between Mack and the persons of God, and they help him to understand how precious he is to them (Him) and the awesome power of Christ's saving work on the Cross. The imagery in the book is quite lovely and even powerful: in one scene, after walking across a lake with Jesus, he is allowed to see his daughter in Heaven and she assures him that she loves him and is happy. In another scene the Holy Spirit shows him a garden full of beautiful plants growing in a tangled mess, and (s)he tells him that it is the garden of his own life. The book does a good job of illustrating the beauty of God's love for us, and his longing for us to be with him. It sends a powerful message about the importance of forgiveness as well: Mack must forgive himself for the death of his daughter (even though he is clearly not to blame), and also forgive his abusive, alcoholic father. (SPOILER ALERT!! Near the end of his visit with God in the shack, the image of God the Father becomes, instead of the Queen Latifah figure he has been comfortable with, the image of his own father.)
So what's the problem? One Protestant review I read went so far as to say that portraying the Father and the Holy Spirit in the image of human beings is heresy. I don't know what the Church would say about that, but what bothered me about the book was the flippant way God seemed to dismiss the authority of leadership and the commandments of Scripture; and even the institution of the Church. "As well-intentioned as it might be, you know that religious machinery can chew up people!" Jesus tells Mack in one scene. Wait a minute--wasn't it Jesus who built the Church on the Rock of Peter, and commanded his disciples to teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? The book seems to imply that we don't need church; we can just worship Him in our own way. We don't need laws, either; we just need a relationship with Him. Is it not important for us to obey God if we want to grow closer to Him?
Overall, I liked the book. Entertaining and inspiring, yes. Spiritually fulfilling, not so much. I did like the images of love, hope, and forgiveness; there is a line repeated several times that stuck as a favorite of mine: "I am especially fond of that one." Just as we love each of our children equally and differently--each one's personality touches us in a different way, but we love each one just as deeply as the others--God loves us each for who we are, baggage and all. I think this is the overall message of The Shack. So, go ahead and read it, and think about how much God loves you; but if you are looking for the true Gospel, pick up a copy of the Bible.
I am especially fond of that one.