Saturday, May 01, 2010


In the little lull before the final exertions of the academic year, I had a chance to read an important best-selling book you've probably never heard of, Wm. Paul Young's The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity. I heard about it first at AAR in November - a self-published word-of-mouth hit was the latest evangelical fiction sensation, displacing the Left Behind books. I've put my religious right course on the back burner, so was in no hurry to find out more, but an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in January made me at least order a copy. And now I've read it.

It's nothing like the world of Left Behind, with its paranoid rapture fantasies. The Shack comes from what you might call the evangelical left, and it's full of surprises. I won't spoil the whole plot, but I will let you know that when the protagonist Mack meets God (in the shack where Mack's daughter had been killed), it's a trinity he meets.

First comes a big black woman named Elousia who goes by Papa and has a great sense of humor. (Young knowingly references The Oracle in The Matrix, 126.) Next comes an unremarkable middle eastern-looking man with dark skin and a big nose - he and Papa both have crucifixion scars on their wrists. And finally a shimmering spritelike Asian woman named Sarayu. They've taken these forms to help Mack get over the calcified judgment-centered patriarchal religion he's grown up with (and away from). In the suddenly clean and cosy shack, Papa cooks, Sarayu gardens, and Jesus fixes things. Their joyful and loving relationship - nobody's boss - is like nothing Mack has ever seen.

Was one of these people God? What if they were hallucinations or angels, or God was coming later? That could be embarrassing. Since there were three of them, maybe this was a Trinity sort of thing. But two women and a man and none of them white? Then again, why had he naturally assumed that God would be white? He knew his mind was rambling, so he focused on the one question he most wanted answered.
“Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “which one of you is God?”
“I am,” said all three in unison. (89)

A non-white egalitarian Trinity - pretty cool! (And then there's the Hispanic beauty who turns out to be Sophia.) There's more, for Jesus makes clear that he's not a Christian.

"Those who love me have come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims; some are Democrats, some Republicans and many didn't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daugters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved."
"Does that mean," said Mack, "that all roads will lead to you?"
"Not at all," Jesus smiled ... "Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you." (184)

And indeed it emerges that God wants to save everyone - even the murderer of Mack's child. It's heady stuff, and has become the subject for countless reading groups and discussions. There are the inevitable semi-illiterate exposés of The Shack's "heresy" online, but even these are few. It's too soon to know what long-term effect it will have, but I think it shows not just a possibility within evangelical religion but an emerging reality.

The Shack
invites its readers to a form of joyful spirituality centrally about relationship (not hierarchy, not laws and rules, not roles and responsibilities, not institutions and rituals) which is more like ecofeminism than dispensationalism. Its cosmopolitan Trinity (though God does appear to Mack in old white male form at the end) resonates with evangelical communities - more racially integrated than any other religious group in the US - as well as with the predominantly nonwhite global church. Its sense of Jesus' indwelling resonates with the egalitarian (and often women-led) communities of Pentecostalism. It's certainly not what the white male leadership you hear on Fox says Christianity is about, but it may well speak to what's really happening in their congregations and communities.

It's not a work of literature, but The Shack seems an important book. And a hopeful one. I'd be happy to have Shack-readers as neighbors.

God comes off pretty well, too!

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