Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Shack: Concerning Closure and Inaction

So I managed to read The Shack by William Paul Young inbetween my other reading assignments (the fact that I am still reading is a rather dire situation considering I am trying to finish a first draft by the end of the month!). It tells the story of Mackenzie Allen Philips (Mac), the daughter (Missy) of whom has been abducted, her body never found. Four years after this horrific experience, Mac receives a note from God asking him to come to the deserted and isolated shack where Missy's blood was found. What follows is a meeting between Mac and God.

At the monthly discussion group that I go to at a local church here, Theologically Speaking, we reacted to the so-called "radicality" of the theology that permeates this fictional narrative, the disappointing "did it happen or not" aspect to the story, the lucrative nature of the publication of a book initially written for his children, and the level of "closure" offered by its ending.

We remarked that narration is a useful means of engaging readers with theological issues. But we felt that, in this case, we were very cognisant as we read of the fact that the story was intended as a vehicle for theology. We found that the story contains theology that was "radical" fifty or so years ago, remaining radical for only a certain kind of Christian (and atheist, given many atheists perceptions of Christianity).

We also felt that the narration itself suffered from a disatisfying ambiguity. We felt that we were comfortable with this story being a parable of meeting God, and that it did not need the "real-world" explanation ("it was all a psychological event caused by massive physical trauma") that was provided. Why not just tell the story of a man meeting God? Did Young really think that such a story would be unpalatable without a "get-out" aetiological option? We displayed a level of comfort and familiarity with parable as a means of communication and an understanding of the narratival nature of communication today that suggested that more readers than just us would have prefered a simple parable, uncomplicated by such ambiguities.

It left us disappointed and (too?) keen to ask whether or not the events narrated "actually happened." The point of Jesus' parables were never to get the listener to ask, "did this happen or not?" If that is the first question, then the point of the tale has been missed. This is how we felt about The Shack. The preoccupation with the "did this actually happen?" question, evoked by Young's decision to include a "real-world" explanation alongside a "religious" one, meant that questions of theology (the whole "point" of the narrative) were not asked immediately.

We were also suspicious of Young's motivations for publication. What started out as a story for his children is now a multi-million-copy-selling (some websites say 6 or 7 million) phenomenon of "grass roots" publishing. I have absolutely no problem with this aspect of the book. Good for "ordinary" story tellers using their own finances to fund projects they, their families, and their friends feel passionate about.

But, at the end of the book, there is a page advertising "The Missy Project." Rather than being a charitable organisation raising funds to support the families and friends of abducted children, The Missy Project (not to be confused with The Missy Project, a nonprofit organisation promoting awareness of brain aneurysm disease in children) is a means of promoting The Shack. Very far from a not-for-profit organisation, The Missy Project is precisely designed to increase profit!!!

The page advertises the fact that film producers are interested in purchasing the publishing rights - but only after a certain number of copies are sold!!! It then suggests ways of helping the book "gain traction in the wider culture," such as posting promotional jpgs on your websites and blogs, asking radio stations and podcasters to invite Young as a guest speaker, and, of course, buying it for your friends and families. The Missy Project site says: "Don't make it an advertisement, but share how this book impacted your life and offer people the link to The Shack website." Certainly don't advertise... but talk about how personally valuable you found the book and then link to a place where readers can buy it - as I've just done... How is that not an advertisement?!? Surely, by linking to in the first sentence of this post, I am engaging in precisely an advertising campaign for The Shack?

So I was personally disgusted that the book included a page advertising itself and suggesting ways readers could engage in the books' promotion, and not a page of information pointing readers to a not-for-profit charity where they could contribute to the support of families and friends of missing children, and to the individuals and organisations that help in the search.

Finally, I was also repelled by the ending of the book. Without revealing the precise nature of the ending and thereby "spoiling" the reading experience of those who have not yet personally bought and read a copy (follow the links in this post to purchase your very own book!!!), Mac and his family find a level of "closure" that, sadly, many parents of abducted children experience do not. Madeleine McCann's family do not have such closure. The parents of most missing children do not experience the levels of media attention and charitable funding that her parents have experienced - which leads me back to my earlier point about the (missed) opportunity that The Shack offered for raising awareness about means of financial support. The Find Madeline website includes a page linking to Missing Children Organisations throughout the world. Why do copies of The Shack not include a page of such information? Why does The Shack website not include such information? After reading The Shack, I was left with the distinct impression of an "it'll be all right in the end" theology. Mac's relationships, with his father, his daughter, his wife, the rest of his family, his friends, with God, are ultimately reconstructed, repaired, rebuilt, restored. He is no longer broken and shattered, but whole. No longer angry, but peaceful. I feel that such a "everything will be fine" theology is disingenuous and very far from the day-to-day experience of most people, including most Christians, let alone from the experience of those whose lives are marked by the abduction of a loved one.

I feel strongly that the purpose of this book was to use the experience of child abduction as a vehicle for theologising and for the promotion of a particular theological outlook that appears to promote "righteous" complacency in a divine plan rather than Just action for change.

Viewed in such a light, this book is in no way radical.

Please ignore the links I have made to places where you can purchase The Shack. Instead, please follow the links to the following missing children organisations, and donate generously.

Missing People
Parents and Abducted Children Together
International Centre for Mssing and Exploited Children
Missing Children Europe

Also, visit the Don't You Forget About Me channel on to view videos of missing children.

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