Sixty-four weeks on the NYT trade paperback bestseller list and counting (#3 last time I checked). Reason enough to catch up on popular evangelicalism during an end-of-the-summer vacation.
W. Paul Young's The Shack has generated -- by my inexact estimation -- more excitement and sales than any evangelical offering since Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life. It must be fun to have five million copies of one's book in print.
While The Shack certainly affirms Warren's signature "It's not about you" opening, when it comes to the church Young inhabits a very different, anti-institutional stream of American evangelicalism. Young belongs to no church, and much of his first novel rails against the regulations, responsibilities, expectations, and judgments of church-based Christianity.
Last year, several prominent evangelicals, such as Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, publicly criticized The Shack's purported heresies: a strong suggestion of universal salvation, a thoroughly equal and relational Trinity, and his depiction of God the Father ("Papa") as female. Those interested in theological discussions can find ample opportunities elsewhere in the blogosphere.
Young's book unfolds in roughly two parts. First, he begins with a tight, compelling narrative about a man emotionally stunted at the hands of an abusive father (Mackenzie "Mack" Allen Philips) who then endures the kidnapping and murder of his beloved young daughter. Theodicy, in a nutshell, the timeless question. Second, Mack travels to the scene of his daughter's murder (a shack with the bloodstains still visible) and meets God, an embodied, loving, and relational Trinity.
As a scholar of evangelicalism, it's hard to simply enjoy popular evangelical fiction (frankly, this is probably difficult for a large chunk of humanity). Moreover, The Shack generates obvious objections. The encounter with God often devolves into overly didactic theological lessons which interrupt almost any sense of narrative. Young's answer to the problem of evil is hardly original -- that God is working through human events for the ultimate good. Mack grows spiritually, and plays a role in the divine economy of redemption, by forgiving both his abusive father and his daughter's killer.
Those objections aside, The Shack is nevertheless hard to set aside. Young's imaginative portrayal of the Trinity is engaging, and his anti-institutional presentation of God appeals to a generation of evangelicals yearning for a more authentic and relational Christianity.
The veneer of machismo that graced the Promise Keeper's movement created a false sense (in my view) that evangelical men were eager and domineering patriarchs (partly put to rest by Brad Wilcox's Soft Patriarchs). Mack's conversations with God lead to divine weeping, tears that are "healing waters and a stream of joy." Regardless of complementarian niceties, evangelicalism is not moving in a patriarchal direction.
Perhaps The Shack's success augurs a shift in the mentality of American evangelicals. The Left Behind series originated in the mid-point of the Clinton presidency, a particularly beleaguered moment for evangelicals. Its apocalyptic narrative eventually ended in triumph. Rick Warren is hardly a triumphant evangelical, though both his massive institution-building and last year's presidential forum suggest a confidence about the role of contemporary evangelicals. Young, ultimately, suggests a far more quiet and subversive role for Christian believers -- agents of reconciliation seeking to heal relationships in a broken world.