Healing Waters and Streams of Joy

John Turner

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.


Anonymous said…

Glad to see someone talking about The Shack. I think you have hit on an important aspect of popular evangelicalism that has gotten lost in the field's focus on conservative evangelical politics. While obviously some rich study has been done on the Religious Right, I don't think that it has really provided us the foundation for understanding why The Shack would have such a huge appeal, especially since it seems to work against traditional conceptions of evangelical beliefs with Young's intentional switching of categories like divine gender. I also think that the religiosity of the book runs so counter to what evangelical historians (those who profess as well as professor) conceive evangelicalism to be. Books like The Shack, however, probably reveal more about evangelical emotionality than a history of evangelicalism or the Religious Right do. There are hints of this one of Christian Smith's other books (Christian America: What do Evangelicals Really Want). Lynn Neal also takes it to task in Romancing God. I think you also get to part of it in your book on Campus Crusade (with Bright's simplifying the evangelical message to four points). I do want to disagree with you on one point, however. You suggest that The Shack is indicative of a contemporary turn in conservative evangelicalism. I think, however, that it demonstrates something that has been there for a while. Nineteenth-century evangelicals like Bushnell and Moody talked about God's motherly characteristics. The Shack is not showing us a change in evangelicalism; it is bringing out in relief tendencies and emotionality that was already there. Of course, the reason I am adamant about this is because this is the focus of my dissertation (plug! plug!), only I use the writings of Max Lucado to get there.

Thanks for bringing this book and the trends it represents to our attention.
Gerardo Marti said…
Just a quick note to say that evangelicals are quite willing to use nearly anything that becomes big in popular culture, leveraging even "heretical" ideas to draw attention to core aspects of the faith. Bible studies and book clubs based on Dan Brown's work is a good example. They can also help fuel the sales and attention of a book, film, band, etc., once it gets a foothold in culture which makes it important to distinguish whether something becomes big because ~everyone~ resonates with it or because religious opportunism is working its own powerful dynamic.
John G. Turner said…
Thanks, Todd and Gerardo, for the insights.

Todd, you're certainly right about The Shack not indicating any change in the evangelical landscape but helping us to notice something that's been there all along and gets swamped in the coverage of other aspects of evangelicalism. I couldn't quite work out such a lucid way to put it last night!

I think one reason why "Bible studies," etc. are hosting discussions on the Shack is because Young's novel is much, much easier to read and discuss than, say, the Book of Job.
Seth Dowland said…
John - Thanks for such a thought-provoking post. I want to push back a little on the discussion of patriarchy in your penultimate paragraph. I think the overlap between readers of The Shack and attendees at Promise Keepers rallies is probably significant. Wilcox's point isn't that evangelical men have lost the sense of gender-specific roles, but that they embrace a kind of "soft" patriarchy that includes openness to emotion and loving relationships with their families. This was all part of the PK rhetoric. Of course, plenty of folks at the PK rallies would probably be uncomfortable with Young's portrayal of God the Father as a woman. But on the whole, I'd wager there are lots of evangelicals who simultaneously endorse the masculine rhetoric of PK and the touchy-feely side of The Shack.
John G. Turner said…
I don't disagree with you, Seth. I was clumsily trying to affirm Wilcox's point that evangelical patriarchy is much "softer" than typically recognized by outsiders.

[I also think that Young's portrayal of God the Father as a fatherly or grandfatherly man at the end of the novel probably could assuage some of the gendered concerns about the book].

Not to be either overly theological or glib, but it also occurs to me that one reason for the book's success is its rather relentless message of freely available grace for all takers, a message creatively presented in the Shack with obviously historic resonance among American Protestants. Some former Campus Crusade staff told me that their strong preaching of grace in the late 1960s could move college students to tears. For those human beings wrestling with guilt and sin, it can be heady stuff.

Popular Posts