I don't want to write a full review of this book. Nor will I assess its theology (some of which appeals and some of which doesn't). Nor will I spoil its plot line for anyone. All I want to say is one thing. The Shack demonstrates that the apocalyptic genre is alive and well, even in 2009.
Someone will object: Wait a minute. This book only hints about last things. There's no meteor creating a new Ice Age, no imperial power play that leads to Armageddon, no Antichrist taking over the subprime market. This isn't an apocalypse at all.
That person would be correct, sort of. The Shack is an apocalypse because it meets all the criteria of a literary apocalypse and because it performs the functions one would expect from an apocalypse.
First, let's consider what makes an apocalypse. Thirty years ago a Society of Biblical Literature team led by John J. Collins developed this definition.
"'Apocalypse' is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world." (Semeia 14 : 9)Let's look at The Shack. It describes a revelatory experience in which Mack, the protagonist, travels into an alternative reality. It certainly has a narrative framework, in which Mack encounters a variety of otherworldly beings who guide him (or mediate) to understand the experience. While The Shack does engage the ultimate future (temporal) of humanity and creation, its interest lies more heavily in interpreting reality from a heavenly (spatial) perspective. Indeed, many ancient apocalypses feature visions of the heavenly throne; The Shack presents its own take on that scene. The Shack does not tell us whether or not Mack's experience is a dream, but the story suggests more of a mystical revelatory experience.
So The Shack is an apocalypse. So what? Stephen D. O'Leary has suggested that apocalyptic rhetoric revolves around three questions: time, evil, and authority. (See his Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric [Oxford UP, 1994], 20 et passim.) The Shack does engage time. And because Mack's vision is mediated by heavenly beings, it certainly comes with authority. But the real center of The Shack revolves around moral evil. How can one justify a God who allows innocent suffering? Reading from the back cover of the paperback edition,
Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain? The answers Mack gets will astound you and perhaps transform you as much as it did him.In this light, The Shack very much reminds me of 4 Ezra, an ancient Jewish apocalypse. Grieving Jerusalem's destruction by a pagan empire, Ezra presses his questions against God. Ezra complains, "It would have been better for us not to be here than to come here and live in ungodliness, and to suffer and not understand why" (4:12, NRSV). While Ezra receives several theological responses to this challenge, none of them convince him. He is moved only through an experiential revelation of the glorious future God has to offer. Something like that is going on in The Shack. Theo-logic doesn't "transform" Mack; what changes him is the revelation of God's goodness.
Finally, I would add some of my own categories. In Ultimate Things: An Introduction to Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Literature (Chalice, 2005), I suggest three categories for interpreting apocalyptic discourse.
- The first is poetry. That is, apocalyptic language employs stories, symbols, and other poetic devices to make this transcendent reality "more real" than our mundane existence. Those stories and symbols are not "literally" true -- that is, who wants to walk golden streets and enter pearly gates? -- but they invite us to imagine the world differently.
- The second is rhetoric. Apocalyptic language calls us to change our behaviors and our beliefs. Anyone who reads The Shack faces a call to trust in the goodness of God while abandoning attempts to control our environment and the people around us.
- Finally, constructive theology. Just as apocalypses apply story and symbol to challenging theological questions, so does The Shack. Indeed, many have observed that this novel strongly echoes the theology of Karl Barth. No Barthian I, I do recognize Barth's famous distinction between trust and religion and his view of the Trinity as relational. The Shack uses story and symbol to convey its particular theological and spiritual point of view -- and to respnond to the problem of radical moral evil.