Monday, March 16, 2009

The Shack: A New Apocalypse

It seemed everyone around me was talking about this novel, The Shack. Not only had I not read it, I'd never heard of it. Because I teach in a theological seminary and do a lot of local speaking appearances, it seemed obvious I needed to read this book. So when I walked into Barnes & Noble, only to find a whole stack of shelves devoted to it, I learned what many people have been trying to tell me: I was way behind the curve.

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 [1979]: 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.
At the end of the day, an apocalypse presents a vision of a transcendent realm. It judges our current social order in the light of that more compelling vision, and it presents an alternative way of living as a result. The Shack reveals the ongoing potential of this literary form.

11 comments:

Sterling said...

Greg, I read The Shack about six months ago when I realized that members of my congregation were reading it, and they were coming to me to see what I thought of the book. Some of my members struggled with the imagery of God presented in the book, especially God "the Father" and the Holy Spirit. I think The Shack deeply challenged what they had been taught all their lives about the attributes of God. They and so many others read the book in a literal sense, and this is why they had such a theological and personal struggle with it. Viewing The Shack through as a piece of apocalyptical literature might actually be helpful to many of those who struggled with a literal reading of The Shack. There is one small problem. Those same literal readers are also the folks who read all the Left Behind books and believed them to be based literally on the Bible. Oh course, Lahaye and Jenkins never challenged that thinking, because they wanted people to see the end times through their limited understanding. I even did a Lenten Bible Study on the end times and talked about Apocalyptic writings in the Bible and how they can and should be read, and some of my folks still want to read them literally. I suggest your next book be The Idiots Guide to understanding Apocalyptic writing. Again, thanks for an excellent blog on the Shack.

Karen Richter said...

Professor Carey - thanks for your thoughtful comments about The Shack. I read it a couple of months back and was not sure what to think of it. On the one hand, any book, apocalyptic or not, that challenges the Left Behind series' hold on Christian fiction is good. On the other hand, I struggled with the very theist interpretation of the Trinity and the obvious emotionalism of the subject. Your comments - putting The Shack in the tradition of apocalyptic thinking - have been helpful. I look forward to reading more.

Sally said...

Not wanting to be behind the curve, I read The Shack last summer...(wink!). It's an interesting and thought provoking story and since it brings up some messy theological points I'd love to do a class about it. We could just read it and "have at it" but it would be helpful to have a framework...know of any useful materials? (Care to write any useful materials??)

Greg Carey said...

I really don't know of any materials for The Shack -- except that they have their own website for the book. Haven't looked at it....

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Anonymous said...

I kinda have been expecting this in a way...
But I reali dun think da world is going to end...start a new era maybe but the world is not ending.
That's not gonna happen till a thousand years later! Ok, I'm not sure bout that either but that's not the point! The world's not gonna end! Full stop!
[url=http://2012earth.net
]apocalypse 2012
[/url] - some truth about 2012

shopping blog said...

The curve of pandora jewelry the end of the ironing board to Pandora charms act as the shoulder. Now, mist pandora bracelets and charms the shirt with your spray bottle and then buy Pandora you start ironing over the front of the discount pandora bracelets shirt. When you approach the part of Pandora necklace the shirt that has the buttons on the pandora necklace beads edges, you pull the bottom part of the shirt taught and then work against Pandora necklace sale the direction you are pulling at with the iron. Next you will then proceed to pull the shoulder taught by cheap pandora charms once again pulling the end of the shirt so that you can iron the front of the shirt where your pectoral muscles would be.

leader said...

In most cases, thomas sabo charms buildings insurance covers the sourcing cost of rebuilding or thomas sabo restoring your properties structure in a case where it is destroyed by an event paid for thomas sabo bracelets by your home insurance plan, whilst contents insurance protects the price of replacing specified things. cheap thomas sabo watches Families are often demanded to order home insurance as a general condition of obtaining their mortgage, thpmas sabo although, they may be under no obligation to buy it using their mortgage service provider.

www.natalia.biz said...

Oh my god, there is a great deal of worthwhile data above!

Melissa said...

In most cases, thomas sabo charms buildings insurance covers the sourcing cost of rebuilding or thomas sabo restoring your properties structure in a case where it is destroyed by an event paid for thomas sabo bracelets by your home insurance plan, whilst contents insurance protects the price of replacing specified things. cheap thomas sabo watches Families are often demanded to order home insurance as a general condition of obtaining their mortgage, thpmas sabo although, they may be under no obligation to buy it using their mortgage service provider.

Tanya Thompson said...

(+12) Microscope Practice Quiz /LE We have trouble making Laboratory Skills 5 Using a Compound Light Microscope Introduction Many Introduction to Microscopes (History, Function & Parts) PowerPoint. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. She is also the celebrity spokesperson for the American Liver Foundation.