Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Shack: Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

The Shack was a terrible book, badly written, offering shallow comfort and questionable theology. I’m not optimistic that the movie (premiering March 3) will be able to transcend these immediate problems unless it totally abandons any commitment to its source material and engages a screenwriter who can make us forgive the stereotypes and articulate a coherent spiritual response to the unrelenting grief of a bereaved parent.

Protagonist Mack receives a mysterious invitation to revisit a shack where his young daughter was abducted and murdered. He finds Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu waiting for him—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and Mack challenges them with his questions and doubts about his battered faith. They cover theodicy, of course—reconciling the existence of evil and suffering with an omnipotent benevolent God; but they also discuss Trinitarianism, the incarnation, Hell, predestination, original sin, and forgiveness.

Author William P. Young tries for a fresh characterization of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but falls back on stereotypes and predictability. Papa is a jolly Black mother-figure who bakes pies and whips up four-course meals. Sarayu is a mystical, Asian-influenced, pan-dimensional being. And Jesus, of course, is a rugged but gentle Middle Eastern handyman with a big nose. Mack “knew instantly that he liked [him].”

The Shack strays from orthodoxy with vaguely universalist theology, and along the way it fails to provide any deep or satisfying answers to the problem of pain.

The plot revolves around Mack’s suffering over his daughter’s horrifying death. When Mack talks to Jesus about this, seeking understanding and peace, Jesus tells him that his daughter was never alone because the Holy Spirit was with her; they talked and she was comforted; “she was more worried about you and the other kids, knowing that you couldn’t find her. She prayed for you, for your peace,” Jesus tells Mack. “She was so brave!”

This flaccid response to grief and suffering offers the shallow comfort of make-believe. The key question of the book—How do I cope and find comfort in the deepest grief?—gets a cursory treatment in the form of a dialogue with no universal truth or wisdom.

Mack’s conversation with Jesus is fiction, of course—but even in fiction the reader seeks truth and wisdom that transcend the page and translate to real life. Author Young shows Jesus attempting to “fix” Mack’s grief with bromidic assurances. Even if it’s true that the Holy Spirit is with us—and I believe it is—these words don’t bring relief from grief and suffering. They don’t reverse the bad thing that has happened.

We live in a world that still suffers the consequences of sin. Christians sometimes get confused about the promises of the Kingdom.  We are not promised that we will be protected from these consequences. We do experience new life in some ways and at some times—yet clearly not in other ways or times. We cannot “claim” the blessings of comfort and peace right now, on our own timelines, in spite of the vapid affirmations of popular health and wealth preachers.

Even Jesus experienced this already and not-yet paradox of the kingdom. In the garden of Gethsemane, Matthew tells us that Jesus was “very sad and troubled…He fell to the ground” and cried out to God: “My Father, if it is possible, do not give me this cup of suffering.” Luke writes that Jesus was “full of pain” and that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” But His Father did not answer this prayer. Jesus continued to suffer, to the point of death on the cross.

Through his resurrection, Jesus conquered death—but still people die. Aidan died.

In my journey through the valley of the shadow of death, there were no grief-erasing Bible verses, no magic conversations with Jesus, no portion of my faith that instantly turned my sorrow into peace and comfort. That’s not how the blessings of the kingdom work this side of eternity. There is still grief. God has not yet wiped every tear from our eyes.

In real life there are no words that can bring comfort to a grieving parent. It is not only feckless to try to take away a person’s sorrow, it is manipulative and insulting. There are no words, no faith, no message, that take away grief.

What the real Jesus would have said to Mack, what he would say to me, is, “I hate this. I hate the evil that took your child away from you. It’s wrong, and horrible, and no parent should have to endure it. I wish I could take away your pain.”

It’s called empathy. God the Father endured the loss of his own Son. Jesus is “not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but…one who was tempted in every way.” At Aidan’s funeral, the pastor said “Jesus does not come to death with a gracious invitation. Death is, for Jesus, the Last Enemy, and to death he comes with a sword. To death Jesus comes with his robe dipped in blood.”

These violent images of war convey with Shakespearean vividness that death is the enemy—and that’s what Jesus would have communicated to Mack. He would not have offered unhelpful platitudes that do not bring comfort in the face of such a grievous loss.

So the book failed in its treatment of the universal problem of pain, and the movie will fail too unless it reimagines these conversations and offers a more realistic depiction of what faith can and cannot do for a grieving parent.  

My own recovery from paralyzing grief after the death of my son entailed a long and emotionally grueling process. Time, tears, prayer, therapy and friendship—not to mention wine and anti-depressants—brought me to an experience of grace such that grief is no longer debilitating.

Now I am able, sometimes, to live in the awareness that God is present with me, in the middle of my sorrow. I finally began to discover moments of peace in the presence of God.

It’s paradoxical that peace, shalom, can exist in a world that contains the deepest grief and suffering. It makes no sense—but that is the paradoxical nature of the Kingdom that Jesus offered. Shalom exists, and Jesus walks with us through our grueling times. Jesus somehow, mysteriously, holds on to us.

And unlike the lame message of The Shack, He does not expect us to pretend that death is OK. He never suggests that we can feel better because of some fake spiritual fluffery.

I don’t completely understand it, but the real gospel, the real Jesus, is comfort enough.