With all the hullabaloo about the film version of The Shack I find it amusing to read reviews questioning whether the film (and by extension, the book) teaches biblical truth.
Twenty years ago, Christians had no problem suggesting that Neo in The Matrix was a Christ figure, and that popping that red pill to see how deep the rabbit hole goes was a metaphor for Christian conversion.
Fifteen years ago, preachers were happy to pepper their sermons with references to the Lord of the Rings film series.
And even though Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was based in part on devotional works like the Friday of Sorrows and the reputed Marian apparitions attributed to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, Protestants happily hosted film nights and encouraged their members to bring their friends along to see it.
So why is The Shack being viewed so suspiciously? Presumably because it’s been cursed with the classification as a “Christian novel” in a way that, say, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe wasn’t.
C.S. Lewis was a devoted Christian and his Narnia books (and subsequent films) were embraced by Christians as presenting biblical themes, with Aslan becoming one of the most loved Christ figures in literature. But the Narnia series was never classified in a limited sense as “Christian fiction”.
Likewise, novelist and short story writer, Flannery O’Connor who wrote from a distinctly Christian perspective. She claimed every one of her thirty-two short stories and two novels were expositions of grace. O’Connor’s stories are ironic and subtly allegorical. But they are always about grotesque characters – serial killers, blind evangelists, a tattooed, drunken sailor – most of whom are visited by grace as they suffer through pain, violence, and bad choices.
Explaining her approach, she wrote, “There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize that moment.”
Grace is there. But her characters can be unsavory, their choices depraved, their language uncouth, their values questionable.
I don’t hear people pulling apart the stories of C.S. Lewis or Flannery O’Connor or J.R.R. Tolkien or Marilynne Robinson in the same way they do The Shack.
I guess it’s because when they see a book has been classified as “Christian fiction” they apply different rules to their appreciation of it.
“Christian fiction” is meant to promote family values, teach moral lessons and depict good prevailing over evil. They definitely can’t contain bad language or descriptions of sex. If characters do have sex outside of marriage they either have to come to their senses or experience dire repercussions by the end of the story.
The novelist who writes these kinds of books is using fiction to commend their take on the truthful authority of the Bible. And since it’s assumed that books like Left Behind, or The Red Tent, or This Present Darkness or anything by Francine Rivers has been written to teach biblical truth, their critics have a heightened radar for untruth.
But it seems to me that The Shack falls between these categories. Identified as “Christian fiction” and sold by the bucket-load through Christian bookstores, it has the imprimatur of conveying biblical truth. But in reality it’s somewhat closer to that less classifiable genre, “Novels that have been written by Christians whose personal faith has shaped its themes.”
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is in this category. The reminiscences of an aging Congregationalist pastor in the small, secluded town of Gilead, Iowa, it explores themes of grace, conversion, spirituality, theology and the role of Christian ministry in the world.
As does Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, and George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest.
They’re novels written by Christians, but they’re not “Christian fiction”.
What if we saw The Shack in these terms? What if we didn’t need to exegete every word, every character, every metaphor? What if we saw it presenting a daring, surprising, unlikely, provocative understanding of God? What if depicting God as an African-American woman is no better or worse than depicting God as a lion?
Thanks to the internet we’re treated to minute dissections of every new or popular thing. We have such an over-heightened sense of vigilance and outrage these days. Blogging ministers feel it’s their duty to steer us away from untruth, and a great many of them have decided The Shack is full of it.
But so was Left Behind and This Present Darkness. So was Bruce Almighty and The Matrix.
Here’s a thought. Why don’t we abandon the “Christian fiction” genre altogether, and recognize that while Christians can write novels, novels themselves can’t ever be considered Christian.
Perhaps then we’ll be free to find fragments of truth and the sounds of heavenly strains in all kinds of places. Instead of arguing about whether Sufjan Stevens or Terrence Malick are “Christian enough” or parsing every scene in The Shack, or agonising over whether to see the beauty in Moonlight, we could see the whole world charged with God’s presence and look for God’s truth wherever it might be found.