Regent College recently sponsored an evening with the author of the phenomenal bestseller The Shack. William Paul Young talked about the genesis of the book, and Regent invited three people to respond to the book: Prof. Jonathan Wilson of Carey Theological Centre; Ms. Maudine Fee; and your servant. Some have asked for my comments to be made more widely available, particularly as The Shack has come in for some extreme criticism. I’ll offer my comments, then, in four posts.
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“If you want to preach,” the eminent novelist Margaret Atwood growls, “write a sermon.” Atwood speaks for many, many others as she rules out of court the project of writing fiction in order to convince one’s readers of one’s ideas on this or that subject. Art is not propaganda. Art exists for its own sake, and to press art into the service of proselytizing is to prostitute it.
If writing a novel to make certain theological and spiritual points is illegitimate, then we don’t have to discuss The Shack. William P. Young has written such a novel; he shouldn’t have; don’t buy it or read it; the end.
My response to The Shack instead is in three parts. In this first part, I want to defend what he has done by defending what I will call ideologically intentional fiction, or “ideological fiction” for short. In the second part, I want to register several theological concerns, most of which are not crucial to the novel’s own purposes, although they are important in themselves, and one of which is key. And in the third, I want to celebrate what William P. Young has done as a genuine service to the church and to many who are currently disaffected from the Christian faith. Thus: a defense, a demurral, and a delighting.
First, then, a defense. It seems to me important that authors of fiction defend art as needing no justification on some other grounds. From a Christian point of view, a well-rendered novel—or short story, or poem, or song lyric—needs only to be good in and of itself. It does not have to explicitly praise God or testify to Jesus or draw people closer to the gospel or attract people to Christianity—although the paradox is, I suggest, that inasmuch as it is authentic and true to both the artist and to reality, such fictional writing does indeed do all those things implicitly. Still, art needs no justification, as H. R. Rookmaaker’s book title reminds us, and it is good that art is free from the obligation to perform some other service.
To assert that principle, however, is not to assert the corollary that art must not ever serve more than one purpose, and in particular must not “preach,” as Atwood says. One can defend art “for art’s sake,” as Wilde put it, without restricting oneself to aestheticism in which art is only for art’s sake.
If one goes back to the early literature of western civilization, one encounters the myths of Babylon and Egypt, the tales of Homer and Ovid, and the fables of Aesop. All of these were stories whose primary purpose was to teach us the way the world is and how we ought to live in it.
The Bible itself is full of stories, some of which are fictional, all of which are intended to instruct. One need think only of Jesus’ parables in this regard.
On down through literary history, one encounters literature teaching: Dante’s Divine Comedy and Boccaccio’s Decameron, Thomas More’s Utopia and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, Goethe’s Faust and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and (I cannot resist) Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Whole genres of contemporary fiction explore and assert moral themes, from comic books to science fiction.
And in modern Christan writing, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy come immediately to mind, let alone contemporaries such as Susan Howatch, Peter Kreeft, and even our local Paul Chamberlain.
So, yes, if you want to preach, write a sermon—which is a truism, in fact. But if you want to depict your concerns in a fictional way you hope will render them plausible, even cogent, to a reader, then the weight of western civilization is on your side. (And were I better read, of course, I could point to myriad examples of non-western literature also that is also ideologically intended, from the Mahabharata to the Pali Canon to the Analects to tribal myths around the globe.)
Now, when does fiction become propaganda?
First answer: when it propounds an ideology I don’t like.
Second, better(!), answer: When the fictive art is compromised for the sake of the ideological message. When dialogue becomes stilted, when characters become inconsistent, when events become implausible, when a deus ex machina saves the day—in sum, when “what would happen” is sacrificed to “what should happen.”
So what about The Shack? How good is its fiction?
I’m not qualified to say, so I won’t. I’m not being coy, just cognizant of the limits of my expertise. But I’m happy to say that I did not find it propagandistic, but compellingly plausible.
In the next post, then, I’ll talk about what I was invited particularly to talk about at Regent, namely, the theology of The Shack.