The Shack, the latest popular Christian glurge to get made into a movie, pretends to be a serious answer for the age-old question plaguing Christians: why does their god, who is supposed to be omni-everything as well as loving and gracious, allow terrible things to happen in his created world? A white fundagelical guy, Mack, travels through the completely linear plot to arrive at the answer to that question. In the process he discovers the answers to Christians’ big questions about the nature of evil, what role humans actually play in their god’s plan, and what their god really wants out of them (and like “God” him/herself, the answer is not quite what Christians normally think it is).
These answers are the same bullshit that we’ve always heard out of Christians, just phrased in a different way–which is probably why this book was so popular and why so many Christians think that it represents a startling new set of answers to those age-old questions. I’ll show you the worst example of that bullshit today.
A Strawman Made of Anger.
Before the author can present his false dilemmas, he has to create an adequate strawman from which to hang those questions.
The strawman here comes from a story that hinges upon the death of an innocent child–Mack’s young daughter Missy. Missy was abducted, taken to a shack in the middle of nowhere, and murdered by a serial killer. The author even manages to fit in some child rape just to make the crime extra-dextra shocking: investigators discover Missy’s bloody clothing at the shack while her body is nowhere to be found, so it’s pretty obvious that she met a very horrifying, terrifying, and gruesome end.
I don’t have a lot of respect for authors that have to go this route to arouse reader sympathy. It smacks of giving a generic white, male hero man-pain that the author will then resolve in some hackneyed fashion. Rape alone can be a really touchy subject; I’ve only seen it handled sensitively and maturely in fiction a few times (our lovely co-mod Beth has written one of them, in my opinion)–and this is not going to be one of those times. Combined with murder and involving a little kid, we see a nearly-perfect recipe for emotional manipulation and for elevation of this generic white male hero’s pain above and beyond any pain that anybody has ever had in their lives. He’s seen some shit, yo, and we must understand and respect this.
As a result of this totally over-the-top man-pain, Mack loses his faith and becomes angry at “God” for allowing this terrible thing to happen to his daughter. He ends up facing deep and lasting depression because of this anger, which he calls his “Great Sadness.”
Here is where I’d like to mention that very frequently, Christians accuse ex-Christians of having left their religion because we were “angry at ‘God’.” This accusation is so frequent it should have its own spot on the Ex-C Bingo Card. I’ve talked about it often over the years–and hope that I’ve made my complete contempt for the idea as clear as the finest cristallo.
To respond in short form, yes, personal tragedies can indeed make Christians start asking some very serious questions about their faith and the claims their religious leaders keep making. They are not, in and of themselves, a guarantee for deconversion, however; many of us can recount situations where we faced pain and emotional torment and didn’t deconvert on the spot–but we can also often remember the straw that broke the camel’s back. Christian leaders make a lot of claims about how their religion protects people and helps them in tangible ways (if they fit into a long list of asterisked conditions, of course), but Missy’s death definitely flies in the face of every single one of those assurances. And as I pointed out recently, a hundred thousand deaths like hers happen globally every year. Quite a few of those deaths probably come at the hands of parents and caretakers, but that leaves a lot of other parents and caretakers wondering why their god allowed such a dreadful thing to happen to their innocent child.
And yes, the Problem of Evil–which is really what Mack is struggling with here, the crux of his entire sadness about Missy’s death–is so threatening a question for Christians precisely because they’ve never actually come up with a good answer for it in all the centuries that have passed since someone first asked it.
Typically, when Christians realize that one of their members is struggling with a problem like Mack’s, their responses have typically centered around blaming the person struggling for even daring to think about such difficult questions. Literally the only way that they can actually respond to these questions (barring lame attempts to make evil sound not-evil) is to condemn the person asking them–to silence that person and hopefully anybody else who might be getting a wild hare/hair up their butt about the same topic.
There’s a vast body of Christian folklore involving people who get “angry at ‘God'” and then leave the religion (or almost leave it–this type of anger figures prominently in a number of Christians’ testimonies). Christians like to hear stories about people who got caught up on the Problem of Evil and let it sway them right out of their relationship with Jesus, only to come to their senses in some way and return to the fold. Indeed, most of the super-popular hipster Christian lit out nowadays involves modern young Christians struggling with exactly this question–and readers may be assured that by the end of the books, their heroes/heroines will have successfully resolved the matter in a way that allows them to maintain their belief in Christianity’s various claims.
That’s exactly the pattern we see in Rachel Held Evans’ autobiographical Searching for Sunday: “Mine is a stubborn and recalcitrant faith. It’s all elbows and motion and kicked-up dust, like cartoon characters locked in a cloudy brawl. I’m still early in my journey, but I suspect it will go on like this for a while, perhaps until my last breath.” The conclusion is never actually in doubt. The author may struggle quite a bit, but eventually he or she will settle down again. The strawman must be defeated. Then whenever someone else struggles with their faith, the Magic Christian hearing about it can suggest Rachel Held Evans’ book as a way of resolving that struggle. The Shack fits firmly into that pattern. The author even suggests at the end that readers buy copies of the book (at full new price, one assumes) to give to those suffering great losses like Mack’s. An author resolved this problem with a fictional/fictionalized character in a fictional/fictionalized situation–so why can’t a real Christian operating in the real world do the same thing? I’m convinced–I don’t know about you! Let’s all buy 10 copies of this book! It works–the salesperson said so himself that it does!
Thus, this strawman will make total sense to Christians. Mack suffered a loss that is all too familiar to way too many Christians, and now he is so angry at his god that he has drifted away from the entire religion. The Christians who have themselves suffered these losses will identify with Mack while still feeling smug that they themselves didn’t feel that anger or that alienation from Christianity itself, while those who haven’t suffered such losses will mistakenly think that The Shack represents any kind of adequate answer for crushing grief and the Problem of Evil.
Now that we have set up the situation–a parent suffering an unthinkable loss, a Christian struggling with the same Problem of Evil that has tormented his spiritual bedmates for centuries–we can have Mack encounter the personification of his god’s wisdom, Sophia, who will undoubtedly shed some very precious light upon the darkness that threatens to drive Mack into apostasy.
A God’s Wisdom, Personified.
Sophia is introduced midway through the book. Like the three personifications of the Trinity Mack’s encountered already, she appears (at least in the movie) as a race that Mack (and by extension the author’s audience) will find understandable and comforting: a Latina woman. Mack has conversations with her in the same sort of way he does with the other personifications of his god. But in Christian minds, wisdom necessarily leads to judgment–and that’s where Mack and Sophia end up.
She presents Mack with several false dilemmas that are meant to shame and silence him from continuing to question “God’s” wisdom (which is to say, herself).
First and foremost, judging any one situation in the world necessarily entails the arrogance of judging all situations in the world. If he doesn’t feel up to the task of judging everything, then he must avoid judging anything. This idea is such obvious bullshit that it’s hard to fathom that Christians actually think it’s a convincing argument for anything.
I get that the author is riffing off of the Book of Job, wherein the Bible’s god allows Lucifer to completely destroy Job’s entire life on a cheap bet, then gets pissed at Job for daring to ask what in the actual fuck, man afterward. But it was a terrible story in the first place, and a modern fundagelical glurge writer is not going to make that story better by recasting it in modern format.
Christians love to try to negate criticism of their religion and its horrific underpinnings by such means, but we’re not obligated to play by their rules.
Second, she presents him with a thought experiment of the foulest, most vile kind: Mack must choose which three of his five children will go to Hell to be tortured forever and ever and ever. When he resists answering this question, Sophia tries to force him to do so. Predictably, he offers to go to Hell in the place of his damned children because obviously that’s what any Christian parent would do, and she implies that since Jesus already did that, none of Mack’s children were ever in danger of going to Hell. This whole line of questioning sounded purely sickening and grotesque to me, but apparently Christians just adore it.
My problem with this thought experiment is that it reminded me of a situation many abused children have faced: their abuser poses a question of similar nature about what he or she will do to the victim, forcing the victim to choose which terrible fate will be put into motion, but it’s not a rhetorical question at all. It’s one which the abuser could easily commit against that victim–and probably already has in the past. The thought experiment that Sophia poses to Mack is cruel precisely because the Christian god is, in the theology of millions of Christians who are totally convinced that they follow the real-deal theology out of all the thousands in the world, making exactly that threat to every parent who believes that nonsense.
Sophia is giving Mack the same bullshit “choice” that the Nazis gave Sophie in the classic movie Sophie’s Choice. Mack has no way of knowing, in advance of Sophia telling him otherwise, that none of his children are ever actually in danger. As far as he knows, she is giving him the cruelest “choice” that could possibly ever be offered–and frankly, in the theology of most Christians, it’s not even actually his choice at all but that of his children once they hit that variable “age of accountability” that most Christians buy into. She drives Mack to tears, drives this strong white man to his knees and gets him to offer stuff that isn’t even his to offer, knowing that she’s going to gotcha him anyway by telling him that all his torment wasn’t actually even necessary.
(Interestingly, it is this gotcha that makes fundagelicals the angriest with this book, it seems. They call what Sophia’s describing universalism, the idea that everyone eventually goes to Heaven and that there isn’t really a Hell at all. Without the threat of Hell, their religion starts looking very uncompelling, so they can’t really have a popular Christian book denying that this threat is a problem. So they’re all totally upset about the heresy to be found in this story. Can’t win for losing, with that crowd. They’re not angry that she posed this question in the first place to Mack, only that her answer negates all their favorite threats.)
My complete disgust with the concept of Sophia in this book could barely be greater, and yet we’re not done with her emotional torture yet.
And third, she tells Mack that Missy’s death wasn’t actually something that “God” wanted in the first place, so it’s wrong to ask why “God” allowed it. Evil triumphed in murdering her, and the only response she allows Mack is to become more dependent upon “God” so he will stop worrying about the Problem of Evil.
(Hey–maybe the serial killer drove an iron chariot.)
Sophia tells Mack that humankind’s demand for independence from “God” is what really caused Missy’s death. She’s basically just talking about that “broken world” that Christians like to fall back on to explain why the world is so full of suffering and pain. This is a very common excuse offered up to the Problem of Evil. Here’s how it goes: “God” is such a wonderful gentleman that when his children demand he leave them alone, he does even when it means the rape and murder of innocent children. Really, it’s all our own fault that our world contains so much evil. If we were TRUE CHRISTIANS™, there wouldn’t be any. Except there’s always sin because even TRUE CHRISTIANS™ sin, so really it’s Adam and Eve’s fault for ignorantly disobeying their god from the beginning (except we know that there wasn’t really an Adam and Eve, so there wasn’t a Fall, so there can’t possibly be Original Sin–whoopsie). So “God” is ultimately wise and kind and loving, except he holds us all responsible for something we didn’t even do, and considers the ignorant actions of a couple of primitive humans to be all the justification he needs for murdering, through his gentlemanliness, literally billions of people over the eons since.
Mack tries to ask why his god actually stood by and allowed Missy to suffer and die, but Sophia’s response goes along the same lines: he shouldn’t be asking that. He needs to simply trust that his god did whatever the best thing was to do in that situation. His god’s big gesture was having a bad weekend 2000 years ago to save humanity from his own impotent godling rage, and if that didn’t work to end suffering in the world then he’s got nothin’. And Mack needs to be okay with that because if he isn’t, then he’ll suffer needlessly and accuse his god of stuff that his god has no intention at all of changing because it’s already perfect and Mack just doesn’t realize it yet.
As quite a few people have noted since we began talking about this story, though, part of being a moral person is doing every single thing in our power to stop evil if we see it happening. Sophia’s glurge doesn’t actually do anything to conceal the fact that the Christian god, in this story, watched Missy suffer and die without lifting a finger to help her. Every single good and decent person in the world would have tried to help Missy somehow–which means that ultimately, we are more moral than the Christian god is, since he seems to be full of nothing but excuses about why he can’t possibly help a little child who is suffering.
In fact, this god’s sole tangible contribution to the situation is showing Mack where Missy’s body is so he can alert the authorities to its presence after he gets back to civilization/consciousness/whatever. If this god could mess with reality to the extent of showing Mack the location of his daughter’s body, one wonders why he couldn’t mess with it to the extent of saving Missy’s life in the first place. But this book tells us that we are wrong to wonder about that, and that our unhappiness with Christianity begins with questions like this one.
It’s hard even to guess why so many Christians think this book is an adequate answer to the Problem of Evil. All it does is tell them to shut up and eat their gruel without complaining, and tries to sell them a system of morality based upon a framework of inaction that is so unthinkably evil that if it were a person and not a mythological deity, we’d have thrown that person into prison for life for committing crimes against humanity.
Maybe I’ve just answered my own question.
The Author is Right About One Thing, Though.
The funny thing is, Sophia actually does function well as the personification of the Christian god’s wisdom, which is to say that she demonstrates that he has none to speak of. Like Tyrion Lannister, I find myself casting doubt not so much upon the quality of this god’s wisdom but upon the actual existence of the quality in the mythological character as a whole.
If you’re wondering, my own responses to Sophia’s questions are:
- That’s a false dilemma. I’m more than capable of judging what I can see of Christianity and to tell that what I see of it doesn’t sound very moral. Its very foundation is immoral in the extreme, and no amount of pseudo-intellectual wittering and blathering erases that fact. I don’t have to be able to judge everything in order to judge the stuff that I do feel capable of evaluating.
- This entire line of questioning shows that the Christian god isn’t actually very loving if he’d play a torturous game like that with someone who’s suffered the loss that Mack has. Anybody Sophia questions like that would be well within rights to tell her to fuck off and then walk away.
- I don’t know what Christians would even do without silencing tactics in their arsenal. This is one of their favorites. It doesn’t actually answer the question–which is a good and correct question to have, incidentally. It just tells the questioner to shut up.
I’m just curious now about how many Christians read this book and realized just how piss-poor an answer it is to the Problem of Evil. The author’s self-serving advice to buy bunches of copies of the book to give to those who’ve suffered losses sounds excellent to me–but I rather suspect that it’ll backfire more often than it helps the religion’s churn problem.
BTW, if you haven’t seen Aram’s excellent writeup of his notes from this book from back when he was a Christian, they can be found here and they’re definitely worth the hate-read.
One could also blandly note here that absolutely nothing in this book is based upon anything that’s ever been credibly supported or demonstrated in the real world. It’s literally just mental masturbation for Christians. If you don’t already buy into the idea of the supernatural–and more specifically the supernatural claims of Christianity–then there really won’t be much here for you in the first place except yet more reasons to avoid the religion like the plague it is.