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The Shack (spoilers)

March 2, 2010

I recently finished The Shack, a story about the world’s least curious human being who gets to spend the weekend at God’s lake house.  Well, the author doesn’t explicitly say that the protagonist, Mack, is the world’s least curious person, but it’s a reasonable inference given Mack’s behavior over the weekend.

In multiple passages in the story, the author tells us that Mack and God spend substantial time together in silence.  For example while doing the dishes or or on a hike in the woods.  At no point in the story do Mack and God discuss any of the big questions at any depth.  Mack does ask God about free will at one point.  God gives Mack a cursory answer along Compatiblist lines and basically tells Mack that he wouldn’t understand a more detailed answer.

A sympathetic reader might say I’m being too hard on Mack (whose full name is Mackenzie Phillips, although no reference is made to the famous actress of the same name) .  Mack is after all grieving after the loss, three and a half years prior to the Weekend With God, of his daughter to a serial killer.  The story is one of Mack’s emotional journey of healing, not an intellectual journey.  Fair enough.  I don’t mind the emotional aspect of the story.  But one would think Mack would want to put every possible moment to use.  This sort of thing doesn’t happen to everyone.

The author, William Young, no doubt had good reason to avoid more substantial topics — the most obvious being the author’s likely inability to pull off a believable conversation on any difficult topic with an omniscient being.  This fact points to a deeper problem with The Shack, namely that the central conceit of the story is essentially conceited.  Who the heck is William Young to be speaking in the voice of God, even in fiction?  The use of God’s voice is extremely presumptuous.  It also collapses any distance between the author and one of the characters in the story.

In most fiction, no single character speaks for the author.  The author can disagree with his characters due to the characters’ flaws or limited information.  A good author will let those flaws and limitations constrain the plot and let the characters’ interactions play out in an organic way.  But having God as a major character in a story precludes those dramatic possibilities.  Since God is perfect and all-knowing, He can’t make any mistakes; therefor, anything God says or does in the plot must represent the author’s beliefs directly.  In a sense the story ceases to be drama and becomes polemic.

I’m reminded of Ayn Rand’s 50 page rant in the middle of Atlas Shrugged that has stopped so many people from getting through the book.  When one realizes that the speech by the character John Galt is simply a vehicle for Rand to explain her philosophy, the book suddenly stops feeling like a novel at all and becomes a philosophy tract.

So what is William Young’s philosophy?  Strangely enough for a book that recognizes the existence of the Christian Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit),  The Shack isn’t really recognizably Christian.  Young’s religion seems much closer to some form of New Age mysticism to me.  The God of The Shack at no point in the book gives any indication that morality, as traditionally understood, exists.  God never tells Mack what to do.  Mack explicitly asks God what to do at one point in the story, but God declines to give him any guidance on the grounds that we are free to make our own choices, which seems to be beside the point — it is precisely our freedom to choose that creates the need for making decisions and therefor the need for moral criteria.

In place of morality the God of The Shack puts relationships — with each other and with God, but not relationships organized through any kind of formalism such as rules, or lines of authority, which God apparently eschews.  In one of the few references to Scripture in the book, Mack asks God how God’s rejection of rules squares with the Ten Commandments, which some scholars have interpreted to be, well, commandments.  It turns out that Moses had rather over-interpreted their conversation on Mount Sinai.  God had merely wanted to point out that Man’s relationship with God might benefit from less, say, murder — not that refraining from murder should be seen as rule as such.

This must have been quite a relief for Mack, who is himself a murderer after all.  Oh did I not mention that yet?  Yeah, we learn in the forward that Mack killed his own father, who was an abusive drunk, by poisoning him with rat-killer.  Mack apparently got away with the crime.  There’s no mention in the story that Mack has ever been to prison.  I say that Mack “apparently” got away with the murder because, after the forward, the topic is never directly raised again.  You might think something like that would come up on a weekend with God.  You’d be wrong.

Of course forgiveness is a major theme of Christianity, but most forms of Christianity I’m familiar with hold that in order to be forgiven that one must repent.  That repentance must, to be sincere, include a desire to make whole any damage one has caused by one’s transgressions, to the extent possible.  I’m pretty sure that murder is a crime in Oregon.  Isn’t Mack obligated to confess his crime to the proper authorities?  Ahh, but obligations don’t exist any more than rules or authority according to God of The Shack.   But what about relationships?  Surely Mack’s father had relationships with other people than Mack, right?  Surely he had friends and co-workers and drinking buddies.  Don’t they have a right to know the truth so they can take the appropriate action (such as locking Mack up in prison)?  No, they don’t, because rights fall in the same category as obligations, rules, and authority.  You see, while the concept of relationships might seem like a possible replacement for conventional ideas about rules, etc., the way those relationships are interpreted in The Shack is by each individual participant.  The desires and interests of other people in relationships do not create any moral obligations.  The interests of others may well produce feelings of sympathy, and one is, of course, free to act on those feelings, but don’t feel obligated.

As you might expect, the absence of morally mandated consequences in this world is mirrored by the apparent lack of consequences in the next.  God of The Shack never mentions Hell or Final Judgment.  On the contrary, we are shown that Mack’s father, who was apparently a violent man, lives on in the afterlife with no signs of torment.  Mack never asks God about Hell, so we don’t know whether it exists and Mack’s father didn’t qualify or rather (as seems to me likely) Hell does not exist in the world of The Shack.

So I think it might be useful at this point to put together a list of questions I’d like answered if any reader get’s so spend a weekend with God.  Please feel free to add suggestions in the comments section.

Questions For God

  • Is the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics correct?  If not, what is the correct interpretation?
  • Is any form of hidden variable hypothesis true, and does Your omniscience have any implications thereon?  In other words: Do You throw dice?
  • What’s the best Chess opening for White?  For Black?
  • Does morality exist conceptually independently of Divine Command?  In other words: When You tell us a certain action is right or wrong, are You reporting a fact that was independently true before You told us?  Or are You issuing a command that is true only in virtue of Your act of will?
  • Is this the best of all possible worlds?  If not, why not?
  • What will the Dow be at in a year?
  • Is there life in other star systems?  Is any of it intelligent? Is any of it en-souled?
  • Did Oswald act alone?
  • How would You play pocket jacks?
  • Why is there a Universe at all?
4 Comments leave one →
  1. Flex727 permalink
    March 3, 2010 8:31 am

    Mike, your review is terrific and I like your questions. Oddly enough I had a strange dream last night where I found myself in the presence of God (at least He said He was). Even more strangely, I found that the dream had become lucid and I remembered your questions, so I posed them. Here are His answers, as best as I can recall.

    * Is the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics correct? If not, what is the correct interpretation?
    God: If I answered that it would take all the fun out of the study of physics.
    * Is any form of hidden variable hypothesis true, and does Your omniscience have any implications thereon? In other words: Do You throw dice?
    God: Yes, chance enters into the equation. Without it, free will is impossible.
    * What’s the best Chess opening for White? For Black?
    God: That would depend on your opponent. Against Me, there is no best opening.
    * Does morality exist conceptually independently of Divine Command? In other words: When You tell us a certain action is right or wrong, are You reporting a fact that was independently true before You told us? Or are You issuing a command that is true only in virtue of Your act of will?
    God: This is your most interesting question.
    * Is this the best of all possible worlds? If not, why not?
    God: Many worlds (universes) are possible. I chose this one as the most interesting to Me.
    * What will the Dow be at in a year?
    God: Since free will exists, the answer to that question is not knowable to someone who exists in the present time.
    * Is there life in other star systems? Is any of it intelligent? Is any of it en-souled?
    God: Yes, single cell organisms and a few other forms of primitive life do exist elsewhere, but none is intelligent nor en-souled. I will refrain from the old joke about the existence of intelligent life on Earth, as you are my only children.
    * Did Oswald act alone?
    God: Unfortunately, if I told you, I would have to strike you down.
    * How would You play pocket jacks?
    God: Oy vey! So many situations and strategies – one of my more fascinating creations. My best advice is this: don’t hesitate to toss them pre-flop when the betting indicates a bigger pair is lurking.
    * Why is there a Universe at all?
    God: Why do you build playgrounds? Or laboratories? The Universe is something of a cross between the two.

    The one answer I found the most notable was the one about morality. He clearly was struck by it and would not even provide a teaser of an answer. I think perhaps the answer might be that morality is a demonstration of man’s respect for God and His creation (ref. Commandment #1). He appeared to me to be a most humble God and humility prevented a more direct answer.

    • March 3, 2010 11:15 am

      Thanks for talking to the Big Guy for me, even if only in a dream. The answers He gave could certainly form the basis of a weekend long conversation. The answers to questions 2 and 5 are difficult to resolve with each other. In what sense did God “chose” this world if it is shaped by truly (as opposed to merely apparently) random events?

      Also of note is God’s answer to the Chess question. Some games, such as tic-tac-toe, have a finite number of strategies . In those games a best strategy can be shown to exist using VonNueman’s “minimax” theorem. I don’t think anyone has determined whether Chess is a finite game in that sense. However, if God were to to tell you that no best opening exists, and since the opening would be part of the description of a complete strategy for the purposes of the minimax theorem; therefor, no best strategy would exist and Chess would not be a finite game.

      It’s good to know that God can’t play pocket Jacks either.

  2. Ayn Crassons permalink
    March 3, 2010 10:14 am

    Of course. Secular humanism provides a fine framwork for morality sans Divine Command.

  3. March 3, 2010 10:46 am

    Indeed it does. However since Secular Humanism is explicitly atheist, if one were to spend the weekend at God’s lake house, then one could eliminate Secular Humanism as candidate for a correct ethical theory merely on the grounds of God’s existence and so one wouldn’t need to ask God about it. The same would be true of other atheist ethical systems such as Marxist Ethics and Rand’s “Objectivism.”

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