The Shack: black Mack, Oprah God?
This post is my review of the film The Shack, the movie version of the book.
In case you hadn’t read the popular summary of the book, on wikipedia, it begins just like this today:
The Shack is a Christian novel by Canadian author William P. Young, a former office manager and hotel night clerk, published in 2007.
For what it’s worth, here’s my review of that initially self-published rather-private now-best-selling-and-very-overly-public-and-much-reviewed work of fiction (after trying to listen to the audiobook version on a long road trip with my family and after reading it alone in print):
the story is wonderful, but the storytelling not so much.
Now, let me review the reviews. The worst is by a Southern Baptist minister and seminary president who is a board member of Focus on the Family and also a member of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood who gets tripped up on the theology and gets all freaked out that people are reading and re-conceiving (of) God. Al Mohler, for instance, goes on and on and on a whole lot more, and yet he says this as with some fear and trembling:
While the literary device of an unconventional “trinity” of divine persons is itself sub-biblical and dangerous, the theological explanations are worse.
Before we talk about what the Mohler review misses, let’s look at what other much better book reviews get.
Read in the United States and in Canada, where men have privilege over women and where white persons have privilege over persons of color, there is much to get to in The Shack reviews.
And so Elizabeth Lemmons, a religion professor who seems more sensitive to matters of race than Mr. Mohler, and who shows much more sensitivity to matters of gender generally and of women and of “queer” individuals particularly, goes about reviewing this way:
Using feminist scholarship, critical whiteness theory, and an analysis of Evangelicalism’s troubled history of race, I will show that the structures of whiteness are fundamental for American Evangelicalism’s culture and theology. Born in Canada, William P. Young grew up in a missionary family in New Guinea. Young’s inspiration for The Shack came from his own spiritual struggle, which resulted in part from encountering sexual abuse he underwent as a child, as well as an extramarital affair with his wife’s best friend. Spiritually working through these struggles in his personal life inspired him to write a work of fiction for his family and friends that would explain his newfound understanding of Christianity (Bethune 2008).
It’s a review well worth reading even if I give away the ending here:
The divine multiculturalism in The Shack served only to benefit the white reader, for it is void of any real comment on inequality. Ultimately God proves his transcendence through his white [cisgender] masculinity, and Young reinforces the very stereotypes he proclaims to challenge.
To be clear, Lemmons makes only a passing reference to the possible slighting of the LBGT readers, and I’ve added in the cisgender privilege in the quotation of her here, which suggests Young is proclaiming to challenge the notion of a straight, male, white patriarchal god while, in The End, he only solidifies this construct of God.
The best blogged review of The Shack is by h00die_R. My full disclosure is that we are friends in real life and have been online friends for a long, long time. That said, his review of the novel is the best review you can read at any blog. The balance is evident when you also read his positive reviews of The Shack Revisited by C. Baxter Kruger and of The Shack: Reflections For Every Day Of The Year by Wm. Paul Young (here and here).
The blogged review of the novel itself is a series of reviews. I would encourage you to read each blogpost:
What happens when a white male author uses the black Mammy stereotype, the anti-Semitic Jew stereotype, the Orientalist’s Asian stereotype, as figures for the one God in the Christian Trinity? What happens when an angel is figured as a hot Latina who evokes “delicious tingles everywhere” in the body of the white male protagonist (and presumably in the readers of this white male writer’s book)? What happens when God the Father appears in blackface or as a dragqueen? What happens to all of us reading when this:
William P. Young’s The Shack reveals liberal Protestant Christianity’s blindspot to racist histories….
Fortunately, h00die_R gets us asking and talking (and he himself engages in the conversation).
Now, the very best review of The Shack is written by someone who is very like Paul Young. Antje M. Rauwerda is not white, she’s not male, who knows if she’s religious or a Christian, and yet she is very like Young. The two are “third culture kids” (TCKs). A TCK “is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture.”
Rauwerda is a scholar who researches and teaches literature and literary criticism. When we read her CV, her professional work interests, then we get how she attends to multiculturalism, to post-colonialism, to matters of women and to matters of whiteness in what persons write and read. Because of her being a TCK, she also attends to matters of some individual’s divorce from a first culture (i.e., that of their parents and of their extended family) and from a second set of cultures (i.e., that of their friends and neighbors they grow up among), such that a third culture is experienced (where there is privilege and guilt feelings due to the privilege and where there are feelings of homelessness and abandonment very very often).
Rauwerda’s profound and most sensitive review of The Shack can be found in her book The Writer and the Overseas Childhood: The Third Culture Literature of Kingsolver, McEwan and Others. There, she shows how Young’s novel belongs in the largely-ignored genre of fiction written by other TCKs like Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel, Pearl S. Buck, and Ted Dekker.
Young, Buck, and Dekker are peculiar kinds of TCKs, since they are missionary kids (MKs). Thus, says Rauwerda, their fiction tends to exhibit certain tropes and thematic concerns of writers whose parents were Christian missionaries. Young, for example, gets at the themes of childhood dislocation or abandonment and of parental shame. Here’s a longer excerpt:
The issue of familial relationships is huge. The patriarchy is huge. And reflecting on Paul Young, the writer, the issue of his being Canadian, and a white male, are things he must be unsure of because of his peculiar relationship with his own father and his own fatherland and his own father’s whiteness. These are TCK matters. H00die_R is right to say, “Whether Young knows it or not, he is depending heavily upon the mythology of ‘Mammy’ which was popular in the Antebellum South. Mammy was ‘a well-taken-care-of house servant whose activities in the house of her owners’ who personified the possibility of Victorian womanhood for heathen black women.” And yet, what Young knows is this:
He’s a third culture kid, a missionary kid, who finds himself a grown-up in a culture he didn’t grow up in, his dad’s and his mom’s culture, majority white Canada. Caught in an adult crisis of his own making (caught in adultery with his own wife’s own best friend), Young is abandoned by his own white church and his own (white father) God. The first person who comes to him in a different representation of God, in mercy, is a black woman.
Wayne Jacobsen, who worked with Young to write The Shack, explains who this person is in real life (and she’s not a stereotype):
There’s more to hear about the story of Young himself in his own words, when he, for instance, was first aware of his own whiteness and when he was first abandoned and when he had to bridge two cultures, neither of which he felt he could claim as his own. This takes him back to sex (sins and abuse) that as a child Young himself perpetrated. The lines between parent and child, between faithful spouse and unfaithful, between cultures, between abuser and abused, sinner and forgiver, all blur for this TCK, MK, writer:
This privileged “Canadian” “Christian” “white” “male” writes his story, sexist, racist, abusive, abandoning, abandoned, as The Shack. Or is that really the best way to read him and his characters? What of his Dani family? What of how they regard color and human flesh and sexuality and God-as-Trinity?
Now, many have enjoyed the book The Shack and have found it compelling. Some have found it heretical. Some have exposed its whiteness and maleness and cisgenderness and its various privilege therein. Many of us have not especially liked it for how poorly written it is as “literature” (about which we might go on and on). Few of us have considered the human story of the author, struggling to communicate with his family, the struggles and sins of his family.
Then comes the news that a film version is being made. John Franco and Forest Whitaker are the screenplay writers. Idris Elba is being cast as the protagonist (not white Mack as Young identified him in his book as from a Midwestern farm and as having Irish-American roots). Oprah is going to play a role, we hear.
Now that changes everything, doesn’t it? If white, male, cisgender Mack of The Shack is not a TCK or an MK (though the book writer is), then how will things play if Mack is black? Will Oprah fall into a stereotypical Mammy role, Papa as God, who along the way joins a cast of colorful trinitarian characters all the constructs of anti-Semitic-ism and Orientalism and Homophobia and such? Will Franco and Whitaker write like men who were sexually abused and abusive boys raised largely by cannibals whose whole societal relations depended on the othering of human flesh, to sex and to eat? Can they acknowledge the abuses of MK boarding schools, the abnormality of being an adult in one’s father’s land? Mustn’t the film, shown in North America deal with the chronic issues of white privilege, racial tensions, sexual dominances? What are the biblebelters, especially southern baptist seminary presidents, going to do with its theology? Is trinity to be a concern?
I almost wrote this post as “Whose The Shack? Mine, Yours, Theirs?,” as one in a series of posts on whether or not changes to and /or variations in a work or an idea cause you, and me, and them, to abandon it once the difference is attended to.
I confess I myself am a TCK, an MK. I empathize and sympathize with those who can’t easily or simply express all of the complications of such a peculiar upbringing. I admire writers, autobiographers, who struggle with such an odd thing. I like how Pearl S. Buck (aka 賽珍珠, Sài Zhēnzhū) has described herself as “mentally bifocal.” I get how Barack aka “Barry” Obama finds himself in Chicago, after living on Waikiki Beach, telling “stories of Toot or Lolo or [his] mother and father, of flying kites in Djakarta or going to school dances at Punahou.” I see how Madeleine Albright (née Marie Jana Korbelová) had as a “goal in writing this book” (i.e., one of her autobiographies) “to learn more” about others. There’s lots to glean here.
As I watch The Shack written by Whitaker, I will watch as one who is guilty, or at least often feels that way, over inherited privileges. I’ll view, and review, with bias. I’ll see the film as one who grew up in cultures not really my first (among peoples of Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia) and traveled to places of the culture of my parents which is not really my second culture (in Arkansas, Hawaii, Texas, and Virginia), residing at a total of thirty-three different addresses on the planet by the time I was thirty-three years of age. I read a whole lot of books and watch lots of movies, written by all kinds of writers, comparing them with one another in highly critical ways. My review of The Shack by Young is much colored this way.