Anyone who knows me personally knows that I have an allergy to evangelical pop culture art. It is not anaphylactic, but if I get too close to the fiction section in a Christian bookstore, I tend to break out in hives. If someone changes the car radio station to one of those generic, fill-in-the-blank pop worship song Christian cheese fests, I can feel my glands swelling and my breathing starts to constrict. If I were to walk into a house decorated with “Christian” art supplemented with motivational sayings–because the best art of history needed the point driven home, after all–I have to take an antihistamine and have a little lie-down.
I don’t do well with what North American evangelicals insist in calling “art,” and this is especially true of the genre I know best: storytelling.
Part of this is what I call “The Problem of Moralistic Art.” Christian writers wanting to highlight a message face the same problem as feminists, environmentalists, and teetotallers: in good storytelling, the message must emerge organically from the literature, or it will bend the art to suit the moral. It is a challenge, but evangelical writers have a great historical library of good art, if only we still had the skill to read old books.
An illustration might help. I had an aspiring author contact me because he had a fairly sophisticated hepatology worked out but was struggling with the scope of the work. When he described the project, I asked him what authors he liked to read the most. His work was moving toward the allegorical, and that is a sophisticated and oft-mishandled genre I don’t know well and have no fondness for. “Oh,” the young author-to-be answered in return. “I don’t really read that much, and don’t know the authors you suggested. I just have this message on my heart and it seemed that fantasy was the right way to get the message out.”
The pettiness of evangelical English literature is a testament to the thinness of our worldview and a critical loss of literacy, and more often than not a sign that we are using art the way a womanizer uses a girl. As C.S. Lewis once put it once:
“[A womanizer] wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes)” (The Four Loves, 135).
Or, as hip hop artist Lecrae captured it,
“Christians have really used and almost in some senses prostituted art in order to give answers instead of telling great stories and raising great questions” (The Atlantic, Oct 6, 2014).
This is how many Christian writers treat literature, using the literature for the message as a lech uses a woman to get off. This is why many Christian books are as disposable as empty cigarette packages.
Some would say the cause is more nefarious, like what I call here a case of “Amish lovers pining in that strange evangelical dream of simpler days and simpler love stories.” Maybe that’s true, and sometimes it’s hard to blame them given the world in which we now find ourselves. However, almost anything where the word “Christian” becomes an adjective rather than a noun has great potential to be truly awful.
Clearly since I have this all worked out, I am able to keep myself unsullied from the evangelical subculture, right?
Well, here’s the thing: I am a hypocrite.
I really am. Truly, I liked DC Talk. I liked Switchfoot, Lifehouse, Audio Adrenaline–and much of the best of the 90s Christian rock scene. I really did. I went to Creation Music Fest twice, and we even hosted our own version here back in the 1900s (to disastrous results). I had t-shirts, CDs, posters, and bumper stickers. I have a guitar case I am quite proud of that is peppered with stickers–many of them from CCM’s glory days. The Bible I preach from at conferences and camps is the same: the tattered cover slowly replaced by album covers, band logos, cheesy Sunday School motivational stickers, and “Hello! My Name Is _______” tags with various Bible passages.
And, the truth of it is that these things are not in the past. I have hundreds of Christian albums that I still rotate from time to time. I avoided switching to the Windows 10 anniversary upgrade not because of the increasingly beautiful and nonfunctional designs by Windows, but because I was in danger of losing my John Reuben and Andrew Peterson music. Twice my family has driven to see TobyMac, who I think is brilliant, though he doesn’t always nail it.
Some of this is the counter-culture monster in me. There were diamonds in the rough features of CCM that have never been fully recognized. Mark Heard, Jon Foreman, Steve Taylor, and Tyler Joseph are elites–though the latter has gained recognition recently with a series of Twenty One Pilots hits and a Grammy nod. Steve Taylor, especially, has shown the power of songwriting and production in his mid-90s work with Newsboys, and showed his skill with his indie film adaptation of Blue Like Jazz–a film I truly loved and love still.
My hypocrisy actually goes further. I was a Christian music reviewer for a large Christian newspaper for a number of years. I don’t dislike all of Ted Dekker’s work. Or Frank Peretti’s. I thought The Sin Eater was a great concept. Veggie Tales was as good as that genre can get, Christian or otherwise. The 2004 biopic Luther is worth seeing (especially this year). And despite its tiresome trope of the inept father, I actually kind of enjoyed the comedy Mom’s Night Out–and not just because I like Samwise Gamgee and there is a super cool Lenny Kravitzish dude with great hair. And not just because my wife made me watch it. Which she did.
An illustration: The Grits just started playing. My life be like Ooh Ahh. I wonder if I still have that Guardian album.
All this to say that my wall of resistance against American Christian subculture has some critical flaws. It was peaking through one of these cracks that I heard that The Shack was being adapted for a feature film. Knowing that my students would be talking about it and that church folk would struggle a bit, I finally decided to pull the book off the shelf. Giving an admiring look at the cover design, and ignoring the fact that Kathie Lee Gifford told me I should read it–the kind of thing that has me running for the hills–I began the foreword, wincing.
And … I liked it.
I really did. I liked most of the book and truly enjoyed reading it. I thought it was imaginative, provocative, relevant to the questions we are asking, and well written. I am not generally a lover of American fiction that is full of accent and soaked through with connections to the land, so I am anxious about saying much critical. Beyond that, William Paul Young and I are reading some of the same authors. I can see that in the echoes behind the chapter titles. Check out the chapter epigraphs, where Young quotes Dostoyevsky, Marilynne Robinson, Jacques Ellul, A.W. Tozer, Blaise Pascal, G.K. Chesterton, Frederick Buechner, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Larry Norman–talk about a Christian pop culture icon! I’ve actually had dinner with Larry a couple of times and miss his weird and wonderful ways.
I suspect that, despite its fantastic and supernatural elements, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is the model book for The Shack. Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for literature, and is the journal of a dying pastor, leaving his story for the young son that came to him late in life. In Gilead, Robinson is able to deal with complex theological themes using a simple, classical voice in elegant but not flowery prose. It is an intelligent and moving book, and Robinson is able to engage at a fairly deep level of Christian thought without bending the literature to fit the message. This is what Young is trying to do with The Shack, and the voice of the narrator is not unlike that of the narrator of Gilead.
I haven’t yet seen the film, and I want to talk about the core theological ideas in the context of seeing what everyone is talking about. Based on the content, I know that many people are googling things like “Is it okay for a Christian to watch The Shack?” or “Am I racist or sexist if I don’t think God is a black woman?” A handful of leading figures, including Mark Driscoll, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., and Chuck Colson have written critically of the book, some going as far as to call it “heresy.” There are problems in the book, though some of those are part of the genre–there are difficulties in incarnating God in literature, as we see in the limitations in Narnia. Christians–all people, I think–should always read critically.
However, the book is not heresy, even if it is flawed. My answer for now is this: If you are someone who intends to meet the difficult questions of culture–the questions that your neighbours, co-workers, family members, and pew-friends are really asking–you should consider reading this book. Hopefully, I can go into more detail next week after I have seen the film.
Meanwhile, I hope you will keep my secret. I would hate to have a confession like this sounded abroad.
Oh, and I love coincidences! An acoustic version of Guardian’s “Babble On” just rotated in to my speaker.