I read these Christian evangelical novels so you don’t have to. But maybe you should.
Evangelical novels are not a niche market. This Present Darkness, by Frank Paretti, is included among PBS’s “America’s 100 most-loved books,” selling over five million copies (www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/books/#/). The Shack, by William Young, sold over ten million copies. It was the top paperback trade fiction seller on The New York Times Best Seller list for almost two years. The Shack is currently published in forty-one languages (Silliman). The Left Behind series has sold 65 million copies. Desecration, book nine in the series, was the best-selling book in the world in 2001.
They are not quality literature, and I don’t judge them by their literary merit, but by their relationship to Christianity. First, I’ll summarize each book; then I’ll say in what way each conveys a different but equally disturbing picture of Christianity.
The story is fairly straightforward. Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy, is kidnapped and murdered. In deep despair and religious alienation, he receives a note from Papa, his wife’s name for God. Mack goes to the shack where Missy was murdered, and there he meets God. God, it turns out, is a large black woman who recalls the stereotype of a southern mammy, a warm good-hearted maid who cared for children in the south. The Holy Spirit is an Asian woman who shimmers, whose boundaries are never quite clear. Jesus wears a construction worker’s belt, and—no surprise—is a carpenter.
Some theologians have objected to this portrayal of the Trinity since Peretti’s God emphasizes that there is no hierarchy among them. Each has his or her own role, and together they make a whole (Roach). This is not my objection.
By the end of the weekend with God, Mack is restored to wholeness, “The Great Sadness,” has lifted, and he is ready to get on with his life. The conclusion also introduces some doubt about Mack’s experience. It turns out that on his way to the shack he was in a serious automobile accident and in a coma for several days. It was while in a coma that he had his encounter with God. Mack’s friend Willy actually (so the novel says) wrote the book. The protagonist is thus curiously at a double remove from the events of the book. In this regard the novel deserves praise. Its actual author, Young, understands that an account can be fictional while stating a deeper truth. Fiction isn’t a lie; it’s a suspension of disbelief.
So what’s the problem with the book
God is a grief counselor. His job is to help Mack feel better about himself. This view of God is no surprise. It seems to be what most Americans expect of God. The philosopher Charles Taylor writes that in the modern era there has been a “revision downward of God’s purposes for us,” so that now there are “no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing.” People seek spiritual fulfillment not in transcendence over self, but in the realization of their best selves, and they want that realization to happen now (Taylor, p 18; Silliman, p 35).
Mack doesn’t go to God pleading for fulfillment. Both share the assumption that this is what God does. That Mack might, four years after Missy’s death, be concerned with the grief of other parents who have lost children, that he might share his loss so that others could learn from his experience: possibilities like these are not considered. Nor does he seem more open to other teachings of Jesus, such as love of neighbor. The relationship between God and Mack is strictly personal, as though Mack were seeing a therapist. Not even the comfort of a reunion between Mack and Missy in the afterlife plays much of a role. It’s all about how Mack can be fixed now.