Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Shack & The Road

I am still reeling from my recent reading. After putting it off for a year or so, I finally succumbed and borrowed a copy of the most read Christian book of recent years (or decades even), 'The Shack', to at least find out what all the controversy was about. At the same time I decided I needed to read Cormac McCarthy's prize winning 'The Road' before the movie came out. Neither book could be described as a light hearted bundle of laughs, so I was steeling myself for a less than easy literary experience

Let's start with 'The Shack' – the story of a man whose daughter was abducted and murdered some years earlier being drawn to the site of her death by God at the eponymous Shack. Turning up as an African-American and an east Asian woman and a middle-eastern man, the Trinity then proceeds to show him the nature of the divine and his human misconceptions about God, life, death, suffering, etc, etc, and in so doing help him come to terms with his awful loss. If that summary sounds banal and superficial, it is because at one level, the book is banal. Badly written, cliché ridden, verbose to the point of tedium, the God of 'The Shack' communicates in trite sermons and homely proverbs, but seems unable to use metaphor and parable to explore deep and complex issues. It presents a rather wishy-washy God, the sort of nice cuddly figure of the American Megachurches, rather than a more robust Biblical vision of the Divine.

Others have written at length about the book's literary and theological deficits, but it obviously scratches some spiritual itches in our post-Christendom culture. Certainly, it does speak into the darkness of human loss and sorrow, and for all its faults, I found myself moved at times. But like a McDonald's, it tasted good but left me feeling strangely under nourished.

'The Road' on the other hand left me reeling, as if I had been at a good friend's funeral – deeply sorrowful, but also left with a profound sense of hope. The premise is as bleak as you can imagine – a nameless father and son walk across a United States that has been utterly devastated by a nameless global disaster, leaving the air leaden with ash, blotting out the sun and extinguishing all wild life. The only things left in this bleak landscape are the sporadic forest fires sweeping the land, and straggling bands of human survivors scavenging for food, many of whom have turned to cannibalism to survive. With just a trolley of scavenged food supplies, a pistol with two bullets, and each other, the two protagonists struggle towards the ocean for no clear reason. Along the way they face mundane struggles against the elements, the other human survivors, and their own failing health. Not a barrel of laughs you'd think, and for certain it is as grim as that summary would suggest. But to write it off as too bleak to be endured would be to miss out on a truly moving and uplifting masterpiece.

Much has been made of the beautiful, stark and simple prose with which McCarthy paints his pictures and tells his tale, and rightly so. But it is the simple, profound way that he paints the relationship between father and son that got to me. As a father myself I identified with the relationship so powerfully. The father seeks to protect his son from the stark hopelessness of their situation, seeking to convince him that they are keeping the flame of humanity alive, and seeking others who do the same (while not really believing this himself). However, it is the son who keeps challenging his father's single minded resolve to survive at any cost by constantly enjoining him to share their food with others, to take in the lost and help those who are in danger. His simple, naive compassion and hopefulness sits in stark contrast to the vicious cannibalism or despairing, bewildered hopelessness of the other survivors that they encounter. The son teaches the father to be truly human in the face of bleak inhumanity.

In 'The Road' God would seem to be absent – he was either never there, or has turned his face away from humanity and abandoned us to our fate. Yet the novel's finale gives us a glimmer of hope – that God has not turned his face, and that he is to be found in the finer human qualities that have not been extinguished, even in the worst of circumstances.

So, while 'The Shack' seems to be about God, it is really only about a certain, American cuddly image of God that is vapid and all too human. Meanwhile, in 'The Road' God remains off screen, but his presence is there in the simple humanity of the boy and his relationship with his father. It is that altogether more painfully realised image of God that is the more authentic.