Friday, July 23, 2010

God's little joke

Trendy is time consuming and I’ve never been able to manage it. Always behind, sometimes by years.

That’s why it wasn’t until the last few weeks that I got around to reading pop Christianity’s blockbuster “The Shack,” published in 2007 and by now with reportedly more than 2 million copies in print, and viewing “The Book of Daniel,” an NBC television series that premiered in January 2006 but was axed mid-season.

Both were loaners. “The Shack” reached me as a battered paperback after it had been sliced and diced by a Chariton book club in late 2009 and early this year. There are 25 names on the tracking sheet.

“The Book of Daniel,” now available on DVD featuring all eight episodes, including those never broadcast by NBC, was dropped into my lap at church Sunday --- the principal characters are, after all, Episcopalian.

I’ve enjoyed both.


In case I’m not the only one who hasn’t read Wm. Paul Young’s “The Shack,” the plot involves a central character named Mack who in the aftermath of an all-too-imaginable tragedy --- the abduction, disappearance and probable death of a young daughter --- encounters God in three persons, blessed Trinity, literally. The shack is a remote cabin in the Pacific Northwest where in all likelihood the little girl was taken by her abductor and killed.

The book, Young’s first, has some obvious flaws. The writing is clumsy at times primarily I think because its editors were more focused on sorting out its theological threads than they were on style. And quite frankly it just goes over the top at times. But it really is a brave effort to depict how God in three persons might work in everyday life. And the Trinity is not the easiest concept to illuminate.

It had backers across the broad spectrum of Christianity, but many critics, too. Some were appalled that Young had the audacity to suggest God might present himself in feminine form if that were useful to his/her purposes. Some thought it too simplistic and overly sentimental. Still others were shocked that it was written in a way that nearly everyone could understand when the hallmark of learned theological writing is lack of intelligibility. And potshots were taken, too, at Young. In search of feet of clay, critics discovered that the author probably could be described as a Christian universalist (a Christian universalist does not believe that all paths lead equally to God but instead that humanity in its entirety will be reconciled through Christ to God in the end).

Criticism aside, however, the secret to "The Shack's" success is no secret at all: It works.

“The Book of Daniel” fell victim to what we can now call the Shirley Sherrod factor. You’ve heard a lot about Sherrod recently. She was the black Georgia USDA official axed in knee-jerk fashion by U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack (formerly Iowa’s governor) after a self-styled “conservative” blogger edited decades old videotape to portray her as racist. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case --- but before that became clear our friends at Fox News had taken up the blogger’s cause, it spread through the rest of the media in squawking and flapping chickenhouse style and Vilsack bought into it --- before further investigation revealed the egg now splattered all over his face and vindicated Sherrod.

In other words, the attacks on “Book of Daniel” began before the attackers actually had viewed it or knew exactly what it was about, NBC’s plan to broadcast it was postponed and then when finally launched it was cancelled abruptly after, I believe, four episodes due in all probability to lack of advertisers and general fear.

That’s too bad --- it is superbly cast and wonderfully acted and in most instances well-written, too. The opening episodes are plagued, however, by a too many subplots and that difficulty didn’t begin to sort itself out until about the point where NBC axed it.

The central characters are members of the family of an Episcopal priest named Daniel Webster. That family is most often described in reviews as “dysfunctional,” but the primary problem is that series developers loaded the family with the burden of nearly every difficult situation families, including those of Southern Baptist preachers, might and often do face --- Daniel relies on pain-killers, his wife relies too much on vodka, one son is a horny trickster, the other is gay, the daughter launches an entrepreneurial effort involving marijuana in order to finance software purchases, Daniel’s mother is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. And so on. It really is too much for a family, including a fictional one, to bear.

What critics often fail to note is that despite all the difficulties imposed upon the fictional family it is united by unshakable Christ-centered love and, in the case of Daniel and his wife, fidelity. There is no graphic violence other than depiction of a gay-bashing (the only deaths other than one that turns out to have been a hoax result from cancer) and while there’s plenty of implied sex, anything that approaches a depiction is mild when compared to contemporary television standards.

It’s easy to see why some self-identifying Christians might have had difficulties with it, however. The principal gay character, for example, is presented as no more broken than humanity in general, nor any more in need of redemption. That’s a challenge for many, who need a focus for their fears.

And then there’s that Jesus guy, portrayed by Garret Dillahunt, prone to one-liners and bad jokes, always present but to sustain rather than to zap perceived sinners in decisive fashion or to intervene in situations where the course has already been set and is not intended to be reversed.

While the DVD is excellent, it’s probably too bad that in a time when the commercial media tend to ridicule or misrepresent every variety of Christianity an honest attempt to deal with faith respectfully got the ax. God’s little joke may have been that Christians themselves delivered the fatal blows.

1 comment:

Wanda Horn said...

I was glad to see your endorsement of "The Shack." I was intrigued - and, yes, inspired - by this allegory and have recommended it to others, always with the caveat that they shouldn't read it unless they're able to think in new terms and view God in new ways. As with many other things I've read and viewed over the years, I found that what I got out of it depended a great deal on what I brought to the reading of it - the "glasses" through which I viewed it. I went into "The Shack" expecting to find a story of a triune God who loves and cares, and that's exactly what I found. Thanks for bringing this book to the attention of your readers.