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The Problem of Evil, Crime Fiction and The Shack

Posted on August 22, 2014 at 10:15 PM

If you think too long or look too deeply into crime fiction, as I often do, you eventually wind up facing some tough issues of morality. Namely, what makes people do bad things?

 

Flesh that one out long enough, or speed things up with a couple beers, and you'll probably run into the Problem of Evil. This is a major sticking point in a lot of religious discussions. Why would an all-powerful deity (or deities, if you roll that way) allow bad things to happen? Why is there suffering in the world?

 

It's a topic I mull over myself, in and out of reading fiction. I'll save those expositions for another day, but I did want to bring up The Shack, a book by Wm. Paul Young popular in Christian fiction. That's not an area I read a lot of material in, but a family member loaned me the book after a discussion about religion and the Problem of Evil. It also frames its philosophy inside a murder mystery. I figured I'd keep an open mind and give it a shot.

 

The following is the review I posted on Amazon and elsewhere. If you read it, what did you think about it?

 

***

 

In order to get the full benefit of The Shack, you're required to buy into several concepts about religion, existence and purpose. Once you do, the Problem of Evil, the central question the book seeks to answer, can be reconciled.

 

That wasn't good enough for me. I wanted a response to the Problem of Evil without preconditions. And that's why The Shack didn't work for me. Despite its popularity, it's just a retread of the same Christian ideas about why suffering exists and why God does not intervene.

 

The Shack boils the argument down to this: Bad things happen because Adam and Eve, after given free will, chose independence. War, crime, murder, poverty, etc. are all results of that choice. Humanity can end suffering by turning back toward God. You should be OK with suffering even if you don't understand why and are a good person anyway, so long as you have faith.

 

As for events not under human control - natural disasters, diseases, etc. - that's all part of a grand plan that the book compares to a mismanaged garden or a fractal. You should be OK with random, awful events because they have a beauty and purpose all their own that can't be comprehended by anything other than the divine.

 

These arguments were the same ones I wasn't satisfied with in the first place going into The Shack. There's not much new here, only an original approach to the run-of-the-mill "person has frank conversation with God" genre. I don't feel I got any further after reading this story.

 

If you want to take a bolder look at Problem of Evil questions, Christopher Hitchens offers better perspectives on possible answers - and he's arguing from an atheistic position. Or if you're afraid Hitchens' books will light on fire, give C.S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain a try instead.


Categories: Random Topics, Reviews

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4 Comments

Reply Ben Sobieck
9:54 PM on August 27, 2014 
I do remember that, Clay, and I appreciated your frankness then as I do now. And despite not reading it, you nailed my major gripe with this read. It frames those hard questions in a pre-determined context favorable for its answers, starting the discussion on third base instead of swinging for the home run. So you wind up with that conservative/Hannity or liberal/Maddow experience you mentioned instead of the civics class you actually wanted. If faith was meant to be challenged, this isn't the book to do it.
Reply Clay Morgan
11:07 PM on August 26, 2014 
Ben, you may recall a conversation way back when, in which I mentioned I am a Christian and work in the ministry on a very part-time basis. That said, The Shack holds no interest for me, but in large part because I don't like most "Christian fiction." This is simply because much of it is not very well written and the Christian themes often feel very forced.

In my mind, a Christian reading The Shack is probably like a hard core conservative watching Sean Hannity or a liberal watching Rachel Maddow. It reinforces your already-held beliefs, but I don't think it will convert an atheist. And provides some measure of comfort to Christians. That can be good and important, but I'll argue that faith was meant to be challenged.

The problem is that The Shack deals superficially with THE BIG QUESTION. A few years ago, Lee Strobel, a Christian author and apologist conducted a study. The question most people would want to ask God is the same question Christians LEAST want to be asked by non-believers: Why does God allow suffering and/or evil?

We can have a debate about that answer, but I don't think that is what your post is about. But I think The Shack allows Christians to contemplate that question without really working up a sweat. A lot of Christians don't want to read The Bible to any great degree, or Lee Strobel, or CS Lewis, or CK Chesterton, or Thomas Aquinas, or many others. That's too much like work!

And that is where I think Christian fiction, including The Shack, hurts us. Occasionally you just need reinforcement and with Christian fiction you have a reasonable (though not assured) belief that you won't run across certain things you might in "secular" fiction, such as more graphic violence, sex, language, etc. As a label, it can help you know what you might expect and that is good.

With The Shack, and quite a bit Christian fiction, there have been challenges to the theological foundations of the book, it is superficial, but it does make Christians feel good. Feeling good is OK, unless you do believe The Shack is theologically screwed up, but theology aside it does nothing to force a Christian to think and sharpen his or her views on the big questions of faith, including why bad things happen.

But then again, I've not read it and I doubt I ever will.
Reply Ben Sobieck
2:42 PM on August 23, 2014 
Thanks for the comment, Thomas. I'm not sure where I fall in all of this, which is why I'm reading up, but I'd echo some of what you said. It's like that old Epicurus quote:

If God is willing to prevent evil, but not able, then he is not omnipotent.
If he is able, but not willing, then he is malevolent.
If he is both able and willing, then why is there evil?
If he neither able nor willing, then why call him God?
Reply Thomas Pluck
8:27 AM on August 23, 2014 
One of these days I'll read those books. Free will only explains so much; babies dying of cancer, volcanoes slaughtering the faithful, I'm not convinced by the "we cannot understand His ways" argument. I'm an atheist, not an agnostic, but if there was a God who deemed necessary the suffering of innocents for whatever his grand plan is, then in my definition, he may not be evil but he is certainly not worth worshiping, so I'll cast my lot with damnation if y'all turn out to be right.