Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Progression, Regression, and The Shack

I have been to The Shack. I read this surprise bestseller a couple of months ago at the beginning of the summer. While there are some moving parts, it is easily forgettable. In fact, in trying to write this right now, I have realized that there are only a few scenes from the book that have stayed with me. It's rather like the Chinese food of pop-Christian literature.

But, Eugene Peterson is quoted thus on its cover: "This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress did for his. It's that good." Of course, Eugene Peterson also is responsible for giving us the dubious gift of The Message (the only "translation" of Biblical text about which I have been heard to say, "I hate it."), so, if I were author William Young, I'd have said, "Thanks, but no thanks on the endorsement, Gene, old boy."

Said cover blurb did, however, raise my curiosity. I decided to read, at long last, The Pilgrim's Progress, and see if this beloved allegory of Christendom were as insipid as Peterson had unintentionally implied. I love having a go at a classic, and Bunyan's a Brit, so he already had an advantage going in, to my Anglophilic way of thinking.

The Pilgrim's Progress certainly isn't banal -- there's not a bit of vapid fluff on its stark bones -- but it is arduous. I cannot remember the last time I had to work so hard to get through a book. Unlike The Shack, where there is, I believe, not one reference to Biblical text, PP is rife with scriptural citations. This is very good from a theologically defensive position (as Bunyan was always in trouble with the Church of England for his Puritan proclivities), but it is very distracting from a literary one.

The Pilgrim's Progress's greatest failing, in my opinion, is its utter lack of wit and humor. There is a sweet and imploring earnestness throughout the book that gives it some redeeming charm; but, in reading it, I finally understood what Chesterton was talking about when he dismissed the dour Puritans. It is a book that I am very grateful to have read after becoming a Christian, as I think its bleakness would have pushed my spiritual walk back a few steps. I believe it is doctrinally sound, but the delectable strain of exuberant joy that to me characterizes a life lived knowing Christ is, if not missing, then tragically subdued.

A confession: I only finished part one of The Pilgrim's Progress. I have heard tell that part two, wherein Christian's wife and children make their own journey, is a little lighter in tone and friendlier in spirit, so I will have to come back to it soon and rejoin Bunyan's allegorical adventure. In the meantime, I have decided to visit with Jack Lewis and read his own homage to PP, The Pilgrim's Regress.

At last I am in a familiar and congenial land. In structure alone, C.S. Lewis's book is easier on the eyes and mind. In style, of course, Lewis is a master. I have only read about five chapters, but, so far, it is an interesting journey. The Pilgrim's Regress was the first book that C.S. Lewis wrote after becoming a Christian, and the book has a sense of being a bit rough about the edges -- which makes it all the more accessible. As a reader, there is a sense of reality in the protagonist, John's, journey -- his yearning and struggles and questions and doubts and weaknesses make sense, because, in a way, it is the author himself who has begun something new.

Christian literature is much like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead -- when it is good, it is very, very good (read: transcendent, sublime); when it is bad, it is horrid. The Shack is not horrid, exactly, but, despite its being on the shelves of every bookstore across this nation, I cannot think that it will achieve immortality. There is simply not enough bite to it. Not to mention, you're hungry again an hour after finishing it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember LOVING the kid's version of Pilgrim's Progress growing up, though the second half was definitely better. It's been so long ago I wonder if I'd still like it now.

-- Joelle