Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Book Bite - The Problem with Allegorical Novels (Part 2)

The TV show LOST, that I am so helplessly addicted to, has finally wrapped up for the season. Although I'm currently going into withdrawals, in one way I'm happy it's over, because now I can get back to blogging about other things. So, without further ado, I return you to your regularly scheduled blog. :)

Allegory is a form of extended metaphor in which objects, persons and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas such as charity, greed, or envy. Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.

In my previous post, I discussed some allegorical novels that I enjoyed. In this post, we're going to talk about the bad...when allegorical novels just don't work. The two allegorical novels I read that were successful, were both young adult fiction and were both about the art of language. What's strange is that the other two allegorical novels I've read in the last year, which ended up being unsuccessful, were both adult novels and both dealt with issues of morality and religion: The Devil and Miss Prym and The Shack.

In The Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho, a stranger comes to a small town with a tempting proposition for the townsfolk, to help him determine if human beings, in essence, are good or evil. I was annoyed the whole time I was reading this book, and not because I might have disagreed with the points being laid forth, but more in the technique and lack of artistry. The characters were obviously just vehicles or mouthpieces for the author to speak his own ideas through. Yes, I know that is somewhat the definition of what literature is supposed to do. Literature and art are mediums for the artist to get his deeper message across, but this book was very transparent. I could see the author pulling the strings on his puppets, instead of the characters being living breathing beings, whom I cared for, and therefore, would be interested in the ideas they had (or even the ideas they represented). I would have rather read a straightforward non-fiction examination of the topic, in the author's own voice. You can read my original review of the book here.

I had a similar reaction to The Shack by William Young, which I read for my book club. ("Holla" to all the book club gals who may be reading this!) The story is about a father named Mack, who is coming to grips with a horrible tragedy in his family. As he is consumed by his grief, he receives a letter inviting him back to the scene of the tragedy: a shack. The catch is the letter is signed by God. Is it a prank or is God reaching out to him? Of course, curiosity compels him to return to the shack, and the rest of the book is a description of the man's encounter with the Trinity (for those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Trinity, in short, it is one God, three persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A more in depth description can be found here).

The first section of the book (i.e. the tragedy that occurs, Mack and his family's reaction), and the closing section of the book (i.e Mack reuniting with his family, going back to his life), were both written in a straightforward third-person narrative style, without any allegory. The middle section of the book (i.e. Mack meeting God) is almost 100% allegory. I found the portions set in reality extremely compelling and was brought to tears several times. However, by starting out the book grounded in a standard literary style and then introducing an extreme full-blown allegory in the middle, it threw me off as a reader. The beginning of the book was so real and so believable, that it made the allegory seem ridiculous, unbelievable and hard to accept.

Aside from the problems I have with the literary style choices, there's also the issue with the content. Young takes on an enormous task, in trying to explain a complex concept such as the Trinity. He is almost destined for failure from the outset. It is a topic that scholars have contemplated, wrestled with and written volumes on over the centuries. Young is not going to cover it all with one allegory in one small fiction-based novel, but he tries. I have to give him credit for being brave, but I also think he took on more than he could handle. I will admit that some of his illustrations and descriptions were enlightening and challenging, while some of his other illustrations were also somewhat heretical in nature. However, in some instances I felt like it seemed heretical because of his lack of skill in using the allegorical techniques (i.e. his symbols were muddy and unclear).

We must remember though, that no one person's theology is perfect. As Christians we are all in a constant state of learning and growing (or at least we should be). I would like to think I have a better understanding of some concepts about God now than I did when I was a teenager. We won't have perfect knowledge (i.e. perfect theology) until we are face to face with our Lord. So I think the Christians that are causing the biggest fuss about this book and are condemning Young to hell, need to take a long hard look in the mirror before they throw the first stone.

If you approach the book as simply one man's understanding of the Trinity, presented by using the literary tools of allegory and symbolism, then I think it is an engaging exercise; something that should challenge the reader to want to go do their own studying on the subject. Unfortunately, that is not how this book is approached by the majority of the readers in our culture today.

In our current culture, truth is relative, and the fact that this book, or The DaVinci Code or Angels and Demons, is filed in the fiction section of the bookstore means absolutely nothing to readers of today. They take it as the definitive voice on the matter, especially if it reinforces their existing worldview. Additionally, I feel like our society is lacking in reading skills. We are, for the most part, illiterate. I don't mean that people can't actually read words and comprehend them, but rather, I feel like people do not know how to objectively read something, with brain engaged, with a full understanding of the literary tools being used, asking questions such as "What message is the author trying to convey? What literary techniques is he using to accomplish it? Is this fiction or a biography?"

Unfortunately, there are non-Christians and new Christians both who will read The Shack and think it is the definitive source of information on the Trinity. I'm not sure what the solution is to changing all this, except to have an open discussion and encourage them to do their own research, using non-fiction sources, to come to their own conclusions and discoveries about God and the Trinity. (Although there are many non-Christians who will say the Bible itself is fiction, but that's another discussion for another time.)

This could quickly turn into a discussion on theology, but I'd rather try and focus on the literary aspects of The Shack and the other books I mentioned. When thinking about all these allegorical novels I've read, or any work of art for that matter, I have found these three things are essential to a successful piece of art:
1. Know your audience.
2. Know your purpose.
3. Never sacrifice the art for the sake of the message. Otherwise, the means for effectively reaching people with that message will be diminished.

I haven't read Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard or Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan so I don't know if those allegorical works about God are any more or less successful than The Shack. They are all on my reading list, along with another allegorical book that was given to me recently called With an Everlasting Love by Kay Arthur. So perhaps there will be a Part 3 to this series in the future... For now, leave me a comment and let me know what you think. Have you read The Shack? Do you enjoy reading allegorical novels? What do you think about our current culture's lack of discerning reading skills?


Adam Pastor said...

Greetings D.L. White

On the subject of the Trinity,
I recommend this video:
The Human Jesus

Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you to reconsider "The Trinity"

Yours In Messiah
Adam Pastor

Shawn White said...

Hi Adam -
I'm curious as to what justification you would provide for a view to hold strict monotheism? Do you get this from the Bible (both Old and New Testament) or just the Old Testament?

Shawn White said...

Follow-up. You close your message with "Yours in Messiah" - who and what is the Messiah?


Adam Pastor said...

Greetings Shawn White

The Bible from Genesis to Revelation is
Strictly Monotheistic

The creed of Israel is Deut 6.4ff known by the Jews as the Shema.
It identifies GOD as strictly ONE!

Jesus who incidentally is the Messiah affirmed this creed in Mark 12.28ff.

Note the scribe's response:
(Mark 12:32) And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he:Obviously then, neither Jesus nor the scribe were trinitarian!
They were both strict monotheists, as were all GOD-fearing Jews of Biblical times.

(1 Tim 2:5) For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men,
the man Christ [Messiah] Jesus;

Shawn, please watch the video;
it goes into further detail.

Yours In Messiah
Adam Pastor
The Human Jesus

D.L. White said...

Hi Adam - thanks for your post. I appreciate your interest in the subject of the Trinity and will be sure to set aside some time to watch your video.

I thought I might just re-state my stance from my blog post, since I'm concerned I might not have made it totally clear. Whether or not someone believes in the doctrine of the Trinity does not change the fact that "The Shack" is still a work of allegorical fiction and should be treated as such. No one should live their life and make worldview decisions based on a work of fiction.

I encourage anyone who mentions reading "The Shack" to do their own research and go to the source and study the Bible and the Bible alone, if they want to know more about the nature of God. After taking a quick glance at your blog, it seems like we are in agreement on that. :) God bless you as you continue to seek out and serve our Lord.