• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

The Shack 2: Some Theological Concerns (Part 1)

The Shack dives into the deep end of the religious pool, swimming around in the Biggest Questions: the divine nature, the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, providence, the problem of evil, eschatology, revelation, and more. That’s rather a lot to discuss in a novel of less than 250 pages. It’s a lot to discuss in Barth’s Church Dogmatics!

So perhaps it is in order to suggest that a few subjects could have been left out of consideration, rather than briefly discussed in such a way that might distract or even put off a reader otherwise inclined to enjoy and profit from The Shack. And that’s the nature of my criticisms: These ideas I see to be not crucial to the good work done by The Shack, and I hope that in a subsequent edition Brother Young will either rework or omit these problematic spots.

Today I’ll set out three of these concerns, and follow up with a few more in my next post.

First, The Shack takes the occasional gratituous poke at religious institutions. Seminary training is mentioned a few times and never positively. The church doesn’t look good when it comes up. And ritual is something God apparently doesn’t “do”—and God avers as much.

I freely acknowledge that seminary training is never as good as we’d like it to be, and many seminaries are pretty bad. But unless Brother Young wants to make a case that seminary training is intrinsically a bad idea or that all seminaries everywhere are bad, which would take a lot more than a few passing references to make, then it would be well to leave this subject aside.

As one who has spent a career studying and, yes, criticizing the church, I don’t believe the church should be immune from critique. Still, as my colleague Maxine Hancock has said, “You should be very careful about what you say about Jesus’ fiancée.” I’d like to see the church that nurtured Nan, as well as Mack, portrayed in a more balanced way in The Shack. For what is Mack supposed to do after he has had his experiences in the shack? Live off those memories, or enjoy private communion with the Holy Spirit? That’s a pretty dangerous way to live. Instead, where is the good role for the church?

As for God’s distaste for ritual, well, he seems to like it quite a bit in the Pentateuch, and he likes it enough in the New Testament to institute two new rituals: baptism and communion. I think The Shack‘s dismissal of ritual is one of those instances of Brother Young mixing in his personal issues and preferences with the generically Christian ideas he otherwise helpfully presents. And authors who put words in the mouth of God must be utterly circumspect about such idiosyncrasies.

Second, the book depicts God as having a very dim view of religion, politics, and economics, which God refers to as “terrors.” Again, this anti-institutionalism strikes me as untrue to the Bible. But I don’t have time to argue for that here. Instead, I argue for the legitimacy of institutions at some length in my own new book, Making the Best of It—which is not nearly as interesting, I freely confess, as The Shack, and has the sales numbers to prove it!

(Political scientist Steve Monsma’s new book, Healing for a Broken World, makes the sensible point that “some sort of government would have been necessary even if sin had never entered God’s good creation” [p. 43]—and the same could be said, I think, for religion and economics.)

Third, Brother Young’s anti-institutionalism shows up again in that both coercive power—which is unhelpfully oversimplified sometimes as just “power” in The Shack—and hierarchy also are shown as unworthy of God. I deeply disagree.

The Bible shows God willing to be coercive from Genesis 3 to almost the end of the Book of Revelation. We may not like this aspect of God, but I don’t see how one can purport to offer a Christian view of God and ignore it, much less deny it.

As for hierarchy, the idea of hierarchy within the Trinity is basic to Christian doctrine. Jesus does the will of his Father, and Jesus says he will ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit. And so on, and so on. Indeed, I don’t think The Shack quite avoids portraying Papa/God the Father as first among equals, and I’m glad it doesn’t!

My own father died a couple of years ago. I look forward to seeing him in the resurrection. When I do, I will gladly defer to him as my father, without feeling at all diminished as a grown man. I want to treat him that way and to have him look after me as my dad. So I simply don’t think that hierarchy is something repellent to the nature of God, and The Shack would be better off without trying to deny it.

As I say, these are important theological matters in themselves, but not crucial to The Shack. I would like to see them either corrected or dropped from later editions of the book. But even if they aren’t, I don’t see them as fatal to the book’s main purpose and helpfulness. In my next post, I’ll consider a couple more that some think doom the book entirely.