• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

The Shack 3: Theological Concerns (Part 2)

Let’s pick up where we left off, so . . .

Fourth, The Shack skims briefly over the surface of theology of religions, raising the question particularly of whether God reveals himself to and saves people of other religions. I am glad for Brother Young’s concern to expand our horizons. I am strongly inclined myself to a theological conviction that God’s salvation is extended beyond the range of those who have heard the Gospel, understood it, and accepted it as true. I have blogged about that here.

The Shack, however, deals with this complex issue much too briefly, and unclearly, and thus again distracts more than it edifies. It’s particularly not clear as to just how we are supposed to understand the basis of salvation, the nature of God’s revelation in or through other religions, what it means for people to respond properly to God, what role the religions actually play in all this, and the like.

Furthermore, we encounter again another variety of anti-institutionalism. In The Shack, Jesus says he has no interest in making people Christians. But this claim seems odd, given what Jesus said in The Great Commission about making disciples of his, which is about as basic a definition of “Christian” as there is. This question needs either more treatment or less. Good advice for any writer: either set out adequately what you think, or just don’t raise the question at all.

(In the public session at Regent, Brother Young explained in response to this point that he is indeed no fan of religion and doesn’t believe that God calls people to the religion of Christianity, but to the person of Christ. I think that is a valid distinction at the very heart of salvation: following a religion, even Christianity, won’t save you; only Jesus will, as we trust in him. But once that’s said, is Christianity of no use? Isn’t it, in fact, generally—generally, I say—the best context in which to grow up in the faith and become a mature disciple? Isn’t that a fundamental assumption of the New Testament? Brother Young’s indifference to that question is of a piece with the book’s view of the church, and it’s an overstatement that I find regrettable. We can, and should, champion faith in Jesus over against “mere” religion, but without dismissing the value of the Christian religion or the church.)

Fifth, The Shack depicts the first person of the Trinity with scars on his/her wrists to demonstrate the oneness of God and thus God’s participation in the crucifixion. Of course it is very difficult to render the Trinity in a way that properly balances the three and one, and The Shack doesn’t really come close, but instead opts for a generally tritheistic depiction. I think that’s okay for its purposes, however, while I will wish that Brother Young’s striking imagination had found somehow an equally vivid and accurate way to depict God’s unity.

As I say, The Shack tries to connect these three vividly rendered persons of the Trinity through this device of the scars, but I don’t think that’s the way to go. It’s wrong to say, in fact, that anyone other than the second person of the Trinity was crucified. It is, indeed, on the Cross that the three persons of the Trinity are as distinguishable from each other as they ever are—except perhaps at Jesus’ baptism. Most of the rest of The Shack in fact is quite orthodox about who did what on the Cross, so if the particular image of the scars on Papa’s wrists was dropped and one or two other phrases are tidied up, I think all will be well.

(In response to this point, Brother Young claimed justification from II Cor. 5:19, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” And he explained that he is reacting against theological depictions of the crucifixion that assert that God the Father abandoned his Son. I agree with Brother Young’s resistance to this latter picture, and sometime I hope to blog on that point. But I would say that it is to steer into the other ditch to then suggest that God the Father is in Christ: No, God the Son is in Christ, which entails that God—the one, true God—is in Christ. That’s the reading of II Cor. 5:19 that is most consistent with the rest of the Bible’s revelation of the Incarnation.)

(Also in the Regent discussion, Jonathan Wilson raised a similar concern and made the helpful suggestion to relocate the scars from Papa’s wrists to his heart.)

Finally, The Shack insists that God does not bring evil, but instead only works with a given situation to bring good out of it, whatever evil happens to be there. The idea that God “allows” evil but doesn’t “bring” it deserves a longer response than I can give here—and I give that response in another book of mine, on the problem of evil. For now, I will simply say that if God has the power to prevent an evil and does not do so, then he is responsible for that evil occurring, even as the perpetrator of that evil is also responsible. Furthermore, the Bible shows God as the one who, as Isaiah says, brings both well-being and calamity (45:7), and our depiction of God must take that dimension of God thoroughly into account, especially when providence is at the heart of our picture, as it is in this book.

These are my main theological concerns with The Shack. I maintain that they could all be fixed to my full satisfaction and nothing crucial to the architecture, argument, or artistry of The Shack would be lost.

In my last post, I want to celebrate the considerable good I found in this book—and to defend it against one or two further charges raised by perhaps over-scrupulous critics.