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.

0 Responses to “The Shack 2: Some Theological Concerns (Part 1)”

  1. Cindy

    I am not a theologian but am a actively practicing Lutheran. I don’t think Mack is totally against the church and think he says something somewhere in the book. It wasn’t the church he was upset about but his separation from God that even the church couldn’t help with. I truly believe that even after his weekend with God, eventually he will go back to the church. He’s been hurt and bruised and since he’s been in a seminary- he will miss the structure of the church and communion- even if he dined with the Holy Trinity. When he goes back though it will be a beautiful thing because he will be going for the right reason with his love for God back in his heart where it belongs.
    As far as God’s thoughts on the institution of the church- this can be looked at two ways. We are reading Mack’s interpetation of what God is telling him-and he is hurt and blaming God and the church. In this way, God is emphasizing with Mack’s feelings. In the bible, Jesus went to church but also found hypocrisy in the church and preached elsewhere to get his points across. The church wasn’t working for Mack- so God found another way to help him resolve his pain. To me, the book kind of says it’s not the place but where ever your journey brings you closer to God is what’s important. In this instance, Mack found God again in the shack.

    • Vicki

      I believe it is important to correctly define the word “church”.
      Scripture defines church not as an institution, but rather as the inviduals who follow Christ.
      Colossians 1:18 makes it clear the “He is the head of the body, the church” and later 1:24 “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christs afflicions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”
      This image of the church as “a body”, gives life to it. It is no longer a arbitray institution, but rather a moving, breathing, living body made up of followers of Christ.
      The confusion comes in when “congregation” is mistakenly interchanged with “church”.
      These are two very different definitive words which were NOT made to be flippantly interchanged.

      • John Stackhouse

        I’m curious, then, Vicki, as to what you do with “church” in Revelation 2 and 3. It surely sounds to me as if Jesus is addressing congregations in the various cities. And what does Jesus mean about telling it “to the church” in Matthew 18:17? Surely not all “the individuals who follow Christ”!

        “Church,” I suggest instead, has more than one meaning in the New Testament.
        The key is to sort them out and apply them properly.

  2. Dirk

    Thanks for a good, respectful, and thought-provoking review. You bring up some good points, and I really appreciate you not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    As for hierarchy, I see Jesus in the Bible redefining what hierarchy means — that whoever seeks to be greatest must be the servant of all. And railing against the way people lord their power over others. Having a little background in community organizing, I see ways that power and authority can be used in benevolent and uplifting ways — providing structure that helps others achieve their maximum potential. But so often in our world — and in our churches — power is used in selfish and harmful ways. To me, when Young rails against hierarchy, he’s trying to help people see that oppressive religious dictatorship is not God’s will — but I’m not sure if he ends up giving a positive vision of what benevolent hierarchy could look like, instead. If anyone does hierarchy in a benevolent way, it’s God. And in the scene where Jesus is washing Papa’s feet, I see Jesus deferring to Papa out of respect, and at the same time being in no way inferior.

    Humans are bad at doing hierarchy without inferiority — to the degree that we can’t imagine hierarchy without the need for one to be inferior to the other. I think maybe Young was trying to crack this open, even if he didn’t resolve it.

    Thanks for helping me think about this!


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